Profiles in Prejudice
Brian D. Rude, ca 1975
As a young teacher I once rented an apartment in the home of a woman I will call Mrs. J. I didn't know her too well in the few months that I stayed in that apartment. Every week I'd pay her $15 rent and usually that was about all we saw of each other. However one day we were talking a bit about the school. Somehow the conversation turned to the janitorial staff of the school, which consisted of a man and his wife on a full time basis, and several of their kids after school. "They're good niggers." said Mrs. J. She must have read a bit of emotion on my face. This was in the late sixties, and people were aware of race relations. "You probably don't like me to use that word," she said, "but I mean they're good people. I like them." Our conversation continued on to another topic or two before ending a few minutes later.
I have thought about this conversation off and on over the years. At the time I did not take great offense at her use of that forbidden word, but she had read my face correctly. I was not comfortable with it. I knew something of the history and connotations connected with it.
Was Mrs. J a racist? Of course that is a question that can quickly turn into a matter of semantics. If we define as a racist anyone who uses the wrong terms, then I guess she was a racist. But that seems shallow, and hardly fair. I think common decency requires that a person not be branded a "racist" on a superficial or faulty basis. Before deciding that Mrs. J. is a racist I think we ought to look a little closer.
I want to next present some profiles. The persons described in these profiles might or might not be called racists. My thesis is that the differences among these people, some very subtle, can be very important. All of these profiles are fictional, and they are not meant to be typical, but they contain aspects of real people that I have known. I would like for one of these profiles to be of Mrs. J, but I really know very little about her, so I will stick with fiction.
I will depict all these people, except professor Jones, as residents of a small southern city, a city not free of racial friction, but largely free of overt conflict or blatant discrimination. I am presenting only examples concerning white-black relations, but I am aware that there can be similar frictions among other groups.
1. Joe is a successful businessman. He was overtly racist as a child, simply because that was the world he grew up in. But he was a quiet child. So when the townspeople talk of the old days, the examples of racism and conflict that come to mind involve other people, not Joe. Joe is popular and respected. He can talk as well with modern young professionals, who would be greatly offended by any displays of racism, as he can with unreconstructed old-timers who make no bones about their regret at the passing of segregation and white dominance. Joe has no trouble mixing freely with Blacks, or people of any race or religion or ethic culture. He knows the proper thing to say in any given situation. It doesn't disturb him that the rhetoric he hears, and voices, is not always genuine.
Unfortunately beneath Joe's smooth exterior lie old values undisturbed since childhood. He has a deep-seated hostility toward Blacks. He is secretly a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his town. He does not take part in the occasional displays of racial antagonism that the Klan puts on. That would be very bad for business. But he helps arrange them and enjoys the results. He was in on the planning when graves were recently desecrated. Joe feels that the "old ways" are right and proper. He and his kind, he feels, are the victims.
2. Mary is quick to point out that "Blacks are just as good as Whites. There's no difference beneath the skin. They can do anything we can do, sometimes better." She totally supports affirmative action, including quotas. "Well, I think its only right", she says, "that 50% of the firemen jobs are reserved for Blacks. After all they're more than 50% of the population in our town." She teaches fifth grade in the local school. Every fall she looks forward to teaching a unit she titles "Living Together", in which she leads the class through a smaltzy discussion of race relations and Black history.
Mary is old enough to remember the early years of integration. She began teaching when integration still seemed strange to most people of her town. But the younger teachers think of her as a bit "out of step" with the modern world. One day she came into the teachers' lounge and announced, "Arnold got an honorable mention in the citizenship contest." The other teachers responded with enthusiasm to this news. But after Mary left they asked each other, "What's the big deal? Twelve kids in the school got the same honorable mention." The big deal, of course, is that Arnold is black. But it is not a big deal to the younger teachers. Arnold usually does well, though he is no genius. It was not unexpected that he would do well in this situation. They feel that Mary's attitude is patronizing, and they wonder if it doesn't do harm.
