Sometimes current history requires that we reexamine our fundamental beliefs and understand in new ways why we feel the way we do. For me, in these hate-filled times, it seems clearer than ever that any kind of prejudice — from racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, to ageism, religious prejudice, and all cultural and tribal hatreds — is wrong, flat out wrong. There is no defense for prejudice in a humane society.
A core moral error underlies all bigotry. It takes many forms — rumor mongering, giving false witness, lying for your own advantage, inventing “realities” that enhance your power to the detriment of those you have stigmatized.
In the simplest terms, the core moral error is substituting a discriminatory label for the personhood, the subjectivity, the irreplaceable and unique individuality of everyone who falls under the iron cage of the label. This includes toddlers and babies who have been labeled, as Latinos, a dangerous, criminal element invading the American homeland. Such a false and heinous lie allows bigots to commit the vilest atrocities with impunity, at least in their own eyes.
This moral error is, thus, a form of collective narcissism which allows one group of people to create negative fictions about another group of people in order to secure their own advantage over them by any atrocious means available.
The moral premise which underlies the condemnation of bigotry and prejudice holds that every person has inherent value that supersedes their social status, their race, their gender and any other characteristic that may be used to discriminate against them. That moral premise, of course, is at the core of the Declaration of Independence, and is a principle that underlies whatever sense of justice, equality, and fairness America has ever had.
The fictional and profoundly negative descriptions of African Americans embodied in Jim Crow laws and culture empowers white supremacists and their collective narcissism. The discriminatory descriptions of an entire race of people totally wipes out the individuality and moral worth of all those who are burdened by it, and replaces their uniqueness as free persons with a brutal generality that renders them valueless. It’s the same mental process that has kept women down for eons, that drove the Holocaust, the culture of lynching in the South, the genocide of Native Americans and every other group atrocity, including every war, I can think of.
The insidiousness of this moral error is that it can become a cultural meme, so inbred as to be beyond reflection, so ingrown that even basically “good” people manifest it as a normal reaction and behavior. It even becomes disguised as “justice” and fair play.
When the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, claimed in 2013 in a majority decision in Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder that certain voting rights protections in the Deep South, Alaska, and Arizona were no longer needed because racism was on the wane in those states and in America in general, everyone in the country who was still being harassed because of the color of their skin, their gender, their religion and culture, or their sexuality was incredulous and outraged. They know, from traumatizing personal experience, that prejudice is more flagrant in America as it’s almost ever been. There’s a nasty streak that’s been inflamed and given free reign by the Trumpian mindset. Many of us wondered in 2013 if the Chief Justice was actually a shill for the emergence of a shadow Confederacy. Could he possibly be that oblivious to current conditions?
Shelby County v. Holder challenged the voting rights provision that when certain jurisdictions with long histories of voter suppression and prejudice pass laws to reform voting rights and procedures, those laws should be scrutinized by federal authorities to see if they aren’t really wolves in sheep’s clothing, deepening voter suppression while seeming to battle it.
How could a majority of justices on the Supreme Court actually think that America was evolving away from its racist shadow, and all its other socio-pathological hatreds? The Trumpian worldview didn’t spring out of nowhere. Its roots still taint our national conscience and plague our private lives. A friend of mine’s wife was driving home from the Westside where she is the night manager of big store. She’s Hispanic. It’s 10:30 at night. A white guy in a truck drives up along side her car, sneers and taunts and tosses a coke through her open window, dousing her. He then speeds off. That happened here a few weeks ago. An African American student at UNM came back to his dorm room, a couple of years ago, and found a noose drawn on his door. Another friend of of mine, a 6th or 7th generation New Mexican, won’t set a tire in Arizona because of its racial profiling laws passed eight years ago.
According to the Columbia Journal of Race and Law, the Arizona law “by its very terms, necessitates racial profiling. The definition of racial profiling is ‘the reliance on race, skin color, and/or ethnicity as an indication of criminality, reasonable suspicion, or probable cause…’” The Arizona law says that police may not use racial profiling but the Columbia Review points out that it “effectively requires the consideration of race, color, and national origin because it is unfathomable how a law enforcement official could avoid considering those factors in deciding who to investigate under the new law. Even the most well-meaning officer cannot possibly determine whether an individual may be undocumented without making judgments based on apparent race, color and national origin.”
That’s the insidious nature of bigoted laws and prejudice in general. A person could be a concert pianist, a dedicated soccer mom, a brilliant carpenter or chef, a consoling grandparent, an elementary school teacher, a devoted parishioner, but if her skin was the wrong “color” she could be stopped, subjected to the indignities and anxiety of being pulled over by the police, her car could be searched, and her passengers harassed with questions — all for no reason other than her appearance which has been given a negative label by those in power. Ask anyone who’s suffered under Jim Crow what that’s like, or anyone who’s ancestors suffered and died under Nazi anti-Semetic laws.
Prejudice does away with a person’s talent, potential, life history, personal virtue, and civil rights. You become an a object of suspicion, guilty until proven innocent, your personhood and your “inalienable rights” are suspended and subsumed by a negative label that, by its nature, must be a lie, a vile lie, as all negative generalities turn out to be upon reflection and experience.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it