Can People Change Over Time?
“I didn’t know who to blame. I tried to find somebody. I began to blame it on black people.” These are the words of C.P. Ellis, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, as he described his way of thinking to Studs Terkel in “C.P. Ellis” (400). “C.P. Ellis” has many similarities with Vincent Parrillo’s theories of prejudice in his essay “Causes of Prejudice” (384). Parrillo explains that the causes of prejudice are psychological and sociological. Parrillo describes three different psychological levels of prejudice, cognitive, emotional, and action oriented, and explains that prejudiced people use self-justification and frustration as bases for their racist beliefs and actions. Parrillo identifies three main parts to sociological prejudice: socialization, economic competition, and social norms. While C.P. Ellis experiences the complex psychological and sociological elements of prejudice described by Parrillo, he discovers a different reason for his frustration that changes his way of thinking and transforms his identity. Ellis grew up poor. His father was a working man who couldn’t make it in life and died from some kind of heart failure when Ellis was in eighth grade. As a result, Ellis had to drop out of school to support his mother and sister. Without a high school diploma, his employment options were limited. He worked low wage jobs and couldn’t make ends meet. Once he had a wife and kids of his own, he needed to find a better way to support them so he got a loan to open his own gas station. Members of the local KKK down the road would hang out at his gas station. He started listening to their ideas about why the poor white guy could never get a break, and how African Americans, Jews, Catholics, and Communists were to blame for all the wrongs in America. He decided to check out the KKK, and at his first meeting, he was hooked. It was the first time he ever felt like he belonged to a group with power. Before long, he moved up into leadership positions until he ultimately became the “exalted Cyclops” (401).
Ellis experiences all three levels of Parrillo’s psychological basis for his racist attitude toward African Americans. At a cognitive level, Ellis believes that African Americans are inferior to whites when he says, “[African American man] is beginnin’ to learn to read and start votin’ and run for political office. Here are white people who are supposed to be superior to them, and we’re shut out” (401). Ellis reacts at an emotional level when he gets a call from a white child who claims that he was robbed by African Americans for fifteen cents, when he says “I’d had a couple of drinks and that really teed me off” (402). Lastly, Ellis’s prejudice is action-oriented when he describes what he did after he went looking for the African Americans who robbed the boy and came across an African American kid, “I pulled my pistol out and put it right at his head. I said: “I’ve always wanted to kill a n***** and I think I’ll make you the first one” (402).
According to Parrillo’s psychological theory, Ellis experienced these different levels of prejudice because of self-justification and frustration. Self-justification is defined as rationalizing your racism by believing that the other race is inferior, dangerous, or bad. Ellis justifies his hatred toward African Americans by thinking of them as an inferior race to whites who don’t deserve to read, vote or hold political office. According to Parrillo, frustration causes prejudice because people who are frustrated with their own economic or social situation tend to increase their aggression towards others and create scapegoats who they can blame for their own problems. Growing up poor and seeing his father work hard and never get ahead in life before he died, and being in the same situation himself, Ellis’ frustration causes him to look at African Americans as scapegoats, “I really began to get bitter. I didn’t know who to blame. I...
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