Can We Unlearn Prejudice?

VTR: 11/17/1956
GUESTS: Cornelius Drew, Otto Klineberg, William E. Vickery

ANNOUNCER: “The Open Mind,” free to examine, to question to disagree. Our subject today: “Can We Unlearn Prejudice, Your host on “The Open Mind” is Richard D. Heffner, author and historian.

HEFFNER: Last week our subject on “The Open Mind” was “Segregation in our Own Back Yard.” Today we’re going to examine the question of whether we can unlearn prejudice. But before we go into our question today, I’d like to remind you that there is an area in our lives where prejudice and segregation play no part – tl’at’s the area of sickness, and I’m thinking in particular about the question of infantile paralysis. With the Salk vaccine many of us feel that polio has been licked, but l’d like to remind you that the Mother’s March on Polio, part of the New York March of Dimes, is concerned with those many thousands of people who have been afflicted by polio already. And I might ask you that if you are interested in helping The Mothers’ March on Polio, that you write to the March of Dimes, Box 666, New York, 1, or that you phone. MUrray Hill 3-7900. Segregation and discrimination play no part in this sickness, but I think we can all pitch in and help. Now, today we’re going to talk about “Can We Unlearn Prejudice?” And I might say that there have been quite a few responses to last week’s program on “Segregation in Our Own Back Yard”.

As a matter of fact, some of the questions, some of the comments that we’ve received have been, to a certain extent, critical and hostile. A number of people have said that we haven’t dealt with the most fundamental questions. Certainly one of the most fundamental auestions is that of: are we able to unlearn prejudice? Prejudice is probably not a good word, but it’s the available word now and I’d like to begin this discussion first by introducing you gentlemen to our audience. First, Father Cornelius Drew the Pastor of St. Charles Borromeo; then Professo: Otto Klineberg, Professor of Psychology at Columbia
University; and Dr. William E. Vickery, Educational Director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Gentlemen, the question before us is a big one. With the Supreme Court decision on segregation in our schools and with so much concern in the country at large about discrimination and prejudice as it relates to us here at home and the American creed and our position in the world, I’d like to begin by asking you. Father Drew, what you think about this question of whether we can unlearn prejudice.

FATHER DREW: Well, I’m sure we can. I’m sure we have. I think most of us can look back and recall some person we met casually, but we formed, would you say, a dislike, or there was something about the person – it could be something silly, and trifling, but we didn’t like the person and now that person is a close friend. We certainly overcame prejudice. I don’t see how we could get far in civilization if we hadn’t learned many prejudices.

KLINEBERG: It’s probably a good thing that we wouldn’t have progressed as a civilization if we hadn’t overcome prejudices against one thing or another. And of tours{ if we turn to this area of ethnic prejudices or racial or group prejudices – the kind in which we have a sort of general stereotype or picture about all or most members of another group, there the problem of unlearning may be a little different, don’t you think, Father, from unlearning prejudices against a single individual? But I would say that even in the broader problem that we’re discussing, mainly prejudices against a whole group, or nation, or race, that, even there, unlearning does take place. It doesn’t mean that its easy to unlearn prejudice, but certainly it is possible. And perhaps we might go into some of the ways which make it possible. I think maybe another way of looking at the problem is to say can we change? That is, can we change our knowledge about other group can we change our feelings towards other groups and other people?

HEFFNER: Well, you say “Can we change our knowledge about” and “our feelings towards.” Do you feel that if we change our knowledge about certain groups, that we’re going to change our feelings. Is this a matter of information and misinformation?

KLINEBERG: I’m afraid the research takes the other direction. We need learning along all these dimensions. We do have to substitute facts for stereotypas or fo.- mythology. Bue we have to learn too, to be sensitive to other people, to feel with them rather than just feel about them and this comes in mani different ways and learning has to be provided, it seems to me, to change feelings. And one more very important thing-I believe we have to learn the skills of dealing with people, how we show ourselves to be accepting, friendly.

HEFFNER: The question of human relations.

KLINEBERG: Yeah, but I’d like to say another word about this question of information, if I may. I think in the past probably, we went too far in putting all our faith in information and learning — if only people got the right information then everything else would follow as the night the day. Now, I think, maybe we’ve gone too far in the other direction. We have been made aware of the fact that the giving of information isn’t an automatic process nor the accepting of information an automatic process, that we choose from the information presented to us, we select, we sometimes distort. Remember the case of a series of radio programs called “Immigrants All, Americans All”, which described the contributions of various American minority groups to the overall American cultural civilization.

