Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bigotry and the Measles

Left this to post while I was away. ~Bob

Bigotry and the Measles
By Ron Pittenger

Bigotry is a lot like the measles. Like measles, it is catching. You might say it’s an equal opportunity disease that respects no human-designated boundaries, affecting as it does people of all races, creeds, sexes, and politics. Most often, it is caught when we are young.

Bigotry is the fallacy of assuming people fall into groups, that the groups are easily classified, known, and manipulated. It assumes the people within each group are fungible, interchangeable, with individuality being of no particular concern. If you have eight $1 bills in your wallet, you don’t care—and it doesn’t really matter, does it—which one you spend on a $1 purchase. If people were like dollar bills, this would be the end of the essay.

Unlearning to be a bigot is difficult because most people catch the disease early, and what we take in as truth when young is very difficult to deny later. It requires us to think and make judgments of our own and to stop relying on the judgments made by our parents and elders.

Like most men of their times, one born in 1903 and the other in 1905, both my grandfathers were bigots. One said he disliked only blacks and Jews; the other was less discriminating, claiming he hated everyone outside our family, and wondering about some of us, too. Oddly, both men got along well with all the people they claimed not to like.

In the early 1950s, our church burned down. My father was a volunteer on the town’s ambulance squad, and went to most of the town’s fires in case someone was injured or burned. He came home and told us that before the fire was completely extinguished, the rabbi of the Jewish congregation half a block down the street from our church had already offered our minister the use of their hall until our building was rebuilt. So, for most of a year, we had our services in the synagogue. And I never heard another bad word about Jews from either grandfather.

The one who claimed to hate everybody was the person who soothed our worries and fears when a black family moved next door to us in 1955. The man of the house, Gramps said, had worked at his company for nearly 20 years and had been Grandpa’s lodge brother almost as long. “He wants the same things we want,” Gramps said, “and he works hard to get them, just like we do. He’s a good, honest man.” So, I grew up with black neighbors, Bill Sterling and his wife Aaron. I liked and respected them both.

Being young and stupid, sometimes I tried to ask Bill or Aaron questions like “What do your people want?” Usually, Bill’d just look at me like I was a total idiot and say he didn’t know. Aaron would just smile and ignore the question. One summer, when I was around 12 or 13, there were race riots in a town about 20 miles away. Again, I asked Bill what “his people” wanted. When he dodged, I pressed for an answer. I got one I haven’t forgotten.

“How should I know?” Bill said. “I guess I could say what I want, and maybe even make it stick with my wife, but we black folks are just as confused and contrary as you white folks. I can’t be a spokesman for anybody but me. And, then, I might change my mind, just like you do. So, ask me what I want and I’ll try to tell you.”

As my Gramps had said, Bill Sterling was an honest man and a good teacher. I learned my lesson very well. I have never since taken anybody’s word for it that they had the right to act as spokesman for another individual unless they had visible proof in the form of elected office, a successful business, practice, or congregation, and even then, I take it with a grain of salt. Like Bill said, folks do change their minds.

My first date was taking Bill’s niece, Betsy, to the 8th grade class dance. I didn’t view this as being in any way political. She was just Betsy, a nice girl who lived two streets over, and was really pretty. It wasn’t her skin color but her personality that mattered. Had she been disagreeable, I would have found a different date. In fact, Betsy’s neighbor was a year behind us in school. She was as nasty as Betsy was nice. The girl lacked many things, but chiefly self confidence and blamed it on “whitey” or his local representative—in other words, me. But, her brother, a year ahead of Betsy and me, was nice. How do you figure things like this out? You don’t. You learn not to try to predict the actions of other individuals until you know them. And this is exactly the problem with many of our government programs today.

Have you noticed how often government programs fail to improve the lot of the individuals the programs are supposed to help? By its very nature, governments cannot tailor programs to individuals. Even at the town or village level, governments have to operate on the basis of “the group,” not the individual. Higher governments must work with ever larger groups. Only by making the assumption that every member of the group is fungible can group-aimed government programs work as promised. Similarly, programs for groups can miss their goal by wide margins by failing to take into account the individuals who will be “helped.”

Companies and business organizations do a little better, but not much. They want to get their money’s worth out of the program, so they are more careful who they pick and how they structure the program. But, as the organization becomes larger, it falls into the same trap as governments, trying to satisfy the needs of an idealized group, and fails in the same ways for the same reasons.

In the United States of America, we count the votes one at a time, individual choice by individual choice. That’s who we are, a nation of individuals, not a nation of groups. I can promise you this: when you stand before the Judgment Seat and the Great Book is opened, you won’t be judged as part of a group. You will be saved or damned by your own actions, one person at a time. Just like it ought to be here. When our political parties realize this basic truth we will, each of us, be better off.


  1. I do not now of anyone who has more eloquently explained this issue.

    Bill Baumgardner

  2. Something the loudest false accusers of racism should bear in mind is, most the folks they're accusing pay their freight:
    Only so many times The Hand that feeds some can be bitten before the time comes when the back of it goes upside their head!

  3. I joined the Air Force in 1964. About 30 of us got on a plane in Boston and flew to Chicago where about 30 mostly black recruits got on. I had known a few black kids but not well. Basic was one of my greatest experiences and I learned a lot about people in general. We all got along. After about two months we took a bus to Biloxi Ms to begin tech school. About 70-80 GI's in two busses. We stopped at a gas station somewhere in upstate Mississippi that had three restrooms; one for women, one for men and one "for our black citizens". This was an eye opener for me from Boston and about 40 black guys from Chicago. The old South was still alive back then. Oddly, with over 20,000 GI's on base and a deep South city outside the main gate I never saw or heard of any problems related to race. Everyone I saw downtown was polite and vice versa. A few drunken incidents but other then that not much