Regarding Prejudice

November 2003


Simplistic views of major problems do not always help understanding. They can obscure the meaning and make finding solutions more difficult. We will never get rid of oppression and prejudice by secretly yearning for the material advantages these confer.

I get worried when I start to hear people talking about historical or present day oppression as something done by bad people to the innocent. I get nervous when these same people speak of prejudice as the premeditated act of the misguided, performed on the unwilling. People talk as though the oppressor receives only a host of benefits while the oppressed receives all the harm.

The oppressors and purveyors of prejudice can, and frequently do, prosper materially, but that is their sole benefit. And this benefit they buy at a very high price. Oppression and prejudice are harmful, period. They are equally, but differently, harmful to both parties. Oppression and prejudice are symptoms of a central sickness: hatred. Hatred is an equal opportunity disease.

Take, for a moment, the other portion of the equation. Put yourself in the place of the prosperous white slave owner of the 1830s. This person is the recipient of unfair and unjustly acquired wealth, expropriated from the labor of slaves. They have every material possession and convenience available for their time. They also live in a home filled with their enemies and they know it, though many are in denial about that. They hate their slaves for making them have to resort to cruelty and savagery -- oppression neurosis. They live in fear. The injustice of their livelihood poisons every aspect of their lives. The men and the women live in a rigid, stratified society of avarice and predation. They have no one in their lives to whom they can express a private thought; they are no more free to disagree with their mode of life than are their slaves.

The slaves are imprisoned in a life not of their choosing and have hard labor, artificial privation and hardship. They live under the lie that they are not good enough to be free. The slave owner is equally imprisoned in a web of prosperous indolence that offers them no honest satisfaction, save in the acquisition of things. And every thing they acquire burdens them with even more fear that they may lose the things that have come to define who they are. They live the lie that they are free. In a society where there are slaves, none are free.

No one who has not whipped another man can tell you what that does to you inside. No one who has not been whipped can tell you what that does to you inside. It is a vicious and rending act that carries with it no peace. The violence of a life lived in fear ruins life for the overseer as well as the slave.

I had some friends years ago from South Africa. They came to this country to start a new life after their children were killed on their family farm. They had much anger and hatred against the black people who had killed their children. Then one day I asked them what had happened to those men, back in South Africa? "Nothing," said Jon, "if anything they're local heroes back there." I responded by saying, gently, that this was the world they had made for their children, one in which their killers would be hailed as heroes. "But we didn't know that, did we," he said after a pause. "That wasn't what we wanted. We didn't want them to hate us like that. I guess they wouldn't have, if we hadn't done what we did."

They went back to South Africa soon after that. They took what was left of their money and made a cooperative farm. They lived with their neighbors, instead of upon them. Two years later, he was killed. His widow wrote me: "Jon was glad to come home, to live even a few years as a free man among free men. And everyone came to his funeral. He would have liked that."

Consider the ordinary men and women of Germany who enabled the concentration camps and the extermination of human beings. They oppressed the Jews horribly. They achieved full reward for their hate and prejudice. They got to live in a society where everyone had to speak in whispers. Their prejudice achieved a world in which even your thoughts could kill you. And in the end, that world murdered more than half of their children.

Hatred is a poison that works on everyone. It creeps into every home and lies in wait for every boy and every girl, regardless of class. It is colorblind. It brings with it injustice, ignorance, fear, and desperation. Under its yoke, none are free.

The historic oppressions of the past are lessons. They are lessons we have not learned from yet. We are trying. Women, men, blacks, whites, and other people were and are discriminated against. We all fight the dead weight of intolerance and ignorance every day in our own lives and in the world in which we live. But in so doing, we cannot play favorites. We cannot discern a greater harm to some and a lesser harm to others. The lie that oppression and prejudice work for those who practice them is the chief reason why it remains an attractive alternative. All must fare equally in our hearts or we just perpetuate the root cause of the crimes we abhor.

We have to treat the wounded souls of both the oppressed and the oppressor, or the hatred will remain. We have to illuminate prejudice with the light of truth, and demand justice: there is only one kind of human being, whatever their race, their gender, their nationality, their religion, or their age. We must embrace our fellow humans without regard to the crimes of our fathers or our mothers, if we hope to create a better world in which our own children will have less fear and more hope.

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