Well, a study made of that particular series showed that in general the members of a particular mir.ority listened to the program which described the contributions of their own group but they didntt listen to the story of the contributions of other groups. In other words, we handed out the information but whether people accept it or not is a very different problem. I would still say, though, that information does have some effect. It may not have quite the tremendous impact that was more or less implicit in the earlier programs, in this field, but I don’t think we should go to the other extreme of discounting its importance altogether.

FATHER DREW: I haven’t ever studied this scientifically, as our philosopher has, do you see, but I’ve been lucky enough to have been in parishes where there were -¬oh, many different groups. In East Harlem, for example we had thirty different nationalities in our school. And then in the Bronx, a mixed parish, where the whites have moved out, you see, at the coming of the folks from the south. Then — now Itm in Harlem and our efforts, as in a parish — to have folks come to church and worship, to join the various societies in the church, to send their children to the parochial school — have taught us definitely that when people have a chance, and I’d say under somewhat of a responsible aegis — and they do, because they’re in the same neighborhood, have about the same cultural, educational, economic background -they get along very well.

HEFFNER: You mean when they’re brought together?

FATHER. DREW: When whatever had brought them together — sometimes its because of folks moving in and others movi:’g out, but all haven’t moved away. But when they — and before that there was terrific tension — but when they are raturally brought together they would be, in a church society, let’s say –we have no difficulty. And they’ve often said it later “I’m so glad that I had a chance to meet these people.”

HEFFNER: Yes, but haver’t we been told that so much tension, as you yourself aid, comes when different groups are living, not wIth each other, but side by side in an area where trey are beginning to touch on each other, that’s when you have the tension. How can we accept the notion -tat contact is a good thing, or is a technique for unlearning prejudice?

FATHER DREW: See, when in the beginning, a new group comes — well, I’ve just been reading about my Irish forebears, you see, back in the 1840’s – and they were fleeing the famine, most of them — they hadn’t received very much education and they came to New York in thousands, We weren’t at all prepared to receive them. There were no apartment houses or tenements, so they built them some shacks up on East 12th Street-very primitive places-they didn’t want them in their labor market be¬cause there was a fear that they’d take over the jobs so they kept them from working and then they turn around and accuse them of being idlers, loafers, filling our jails, do you see, living like, you know, animals and all I can think of is, that’s the same thing that’s being said about the successive groups that come.
But when you see that they will gradually absorb into the community, look at what’s happened.

VICKERY: But oughtn’t this absorption to come a little easier? This is rough, this is rough on anybody who has to put up with prejudice, discrimination, lack of opportunities for jobs, lack of educational opportunities. What I’m trying to get at is wouldn’t it be possible that we could mobilize our institutions churches and synagogues, schools, the mass media of communication, to do an effective job to reduce prejudice, eliminate discrimination, so that people don’t have to go through this painful process.

HEFFNER: You mean you’re saying that the historical process is one thing, but it’s something that we can cut down.

FATHER DREW: Yeah. I hoped we would learn more from history than just that we can’t learn from history.

HEFFNER: All right, this is, I think, possibly very true. We would agree that the Irish, the so-called new immigrants of the late nineteenth century, and many other groups, have gone through this very painful
process and sometimes its surprising to see that those who are the descendents of these groups, express towards newer groups the same animosities that they were exposed to themselves a hundred years ago and fifty years ago. But there are a good many people, an and I can tell you this from the letters that we’ve received in the past week, and the telephone calls we’ve had, people of good will — I brougt this subjec up last week and I’d like to bring it up again -¬people of good will who say that they are not naturally prejudiced against groups but who feel that they have reasons in reality for objecting to them.

I think of one letter in particular – one person said “In watching your program Saturday night I would like
to say that I’m not prejudiced against any race, color or creed, I am prejudiced against dirt. And if you’re going to talk about prejudice, please bring the real issue out, Soap and water are really quite
cheap in America.” Now this persons says that she has not got an initial prejudice but she’s dealing with reality. And how are we going to, in unlearning prejudice, deal with the realities that shels concerned with?

KLINEBERG: Well, I think that some of the things that Father said earlier really touch upon this. One of the first things we must ask is is this accusation (if you want to call it that) really a true one?” I mean is there really so much difference between the cleanliness let us say, of certain minority groups, and of others? If there is — and I say if there is because we know that in the general area of perception we very often see what we expect to see and our stereotypes determine us, very often to see in other groups characteristics that we impute to them rather than those that they actually have.

HEFFNER: I think we might show the audience what we mean. This picture, (I think we can put a telop on the air, showing the same picture) shows the same thing. wonder if you’d explain that to us.

