There probably never was a time when prejudice against those who are perceived to be "different" was not prevalent in human society. Family against family, tribe against tribe, religious group against religious group, nation against nation, color or other physical characteristics against those who are "not like us"—history is full of examples. The very urge of humans to seek "community" contains the need to differentiate between "us" and "them."
"Not like us" is mainly perception, even if sometimes rooted in experiences that warn one against trusting or respecting people who may have different languages and behavior and even different values. Fear, then, may be the crucial motivation, at least to start with. In my own childhood, "the boogie man" became a mythical and fearsome "other," a threat to safety. Only gradually did I attach the term to black people, for I had known no black people until I was an adolescent and lived in an urban place. In the words of Vincent Sheean, I "absorbed the assumptions of the time and place without knowing it, and was equipped with weapons I never bought." The people who were not like me, like my family, like those I associated with every day, became somehow threatening to me or, if they obviously posed no threat, such as the people from Appalachia who migrated to our city during the war and seemed more fearful than I, became objects of scorn and ridicule. Power, of course, made the difference.
As an adult, I learned more about these groups, and about a larger morality than I had been taught as a child. Even then, the roots of my prejudices ran deep. "They" were not like me, and were therefore to be avoided and judged and even feared.
The word prejudice means simply the act of pre-judging someone based upon some criteria other than what is important. If someone is different, it doesn’t matter much what the difference is, if it is imbued with significance. And significance is an inner thing, a powerful emotional force that knows only its own logic.
I’d like to think that my own prejudices come entirely from early associations. I know, however, that I built many of my own as I entered the adult world and compared my values with those of others. For example, as a young white male with appearance and habits more or less compatible with the dominant culture, I found it relatively easy to get a job, to borrow money, to fit into employment situations, and I looked down upon those who did not share my good fortune. If I could be successful, then those who could not must be inferior and worthy only of my scorn.
It’s a mixed thing. I value equal opportunity for all, but I value most my own opportunity. I value the ideals of my country, but I’m jealous of those who apparently benefit more than I from its fruits. And I rationalize the differences to reinforce my prejudices.
Since World War Two, when many Americans began to wake up to the fact that we were only a small proportion of the world’s people, two conflicting forces have been at play. There were those who said that other people—and that meant all people who were somehow different from the archetypical "American": White, Anglo-Saxon males, were being deprived through prejudice of their rights to share in the wealth of belonging. According to this viewpoint, every individual ought to be judged on their own abilities, physical or mental. And there were others who said that the groups who were lower in status somehow deserved their position because of inherent inferiorities of some kind.
One aspect of this conflict revolved around genetic differences. Women are on average built smaller and weaker than men, for example, so according to the second viewpoint they are "supposed to" be dependent and second-class. Black children have typically scored lower than white children on "standard" tests of intelligence, so they are naturally inferior in mental capabilities and "destined" by their genes to hold inferior positions in society. The individuals who struggle against these generalizations are seen as threatening the order upon which we depend.
According to Steven Pinker, psychologist and author of The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature, a major force in academic culture has resisted the idea that any inherent differences exist among human beings. This egalitarian force has taken its justification to some degree from the extension of "all men are created equal" to "all persons are inherently the same." All differences between people are therefore said to be conditioned by cultural experiences. This resistance manifests in the assertion that no one should be denied opportunity in any field. It also claims that whatever disadvantages that incur among people are society’s fault. Therefore, "we" are responsible for lifting the downtrodden and helping those who prove inadequate to their own needs. Because society has failed in its obligations to people, it must make up for its shortcomings.
If research should show that some differences are genetic, these people fear that those differences will somehow justify differences in the treatment of people. The obvious example is that of the Nazis, who believed that Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals were inherently inferior people, and because the Nazis had the power, they embarked on a program of weeding those other people out from the "master race." Few people today espouse such an endeavor, but the fear remains that any "scientific" evidence of inherent differences would be used to justify just such horrors.
The more extreme "liberals" ignore the facts, demonstrated over and over, that people do have differences from birth, even though the range of differences among individuals within any group overshadows the average differences between groups. Most aware people are repelled by the idea that certain groups are inferior because of average differences, whether demonstrated or merely assumed on the basis of limited evidence.
Pinker insists that one does not have to assume that everyone is born with a "blank slate" in order to avoid the justification for prejudices. "Ethnic cleansing" is abhorrent regardless of whether inherent group differences exist or not.
What he does not seem to notice is that the unfairness of prejudice applies not only to the perception of group differences, but to the perception of individual differences. He implies that we ought to judge the worth of individuals on the basis of their own behavior or capacity. It’s logical, for example, to deny someone a cultural benefit (say, a college education) based upon that person’s potential value to the society. It may be logical, but I can’t agree that it is fair.
I’m not claiming that the principle ought to be "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need," as the Communists did (in theory, at least). I can live with the idea that differences in ability and effort should be a major factor in the system of rewards given by a society. Not because I believe that without rewards for merit there would be no effort. I’m more optimistic than that. Still, I would like to live in a society which showed compassion toward those who are suffering, even if the cause of the suffering could be attributed to their own shortcomings. That some might take advantage of the generosity of society in such a case is to me a minor issue. Justice, it seems to me, needs to yield to compassion. I am aware of the profound difficulty this presents to the society in trying to maintain both order and fairness.
Our country was founded on the idea that laws could be more reliable than men in deciding what’s fair. The symbol of Justice is blindfolded to indicate impartiality. In a society in which everyone does have an opportunity to pursue their own idea of happiness, blind justice might be appropriate. But where a portion of people are not equipped, in personal capacity or education or finances, to present their interests in court, those people are not as likely to find justice. This, it seems to me, is unfair. We do have court-appointed attorneys to defend in criminal proceedings those who are unable to defend themselves. Sometimes, even those who seek redress against civil inequities can find advocates to help them. But most "losers" in legal proceedings tend to be those with fewer resources. It seems to me that the imbalance is due to legal prejudice. A person who enters a courtroom poorly dressed or poorly spoken is at a disadvantage, no matter how valid his grievance. As a society, we simply do not care enough—care enough about the less-competent, nor care enough about the fairness of our system.
It is reality, to be sure. It won’t be changed by someone taking up the standard on behalf of the disenfranchised. It will be changed—albeit slowly—only by a collective change of heart in all of us. And that change will come only with awareness, an inner awakening to the dark places in each of us.
By "dark," I do not mean evil. I refer simply to the shadows in each of us where lurk our unexamined assumptions. Even though one of my closest friends is a Black man, and neither of us would hesitate to come to the other’s aid, I recognize that clutch of fear in my gut that sometimes comes when I encounter other Black men in unfamiliar circumstances. My "boogie man" still lies somewhere inside me, and at times still influences my feelings and my behavior. I am married to a woman who came from a Jewish family. She is my most trusted confidant, the love of my life. And yet, when I’m reminded of old stereotypes that remain in the recesses of my mind, I react as though they are true, as though "Jewish" is somehow different from me.
The time between such reactions and my "better judgment" taking control seems to get shorter and shorter as I age. I cannot deny my prejudices, but I can defend myself against them. I can open them to the light of my awareness, and with compassion I can soften their impact.
I’m also certain that there are more hiding in there than I know of. At least so far.
September 22, 2003