The tragic Trayvon Martin shooting is the latest racial incident to enter onto the American scene. The biggest question in my mind regarding this episode is whether we are going to once again miss an opportunity to honestly have national and local dialogues regarding race and bigotry. The media and politicians usually quickly move on to the next hot story just as they did after the Professor Henry Gates arrest incident and the Shirley Sherrod doctored viral video fiasco. This is very unfortunate. So many issues facing the United States are greatly affected by racial, gender, religious, or sexual prejudice. Immigration, unemployment, education, and crime are just a few of the issues so influenced. I am going to attempt to examine some of the aspects of bias and prejudice. In turn I will try to show how they lead to intolerance and bigotry. Finally I will illustrate some examples of how this is detrimental to our society and what we can do to deal with this problem and possibly start on the road to reconciliation.
I will begin by defining bias and prejudice as stated by dictionary.com. Bias is " A particular tendency or inclination especially one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question". Prejudice is "An unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought or reason; any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable; unfavorable feelings, opinions or attitudes especially of a hostile nature regarding a racial, religious or national group". Given these definitions I think we can agree that everyone is guilty of bias and prejudice to some extent.
We are born and grow up in our family, neighborhood, and school environments. In these settings we are exposed to constant influences. A family of any particular race or ethnicity will have history regarding relations with other groups. This will affect the way their child is raised even though the parents may not even realize it. Our neighborhoods also have a strong influence over us. This is true for both children and adults. Neighborhoods have different ethnic make ups and histories which may influence a person's views. This is also true of a person's neighborhood schools. My own experience is that I was raised by parents who taught tolerance and politeness to everyone. The schools I attended taught me the same. My neighborhood though was much less tolerant. I will touch on these personal influences later in this article.
Now I would like to turn to intolerance and bigotry which often results from bias and prejudice. They also will be defined by dictionary.com for this article. Intolerance is "Unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect contrary opinions or beliefs, persons of different races, backgrounds, etc.; unwillingness to grant equal freedom of expression or to grant or share social, political or professional rights". Bigotry is "Stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief or opinion that differ from one's own. A person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices".
Intolerance and bigotry are direct outgrowths of bias and prejudice. Adverse influences from our early years can easily develop and grow into intolerance and bigotry. This is especially true if one continues to live and work among like minded individuals. This is the way racism and other forms of bigotry grow and become permanent parts of a society. Groups of people reinforce their convictions through affirmation and the strength in numbers mentality. In this way certain neighborhoods sometimes become racist and it grows from there. Worse yet this intolerance and bigotry are often passed on to their children and a vicious circle is created. I have seen this occur within my own circle of friends. They retell stories and lessons from their parents which in turn are passed on to their children. My own parents taught me to be tolerant but over the years I have noticed that they also have prejudices and biases. I do not believe they even realized it existed within them. This is the insidious way racism and other forms of hate can begin to take hold if one is not vigilant.
Let me now examine more closely some of the situations in our society that have manifested themselves because of these four conditions. Firstly I would like to examine the flight of white families out of cities into the suburbs. Since school desegregation began this phenomenon has steadily grown. White families often argue that they are leaving because of crime, overcrowding, deficient schools, and other reasons. If they were to look deep within themselves, they would realize that the reasons all lead back to race.
Another area to examine is the corporate management ranks within the United States. Civil rights laws of the 1960's worked wonderfully to give African-Americans and other minorities access to jobs in most U.S. companies. Unfortunately this does not also hold true within the management ranks of these same firms. Corporate executives complain about the dearth of qualified minority management candidates. This may be partly true due to the dire state of urban education but certainly not entirely. There is too great a disparity between total minority employment and total minority management.
Women have also made great strides in this regard as well as in the percentage of elected offices that they hold. But they also have a long way to go. The glass ceiling in the boardroom still exists for women. They also still lag far behind men in regards to holding both elected and appointed political positions. However there is hope in the fact that their percentages have grown at a much faster pace in the local municipal ranks. This will give women a much better springboard to soon elect more of their ranks especially at higher governmental levels.
Hispanic Americans and other ethnic groups suffer many of the same problems as African Americans though in varying degrees. There are also many conflicts between ethnic groups. This is primarily the result of competition for a scarcity of jobs and resources. Ethnic groups are also discriminated against due to cultural and language differences. Homosexuals are another minority which has suffered badly in our society. The main reason for this is probably fear. Sexual identity is powerful and anything that disturbs this can be threatening. Religious differences may also breed discrimination. Catholics had been discriminated against widely until recently. Jewish Americans have also experienced extensive prejudice throughout both American history and world history. This situation has also improved extensively though it still exists. It can be observed most obviously with skinhead and white supremacist groups. Muslim Americans are being extensively discriminated against especially after the 9/11 terror attacks. This prejudice is due to fear and a lack of understanding regarding their religion.