There are many influences in Mary's life, many circumstances, experiences, beliefs, and values that make her what she is. One of these influences, and it is not a trivial influence, is a nagging doubt, not far below consciousness, about the equality of the races. She "knows" with all the fervor she can muster that Blacks are just as good as Whites, and she lets no opportunity go by to prove it again and again, once and for all, at least to herself.
3. Dan sometimes worries some of his family and close friends. He uses a word forbidden in today's world. "That nigger got the job all right. That makes two of them on our gang. Three whites, two blacks. Next thing you know they'll have all the jobs to themselves. We'll be hauling garbage I guess." Then he returns to his newspaper and forgets the events of the day. His wife is a little worried. She asks Dan, "There won't be any trouble, will there, I mean at work, with the new guy?" "Naw," Dan replies. "He did a good enough job today. The only trouble would be from Amos. Amos doesn't like working with those people. But I can handle Amos. I'm the boss. There won't be any trouble."
Dan is a pretty good boss. His workers respect him. In his younger days he liked to raise a little hell. But as the years went by he settled down. The experience of losing several friends to automobile accidents over the years helped the process. And seeing several of his old-time drinking buddies beginning to lose their health and facing their declining years with no money in the bank and little family support has given him a growing sense of vulnerability, of tragedy even. Every year he increasingly realizes the importance of keeping his job a few more years to ensure his pension. This has boosted his determination that there will be "no trouble" almost to an obsession.
Dan is not without a degree of empathy for his workers, white and black. He never liked Blacks, to be sure. That was the proper attitude to have when he was young. Some years ago he took part in dirty tricks to keep Blacks out of his company. But he didn't feel good about it. As Dan got older he went from disliking Blacks to simply disliking everybody. He would never say, "Blacks are as good as Whites", but he often finds himself thinking, or even saying, "Whites are just as bad as those niggers."
Dan responds to individuals. He would not admit to appreciating the struggles of Blacks as a group, but he is aware of the struggles of individuals. When he meets someone new he wonders to himself what traumas and tragedies they've been through. His sense of melancholy is not all-pervasive, but it colors his thinking.
As part of his job Dan must occasionally settle disputes among his workers. It does not occur to him to take race into account. Whether "the nigger of the white guy" wins the dispute is of little importance to him. He simply decides who should do what and that is the end of it. His workers keep their grumbles to themselves thereafter.
Dan is appalled by all the rhetoric about race relations. He senses it can be destabilizing, and he desperately wants stability. He is tired. He has no desire to refight old battles. His attitude on race relations for several years has been "Let them fail fair and square." meaning that only by giving Blacks full opportunity can they be saddled with full responsibility for their own failures.
Dan, like Mary, is driven by many influences. One of these influences, not far below the surface, is the nagging thought that maybe Blacks are not really inferior after all. Fortunately, however, Dan doesn't really care any more. His most important drive is simply that there be "no trouble".
4. Professor Jones teaches sociology at a small college in the midwest. Once he wrote in a article that he saw no particular reason to postulate absolute equality among the different races. The rationale, to him, seemed obvious. Bodily differences exist among the races because they evolved in somewhat different environments. One could reasonably expect that different environments would have some different effects on minds also. It sounded like a very interesting idea to investigate. And he did investigate it to some extent. But after a time he chose other problems to research. What to him was a purely academic question was time and again perverted by shallow thinking ideologues to their own petty ends. An incident might occur something like this:
"Professor Jones", begins a student in his class, "isn't it true that you don't believe the races are equal?"
"Well, strictly speaking, I suppose that's true. You see it's a matter of simple statistics. If you toss a coin a thousand times, would you expect exactly 500 heads and 500 tails? No, certainly not. And if you give a specific ability test to a thousand people, would you expect . . . "
"What I mean, Professor, is that if the races are not really equal, then that has some important implications, doesn't it? Like integration makes for some real problems."
"Wait, wait! One should never base social policy on very minor statistical differences. And my research was always with specific abilities, like my series on object-ground discrimination . . ."
"Well, if the differences are real. . . I mean if Blacks can't keep up with us, I mean that means we've got more responsibility, so segregation makes sense just from a practical viewpoint."
