Two year-end surveys of Canadians, respectively conducted by Forum Research Group and by Abacus, provide some potentially useful insights into the relationship between discrimination and prejudice. The surveys remind us that prejudice is uneven, and that some groups are viewed less favourably than others. In effect, the surveys reveal that Asians, Blacks and Jews are less likely to be regarded unfavourably by Canadians than are Muslims and Aboriginal Peoples, and that the latter two groups are also more likely than are others to be seen as objects of discrimination.
Although we've rarely described it as such, there has always been a hierarchy in the way racial, ethnic and language communities are viewed. Over time, what's changed is how unfavourably some groups are viewed when compared with others. There is little doubt that prejudice towards Muslims has surged since September 2001 and by consequence they've moved to the top of the list of those regarded most unfavourably.
It's not just where Muslims rank that has evolved. The gap has also widened in the extent to which they're viewed more unfavourably. As a result, when looking across the list of groups in the two surveys, it's possible to ascertain that prejudice towards Blacks and Jews is less important than it was in the past, simply by virtue of the fact that the percentage of persons expressing animosity towards them is currently much lower than it is for Muslims.
Eradicating negative stereotypes is essential in the fight against prejudice and discrimination.
This may also give rise to the broader conclusion that societal prejudice and discrimination are in decline. Yet the more cogent observation would be that, with time, there has been a displacement in the degree and the intensity of negative feeling towards those groups that become the object of greater public attention.
Amongst the issues raised by the hierarchy of prejudice and the accompanying perception of discrimination is identifying who's best situated to combat this destructive phenomenon. It's a key question for policy makers, educators and anti-racist activists. Often the leaders of those communities whose members are more likely to have experienced prejudice assume that they best understand discrimination and are therefore most qualified to combat it. Conversely, they may also feel that persons who have not been victims of prejudice are ill equipped to deal with it.
Explaining why some groups were liked or overlooked and others were disliked was difficult according to the renowned psychologist Gordon Allport. Yet there is consensus that eradicating negative stereotypes is essential in the fight against prejudice and discrimination. Stereotypes are generalizations that arise when people are either unable or unwilling to acquire the necessary information to make proper assessments about groups. Prejudices are not simple to debunk as they provide reassurance for people's impressions.
Victims of prejudice may indeed be best placed to undo negative stereotypes about the communities with which they are identified. It's also true that common stereotypes that serve to denigrate certain groups vary and hence some may assume different approaches are needed to tackle them. In other words, the common stereotypes about Muslims differ from the ones about Jews which in turn differ from those about Blacks, etc. However the removal of one stereotype may have no impact whatsoever on diminishing another. Indeed this appears to be confirmed by the persistence of a hierarchy of prejudice as revealed in the surveys referred to above.
Ideally victims of prejudice should band together across communities to insist that the generalizations that underlie stereotypes are wrong. Ideally they need to work with persons who have not been victims of prejudice and that perhaps previously harbored negative stereotypes and thankfully have since evolved. In the absence of such efforts we can expect some Canadians to continue to provide a rational and/or justification for why some groups deserve to seen more unfavourably than others.
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