The Danger in Stereotyping Individuals

by Diane Rufino, March 26, 2022

Human beings come in all shapes, sizes, forms, and appearances, and with the passing of time, we are seeing an even greater diversity, mostly of a progressive nature. The so-called “window-dressing” is becoming more audacious and alarming. But one thing is clear – a person’s gender identity is stamped at birth by his or her sex chromosomes. The chromosomes (XX for female and XY for male) are in almost every single cell of the body and are unchanging. Gender, therefore, is biologically defined. Aside from surgery and hormone treatments (including psychology sessions), a person’s physicality, or physical features, are also set by his or her DNA, the blueprint for life.

It is true that we are not all alike, and in fact, many of us are not alike. But we nonetheless treat each other with kindness and compassion, as we are supposed to. We are all God’s children. We respect their choices but we, as being created and endowed with a free conscience, do not necessarily have to accept or support those choices. We tend to accept them, out of respect, civility, and a desire to life in a peaceful community.

The problem is that along the line of history, people have decided to divide individuals according to their God-given, genetically-acquired features in order to claim superiority in one way or another. This is where stereotyping comes in. In particular, I want to address “invidious stereotyping,” which means to be characterized in an objectionable manner, based on an unpleasant or offensive trait.

When individuals are stereotyped, they are demeaned, marginalized, and diminished in society, relegated to a second-class status. When this happens, it is easy to discriminate against them, segregate them, phase them out of society (eugenics; ethnic cleansing), and even murder and annihilate them. We’ve seen all this throughout history and it has disturbed us greatly.

Take the unborn, for example. They are marginalized because they are not seen by many as “persons.” Yet they are. Every pregnancy, especially into the second trimester, involves two distinct lives, defined again by their DNA. Each life should be protected and in a compassionate and rational world, they would be. An unborn child may not be wanted by its natural mother, but there are plenty of people who would love the chance to give that child a home and plenty of love. This blatant disregard for the unborn and the greater weight by the courts to the mother has led to the abomination that has been abortion.

Take African-Americans as another example. Africans were seen as an inferior, backwards and barbaric people back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thus justifying slavery in the 18th century. We can’t but conjure up images of Sambo, Jim Crow, the Savage as representative of black men, and Mammy, Aunt Jemimah, Sapphire, and Jezebelle as representative of black women, and the characterization they helped institutionalize – the stereotype of a simple-minded, lazy, happy black person who was happy to serve and to be taken care of (“a happy slave”). Black women, in particular, were characterized as dominant, controlling, nurturing caretakers, except for Jezebelle, which is the only caricature that hints to the sexual nature of black women.

The ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1884, stated authoritatively that “…the African race occupied the lowest position of the evolutionary scale, thus affording the best material for the comparative study of the highest anthropoids and the human species.” This invidious characterization of African-Americans as apelike savages was exceptionally pervasive. For example, in 1906, the New York Zoological Park featured an exhibit with an African-American man and a chimpanzee. And then several years later, the Ringling Brothers Circus exhibited “the monkey man,” a black man was caged with a female chimpanzee that had been trained to wash clothes and hang them on a line.  

Racial stereotypes that portray blacks as “mentally inferior, physically and culturally unevolved, and apelike in appearance” were supported by prominent white figures like Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. Theodore Roosevelt publicly stated that “As a race and in the mass, the Negroes are altogether inferior to whites.”

In the infamous 1856 Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sandford,Chief Justice Roger Taney, the court members acknowledged such stereotypes and concluded that persons of African origin were an inferior race and suited only to serve the more advanced and civilized races. Taney wrote:

      “In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument…They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit

     A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States. He cannot become a citizen of the United States, nor will he be entitled to sue in its courts, nor to any of the privileges and immunities of a citizen in another State.

      When the Constitution was adopted, they were not regarded in any of the States as members of the community which constituted the State and were not numbered among its “people or citizens.” Consequently, the special rights and immunities guaranteed to citizens do not apply to them. And not being “citizens” within the meaning of the Constitution, they are not entitled to sue in that character in a court of the United States, and the Circuit Court has not jurisdiction in such a suit.  

