THE LADDER OF PREJUDICE
By the fall of 1938 the first phase of Hitler's
campaign against the Jews had been completed. The Jews were isolated and
trapped. Anti-Semitism and Nazism had been linked together and identified as
Germany's path to greatness and conquest. Scholars point out that such violent
anti-Semitism did not come about by accident. Minor forms of prejudice have a
way of growing into destructive forms.
In his book, The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon W.
Allport describes a kind of ladder of "negative actions" that spring
from prejudice. It is interesting to compare how the ladder of prejudice worked
in the past and how it works today. And it is possible to see parallels in
history that help to explain or clarify what happened in Nazi Germany.
The first rung on the ladder of negative actions is speech.
This often takes the form of talking or joking about a group as if all the
members of that group were of one personality or had one set of features. One
Holocaust historian, Raul Hilberg, states that "anti-Jewish racism had its
beginning in the second half of the seventeenth century, when the 'Jewish
caricature' first appeared in cartoons." The caricature, or stereotype, was
usually an exaggerated drawing of a face with a long, hooked nose; heavy, dark
eyebrows; a beard that came to a sinister point; and a protruding mole. This
devilish-looking character was not supposed to look like a particular Jew, but
like all Jews. The Nazis used this cartoon figure again and again in posters and
artwork. Speaking, they referred to the Jews as "a disease," or as
"lice." This was a generalization that harked back to the sixteenth
century when Martin Luther, the church reformer, had spoken of the Jews as
"a plague," and a "pestilence."
The technique of creating a stereotype is one that
continues. It consists in giving an entire group a single, oversimplified image.
It is necessary
for every White Racist to recognize the fact that the White Race does have
enemies. We White racists must do that which is necessary to defeat the enemies
of our Race. Certainly, the negro [black] is an enemy with his crime, his
violence, and his high birthrate. Even in a more devastating way, the negro is a
biological enemy and that is true of every negro who is able to breed. That is
true because every drop of negro blood pollutes the White blood. The [child] of
interbreeding between a White person and a negro, or part negro, is never White.
... That is why we must have a complete separation of the races so that the
White race can live. [J. B. Stoner, "The Philosophy of White Racism," The
Thunderbolt, October 1973]
In this racist article all blacks are stereotyped as
being alike: all are criminals, all are violent, and all have many children.
Obviously this is untrue. Furthermore, the accusation that black blood is
somehow able to "pollute" white blood is false, since it has been
shown that all blood types occur in all races. Yet thousands of people around
the world read publications like The
Thunderbolt that are filled with such misinformation--and they believe them.
The second rung of the ladder of prejudice is avoidance.
At this level people seek to avoid the group that has been stereotyped. Like
speech, this seems harmless at the beginning. One has a right to choose one's
friends, and choosing not to be friends with a particular group of people does
not seem so awful. The trouble is, lack of contact and friendship with a group
leads to ignorance about them. And the more ignorant we are, the more we begin
to believe in the stereotype.
Avoidance leads to the third rung, discrimination. The unwanted group is now kept out of some
neighborhoods, shopping areas, social clubs, gathering places, and public
centers. The laws enacted against the Jews of Germany from 1933 to 1938 were
discriminatory--they were meant to separate the Jews from the rest of the German
population. Discrimination can be as simple a matter as excluding Jews or blacks
or Orientals from a fraternity or sorority or a social clique. Or it can be an
attempt to cut an unwanted group off entirely, to isolate them.
After the Civil War in the United States, black slaves
suddenly became free. To "keep them in their place," many of the
southern states passed special laws to ensure that blacks would not be able to
vote in elections. Blacks were not allowed to own weapons or buy liquor, to
serve on juries or be witnesses in court.
codes of 1865-66 in many ways resemble Hitler's laws against the Jews. ... The
white South wanted the Negro to stay, as a valuable worker ... but ... he must
be prevented from getting "uppity," a word still common in the South.
[Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People]
Segregation--separation of whites and blacks--continued
to be used as a method of social control. In 1870 a special school system was
set up in Georgia, and blacks were forbidden by law to attend a school for
whites. By the turn of the century South Carolina had special cars on each train
set aside for blacks. In Oklahoma in 1935 a law was passed forbidding blacks and
whites to boat or fish together. As late as 1944, in Virginia, separate waiting
rooms were set up for blacks at airports. And throughout the South even into the
early 1960s, stores and restaurants displayed signs reading, "We Reserve
the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone." The word "anyone" clearly
Discrimination against blacks in the United States still
exists. But the civil rights movement that spread in the 1950s and 1960s gave
blacks a new sense of pride and helped them to fight for abolishment of
discriminatory laws all across America. Of course, repeal of such laws does not
mean that people will behave differently. To this day many blacks and whites
have a hard time trusting one another; and in most cases--in the North as well
as in the South--the two groups live in separate parts of cities and towns.
This, too, is a proof of how powerful a weapon discrimination can be.
When the Nazi party incited the Kristallnacht riots against German Jews, they had reached the fourth level of negative action--physical
attack. Physical attack may be a mob’s expression of anger or resentment.
It may take the form of gang warfare resulting from prejudice. (Many such gang
wars broke out in New York City in the 1960s among whites, blacks, and Puerto
Ricans; and in Los Angeles and other places in the 1970s and 1990s.) Or it may
take the form of defacing places of worship--for example painting the "swastika"
(chosen by Hitler as the symbol of Nazi Germany) on the walls of synagogues or
other Jewish buildings.
Such groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis
(new-Nazis) use forms of physical attack to frighten their victims. They burn
crosses on the lawns of homes owned by black families in white neighborhoods, or
they try to incite riots. From time to time, they have been accused of murdering
Jews and blacks in cold blood. On the ladder of prejudice, the steps may be
short between speaking against a group and attacking it physically.
Since prejudice begins on the level of speech, that
would seem the best place to stop it. Yet in countries such as Great Britain,
the United States, France, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and even West Germany
today, free speech is guaranteed to all.
Relying on this guarantee, racists and neo-Nazis claim
the right to preach whatever they believe, no matter how violent or undemocratic
it is. Anarchists, who believe that all government should be abolished, claim
the right to teach people how to revolt against government and destroy it.
Communists claim the right to preach Communist takeover of government. Each
group firmly maintains that the basic right to freedom of speech allows it to
teach and preach whatever it pleases--even revolution and the overthrow of
Should a nation then allow freedom of speech to
everyone, at all times? Are there not times when limits must be placed on what
should be said or taught? We already limit the freedom of speech where there is
"clear and present danger" to public safety. But does freedom of
speech or the rights of the individual include the right to spread hatred?
This problem faces us each time a racist or fascist
group takes to the streets to hold a parade, or each time a public speech is
made preaching racism. But who should decide what is allowable and what is
destructive? And what measurement can we use to define the limits of free speech
in a democracy?
It has been suggested that we draw a line between speech
that is used as a weapon, and speech that is used to share ideas. But this
difference is subtle and often difficult to determine.
In a way, this seeming weakness of democracy is also one
of its strengths. In a healthy democracy the exchange of ideas allows for many
opinions to be shared. And all ideas must submit to open examination. Our
continuing freedom depends, then, on continuing to examine our own ideas and
those of others, and on standing up for what we believe to be right and just.
Since voicing prejudice helps to create it, speaking out against prejudice may
very well help to stop it.
Extermination—The Final Step
The last step on
the ladder is extermination--lynching,
massacre, attempting to kill members of the unwanted group. Between 1938 and
1945 the Nazis carried out a program of extermination against the Jews of
Europe, which they called "the Final Solution." We call it "the
Holocaust." How the Holocaust was planned and carried out, and how the
Holocaust continues to affect our everyday lives is the subject of the remaining
chapters of this book.
The newly revised and updated edition of
The Holocaust: An End to Innocence
is now available
in paperback and Kindle.
“Seymour Rossel, a
long-experienced and gifted educator, here gives yet another important
contribution for readers of every age and background. This book is a rare
and valuable overview of an enormously challenging subject. Every chapter
is accessible, intelligent, and compelling.” — David
Altshuler, PhD, Founding Director, Museum
of Jewish Heritage, New York