The killing of George Floyd has unleashed, among other things, an opportunity to understand what prejudice, stereotypes, discrimination and racism are all about.
- Prejudice is a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.
- A stereotype is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
- Racism is the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another.
- Discrimination is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex (2020, Oxford Languages Online Dictionary).
Prejudice, racism, and stereotype have one thing in common—they are all beliefs that exist in your mind. Discrimination is based on your behavior; how you act in relation to your beliefs. While racism and prejudice are exclusionary and might be considered immoral or unethical, they are not illegal. Of the four terms only one, discrimination, is illegal when practiced in public. It is against the law, for example, to deny someone a seat in your restaurant because of their race, gender, age, etc. It is not illegal to deny someone a seat at your dinner table for the same reasons.
The reason I want to clarify this last point is because all of us are prejudiced and use stereotypes every day. Stereotypes make us lazy. They make it easy to avoid whole categories of people, books, art, music, etc. without directly experiencing them in real-time. For example, instead of reading a book written by someone from a group you are prejudiced against, you tell yourself, “I know I won’t like this book because it was written by…” I believe that racism is a special type of prejudice that leads to unhealthy stereotypes that move us away from directly experiencing people of different cultures and races. This avoidance prevents us from forming new beliefs and reinforces our prejudice and stereotyping.
There is a clear distinction, however, between avoiding contact with people who are different from you and discriminating against them.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ushered in a new era in American history that made it illegal to discriminate against people because of racial and other prejudice. It opened the doors to the integration of schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces. It also opened the doors to breaking down stereotypes because it brought people of different races together so they could experience each other directly, face-to-face at school, work, and in the neighborhood.
I am 69 years old and have seen the effects of over 50 years of anti-discrimination legislation. In this time, I have seen our country grow as a nation. Slowly but surely, we have become less prejudiced, less racist, and have eliminated a lot of the stereotypes I grew up with.
It is hard for young people to see this progress, especially when the media and other institutions do not focus on it. Instead of focusing on 50 years of progress and opportunity, our media, and to some degree our schools, choose to focus on the remnants of racism, police brutality, and discrimination that still exists.
The only way to continue making progress is to keep working to end discrimination in all its forms. When people live and work side–by–side and experience each other as co-workers, friends, and neighbors, their prejudices begin to diminish. Rioting, looting, and disrespecting the law and those who enforce does just the opposite. It reinforces old stereotypes and prejudice and threatens to wipe out 50 years of racial progress.
Dr. Rich Blonna