In his brilliant book At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson describes the relationship between servants in mid-19th-century England and their masters/employers: “Perhaps the hardest part of the job was simply being attached to and dependent on people who didn’t think much of you….Servants constituted a class of humans whose existences were fundamentally devoted to making certain that another class of humans would find everything they desired within arm’s reach more or less the moment it occurred to them to desire it.” Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, once poor herself, noted, “The only people I really hate are servants. They are not really human beings at all.”
It strikes me that many reactions we’ve seen to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and President Obama’s recent executive action on Immigration are bound by a common attitude: ignorance, disregard, and dehumanization by a white majority of an underclass of people of color. The Caucasian (and rapidly shrinking) majority in America is largely ignorant of the lives led by African Americans and undocumented Hispanics. There seems to be a proactive disregard for knowing or caring about their lives and plight. And this ignorance and disregard are enabled through a dehumanizing of both groups—not overtly, of course (we at least know how not to sound racist)—and an attitude that all too often is in agreement with Millay’s sentiment that “they are not really human beings at all.”
Humankind has a really bad track record with those who are regarded as “other” by the majority. Perhaps the attitudes toward and treatment of those considered to be “other” have their roots in prehistory. When competing tribes of homo sapiens encountered one another, there was often survival payoff in regarding the opposing tribe as being utterly “other,” not like “us,” and to be resisted at all costs. Such sentiment is at the heart of every war.
There may even be a physiological basis to our apprehension about the “other.” After all, our bodies are hard wired to recognize the difference between “me” and “not me.” That is what allows us to recognize bacteria and other foreign matter in our bodies and answer with an aggressive immune system response which attacks and rids the body of these threats to our well-being.
The problem, of course, is that the “me vs. not me” response can serve us poorly in the more social sense. When we assign a primitive “not me” status to another individual or social group, it can—and does—take us down a destructive path. Taken to its logical conclusion, the “not me” judgment can lead us to regard other human beings as not human at all! And that is where the trouble really begins.
The disdain that masters once showed for their servants is today more apt to be played out systemically on a classification or group of people, rather than on individuals. “They” are not like “us.” I can remember during the Vietnam War, it was fairly common to hear Americans say about the Vietnamese (and Asians in general): “they just don’t value human life the way we do.” In other words, while we value our soldiers and remember that each one of them is a husband/son/father, the same humanity doesn’t apply to our enemies.
Broad generalizations are made about African-Americans, born out of attitudes from the days when slavery treated them as non-human chattel to be bought and sold, and Jim Crow laws perpetuated their status as underlings. Immigrants from Central America are characterized as brazen gold diggers who come here to “drop” their babies on American society and its social safety net.
Today’s hot debate about the fate of millions of undocumented people in America, most from countries to the south, belies a similar dehumanization. Opposition to the President’s executive order, and the resistance to dealing with immigration legislatively, both involve an inherent “they’re not like us” attitude. And yet, the yearning for a better life for oneself and one’s children—the overwhelming explanation given for coming north—is a sentiment known to every human being and family on earth. Yet, many do not find in this shared, human yearning a reason to regard immigrants as “like us” rather than “not like us.”
Oddly enough, many who hold this “not like us” attitude are religious people. And yet, a central teaching of the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is that all human beings are children of God, equal in value and worth to God. Isn’t it strange that religious people would embrace a “not like us” stance toward people of color, in direct and overt opposition to the teaching of their religions, all the while claiming to be faithful adherents?
Religion could—and should—be part of the solution here, rather than part of the problem. Significantly, many churches are actively and aggressively advocating for the justice and compassion for those in our midst who are undocumented. Some churches are serving as “sanctuary” for those fleeing injustice—an encouraging return to a time when church buildings were “safe houses” for those fleeing unjust treatment by the authorities.
It is significant that President Obama alluded to scripture in making his case for better treatment for the undocumented in his executive action. In his address, the President noted, “We were strangers once, too.” Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament, Jews are reminded that they too were once treated as strangers and “the other,” enslaved by Egypt, and in return must welcome the stranger and treat them with compassion and respect. And with the exception of Native Americans, all of us here in the United States came here as immigrants, as the President reminded us (making the case for “us” over “not like us”).
The outraged reaction all across America to the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown is an appropriate response to being treated as “other,” and “not really human beings at all.” That kind of treatment leads to rage—at first, quietly borne internally, and eventually erupting in an outward expression of sheer “out-rage”; that is, an outward expression of the rage within the victim of such treatment.
White America would do well to focus not on the burning of a couple of cars and vandalism (no one is excusing such behavior), but on the reasons such rage is felt in the first place. This has long stopped being primarily about the death of an unarmed young black man in St. Louis. It is about the victimization of an entire group of people at the hands of a white majority who views them as “other” and “not really human beings at all” in a country that has broken its promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
The secret to solving our immigration “problem,” as well as the “problems” posed by race in Ferguson and all across America, begins with overcoming our tendency to extrapolate from our obvious differences to a broader, more dangerous, “not like me” attitude that borders on complete dehumanization. Our wariness of difference and diversity all too often leads us into “not like me” thinking. Instead, we need to focus on the reality that although almost everyone is different from me in some respects, we remain far more alike than different.
At the end of the day, this is not “us versus them.” Because there is no “them.” Only “us.”
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, and the retired IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson.