I am in the process of reading two class sections’ sets of exams for a course on ethics and society.  I realized in retrospect that the 3 questions to which I had asked the students to respond on the basis of the methods of analysis and ethical exploration that we had developed during the semester — on racism, immigration, and mental illness — each related to one or another form of embedded prejudice, i.e. prejudice that tends to take root even before one has reached school age, depending upon accidental experiences that one may have had, comments overheard, etc.

Children are little geniuses not only at learning language at an early age, but also at picking up the prejudices that infect their cultures.  I can remember instances of such learning myself — both in very early childhood and in the school yards that I attended thereafter before I left home to study both in this country and abroad.

I recall vividly the first time that I encountered an African American and the body language of my mother that somehow signaled to me that this person was somehow different than other people.  We were riding on a bus in Hartford, Connecticut, probably at the completion of a shopping trip when an older African American woman got on the bus — there were no seats left and I had been taught among other things that little boys stood up to let older women sit down.  So I popped up and offered the seat next to my mother to this good lady.  I don’t recall exactly what happened then, but I sensed immediately that my mother (not racist to my knowledge) was somehow discomforted by this happening.  Something was going on here?  I never asked my mother, but some sort of signal had been sent that African Americans were somehow ‘different’.

This sort of experience happened again sometime early in WW2 when we were waiting together in line to purchase some then rationed item of food when a lady pressed ahead of us.  Again I don’t remember words, but it came clear that this person was Jewish — possibly newly arrived in this country and another message had been sent.  Where we had moved in Farmington, an outer suburb of Hartford, only one Jewish family lived in a poor community, Oakland Gardens — the owner of a grocery/liquor store — he became the major entrepreneur there, buying up houses to rent out and such and his son went to Noah Wallace public school in Farmington — not welcomed into our separate ethnic/religious groupings there which were also divided along lines of prejudice.

Catholics (Irish and Italian) lived below the Main St. towards the Farmington River and socialized together as did Wasps who either lived up the hill from Main St. or in the country on farms or homes newly constructed, as was ours.  One Italian American, Peter T., was quite bright and joined with us WASPS — but I remember really offending him by casually suggesting that since his complexion was darker, he probably had some African roots?  Where I got that idea, I do not know.

Needless to say in the course of time these prejudices were rooted out — at least from my conscious awareness.  Some of our best friends went on to become most of our best friends and some of our relatives by marriage fit in all of the above domains and a few others as well.

Living closely with people was really the best way to eradicate the instinctive types of prejudices — particularly those most deeply embedded.  My wife and I lived for 3 years in a housing project on W. 125th St. in Harlem as grad students (as part of a program to desegregate it — we were the first non African or Latino).  Ours is an exogamous family (we marry out) and so we have developed close family ties to virtually any and all possible ethnic groups one encounters in America — apart from the newest arrivals from the Middle East.

And, of course, there are the other barriers — mental illness and the imprisonment of mentally disabled people in our jails was another exam question.  Children may be frightened off by the mumbling homeless person.  Many Americans are still horrendously prejudiced against people with such disabilities.

A number of my students have chosen to write their papers on gay rights.  And I am relieved to find that all of my students thus far are supporting the right of Latinos to migrate to the U.S. and live and work here — a favorite sister-in-law of mine is a Latina and I struggled late in life to learn Spanish so that I would not be cut off from my students by clumsy use of Spanish — their names at the very least.

A half century ago when I worked with African American teens as an intern in lower West Harlem, I had high hopes for helping them towards better futures.  All but 3 of my particular little gang of a dozen died violently decades ago.  Things are possibly almost as bad or worse now in our lingering NYC racial ghettos.  But things are progressing a bit and my students look to be open-minded at Brooklyn College.  I hope their generation is moving along a bit faster now that we have many more role models and examples than the drug dealers which my gang of kids had back then.

Here’s hoping for a better America — one truly open to any and all.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent  718-951-5324 (voice mail only) [blind copies]
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