FAITH IN ACTION
By Katherine Marshall
Newsweek has some edgy covers these days. How about, “The Case for Killing Granny”? Sure catches the eye. But “Is your Baby Racist?” on September 14, with an adorable little face staring innocently out, is equally disturbing.
The cover story, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, outlines fascinating research about the nature and origins of racist attitudes. It came smack in the midst of the furor about whether today’s nasty political “discourse” has racist roots or undercurrents. The research underscores that the desire to be part of an in-group is very strong, and this is evident even in very young children.
Children seem innately to latch onto differences to create divisions: whether it’s red shirts versus blue (as in one experiment), skin color, or other visible differences. They tend to associate the positive characteristics they see in themselves – niceness, smarts, etc. – with “their” group, and they conclude that those who look different are also different in those ways. And, the article emphasizes, talking about topics like race in fuzzy terms (as most parents do) leaves a fuzzy impression. One woman told her five-year-old repeatedly, “Remember, everybody’s equal.” After seven months of such exhortations, the boy asked, “Mommy, what’s ‘equal’ mean?”
Some similar issues emerge from Adam Gopnik’s reflections (in the New Yorker) on the Dreyfus affair that rocked France at the turn of the twentieth century. Why does prejudice run so deep? What makes decent people act in ways that stray so far from their values? Are these biases a vestige of primitive urges or more tied to modernity? Religious prejudice, ethnic bias, nationalism, and reactions to immigrants are all part of the mix.
The Dreyfus affair involved an upright soldier, a family man with a long upstanding record, Jewish, from a formerly German part of France (Alsace), falsely convicted of treason. The case stirred up ferocious debate in France that left indelible marks to this day. It’s an immensely complicated story that ended happily for Alfred Dreyfus, who was eventually exonerated and lived to a ripe old age. But, as Gopnik concludes, there’s far more to it than one man’s tale. “The urge to protect the nation from its enemies by going around the corner to get them is natural, but what you get is usually not the enemies, and, going around the corner, you bump into something worse.”
Gopnik’s rich analysis (a review of several books about the affair) weaves together these complex dimensions of the Dreyfus affair. It had threads of ancient anti-Semitism but also its more modern dimensions, brought into the open with the growing pains of the era’s changing, more plural societies. Some linked Judaism to the nineteenth century artistic and cultural revolutions that seemed to threaten traditional life. Religion was involved, especially as debates turned on its role in national identity. Many Frenchmen explained France’s humiliating loss of the 1870 war (against Germany) as the result of the nation’s turning away from Christianity and France’s “true” character and values. Immigration played a role, again presenting the question: who was truly French? France’s self-conscious laïcité – roughly equivalent to secularism – owes much to the turmoil around the Dreyfus affair and the roles the Catholic Church then played in fanning the flames of prejudice. In 1905, France’s famous separation of church and state was enacted into law. That law is central to the debates in France today about Muslim women’s right to wear the headscarf and almost any other issue where church and state come into contact.
So the forces at work were at the same time primitive, like the racist urges of a small child accentuated by fear, and highly complex, part of the upheavals of modernization and changing political processes. At one level, writes Gopnik, the Dreyfus affair “showed that a huge number of Europeans, in a time largely smiling and prosperous, liked engaging in raw, animal religious hatred, and only felt fully alive when they did. Hatred and bigotry were not a vestige of the superstitious past but a living fire–just what comes, and burns, naturally.” But in the end, the harsh images of racism and religious prejudice, forced into the intellectual and political discourse, changed France, for the better. It’s significant that France’s governments have seen more Jews in prominent roles than virtually any other.
The political story has another, complex twist. The happy ending–Dreyfus’ exoneration–was the painful product of intense political debate and it seemed to mark the defeat of reactionary tendencies. But, Gopnik observes, “in any modernized country, the backward-looking party will always tend toward resentment and grievance. The key is to keep the conservatives feeling that they are an alternative party of modernity. .. When the conservative party comes to see itself as unfairly marginalized, it becomes a party of pure reaction.” In France, the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair laid the seeds for Vichy.
One rabbi observed bitterly to me during a visit to the concentration camp of Birkenau that people in that region had imbibed anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk. He meant that there was a pervasive culture that fostered racism and religious prejudice. But stereotyping does indeed, as Bronson and Merryman observe, start very young. It’s a complex blend of ancient and primitive urges, and the plural and dynamic nature of modern society, where identity is multi-layered and shifting. That makes for an explosive mix, and we are seeing it today in the United States. If there’s any single lesson from the past and from the research, it’s that nowhere is thoughtful and civil discourse more needed. That’s because racist attitudes are far from inevitable, and addressing the topic of difference squarely and honestly can bring change.
NOTE TO READERS: I altered the final paragraph of this post in response to a reader’s comment, Jan Niechwiadowicz, Moderator, Polish Media Issues, by deleting the word Polish. The Birkenau camp is located in what it today Poland, but use of Polish could be misconstrued. Birkenau was of course a Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.
By Katherine Marshall |
October 1, 2009; 1:40 PM ET
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