      Every citizen has a right to take with him into the Territory any article of property which the Constitution of the United States recognizes as property. The Constitution of the United States recognizes slaves as property and pledges the federal government to protect it. And Congress cannot exercise any more authority over property of that description than it may constitutionally exercise over property of any other kind. The act of Congress (ie, the Missouri Compromise), therefore, prohibiting a citizen of the United States from taking with him his slaves when he removes to the Territory in question to reside is an exercise of authority over private property which is not warranted by the Constitution, and the removal of the plaintiff by his owner to that Territory gave him no title to freedom.”  {Note: The Dred Scott ruling declared the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional and unenforceable].

The stereotypes of blacks in our American history has been a severe blight and stain on our nation’s image and continues to infect race relations. Slavery sent the message that blacks were an inferior race of people, uncivilized and barbaric, suited only to serve the more advanced races. And Jim Crow institutionalized the notion that blacks were nothing more than second-class citizens. Race seems to always be an issue and a sore spot for discussion. Sadly, it continues to fuel the allegations of racial intolerance and racial tension.

Who can forget the horrendous plight of the European Jews under the crushing and ambitious political agenda of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi regime? Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, created a masterful propaganda scheme to convince the German people that Jews were a despicable, conniving, and genetically-inferior race for the ultimate goal to segregate them out of all aspects of German society and ultimately engineer a genetically-superior “master German race.”

In Nazi caricatures, Jews were usually depicted as having large hook-noses, and dark beady eyes with drooping eyelids. Exaggerated or grotesque Jewish facial features were a staple theme in Nazi propaganda and, less frequently, in Soviet propaganda. The idea of the large and crooked (hooked) “Jewish nose” remains one of the most prevalent and defining features to characterize someone as a Jew. This widespread stereotype can be traced back to the 13th century. In Nazi propaganda, Jews were drawn to look like hideous, hairy, demented-looking creatures with large noses. They were also compared to rats, as if they were vermin.

Jews tend to be portrayed as scheming individuals, greedy and miserly. Lastly, they are characterized as having a distinctive way of speaking.

Demonizing and demeaning Jews made it easy for the Nazi leaders and the German people to look the other way at the systemic genocide of over 6 million German and European Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, all for the ethnic cleansing and purification of the German race.

Again, the demeaning of persons of African ancestry has been a huge stain on our country’s history. But another case of stereotyping has also had a stain on our more recent history, and that form of stereotyping took the form of characterizing gay men as “freaks” and generally ignoring them, their charades, and their devasting epidemic. In his magnificent book “And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic” author Randy Stilts explains in great detail how the demonization and stereotyping and intolerance of “distinct classes of outcasts and social pariahs” led to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s and the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

In his prologue, Stilts wrote:

       “By October 2, 1985, the morning Rock Hudson died, the word was familiar to almost every household in the Western world…..  AIDS.

      Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome had seemed a comfortably distant threat to most of those who had heard of it before, the misfortune of people who fit into rather distinct classes of outcasts and social pariahs. But suddenly, in the summer of 1985, when a movie star was diagnosed with the disease and the newspapers couldn’t stop talking about it, the AIDS epidemic became palpable and the threat loomed everywhere.

     Suddenly, there were children with AIDS who wanted to go to school, laborers with AIDS who wanted to work, and researchers who wanted funding, and there was a threat to the nation’s public health that could no longer be ignored. Most significantly, there were the first glimmers of awareness that the future would always contain this strange new word. AIDS would become a part of American culture and indelibly change the course of our lives.

     The implications would not be fleshed out for another few years, but on that October day in 1985, the first awareness existed just the same. Rock Hudson riveted America’s attention upon this deadly new threat for the first time, and his diagnosis became a demarcation that would separate the history of America before AIDS from the history that came after.

     The timing of this awareness, however, reflected the unalterable tragedy at the heart of the AIDS epidemic. By the time America paid attention to the disease, it was too late to do anything about it. The virus was already pandemic in the nation, having spread to every corner of the North American continent. The tide of death that would later sweep America could, perhaps, be slowed, but it could not be stopped.

     The AIDS epidemic, of course, did not arise full-grown from the biological landscape; the problem had been festering throughout the decade. The death tolls of the late 1980’s are not startling new developments but an unfolding of events predicted for many years. There had been a time when much of this suffering could have been prevented, but by 1985 that time had passed. Indeed, on the day the world learned that Rock Hudson was stricken, some 12,000 Americans were already dead or dying of AIDS and hundreds of thousands more were infected with the virus that caused the disease. But few had paid any attention to this; nobody, it seemed, had cared about them.

