Bohanon on Prejudice: ‘Nor Can I Have Any Other Way’

December 8, 2014

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

In the summer of 1967, when I was about to enter the seventh grade, I watched television news reports of the Detroit riots on my grandmother’s black-and-white Philco. An elderly black woman cried on camera because she had been burned out of her apartment. My grandmother thought it was all “very ugly.” She also commented that black people had been “treated terribly.” I hoped that this would all be behind us by now. It isn’t.

I think Adam Smith gives an insight into the problem in his 1759 treaties, Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he says:

“…I judge of your sight by my sight, of your ear by my ear, of your reason by my reason, of your resentment by my resentment, of your love by my love. I neither have, nor can have, any other way of judging about them.” (TMS I:I:iii:10 emphasis added)

When we interact with other persons we don’t really experience their feelings. The best we can do is approximate their feelings by referring to experiences of our own that made us feel the same way. However, there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip; even with those of intimate acquaintance, we often misapprehend, misunderstand and misconstrue the other person’s feelings and intentions, and this often leads to unfortunate consequences.

So what are the odds of making a mistake when judging someone we do not know, or someone from a different background or culture?

Perhaps it is over-philosophizing to say we all bring our prejudices to the game. However, let’s go a step further: Try our best, we cannot help it, prejudice is part of human nature — and it’s not just racial prejudice. Prejudices are pervasive, permanent and reflect numerous divisions: police/policed, rich/poor, old/young, more educated/ less educated, fraternity/non-fraternity, East Coast/West Coast/ Midwest, worker/manager, male/female, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, single/married and many, many more.

A great purpose of education is to open the mind to “the sights, the sounds, the reasonings, the resentments and the loves” of others. Of course, our educational institutions should (and I believe do) pursue this opening of the mind. Nevertheless, the bromidic call for “more education” is unlikely to address our problem. Businesses, governments, educational institutions and religious organizations already invest plenty of resources in diversity training and awareness.

I think the first step is a frank recognition of our limited and feeble condition. It is utopian to think every bad prejudice can be overcome. A better question is, how do we limit the damage?

The tragic case of Eric Garner is instructive. Was he put in a “chokehold” and pinned to the ground because the officers had an untoward prejudice against blacks? I do not know, and I’m not sure how anyone could find out. Nor can I say that if the tax differential between New York City and North Carolina cigarettes had not been in place the tragedy would have been much less likely to occur. If police do harbor prejudice against minorities, eliminating laws against victimless crimes will reduce police encounters that might go bad.

Much has changed in the United States since 1967: The president of the United States is a black man (Barack Obama); the richest, most successful, most culturally influential entertainer is a black woman (Oprah Winfrey); and the youngest man to ever be head of a major division at Johns Hopkins hospital is a black man (Ben Carson).

None of this would be conceivable when I was in the seventh grade. I do not know how to measure the change, but I suspect there is less prejudice today than then. Of course we should continue the work of overcoming prejudice, but the perfection of our imagination is rarely attainable, and the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.

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