In these situations Professor Jones would try hard to point out that any differences in races are inconsequential in everyday life. He would say something like. "Look at the guy next to you, Jack. Who's smarter, him or you?" Of course Jack would reply in some non-committal way. Professor Jones would continue, "Let's suppose you're ten points ahead of him on ambidexterity, but maybe he's fifteen points ahead of you on auditory localization. Now who should be banished from our classroom, you or him? Do you see what I'm trying to say . . . ?"
Of course such approaches would have little affect on people like Jack. To be sure, the majority of the students in any of his classes would have at least some appreciation for the subtleties of what he was saying. But there would always be that bottom 10% who didn't want to understand. They only wanted support for their own ideological viewpoint. They would say either,
"Professor Jones says the races aren't equal, so he's on our side!"
"Professor Jones says the races aren't equal. Isn't it awful! He's a racist!"
5. Johnny is in the second grade. He is a small and timid boy, and sometimes gets teased. One day after school he tells his mother, "Some black boys picked on me today. I hate them."
6. Jane and Michelle are in the tenth grade. They are discussing a school election.
"I can't decide who to vote for," says Jane. I like Martha, but maybe I ought to vote for Cory. I mean he's nice too, and he's Black and they've never had a president."
"Vote for who you want to be president." says Michelle. "That's what an election is all about. It shouldn't matter what color the guy is."
"Well, sure," says Jane. "I'm not prejudiced or anything. I mean I like Black people. And that's why I think maybe it's time one of them was president. It ought to be their turn."
"You're weird, Jane."
7. Jim is a senior in high school. He is a little brash at times, and not the most socially skillful. Sometimes when shooting the breeze with his buddies he'll say something like "Hey, Clark, wouldn't some watermelon taste real good right now?" Clark, who is black, replies, "Ya, Jim, sure. Why don't you go get some?" This line of talk might go on for another turn or two before switching to another topic. Clark does not take offense. He and Jim have been in the same class for a number of years. But Clark doesn't talk about race, and neither do the other friends in this group. Everyone wishes Jim wouldn't make watermelon jokes, but neither do they want to make an issue of it.
8. Mrs. Q is in her late seventies. She was brought up to believe in white superiority and dominance. She still believes in it, though few people know it. The reason few people know it is that she has learned through bitter experience that other people can start with the same premises and come to very different conclusions. Everytime she tries to explain her views on race relations she finds herself lumped with people whose values she abhors.
Mrs. Q does not hate. She is a rather elegant and formal lady, but she is also a loving and sensitive person. It hurts her deeply to witness pain of any sort. When she was very young whites and blacks each knew their place. They did not mix socially, but in her tightly controlled little world everyone was considerate of everyone else. Contact between whites and Blacks occurred frequently, almost daily. When her parents hired a black gardener, for example, he would bring his two children along and they and Mrs. Q would spend a pleasant afternoon playing together. Of course there were rules to follow, but everyone knew them. There was the rule, for example, that you stayed in the yard when playing with black children. With the white neighbor children Mrs. Q could roam the entire neighborhood, but with the gardener's children she could not. But this rule was seen in the same light as the rule that her bed must be made before breakfast. It's just the way things are. Not until she was in her early teens did she begin to discover hate and hostility, and it horrified her.
When Mrs. Q thinks back to her early days one scene is as vivid and terrible in her mind as the day it happened. It was not much by the standards of the time. The gardener's daughter had simply gotten a little careless and giggled at the wrong time. The neighbor lady chewed her out. This was unpleasant enough, of course, but what was deeply disturbing to Mrs. Q was the sight of the bowed head and stony silence of the little girl as she was being abused. Even more terrible in Mrs. Q's mind was the sight of the gardeners bowed head and stony silence, his inability to in any way protect his daughter from this intemperate tongue lashing.
This was not the only unpleasant incident Mrs. Q witnessed as she grew up. The tranquil world of her early childhood turned into a troubled adolescence and adulthood. The world, she discovered, was full of pain. It was not just personal pain by any means that troubled her. She was too young to remember World War I, but as she learned about it in school, and discovered how it had deeply affected her parent's lives, she suffered. As she learned about disease and death, she suffered. As she learned about poverty and crime she suffered. As the great depression deepened, though she and her family were always well off, she suffered. The world was full of pain. How could she deal with it?
