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Roots of prejudice are cultivated in fear

Spring in Florida usually means a curbing of the exuberance of nature.

If any of you have tried to subdue asparagus sprengeri fern, you will appreciate my struggles to pull long streamers of roots and those strange translucent ovoids that cling to the soil. Then a few days later, the green fronds somehow manage to find a way to challenge me anew. The ferns are determined to choke the ixora no matter what I do.

This is the way prejudice manages to gain ground. We aren't aware of how far-reaching the tentacles of distrust and hate have invaded underground as we admire the green, leafy surface and the bright red berries.

Becoming aware of our deeply held prejudices and understanding their roots is one way to begin.

We can commit ourselves to learning about the customs and the nature of other religious, ethnic and racial groups. Understanding differences can reduce the distrust and fear that foster prejudice.

For 50 years we were taught to fear and distrust "Russians." Fear of communism created an era in our country that ruined lives and careers of innocent people through innuendo and guilt by association. We are inclined to forget the McCarthy years, but as often quoted: Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. Whom do we fear now? We want the oil of the Arab states, but we are not willing to try to understand their fears of annihilation and Muslim fundamentalism.

It is frightening to listen to followers of radio personalities, who themselves "laugh all the way to their banks" as they decry liberals, the left-wing media, the entertainment industry, the environmentalists, the blacks, the Jews, the homosexuals. Some of these talk show hosts encourage callers to take out their frustrations with their economic situation on others even more vulnerable.

We are comfortable when we are in the company of those who feel the same way we do. Too, we have been trained to be agreeable and not to correct or contradict.

Thus ideas and actions that are not compatible with our own sense of values are expressed without any challenge. We judge groups by the actions of the few.

Imagine stirring up such passions that a physician is slain at an abortion clinic. How much better it would be for a positive surge to help curb teenage pregnancies.

I cringe in reading of the smash-and-grab tactics. They are a symptom of disdain for anyone who has more. Where does it end, and what can we do to help it end?

I am alarmed by the north-south division in St. Petersburg evidenced by the last election. The energies used to promote the choice of a strong-mayor form of government and the close election in the race for mayor need to be channeled to constructive outlets.

If we listened to Martin Luther King Jr., when he dreamed of a world where black children would be "judged not by the color of their skins, but by the content of their character," we must work toward fostering the education of children in prejudice-free classrooms.

There are too many stories of children being told their dreams of being a professional person such as a lawyer, doctor or teacher are not possible. We need to be positive about manual labor as a desirable occupation. Mechanics and engineers get their hands dirty.

Racism does not have to be intentional; it exists because it was a "normal" way to react in the majority group. However, blacks have to face the facts that staying in school and fighting through the miasma of prejudice is the only way. Drugs and violence won't make up for a frustrating experience.

The fern shoots continue to press upward, and I, with other concerned Americans, must eradicate the roots.

We need to work for better schooling, better housing and education for all of us to understand where the tentacles of our prejudices are reaching.

Jan Nussbaum of St. Petersburg is a retired English teacher, writer and poet.

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