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Oct 13 2005

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 4

(For earlier installments in this series, see part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

In order to begin an honest discussion about race, it might be good to start by accepting certain things. The first is that all of us harbor stereotypes, and have prejudices based on them. These come about despite our best intentions. People should be able to concede this without fear of being labeled racist.

The second is that people who have been the victims of prejudicial actions by others are not immune from thinking and acting prejudicially against others. Being a victim of racial prejudice is not some kind of vaccine that inoculates you against carrying the disease yourself. It is very easy, when one or one’s group has been the victim of prejudice, to convince oneself that one’s own actions towards others must be beyond reproach. This kind of hubris can lead to appalling injustices perpetrated by one discriminated group against another.

The third is that just because one believes in stereotypes and has prejudices based upon them, does not automatically imply that one cannot be fair in one’s actions. It is perfectly true that some people may not like people of another color/ethnicity/religion, etc. They may dislike the thought of having such people as neighbors or marrying into their family. But such people might also be opposed to taking any steps to restrict the rights of the groups they dislike, to prevent them from living where they wish and marrying whom they want. In other words, they may well want the very people they are uncomfortable to be around to be treated fairly.

For example, during the time of slavery, there were many white people who felt that having slaves was wrong. Often they aided the escape of slaves and, as jurors, often refused to convict others who had provided such aid. It is quite possible (even likely given the times they lived in) that the people who did these good things may not have actually liked black people or wanted them as guests in their homes. But many people respond to the higher call of justice, and an appeal to it can produce good results that appeals to other qualities cannot. As I have often said in the past, people have an intuitive sense of justice. You can’t force people to like other people, but you can expect people to act justly. It is the one quality that seems to have universal appeal.

I believe that it is easier to deal with a person who does not wish to associate with people of different color/race/religion but who also believes in justice and fairness than to deal with someone who may think that they are free of prejudice, and says all the right things, but cannot see that they may be acting is subtle ways that are harmful to other groups.

The relationship of private beliefs and public actions becomes more important when it enters the public political sphere. Some of you may be aware that following the inept response of the federal government in response to hurricane Katrina, singer Kanye West said on live TV during a fundraising event that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” This naturally stirred up a storm of controversy, as any public statement about race always does, and people looked for evidence that either supported or undermined his assertion. As usual, what was looked at was whether Bush had close friends and associates and advisors who were black, whether he appointed black people to positions of authority, and whether his statements could be analyzed to see what he really felt about race, etc.

I have seen these kinds of discussion many times before. In Sri Lanka, which has had a long history of ethnic strife between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority, the government has always been in the hands of the majority community and when it comes to ethnic matters there is always a close examination of the head of state to try and discern what that person’s private feelings about the minority community are, using the same measures that are being used to gauge George Bush’s ‘true’ feeling towards blacks following Kanye West’s allegation. So people try and look closely into the leader’s life to see if they can find clues as to whether they are “anti-Tamil” (as they say in Sri Lanka) or whether he treats the Tamil people around him well.

It has been my view that such analyses are largely a waste of time. It really does not matter what Bush thinks privately, or even what his actions are in relationship to the people in his immediate world. It is what he does publicly and politically and have a large-scale impact that matters. Someone (I wish I could remember who, because the words had a strong impact on me) wisely said something along the lines of “It is very difficult to determine the private beliefs of public figures, and even if, after much trouble, one is able to do so, it is not clear that the knowledge gained is worth the effort.”

To be continued tomorrow…

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