She could not end war, of course, or poverty, or disease and death. Nor could she end racial prejudice. She could however, at least in her own mind, figure out what ought to be done. And what ought to be done, she decided, was that people ought to learn and follow the rules. Rules made the world safe. Rules made it possible to have love and joy. When people don't know the rules, or don't follow them, then there is conflict, and conflict is painful.
Negros were inferior in Mrs. Q's world. She never questioned that. But, she felt, they should be treated well, just as everyone should be treated well. Inferiority is no reason for either hostility or segregation. But certain rules of racial conduct, she felt, were in everyone's interest. A white person, she reasoned, should be judged competent until shown otherwise. A black person should be assumed incompetent until shown otherwise. But some black people are competent. So their competencies should be utilized to the fullest extent, for the good of everyone. White people should be addressed formally, thought Mrs. Q, while black people should be addressed by their first names. That just made sense, just as it only makes sense that teachers are addressed formally but students are called by their first names.
The rules of racial conduct that Mrs. Q thought sensible include, of course, what we would call discrimination. She does not use the word "discrimination", however, because it connotes unreasoned hostility, which was anathema to her. The whole purpose of her rules was to get rid of hostility, to make the world safe. Somewhat like Dan, Mrs. Q is wary of too much talk about racial relations. She, like Dan, wants stability, and to her stability comes from following the rules. She is aware of the "new rules" that have come out of the last couple of decades. She is not negative toward the new rules, but in her own mind she doubts that they really make the world a better place.
Mrs. Q had it all figured out. But the world did not take her advice, about race relations, or poverty, or war or anything else.
What is a racist? What do we mean by prejudice? There are a number of different criteria that can be invoked, and by one criterion or another every person I have described can be called a racist. However I think we can do better than that. These eight examples are not meant to be exhaustive of all the possible attitudes one might have toward race. But I hope I have provided some good examples for analysis of some subtleties that I consider important.
There are five main issues that I believe must be addressed when analyzing racism or prejudice. These five issues are:
1. beliefs of inferiority,
3. demands for segregation,
5. group consciousness.
I have tried to give examples in which these five factors are independent, though I realize they are very often connected. Why are they very often connected? Does one of these factors lead to others? Do they all arise from a common root cause?
If you ask a prejudiced person why he doesn't like Blacks, and if that prejudiced person feels he can talk freely, he will bring up the issue of inferiority. But what he will display is hostility. Is there a connection between the two? Is there any rational reason that inferiority must lead to hostility? Is there any rational reason that inferiority must lead to segregation?
Must I be hostile to my pet cats if someone can show they are inferior to me? Must I separate from them? Must I be hostile and must I separate from my neighbors because I am better educated and more intelligent they are? Must I expect hostility and separation from another neighbor who is smarter than I? The questions are ridiculous. Inferiority, or a belief in inferiority, does not cause hostility and separation. It is used as a rationalization for hostility and separation when they already exist.
There are certain circumstances when inferiority can cause problems and thus engender hostility. An incompetent boss can certainly cause troubles for his subordinates and this can lead to hostility. The same may be said for co-workers or associates. I think it is understandable that after the Civil War Blacks were suddenly thrown into situations that they were not prepared for. Obviously this caused many practical problems for everyone involved, and it is not unreasonable to think this led to frustration that engendered some hostility. However I think it is an inadequate explanation for the massive amount of hostility that has existed against Blacks after the Civil War. A much more adequate explanation for hostility is found in terms of in-groups and out-groups, as I will discuss shortly.
Hostility is evident in my examples in widely varying degrees. Joe, the businessman in example one who hides his prejudice, has a great deal of hostility toward Blacks, but few people know it. On the surface he appears neither hostile, nor discriminatory. Yet for this very reason he is able to do a great deal of harm. Dan, the subject of example three, who wants "no trouble", also has hostility. Unlike Joe, however, Dan is not secretive, though he is discrete. And also unlike Joe, Dan does no harm. His hostility is on the surface, but is not particularly strong, and more importantly his hostility is totally subordinate to his attitude of "let them fail fair and square". This is a negative attitude, to be sure, but it is an attitude that is constructive in the sense that any of Dan's workers quickly learn that they will be treated fairly and as individuals.