KLINEBERG: Well, I was very much interested in seeing this picture because it was used in a study at Harvard by two psychologists there, Alport and Postman, who are interested in the problem of rumor, and what they did was to show this picture to one student, then they took the picture away and he reported to a second student what he had seen in the picture. The second student told the third one what the first one had told him, and so on, down the line. Now, you could then compare the actual content of the picture with the story that came out after 7 or 8 or 9 reproductions in this series. And the striking thing about the use of this particular picture is that in 50% of the series in which students were used as subjects, before the end of the series the razor which as you notice in the picture is being held by the white man, has moved to the Negro and in some instances the Negro is even seen as brandishing the razor violently in the face of the white man. Now, here what has happened is, that the stereotype that we have, namely that its the Negro who uses the open razor and not the white man, has resulted, in 50% of the series of reproductions, has resulted, as I say, in our seeing the razor ultimately in the hands of the Negro even though the facts, as presented to us, show that it is the white man. And so I would say that, as applied to dirt, as applied to loudness or noisemaking, as applied to any one of a dozen different characteristics, we first must make sure that the attributes that we ascribe to other groups really belong to them.

VICKERY: Yes, but look what Father Drew said a minute ago about when the Irish immigrants came o ver in 1848 they built shanty’s for them up on East 12th Street and that sanitary facilities were at a minimum, they had no way to keep clean, they were living in a place where all the ways of living were in counter to what the New Yorkers expected them to do. I think we’ve got to face up to the fact that lots of groups, newcomers, move into the city at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, that they do get into houses that are overcrowded, that they don’t have adequate facilities. This story we were told the other night seems perfectly appropriate. Up on the West Side here, neighbors were complaining that a certain minority group were making the neighborhood dirty by throwing garbage out on the streets. They complained to an agency here in town. The agency investigated. They found that five years ago or so eight families lived in this apartment house. There are now about 22 or 23 families living in that
apartment house. But the number of garbage containers is just exactly the same for the 23 families as it was for the 8. We’re assuming that people want to be dirty, a thing we can’t assume – that people want to behave in distasteful ways, or ways that are distasteful to other people; a thing we can’t assume,

Maybe we have to look at the real reasons behind it, not just the prejudice. This leads me to put this in terms of two propositions, if you like, or queries -¬first, is the accusation that you’ve made accurate, I mean, does it really constitute a good description of behavior? And secondly, what are the reasons behind that behavior? I remember that Gunnar Myrdal, in talking about prejudice, spoke of a circular relationship — certain minority groups are kept in a position of inferiority, therefore their standard of living is lower than that of the rest of the populatior and then, because their standard of living is lower they are accused of being inferior and you therefore get, if you like, the prejudice determining a certain amount of discrimination and in turn the discriminatiox feeding and reinforcing the prejudice.

FATHER DREW: I know, to bear you out, in certain sections of our city, Harlem included, where the landlords have dividec up, because of the housing shortage, if for no other reason, do you see, they didn’t increase the number of sanitary facilities, You have one bathroom on a floor that had been used by one family and you can remember how the members of the family said “come out of there now, I’m in a hurry too” do you see? Well, now it’s to be used by 5 or 6 groups. I am amazed how clean
our children are, when they do get to school, under such conditions, showing they wash, in so many cases but you know how we simply attack them as this or that group or this or some other group…

HEFFNER: Well, I think, that it’s very important to note that we don’t deny to people who complain about dirt, that there is dirt, but what we’re saying is that we have to look beyond this. First you understand it – it’s not a matter of do-gooders saying there is nothing wrong here, you have no reason for having your feelings moved, one way or another. You’re saying, in reality, there is dirt, but let’s get behind it, let’s understand that it can come because we are putting these people into a position, economically in terms of their housing arrangements, in terms of their sanitary facilities, in which they cannot either be or do better.

VICKERY: I think we have to avoid what some sociologists have called the “bootstrap” fallacy, that is, that the group has to lift itself up by its own bootstraps before they are acceptable to us. That is asking for some things that it’s very hard for people to do. I think a better way to think of minority – dominant groups relationships might be this people need to enter into the mainstream of American life, they need to find the channels through which they can move from a little, closed, isolated, self-contained neighborhood into this mainstream and it seems to me that there are some ways that this can be done. It can happen through the churches and through the synagogues. It can happen through the schools. I suppose the schools have done more, both in their curriculum and in just living in schools, to change behaviour than almost any other institutton. It can certainly happen through the mass media, such as TV and newspapers, radio …

KLINEBERG: It then goes back in part to the question of contact that we touched on before and then didn’t explore further I wanted to agree with you, Father, that of course the contact could have very important and helpful effects. I also wanted to ask you whether you didn’t agree that there are two conditions under which that contact must occur for it to be really effective. The one is that it must be contact between people, it can’t be a kind of contact which perpetuates the dominant-subservient hierarchy, and secondly ‘think that a contact is particularly effective when the two groups have to work together to solve a problem which is common to both. One of our psychologist colleagues has spoken of superordinate goals, others speak of common goals, and especially when the two groups can work together in such a manner that success depends — or the success of any one of those groups depends upon work done also by the other group, then that kind of contact, I think, can be especially effective.

