By Skylar Romero
The Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy hosted a colloquium last Thursday titled “Nature vs. Nurture: Children, Violence, and Hate” as part of an ongoing series of talks called “Hate in a Period of Political Turmoil.” Moderated by Professor Michele Goodwin, founder and director of the Center, and featuring guest speakers Jodi Quas, professor of psychology and social behavior & nursing science at UC Irvine, and Dr. Patricia Jones Blessman, a child psychologist and expert on children, trauma and behavior, the event focused on the potential role of childhood maltreatment in fostering an attitude of prejudice and hate in young children.
Event coordinator Michelle Bartlett said the goal of the series and the Center as a whole is, “to bring these conversations into a legitimate space and to continue to have these important conversations,” bringing to light issues that Bartlett adds, “people see reflected in their lives every day on the news.”
Several examples of relevant and troubling news items were discussed at the event, ranging from the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last August to the more recent story of a teenager in Reston, Virginia who murdered his girlfriend’s parents after they expressed disapproval of his anti-Semitic, homophobic, and white supremacist social media posts. Packets distributed to guests included copies of a New York Times article on the latter case, as well as several images of children adorned in Ku Klux Klan garb or sporting clothes emblazoned with swastikas and other symbols of hate.
In addition to these examples, Blessman spoke about a case she was involved with concerning Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, a Chicago teenager from an abusive home who was shot and killed in a gang initiation just two days after killing one and injuring another as a part of his own initiation. Blessman criticized the opinions of experts who had asserted that, “by age three [Sandifer] was a sociopath,” and that, “nothing could be done,” describing the abuse Sandifer suffered at home, where he was burned with cigarettes and beaten with electrical cords.
“This I know for sure: each of us is born with multiple seeds,” Blessman said.
Professor Quas concurred with Blessman’s assessment, responding with a “flat out no,” when asked if it’s possible for a three-year-old to be a sociopath, and expressing the belief that such opinions are meant to, “dismiss others’ responsibility to intervene.”
Later the discussion turned to the way people think about the issue of maltreated children going on to commit violent acts of hate. Describing the overall message of the event, Professor Goodwin affirmed that, “we need to think in more nuanced ways beyond nature and nurture, and how children talk about and espouse hateful views,” adding that, “these are irregular behaviors, not behaviors that the children are born with, but we have to think about how households and even the greater society create the conditions for hate.”
Professor Quas expressed a similar view during the talk, suggesting that “hate may not be the right way to think about” these situations, adding that for many children who become involved in violent or hateful groups, “there is a fundamental need to belong to something.”
Dr. Goodwin agreed, pointing out that for maltreated and neglected children like Sandifer, “the gang was his fathers, his brothers, his big sisters, his love interests… that was his community.”
The “Hate in a Period of Political Turmoil” series will continue with “Hate Crimes and the LGBTQ Community” on Feb. 15, followed by “Domestic Terrorism and Hate” on March 15 and “The Rise of Mainstream Hate” on April 19. Information on these upcoming talks can be found on the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy website.