Mary, the subject of many good intentions in example two, has no hostility toward Blacks as a group. However her level of group consciousness is high, which is also important. Professor Jones likewise has no hostility toward Blacks, but many Blacks would quickly accuse him of hostility. Johnny, in example 5, momentarily has hostility toward a small group of boys he identifies as black, but as I will shortly argue, that does not mean he will have hostility toward Blacks in general tomorrow. Jane, Michelle, and Jim, of examples six and seven likewise have no hostility toward Blacks.
In my examples, Mrs. Q, of example eight, and Professor Jones, of Example four, are the only ones to make a separation between hostility and a belief in inferiority. Being a sensitive person Mrs. Q wants no part of hostility. Much the same could be said of Professor Jones. Of course there is a world of difference between these two. Mrs. Q starts with a premise of inferiority which she does not question, but that premise is not a driving force. Mrs. Q is driven by emotion, to be sure, but that emotion is not hostility. She just desperately wants to reduce the pain in the world. Professor Jones is not driven by emotion. He starts with an academic question and investigates. He is motivated, not driven, by a desire to analyze and understand. The term "belief in inferiority" applies to him only in a very superficial way, if at all. He does not think all races must be equal in every way, but that is quite different from the idea of global inferiority or superiority. He considers a wide range of abilities. To assume that isolated inferiorities, or even a pattern of connected inferiorities, constitute a global inferiority is, to him, intellectually vacuous and morally repugnant, and not a cause for hostility.
My examples also show varying degrees of demands for segregation. No one in my examples believes in segregation as strongly as does Dan, but Dan does not do harm to race relations as does Joe. No one in my examples touts integration as strongly as Mary, but Mary is not totally comfortable with Blacks. This is understandable because of her racial consciousness. Mrs. Q is not an advocate of either segregation or integration. She just wants people to follow the rules of courtesy, however those rules might eventually evolve. Little Johnny. of example five, does not even know the words segregation and integration. It does not occur to him from one incident of teasing that races should be separate. He simply wants not to be teased.
The fourth issue I listed to be discussed is discrimination. By discrimination, in this context, I simply mean treating whites and Blacks differently. Discrimination may or may not be accompanied by hostility. Discrimination varies widely among the people in this example. Joe seems not to discriminate, at least on the surface. No one who sees only his public behavior would think to accuse him of treating whites and Blacks differently. Yet under the surface he commits acts that do great harm to race relations. So he does discriminate. Dan, of example three, does not actively discriminate, either secretly or overtly. He might talk discrimination among a few of his close friends, but he is careful. He knows that discrimination causes trouble. His motivation is not an ideological commitment to justice or any other high ideal. It is pure practicality. He wants no trouble. Mary does discriminate, though she would vehemently deny it, in rather subtle ways. For Blacks her smile is automatic, and a little stilted. Perceptive Blacks often feel patronized when dealing with her. For whites her smile is not automatic. It depends on her mood and the circumstances of the moment. Thus it is genuine. And she also discriminates in expectations for Blacks and whites, though again, of course, she would deny it. Thus it is indeed noteworthy to her when Arnold got an honorable mention in the citizenship contest.
Professor Jones does not discriminate, though he is accused of it by those who do not really know him. For him to discriminate on the basis of statistical differences in various traits would be as strange and irrational as discriminating against people whose last names contain the letter "Q".
Of the four issues I have discussed so far - beliefs in inferiority, hostility, demands for segregation, and discrimination - I believe hostility is by far the most important. I have argued that hostility, segregation, and discrimination do not arise logically from a belief in inferiority. It seems much more reasonable that belief in inferiority, segregation, and discrimination arise from hostility. Where, then, does hostility come from? I will offer some conjectures on this question after discussing the fifth main issue of prejudice, racial consciousness.
