Within a few days of each other, we have witnessed two men “offend” America by words they each spoke about Black people. Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher made comments that compared the well-being of modern Blacks to the well-being of slaves. He wondered if Blacks were better off “in” historical slavery versus what he perceived to be modern slavery in their dependence upon welfare. Donald Sterling, owner of a professional basketball team, likewise was recorded telling his racially mixed girlfriend not to have Blacks in her Instagram photos or bring [blacks] to his games. He did not want her to associate with Blacks in public where his family, friends and associates could see and draw unfavorable conclusions.
Both of these men have been labeled as ‘racists’ by members of American society and both deny vehemently that they are so. Would we not all deny such a charge against us? How does one even become a ‘racist’?
The Free Online Dictionary defines racism as “1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others. 2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.” Therefore, to be a racist, one would have to believe that other races are inferior in character and ability to your race. Did these men imply an inferiority of Black people to Whites?
Another word “prejudice”, is defined as “1. a. An adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts. b. A preconceived preference or idea. 2. The act or state of holding unreasonable preconceived judgments or convictions.”
Both definitions involve believes, perceptions, judgments, and opinions. Therefore, it can be safely assumed that neither Mr. Sterling, nor Mr. Bundy were born prejudiced as the newborn and very young children have not developed them. Instead, research has shown that children begin to form attitudes about different societal groups as early as ages three or four.
Perhaps Mr. Bundy’s father wondered aloud whether ending slavery was a bad idea and that “negroes” were better off in it, is where Cliven Bundy got the same idea. As well, if Mr. Bundy’s children and grandchildren heard him voice those same thoughts through the years, do they now believe the same? It is also possible Mr. Bundy observed his mother always showing kindness and compassion to the ‘negroes’ whereby he learned to do the same.
Mr. Sterling, in an alleged audiotape, mentioned the ‘culture’ of Blacks as being the thing from which his girlfriend needed to distance herself. He allegedly states that he has nothing against minorities, just their culture. What was Mr. Sterling exposed to that led him to believe that “Black culture” was undesirable? Perhaps he heard of or even witnessed undesirable behaviors among Black people. In his mind, did this inaccurate perception become attached to all Blacks? Yet, ironically, somewhere along the line Mr. Sterling recognized that excellent basketball players come from the same culture he finds so despicable?
As children grow, these adverse judgments become mentally cemented as truth and therefore become harder to change (assuming change is pursued). We are all prejudiced! Prejudice is learned thinking. Racism is prejudice in action, both by word and behavior. We judge the Cliven Bundy’s and Donald Sterling’s because of the actions they take. In this instance, their words exposed their prejudices. Society will seek to punish them. After all, it is how societal behavior is shaped — reward ‘good’ behavior, punish ‘bad’ behavior.
Unfortunately, most of us have little moral right to punish anyone. Because we think our own perceptions are right, they become a “matter of pride” to us. We are often offended when someone calls us on them. Working through prejudices we hold against whole groups involves acknowledging it, identifying where it comes from (real or unreal), and determining to rid ourselves of that which causes us to judge based on skin color rather than character.
Both Bundy and Sterling did the unacceptable; they spoke from the prejudice within their hearts towards a group of people. Is prejudice OK as long as we do not speak or act on it? A scripture from the Bible says it clearly, “Lu 6:45 A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.” Perhaps the real issue here is that we all need to rid our own hearts of our unfounded prejudices, as well as the hypocrisy that would declare we have none. Physician, heal thyself – untreated prejudice will fester and spread into the full-blown disease of racism.