HEFFNER: Well, in a sense you’re talking about desegregation here and to that extent you are saying that desegregation will diminish prejudice. We are concerned here with “how”? What are the techniques for unlearning prejudice and I have this quotation from the late David Petegorsky in which he said that whatever the historical origins of racial bias, today most prejudice arises out of the observed fact of discrimination rather than vice versa, so that one way of ending or diminishing prejudice is to end discrimination, bring people together, because as he said, if a young child in the south, a young
white child in the south doesn’t naturally have a prejudice against Negroes, but when he or she sees
these people segregated, he or she assumes that they are inferior peoples and this is the origin of
prejudice.

KLINEBERG: The discrimination serves as a reminder that these groups are inferior. The only query I would have is as to the word “most”, I think you said “most prejudice.” I think in this whole area we have to
keep in mind the possibility that, well, I would even say the certainty — that prejudice comes in many ways and in many different guises and in many different kinds of people. And that when you ask us
the question “How do we unlearn prejudice,” I would say it depends how we learned it in the first place
and that we need to think of many approaches, many different ways of handling the problem and perhaps many different techniques used simultaneously, even on the same individuals, so that there can be this building up process of unlearning or relearning, and the reinforcement of the results obtained by one technique by the results obtained with another.

HEFFNER: What do you consider the effective techniques?

KLINEBERG: Well, we mentioned of some of them already and I think all of us here have mentioned them – we spoke of information as one source of change of attitude; of contact, certainly; of contact especially of the type that goes between equals and in pursuit of common goals. Well, rou, earlier, Vickery had a longer list of other things. I think what we just spoke of now, the desegregation — in other words, the elimination of outward signs of discrimination, will also have an effect on reducing prejudice.

FATHER, DREW: May I – excuse me.

KLINEBERG: Certainly. Go ahead.

FATHER. DREW: Well, I think we’ll all agree on this one, too. If we did obey that command “Love thy neighbor as thyself”, and there’s no reason why, because it’s accepted generally as something that is true, it’s wise, it’s good, that if more emphasis were directed to that, through our synagogues, churches, schools, Sunday schools, and the like, I know it would help tremendously.

VICKERY: Well this I think is the moral goal, if you please, and it seems to me that prejudice and discrimination in many of its respects is really a moral prob lem. I think we have too a kind of human goal toward which we work, one that is deep in our American tradition, and that is that everybody should be judged on his own merit, and what he can do, rather than in terms of what group he happens to be born into or chooses to belong to.

This quotation that you read here strikes me as being very much akin_ to some of the things that the State of New York has been doing — the State Committee Against Discrimination, you see, has jurisdiction over employment, housing, several other fields, which really does change the patterns of discrimination through law, and I think this is important. I think we also ought to face up to the fact, though, that people have to change their feelings and their knowledge too. And I think that this can happen, and I think one of the places where it happens or can happen most often is the schoolroom, in the hands of a sensitive, alert, informed teacher. You see, the schools, public and parochial, bring together under one roof children from many, many different backgrounds. This makes it almost a living laboratory for human relations and there are lots of ways in which we can help minority groups enter into the mainstream of American life through the processes of formal education. There’s lots of materials for teachers developed along that line.

KLINEBERG: Yes, in fact, I was going to mention that – the very fact that there has been a considerable improvement, say in the last 10 years, that everybody can recognize, proves what can be done in the future, because there’s no question it’s much harder to start a movement than it is to further it once it gets going. And I think the trend in our country now is …

VICKERY: I think there’s no doubt about it, if we looked at the trend over the past years we can have a feeling that while there’s still a good deal to be done, a ver y substantial progress has been made.

HEFFNER: That’s a hopeful note to end on and we are in a sense answering that question – can we unlearn prejudice ¬in the affirmative. Well, thank you very much Father Drew, Professor Klineberg and Dr. Vickery. We shall not be back next week with “The Open Mind,” we’re not going to be on the air that one week, Well be back on December 1st, however with a program on the subject of the causes of alcoholism. First I want to point out to you that if you have been interested in our series on segregation in our own backyard and on prejudice, the various Public Library branches in this city have reading lists, bookmarks, that will suggest suggested readings, will make suggestions for reading for you. Consult them, won’t you? And we’ll be back on December 1st at 6 to 6:30 on the subject of the causes of alcoholism. See you then.

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