Monday, July 22, 2013

Prejudice Erases Individual Identity

When people are viewed through categories instead of as individuals, it becomes easier to dehumanize them. The racism of our society is so deeply ingrained and reflexive many people no longer see it yet the total exoneration of Gerorge Zimmerman from criminal charges in the Trayvon Martin case has made its continued existence abundantly clear. We are raised to value some people and to deride, degrade and fear others. Generalization is elevated to an extreme level in the United States. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that we want to categorize and organize our experience without truly researching and questioning it.

It's part and parcel of a our shortcut culture; the search for the quickest, easiest route to a superficial and limited understanding of the world. Americans are raised to be group-thinkers. To begin to understand this, I must draw upon my own experience. Growing up in an almost exclusively Jewish culture in the Anti-Semitic environment of 1950's Cleveland, I was continually given the message that to venture outside of my community into a gentile world was ill-advised and dangerous. Hatred toward me would be rampant and I would return home to my people a sorry mess begging to be welcomed back into the flock.

My parents passionately desired acceptance by and into the gentile world but you would never have known it by looking at their friends who were, almost exclusively, Jews. This limited their empathy and real understanding of people from other groups. We live in a tremendously segregated and economically stratified society. Also an alienating, individualistic and isolated one. Genuine connection with folks from other groups is rare and often only happens in the workplace or under extenuating circumstances like prison, if at all.

Limited exposure to the wide array of individuals in a given group is the breeding ground of prejudice. In the LGBT movement in the late seventies, when we were fighting the Briggs initiative that would have prevented gay positive folks from working in schools, our strategy was to talk to people in bathroom lines, at bus stops, in grocery stores and other public places. Then, upon leaving, we would hand the person a card that read: "You have just been talking to a lesbian, please uphold our right to work in schools and vote no on Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative. Obviously, the attempt here was to break down the kind of barriers that prevented heterosexual folks from seeing us as human beings.

Although increasing numbers of African-Americans, including our president,  have arrived in the so-called middle class, racial divisions between blacks and whites are still the norm in our society. Immigrants, who have chosen to land on our shores have fared a bit better, even when language and color differences are also present. The younger generations mix more than those my generation did, but even though mandatory government segregation has been officially curtailed, self-segregation is rampant. It becomes a chicken and egg game to figure out what came first and how to stop the vicious circle of stereotyping and estrangement that keeps the racial divide strong.

The recession has, for the most part, made things worse. When people must compete for limited resources fighting ensues. Think of all the experiments of rats in cages. Or just think of the U.S. prison system. Hitler used fear and misunderstanding as a tool to exacerbate divisions between people. That is happening everywhere today. The divisive, competitive nature of capitalism fuels this fire. The fact that Wall Street criminals get away with murder is not helpful either.

I recently saw the movie "Fruitvale Station" and was moved by its poignant portrayal of Oscar Grant and the brutal way his life ended. Perhaps only time will heal the gaping wound that continues to racially divide the human community. It is a deep scar left by slavery. We can read, think, talk and continue to march for a more just and equal society, clearly a long and protracted struggle.