Hatred learned from parents, TV

Q&A

December 15, 1992|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Why people hate one another because of skin color or ethnic background always has sparked sociologist Howard J. Ehrlich's interest -- even when he was a kid.

He witnessed the senselessness of ethnic violence at an early age when he saw New York street gangs clash.

For the past eight years, Dr. Ehrlich -- he has a doctorate in sociology from Michigan State University -- has documented racist acts and studied prejudice as research director at the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence in Baltimore. This is a nonprofit organization spun off from a gubernatorial commission appointed by then-Gov. Harry Hughes.

QUESTION: When does a person acquire prejudicial views?

ANSWER: As early as age 3 and 4, children have already mastered prejudice involving various groups. Prejudice is so pervasive in society, and children learn it so young.

Parents use words and phrases [that are prejudicial], so children pick them up directly. They are good at discerning what their parents feel, and they mimick them because they're rewarded for being like their parents. The most positive thing parents can do to reduce prejudice is instill a positive self-attitude in their children and to provide models of behavior.

Q.: Among other things, your group believes there is a rise in violence and prejudice occurring in this country. What's happening in society to cause that?

A.: Television. Children turn on a TV set -- which is oftentimes used as a baby sitter -- and observe very quickly that heroes and villains have different genders and different races.

What's worse, at the same time, children are exposed to a level of violence which I think is at an unprecedented level in society. By the age of 16, children have seen 26,000 murders on TV. That's independent of fights, screaming arguments and other forms of violence.

Where's the greatest violence? In children's programming and prime-time television programs.

Q.: There seems to be a rise of racial tension on college campuses. Why?

A.: I'm not sure what's happening on college campuses is so new. What's happening is a mirror of what's happening in society. As people have acted out violently their prejudices in society, so have they on college campuses.

We have today a generation of students growing up in the Reagan era, a very conservative period of American history.

A great many 17- and 18-year-olds today grew up in white enclaves with very little intergroup contact. They grew thinking equality [among races, for example] was no longer an issue, that blacks had achieved equality, and they went off to college.

Q.: Where are problems occurring on college campuses?

A.: In dormitories, to begin with, where students encounter for the first time people who are different in terms of race or culture. They live in dormitories, in very close and intimate circumstances, and they interact with people they've never interacted with before.

The second major place is fraternities and sororities. The fraternity system is the residue of elitism of the early American university. These are guys and women who are socialized into the belief of their own elitism.

People have a right to organize and get together in ways they choose. But from an administrative standpoint, I wouldn't recognize them as a student organization. The elitism and violent histories of American fraternities and sororities disqualify them from favor.

Q.: How does racism affect its victims?

A.: On college campuses, a fourth of minority students say it has interfered with their abilities to study. If we had a disease that hit one in four people, the surgeon general would declare a public health emergency. We'd be marshaling all of our resources to fight against it -- as we ought to be doing with respect to ethno-violence.

We find exactly the same [effects] in the workplace, where, if anything, there's a higher level of anxiety.

Particularly at a time of high unemployment and high inflation, it's not easy for people to change their jobs. It's hard for them to get up in the morning. You go to work and who cares? Productivity goes down. Your work gets worse. People suffer psychologically, and then the [suffering] becomes physical.

Q.: What kind of change in terms of bias has there been in our country since the beginning?

A.: You always can manipulate statements about change. In the 1860s, we had slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, non-Christians and Native Americans. We constitutionally accepted the [supposed] inferiority of women, blacks and Indians.

The British colonies were theocracies. They were religiously intolerant, and that lasted well into this century in many places.

And then you had the civil rights movement.

Q.: What differences have occurred since the civil rights movement of the 1960s?

A.: The unemployment rate between blacks and whites remains constant. Blacks are twice as unemployed as whites. The discrepancies among income, employ ment, health care, etc., are remaining constant.

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