“I am American” was the theme of a television commercial and ad campaign released in late September 2001 by the Ad Council, which provides free public service messages for the media. People of various ages, skin colors, and occupations repeated the four words’ “I am American,” simply and dramatically, celebrating the nation’s diversity and at the same time encouraging unity.
Why was the ad campaign created? Not long after Arab terrorists attacked the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington D.C., on September 11, 2001, many Arab American, Muslims, and Asian American with dark skin, hair, and eyes became targets for blame. They were stereotyped, seen as part of a group rather than being recognized as individuals, and erroneously viewed as responsible for thousands of deaths.
The Ad Council launched its campaign to help counteract the prejudice, stereotypes, and hate, which have affected individuals in communities across the United States. Obviously, efforts to unify Americans and encourage acceptance of diverse views are not easy tasks, especially when deep hatreds trigger violence. The United States is one of the most diverse nations in the world, home to people who have come from almost every part of the globe and brought with them their cultural patterns: that is, ways of communicating, dress, food customs, and various holiday traditions.
The United States is frequently referred to as a nation of immigrants. During the 1800s and early 1900s, millions of people emigrated, primarily from Europe, to the United States. These new arrivals were expected to give up their original customs and be absorbed or assimilated into the predominant way of life established by white Anglo-Saxon (of northern European extraction) Protestants. This meant immigrants accepted, for the most part, the Protestant view of morality, respect for law and order, duty to work for a living, and appreciation of democratic institutions, including public schools. Teachers taught their students not only the English language, but also how to blend in and become part of the American “melting pot.”
The melting pot idea was widely accepted until the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights movement called attention to the fact that throughout U.S. history many groups have been deliberately excluded. The nation’s past is full of strategies and legal practices used to reject most nonwhites and many non-Christians.
By the 1970s, the idea of and respect for cultural or ethnic pluralism began to take shape in the United States. Cultural pluralism means that various ethnic groups maintain some of their original traditions and social customs but also adopt aspects of the dominant lifestyle. The concept of cultural pluralism or cultural diversity replaces the melting pot image with what is frequently described as a “mosaic” or a “tossed salad.”
Reaching out to anyone who appears to be different from one’s own group is not common place for many Americans, regardless of whether they respect cultural diversity. Ethnocentrism frequently gets in the way. Ethnocentrism is a belief that one’s own group is better than another.
Throughout history, many groups have claimed superiority over other cultures. From 1400 through the 1600s, European explorers and conquerors returned from other continents with their ethnocentric views in tact. They had low regard for people whose skin color, customs, languages, and clothing styles differed from that of northern Europeans. Frequently, European explorers called indigenous people wherever they lived “savages” or “subhumans.”
Ethnocentrism remained strong among the early European colonist in the “New World.” The vast majority wanted to maintain the way of life they had known in their homelands and did not encourage diversity. In other words, it was “my way or the highway,” as modern jargon might phrase it. Is ethnocentrism a factor today in a multicultural nation like the United States? It’s not necessarily called that, but certainly ethnocentric ideas are the basis for prejudice, discrimination, racism and religious bigotry. Xenophobia-the fear of strangers of foreigners-also plays a role.
Prejudice literally means judging something beforehand without knowledge or examination of the facts. Every day people prejudge one another by age, weight, hairstyle, clothes, occupation, income, religion, social status, housing, and countless other factors. Most of the prejudgments stem from negative stereotypes about individuals or groups.
There is no universal agreement on what race means, and racial classification systems have varied considerably over the years. Every system has been devised by a person or persons with a particular point of view or agenda.
During the 1700s, for example, Europe had gained economic and political power, so this power along with ethnocentric beliefs prompted European biologists to categorize people by gradations of color. This system supported the myth that whites were inherently “superior,” while nonwhite groups were born “innately inferior.”
Some define it as prejudice based on the belief that people can be categorized and divided by race, with one’s race “superior” over all others. It is not unusual today for young people and adults who are part of the dominant or majority group (that is, whites) to doubt or deny that racism still exists in the U.S. culture. First, white Americans seldom encounter racism on a daily basis. Second, the majority members reason that numerous civil rights laws have been passed over the past few decades to prevent discrimination on the basis of skin color, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities. Racism, however, has not gone away; instead it is less obvious than it was in the days when laws segregated people by color and religion.
One basic reason prejudice and racism continue is that generation passes on its prejudicial attitudes and racist beliefs. Children learn early in life how their families and friends view those who are considered different and thus, in their opinion, unacceptable. Parents or other adults might tell a young child not to play with “those people.” Often, the phrase “those people” is replaced with a racial or ethnic slur. The adult’s words are reinforced with facial expressions and body gestures, clearly implying that “those people” are inferior to “our people.”
Religious conflicts have been common since colonial days in America. While some of the early colonists hoped to find religious liberty, that does not mean that they supported religious freedom for everyone. With the exception of Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, each colony set up a state church and expected all settlers to abide by its doctrine.
After the American Revolution, newly formed states slowly began to accept religious differences, and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution provided for the free exercise of religion. The First Amendment begins with the sentence, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first clause, often called the “establishment clause,” makes it clear that Congress cannot pass a law to establish or support a state church-that is, the federal government cannot favor one religion over another. The second clause provides for the free exercise of religion. The First Amendment is backed by the Fourteenth Amendment, which declares in part that no state can “deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Fourteenth Amendment makes clear that state governments must adhere to the Constitution Bill of Rights just as the federal government does.
Over the past few decades, Americans have tolerated many more religious practices than they did in earlier times. In fact, the U.S. News and World Report notes that the United States has become much more religiously diverse. Though the numbers of non-Christians are relatively small-about 6.5 percent of the U.S. population-their visibility and influence are growing. Nationwide, there are now more Buddhists than Presbyterians and nearly as many Muslims as Jews.
What does this mean for Christian denominations that have long claimed a common heritage? They must increasingly take into account fellow citizens who do not share their beliefs or who have no religious affiliations.
Dealing with “everyday bigotry and racism” often begins with the recognition that everyone to some extent has certain prejudices and stereotypical views. For example, it’s common to judge people on the basis of their appearance, clothing, or speech. But that does not mean a person with prejudices is automatically “bad” or cannot change her or his ideas. So, individuals need to examine their own attitudes before trying to persuade others that tolerance and respect for diversity are worthwhile. Then, it may be possible to stand up to friends, relative, classmates, teachers, and others. Here are some ways you can begin to deal with cultural intolerance:
1. Define Cultural Patterns: _____________________________________________________________________
2. Define Cultural Pluralism: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.
3. Ethnocentrism is a: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.
4. Xenophobia is: ______________________________________________________________________________________________.
5. Prejudice literally means: ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.
6. Some people define racism as prejudice based on : ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.
7. One basic reason prejudice and racism continue is: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.
8. The ___________ and the ______________ Amendments to the US Constitution provided the United States with the free exercise of religion.
9. List some ways you can begin to deal with cultural intolerance:
· ____________________ others about ___________________ and the negative impact it can have.
· When people make jokes or comments about groups different from their own, don’t agree just to get along; offset __________________________ remarks with __________________________ comments.
· Monitor TV programs, videos, and films that portray people in a _________________________ manner.
· Report serious ______________________________ to a trusted authority. If no action is taken, make a report again to a person who will respond appropriately. ______________________ prejudicial behavior can set the stage for violence.