The stereotype is in disrepute. The word is often defined in purely negative terms. Some definitions construe the stereotype as necessarily possessing the negative charge that does, indeed, energize many stereotypes. Other definitions see as inseparable from the stereotype the inappropriate application of the stereotype to those members of the stereotyped group who do not exhibit the stereotyped behavior. The problem with all such usages is that they render undiscoverable a crucial empirical fact: stereotypes have a basis in reality.
It is more fruitful to define “stereotype” without deciding its truthfulness or correctness in advance, and without including either the value judgment made by the stereotype or the implication of any cause and effect relationship. In this way we can address the correctness or incorrectness of each stereotype as an empirical question. We might define “stereotype” as “a widely held belief associating a specific temperamental or behavioral tendency with a specific group.” This definition in no way denies that stereotypes usually serve functions of prejudice or power; it merely distinguishes the stereotype proper from the functions that it serves. Many beliefs about groups that are not stereotypes clearly are incorrect. “Jews have horns” and “Jews control banking” are entirely incorrect, but they are not stereotypes because they are not beliefs about temperamental or behavioral tendencies. “Jews are good at business” is a stereotype.
A stereotype is, obviously, a statistical approximation. To apply a stereotype inaccurately or inappropriately to an individual member of the stereotyped group always constitutes a serious misuse. A six-foot-tall woman is not short simply because most women are, compared to men, short. But even if one believes stereotypes are always misused in this or some other manner, the misuse does not cast doubt on the (statistical) correctness of the stereotype. Those who insist that stereotype be defined in terms of such misuse cannot avoid the central point of this essay: Stereotypes reflect a population’s correct observation that certain groups exhibit certain temperamental or behavioral tendencies that set them apart from the rest of the population. Those who insist that the definition includes misuse must redirect their attention away from the “stereotype” per se and consider instead the empirical premise of the stereotype. An empirical claim can be refuted only in empirical terms; no amount of fancy definitional footwork can avoid this requirement.
In this sense, the stereotype that Scots are penurious can be refuted only by a demonstration that Scots are no more penurious than other people. The fact that some Scots (who are exceptions if the stereotype is correct) spend wildly, the fact that these (exceptional) Scots are incorrectly labeled as “stingy,” the fact that Scots see penuriousness as sensible thriftiness, and the fact that the stereotype serves functions of prejudice and power—while all true—cast no doubt on the correctness of the stereotype (unless, of course, the exceptions are so numerous that they render the group statistically indistinguishable from the general population).
It is important to keep in mind the distinction between the stereotype and (a) any causal explanation of why the group exhibits disproportionately the observed behavior; (b) the value judgment placed on the observed behavior; and (c) the functions or purposes of the stereotype.
Like the stereotype itself, any causal analysis attempting to explain the association of a stereotyped group and behavior is an empirical claim. Unlike the stereotype itself, the causal explanation postulates unobservable mechanisms which often lead the members of the general population who see much better than they think—to believe causal explanations that are woefully incorrect. It is only the observed behavior, the stereotype, that I argue to be correct. The “average person” may be entirely incorrect when he says that members of a minority group are “stupid” (imply ing a deep-seated, perhaps innate, causation) when the members of the group tend-statistically speaking—to be uneducated. But he is correct in his observation that the members of the group are at an intellectual disadvantage, though the environmental cause may well be educational discrimination. It is precisely this disadvantage that is the primary justification offered for the battle against de facto school discrimination. The distinction between a (correctly) observed stereotype and an (incorrect) causal explanation is easily seen in the claim that men are taller than women and that they are taller because they eat more.
Any value judgment linked to a stereotype (i.e., the designation of Jewish behavior as, for example, “pushy” or “enterprising”) is a subjective claim that cannot be empirically tested. The function or purpose of the stereotype is likewise irrelevant to the correctness of the stereotype. There are, of course, empirical questions about valuations, functions, and purposes—concerning, for example, the conditions under which specific valuations, functions, and purposes are found and how they operate. But the valuations, functions, and purposes themselves are not empirical claims and have no bearing on the correctness of the stereotype. The stereotype of a group may, of course, differ from time to time and place to place. American Jews are hardly viewed as great farmers, while Israeli Jews may well be. Perhaps history will be such that American Jews in the future become farmers and a stereotype develop associating farming competence with American Jews.
The distinction between a stereotype’s correctness and its value judgment can be seen clearly. It is rare that a stereotyped group and its detractors disagree entirely on the association of tendency or behavior with the group; they usually disagree on valuation or causation. Jews do not deny the behavior others see as “pushy” but see this behavior as “enterprising” or (as the word was used before picking up its contemporary association with ruthlessness) “ambitious.” Irish “rowdiness” and Hispanic proliferation can be seen, and are seen by the groups themselves, as representing a “zest for life” and a “virile masculinity,” respectively.
