Beliefnet
For much of America's history, minorities and women have been on the losing side of capitalism. Hangover from the slave trade perpetuated the view that minorities were useful only as cheap labor. Legally, this idea was reinforced by the fact that it took several minorities to equal one full citizen. Socially, the absence of minorities in the upper cultural, political, and economic echelons subtly maintained white male America's sense of privilege.

Add to this the simultaneous rise in Puritanism that reminded Americans that the socially distinct were unpure agents of the devil. By this standard, minorities--and women--were set aside as "other," their collective voice marginalized as inferior, religiously, economically, and otherwise. To protect the status quo--"God's" social structure--both groups were removed form the dominant sphere of influence. Women were relegated to the house, minorities to separate facilities.

These lessons were learned early in America's history, so they have tended to stick. Many of our great thinkers rather blithely asserted that women and minorities were plainly backward creatures. Too often, it didn't occur to them that minorities and women were denied equal opportunity, adequate role models, and the equal expectation of success--that it was social conditioning, rather than some innate trait hardwired into their humanity, that held them back.

If we are now too sophisticated for blatant expressions of racism, we're still haunted by what Glenn C. Loury, the author and Harvard professor, has called "deep-seated social imagery." We continue to associate things like welfare and homelessness with minorities. (I'll never forget my shock when, in fifth grade, I learned that the majority of those on welfare are actually white. I immediately went out and told my friends.)

"Deep-seated social imagery," of course, fails to confront the essential fact: there's nothing innately black or white about human beings. Skin pigmentation doesn't define us. It does, however, make for an easily identifiable symbol--the other. And the other is often a casualty of our need to nourish our own egos.

As the writer William Hazlitt once noted, "We illuminate our own streak of fortune by making those around us seem as dark as possible." A subconscious need to maintain our sense of privilege has colored how white American males define minorities and women. We fail to realize just how socialized all behavior is, and we embrace our stereotypes--they give order to our surroundings. All the while we forget that, in the words of Albert Camus, "We are condemned to live together."

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