The fight for civil liberties was an inevitable response to the inhumane treatment of some nationalities and racial groups in the United States. The works of literature help understand the first-hand experience of oppressed individuals and how they are treated by society, and empirical research traces the origins and impact of racial prejudice in the modern community using evidence. This paper aims to explore the effect that racial discrimination has on people and their lives using the examples from the books and research and to evaluate how implicit biases continue to shape the people’s opinions about African-Americans.
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Origins of Segregation and Racial Prejudice
One can trace the origins of racial segregation in the United States can lead to the years of slavery when African-Americans were used as a labor force on plantations. For example, Douglass (2016), who was born as a slave, details his life journey from being a child and seeing the whipping of his family members, such as his Aunt Hester and the fear the slaves had towards their masters. Here, the African-Americans were not treated as human beings. Instead, they were regarded as property that one can buy, sell, or insure to avoid financial losses. Perhaps this approach helped many slave owners justify their cruelty since whipping, and other types of punishments were used to make slaves work and behave. As Douglass (2016) depicts it, after the death of his master, he and other slaves were valued similarly to livestock and sold and exchanged. This type of unjust treatment set a precedent for a distinction between the African-Americans and white individuals, prompting hostility and injustices towards the former that persists to this day.
Another excellent example from the literature that illustrates the fight of African Americans against the slave owners and the difference in views that the two parties had is “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” This book is a biography of a revolt that happened in Virginia in 1831 (Styron, 1992). From it, the reader can find out about the lives of the slaves, mainly the unpaid labor and cruel treatment, as well as their masters denying them the possibility to be educated or remain with their families. Notably, Turner was a Christian and, in his confession, claimed that the divine power inspired him to lead the revolt. From this book the reader can find out more about the slave’s fight for freedom, which was always met with cruelty and resistance and led to an implementation of more rules and regulations, in Turner’s case, the slaves were forbidden to learn how to read (Styron, 1992). Therefore, the slaves were involuntarily forced to work, and the practice of slavery shaped the society’s perception of the African-American community for many years ahead. The fear of more rebellions prompted an even more unjust treatment of slaves and enforcement of regulations that would not allow them to educate themselves.
Racial Prejudice Towards Different Nations
Segregation affected generations of people, adversely impacting their ability to get an education and build a career. Although the African-Americans are perhaps the largest oppressed population, racial prejudice affected other nations as well. Another example of racial discrimination is the relationship between the Japanese-Americans and Americans during World War II depicted by Uchida (1996), who describes her childhood, and a similar story is illustrated by Okada (1957). Although in this book, the main character is only seven years old, she is sent to a camp with her family because of their race. Notably, at that time, no evidence that a person helped the enemy was necessary to send them to the camp. This example shows that racial prejudice is a complex issue, affecting many people, which manifested throughout the history of the United States and is connected to many underlying societal prejudices.
Impact of Segregation on the Generations of African Americans
One reason for the brutal and unfair treatment of the African-Americans is the lack of understanding of the unique culture and traditions that this population had. The colonizers aimed to assimilate the African people and humiliate their culture as a way of silencing them. The 1960s is the period of the ongoing fight for the equal rights of all races and some literary works from this.
Even when segregation was formally abandoned and African-Americans could use the same benefits as other citizens, the negative perceptions of this population persisted to exist. For example, in “The Help,” Stockett (2009) depicts the lives of several African-American women who work as housemaids and are constantly treated unfairly. In one episode, the house wonders gather to discuss their views of the African-Americans. They display hostility and view of this race as contagious despite having no evidence or other proof that interactions with African-Americans can lead to disease.
In “The Help,” the racial prejudice and the way it is supported in the society is shown vividly since the children are raised in a society where making biased distinctions between different races is a norm. One of the main plots prompts in this novel depicts institutional racism, which Stockett (2009) frames in the following way:
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“A bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. I’ve even notified the surgeon general of Mississippi to see if he’ll endorse the idea. I’ll pass.” (1.32)
In this quote, Hilly Holbrook explains the idea of mandating each homeowner who employs African-Americans to have a separate bathroom for them. The reasoning is the belief that these individuals can carry diseases, and such a requirement would ensure the safety of the house owner and their family. Evidently, Holbrook disregards the fact that the servants in these houses contact the food, clothes, furniture, and different parts of the house on a daily basis, and these claims are based on an old prejudice.
Such treatment is connected to the years when slavery was normalized, and African-Americans were not viewed as proper citizens of the United States. This dehumanization made slavery possible, both legally and ethically, and the consequences of it still persist in affecting society. As a result of years of slavery and segregation, African-Americans faced a plethora of difficulties – the inability to gain education and find a job, unfair pay, and the social perception of them as inferior inevitably affected the lives of millions.
