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The presidential race and the hatred within us 

It's hard to get the story out of my mind:

Southwest Airlines passenger Gill Parker Payne was so incensed by a woman passenger wearing a hijab that he got out of his seat, walked up the aisle, and, according to his own admission, told her: "Take it off! This is America!"

When she didn't obey, he pulled the hijab off himself.

What in the world led him to do something like that? Where did that prejudice come from? Where did the hair-trigger anger come from? And what can we do about it?

Because Gill Parker Payne's behavior is not an aberration. Reports of hate crimes directed at Muslims in the US, including violent incidents, have been increasing. And the national political leadership and dialogue has changed. After the 9/11 attacks, George Bush urged religious tolerance and called for respect for Muslims. Donald Trump has called for registering Muslims already in the US and a ban on Muslims coming here.

And rather than repudiating Trump, top Republicans from around the country are embracing him.

Prejudice and hatred aren't new in the United States, and they're not unique to us. I'm not a psychologist, but what I've read about prejudice supports what seems to be basic common sense: we may be less likely to be prejudiced against a particular group of people if we personally know and frequently interact with people of that group - as long as those interactions aren't predominantly negative.

But it also seems to be perfectly natural - human nature - to initially be suspicious of types of people we don't know, particularly if they look or act differently from us.

Certainly education can help - can inform us about the positive traits and accomplishments of those who are different; can encourage us to be interested in things and people who are different from us. But apparently our innate comfort with people like us and our distrust of people and things that are different creates such a hard shell that it's hard for education - hard, even, for familiarity - to break through.

Can prejudice lessen over time? Can we trust that it will get weaker over generations? Many young people in the US today seem to be more liberal than older generations on social issues, more welcoming of people who are different.

And social norms seem to be able to play a role, not only in protecting the victims of prejudice but in setting standards, serving as examples, pointing to moral principles and goals. If that's the case, leadership from the top - nationally and locally - is important.

Many of us believed that Barack Obama's election as president - and his re-election, in the face of increasing animosity from Washington Republicans - signified that the United States had made great progress in the struggle to overcome racism and form a more perfect union.

But the hatred erupting now, at campaign rallies, on the internet, on radio and TV, in the close, stressful quarters of an airplane... all this is a reflection of who we are, too, just as Marie Le Pen is a mirror of the French.

We are a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation. This is fact. But we have not yet agreed as a nation that that's what we want to be.

"You've got to be taught to hate and fear," Rodgers and Hammerstein insisted in "South Pacific." Given our innate inclination toward prejudice, and the comfort we all find among those who are like us, it may be more accurate to say that we've got to be carefully taught to overcome it.

We would be a greater nation if we embraced our diversity, if we saw the incredible richness and opportunity it provides. But fear and mistrust, prejudice and hate are strong. And tragically, in this crucially important election year, important people in leadership positions and powerful people with money are encouraging prejudice to spill right out into the open.

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