One of the thorniest problems throughout American history has been that of prejudice and discrimination against minorities. Racism, the belief that certain racial groups are inferior to others and should therefore be treated as such, is, of course, not indigenous to the United States. Subjugation, slavery, and other methods of discrimination by race are as old as human history and have occurred in many different countries and cultures.2 But it is in the United States, where equality of opportunity and democracy have been eloquently preached but less often practiced, that racism has become more of a cause célèbre.
Put into effect after the Civil War as a compromise between Northern and Southern beliefs and interests, the doctrine of separate but equal facilities for whites and blacks was effective in maintaining a semblance of order and racial harmony for three generations. However, the illusion of "separate but equal" was shattered by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and ensuing federal legislation. These laws and other efforts were designed to promote peaceful integration between the races, but discrimination and de facto segregation persist in many walks of life. African-American workers are still concentrated in less desirable blue-collar jobs and receive the lowest incomes. They live in the poorest neighborhoods, have the lowest percentage of home ownership, the lowest level of education, poorer health and sanitation, but a higher arrest rate than average. The middle-class values of education, hard work, and thrift, which are essential for getting ahead if one is not a gifted athlete, a star entertainer, or an adept criminal, are subscribed to by many minority families and taught to their children. Nevertheless, a large proportion of African-American families, in particular, remain at or below the poverty level in the central cities where they reside, inviting invidious comparisons between their own material circumstances and those of the "typical" white family living in a posh suburban home or as featured in many television programs. The lawlessness encouraged by a materialistic society polarized by "haves" and "have-nots" and the breakdown of the family structure have led to frequent confrontations and occasional riots in which African-Americans are pitted against the white establishment and its enforcers—the police.
Government programs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC),3 Social Security, SSI, and food stamps, have helped provide a minimal standard of living for many minorities, but the effects of these and other federal "giveaways" on the motivation and self-esteem of their recipients
2Even more extreme than slavery is genocide, the systematic extermination of a particular racial or ethnic group.
3It is maintained by some political conservatives that AFDC creates a class of poor people who see generating babies as a way of generating income as well. However, there is no evidence that high AFDC benefits operate as an incentive for fertility.
have been increasingly questioned. The situation for minorities is, however, demonstrably better than it was prior to the 1960s. As seen in the atmosphere surrounding the 0. J. Simpson trials of 1996-1997, there are still differences in the ways in which blacks and whites view the world. For the most part, however, the two major ethnic groups appear to have established something of a modus vivendi — a mutual existence arrangement in which greater interracial tolerance is expressed in attitudes and behavior.
Education and employment, which are passports to greater influence and power in the wider society, have become less discriminatory but still have some distance to go. Racial stereotypes are less common, and interracial friendships, dating, and marriage have increased. Young adult members of minority groups of today certainly have more opportunities than they did prior to the civil rights era. At least, college-educated blacks no longer have to settle for jobs as porters on passenger trains, as they often did in the 1930s and 1940s.
Obviously, we have not reached a point in this society where we all love each other and can look upon all people as "brothers" and "sisters." But we seem to have adopted the recommendation made by Dr. Ralph Bunch some years ago: We are becoming more and more able to tolerate and even respect other races and ethnic groups on even terms. Better jobs, more political power, and greater material benefits should not only provide cohesion within but also less conflict between the races.
Equally encouraging is the fact that African-Americans have become less self-deprecating and are taking greater pride in their ethnicity. In the past, African-Americans have frequently viewed themselves as less competent, less responsible, and less valuable as human beings and citizens than whites (Ziajka, 1972). Furthermore, Mexican-American children born in the United States have stereotyped themselves as being more authoritarian, emotional, indifferent, lazy, proud, and less ambitious and scientific than those born in Mexico (Derbyshire, 1968). Such self-stereotypes need to change if people of all ethnic groups are to obtain some semblance of equality.
Despite cutbacks in federal programs targeted toward lower-income groups, efforts by both the public and private sectors to improve the living conditions of disadvantaged people will continue. Those who work with these groups will be more effective if they develop a greater awareness and understanding of the culture and traditions of the people whom they serve and learn the language or dialect in which they communicate. This is especially true when dealing with older adults who were not born in this country and are not proficient in the English language or knowledgeable about Anglo-American culture.
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