This past week Donald Trump invited universal condemnation (leaders of the GOP excepted) for his blatantly racist and crude remarks about Africa and Haiti. Those comments were presumably borne by pernicious racial and cultural stereotypes.
Trump’s apologists have replied in part by stressing the fact that he is okay with immigrants from Asia. This invites two responses. First, granting the assumption that Trump does not thereby hold racist attitudes toward Asians, it doesn’t follow that he thereby lacks racist attitudes toward Africans and Haitians. Second, Trump’s attitude toward Asian immigration is presumably itself borne by positive stereotypes: for example, Asians are industrious, hard workers, good at math, law-abiding, etc.
This leads to the question that I posed on Twitter two days ago: are positive stereotypes as harmful and wrong as negative ones?
Are allegedly "positive" stereotypes (e.g. "Asians are good at math") as harmful and wrong as negative stereotypes?
— Randal Rauser (@RandalRauser) January 12, 2018
What do you think? Are positive stereotypes as pernicious as negative ones? Compare these two stereotypes:
(1) Maasai people tend to be tall.
(2) Black people tend to be good at sports.
It seems to me that (1) is not problematic but (2) clearly is. So what’s the difference?
First, (1) is not a positive stereotype. All things being equal, variations in height are neutral. In other words, being taller than the average is not intrinsically preferable.
Second, (1) is a fact: Maasai people do tend to be taller than the average height. By contrast, (2) exists somewhere in the hinterland between vagueness and falsity.
Third, and most importantly, an allegedly positive stereotype like (2) has a shadow side. Presumably, the person who endorses (2) is not thinking that black people tend to be good at the sport of chess, for example. Thus, the stereotype includes a subtle but critical social judgment: black people are best when they are limited to a subset of social roles, i.e. those that involve physical rather than mental exertion.
That raises an interesting question: are positive stereotypes immoral and harmful only to the extent that they include negative stereotypes? Or are they intrinsically immoral and harmful (i.e. irrespective of whether they include negative stereotypes)?