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Racism and prejudice have always existed in human history. Being a taboo subject and a controversial topic, many persons have tried to explain and find the reason to such human behavior towards another group of people. Such researches are the hope of many to see the racial discrimination ending. Vincent N. Parillo, through his essay "Causes of Prejudice" tries to explain the reasons of racism and discrimination in the U.S. Parillo divides his essay in two parts, one for the psychological causes and one for the social reasons. In the first part, Parillo cites the main psychological causes as: levels of prejudices (cognitive, emotional and action-oriented), self-justification, personality and frustration. In the second part he deals with the social reasons which are: socialization, economic competition and social norms. For each cause he gives strong arguments based on historical facts or even actual facts and statistics which made his essay reliable.
Studs Terkel’s essay "C.P. Ellis" is another kind of writing that can help us to understand the causes of prejudices. Terkel tells us the story of C.P. Ellis, a former Klansmen who claims he is no longer racist. C.P. Ellis is a white guy from a low-income class. The numerous misfortunes of his life will lead him to become a Ku Klux Klan member. But after some events will happen in his life, he will realize that races do not make a person that different from another. This thought will progressively get him out of racism. Ellis will even accept to work with Ann Atwater, a black woman, on a grant project. This kind of real life story can help us understand why people become racist or have prejudice against another group of people.
C.P. Ellis’s story allows us to look at the reasons in his life that make him become a Ku Klux Klan member and leader. Based on Parillo’s essay we will try to see in Ellis’ story if the reasons of his racism fit Parillo’s ideas of what causes prejudice. In other words, we will see if the psychological and social causes of racism will give us all the solutions to racial discrimination behavior. Looking at Parillo’s essay, the psychological causes of prejudices which are frustration and low self esteem, and a social cause such as economic competition, can explain C.
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Looking at his childhood, Ellis comes from a low-income family. Because he was poor, his clothes were not appropriate and he was humiliated by his classmates. Ellis felt like he was inferior comparing to the others. At seventeen, his father died and he had to work to support his family. He worked at a gas station, got married and had four children. One of his children was retarded and blind, which cost Ellis a lot more money for the care. Then he took a loan to buy the gas station, but two months before the end of the payment, he got a heart attack and did not make the repay. All this misfortunes made him really frustrated. As a consequence, Ellis started to blame the black people for his tragedy. In fact, Parillo explains in his essay that “frustrations tend to increase aggression toward others” (583). Moreover he says that “the frustrated individual or group usually redirects anger against a more visible, vulnerable, and socially sanctioned target” (583). This is exactly what happens when Ellis says “I didn’t know who to blame. I tried to fond somebody. I began to blame it on black people. I had to hate somebody” (593). Ellis felt that he had to find a way to redirects his frustration on somebody else. Because he was so unlucky, he needed people he could blame because it is always easier to make somebody responsible rather than assuming that it is the destiny. Ellis’ racist attitude was because of his frustration.
We can see all along his life that Ellis had this “low self esteem” feeling Parillo describes in his essay. Parillo explains low self esteem as an under category of “self-justification” process that causes the increase of prejudices. He says “a person may avoid social contact with groups deemed inferior and associate only with those identified as being of high status” (581). Ellis was poor but wanted to be somebody. He was not proud of himself because he did not felt he achieved something important in his life. Ellis said that he wanted “To be part of something”, in other words to be successful. Ellis decided to blame the black people for his unhappiness and avoid them because he taught they were the cause of his economic problems. He also joined the Ku Klux Klan. That way, he could both satisfy his desire of mistreatment on black people and have the feeling to be someone important.
Ironically, Ellis’ desire of success did not only lead him to be a “Klansman”; it also got him out of racism. In fact, he realized that black people where just normal people. Moreover, there were low income white people as well as they were low income black people. After that, Ellis decided to work with Ann Atwater on the grant project. The team work made him feel he was doing something important. This event moved away Ellis’ inferior feeling. We can see that the “low self esteem” phenomenon can have a huge impact on someone’s life. It can either incite someone to have prejudices, or make someone not to have prejudices.
Notice that the “low self esteem” feeling can be directly related to the myth of success and money. In fact, the American Dream promises success and money, thus promises happiness. To achieve the American Dream, Ellis just wanted to be someone, to be successful in other words. Ellis first taught that joining the Ku Klux Klan will allow him to be part of the American Dream. He taught that this organization will end up his misery, but it did not. Instead of that, Ellis found out another way to be successful: work with the low-income people regardless races to fight against the social hierarchy. We just introduced another cause of prejudice which is related to the economy and social aspect of the U.S.
If we look further, we can say that Ellis was frustrated because he was poor and did not get out of the low-income social class he was in. Parillo mentions this event he called the “economic competition” in his own essay. Looking at Ellis’s story, we see that he was blaming black people because he taught they were the cause of the economic problems he was facing. Ellis said “If we didn’t have niggers in the schools, we wouldn’t have the problems we got today” (596). Ellis is clearly rejecting the fault on the black people. In parallel, Parillo defines the “economic competition” by the fact that “People tend to be more hostile towards others when they feel that their security is threatened” (587). He also adds that “adverse economic conditions correlate with increased hostility toward minorities” (588). Parillo is saying that social classes can definitely affect the apparition of prejudices especially for the low-income class who do not have a lot of money. Moreover, we can see the importance of the class impact when Ellis realizes that his problems were not because of the black people but because of the system. He tells us what he realized later in his life: “As long as they kept low-income whites and low-income blacks fightin’, they’re gonna maintain control” (595). The revelation is going to change his life. He will start to see that black people can have the same problems as white people have. He will progressively stop hating black people and target the real problem: the social class society of the U.S.
Parillo’s essay explains the main psychological and social points that can lead somebody or a group to discriminate against another group. C.P. Ellis’ essay illustrates and confirms in some part the ideas of Parillo which are that frustration, low self esteem, and economic competition cause prejudices and racial behavior. However, more than just image Parillo’s causes of prejudices, Ellis’ story opens a new vision of what can be a main cause of the racial problem in today’s society: the social classes.
Both Parillo’s essay and Ellis story tells us that there are various causes that make humans being racist. The main solution to get rid of the racial discrimination will be to make everyone happy: if everybody is happy, there will be no psychological or social reasons to be racist, and people would not care anymore about social classes if everyone lives well. We can immediately see that such solutions seem for now impossible. First because even though you will try to make people happy and care about their well-being, they will anyways find a way to be unhappy and not totally satisfied, because this is the so sad human condition. And, if we had a way to get everybody to live comfortably, to be successful and have power, we would already be living that way. The truth is that this kind of society does not yet exist. These are the simple reasons why racism or prejudices will still exist.
Vincent N. Parillo. “Causes of Prejudices.” Rereading America (2004): 577-590
Studs Terkel. “C.P. Ellis.” Rereading America (2004): 591-601