By racial consciousness I mean the awareness of race even when it is of no practical significance, of having a feeling of belonging, or of exclusion, based on race. Racial consciousness, as I use the term, does not necessarily include hostility. Racial consciousness is the difference between "my Black friend, Joe" and simply "my friend, Joe", and that difference can be profound.
The phenomenon of racial consciousness is of special interest to me. I believe it merits more careful attention than it is usually given. As a young man I was not too aware of race relations. I accepted as a matter of course that prejudice and segregation were bad and integration and tolerance were good. My thinking did not go much deeper than that. People said, "It shouldn't matter what color a person's skin is. Everyone should be treated equally. It's only fair." I accepted that. As time went by, however, some things seemed to be moving in the wrong direction. As the years passed the idea of racial quotas gained in favor. I confidently assumed that with a little time and thought the idea of quotas would be rejected as incompatible with the basic rule that, "It shouldn't matter what color a person's skin is . . . ." However it didn't seem to turn out that way. More and more people seemed to be accepting that, yes, it did matter what color a person's skin is, and that important decisions would be based on that. I thought a color-blind society was the agreed-upon ideal, but it seemed more and more that that was not to be the case.
There is a competing ideal, it turns out. When some people say, "it shouldn't matter what color a person's skin is", they are really talking about groups, not individuals. Each group, according to this idea, should be treated fairly. A group with dark skin should be treated as well as a group with light skin. Blacks are a group. They have suffered in the past, suffered greatly. Therefore it's only fair that they be given compensation in one way or another. Compensation to groups is just as sensible as compensation to individuals. Only in this way can it be said that one group is equal to the other, or that they are being treated fairly. Therefore it very much does matter what color a person's skin is. It matters because skin color determines a person's group identity, and group identity matters because groups ought to be treated fairly.
By my perspective, an individualist perspective, racial unconsciousness is the ideal. Something disturbs me about the phrase, "my Black friend, Joe". It seems axiomatic that we should all strive to make a completely color-blind society. But by the other perspective, a group perspective, racial consciousness is accepted, even sought. Apparently the rationale is that only by recognizing groups can groups be treated fairly. I will stick to my ideal. I believe in the long run a color-blind society is far better than any alternative. I envision a future in which we notice skin color no more than we notice eye color, or the color of one's car. But at the same time I must admit to the inevitability of the competing ideal. Racial consciousness has never been thrust on me, but I realize it is thrust on Blacks. That is not going to change in our lifetime.
Different degrees of racial consciousness are illustrated in my examples. All the people in my examples who are hostile, or who discriminate, have at least some degree of racial consciousness. And this certainly includes Mary. Mary says "I don't care what race a person is, I treat everyone the same. I treat them as individuals." She is capable of treating people as individuals to quite an extent, but not totally. A person's race remains a dominant and immutable part of his or her identity. The good news about Arnold and the citizenship contest is very much connected to race.
On the surface Mary does only good. However that is not all there is to it. Many a black child enters her fifth grade class with little thought of race, but leaves it nine months later very much conscious of it. (One might say a "black child" becomes a "Black child". I have capitalized carefully throughout this article.) No one thinks to trace racial tensions in high school to racial consciousness developed in the fifth grade. But I believe there is a connection. Of course there are many other influences that develop racial consciousness as children grow up. There are plenty of incidents of blatant racial hostility and discrimination. A great deal of group consciousness would develop in Mary's students even if she never mentioned race. But one may legitimately wonder if Mary's unit on "Living Together" does more good or harm.
Opposite degrees of racial consciousness is shown best in example six, the case in which Jane and Michelle are discussing the school election. Jane takes racial identity seriously. Michelle does not. To Michelle it would make about as much sense to say blue-eyed people deserve to have a turn at the presidency as to say that dark-skinned people deserve a turn. She doesn't keep score. It doesn't occur to her that she should keep score, or that anybody should keep score. Michelle is naive, to be sure. There are some very strong reasons why people keep score. However Michelle's innocence has one very good effect. She treats everybody as an individual. She does not discriminate.
