Stereotypes and Prejudices

Chapter Content

The Holocaust was the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis through an officially sanctioned, government-ordered, systematic plan of mass annihilation. As many as six million Jews died, almost two-thirds of the Jews of Europe. Although the Holocaust took place during World War II, the war was not the cause of the Holocaust. The war played a role in covering up the genocide of the Jewish people. How could this have happened? The answers can be found by understanding how violence of this magnitude can evolve out of prejudice based on ignorance, fear, and misunderstanding about minority groups and other groups who are different from ourselves. 

The purpose of this chapter is to teach that the genocide we know as the Holocaust had roots in attitudes and behavior which we see around us every day. It is only when these attitudes and behaviors are manifested in the extreme that genocide can occur. Genocide is the last step in a continuum of actions taken by those who are prejudiced.

The first step of this continuum is discrimination - treating certain groups of people differently. 

The second step is isolation, such as the physical segregation of minorities in ghettos or setting up separate schools. 

The third step is persecution, followed by dehumanization and violence. Genocide, the deliberate and systematic extermination of a group of people, is the ultimate expression of human hatred. 


A stereotype is a generalization about a person or group of persons. We develop stereotypes when we are unable or unwilling to obtain all of the information we would need to make fair judgments about people or situations. In the absence of the total picture, stereotypes in many cases allow us to fill in the blanks. Our society often innocently creates and perpetuates stereotypes, but these stereotypes often lead to unfair discrimination and persecution when the stereotype is unfavorable. 

For example, if we are walking through a park late at night and encounter three senior citizens wearing fur coats and walking with canes, we may not feel as threatened as if we were met by three high school-aged boys wearing leather jackets. Why is this so? We have made a generalization in each case. These generalizations have their roots in experiences we have had ourselves, read about in books and magazines, seen in movies or television, or have had related to us by friends and family. In many cases, these stereotypical generalizations are reasonably accurate. Yet, in virtually every case, we are resorting to prejudice by ascribing characteristics about a person based on a stereotype, without knowledge of the total facts. 

By stereotyping, we assume that a person or group has certain characteristics. Quite often, we have stereotypes about persons who are members of groups with which we have not had firsthand contact. 

Television, books, comic strips, and movies are all abundant sources of stereotyped characters. For much of its history, the movie industry portrayed African-Americans as being unintelligent, lazy, or violence-prone. As a result of viewing these stereotyped pictures of African-Americans, for example, prejudice against African-Americans has been encouraged. In the same way, physically attractive women have been and continue to be portrayed as unintelligent or unintellectual and sexually promiscuous. 

Stereotypes also evolve out of fear of persons from minority groups. For example, many people have the view of a person with mental illness as someone who is violence-prone. This conflicts with statistical data, which indicate that persons with mental illness tend to be no more prone to violence than the general population. Perhaps the few, but well-publicized, isolated cases of mentally ill persons going on rampages have planted the seed of this myth about these persons. This may be how some stereotypes developed in the first place - a series of isolated behaviors by a member of a group which was unfairly generalized to be viewed as a character of all members of that group. 


When we judge people and groups based on our prejudices and stereotypes and treat them differently, we are engaging in discrimination. This discrimination can take many forms. We may create subtle or overt pressures which will discourage persons of certain minority groups from living in a neighborhood. Women and minorities have been victimized by discrimination in employment, education, and social services. We may shy away from people with a history of mental illness because we are afraid they may harm us. Women and minorities are often excluded from high echelon positions in the business world. Many clubs have restrictive membership policies which do not permit Jews, African-Americans, women, and others to join. 

In some cases, the civil and criminal justice system has not been applied equally to all as a result of discrimination. Some studies indicate that African-Americans convicted of first degree murder have a significantly higher probability of receiving a death penalty than whites convicted of first degree murder, for example. When political boundaries have been drawn, a process known as "gerrymandering" has often been used to provide that minorities and other groups are not represented in proportion to their population in city councils, state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress. 


Anthropologists, scientists who study humans and their origins, generally accept that the human species can be categorized into races based on physical and genetic makeup. For example, many, but certainly not all African-Americans have physical differences from Caucasians beyond their dark skin, such as wiry hair. Virtually all scientists accept the fact that there is no credible scientific evidence that one race is culturally or psychologically different from any other, or that one race is superior to another. Past studies which reached conclusions other than that have been found to be seriously flawed in their methodology or inherently biased. 

Yet despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, there are people who maintain that their own race is superior to all others. These people, known collectively as "racists," are the most likely to engage in discrimination, persecution, and violence against those they deem to be members of "inferior" races. 

In 19th century Europe, Jews were classified as an "inferior" race with specific physical and personality characteristics. Some thinkers believed these traits would disappear if Jews received political and social emancipation and could assimilate into the broader society. Others felt that these traits were genetically passed on and could not be changed. Racial theory, distorted into a pseudo-science, sanctioned negative stereotypes existing from classical and Christian anti-Semitism. An increasing emphasis on nationalism also highlighted the Jews as a "foreign element," which could contaminate the native stock and culture and potentially dominate the native population economically and politically. This long-standing history provided a seed-bed for the Nazi ideology and program of genocide. 

