The unfortunate truth is that bigotry has been with us from the start. No question that it was not a new concept, developed in this country exclusively. No, bigotry and prejudice against the “other” has been with us from time immemorial it seems. Some sense of “other” was undoubtedly the cause of the first sinful act committed by human against human.
However, a good deal of this type of bigotry was not permanent. It related more to time and place and circumstance. Slavery was traditionally, not a product of a particular genetic condition, but more likely the product of who won the war. Losers became slaves to their captors, but ransom and amelioration were always options.
Bigotry in this country has followed some of the same perameters. Some of it is driven by economics, manifest destiny issues and war. But in some cases, there has been and remained a pervasive undercurrent of deeply imbedded hatred of some groups, that nothing ever seems to change. It is masked for a time occasionally, but it only awaits again the right circumstances to return in open ugliness.
At the beginning of our colonial period, new European settlers found a mixed reaction from Native Americans. Some were friendly and helpful to the sadly inept newcomers. Others were war like, sensing no doubt that life was never going to be the same should these trespassers gain a foothold on the land. But they did gain the upper hand, and from nearly the start, referred to Native Peoples as heathens, savages and worse.
Little by little, American Indian populations were either exterminated or gave way, gave way until the Pacific was literally at their backs. Manifest Destiny, the right of the powerful to acquire what they needed for economic prosperity, painted all the tribes as vermin and in most cases authorized their extermination or willingly saw that happen with barely a lifted finger of compassion. Oh, there were those who objected, but they were few and their voices were drowned out.
It is so much easier to steal from people when you have defined them as unworthy of being called fully human. Of course this was expanded when we began importing human beings to work the fields of the south and serve the meals and clean the houses of the rich and not so rich. Native Americans and African Americans were subjected to the double wammy of being sub-human in portrayal and either being essential to an economy or in the way of its expansion.
As the years went by, similar things happened to immigrants in this country. Irish, Italians, Jews, all faced violent and ugly discrimination while they were worked to death, paid little and housed in the poorest most wretched sections of our major cities. They too were decried as being heathens to one degree or another. The filthy epithet of “Catholic” was often slung. America was after all, a Christian nation, just not a Catholic one. Catholics were accused of popery and baby killing in sadistic ritual. “Other” was alive and well in the 18th and 19th century in America.
It has not been just ethnicity that has fueled the fires of hatred in this country. The poor have also suffered. The rich and middle class have always looked down upon the poor as somehow people who have not the same human desires as themselves. They are dirty bums, lazy scoundrels, welfare mothers, and trailer trash. Read The Grapes of Wrath to find out what average Californians thought of the the poor from the Midwest, displaced by economic ruin.
Immigrants have been sneaking into the US for years. They picked your crops and worked the fields. Nobody much paid any attention. Nobody cared much that landowners housed them in tiny trailers, paid them virtually nothing, gave them not a modicum of health care. Not until Caesar Chavez did things change at all.
Nobody seemed to care at all when Japanese were interred in America during WWII. Nobody cared that thousands were taken from their homes, some of which they had had for several generations. American citizens herded into camps and held against their will. We used the excuse of war of course. But was this accurate?
One need only look back to the building of the transcontinental rail system in this country to know otherwise. Asians were “Chinks” simple fodder to be used by the robber barons. It’s so much easier as I said, to conclude that those you are treating sub-humanly are actually sub human in reality. It leaves a better taste in one’s mouth and allows a better nights sleep.
Additionally, you can look at the history of WWII and discover that Asians or rather the “Japs” were portrayed in quite a different way than were the Nazis. Japanese fighters were caricatured as people with excessively large and slanted eyes and big buck teeth. Germans were not caricatured by and large. They were human even though lead by a madman.
After the Civil Rights movements of the 60’s things did improve for black folk. Over time, race regressed in the human psyche to a degree. But of course, it never really left. It remained underground. It was not politically correct any more to make sly racist jokes. People learned. It became illegal and punishable to attack someone by race alone. It was called a hate crime. All but the most hardened of heartless racists learned to be careful how they spoke, regardless of their internal beliefs.
But there is a psychological component to this issue, one that is not addressed. A number of things have happened in the recent decade to promote a return to bigotry in all it’s broad ugly manifestations. And the victims are varied. We have in effect a perfect storm.
Terrorism, and economic misery have combined to give us the perfect excuse for resurrecting “other” in our language. Who are the recipients of this? Muslims, and thus all Arabs, immigrants and thus all of Latino heritage, and of course, anything is always a good excuse to resurrect our suspicions of blacks. Throw gays in for good measure, and we are back in business.
Terrorism allows us to hate with openness all those who are Arab. A-rabs as some call them. No matter that Iranians are Persians. They are all sand monkeys right? No matter than they have lived here un-noticed for generations and are citizens. Rag heads must go. Statistics that show conclusively that radical Islam is a tiny whisper of a minority in the Arab world are simply to be ignored. It’s more fun to hate you know.
The same is true for Latinos. No matter that some are from Guatemala, some from Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil, Peru. They are all the same. Right? Dangerous? No, not terrorist dangerous, though that is the reason given for the racism expressed. It’s really economic, it’s that economic psychological reason. I’m doing badly and I don’t want to be thought of as at the bottom of the ladder, so I’m putting you there you lousy Mexican. And you’re stealing my job, even though I wouldn’t pick crops if my life depended upon it. Forget of course that in the case of Mexicans much of Southwest USA was MEXICO at one time, before we stole it. Forget that, for God’s sake, don’t mention that.
You see we have arrived at the Perfect Storm. Plenty of allowable bigotry to go around. So we can have a sizable percentage of people in the good old US of A who claim they think Senator Obama is a Muslim. Of course they don’t really believe that stupidity. Not unless after they first heard it they have retired to a cave and haven’t seen the TV or read a newspaper. No, they don’t believe it for a minute, but they sure find it useful to mouth. Since it’s pretty much okay to hate Muslims, why not mask a little old fashioned black racism behind a legitimate fear the dude might be a secret terrorist sympathizer?
And while we are at it, what better time to make a huge issue out of homosexuality again? It’s been a while hasn’t it? It’s time to put on the screw thumbs once again. They are attacking marriage–by getting married! Yes, I can feel them breathing down my neck. Let’s call it sinful! Let’s say we love them but hate their sinfulness, because by God, that is acceptable. Never mind that hating the sin takes the form of publicly humiliating every gay person who comes along by tapping them on the shoulder and asking, “You are aware that your behavior is an abomination in the sight of God, aren’t you?” Yes, that is Christian charity.
Oh boy, have we ever resurrected bigotry! We’ve made it central in campaigns again! We can all breathe easier. We are not the bottom of the heap because we can’t cut it in America. We don’t work our fool heads off and achieve status as factory workers and Walmart greeters and have to stomach that some black dude is running for President. We can hate again. It’s not my fault, It’s them. It’s them.
All the while the rich white folks on the hill laugh, count their money, and shake their heads in disbelief. “It’s so easy to turn them against each other isn’t it? They never bother to look up at us at all. No sirree. Are we going to Palm Beach next weekend dear? Remember we’re meeting the Franklins in Zurich in August for the wedding. Make sure our pilot has the jet ready.”
Is any of this sinking in yet?