The terrible violence in Charlottesville, Va. has hopefully resulted in at least one positive thing – an increased the awareness to a resurging level of bigotry in this country. At the time of this writing, White House staffers are running around trying to make excuses for why the president hasn’t loudly denounced the white supremacist hate groups whose protests of a Confederate statue led to injury and death.
Trump’s hateful tones during the campaign increased the voice of these monsters and allowed them to gain a new foothold on the public stage. He’s not about to go on live television and denounce them now, he has a re-election campaign to consider.
How such hateful, bigoted sentiments have taken such a foothold in the 21st Century is truly baffling. I think part of it is that most people have no idea what bigotry really is and how destructive it can be when allowed to go untreated, like a plague.
The starting point of bigotry isn’t hatred, it’s fear – that most powerful of emotions that forces us to fight or fly. The fear comes from ignorance and the feeling that someone will hurt us, steal from us, take our jobs and money, whatever. Bigotry is when fear comes with no substantial basis.
I can’t begin to count the number of people I have known who are either majorly prejudiced or outright bigoted (and yes, there is a difference) towards another race or ethnicity with no real basis for their hatred. The best example is the number of white people I’ve known in my life who are bigoted towards African Americans.
The irony is, none of them had ever been injured in any way by a black person. In fact, some of them had rarely even experienced any long-term interactions with anyone of another race.
And I should clarify my wording here and the explanation, at least in my mind, of the difference between prejudice and bigotry. A person can be prejudiced without being a bigot, but it doesn’t work the other way around.
We all have prejudices towards various groups or individuals, it’s a natural response to things we don’t understand and usually doesn’t cause any problems. Personal bias advances to a more directed prejudice over time and with more concentrated, negative experience. When prejudice exceeds the level of an ignorant dislike and becomes hateful, outward abuse, then we’ve moved into bigotry territory.
An over-inflated sense of patriotism is also a prevailing problem that tends to fuel bigoted tendencies. I don’t know if the modern American Nazi (call them what they are) understands this or not, except for Native Americans, all U.S. citizens originally descended from somewhere else. For that matter, even the ancient Native Americans migrated here from elsewhere. We are all immigrants at some point in our family history.
And that brings us to the other factor in bigotry, ignorance. When people refuse to learn about other cultures and races, it creates a level of ignorance that helps to spread bigotry.
Ignorance is a tough thing to overcome because it’s not as simple as giving everyone a class on diversity and tolerance. Ignorance can only be mitigated with time, education, long-term exposure and positive reinforcement.
Finally, there is the issue of getting people to speak out against the hateful behavior, from both sides of the debate. In my experience, there is just as much hate and bigotry on each side – white, black, Hispanic, Muslim whatever.
Most people keep silent rather than stand up to all of this and, especially after what happened in Virginia, it’s easy to understand why. When people are willing to hurt or kill people for their cause it’s tough to get regular folks to rise up against them – until they’re threatened personally somehow.
Some people will always hate and there’s nothing we can do about that. But each of us, in our day-to-day lives, can affect the life of one person at a time if we stand up to this kind of behavior when we see it. Our president certainly isn’t going to make any effort to stop this insanity, so if we don’t, who will?