Prejudice in the New America

I DID not really learn about prejudice until I went to Harvard. An upbringing among Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, Jews, peoples from eastern, northern, and southern Europe, and blacks and whites from the US South, had emphasized the strength of diversity in an American community. The melting pot ideal did not work out entirely in practice. There were fights. Marriages across religious and ethnic lines might be boycotted. But the general values of tolerance were clear. Or we thought they were clear.

A sense of "others" was diffused because we were all others. Yet as I moved among the different sectors of that community, I observed how superficial was the outsider's appreciation of another group's character. I remember sitting in the front pew at a black congregation's church service in Detroit. A high school senior, I had gone to receive an award for an essay contest. There I was, skinny and crewcut like a young Frank Sinatra, in a converted Jewish temple, listening to singing and preaching such as I had never heard before. My church had one strong baritone in our anemic choir. Here the performance went from brimstone to the heavenly gates in astonishing surges, everyone shouting and singing at full voice.

At Harvard I learned about class. Diversity again was compounded, with youths from all over the United States and the world. The college recruited able young graduates from working class as well as professional communities. Scholarships leveled any financial barrier. There were no fraternities, only a few "dining clubs." A "house" system ensured larger, eclectic communities. The student had great latitude in choosing a field of concentration and yet study subjects far afield.

But overlaid was a sense of the outside world determined by highbrow/lowbrow, professional/social good-doing, ethnic forces, held in abeyance while we studied. College underscored more deeply that the individual had his work cut out for him to keep his own course in a world of determined cultural patterns and expectations.

All this in preamble to the prejudice and racism we are seeing on campus and generally in society today:

Campuses like Dartmouth and Brown, where racist publications or shouted epithets have raised "free speech" issues, should make clear that such expressions are repugnant. The legal limits of racist speech will be tested in the courts. Legislation proposed in Congress would protect the repugnant speech of the right in the '90s much as the liberal tirades of the '60s were tolerated on campuses.

Racist invective today is part of a general attack on individuals. Sexual assaults against women are on the rise, as are gun-related deaths among young males, especially black males. Movies, the media, show fewer inhibitions against violence and verbal abuse.

The origins of racism and other aggressive forms of prejudice are obscure. A static electricity of fear and anxiety builds up in the psyche of societies and individuals until it breaks out in anger, racism, and assault.

The Iraq war has provoked an increase in hostility shown to Middle Easterners, especially Arab-Americans. Such hostility does not discriminate between those who sided with the coalition forces and those who opposed them. Anti-Semitism is seen again in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, prompting renewed emigration.

Class, community, ethnic, and religious orientation give texture to society. They can be most tenacious when in transition. Cultural patterns can restrict individuals who identify too closely with them, even as they provoke hostility from those outside them.

The arrival of diverse Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern peoples in America makes it more difficult to comprehend the cultural context of others in the new America. At the same time, apart from this influx, US regions are becoming more alike as technology, communications, and a sense of a shrinking world have their effect.

Prejudice, by focusing on the group, would deny individuals their very identity and opportunity. It is a form of blindness and ignorance. It would disrupt intelligent discourse.

It is the responsibility of the articulate to expose what prejudice is up to, so that individuals and society can get on with their advances.

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