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Can People Change over Time?

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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 tried to find somebody. I began to blame it on black people. I had to hate somebody. Hatin’ America is hard to do because you can’t see it to hate it. You gotta have somethin’ to look at to hate. The natural person for me to hate would be black people, because my father before me was a member of the Klan (400). In Ellis’ mind, African Americans were the logical scapegoats for his frustration because his father, who he loved and respected, was racist against Africans Americans, and, as an adult, Ellis lived in a community where racist attitudes were commonly and publicly displayed. The Civil Rights Movement was the first time that African Americans had organized to publicly assert their rights for equality and fairness. The more prominent leaders of the civil rights community appeared to have the power that Ellis lacked, causing him to feel threatened by an “inferior” race. In his mind, any gains by African Americans would mean even fewer opportunities for Ellis.
In addition to psychological prejudice, Ellis’ prejudice was caused by the sociological forces identified by Parrillo, socialization, economic competition, and social norms. Parrillo describes socialization as individuals acquiring the values, attitudes, or belief of their culture or subculture (400-401). Ellis was socialized to believe in the principles of the KKK by his father and the culture he lived in as an adult. Ellis recalls why his father was a member of the KKK, “As far as he was concerned, it was the savior of white people. It was the only organization in the world that would take care of the white people. So I began to admire the Klan” (400). When Ellis ran his own gas station, it was down the road from the local KKK office and some of the members would hang out at his gas station on the way to or from the meetings. He related to the things they were saying about how the white man can’t ever get ahead, and blaming it on the African American man made sense in his mind. Similarly, economic competition is a breeding ground for prejudice because it makes jobs harder to get and causes people like Ellis, who believe they are part of the superior race, to think they should have better jobs than the inferior race. The social norms in Ellis’ world also influenced his prejudicial attitudes. The norms of his culture in Durham, North Carolina, during the Civil Rights Movement were that the African American race was inferior to the white race and should remain segregated. Ellis was conforming to these social norms by not questioning whether they are right or not. For instance, when members of the Ku Klux Klan recruited him to join, and later, when the members of the city council told him they needed his help to fight against the African American’s push for integration, the message to Ellis was that he too was respected as long as he conformed to the social norm of segregation. By conforming, Ellis gained power for the first time in his life. In his mind, important people actually cared what he had to say. He was no longer invisible and looked down upon. It gave his life a sense of purpose and made him feel worthwhile and valued. While Parrillo looks only at the causes of prejudice, Terkel goes beyond the causes of Ellis’ prejudice, and shows that, once Ellis started questioning his beliefs, he was able to become his own person. Ellis started realizing that the people in power like the city council members benefited from “low-income whites and low-income blacks fightin’,” because it meant they were still in control (403). Although the city leaders would privately encourage him to attend the city council meetings to argue against integration, these same leaders would not give him the time of day in public because they didn’t want to be seen associating with the KKK. He realized that they were using him to say what they couldn’t say without jeopardizing their re-election by appearing racist. By having the KKK oppose integration, the city council members had an excuse for not giving into the African Americans’ demands for integration or the Klan’s demands for segregation since they were required to serve all viewpoints. Ellis realized that the city council members benefited from the racial tension because it kept them in power. He had the same experience after he helped bring the union into the workplace at Duke University and ran for business manager for the union. Management tried to discredit him with the African American workers by telling them about his former membership in the K.K.K. He realized that management benefited from dividing the workers over race, because it kept the employees from uniting against management. The Civil Rights Movement started to take on new meaning for Ellis when he realized that poor and working class white people could benefit from a shift in power. He got the same sense of power from working on the school desegregation project and the union activity that he got from being the leader of the KKK. The difference was that he would actually improve his life and the lives of his children by fighting for better schools and worker’s rights than fighting against African Americans, which only benefited the rich and powerful.
Through both of these situations, Ellis worked closely with African Americans and got to know them as individuals instead of labels. He was elected co-chairperson of the schools committee along with Ann Atwater, a “militant black woman” (404). As they worked together, they realized that they had the same problems and goals. They were both viewed as traitors to their race by their communities, and their kids were being harassed because of it. Once he got to know Ann, he started seeing her as a human being, “From that moment on, I tell ya, that gal and I worked together good. I begin to love the girl, really. (He weeps.)” (405). Similarly, when Ellis started unionizing the workers at Duke University, he saw blacks and whites struggling in the same ways against management. Through these experiences, he discovered that African Americans were not the cause of his misery, “The whole world was opening up, and I was learnin’ new truths that I had never learned before” (406). Once he was able to see that there were no real differences between poor whites and poor blacks, he began to appreciate that they could help each other by working together. They could combine forces and accomplish so much more working with, rather than against, each other. By discovering that poor white people and poor black people shared a common goal of empowerment, Ellis was able to reject his racist views and move his life in a more positive direction fighting for equal rights for all poor and working class people, regardless of race. Through his work with Atwater and the union, he was able to fill his need for inclusion and respect in a more positive way than the KKK once provided.
C.P. Ellis’ prejudice against African Americans was the result of the complex psychological and sociological forces identified by Parrillo. By challenging his own beliefs, though, C.P. Ellis was able to see African Americans as human beings who were just trying to get ahead. Once he saw past his own prejudice, he was able to identify the real source of his frustrations—that people in power only stay in power by keeping people like C.P. Ellis down. This discovery motivated him to take action in a positive way to change his situation as well as those around him. Instead of using his energy to keep African Americans down, he united with them to work against the people in power who were trying to keep them both down.

Works Cited
Colombo, Gary, Robert Cullen and Bonnie Lisle, eds. Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing. 8 ed. New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2010. Print.
Parrillo, Vincent. “Causes of Prejudice.” Colombo, Cullen, and Lisle. 384-397.
Terkel, Studs. “C.P. Ellis.” Colombo, Cullen, and Lisle. 398-408.

Cited: Colombo, Gary, Robert Cullen and Bonnie Lisle, eds. Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing. 8 ed. New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2010. Print. Parrillo, Vincent. “Causes of Prejudice.” Colombo, Cullen, and Lisle. 384-397. Terkel, Studs. “C.P. Ellis.” Colombo, Cullen, and Lisle. 398-408.

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