Goldberg: Prejudice can be eliminated

Two weeks ago, Peter Katzenstein came to Geneseo to give a lecture that touched on anti-Americanism. During his lecture, he argued that anti-Americanism is based on intolerance and argued that "you can't change this prejudice with information."

His notion ignores social history and carries a defeatist connotation. We should look at prejudice as a challenge that can be overcome by collective intellectual and cultural effort.

If we adopt the mentality that prejudice can't be changed with information, then there's no point in trying to educate people about tolerance and difference. We can't afford that. Instead, there needs to be a conscious goal to teach people about different cultures and ways of thinking. Our education system has the prodigious power to teach future generations that one cannot make huge blanket statements out of a minute number of details.

The history of the United States is an account of constant construction and deconstruction of institutionalized prejudices. One of the most influential thinkers in early America was Thomas Jefferson, a man who expressly believed that blacks lacked the intellectual capacity of whites and that women were inherently less reasonable than men. These beliefs became institutionalized prejudices within the American education system. As people began to offer arguments to the contrary, however, the government and the education system began to respond.

The transformation of public schools in America from places where women could only learn "feminine" arts and "domestic sciences" and where African Americans were fully segregated, to an institution that places all students, regardless of gender or skin color, in the same classes to grapple with the same material is evidence of weakened prejudices in this country.

In addition, there is the fluidity of race. Contrary to the belief that race is an intrinsic characteristic of an individual, it is in fact a social construction. Due to our need to label and define things, we divide ourselves into groups we call "races," and from these races we draw prejudices out of ignorance.

If all you know of someone is their race, you will attach meaning to their persona based on that singular knowledge, thus your prejudice comes from an ignorance of information. Yet, these prejudices fade away as people learn more about and begin to accept each other.

See Prejudice on page 9

The integration of immigrants, who were first viewed as outsiders, into the social construct of "American" is the manifestation of this. As explained in "How the Irish Became White," by Noel Ignatiev, Irish immigrants began as a separate group, but as they melted into the white culture, they became part of that culture and the prejudices broke down. This is true of many eastern and southern Europeans.

This fluid nature of race, the integration of genders and people of different skin colors in schools, and the reversal of inherently prejudiced legislation is undeniable proof of the possibility of breaking down prejudice with information. Through education, we can reduce and eliminate prejudice, at least on a large scale if not everywhere. In terms of anti-Americanism, this means that it is in fact possible to decrease and eventually eliminate that prejudice by changing our conduct and rhetoric.

One must understand that education extends beyond the classroom. Therefore, we must also teach through our actions and principles that others' prejudices are wrong, even if it takes multiple generations.