An Exercise in Prejudice (1992)
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a schoolteacher by the name of Jane Elliott used an exercise to teach her students about racism: She divided the children by eye color. Thirteen years ago, with her help, I tried the same experiment with our audience.
When people arrived at Harpo, we separated those with blue eyes from those with brown eyes. The blues, who were given a green collar to wear, were sent to a waiting room with no food for two hours; the browns were offered doughnuts and took their seats ahead of all those with blue eyes. Once they were in the studio, Jane Elliott explained what her "study" had proved: Blue-eyed people were obviously less intelligent than brown-eyed people.
The audience actually became convinced that Jane Elliott was telling the truth. The blues began to revolt, trying to persuade me that they were just as intelligent as the browns; the browns sat by smugly, obviously beginning to believe that they'd always been superior. The purpose of the experiment was to demonstrate how easily human beings can be taught to discriminate based on arbitrary features.
If an hour's worth of propaganda can convince 300 audience members, what other lies might we fall prey to? That was Jane Elliott's point exactly.