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You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

When Rodgers and Hammerstein insisted on including “Carefully Taught,” a song denouncing racial bigotry, in their 1949 musical, “South Pacific” they were assailed on many sides as communists and race traitors. The vast majority of US citizens deemed the idea of white superiority as American as Mom, apple pie and Thanksgiving Day.

Before the Civil War the US had seven states that did not explicitly ban inter-racial marriage. During Reconstruction another 12 states repelled anti-miscegenation laws but prior to 1948 all of the remaining 29 states (Alaska and Hawaii did not gain statehood until 1959) had laws forbidding racial mixing. The tide only began to turn when the California Supreme Court overturned that state’s anti-miscegenation law in Perez v Sharp in 1948. (SCOTUS did not rule on laws prohibiting mixed race marriages until Loving v Virginia in 1967 when it ruled as unconstitutional laws forbidding sexual or marital relationships between members of differing races.)

For those of you who consider 1967 a period of our remote past I would like to add that it was not until the millennial year of 2000 that Alabama passed a referendum (59% in favor) over turning their then unenforceable law prohibiting marriage between whites and non-whites and that as late as 2009 a Louisiana justice of the peace refused to perform a civil ceremony uniting in marriage a mixed race couple (McKay v Bardwell.) It seems obvious that many of us have had excellent teachers when it comes to racial acceptance:

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

But racial bigotry is a symptom of the underlying issue rather than the problem itself. The real problem stems from an us versus them mentality and the subconscious supposition that our way of looking at things is the correct one. It is intransigence and unwillingness to consider other perspectives and values that creates an inability to compromise and find common ground. I blame much of the problem on absolutism and a need to be authoritarian.

Authoritarianism comes in many varieties but flows from fundamentalist principles, both profane and prophetic. How can a righteous people compromise on something which they feel certain has been laid down by God or is an absolute law of nature? The belief that a text, any text- whether secular or sacred, is the end word on a subject precludes willing compromise. Our parents have taught us well that our way of life and looking at things is the correct one and that a lack of adherence to the sacred text is sinful. Unwavering support of a principle is often held up as the ultimate test yet as the prophets who proclaim the worth or need of a thing strive to bring others to their camp they imply that any who change their positions are inherently weak. This greatly reduces the potential for finding common ground.

Each of us is composed of billions of unconscious beliefs and suppositions. We intentionally embrace some of the values that we were taught as children while striving to overthrow ideas which we find repugnant or dated. Miscegenation was considered a sin against God because He had created the races and placed them on separate continents. Race mixing was declared evil because it was contrary to divine will. (Of course, those that considered it against God’s will considered whites inherently superior to other races, but I digress.) The fact that most of us no longer consider inter-racial marriage sinful is one instance amongst thousands where biblical authority was used to forward a cause that has since become anathema. What becomes of our sacred document when it remains unchanged but our interpretation of it is turned 180 degrees? And this insistence on a previous text being absolute is by no means the sole province of religious folks. A belief in absolutism implies that everyone needs to adhere to the same standard and that we are constantly in a battle to convert the ignorant to our way of life. When we fail to understand that embracing, not merely tolerating, diversity is a key that will allow people to unlock the chains that bind them we willingly shackle ourselves.

Understanding that it truly does take all kinds to make the world is a necessary step in allowing us to not only tolerate one another but to value people that are different from ourselves. A first step down the road to valuing others is accepting that perspectives that are vastly different from our own are not all the work of devils bent on destroying our sacred beliefs. Until we can understand and act on that we’re doomed to live in an us versus them world where compromise is considered weakness and fear of bogeyman is what we are carefully taught.

I mean, what kind of world would it be if we didn’t accept at face value the satirical lyrics in “Carefully Taught”?

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

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