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Tracing the roots of sexual discrimination.

Negative stereotypes, combined with a relative lack of economic and political power, have made women acceptable victims of prejudice and bigotry.

Some years ago, while lecturing to a preparatory school social studies class on the subject of discrimination, I pointed out that the Ku Klux Klan was opposed to blacks, Jews, and Catholics. When I said "Catholics," there was an audible response from the audience indicating shock. Somehow, the Klan's advocating discrimination against blacks and Jews, although not commendable, was less surprising to these northeastern high school students, most of whom were personally acquainted with Catholics. There was much discussion following this point, and one result was that they began to understand how many Americans are vulnerable to discrimination. Had I expanded upon this theme to include women, it surely would have met with even more incredulity.

Today's young adults still fail to recognize the extent of discrimination in this country, particularly its impact on women. Even sociology students at the liberal arts college where I teach require much convincing that American females continue to suffer from discrimination. Sheltered and inexperienced, perhaps because they have yet to encounter the overt forms of sexual discrimination that are more likely to occur after college (when they marry and begin their careers), they seem to think that problem mostly is a thing of the past. Until then, most may persist in believing that discrimination primarily is a product of racism and bigotry.

Discriminating against others is not limited to the behavior of racists and bigots. It is far too common to be explained as the exclusive acts of people with deviant personality traits. The sociological characteristics of those who are discriminated against must be understood to explain why they receive such treatment. America has a well-established tradition of prejudice and discrimination against minorities.

Even though women are not a numerical minority, many sociologists view them as a minority because they have so much in common with racial and ethnic minorities like African-Americans and Native Americans. Consider, for example, the following generalizations regarding the political status of Indians, blacks, and women in American history.

After whites became politically dominant in colonial North America and no longer needed Indians as military allies, discrimination against them became the norm. In the 1830s, Pres. Andrew Jackson forced those remaining in the Southeast to leave their farms and settle in lands west of the Mississippi to make room for the many European immigrants flooding into the U.S. During the 1870s, Indians in the plains states were rounded up and contained on reservations under the control of white agents. In the 1880s, reservation children were removed from their homes and sent to distant boarding schools designed to eradicate their Indian culture. Only Native Americans were subject to these Federal policies.

In the South, after African-Americans were emancipated from slavery, they were subject to Jim Crow legislation that highly structured their interactions with whites, ranging from anti-miscegenation laws to restricted seating in public places. Even though such statutes were challenged effectively by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, racial segregation in various forms and degrees persist for a majority of blacks, especially affecting housing, employment, and membership in private clubs and other organizations.

Females continue to encounter discrimination in hiring and promotion. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, originally designed to check racial and ethnic discrimination, had "sexual discrimination" added to it by a legislator who sought to ensure its defeat. It nevertheless passed, but women continue to be denied opportunities in the workplace simply because they are not men. At one time, females who served in the military were not allowed to be truck drivers; today, they are still restricted from being combat pilots.

Prevalent stereotypes

The category Native Americans consists of numerous and culturally distinctive local groups that collectively constitute less than one percent of the US. population. This is in sharp contrast to the 12% of Americans who are black and, by and large, comprise a single ethnic group. Women, on the other hand, nearly 52% of our population, represent a gender group. In spite of these clear differences, all have been treated in fundamentally similar ways. In part, the historical similarity of the discriminatory treatment they have received is a reflection of similar prevalent stereotypes that deny their individual differences within these categories.

Many continue to view Indians, blacks, and women as being in need of guidance from others. Native Americans, it is believed widely, are naive and, as a result, have to be cared for and supervised by people who are better equipped to make important decisions for them. Adult blacks in the South were addressed as "boy" or "girl" in keeping with the stereotype that portrayed them as irresponsible and accepting subordination to those who took care of them.

When I moved to Mississippi in the 1960s to teach at Tougaloo College, local whites frequently accused me of being an "outside agitator" responsible for local civil rights unrest. The demonstrations and other forms of protest engaged in by my black students were in such sharp contrast to the prevailing stereotype held by Mississippi whites that they had to believe that the movement was instigated by northerners.

Everyone has encountered some people's belief that women are less rational, more impulsive, and generally impractical, in keeping with their little-girl personalities. Even in the 1990s, various forms of popular culture persist in referring to women as "girls" (song lyrics often prefer "baby"). Every few years, I still must remind the new student editor of our college newspaper that it is inappropriate to refer to women athletes as "girls."

