Arts and Culture

Racial Prejudice and Hatred Separate Us From God

by Father Robert Lauder,

Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. participate in a June 21, 1964, rally at Chicago’s Soldier Field.

AT THIS TIME of year when we celebrate the holiday in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we have a special opportunity to reflect on the nature of prejudice and perhaps to examine our consciences to see if we are guilty of this sin.

Almost 50 years ago I went on the March to Washington with Dr. King. I found the day inspiring even though one incident related to the march was discouraging.

My day started at about four in the morning. I traveled to what was then St. Ann’s parish in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Several of us gathered to attend a Eucharist and to board buses that would take us to Washington. I rode on a bus with black teenagers, who, I guess, were mostly high school students.

As anyone who has ever heard it or read it knows, Dr. King’s talk, often referred to now by the words that express its theme, “I Have a Dream,” was magnificent. How can I describe the mood among all of us, especially in the bus as we drove back to Brooklyn? I don’t know how many times we sang “We Shall Overcome.” Everyone was elated and inspired by Dr. King’s talk and by the experience of the day.

On the way home we stopped at a restaurant in Baltimore. We sat in the restaurant waiting to be served. We waited, waited and waited. Then we discovered that the restaurant did not serve blacks. I could not believe it. At this time in our country, on that great day, blacks were refused service. During the remainder of the trip in the bus the mood had changed dramatically. Many were crying.

In discussing racial prejudice with others I have often had an experience that I think has helped me understand people who are prejudiced, that is, as much as prejudice can be understood. Frequently I have found that what starts out as a calm, intellectual discussion ends with the prejudiced person acting irrationally, perhaps yelling and looking as though he or she is going to have a stroke. Reason and rational arguments seem to fly out the window. I believe this happens because there is no way to rationally defend prejudice. There are no reasons that can justify it.

One of my friends once said to me, “I am prejudiced, I admit it.” Of course that is similar to saying, “I know my views on this subject are not intelligent.” The obvious course of action would be to become informed and change your views.

Another friend once said to me, “People say that I am prejudiced. Do you think that I am prejudiced?”

I asked, “Do you think that one race is genetically inferior to another race?”

My friend replied “As a matter of fact, I do.”

I responded, “Then you are prejudiced. You hold a view which has no evidence to support it.”

Because being prejudiced seems to involve more emotion than intellect, I wonder how free the prejudiced person is. I believe that hating requires a great deal of freedom. To hate means that you wish to do harm to someone or at least wish that harm come to someone. I know that we use expressions like “I hate your hat” or “I hate the way you laugh” and similar expressions.

I don’t believe that we hate hats or the way people laugh. We may find a hat unattractive or a laugh annoying but I think of real hatred as focusing on people and wishing people harm.

How many people actually hate other people? I don’t know. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with powerful examples of people hating. Cassius hates Caesar and so he gets Brutus to assassinate Caesar; Iago hates Othello and so he gets Othello to murder Desdemona; Hamlet hates his uncle, Pelonius, and does not murder him while Pelonius is praying because then Pelonius would go to heaven. Hamlet decides to catch Pelonius in mortal sin, murder him and send him to hell.

If a person hates someone, does that change the person’s relationship with everyone? I ask this question in my philosophy classes at St John’s University. I am interested in what students think. One reason I ask is because I am not certain that my answer to the question is correct. I suspect that a person who freely hates cuts himself or herself off from God and so the act of hating would influence all other relationships.

The existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre claimed that the anti-Semite did everything differently because of the anti-Semite’s hatred of Jews. I think Sartre had a profound insight. Freely hate anyone and you change your relationships with everyone. [hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.