Prejudice as a Chronic Disease
Lately, I have been writing about my concerns over the growing Tea Party movement and the prejudices that it appears to have fueled and brought to the surface. Though there are those who have taken exception to such comments, I stand on the evidence as it is almost daily reported in the media.
However, things are not so black and white as we would always like them to be. Prejudice is not solely the purview of one particular group and ideology. Rather, it is a chronic disease that effects us all; even those of us who dedicate so much of our lives in the battle against it.
Last night I had an experience which gave me much pause for thought. I had been teaching an adult education class at our synagogue. As is typical in such situations, the class ended, the adult learners left, and I remained alone in the building to close the place up. As I was leaving the building, having turned off all the lights and set the alarm, I was about to lock the door when I spotted a group of three African American youths walking across our secluded parking long, walking the pet pit bull. My heart rate increased, as I stood in the shadows, by the door, waiting until they walked beyond my field of vision before I locked it – just in case I needed to get into the building and activate the alarm. They exited our parking lot without incident. I do not think that they even noticed my presence.
Driving home, the more I pondered what had just happened, the more troubled I was by it. After all, they were just three teenagers, walking their dog and having a typically loud teenage conversation. One could say that they were dressed like “gang bangers” but what does that really mean? They were dressed in clothing which was culturally accepted for their community of friends and neighbors. So why did my survival instincts kick in? Why did I automatically perceive a threat?
The painful answer in to be found in the chronic nature of our prejudices. They can become so ingrained in us that even when we openly deny them and actively engage in the struggle against them in our society, still there are echos which remain within us, and perhaps never leave us. They are perpetually there, lurking in the darker corners of our souls. They are like a latent virus, just waiting for the right conditions to be triggered so that it can wage its attack upon us.
It is a difficult reality to face that there is a bit of the bigot in each of us. But face it we much.
So what can we do about it? Accept it and surrender to our prejudicial nature? I think not. What makes all the difference in the world between a decent human being and a out-&-out bigot is not whether or not we possess any prejudices, but rather in what we do about the prejudices we possess. The difference is to be found in our choices and in our actions. While the bigot embraces his or her prejudices, nurtures them, fuels them, and grows his or her own ego identities upon their foundations, the decent folks among us must confront our prejudices, examine them, measure them, judge them for what they are, and then suppress them; deny them any fuel. Indeed, we need to counteract them with acts of altruism. While we may not always be able to avoid that increase in heart rate and that knot in the pit of our stomachs, we can recognize them for what they are; flaws in our character, and then proceed in the conduct of our lives in ways which mark our continual attempts to eliminate or at least counteract those flaws.
Three teenage African Americans and a pit bull out for an evening’s walk. They taught me an extremely important lesson, and they did not even know that I was there!