In North America, African-Americans were brought from Africa as slaves, and their descendants have endured centuries of oppression. During the Civil War, slaves were freed and granted citizenship. Discrimination continued. "Jim Crow" laws in the South required separate bathrooms, buses, and nursing homes for African-Americans. Poll taxes and literacy tests were required solely for the purpose of disenfranchising minorities. Before the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas), segregation of school systems was legal. Decades later, many school systems remain segregated. 

Racism against African-Americans is still prevalent in the United States. Despite laws and other protections against discrimination, African-Americans still face discrimination in housing, employment, and education. African-Americans are still victimized by insurance red-lining, and the racism of whites and others is exploited by block-busting, a practice which is illegal in Pennsylvania and many other states. Although racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan have small memberships, they have been actively recruiting and holding rallies in Pennsylvania and other states and spreading their messages of hate against African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, and other minorities. 

Civil rights laws have been passed at the local, state, and federal levels to combat racism and the persecution and discrimination which racism promotes. While the First Amendment to the Constitution protects the rights of everyone to assemble peaceably and speak freely, racist messages universally bring a response of condemnation from responsible members of the communities that racists visit. The international community universally has condemned the apartheid policies of the government of South Africa, and the debate on sanctions against this government is a continuing public policy issue before the U.S. Congress. 

Immigration Quotas Based on Racism 

Before 1890, the overwhelming majority of immigrants to the United States was from northern and western Europe. They were predominantly Protestant and included many industrious farmers and skilled workers with a high rate of literacy who were easily assimilated. In the 1840s and 1850s, hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens fled their homeland for the U.S. to escape famine and discrimination. At the turn of the century, immigration shifted to a southern and eastern European population which was mainly Catholic, Greek Orthodox or Jewish. Many were impoverished, and there was a high proportion of illiteracy. Unlike the first wave of immigration which had dispersed throughout the United States, these groups settled in pockets in major cities, retaining their language and customs. They also provided a large pool of unskilled factory labor which competed with the American labor force. Concern about economic competition intertwined with concern about the illiterate poor becoming public charges. 

In the early 1900s, groups were formed to place barriers to the immigration of such people. Among these were the American Protective Association in the Midwest and the Immigration Restriction League established in Boston. 

Studies and reports were commissioned to prove that southern and eastern Europeans were racially inferior to northern and western Europeans. One such study, sponsored by a nine-member Immigration Commission appointed by the U.S. government in 1907, culminated in a 42-volume report to support this racist notion. Immigration policies were influenced by these reports and studies, and also contributed to the growing isolationist viewpoint of U.S. government policymakers. 

The Quota Act of 1921 put the first numerical restrictions on European immigration, followed by the Immigration Acts of 1924 and 1929. The total number of immigrants permitted each year was cut by over 80% from the average immigration numbers at the turn of the century and the distribution was based on the ethnic origins of the U.S. Population in 1920. As a result, 83,575 places out of a total 153,774 were assigned to Great Britain and Ireland which provided relatively few applicants. On the other hand, countries with more potential immigrants had smaller quotas: Germany, about 26,000; Poland, 6,000; Italy, 5,500; France, 3,000; Rumania, 300. 

Arthur D. Morse, in his volume, While Six Million Died wrote that 

"Later these impersonal figures would doom Rumanian, Polish, and French Jews seeking sanctuary while the English and Irish quotas lay unused."
These figures were unchanged until the Administration of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. (See Chapter 11 for more on U.S. Immigration Policy.) 


The concept of equal rights for women is as old as the ancient Greeks - the Greek philosopher Plato advocated for equality between the sexes in his Republic. Few civilizations have even approached this equality, however, and it has only been in modern times that women have been granted legal rights which were routinely applied only to men. Actual equality in society has lagged far behind legal emancipation, many believe. 

Legal rights for women have evolved in the United States since the early 1800s. Pennsylvania was the first state which had a medical school for women (1850). Other professions also began to permit women to practice most states did not admit women to practice law until the middle of the 19th century, and virtually none did before 1820. In most states, married women were not permitted to own property or enter into contracts until the mid-1800s. 

In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted giving women the right to vote. It was not until 1933 that a woman served as a member of the President's cabinet (Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor) in the Administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited sexual discrimination with regard to most employment issues. A proposed amendment to the Constitution to grant women equal protection under the law (the Equal Rights Amendment) was passed by the Congress in 1972, but failed to receive approval from three-fourths of the states needed to ratify it in the prescribed time period for it to become effective. 

Laws which exist in every state provide that women must receive equal pay for equal work, a concept which only a few decades ago was unthinkable. Comparable worth laws have been proposed in several states which would end the disparity between the pay of women in historically "female" dominated professions (such as teaching, nursing, and secretarial work) and comparable positions which are dominated by males. 

