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Stephen Gottlieb: Prejudice

Jack the Ripper and Mother Theresa are both likely to be in any large crowd in New York City and other densely populated places. Obviously, one can’t generalize. New Yorkers are neither all vicious like Jack the Ripper nor angels like Mother Theresa. Similarly you can’t generalize from either of them to people who shared their gender, color, national origin, religion or any other large group defined by biology or parentage. Their presence in New York crowds is simply a statistical probability – in any large crowd there are both wonderful and terrible people. I remember witnessing a dispute between two drivers, one of whom jumped out of his car and yelled as loudly as he could “You Iranian!” That was obviously silly, they didn’t know each other from Adam, but Iranian was the curse de jure. It was all too common but by erasing all the nuances, that kind of loose mudslinging didn’t help this country figure out how best to negotiate with Iran.

People may not know the history or want to admit it, but we all have skeletons in our racial, religious and ethnic closets. Africans and African-Americans are just as decent as every other group but some Africans are still raping, slaughtering and taking slaves in Africa. Many of us, regardless of our religious affiliations live in areas dominated by Catholics, but I’m not afraid that they’re going to enslave me because Catholic religious law, called cannon law, once described at length whom Christians could and could not enslave. Participation in the East and West African slave trade was fairly widespread among European and Middle Eastern countries as well as white Americans. My Iranian hosts when I was in the Peace Corps condemned what they believed was the continuing slave trade in Arab nations. But most of the people in all of those places are lovely and trustworthy. I’ve had my pockets picked in Spain and Chile but mostly met wonderful people in both. Prejudice doesn’t work as generalization and it doesn’t work as collective responsibility. If it did, all of us would falling through the sinkhole to hell.

Generalizing good or bad traits as characteristics of everyone of particular backgrounds is the very definition of prejudice and all of us have to fight that mentality. There has been a tendency lately for progressives in this country to join the nincompoops in making generic statements about Jews as if we are all responsible for trying to destroy the Palestinians and other crimes. Actually many of us have spoken out and fought against those evils. Generalizations don’t work with respect to Jews any more than they work with respect to Blacks. Some claim that Jews need no protection because they’re rich. Even if that were true, take note that Black success and wealth was a trigger for the massacres and burning of Black communities in Tulsa, OK, Rosewood, FL, Wilmington, NC and other places. Some sort of moral grid of who can be attacked is both stupid and dangerous.

American ideology reinforced by the three post-Civil War constitutional amendments is that we are all entitled to the equal protection of the laws. Both as law and as ideology that principle is tremendously important – no one, including those who think of themselves as progressive, gets a pass on that one.

Prejudice opens the sinkhole to hell.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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