Prejudice in the United States Today ~ A Problem That We May Never Resolve

I believe that we fail to resolve issues involving race and other forms of prejudice in this country because we don’t want them resolved.

March 11, 2011 — It’s been almost five decades since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act outlawed major forms of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender or ethnicity. Notwithstanding, there is still hate and bigotry in the United States. Of this there can be no doubt. No law can make people think or behave civilly, as the recent wave of anti-Islamic sentiment and protests against gays and lesbians at military funerals attest. But, from my experience and years of observation, most claims of racial prejudice in this country today have little to nothing to do with race. They have more to do with socio-economic disparities and ethnic differences. Except among racial supremacy groups, most of us believe that the biological differences of race, in a general sense, neither significantly advantage nor disadvantage one race over another.

Race — what an unfortunate term. It implies winners and losers.

I once made the statement during a church administrative board meeting that embracing diversity is not the same thing as promoting diversity. For that, some in the church labeled me racially prejudiced. Balderdash! I was simply attempting to discourage celebrating or elevating one ethnic group in what was then an ethnically diverse congregation at the expense of others.

In another venue at about the same time, I was attempting to teach the differences between nationality, ethnicity, culture, and race to my World Geography students. For my effort, I learned a few things myself.  One thing I learned is that, in the United States today, many people, or so it seems, don’t want to know the difference. Blurring the distinctions between nationality, ethnicity, culture and race is comforting for some. For others, ignoring the distinctions sustains and confirms their already-held biases.

Case in point, speaking of the different races, I used the example of Mestizo versus Mexican, explaining that Mestizo is a term traditionally used to identify people of mixed European and Native American ancestry. It is a racial term, one of which many Latinos are proud, distinguishing themselves from Indians who they consider to be lower-classed members of Mexican society. Whereas the term, Mexican, refers to a national origin. It’s what most Americans call other Americans who emigrated themselves or whose ancestors emigrated from Mexico or other Spanish-speaking countries. Some, those whose ancestors have always lived in what is today the southwestern part of the United States, are also called Mexicans. The term, Latino, is a broad cultural term, used to identify ethnicities that have the Spanish language in-common. Which is correct to use when referring to people of Spanish-American descendency? Generally, one is always safest sticking to the broader cultural term, Latino, that is, if one wants to avoid causing offense.

At that point, a question came up. One of my young men asked, “What are ethnicities, Mr. Garry?”

I explained to my class that an ethnic group is a population of human beings whose members naturally identify with each other on the basis of a real or a presumed common genealogy or ancestry. The term, culture, refers to the language, attitudes, beliefs, customs, traditions, arts and preferences that are shared by members of different ethnic groups. Culture can also refer to these kinds of things that are more broadly shared by multiple groups within a collective society. For example: Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a holiday that most, if not all, ethnic groups within the United States traditionally celebrate. Another example might be American-style football, a sport that appeals to Americans of all ethnic groups. The differences between ethnic groups tend to be divisive because we are most comfortable among others who are most like ourselves.

Things got a bit dicey in class when we moved on to a discussion of race, how we often confuse it with ethnicity or national origin and how the subject often elicits emotional responses. The term, race, refers to the concept of dividing people into populations or groups on the basis of various sets of genetically inherited, physical characteristics, which are usually quite easy for us to distinguish. Because we have a history of exploitation and competition between different groups in the United States, the white man against the black, the red, the yellow and the brown, different ethnic groups have been left with stigmas of guilt, shame and/or inferiority. However, hard we try to put the past behind us and move on, it seems that we may forever remain socially haunted and challenged to live up to our creed of “liberty and justice for all”.

When I was still in grammar school, and that was many years ago, a teacher once taught me that there were only five basic races or “subspecies” of human beings: Caucasian (White), Negro (Black), Mongoloid (Yellow), Malayan (Brown), and American Indian (Red). According to him, all other so-called races are just variations on these five races or mixed-race peoples. His view was based on a religious belief that the races were separately created by God. Notwithstanding, science had long before identified many more distinct races based on physical attributes.

Sir Thomas Huxley, in 1870, identified nine distinct races and he associated them with different geographic regions of origin.  The following year, Charles Darwin published his second great book, The Decent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Darwin believed that all mankind had originated from a common ancestor and argued that the various races were the result of different environmental conditions that have prevailed over time in the various regions of earth where the different races evolved. He also argued that the people of all races are essentially equal in both physical and intellectual potentials. Modern science, based on comparisons of DNA markers for people all over the earth seems to validate Darwin’s conclusions.

The Census Bureau of the United States has confounded the definition of race dramatically by listing multiple racial identities for the surveyed from which to self select, identities that include ethnicity and national origin. And to avoid offending people, they list, for example, the following as a distinct race: Black, African-American or Negro. They do not list Mulatto, Mestizo or mixed-race options. But they do provide space for people to enter their own terms.

