The people we-the-people stomp on

May 13, 2006 | By | 4 Replies More

Consider the following people:

  • George is a circuit court judge in a large city. He is well-respected by his peers and highly involved in the community.
  • Karen is an attorney who works as a criminal prosecutor.  She is also involved in on the boards of several charitable organizations.
  • Joan is a married mother of three beautiful children. She has a successful career selling real estate.
  • Jeff is a pediatrician who works at a major hospital. He makes regular appearances on TV and radio, speaking out to advocate for increased awareness regarding children’s health issues such as lead paint, child obesity and the need for immunizations.
  • Keith is a highly successful musician and the father of a young daughter.
  • Sandra coordinates a government program that evaluates child development throughout a major metropolitan area.
  • Sharon, married to a medical student, works as an assistant at a large law firm.
  • Lori is a court reporter.  Last year she married a career Air Force officer.

Do you have images of these people? I do, because I know them. They are friends of mine (I changed their names).

I would bet, though, that there are many people whose images of these accomplished people would change instantly if I told them a few more facts: Three of these people are African-Americans. Two are recent immigrants and the remaining three are gay. I know that learning these details might be difficult for those who would rather not associate with different-seeming others.  After all, getting to actually know these people would make it difficult to make sweeping generalities about them. 

And sweeping generalities must continue to be made, even in 2006.  How do I know?  Every few months, someone who doesn’t know me well enough assumes that I hold bigoted attitudes against anyone other than Caucasian heterosexual citizens. I am regularly told about “those gays” and “those black people,” as though we should (or could) meaningfully categorize people in such ways.

The derogatory comments I hear are not just whispered in the far corners of rooms. I force myself to listen to AM radio to hear the latest and greatest rants (I’d recommend this, on occasions, for anyone who wants to have a well rounded idea of what drives people’s thoughts).  In the course of listening to AM radio I hear many talk show hosts blasting immigrants, gays and Blacks, painting them with unfair, derogatory and often shocking generalizations. The airwaves are currently bristling against anyone who happense to be an immigrant, even if a legal immigrant.

I am not easily shocked, but I was truly shocked when I recently heard unabashedly bigoted comments spewing out of the mouth of radio host Michael Savage a few weeks ago. According to Savage’s web site, he has ten million listeners. Apparently, this sort of hate mongering is acceptable to many radio license holders.  Anything for a buck, right?

In my (limited) experience, the people who have the most ignorant and hateful attitudes against gays and blacks are the people who never have regular contact with gays and blacks. I’ve regularly spoken to people who lash out at gays, for example. When I hear this, I sometimes ask whether the speaker has any friends who are gays.  I’ve never yet heard an affirmative answer.  When I ask a racial bigot whether he or she knows any African-Americans, they invariably say something like “Sure, there’s a guy named Freddy in the mail room at work.”

It recently occurred to me that my own attitudes toward gays changed in the 1980s when I actually started getting to know gays as friends and acquaintances. Before I knew gays, I felt awkward and nervous about gays. It’s been many years since I’ve had that feeling. Looking back at my own experience, I can understand how someone who has no personal relationships with gays, minorities or recent immigrants might feel uncomfortable around them. Being uncomfortable makes it a lot easier to maintain distance from others that seem to be different.  Maintaining distance makes it a lot easier to support legislation that deprives such folks of basic dignity and civil rights.

It frustrates me that those who are most in need of getting to know minorities work the hardest to sequester themselves out into the suburbs to minimize such exposure.  I don’t pretend to know how to solve this issue. I wish I did though. It’s all exceedingly ugly.  

Here’s a impractical thought experiment: how about a national labeling law? Let’s pass a law that requires anyone who makes a derogatory statement about a gay person, a black person or an immigrant on the public airwaves to immediately follow that derogatory statement with an additional statement, something similar to the following:

“I have___________gay/black/immigrant friends.”

For the worst offenders, I suspect the answer would be a small number, often zero. 

Again, this is a labeling law.  Just like we need to know how much trans fat is in a potato chip, we should be entitled to know the foundation (or lack thereof) for the insensitive and bigoted statements that we continue to hear on public airwaves in 2006.

The speaker’s failure to associate with the kinds of people he (or she) attacks can be used by listeners to size up the credibility of the speaker. If speakers claim to actually have friends whose status they are vigorously slamming, let those friends step forward to defend the attacker

If speakers admit that they don’t actually associate with the types of people they are attacking, then we will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that such stations and hosts have actually labeled themselves for what they truly are: bigots.

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Category: Culture

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    I know you probably don't mean this suggestion seriously, but I'll address it as if you do.

