My family — the Warnocks — are of Scots-Irish ancestry. According to family legend, we left Scotland and arrived in Ireland just in time for the Irish potato famine. Call it bad timing, I suppose, but from that difficult experience three Warnock brothers came from Ireland to America in the mid-nineteenth century. Apparently the original family name was McIlvernock, indicating a native Scottish origin. But over the generations, the McIl was dropped and Vernock became Warnock, so by the time the Warnock brothers came to America, their name no longer betrayed their heritage. My paternal grandmother’s family name suffered a similar modification. They were Irish — the O’Callahams — but, because of prejudice against the Irish in America, they dropped the O’ and became just the Callahams.
An aunt relayed those stories about our lineage to me long years ago, and they stayed with me. She noted that when our Irish-immigrant ancestors arrived in the United States in the 19th century, prejudice against the Irish was at a fever pitch. When help wanted signs were posted in store windows many contained the caution, “No Irish Need Apply.” So much for the luck of the Irish.
It seems the dominant majority in America has always designated one or more groups as an inferior group in our society. In the 19th century, ethnic epithets tagged each arriving immigrant people — Irish were “micks;” Germans were “krauts;” Italians were “wops;” Spaniards were “dagos;” and, I’m sure there were other groups that became tagged with similar expressions of bigotry.
However, immigrants weren’t the only people who were labeled with derisive nicknames. Native Americans were referred to as “savages” or “redskins.” Sports teams like the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, and the Atlanta Braves receive continuing, and I think justified, criticism for using nicknames and images which Native Americans find offensive. Of course, the ultimate prejudicial identifier used by whites of African Americans is what we now refer to as the “n-word” because its use is socially offensive in public discourse.
In 21st century America, immigrants have become the new target of group prejudice, regardless of country of origin. Hopefully, we who are third-or-more generation Americans will remember that unless we are of Native American ancestry, our forebears who came to this country were also immigrants.
Group prejudice targets whole segments of population based on country of origin, but that is not the only criteria for group prejudice that exists. We also harbor prejudice against other groups for other reasons in this nation. In part, the recent activism of the “new atheists” was to counter the prejudice directed at atheists and agnostics as a group simply because they do not believe in the god to which most of society pays lip service. Of course, groups who do believe can also become the targets of prejudice, such as Mormons who were hounded out of Ohio in the 19th century, but who eventually found a home in the Great Salt Lake area. Mitt Romney’s candidacy helped to dispel the use of religious prejudice as a political weapon, but prejudice against religious groups still exists.
Now, we as a society are grappling with the issue of gay marriage. In doing so, we are having to confront our own prejudices against another group, the gay community. This group also has been the target of derogatory name-calling. Until the activist gay community adopted the term, “queer” was a widely-accepted heterosexual descriptor for homosexual men.
Of course, many evangelicals have described their ambivalent attitude toward gays with the phrase, “we hate the sin, but love the sinner.” We are now hearing that this is not comforting or encouraging to the gay community. They do not want to be referred to as “sinners” because they see nothing wrong with who they are. Behind the idea of homosexuality as sin is the long-held evangelical belief that homosexuality is a choice, and not genetically determined. Therefore, the argument goes, those who choose homosexuality are choosing to sin.
Clearly, this understanding is being challenged in our society today. How evangelicals will evolve on this issue is still up for grabs, but I believe that prejudice against homosexuals as a group eventually will become socially unacceptable, just as prejudice against other groups has also become socially unacceptable. Does that mean that churches cannot set their own criteria for participating members, including conduct based on the Bible’s ethical principles? Absolutely not, but personally, I have become more wary of prejudice against whole groups of people than I used to be.
Anytime we lump all members of any group into the same pot, let’s remember that not all Christians (or Muslims or Jews or Buddhists) believe exactly the same, not all Irish are hot-tempered, not all Asians are inscrutable, not all Italians are good cooks, and not all Germans are analytical. Stereotypical group characterization does not make our society better, lead to more understanding, or foster dialogue. Perhaps one day we will no longer see the need to denigrate another group of people in order to feel good about ourselves.