It is necessary to make one final, and crucially important, theoretical point. Some stereotypes incorrectly invert correct stereotypes. “Italians are members of organized crime” and “blacks are muggers” are obviously ridiculous in all but a miniscule statistical sense. But just as obviously they are incorrect inversions of correct stereotypes that claim that “members of organized crime are disproportionately Italian” and “muggers are disproportionately black.” The inversions are fallacious in the same way that it is fallacious to conclude from the correct observation that professional football players are big people that big people are professional football players. But in all three cases the fallacious stereotypes are rooted in a correct observation. The inver sion results in gross unfairness, but the original stereotypes are empirically correct. To show that they are incorrect would require a demonstration that members of organized crime are not disproportionately Italian, that muggers are not disproportionately black, or that professional football players are not disproportionately big.
I once heard Bill Russell, the great basketball player, argue that the legendary basketball ability of blacks is solely a function of environment, the ghetto environment in which basketball is one of the few routes to success. Now, perhaps, one can accept an environmental explanation of the astonishing black dominance of professional basketball. Perhaps one might even accept such an explanation of black dominance of college basketball (though only the aged remember a championship team with a white majority). But no one who has scouted high-school players, as I have, could take seriously a claim that black jumping ability is a residue of ghetto life. Clearly, such ability is related to the same physical advantage that accounts for 90-98 percent of the top sprinters being black. (For both whites and blacks, jumping and sprinting-as opposed, for example, to foul shooting and marathon-running-have long been considered the least improvable and “most innate” of athletic skills.)
Bill Russell is an intelligent man and it is clear that his reason for making an argument he must know to be faulty is an understandable fear that a correct physiological explanation of black basketball prowess might lead to acceptance of unwarranted biological explanations of other characteristics on which the races differ. There might be an argument for Russell’s approach if it had any chance of convincing anyone. But Russell’s insistence on an explanation no one believes will—like a denial of a stereotype everyone, including blacks, knows to be true—inevitably fail.
The fact that the stereotyped group accepts the correctness of the stereotype (though not, its associated value judgment or causal explanation) does not, of course, demonstrate the correctness of the stereotype. A demonstration of correctness must take the form of an empirical test.
In some cases the empirical mark of the stereotyped behavior is so obvious (number of children, success in the professions, drunkenness, etc.) that no one denies the correctness of the stereotype. It is this obvious correctness that provides the evidential justification for testing those stereotypes whose correctness is not instantly demonstrable. If those stereotypes whose claim is instantly testable are correct, it certainly seems reasonable to test the less obviously true stereotypes to see if they too are correct.
But I predict that each stereotype tested will be found to be empirically true. Whether such tests should be conducted is another matter. The social functions and consequences of stereotypes are irrelevant to their empirical correctness.
Some may fear that acknowledging the correctness of stereotypes will have deleterious effects on those who are stereotyped. If this response were correct, we would have a moral dilemma pitting truth against good. This is how the situation is seen by those-and there are many-who, for example, publicly deny certain undeniable correct sexual stereotypes, only to admit privately that the stereotypes are true (the causation of the differentiated behavior being another issue). I must say that I find this despicable (the one thing a reader has the right to demand is that you believe what you say), but I must also acknowledge that I can imagine situations in which I would lie, rather than cause suffering.
However, the issue of stereotypes is not one that raises the conflict of truth and good. The conflict of truth and good would arise only if the correctness of stereotypes were a secret finding, known only to a few, that could be withheld from the population. The fact that stereotypes are true can not be withheld because nearly everyone already knows they are true. People differ only in their readiness to ac knowledge their validity. Only the ideologically rigid deny the truth. The laughter elicited by the ethnic joke over flows the intellect and acknowledges the belief that the stereotype is true, an acknowledgment not canceled by a post-laughter declaration that “that’s not funny.”
The statistical validity of stereotypes is indicated by the telling fact, mentioned above, that no one denies the correctness of stereotypes whose empirical measure is most obvious (i.e., number of children, professional success, drunkenness, etc.). It is only when slightly more sophisticated measures are needed (as in the case with the Jewish behavior that is praised as “enterprising” or criticized as “pushy”) that the truthfulness of stereotypes is denied.
Since everyone recognizes the correctness of stereotypes, minorities are in fact harmed, not protected, by the contemporary pretense that ethnic commonplaces are un founded. The pretense renders it impossible to demonstrate: (a) the statistical, rather than absolute, nature of stereotypes; (b) the subjective nature of the value judgment of the stereotyped behavior; and (c) (when it is the case) the purely environmental causation of the behavior stereotyped. Moreover, the pretense that stereotypes are untrue contaminates, and renders unconvincing, the valid demonstration of the malignant uses to which they are often put; the reader becomes skeptical about an analysis that begins with lies, even if the analysis ends with truths that are independent of the lies.
Rather than asserting the incorrectness of slurs and generalizations everyone knows to be true, we are far better off demanding that those who use such language to demean specific groups examine their assumption that the stereo typed behavior is actually bad and to examine skeptically any causal explanation offered for the behavior pattern in question. It is self-defeating to ask people to pretend that they have not seen what they have seen. They have seen what they have seen, and they know it. Indeed, they have even recorded what they have seen. In stereotypes.