Why Stereotypes Are So Hard to Eradicate
We can't help but make generalizations--and many of them are based on experience.

The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, August 12, 1998

Within eight hours of last Friday's anti-American bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the Council on American-Islamic Relations had issued a press release cautioning against anti-Muslim stereotypes. "Journalists and elected representatives should remove religious references from their comments on these tragic events," declared Nihad Awad, the council's executive director.

Alas, journalists ignored Mr. Awad's plea. When a group calling itself the Army for the Liberation of Islamic Shrines phoned an Egyptian newspaper with the claim that it was behind the bombings, news reports revealed the organization's name. Mr. Awad could not have expected them to conceal it. Perhaps instead he should consider urging terrorists to avoid religious references--or, better still, urging his fellow Muslims to avoid terrorism.

Just about every ethnic or religious minority has one or more organizations whose primary purpose is to combat stereotypes. If these groups seem oversensitive at times, it's easy to sympathize with their basic position. No one likes being prejudged; we all want others to view us as individuals. Stereotypes can be malicious and their consequences ugly.

Yet all of us employ stereotypes, most of which carry an element of truth. Stereotypes reflect an accumulation of experience and are the best guide we have for making preliminary assessments of new people and situations. In the case of last week's bombings, it's hardly reasonable for Mr. Awad to expect that those trying to identify the perpetrators would ignore history: Virtually every overseas act of anti-American terrorism in recent memory has been committed by an Islamic group in the name of its religion.

True, as Mr. Awad notes, "uninformed speculations" immediately after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing falsely blamed it on Muslims. This led, he says, to "anti-Muslim hysteria." But it's hard to imagine finding a Timothy McVeigh on the streets of Nairobi or Dar es Salaam. More important, anti-Muslim hysteria would have been no more justified if Muslims had turned out to be behind Oklahoma City. For the truth of the stereotype goes only one way: Most anti-American terrorists are Muslims, but most Muslims are not terrorists. Retaliating against innocent Muslims would represent the most malignant form of stereotyping, really just another instance of terrorism.

A more benign case of stereotyping--an example of "rational discrimination"--is the practice of singling out Muslims when taking precautions against terrorism, such as when developing airport profiles of potential terrorists. Mr. Awad objects to this as well. In a May press release, he complained that "American Muslim and Arab-American air travelers have suffered disproportionate harassment and discrimination, especially in times of crisis."

Airport security is burdensome for all of us, and one cannot but sympathize with the innocent traveler who endures additional inconvenience on account of his religion or ethnicity. But Mr. Awad takes the argument further: "American Muslims are particularly concerned that, as security measures become more discreet and sophisticated, discrimination may be occurring yet remain unknown to the passengers involved." This seems an indefensible view: Why should we object to discrimination if it has a rational basis and imposes no actual hardship on its "victim"?

Rational discrimination is harder to justify when it does harm innocent people. In his 1995 book, "The End of Racism," Dinesh D'Souza defends the practice of some taxi drivers not to pick up black men for fear of being robbed or taken to a bad neighborhood. Most such cabdrivers, Mr. D'Souza argues, are motivated not by "racism" in the sense of malice toward blacks--indeed, some of the drivers are themselves black--but by caution based on realistic stereotypes. Yet from the standpoint of a black man trying to hail a taxi, it doesn't much matter. If he can't get a cab simply because he is black, he has every reason to feel aggrieved.

The most benign stereotypes would seem to be those that emphasize some positive trait that is disproportionately common within a group: Blacks are accomplished athletes; Jews are highly intelligent. Even here advocacy organizations typically bristle at the stereotypes. Consider the idea that Asian-Americans are a studious, high-achieving "model minority." Writing in AsianWeek magazine last year, Derald Wing Sue, a co-founder of the Asian American Psychological Association, characterized this stereotype as a " 'divide and conquer' ploy" that "perpetuates the belief that 'anyone in our society can succeed if they work hard enough,' thereby seeming to prove that our society is truly democratic when it is not."

Mr. Sue exhorts Asian-Americans: "Building multicultural alliances among people of color must become a top priority for all of us." Clearly he has his own preconceptions about Asian-Americans and other "people of color," and therein lies a paradox: Organizations that set out to refute stereotypes typically say they speak on behalf of some minority group or other. But by claiming to represent a "black view" or an "Asian view," they are themselves stereotyping. Indeed, is multiculturalism, with its emphasis on group identities, anything more than an exercise in stereotyping?

Stereotypes will always be with us, and stereotypes based in actual experience will always prove more powerful than any politically correct diktat. But if advocates really wanted to weaken the force of stereotypes, they would embrace a strong American identity. For what unites Americans is the ideal of individualism--an aspiration to transcend stereotypes.

Next article: An Adolescent View of Smoking (The American Enterprise, September/October 1998)

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