Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Student Reacts to Sundown Towns

The James W. Loewen web site about sundown towns that we had to read for this class particularly sparked my interest.  I am not exactly sure why the subject intrigued me so much.  The fact that people were so racist still amazes me.  Another fact that stood out to me was how many sun down towns there were in this country, many of them in Illinois.  While preparing for this paper, I started thinking about the people in the sundown towns. One subject that came to mind was why people had so much hatred for people with different ethnic backgrounds, especially African Americans.

One of the more obvious reasons to me for why people where so full of hate for people of different races is fear.  There are many reasons why citizens might be scared. Some individuals tend to become afraid of situations and people who are not like them.  People of other backgrounds sometimes look or talk different, which might set off someone’s defensive side.   I realize that it is not a nice or good reason to be racist, but I do believe that this could be a reason why people in sundown towns are racist.

Another reason people in sundown towns might be hateful to minorities’ could be because they were taught to be that way.  If someone’s parents were racist towards a certain group of people, their children could pick that up like a bad habit, whether or not the parents wanted that child to pick it up or not.  Once the child has a prejudice in their head, it might be hard to change their thinking.  It could also become a vicious cycle, if the parents teach their children to be bigots, they might teach their children, and so on.  Parents need to keep in mind that they have a lot of influence on their children, especially younger children.  Some younger children look up to their parents, therefore they will mimic many actions of their parents.

The last reason that I came up with for the bigotry in sundown towns would be because of past experiences. Maybe some of the people in the town had a bad experience with a minority; therefore they assume that all of the people who are of that race are the same way.   For example, say that a person went to sell a car to an African-American.  The guy was supposed to pay a certain amount of payments of $175 per month.  They guy stopped paying on the car, now the guy who sold the car to him assumes all African Americans cannot be trusted. 

One can see that there are many theories to why people think negatively of people who are of different ethnic backgrounds.  This problem will more than likely not go away anytime soon.  Hopefully with some more help, we can achieve the goal of getting people who have a negative view of different minorities to think more positively of them.  That way they can live together in the same town in peace.  

The previous (black font face) was the student's reaction, and my comments follow in this blue font face.

Yes, fear is closely associated with aversion and negative stereotypes.  And I think you’re correct about some of those reasons for fear.  To some degree people are more comfortable with others around them who are “like them” and less comfortable around people who are “different” or so this seems to be a general trend. Of course, what markers people look for to detect whether a person is “alike” or “different” can change in different circumstances.  An European-American and an African-American in a place like India or China, where there are few persons with European or African heritage, might see each other’s phenotypes as indicating nationality similarity, and feel attracted to each other as fellow American expatriates, while the same two persons might not notice any similarities if they met each other in the United States under different circumstances.  You’re also correct about the idea that prejudices are learned.  We’re ready to learn them (disposed to divide ourselves into “in-groups” and “out-groups”), but how we build up prejudices is socially shaped.  So, for example, we could create societies where ethnic background was not a maker of similarity and difference, and instead some other indicator would represent whether a person belongs with us or is an “outsider.”  Political ideologies, scientific training, religious commitments, professional identities, and military camaraderie seem like powerful ways of using non-ethnic-based identities to define who is with us and who is different from us.  We could also divide the world into “moral people who can be trusted” and “scoundrels and knaves around whom one must be on one’s guard” without any stereotyped generalizations about whether there exist correlations between whether we belong in one of those two groups and our ethnic background. 

The thing that matters here is the salience of our ethnic and racial identities, and the way those racial and ethnic identities are used.  The trick is to use them to celebrate the fun or interesting differences and not use them to divide us. In order to do this, one needs a strong ideological commitment to ethnicity-transcending ideologies. The social work code of ethics, the American system of values (all of us born equal and having certain inalienable rights, etc.) seem promising to me, as do religious values of universalism combined with interfaith unity. 

You’re correct that the problems won’t go away soon, but it’s a relief to note that every time the general social survey research measures prejudice in our society the trends show it decreasing, and every cohort seems to be less infected with this disorder than previous cohorts and generations.  We are slowly unlearning racism, and social work has a role in encouraging and hastening this process.

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