    The suggestion that we should have a law restricting and controlling a person's conversational speech scares me to death. Not only does it censor to an absurd degree, it also requires that a person make a statement. What would happen if someone violated this statement? A fine? How would the government enforce this? If we can have cameras to watch the traffic lights, can we have microphones on the street to listen in on our ignorant comments? You get the picture. I know you probably just meant this labelling system as a joke, but I still find the suggestion in itself something worthy of addressing.

    Now as for the suggestion in specific. Such a labelling system would achieve nothing, so I see no reason to violate the rights of people without gain. I think most of us recognize someone who blatantly generalizes gays/blacks/whatevers as "bigots". A labelling system would just make a real life observation more obvious. But how would this change things?

    Like you said, nothing changes a person's opinion of minorities quite like getting to know a person within that minority. So…how does saying you know no black people make you hate blacks less? Do you think people will seek out black/gay/whatever friends just because of this? If they hate black/gay/whatevers, they sure as hell won't. Most bigots don't CARE that they have no experiential knowledge of minorities; they think they know them all just by knowing the stereotypes.

    Finally, a defense of the bigots: should we bar a person from expressing ignorance? As much as I detest their limited views, I fully support the right of anyone to say any thing, no matter how terrible, stupid, or provocative. I don't like to hear it, but I support their right to express idiocity for two reasons:

    1. I value my right to expression

    2. Expressing an opinion opens it up for discussion and debate.

    I've heard blacks say they miss the days of out-and-out racism, because they knew how to take it. Now, they experience a great deal of covert racism that they can't call out as such. I think we should allow and tolerate the expression of bigotry, so that we can recognize and engage bigots in discussion. We won't shift many minds, but we will achieve more than if we try to censor bigorty.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Ericka:

    Yes, this was only a thought experiment, invented out of frustration. I don't have any interest in controlling speech, certainly not in this manner. I'm just still aghast at two things: 1) The virulent bigotry that I recently heard on Savage's show–it was truly shocking. 2) my personal experiences with people who sequester themselves from different others yet (as a result of doing this) make it possible if not likely that they will maintain those stereotypes.

    I live in St. Louis, MO, a very segregated city. In many parts of the metropolitan area, people of different ethnicities and colors rarely eat together, shop together, worship together or go to school together.

    My frustration is that I don't see anything changing is this regard and my fear is that this will lead to more senseless social tensions based on demographics.

  3. Jake says:

    I live in central London, UK. reading what Erich says is really quite shocking to me – it reminds me of a book i had to read when i was at school: "To kill a mockingbird".

    Erika seems to take a rather extreme view in saying that people should be just allowed to say whatever they want in the same of the right to free speech and thought. surely this right must be balanced against the right of a person to live their day to day life and not feel threatened and antagonised by bigotted people expressing their racist views.

    i am not saying that bigotry should not be allowed any voice AT ALL within society, i think it should. i am just saying that, given that there are other, competing interests at stake, there must be some balance struck.

    i also dont agree with Erika that "such a labelling system would atchieve nothing". there is a two way relationship between laws and social values: both have an influence in determining what the other will be at any given point in time for a society. obviously, along with law, politcal and economic factors also feed into determining the characteristics of a socities culture.

    some examples.

    employment laws could be tightened to stop discrimination in the workplace. it could become a criminal offence to make racist remarks (although the nature of these remarks will be balanced to protect free speech, see above). the educational system could be more meritocratic all the way through, rather than being based on whether you are rich enough to pay for it. it should be illegal to have allow any public space to be segregated on the basis of race, creed etc.

    after that it is merely a process of habituation: people will need to get used to these new laws and policies which may seeming draconian at first. the result will be that gays can walk down the street holding hands, your bank manager could be black, and your priest a woman… and noone would raise an eyebrow!!!!

    once these measures are fully implemented and the bigots see the structure of their society changing around them, i dont think Erika would be right to suggest that bigots simply dont care that they dont know any different to themselves. once the bigots discover that it is them rather than the minorities that their own society can't tolerate, many (but not all) will change their view.

    therefore, i hope i am not being naively optimistic by suggesting that change necessary to remove these deep rooted cultural values/stereotypes is as hopeless as Erich seems to suggest.

  4. Michelle says:

    I believe these deep rooted steroetypes can be changed with education, emersion in different cultures, and exposure to diversity in school age children. My 26 year old son had one day a week in 2nd grade where there class was merged with a classroom of disabled children. I believe this helped him understand people who come into his life that are different, and he has learned many lessons from this forum. I bleieve it is the trickle down theory, the parents teach their children tolerance or intolerance.

    Michelle

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