What then can we do to lessen our biases and prejudices to become more tolerant of other groups? In my case I try to place myself in the shoes of others. I attempt to feel what a person of another group is feeling. This is called empathy. Acquiring empathy is the key in relating to others and treating them as you would treat yourself. I recall a nasty race riot that occurred at my high school on Staten Island, New York when I was a student there in the mid 1970's. These incidents broke out sporadically over minor incidents. Usually they were fueled by long simmering hostilities. My high school was predominantly white. A smaller group of African American students first began to be bused into my school when I first began attending. My fellow white students for the most part began voicing hatred for the black students from almost the very beginning. I could not understand the reason for it since no real reasons were given for the hatred except for their skin color. The black students kept to themselves and seemed to view us with understandable suspicion.
One riot has always remained particularly vivid in my mind. Some white tough guy wannabes began to seek out any black person they could find to beat on one afternoon after a relatively small scuffle between a black student and a white student. I happened to witness the surrounding of one young black woman holding a small child after we were released from class. She was gripped in abject fear. Apparently she had come to our school to pick up a friend or relative and got caught up in the center of the madness. The terrified expression I saw in her face has always remained with me. She was pleading for the crowd to let them go. Luckily the police arrived before the crowd was able to inflict any harm on them.
The point I am trying to make in telling this story is that I learned to feel what others felt during this incident. I literally felt the terror I saw on her face. I have never been able to even imagine attacking another person since this incident nor hate another person just because they were different. This occurred due to the empathy I felt with this woman. My conclusion was that if you can empathize with a person or people it becomes impossible to hate them. Your bias and prejudice decreases dramatically along with your intolerance and bigotry. Ignorance and a lack of empathy are at the heart of bigotry against African Americans and all other groups.
Women were seen as passive and not strong enough for management and elective office. They were regarded as simply mothers and nurturers without attributes for other roles. People now see that that this not true and can relate to them as leaders as their numbers have increased in elective office. They see their prior bias as a fallacy. Gay Americans are discriminated against due to fear and ignorance of their lifestyle. Ethnic minorities are mistreated due to the lack of understanding of their culture and language.
The bottom line regarding the causes of all forms of prejudice and bigotry is ignorance and fear. A meeting of the minds is needed between all groups to ameliorate misunderstanding. Instead of having a "Beer Summit" on the White House lawn after the Professor Gates case broke, a public discussion of why the Professor and President Obama reacted so vigorously against the Police Officer's actions would have been infinitely more beneficial. The Shirley Sherrod case became a battle between right wing groups and media on one side and the Democrats and the Obama Administration on the other. Unfortunately no one discussed in detail the inspirational speech that Ms. Sherrod gave at the NAACP dinner in question. Her speech was one of transformation, empathy, and understanding. This unfortunately was drowned out amongst the political noise. Now the Trayvon Martin shooting controversy has exploded upon the American consciousness. If history is any guide this incident will also quickly fade away. Hopefully the explosiveness of the incident and the paucity of criminal justice action will keep this issue on the front burner. Hopefully this will not turn out to be business as usual in the United States. That would be a crying shame. National and local discussions are needed to properly deal with these issues and create the empathy we need to become a more tolerant and open society.
A sharp divide has developed over perceptions of this case between White Americans and African Americans. The seeds of a more substantial discussion of racial issues may have been born over this chasm. Why do African Americans feel that George Zimmerman should be charged immediately? Why do White Americans feel that there has been a rush to judgment? These two groups of people have very significant differences in their perceptions of the other and of our criminal justice systems. These differences are at the heart of the racial problems we have in the United States. White Americans have no idea what it is like to constantly be viewed as a possible criminal perpetrator. African Americans have no concept of why White Americans feel this way and why.
We need a true national dialogue regarding race relations. Racism and bigotry will never truly end until we do. Neither side truly understands or thus empathizes with the other. This incident is a golden opportunity for our national media and politicians to foster a true and lasting national discussion regarding race in this country. In the past, the media has milked these incidents for ratings or circulation boosts. Politicians have often used these same incidents to divide the electorate and energize their base to secure an election victory. I sincerely hope that this time the results will be different. A severely divided country will prove to be a much weaker one. We as a country deserve much better than this. We as concerned citizens must also demand more substantive and fruitful discussions about race relations. Our future as a true civil and just society relies on our doing so. Let us succeed this time for both ourselves and for our children.