Shame & Racism

Photo by BlackAperture/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by BlackAperture/iStock / Getty Images

A medieval Jewish text describes a time when the Jews would cleanse their shame by tying scarlet woolen threads to the horns of a goat. The goat was then lead away from the village and tossed over the side of a cliff, ridding them of their sins.

This is where we get the term, "Scapegoat." 

Once a group has been identified as "the potential cause of all our troubles" they can be used as a convenient scapegoat. The group must be small, vulnerable, with little political power. The most recent immigrant group usually serves the purpose.

In the 19th century, the irish were blamed for many social problems. They were caricatured as monkeys, as drunks, as corrupt politicians and violent gang members. Sometimes shopkeepers who needed help would put signs in their windows, "No Irish Need Apply."

Now Mexicans and Central Americans are the scapegoats. Recently a Republican presidential candidate said,“When Mexico sends its people [to the United States], they’re not sending their best... They’re sending people that have lots of problems... They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists...” In the weeks following the speech, he polled highest of the 17 Republican presidential hopefuls. He had helped some people feel a momentary sense of relief by encouraging them to displace their own shame on Mexicans, but he had done far more bad than good in ways that should be obvious to even the most knuckle-headed politician.

But what about African Americans?  They have been in this country longer than any immigrant group, they make up 12 percent of the population, and they are a group of some political power. Why do we continue to discriminate against them despite Brown v. Board of Education, the courage of Rosa Parks, the sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, affirmative action, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, the riots in Harlem and Watts, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King? See Chapter 6 in Beyond Bullying for a thorough exploration of this conundrum.