Less pejorative, but no less contrived, is the image that Indians, blacks, and women are admirably creative. Although little else about contemporary Indian culture generally is admired, their crafts and artwork are acclaimed widely. Zuni silverwork, Hopi pottery, and the works of numerous Indian painters and sculptors are accepted as meeting the highest standards. With blacks, it is their music and dancing that are praised (in sharp contrast to Indian music). Female actresses and singers are so admired that the general public is very attentive to whatever they have to say (on almost any subject), in spite of the fact that the opinions of women in general frequently are ignored.

The stereotype of the lazy, unreliable, and frequently drunken Indian often inclines employers to rationalize their low wages. Similarly, urban black employees receive pay based on what one anthropologist dubbed the "wage/theft system," whereby low wages of black store clerks are grounded in the assumption that they will pilfer. (Of course, such low wages serve to encourage employees to justify stealing.) Women, traditionally, in keeping with the stereotype that portrayed them as being taken care of by their husbands, were paid far less than men who performed comparable work. It is less clear today why this pay discrepancy continues.

Violence toward Indians, blacks, and women also has been justified by prevailing stereotypes. In each case, the victim is seen as deserving discriminatory treatment. Indians, because they were "violent savages" (and, more recently, "drunks"), brought such types of victimization upon themselves, according to this reasoning. Looking at their high crime rate, blacks are seen as prone to violence and therefore deserving of it. Women are accused of inviting violence from dates and husbands as a result of their teasing and nagging. By blaming the victims in this way, a model is provided for justifying discrimination.

Stereotypical attitudes toward Indians basically are a matter of ethnocentrism; those directed at blacks are racism; and the prejudice against women is male chauvinism. Yet, the discriminatory treatment each group has received has been very similar, including being denied equal access to wealth and power. Indians were restricted to reservations and made dependent on governmental handouts. Blacks were given inferior education and limited by differential hiring and promotion practices. Women were discouraged from pursuing certain high-paying careers and still encounter promotion ceilings.

Prejudicial stereotypes also have served to justify restricting legal rights. Women were not allowed to vote until 1920. Remaining legal restrictions were to be removed by the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, but it failed to be ratified. Citizenship was denied to Indians before 1924, even though most were English-speaking Christians. Jim Crow laws prevented many southern blacks from registering to vote until the 1960s.

Given the similar discriminatory treatment to which these three groups have been subjected, it is understandable that their responses to discrimination also have been very similar. For example, the reactive behavior of most Indians, blacks, and women have tended to emphasize actions that are colorful, religious, philosophical, etc., rather than practical behavior to further material gain and/or political power. Native Americans stress the importance of sacred rituals, spiritual healing, powwows, and preserving Mother Earth. African-Americans concentrate on sacred and secular music, athletic ability, rapping, and ostentatious clothing. Women judge each other according to religious faith, intuition, and fashionable appearance. It is not surprising that low-status people often turn to such expressive behavior in order to compensate for their lack of real power.

Another consequence of long-standing subjugation to discrimination is low self-esteem. Native American and African-American youth illustrate this by their self-destructive behavior. Young inner-city black males have the highest death by murder rate in the country. Thousands avoid reality and shorten life through escape into illegal drugs. Indian adolescents have a suicide rate four times higher than the national average, and alcoholism and binge-drinking are endemic among adults. The low self-esteem of many women is expressed in feelings of inferiority, illustrated by their all-too-often loyalty to abusive men. Women seem less bent on violence, and we no longer hear much about penis envy, but their low self-esteem is evident in a prevalent lack of confidence in themselves and other females. Current Hollywood portrayals of highly confident heroines such as Thelma and Louise entertain, but seem as unreal as the contrived "Superfly" heroes in 1970s films.

Rising militancy

A contrasting response to discrimination is militant opposition, and many in all three groups actively have been involved in organizations that challenge their second-class status. The American Indian Movement was and remains highly visible as a result of numerous demonstrations, some of which have been reported widely by the media. The civil rights activism of the 1960s and 1970s greatly swelled the membership of the NAACP and spawned many militant groups. The Suffragettes who demanded the right to vote and the National Organization for Women that is campaigning to achieve legal equality indicate that females, as well as Indians and blacks, are capable of organized resistance to discrimination.

