08/26/2014 12:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Unnatural Cycle of Prejudice and Violence

Human beings love traditions, from annual family gatherings held at the same place for generations to superstitious rituals done to help a favorite sports team win the big game. Unfortunately, not all traditions that are handed down throughout the years are beneficial or even benign. Some perpetuate the biggest social problems that afflict humanity.


Prejudice, such as that relating race to inherent criminality, is simply unsupported by the facts, meaning that it persists due to unchallenged ignorance. And like most bigotry this prejudice is unnatural -- human beings aren't born racist or xenophobic. A quick view of diverse preschools, like the ones my daughters attended in the Washington DC area, reveals just how well kids get along without regard to ethnic and social divisions -- that is, until they learn otherwise from their elders. This ignorance-based prejudice doesn't arise from nothing, but is taught by the previous generation and frequently accepted (just like faith) without evidence by those that follow. This tradition of generational prejudice is detrimental -- even dangerous -- for society because it leads to social strife and violence.

When prejudice is embedded in a new generation, it brands whole groups in society negatively, painting them as the outside "other" to be distrusted or feared. We've seen far too many examples of the impact this prejudice can have. As we've been reminded yet again in Ferguson, Missouri, the fear that derives from racial prejudice spawns discriminatory behavior that can turn deadly.

The recent killing of Michael Brown is a brutal reminder why traditions of all sorts, but especially those based in bigotry, mustn't be unconsciously passed down to children and reinforced with peers. Anything initially accepted on faith should be reconsidered, and we should do all in our power to reject those traditions that are based on prejudice or needless exclusion. This isn't an easy matter of choosing from a menu of options, rather it requires daily vigilance to prevent the blindness of the past from infecting how we treat people in the present. And it's not just about rejecting bad behavior either since we also need to encourage the best traditions of humanity; the ones that help us learn empathy and act altruistically.

Traditions based in discrimination and prejudice need not persist indefinitely, for the unnatural by-products of ignorance and scarcity can be overcome. Humanity has a history of an ever widening circle of what we mean by in-group. We've gone from extended families to tribes to city-states to nations to entities like the European Union. The time may come when we view humanity itself as the in-group that matters most. And when we are no longer blinded by ignorance about ourselves and our world, but are instead educated about nature and humanity, we will see that prejudice has no place or benefit in our world. But as much as we might benefit by striving toward it, that utopian ideal isn't going to happen anytime soon, and we need to be prepared to deal with what people really think and do today if we're going to stop violence like that seen in Ferguson.

Prejudice, and the discrimination that results from it, must be fought at every turn. We must dispel ignorance with clear facts and living examples. We must shame those who would allow fear to reign and provide them no social acceptance for their discrimination. Those that engage in discriminatory acts must be consistently and appropriately dealt with: if they break a law, our justice system must be fixed to ensure they don't go unpunished. If their discriminatory actions fall short of an illegal behavior they should be still be punished by society, where family and friends don't excuse it, but instead demonstrate the negative social consequences for such actions.

If we can help or compel those who hold on to these morally bankrupt traditions to free themselves from such hateful ideas, the world can begin to heal itself of the damage that has been caused over the years. When that time comes, the Michael Browns of the world will finally be able to walk the streets without an undue fear for their safety, and humanity as a whole will benefit.