“Everyday Use” by Walker (1994) shows how different generations of African-Americans perceive their history and culture and how society shaped their lives. In this short story, one can note the contrast between Mama and Dee, with the former having no education because her school was closed, and no one was able to do anything to address the problem. Consequently, the lack of proper education affected the further life of Mama.
Although this is a literary work, it is undeniable that the plot is based on the real-life events and experiences of the African American community. Many, similarly to Mama, were unable to get an education and had to work hard to make ends meet. Some, for example, Dee, were lucky to have support from their community and go to college, and the story emphasizes the importance of this event and the changes that occurred to Dee because of it. In contrast to her relatives, Dee can have a better future because of her degree – a decent job and salary. In this story, an interesting contrast between the perceptions of the African-American culture, since Dee’s understanding of it was mainly shaped by the society and college education – she considered her relatives as unworthy and ununderstanding of the true value of their culture. This short story shows how societal perceptions can shape prejudice within the African-American community.
Contemporary Perceptions of Race and Racial Prejudice
The examples from the past reveal the direct and explicit discrimination that adversely impacted African-Americans. However, contemporary society did not eliminate the problem of racism completely. A study from Rice University revealed that many white people still have biases towards African-Americans or people of other ethnicities (“Whites’ racial prejudice can lessen over time,” 2019). However, when asked, they prefer to say that they do not care about one’s race or racial problems. Upon a closer examination, the researchers found that these people often choose not to date a person of color or vote for an African-American political. However, they do not openly admit this (“Whites’ racial prejudice can lessen over time,” 2019). The conclusions from this example suggest that some changes in the way the society perceives racial issues were accomplished, it is no longer acceptable to argue for segregation or make unproven and unscientific claims about representatives of a race. Despite this, the implicit biases that affect who people talk to, make friends with, date, and choose as political representatives remain effective to this day.
Due to the fact that many people outside the African-American community refuse to learn more about the history and causes of racism, the issue continues to affect the lives of people. In the same study from Rice University, the authors reveal that “time and factors such as education may lessen feelings of racial apathy” (“Whites’ racial prejudice can lessen over time,” 2019, para. 10). In this case, the feeling of apathy is dangerous because it does not allow individuals to see how their perceptions and choices are shaped by the society and years of discrimination, and therefore, they cannot choose how to treat people of different ethnicities based on their personal experiences or knowledge about different cultures. In conclusion, one can state that education and work directed at uncovering the implicit ideas about the differences in races is an essential factor that can help the society overcome the remaining issues that continue to affect the lives of many African American citizens.
The perceptions of African-Americans as inferior, which originated when slavery was a common practice, continue to implicitly affect the opportunities that the representatives of this community have. Quillian et al. (2017) report that African-Americans and Latino individuals have a significantly lower callback rate when compared to other ethnicities. As a result, the chances of them getting a job, in comaprisson to other ethnicities, are considerably lower, and this trend remains unchanged since 1989. Notably, this research accounts for the education, skills, and credentials of individuals in the compared groups, and as a result, the conclusion is that African-Americans with comparable resumes to a person of different ethnicity are less likely to be hired. This study helps understand that the issue of racial prejudice is complex and multidimensional and requires more efforts towards mitigating institutional racism and establishing genuinely equal opportunities for all.
Overall, this paper examined the issue of discrimination and racial prejudice over time, using literary works and research to show how society’s perceptions of the race were shaped by a long history of slavery. Many discrimination exists to this day originate from the slaveowner’s practice of dehumanizing African-Americans, which they used to justify their cruelty. The literary works, explored in this paper help examine the real-life experiences of African-Americans, from Douglass’ journey to freedom and Turner’s rebellion to a conflict within the African American community depicted by Walker. Stockett helps understand how even after slavery was abandoned and African-Americans worked as housekeepers or servants, their employers discussed how people of the African-American ethnicity had diseases and wanted to mandate a separate restroom for them. The character’s lives depicted in these stories help understand how prejudice shapes the lives of individuals, and how African-Americans were denied the necessary things, for example, education, that would allow them to work decent jobs. Contemporary research shows that many implicit biases still affect the perception of African-Americans, explaining the problems that persist in our society.
- Frederick Douglass. (2016). Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass. Dover Publications.
- Okada, J. (1957). No-no boy. University of Washington Press.
- Stockett, K. (2009). The help. Penguin Books.
- Styron, W. (1992). The confessions of Nat Turner. Vintage.
- Uchida, Y. (1996). The bracelet. Puffin Books.
- Quillian, L., Pager, D., Hexel, O., & Midtbøen, A. (2017). Meta-analysis of field experiments shows no change in racial discrimination in hiring over time. Proceedings of The National Academy Of Sciences, 114(41), 10870-10875.
- Uchida, Y. (1996). The bracelet. Puffin Books.
- Walker, A. (1994). Everyday use. Rutgers University Press.