Commentary Magazine


Prejudice and Social Memory

To the Editor:

Paul Kecskemeti’s “The Psychological Theory of Prejudice” (October) is interesting and profitable reading. His thesis about “social memory” makes sense to me, and I have used it for years on lecture platforms in trying to answer the questions: “But why have the Jews been victims of persecution for so many centuries unless there is something basically wrong with them?” and “—yes, but why does everyone believe that Negroes are naturally inferior?”

As to Jews, this simply meant that, for many centuries, Christians had made outcasts or “untouchables” of Jews, for religious reasons. Now, after those religious reasons have largely been removed, the prejudice still remains because it has become a part of the pattern of ideas passed on from generation to generation. So with Negroes. Slaves for generations, the notion of their inferiority gained comprehensive acceptance. Once such an idea gains virtually universal acceptance, it is eliminated only with extreme difficulty. Especially when it is an idea that seems to explain personality.

It seems to me idle, however, to argue about the relative importance of psychological versus sociological causation. It is obvious that prejudice and discrimination are as complex and involved as personality and society themselves. . . .

And I am extremely grateful that Mr. Kecskemeti has stated so emphatically that “we cannot really combat prejudice without firm convictions.” Only religious motivation and scientific knowledge, together with sound educational method, can constitute a program to deal adequately with this great evil of all ages.

Willard Johnson
Secretary General
World Brotherhood
Geneva, Switzerland

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