Although sexual discrimination remains a problem at all levels of society, women have risen to leadership positions in government, business, and the professions, but not to the same degree as their male counterparts. Women have run for President (Rep. Shirley Chisholm in 1972) and have been nominated on the ticket of a national party (Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro in 1984). 

Minority Persecution and Genocide 

Just as a school bully can assert his power over a weaker student by pure physical intimidation, a minority group may be victimized by a more powerful majority which is insensitive to the needs and aspirations of that minority. Minority groups may be subjected to dehumanization experiences made to feel powerless by being subjected to degrading and humiliating experiences based on prejudice. Examples in history have been: 
  • African-Americans being forced to ride in the back of the bus 
  • German Jews being required to wear a yellow "Star of David" 
  • minorities being referred to by pejorative slang names (if appropriate, the teacher may wish to discuss racial or ethnic epithets relevant to their students' community or town) 
  • minorities being the subject of jokes which poke fun at the target's race, religion, or ethnic origin, and which rely on stereotypes 
  • Japanese-Americans being isolated in camps during World War II 
  • Native Americans having their land confiscated in violation of treaties, being the victims of government-sponsored massacres, and being placed on reservations. 
Minorities have also been the victims of violence based on their minority status. Minority institutions, such as places of worship, schools, and cemeteries, have been the target of vandalism, arson, and desecration. African-Americans were victims of lynching and whippings in the South and other parts of the United States as well. In Eastern Europe, random violence directed at Jews, called pogroms, resulted in the massacre of thousands. Today, there are groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the White Knights, the Order, the Posse Comitatus, and neo-Nazi Skinheads, which openly condone discrimination and advocate against certain minorities as part of their doctrines. 

Genocide, the destruction of a people, is the most extreme form of persecution. During World War II, Hitler's dream of destroying European Jewry came to fruition. Through the use of propaganda, he successfully convinced millions of followers that the Jews were to blame for Germany's troubles, including its humiliation during World War I, and its economic chaos. Six million Jews were annihilated.

The Armenian genocide of the early 20th century and the murder of millions of Cambodians by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge are other examples of genocide in the 20th century. 


Scapegoating is the practice of blaming an individual or group for a real or perceived failure of others. The origin of the term comes from the Bible. The high priest in Biblical times would place his hand upon a goat's head and transfer the sins of the community to the goat, which was then released into the desert. 

It is not uncommon to blame others for our own mistakes, and especially to affix blame on those who are unable or unwilling to defend themselves against the charges. Minorities are often the targets of scapegoating. First, minorities are often isolated within society and are thus an easy target. Those in the majority are more easily convinced about the negative characteristics of a minority with which they have no direct contact. Violence, persecution, and genocide directed against minorities often occur when a minority group is being blamed for some social ill. Unemployment, inflation, food shortages, the plague, and crime in the streets are all examples of ills which have been blamed on minority groups. 

Demagogues and Propaganda

Some prejudice has been passed down from generation to generation. Prejudice against Jews, called anti-Semitism, has been known for more than two thousand years. It is usually the case, however, that the passions of hatred against minorities by members of the majority are stirred up by charismatic leaders who exploit latent hatreds for their own political ends. These leaders are called "demagogues," and they depend upon propaganda and disinformation to achieve their ends. 

Many demagogues have been successful because people want to believe that there is a simple cause of their problems. Through the use of propaganda techniques, persuasive arguments are made that one group or another is to blame for all of our problems, and these problems would go away were it not for those (fill in the target minority). As a population becomes educated, it becomes less easy to sway with propaganda. In a free society where access to information is not restricted, it becomes even more difficult. 

Positive Responses to Prejudice and Stereotypes 

Understanding the nature of prejudice, scapegoating, stereotypes, and discrimination is the first step in combating these practices. All of us have prejudices about members of groups different from ourselves. We should, however, recognize that we are not acting fairly if we treat people differently because of these stereotypes and prejudices. Each one of us deserves to be considered a unique human being. 

In his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial, civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, 

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." 
Dr. King devoted his life to fighting bigotry and prejudice. His message was meant not only for African-Americans but for all oppressed minorities. In taking a courageous stand against racial hatred, Dr. King was subjected to personal injustices which culminated in his murder at the hands of a racist assassin. Yet his message of brotherhood, of understanding, of intergroup dialogue, of coalition-building, of non-violent resistance to injustice, has endured. His birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. 

All of us face peer pressure when confronted with a joke which puts down a certain minority. It takes courage to raise objections to these jokes and pejorative names and to actively fight the prejudice and bigotry which they foster. It is important to stand up against injustice, and fight the discrimination, stereotypes, and scapegoating which have served as the precursors to persecution, violence, and genocide. 

Copyright 1990 Gary M. Grobman, used with permission