     The bitter truth was that AIDS did not just happen to America; it was allowed to happen by an array of institutions, all of which failed to perform their appropriate tasks to safeguard the public health. This failure of the system leaves a legacy of unnecessary suffering that will haunt the Western world for decades to come.

      There was no excuse, in this country and in this time, for the spread of a deadly new epidemic. For this was a time in which the United States boasted the world’s most sophisticated medicine and the world’s most extensive public health system, geared to eliminate such pestilence from our national life. When the virus appeared, the world’s richest nation housed the most lavishly-financed scientific research establishments – both inside the vast governmental health bureaucracy and in other institutions – to investigate new diseases and quickly bring them under control. And making sure that government researchers and public health agencies did their jobs were the world’s most unfettered and aggressive media, the public’s watchdogs. Beyond that, the group most affected by the epidemic, the gay community, had by then built a substantial political infrastructure, particularly in cities where the disease struck first and most virulently. Leaders were in place to monitor the gay community’s health and survival interests.

      But from 1980, when the first isolated gay men began falling ill from strange and exotic ailments, nearly five years passed before all these institutions – medicine, public health, the federal and private scientific research establishments, the mass media, and the gay community’s leadership – mobilized the way they should in a time of threat. The story of these first five years of AIDS in America is a drama of national failure, played out against a backdrop of needless death.

     People died while Reagan administration officials ignored pleas from government scientists and did not allocate adequate funding for AIDS research until the epidemic had already spread throughout the country. People died while scientists did not at first devote appropriate attention to the epidemic because they perceived little prestige to be gained in studying a homosexual affliction. Even after this denial faded, people died while some scientists, most notably those in the employ of the United States government, competed rather than collaborated in international research efforts, and so diverted attention and energy away from the central struggle against the disease itself. People died while public health authorities and the political leaders who guided them refused to take the tough measures necessary to curb the epidemic’s spread, opting for political expediency over the public health. And people died while gay community leaders played politics with the disease, putting political dogma ahead of the preservation of human life.

      People died and nobody paid attention because the mass media did not like covering stories about homosexuals and was especially skittish about stories that involved gay sexuality. Newspapers and television largely avoided discussion of the disease until the death toll was too high to ignore and the casualties were no longer just the outcasts. Without the media to fulfill its role as public guardian, everyone else was left to deal – and not deal – with AIDS as they saw fit.

      In those years, the federal government viewed AIDS as a budget problem, local public health officials saw it as a political problem, gay leaders considered AIDS a public relations problem, and the news media regarded it as a homosexual problem that wouldn’t interest anybody else. Consequently, few confronted AIDS for what it was – a profoundly threatening medical crisis.

     Fighting against this institutional indifference were a handful of heroes from disparate callings. Isolated teams of scientists in research centers in America and Europe risked their reputations and often their jobs to pioneer early research on AIDS. There were doctors and nurses who went far beyond the call of duty to care for its victims. Some public health officials struggled valiantly to have the epidemic addressed in earnest. A handful of gay leaders withstood vilification to argue forcefully for a sane community response to the epidemic and to lobby for the funds that provided the first breakthroughs in research. And there were many victims of the epidemic who fought rejection, fear, isolation, and their own deadly prognoses to make people understand and to make people care.

      Because of their efforts, the story of politics, people, and the AIDS epidemic is, ultimately, a tale of courage as well as cowardice, compassion as well as bigotry, inspiration as well as venality, and redemption as well as despair.  It is a tale that bears telling so that it will never happen again, to any people anywhere.”

Randy Stilts, pictured above, was the first openly-gay reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1985, he found out that he had was HIV-positive, and in 1992, he contracted pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. He passed away on February 17, 1994.

References:

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856)   –  https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/60/393/

Randy Stilts, AND THE BAND PLAYED ON: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 1987.

Laura Green, “Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans,” Virginia Commonwealth University.  Referenced at:  https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/links/essays/vcu.htm

About forloveofgodandcountry

I'm originally from New Jersey where I spent most of my life. I now live in North Carolina with my husband and 4 children. I'm an attorney
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