In those conversations, according to the New York Times article, Colson told Nixon he had always had "a little prejudice." Nixon responded that he himself wasn't prejudiced but that "I've just recognized that, you know, all people have certain traits."
In other words, Nixon prejudged people based on their ethnicity because "all people" have certain traits. One of the dictionary definitions of prejudice is "preconceived notion or opinion." So there's no question that anyone who makes broad assumptions about someone based on race or ethnicity is prejudiced in at least one sense of the word.
Another dictionary definition of prejudice is "an irrational attitude or hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race or their supposed characteristics." This is the one that Nixon thinks he is innocent of.
But in practice, one sort of prejudice makes the other sort possible. By buying into the idea that certain groups all share some trait, you automatically exclude a person from consideration for certain jobs solely based on their ethnicity. And the crazy thing is, especially in the US, almost no one can claim any one ethnicity -- my ancestors came from at least five different countries and pretty much everyone here can say that.
Most of the headlines echo the New York Times: "In Tapes, Nixon Rails about Jews and Blacks." But Nixon was bigoted all around. From the Times:
“The Jews have certain traits,” he said. “The Irish have certain — for example, the Irish can’t drink. What you always have to remember with the Irish is they get mean. Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish.”Nixon continued: “The Italians, of course, those people course don’t have their heads screwed on tight. They are wonderful people, but,” and his voice trailed off.
Paradoxically, this is a ray of light.
Nixon was obviously prejudiced in all senses of the word against pretty much everyone. At the time of these conversations people were becoming what the right loves to call "politically correct" about racism. But 10 years earlier Nixon's ethnic slurs would not have raised any eyebrows.
The headlines on this story trumpet Nixon's prejudice against Jews and blacks, but relegate his racism against the Italians and the Irish to minor talking points that burnish Nixon's racist credentials. These days Nixon's anti-Irish and anti-Italian prejudices seem silly, nonsensical and almost quaint.
The most damning thing in the Nixon story was this (from the Times):
It's taken less than 40 years for a black man to attain the highest office in the land, not 500. But, some will argue, Nixon was right after all: Obama is the son of a Kenyan and a white American. He had been "inbred."At another point, in a long and wandering conversation with Rose Mary Woods, his personal secretary, that veered from whom to invite to a state dinner to whether Ms. Woods should get her hair done, Nixon offered sharp skepticism at the views of William P. Rogers, his secretary of state, about the future of black Africans.“Bill Rogers has got — to his credit it’s a decent feeling — but somewhat sort of a blind spot on the black thing because he’s been in New York,” Nixon said. “He says well, ‘They are coming along, and that after all they are going to strengthen our country in the end because they are strong physically and some of them are smart.’ So forth and so on.“My own view is I think he’s right if you’re talking in terms of 500 years,” he said. “I think it’s wrong if you’re talking in terms of 50 years. What has to happen is they have to be, frankly, inbred. And, you just, that’s the only thing that’s going to do it, Rose.”
No, Nixon was just racist and wrong. Colin Powell would have been able to run for president and win. I don't think Powell has the stomach for the crap you have to put up with to get elected (I don't see how anyone can stand it). But he has the ability to lead and he had the trust of the American people until he was caught up in the Bush administration's lies on Iraq. And he was serving in Nixon's military at the time Nixon made his pernicious remarks!
And, yeah, Powell too had been "inbred." But that's the point. Everyone in this country has been thrown into the melting pot. It doesn't take 500 years for this to happen: it only takes the time for racist bigots to die out and the artificial barriers that separate us to fall away and allow us to treat each other as equals.
In the next 50 years we'll likely see the last vestiges of racism against American blacks die out, and the anti-gay hysteria disappear completely. As groups assimilate prejudice eventually evaporates (new prejudices may form as new out-groups arrive, but that's life).
This question of assimilation seems to be the bone of contention for a lot of people on the right today. They aren't prejudiced, they insist, but it's not right that Mexican Americans "refuse" to learn English or that American Muslim women wear veils or that Somali Americans eat weird food. These people demand assimilation instantly, but they miss the lessons of history.
Assimilation doesn't happen in a day. Japanese, Chinese, Irish, Italian, Norwegian and German immigrants spoke their native languages.
But their kids assimilated and now all their descendants speak English and wear jeans and eat hamburgers and French fries. And we eat Kung Pao chicken and sushi and beef burritos.
The wrong way to force assimilation was what happened to many American Indians -- kids were taken from their parents, stripped of their clothing and their names and forced to learn English.
If you want to hire someone you don't criticize their clothes, what they eat and how they talk. It's the same thing with assimilating recent immigrants into our society. To encourage assimilation and remove racial tension we need to accept people for what they are. We can't insist they change instantly -- it's not possible. The adults will never change, because adults can't. But their kids -- their kids will be 100% American if we don't alienate them.
Like the generations of Swedes, Frenchmen, Russians, Poles, Czechs who came to this country, these new kids will forget their parents' native tongues, throw away their veils, and stop eating weird food. Their parents will bemoan the loss, but hey -- that's life in America. If we make the American way of life attractive and inviting the kids will be helpless to resist The Borg of American popular society.
At the same time we may get something new in the process. Like pizza: the staple of American life.