Group pride, beneficial or detrimental

Part 5

I’ve been writing about a continuum of pride with arrogance at one far end and great humility at the other. An earlier column discussed individual pride in that context. 

There is also group pride. Even the Amish, who aim at humility, have group pride — based on their belief that they are on the right path while others who do not share their particular beliefs are not.

All of us like to feel, now and then, that we are part of a cohort that sees the world as we do. Group pride enhances our feelings of self-worth by stressing our solidarity with others of the same background and enables us to bask in the reflected glow of the accomplishments of earlier members. 

But today, a disturbing number of public and private matters seem to hinge solely on the yea or nay judgments of groups that flaunt pride of skin color, ethnicity, religion, nationality or sexual orientation. Such group pride is usually a reaction to a history of oppression, exploitation and abuse. 

African-Americans were so horribly treated, initially as slaves, after emancipation as second-class citizens, and since then as discriminated against, that sensations of negative self-worth became common; “black pride” arose as an antidote to those sensations. 

There are similar origins of Latino, feminist and gay pride, and that of other oppressed peoples. These aggregations of people, organized or not, have been helpful to their members’ ability to make their way in the world with heads held high. 

But what about when active oppression recedes? Does that obviate the need for such groups? A hundred years ago, anti-Semitism was a big problem in America; the activism of the groups formed to fight it, and subsequent Jewish-Americans’ success in many fields, changed society’s willingness to accept those hyphenates as American as those of any others. We should also recall that Irish-Americans were once badly discriminated against here, that John F. Kennedy’s Irishness (and Catholicism) almost cost him the presidency — and we should be happy that discrimination against Jewish, Irish and Italian-Americans has all but vanished. 

There are continuing instances of discriminations, which must be fought and extinguished, but in general the need for those three ethnic pride groups to be activist has diminished. Conversing candidly with individual members of these three groups, over the years, I found that virtually all admitted that they’d been occasionally discriminated against because of their “background,” but it wasn’t that big a deal for them — they’d been able to get past the obstacle. 

This is not the case with African-Americans, Latinos, women, gays, etc. Every single one of my sons’ many male African-American friends and classmates in public and private schools has suffered harassment by the police — every single one! 

That we have had an African-American who became president has not eliminated overt racism and discrimination against African-Americans; these social ills continue in the U.S., virulently so, meaning there is still a pressing need for “black pride” groups to publicly stand up for their rights and collectively fight the bias.

Is there a point at which group pride gets in the way of understanding? That happens regularly when we who are members of one group or another — and I include political groupings — allow what “our” group thinks to overly influence our comprehension of events, individuals and the world around us. 

Is there a point at which group pride gets in the way of personal growth? George Carlin opined in a comedy stand-up, “Pride should be reserved for something you achieve or obtain on your own, not something that happens by accident of birth.” In this typically coruscating routine, Carlin ripped color, ethnic, and national pride, decrying all as poor substitutes for individual accomplishment. He did not come out and state that for an individual, concentrating on matters of group pride interferes with personal development and accomplishment — but it often does. 

When a Southern backwoodsman is so assertive about being white-and-proud that he has tattoos with such mottoes visible on his hands and wears a Confederate flag T-shirt to a job interview, should he be shocked when he is not chosen for a job that the employer views as requiring a physical appearance that does not turn away prospective customers? 

Ditto, when that happens to the wearer of dreadlocks and a Black Lives Matter tee? 

If such job-seekers feel constrained by not being permitted to express themselves through emblems of group pride — well, then, welcome to the club, for we all find it occasionally necessary to file down our rough edges to fit in and must be willing to accept the consequences if we don’t file them down. To presume otherwise is arrogance. 


Tom Shachtman is the author of more than a dozen American and world histories and of documentaries seen on all the major networks. He lives in Salisbury.