Jim, the brash senior in example seven, is very conscious of racial identity. But he doesn't want to be. Racial consciousness makes him uncomfortable. So he tries to desensitize the issue. Making watermelon jokes is his method of desensitization, of saying that we are so comfortable with each other, and with each other's racial identity, that we are not inhibited. Unfortunately his strategy doesn't work very well. A certain amount of desensitization may take place, but a certain amount of sensitization also takes place.
So far I have argued that what goes under the name of "prejudice" or "racism" is a cluster of phenomena which are often, but not always, found together. I have further stated that hostility is an adequate explanation for the other components of prejudice. Next I want to make some conjectures on the genesis of prejudice.
More than once I have read explanations of prejudice as being the idea of pre-judging by faulty inductive reasoning. "Maybe you had a bad experience," the explanation would go, "with one particular member of another race, and so you decide that all members of that race are to be avoided." This is a reasonable-sounding explanation, but I don't think it goes very far. This "one bad experience" explanation would seem to fit Johnny in example five. However it is not at all clear that Johnny will grow up to exhibit what we normally think of as racism or prejudice. That depends on many more circumstances and influences, the most important being the attitudes of Johnny's parents.
Attitudes are shaped by events, of course, but attitudes are much more shaped by interpretation of events, and interpretation of events is shaped by group ideologies. When Johnny says "Some black boys picked on me today. I hate them." he has his own interpretation of the event. However his mother will also interpret the event. If her interpretation is one of hostility based on race, and this interpretation is consistently given as Johnny grows up, then obviously Johnny will grow up hostile to Blacks. On the other hand, if his mother expresses sympathy for his bad experience, but does not interpret it in terms of race, then Johnny will not become prejudiced from this one bad incident.
The "one bad experience" theory has a certain appeal, but if accepted it leads to some problems. If everyone's prejudice is the result of their personal bad experiences, then one must conclude that in a prejudiced society there have been many, many bad experiences. There is some truth to that, of course, but it hardly seems an adequate explanation for the pervasive prejudice of the South for most of the time since the Civil War.
Proponents of the "one bad experience" explanation for prejudice are eager to cure the problem with reason. They want to explain to the prejudiced person the irrationality of his attitude, and expect him to thereby reform. This too is appealing, but one must wonder why the person has never questioned his attitude himself, and thereby chosen to reform. And even more importantly, one must wonder why prejudice seems impervious to the reasoned appeals of others.
I think the genesis and perpetuation of prejudice must be explained in terms of "in-group--out-group" behavior. The gist of this explanation is that one blindly accepts the attitudes and values, the ideology that is, of one's "in-group". More specifically, it is human nature to show loyalty to the "in-group" and hostility to the "out-group" This phenomenon of "groupiness" is instinctual and evolved from our animal past through several million years of prehistoric existence. Groupiness has survival value, or at least it did in Paleolithic life. Blind loyalty to the in-group and hostility to the out-group promoted group cohesion that enhanced security. Evolution of instinct occurs over periods of hundreds of thousands of years, or more, while civilization is only a few thousand years old. Thus we are stuck with a genetic inheritance, an instinct of groupiness, that does not always work to our benefit.
It should not be inferred that groupiness is always, or even usually, based on race. It can be based on almost anything. In Ireland today there is very strong groupiness based, ostensibly at least, on religion. There is no involvement whatsoever with race. In politics there can be very strong group feelings having nothing to do with race. In Europe there are many ethnic groups in conflict, again having absolutely nothing to do with race.
How then did this groupiness based on race arise in America, especially in the South? The reasons are historical. The South lost a war. Their group face was profaned. Hostility is a natural response to profanation of the in-group face. The North was certainly the object of this hostility, but so was the Negro. The North was not a good scapegoat for long-term hostility. The Negro was. Thus Blacks became the out-group, and were subjected to hostility.
Segregation, like hostility, is best explained in terms of in-groups and out-groups. The instinct of groupiness demands that we separate from those who offend us. Thus when Russia invaded Afghanistan we threw up an embargo. As a practical matter it may not have helped much, but it seemed the moral thing to do. The South before the Civil war was constantly offended by the North's condemnation of slavery. Being beaten by the North was also offensive, to say the least. Thus the South wanted to separate. They couldn't separate from the Union, but they could separate from their former slaves. An ideology quickly took form in which Blacks became the out-group, subject to hostility. Group ideologies are not easily changed.
