The reader said that she was thinking of putting this quote on the wall at her work place, but wanted to know the context of the quote before venturing to do so.
Hm, I thought, I believe I know what you are thinking. It would be embarrassing to put the quote up and then a co-worker says something like "Say, don't you know it was racial prejudice he was defending?"
I looked at the source from which I got it, a review of the book In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, by conservative essayist Theodore Dalrymple on the web site of the conservative New English Review, but it was no help. It contained no indication of the source or context of the quote.
The idea that prejudice can be good is an occasional theme of American conservative essayists going at least as far back as the title essay of Richard Weaver's Life Without Prejudice and Other Essays (1965).
[Disclaimer: I didn't post those quotations because I agree with them. I was commenting on their literary qualities, not their truth or falsity.]
After more searching, I eventually did find the source. The quote is from The Innocents Abroad, chapter: "The Ascent of Vesuvius, Continued." It was slightly misquoted, which was what made it hard to find initially. Here is the passage from which it was taken:
And here, also, they used to have a grand procession, of priests, citizens, soldiers, sailors, and the high dignitaries of the City Government, once a year, to shave the head of a made-up Madonna--a stuffed and painted image, like a milliner's dummy -- whose hair miraculously grew and restored itself every twelve months. They still kept up this shaving procession as late as four or five years ago. It was a source of great profit to the church that possessed the remarkable effigy, and the ceremony of the public barbering of her was always carried out with the greatest possible eclat and display--the more the better, because the more excitement there was about it the larger the crowds it drew and the heavier the revenues it produced--but at last a day came when the Pope and his servants were unpopular in Naples, and the City Government stopped the Madonna's annual show.So the prejudice involved was indeed racial prejudice.
There we have two specimens of these Neapolitans--two of the silliest possible frauds, which half the population religiously and faithfully believed, and the other half either believed also or else said nothing about, and thus lent themselves to the support of the imposture. I am very well satisfied to think the whole population believed in those poor, cheap miracles--a people who want two cents every time they bow to you,and who abuse a woman, are capable of it, I think.
These Neapolitans always ask four times as much money as they intend to
take, but if you give them what they first demand, they feel ashamed of themselves for aiming so low, and immediately ask more. When money is to be paid and received, there is always some vehement jawing and gesticulating about it. One can not buy and pay for two cents' worth of clams without trouble and a quarrel. One "course," in a two-horse carriage, costs a franc--that is law--but the hackman always demands more, on some pretence or other, and if he gets it he makes a new demand. It is said that a stranger took a one-horse carriage for a course --tariff, half a franc. He gave the man five francs, by way of experiment. He demanded more, and received another franc. Again he demanded more, and got a franc--demanded more, and it was refused. He grew vehement --was again refused, and became noisy. The stranger said, "Well, give me the seven francs again, and I will see what I can do"--and when he got them, he handed the hackman half a franc, and he immediately asked for two cents to buy a drink with. It may be thought that I am prejudiced.
Perhaps I am. I would be ashamed of myself if I were not.
Is there a moral here about the nature of prejudice?
A prejudice is, roughly speaking, an unjustified belief. To hold and act on such a belief is to act in blindness and thus increase the likelihood that (by your own standards) you will go wrong. If you do go wrong, you will be walking into a booby trap that you set for yourself. Kind of like the reviewer who did not check the source of this quote.