The Roots of Prejudice

PREJUDICE may have a number of causes. Nevertheless, two well-documented factors are (1) the desire to look for a scapegoat and (2) resentment caused by a history of injustice.

As noted in the preceding article, when a disaster occurs, people often search for someone to blame. When prominent people repeat an accusation against a minority group often enough, it becomes accepted and a prejudice is born. To cite a common example, during economic downturns in Western lands, immigrant workers are frequently blamed for unemployment​—even though they often take jobs that most local people refuse to do.

But not all prejudice stems from the search for a scapegoat. It may also be grounded in history. “It is not too much to say that the slave trade built the intellectual edifice of racism and cultural contempt for black people,” notes the report UNESCO Against Racism. Slave traders tried to justify their disgraceful trafficking of human beings by claiming that Africans were inferior. This unfounded prejudice, which was later extended to include other colonized peoples, still lingers.

All over the world, similar histories of oppression and injustice keep prejudice alive. Animosity between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland goes back to the 16th century, when England’s rulers persecuted and exiled Catholics. The atrocities perpetrated by so-called Christians during the Crusades still arouse strong feelings among Muslims in the Middle East. Serbian and Croatian hostility in the Balkans was aggravated by massacres of civilians during the second world war. As these examples show, a history of enmity between two groups can reinforce prejudice.

The Cultivation of Ignorance

The heart of a toddler does not harbor prejudice. On the contrary, researchers note that a child will often readily play with a child of a different race. By the age of 10 or 11, however, he may reject people of another tribe, race, or religion. During his formative years, he acquires a collection of viewpoints that may last a lifetime.

How are these lessons learned? A child picks up negative attitudes​—both spoken and unspoken—​first from his parents and then from his friends or teachers. Later the neighbors, newspaper, radio, or television might further influence him. Although he likely knows little or nothing about the groups he dislikes, by the time he becomes an adult, he has concluded that they are inferior and untrustworthy. He may even hate them.

With increased travel and commerce, contact between different cultures and ethnic groups has grown in many countries. Nevertheless, the  person who has developed a strong prejudice usually clings to his preconceived notions. He may insist on stereotyping thousands or even millions of people, assuming that they all share certain bad qualities. Any negative experience, even if it involves just one person from that group, serves to reinforce his prejudice. Positive experiences, on the other hand, are usually disregarded as exceptions to the rule.

Breaking Free

Although most people condemn prejudice in principle, few escape its clutches. In fact, many who are deeply prejudiced would insist that they are not. Others say it does not matter, especially if people keep their prejudices to themselves. Yet, prejudice does matter because it hurts people and divides them. If prejudice is the child of ignorance, hatred is frequently its grandchild. Author Charles Caleb Colton (1780?-1832) pointed out: “We hate some persons because we do not know them; and we will not know them because we hate them.” Nevertheless, if prejudice can be learned, it can also be unlearned. How?

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Religion​—A Force for Tolerance or Prejudice?

In his book The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon W. Allport states that “on the average, Church members seem to be more prejudiced than nonmembers.” This is not surprising, for religion has often been the cause of prejudice rather than its remedy. For example, clerics incited anti-Semitism for centuries. According to A History of Christianity, Hitler once remarked: “As for the Jews, I am just carrying on with the same policy which the Catholic church had adopted for 1500 years.”

During the atrocities in the Balkans, Orthodox and Catholic teachings seemed incapable of producing tolerance and respect toward neighbors who professed another religion.

Likewise, in Rwanda, church members slaughtered fellow believers. The National Catholic Reporter pointed out that the fighting there involved “a real and true genocide for which, unfortunately, even Catholics are responsible.”

The Catholic Church itself has recognized its record of intolerance. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II asked forgiveness for “deviations of the past” at a public Mass in Rome. During the ceremony, “religious intolerance and injustice towards Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, the poor and the unborn” were specifically mentioned.

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Top: Refugee camp, Bosnia and Herzegovina, October 20, 1995

Two Bosnian Serb refugees waiting for the end of the civil war

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Photo by Scott Peterson/Liaison

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Taught to hate

A child can pick up negative attitudes from his parents, television, and elsewhere