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In a multi-annual study titled "Economic Insecurity, Prejudicial Stereotypes, and Public Opinion on Immigration Policy", published by Political Science Quarterly, authors Peter Burns and James Gimpel substantiated hypothesis that "economic self-interest and symbolic prejudice have often been treated as rival explanations for attitudes on a wide variety of issues, but it is plausible that they are complementary on an issue such as immigration. This would be case if prejudice were caused, at least partly, by economic insecurity."
A long list of scholarly papers demonstrate how racism - especially among dispossessed, dislocated, and low-skilled - surges during times of economic hardship or social transition. Often there is a confluence of long-established racial and ethnic stereotypes with a growing sense of economic insecurity and social dislocation.
"Social Identity Theory" tells us that stereotypical prejudice is a form of compensatory narcissism. The acts of berating, demeaning, denigrating, and debasing others serve to enhance perpetrators' self-esteem and regulate their labile sense of self-worth. It is vicarious "pride by proxy" - belonging to an "elite" group bestows superiority on all its members. Not surprisingly, education has some positive influence on racist attitudes and political ideology.
Having been entangled - sometimes unjustly - with bigotry and intolerance, merits of stereotypes have often been overlooked.
In an age of information overload, "nutshell" stereotypes encapsulate information compactly and efficiently and thus possess an undeniable survival value. Admittedly, many stereotypes are self-reinforcing, self-fulfilling prophecies. A young black man confronted by a white supremacist may well respond violently and an Hispanic, unable to find a job, may end up is a street gang.
But this recursiveness does not detract from usefulness of stereotypes as "reality tests" and serviceable prognosticators. Blacks do commit crimes over and above their proportion in general population. Though stereotypical in extreme, it is a useful fact to know and act upon. Hence racial profiling.
Stereotypes - like fables - are often constructed around middle class morality and are prescriptive. They split world into irredeemably bad - other, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, women, gay - and flawlessly good, we, purveyors of stereotype. While expressly unrealistic, stereotype teaches "what not to be" and "how not to behave". A by-product of this primitive rendition is segregation.
A large body of scholarship shows that proximity and familiarity actually polarize rather than ameliorate inter-ethnic and inter-racial tensions. Stereotypes minimize friction and violence by keeping minorities and majority apart. Venting and vaunting substitute for vandalizing and worse. In time, as erstwhile minorities are gradually assimilated and new ones emerge, conflict is averted.
Moreover, though they frequently reflect underlying deleterious emotions - such as rage or envy - not all stereotypes are negative. Blacks are supposed to have superior musical and athletic skills. Jews are thought to be brainier in science and shrewder in business. Hispanics uphold family values and ethnic cohesion. Gays are sensitive and compassionate. And negative stereotypes are attached even to positive social roles - athletes are dumb and violent, soldiers inflexible and programmed.
Stereotypes are selective filters. Supporting data is hoarded and information to contrary is ignored. One way to shape stereotypes into effective coping strategies is to bombard their devotees with "exceptions", contexts, and alternative reasoning.
Blacks are good athletes because sports is one of few egalitarian career paths open to them. Jews, historically excluded from all professions, crowded into science and business and specialized. If gays are indeed more sensitive or caring than average perhaps it is because they have been repressed and persecuted for so long. Athletes are not prone to violence - violent athletes simply end up on TV more often. And soldiers have to act reflexively to survive in battle.
There is nothing wrong with stereotypes if they are embedded in reality and promote understanding of social and historical processes. Western, multi-ethnic, pluralistic civilization celebrates diversity and uniqueness and distinctiveness of its components. Stereotypes merely acknowledge this variety.
USA Today Magazine reported in January a survey of 800 adults, conducted last year by social psychology professors Amanda Diekman of Purdue University and Alice Eagly of Northwestern University. They found that far from being rigid and biased, stereotypes regarding personality traits of men and women have changed dramatically to accurately reflect evolving gender roles.
Diekman noted that "women are perceived as having become much more assertive, independent, and competitive over years... Our respondents - whether they were old enough to have witnessed it or not - recognized role change that occurred when women began working outside home in large numbers and necessity of adopting characteristics that equip them to be breadwinners."
Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent, and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory Bellaonline, and Suite101 .
Visit Sam's Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com