So Johnny will become prejudiced, or not prejudiced, in accordance with the ideological values imposed on him by his parents and culture. His "one bad experience" is not the final word.
I started this article by relating a situation involving Mrs. J, and asking if she were a racist. Now, hopefully having shown that things are not always simple, I will modify the question a little? Instead of asking, "Who is a racist?" I will ask "Whom should we condemn?" On moral grounds we want to condemn racists, but just which aspect of prejudice are we talking about. Dan, who wants "no trouble", has certain values we find repugnant, but he keeps these values strictly under wraps. His behavior is beneficial to society. Should he be condemned for his ill will, no matter how tightly it is controlled? Joe, the respected businessman and secret Klansman, is not like Dan. His public behavior seems admirable, but his clandestine behavior is destructive to society. Surely he ought to be condemned. Mary, the fifth grade teacher with the best of intentions, has values we applaud, but behavior that is not totally beneficial to society. Should she be condemned? Johnny, the timid boy who is teased, makes a remark that on the surface seems racist. Should he be condemned? Jane, discussing the school election, made a remark that clearly shows her willingness to vote along racial lines. Is that racist? Is she to be condemned for discrimination? Or she to be praised for reaching out to another group. Michelle, in responding to Jane, says, "It shouldn't matter what color the guy is." Is she to be praised for being fair-minded and color blind, or is she to be condemned for not having racial sensitivity?
I will give my opinion on these matters. I believe condemnation. whether public or private, whether silent or expressed, is warranted only when ill will is coupled with destructive acts. I will not condemn Dan. His ill will, though disturbing, is controlled. I will not condemn Mary, though I do not believe her actions are as constructive as Dan's. I will not condemn Professor Jones. I believe his research is beneficial in the long run, though it gets him in hot water in the short run. I will not condemn Johnny. I will not condemn Jane or Michelle. I will not condemn Jim and his watermelon jokes, but I hope he soon stops putting his foot in his mouth. I will not condemn Mrs. Q. though her world-view is much different than mine. I will condemn Joe.
I have argued that we ought not to be quick to jump to an accusation of racism. I have described in some detail situations and people in which a superficial judgment would be unfair. But how are we to deal with questionable remarks made by people whom we know little about. Should we give them the benefit of the doubt, assuming that "foot in mouth disease" is a better hypothesis than irredeemable evilness? One approach is to separate judgment of the person from judgment of the act. An intemperate remark can be damaging. It ought to be condemned. But it does not automatically follow that the person making the intemperate remark ought to be condemned. Further, the expression of condemnation can be constructive or destructive depending on a number of factors. "Constructive criticism" is seldom well received. It may only elicit defensiveness. Enforcing "politically correct" thought and behavior exacts a price in ways not always easy to foresee.
I believe that in the long run the solution to racial conflict must lie in the good will of the members of society. Destructive attitudes, values, and practices will yield, in the long run, to moral persuasion. I believe this has been happening for many years, though the pace sometimes seems agonizingly slow. In the short run society must make trade-offs. We must enact and live with rules designed to protect rights and promote desirable ends. This too, we have been doing for many years. Some of these trade-offs and rules will be offensive to some members of society. I would hope the profiles I have presented will enable people to be a little more tolerant of diverse viewpoints when making these trade-offs and rules.
One might ask why all of my examples are of whites. Are there not plenty of examples of prejudice on the part of Blacks? And wouldn't these examples be just as varied as the examples I presented? And wouldn't such examples be just as beneficial to analyze? The answers, of course, are yes, yes, and yes. However I decided I am not the one to create these examples. When I first conceived of this article I confidently assumed I would present such profiles. Considerable thought convinced me that I might do more harm than good. Whites can think about race or forget about it as they choose. That is largely untrue for Blacks. I believe Blacks are as "groupy" as whites, as much given to orneriness and stupidity as whites, as varied as whites, and so on. But experience for Blacks is in some important ways profoundly different. Therefore I will leave the task of creating Black profiles in prejudice to someone else.