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The Blame Game : Prejudice is alive and well, and feeding our need for a scapegoat. On this day of thanksgiving, we search for answers to this vexing riddle.

November 23, 1995|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Enter the Museum of Tolerance in West Los Angeles and you step up to one of two doors, one marked "prejudiced," the other "not prejudiced." Only the "prejudiced" door opens, however.

"Prejudice is part of the human condition," explains director Gerry Margolis. "The museum is a call for us to examine ourselves."

Key elements of prejudice include the psychological, economic and social benefits we believe we reap. If prejudice had no rewards, prejudicial attitudes would die.

"We hide in mythologies about others because it makes life simpler," says Margolis, who is Jewish. "Subscribing to a prejudice means 'I don't have to think as much.' A prejudiced outlook gives you easy answers."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday December 4, 1995 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Solving prejudice--A story in the Nov. 23 Life & Style included outdated information about Joe R. Hicks. He is now the executive director of the Los Angeles MultiCultural Collaborative, a multiracial, privately funded human relations agency.

Unfortunately, those answers are often based on false assumptions. Thus, individuals motivated by prejudice often end up on a quest for a "perfect" world that never existed. In Biblical times, tribes projected their hatreds onto a scapegoat they then sacrificed, collectively "cleansing" their souls. But old "solutions" no longer work. Instead, Margolis says, humankind has reached a crossroads.

"We cannot continue carrying this baggage, or we will destroy ourselves. We must learn to effectively deal with prejudice."

Following the museum's lead, The Times interviewed seven Southland leaders and presents their thoughts as a jump-off point in the search for answers.

MARCIA CHOO

'To some extent everyone . . .is claiming victimhood.'

Marcia Choo, the Korean American director of the Asian Pacific American Dispute Resolution Center, speaks flawless, unaccented English, so phone callers often mistake her for "white," giving her a firsthand window on prejudicial thinking.

"Being prejudiced has definite benefits," Choo says. "The prejudiced person feels superior to another. This is particularly appealing during an economic downturn when people are feeling threatened" in their quest for jobs.

Instead of dealing with the downturn's reality, "They look for a scapegoat, blaming someone else so they don't have to accept responsibility for their own situation.

"They say, 'It's not my fault. It's those other, different people who are to blame for my being out of a job, or for my having to wait so long in the emergency room.' "

By buying into prejudice, Choo says, "They don't feel compelled to do anything." Instead of acquiring new job skills or paying more taxes to build another hospital, they play the blame game, thus denying personal responsibility.

So profitable has the blame game become that it pervades our national discourse. "To some extent everyone, including our political leaders, is claiming victimhood." By playing the blame game, "They don't have to allocate resources to fight the problems. They can neglect our inner cities and absolve themselves of responsibility for taking actions to improve society.

"It's like going home and kicking the dog: You vent your frustrations but don't solve the problem."

Similarly, many demonize the poor, the vulnerable, and those who are different or lacking in power, she says.

"I also get people on the phone saying, 'Just between you and me, those Koreans deserved to be burned out.' I'm a total stranger, and they feel comfortable expressing this. I try to keep them talking. But it scares me," she says.

JOE HICKS

'We aren't born prejudiced. Rather, it's something which has been conditioned into us. . . . '

Joe Hicks, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Los Angeles chapter, differentiates prejudice from self-pride. Self-pride "gives one a sense of history, of heritage," he says. Prejudice seeks to build self-esteem by negating others.

Prejudiced thinking abounds among those "involved in dogmatic belief systems that claim, 'If you don't believe as I do, you are condemned.' " Condemning others allows these people to think of themselves as superior, even righteous.

The problem lies not in the religion. Thus, SCLC founder Martin Luther King Jr. used religion as a force for equality.

Rather, Hicks says, the problem for many fundamentalists is that their dramatic thinking "magnetically pulls in many prejudiced people." The teaching is then distorted to emphasize outside agendas.

Until recently, one Christian sect taught that blacks are so colored because they are "cursed by God" and are thus condemned to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water." As this teaching increasingly came under fire, it was abandoned--only to have homosexual "sin" take its place, he says.

In either case, the benefit is similar. The prejudiced individual believes his alleged superiority proves a "special connection" to God. Abandoning prejudice reduces him to a mere equal, an often intolerable situation.

But "minorities can be just as intolerant as majority groups," he says. In Rwanda, "If you stood the people together, you could not tell them apart on the basis of skin coloration. Yet they are killing each other over tribal differences.

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