When I heard about the racist music CD that Chip Saltsman, a contender for chair of the Republican National Committee, had distributed to fellow Republicans, I wasn’t surprised. The CD contained a song entitled, “Barack the Magic Negro.” I wasn’t surprised because prejudice, and specifically racial prejudice, is alive and well in this country, despite the election of the first black president. Every now and then, it makes the news. Mr. Saltsman hasn’t apologized for distributing the CD, but instead blamed Liberal Democrats and the media for paying more attention to his act than that of David Ehrenstein, who wrote a similarly named piece in the L.A. Times back in March. A quick comparison of the two works shows a different intention in each.
We all have prejudices. Psychology has shown this for some time. We tend to prefer people who look like ourselves, rather than those who are different. Evolutionary psychologists would say that this is actually an adaptive trait, because long ago in evolutionary time, members of different clans or tribes likely meant no good toward other clans or tribes. So running away (at worst) or distrusting (at best) were natural mechanisms to assure your, and your group’s, survival. Problem is, we have become a multiracial, multicultural, and multireligious world very quickly and some of the same mechanisms that were helpful in the past are no longer so helpful.
The roots of our prejudice are not biologic only; we also learn them as we grow up as well. Our brains want to classify things in order to make more sense of them. So, we naturally classify, or reduce the complexity of what is in our environment. One example of this reduction of complexity is when we form a stereotype. The bad thing about stereotypes is that we apply the stereotype to everyone who appears to fit that type, but in almost all cases, they are different, and sometimes very different, from the stereotype. So, we make bad decisions based on an inaccurate stereotype. Frequently, we learn how to classify and stereotype while growing up, so all of this starts very young. Our parents, friends, teachers, church leaders, and others around us all have a part.
Racism, even latent racism such as this, is a part of “life” in many parts of the country. Most people hide their prejudices and racism quite well–they generally have to because of social norms that frown upon explicit prejudice or discrimination. This takes great effort, but every now and then, prejudices slips out. The stronger your prejudices, the harder they are to control.
Let’s face it–most people in this country deny they are racist, sexist, ageist, etc., but the evidence to the contrary is too strong. If everyone were as non-prejudiced as they claim, then there would be no disparities in pay, quality of health care, access to good jobs, promotion potential for women, and so on. All of these things generally rely upon individual decisions, where prejudice can play its part, unseen.
I hope we take the great opportunity that has presented itself to us in the election of Barack Obama and work harder than ever to reduce the impact that prejudice plays in our lives. Prejudices can be reduced to the point of non-importance, and I think this is a goal we can all work toward.
Reddy, M. T. (Ed.). (1996). Everyday Acts Against Racism: Raising Children in a Multiracial World. Seattle, WA: Seal Press.
Sniderman, P. M., & Carmines, E. G. (Ed.). (1997). Reaching Beyond Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Dr. Darrell Spurlock teaches nursing and psychology in Columbus, Ohio.
Image © 2008 Unity Gain - Flickr