One outgrowth of such militancy has been the establishing of university programs on Native American, African-American, and Women's Studies. Within each group, some degree of categorical awareness has emerged. Increasingly, Indians of various tribes are stressing their commonalities, attempting to subordinate tribal differences and rivalries. Many who are full-blooded or part Indian have asserted their ethnic identity, as indicated by the fact that, although the Native American population experienced a modest increase between 1980 and 1990, 38% more individuals reported themselves as Indians in the 1990 Census. (In New York State, the increase soared by 58%.)

Black identity, overcoming persistent class and North/South distinctions, emerged as the civil rights movement started to play itself out. "Black is beautiful" began to supplant the goal of a totally integrated society of blacks and whites when it became evident that such a society seemed unrealistic. In a similar vein, feminism and sisterhood have been growing steadily in popularity among college-educated women.

Leaders in the three groups consistently stress the importance of this sort of common-fate identity, but, so far, such intellectual and emotional unity remains a distant goal. Reservation populations remain, by and large, highly provincial, and even within most tribes, very competitive, and angry factions sharply divide loyalties. Black street gangs bent on killing rivals exemplify the lack of unity in the ghettos. Among other issues dividing inner-city populations, Black Moslems disassociate from Christians; those who identify with middle- or working-class values strongly disapprove of "street corner" families; and the battle of the sexes seems especially volatile among lower-class blacks. Women, lacking the general residential segregation "enjoyed" by Indians and blacks, may be the least inclined to achieve group consensus. Such lack of common-fate identity prevents Indians, blacks, and women from militantly challenging their low status and the discrimination they face.

To explain the prevalent use of stereotypes and discriminatory treatment, we must examine not merely the targets, but also those who, prejudiced or not, advocate unfair treatment of minorities by perpetuating these ideas. It is not necessarily ignorance that leads them to do so. The reluctance of eating clubs at Princeton University to accept female members does not suggest that Ivy League undergraduates are informationally deprived. Nor is it a logical conclusion that the members of exclusive country clubs are less intelligent than blue-collar workers who voluntarily integrate their labor unions. Some would prefer to view discrimination as a pathology, the abnormal behavior of individuals with eccentric psychological needs. However, prejudice and discrimination are far too prevalent to be categorized merely as ideosyncratic behavior. Why are these three groups so often viewed stereotypically and so frequently the subjects of discrimination? Is it merely because people naturally dislike differences? Clearly, factors that distinguish blacks, Indians, and women from white, male Americans have diminished over time. In the case of blacks and Indians, even their biological differences have grown more subtle as a result of racial mixing. Yet, discrimination persists.

To explain prejudice and discrimination, we must consider the political and economic power of those who perpetuate them and the lack of power of the subjects of such attitudes and treatment. Those who discriminate against Native Americans, African-Americans, and/or females attempt to justify such practices by viewing these groups negatively. Uncritically accepting pejorative stereotypes seems to justify discriminatory treatment, thus prompting behavioral responses that serve to reinforce prejudice. The fact that African-Americans have an unemployment rate twice that of whites may be viewed as evidence of either discrimination or laziness. Those who discriminate against blacks are inclined to blame the latter.

Since discrimination based on an individual's race, gender, religion, language, sexual preference, etc. supposedly is un-American, we learn at an early age to justify acts of discrimination with rationalizations, telling ourselves that "they prefer to be treated that way," "they are better off being treated that way," or "they deserve to be treated that way." Blaming the victims serves to inhibit guilt feelings and removes the burden of responsibility from those who discriminate. It has a similar effect on those who may not engage in discriminatory acts, but nevertheless approve of or tolerate them.

Ethnocentrism, racism, and sexism remain prevalent in the U.S.'s complex and heterogeneous society. Expressing such stereotypes about others - or not challenging them - is one method of demonstrating conformity or loyalty to one's own group. Those who favor the status quo are unlikely to view stereotypes critically. This is partially why discrimination against minorities is so insidious and so difficult to combat.

Indians no longer are required to live on reservations; blacks may sit in the front of the bus; and married women can own property today. Nevertheless, while discrimination against all three groups has changed, it has not gone away. Even in a society supposedly dedicated to democratic principles and fair play, Native Americans, African-Americans, and females will continue to be faced by it as long as these minorities remain unable or unwilling to challenge such discrimination effectively.

Eradicating prejudice against one group requires understanding what it has in common with others who face the same bias. To combat the present forms of sexual discrimination, there must be far greater awareness that women have had and continue to have much in common with Indians and blacks. Only then can females fully understand the extent of their victimization as an American minority. Given such an awareness, they will become more likely to recognize and challenge discrimination against American women in the 1990s.
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Author:Layng, Anthony
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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