“Well, we prefer the term, African-American, Mr. Garry,” one of my young ladies said politely.

“Yes, I know you do, and I understand,” I said, “just as the Census Bureau understands. They are being what’s called, politically correct. They’re being sensitive to others’ sensitivities. And that’s a good thing, but it ignores the difference between race and ethnicity and it creates a whole new set of problems.”

There are physical and biological differences between the Whites of Western Europe and Mediterranean Whites, peoples of the Southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. There are physical and biological differences between the Blacks that have descended from peoples of Western Africa and the Blacks of East Africa, or the Aboriginal Blacks of Australia. There are physical and biological differences between Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese peoples too. Referring to them simply as Asian people ignores these differences. So, shifting attention away from biological differences that are more than just skin deep to ethnic distinctions or national origins ignores the differences between races. Race and ethnicity are not the same thing.”

There was a noticeable hush in the classroom as students’ eyes were seeking to assess others’ reactions to this.

“Okay,” I said, “some of you are thinking that Mr. Garry is racially prejudiced, right.” Nobody answered, confirming my suspicion.

“Let’s talk about what you all want to talk about: prejudice. Can anybody tell me what prejudice means?”

I waited several moments. Finally, one of my young ladies bravely raised her hand and said, “People are prejudice when they say hateful things about people they don’t like.”

“Give me an example,” I said.

“Hmmmm… something like black people are stupid, or Mexicans are lazy.”

“Good, those are certainly stereotypes, good examples of prejudicial attitudes that some people have. But let me correct one thing that you said. The term, Mexican, refers to a nationality, citizens of Mexico. Most Mexicans today are Mestizo, people of mixed European and American Indian ancestry. Some Mexicans are Caucasian, some are American Indian, and some are Black. So it is inaccurate racially to refer to all Latinos as Mexican. Note that both of your examples are generalizations. We all know that neither is true. It is probably true, wouldn’t you agree, that some blacks are stupid and some Mestizos are lazy, just as some whites are stupid and some are lazy. But most Blacks are of normal intelligence just as most whites are of normal intelligence, and most Mestizos are every bit as hardworking and industrious as anyone else.

I gave my students textbook definitions.

Bias is a prejudice in a general sense, usually for having a preference to one particular point of view or ideological perspective. However, one is generally only said to be biased if one’s powers of judgment are influenced by the biases one holds. In other words, a biased person’s views are neither neutral nor objective, they are subjective. A bias could, for example, lead one to accept or deny the truth of a claim, not on the basis of the strength of the arguments in support of the claim themselves, but because of the extent to which the claim is compatible with one’s own preconceived ideas. We are all biased; it’s a human condition.

Prejudice is the process of “pre-judging” something or somebody. It implies coming to judgment on an issue before learning where the preponderance of evidence actually lies, or forming a judgment without direct experience. Holding a politically unpopular view is not in itself prejudice, and politically popular views are not necessarily free of prejudice. When applied in a social sense, prejudice generally refers to existing biases toward entire groups, often based on social stereotypes. At its extreme, prejudice results in groups being denied benefits and rights unjustly or, conversely, unfairly showing unwarranted favor towards others.

“Now,” I said, “if I say that I do not like hip-hop music and that I am pretty much disgusted with the current fashion trend many young African-American men are following, namely, wearing their pants down below their buttocks, have I communicated prejudice?”

Many of my students just stared at me, communicating either confusion or their disbelief that I would even talk about this in the classroom. Others, at least some, including a few African-Americans, shook their heads indicating that they understood.

“No, I am communicating a bias, a preference for other forms of music and a desire to see young people dress with what I consider to be – decorum (good taste). Likewise, when I say that I like enchiladas and fajitas but I do not care for soul food recipes that include offal, which are normally discarded cuts of meat such as pigs’ feet, chitterlings and tripe, I am also not guilty of prejudice. However, if I were to say that I believe the explosive growth of “Black Pride” in the United States following passage of the Civil Rights Act has benefitted people of color neither socially nor economically, I would not be speaking out of prejudice. I would simply be stating an opinion based on observation, an opinion about which many African-Americans would take offense.”

After a long hesitation, during which I wanted students to reflect on what I had just said, I opined, “I believe that we fail to resolve issues involving race and other forms of prejudice in this country because we don’t want them resolved. Like all people pretty much everywhere in the world, we are too concerned with exhibiting our ethnic distinctiveness and hanging onto to our preconceived notions about others. It’s almost as if who we think we are matters more to us than who we really are, and even more than getting along with our neighbors.

After class, I expected many calls from irate parents that evening. I was pleased when none were received.

I invite your comments whether you agree with me or not.








Published in: on March 11, 2011 at 4:32 pm  Comments (17)  

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17 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good discussion…and one reason I wish you were still teaching!

    When I was in HS…1970-1974….we had a club for the African-American kids called…I think…Harambee…anyway they had a fund raiser and they sold “soul food”… eyed peas, corn bread…most of them were NYC born and bred and quite frankly hated the stuff…but I loved it…the food of my childhood summers in Mississippi…what “soul food” was – the food of the southern poor, no matter your skin color.

    Thank you for the food for thought!

  2. Yes, I’ve actually become quite fond of some southern-style cooking — beans and cornbread for example. I even enjoy blackeyed peas ‘n okra with my native Texan wife, a New Years Day tradition in our family. But I still prefer hashbrowns over grits.

  3. Good evening, Opa!

    Very interesting post, including the idea that “we” don’t want issues of race and prejudice resolved. From the perspective of a caucasian male over 60 who has seen (as have you) a lot of progress on this issue, it still seems to me that minorities (primarily African-Americans) will “play the race card” whenever they believe it will advance their position or political goals. By doing so, they try to (or it appears in a lot of cases)put a guilt trip on whites/caucasians for the wrongs done to their ancestors by slavery. If the guilt thing “sticks,” then they may be more likely to achieve their goals by virtue of the fact that whites/caucasians don’t want to appear to continue to be prejudiced against them and will give in to their “demands.” (Political correctness?) So, as much as whites/caucasians, and others, may want this to end, as long as blacks, African-Americans, or whatever name they want to be identified by, continue to raise the issue for personal/political gain, it won’t end.

    I hope you get some input from some minority folks; would like to hear their side of things.


  4. It is an unfortunate reality that we, all of us, tend to generalize about the situation with statements like “they”, implying that, as a group, all are guilty of behaving a certain way. This human tendency is at the heart of the prejudice problem. It is why, as a nation during the Second World War, we deprived every American of Japanize decent that we could find of their rights as citizens. This is not just a black/white problem. It is a human problem.

  5. Good morning Opa!

    This really is a very thought provoking article. There are so many points that I agree with.

    I don’t think it is really possible (in the next 10 or 20 years) to have “One People, One Nation” in a country with many different ethnicities, cultural differences. In Singapore, where we are a “multi-national” country with a population of not more than 5 million people, where our government strongly encourage “One People, One Nation” policy, we still see a very high percentage of multiple cliques of people hanging out only with their own ethnicity. Such culture was formed due to a number of reasons. The history of racial riot that happened in the 70s. The information was passed down from our parents’ generation and would not be so easily forgotten or erased. Our parents’ perception of other ethnicities and how they educated our generation. Sometimes you might even be judged or condemned by your own ethnicity for becoming close friends with others. I have seen that happened before. My grandmother became very close friends with an extremely kind and nice Malay lady who happened to be her neighbour. Because of their close friendship, her Malay community began to exclude her and see her as a “traitor”. On a brighter note, I don’t see any more of such exclusions but you can totally imagine what type of message it has passed down to the younger generation. We are tolerant of other ethnicities at work but outside of work unfortunately, I don’t see many examples of close cross-racial friendships. It will take a while even for a small nation like ours to truly be a “One Nation, One People” country.

    So now imagine US with over 300 million population, it will take alot more effort to be able to overcome that.

    Foreigners who visited to Singapore for business or leisure tends to be confused initially when they asked about my ethnicity. When I told them that my ethnicity is Chinese. Their immediate response is “oh, i thought you are from Singapore.” They thought that i am from China. I have to explain to them more specifically that I am a 3rd generation Singaporean Chinese and no, a Malay is not necessary a Malaysian, we have Singaporean Malay too.

    Love, Val

  6. Thank you, Val, for substantiating my assertion that prejudice is not a condition unique to the American experience, that it is a human condition that often has nothing to do with race. I gather you also agree that when different ethnic groups clinging to, emphasize, and even exaggerate their distinctive characteristics, disharmony and more prejudice is the result.


  8. I totally agree……………………….I wish I were hearing this in my classes here in college instead of the constant rehashing of the the same stuff I have heard over and over again……………………………………..the past is the past……………let us please get over it and go on with the future!

  9. […] Prejudice in the United States Today A Problem That We May .Mar 11, 2011 One thing I learned is that, in the United States today, many people, or so it seems, don't want to know […]

  10. this is unbelievble but i kinda understand

  11. Not all Latinos speak Spanish, like Brazil. Their are latino because they live in Latin America. Hispanics, on the other hand, are those who have the Spanish language in common, and this would include Spain. Please don’t confuse the two.

  12. Thanks for the clarification. As a student of geography, a subject that I have taught for years to high school students, I knew this but failed to make the distinction in my posting.

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