Stereotypes, Generalizations, and Racism

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Here are three exhortations to Christians, four biblical texts, and some illustrations.

Exhortation #1

Christians should not simply reflect the morality of their era but the morality of the Bible.

Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Ephesians 5:11, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”

Consider this quote from Shelby Steele’s White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, pages 5-6. As you read ask: How many Christians simply fit into the moral laxity of Eisenhower in his day and of Clinton in his day? Reflecting on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal compared to Dwight Eisenhower’s reputed use of the N-word, Steele writes,

I wondered if President Clinton would be defended with relativism if he had done what, according to gossip, Eisenhower was said to have done. Suppose that in a light moment he had slipped into a parody of an old Arkansas buddy from childhood and, to get the voice right, used the word “nigger” a few times. Suppose further that a tape of this came to light so that all day long in the media—from the unctuous morning shows to the freewheeling late-night shows to the news every half hour on radio—we would hear the unmistakable presidential voice saying, “Take your average nigger . . . .”

. . . A contribution of the civil rights movement was to establish the point that a multiracial society cannot be truly democratic unless social equality itself becomes a matter of personal morality. So a president's “immorality” in this area would pretty much cancel his legitimacy as a democratic leader.

The point is that President Clinton survived what would certainly have destroyed President Eisenhower, and Eisenhower could easily have survived what would almost certainly have destroyed Clinton. Each man, finally, was no more than indiscreet within the moral landscape of his era (again, Eisenhower's indiscretion is hypothetical here for purposes of discussion). Neither racism in the fifties nor womanizing in the nineties was a profound enough sin to undermine completely the moral authority of a president. So it was the good luck of each president to sin into the moral relativism of his era rather than into its Puritanism. And, interestingly, the moral relativism of one era was the Puritanism of the other. Race simply replaced sex as the primary focus of America's moral seriousness.

Implication for Christians: Let the Bible, and not the era, govern our moral seriousness.

Exhortation #2

Christians should not be guilty of stereotyping groups, recognizing that stereotyping is different from the just and loving use of generalization.

John 7:24, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

In our ordinary use of language today, a “stereotype” is a generalization that is not built on what Jesus calls “right judgment.” Merriam-Webster defines a stereotype like this: “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.”

Implication for Christians: Beware of forming stereotypes—unjustified generalizations. Not only do they tend to hurt people (or unduly puff up the pride of others); they are also unreliable guides in life.

Exhortation #3

Christians should use generalizations justly and lovingly to form true and helpful judgments about people and life.

Matthew 7:12, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

What is a generalization? Merriam-Webster defines a generalization as follows: 1) a general statement, law, principle, or proposition. 2) the act or process whereby a learned response is made to a stimulus similar to but not identical with the conditioned stimulus. Thus generalizations are an essential part of learning and living. Without them wise living is impossible.

  • Many mushrooms are poisonous, and in general they have a certain spongy appearance. This generalization will keep you from experimenting with them in the woods when you are hungry and may save your life.
  • Thin boards generally will not hold up a heavy man when stretched over wide spaces. This generalization will keep you from falling in the river.
  • Generally, people in America stop when the light is red for them and green for you. You count on this and thus the traffic can keep flowing.

So the tough question is: When is a generalization about a group racist? I am using the word racist as something sinful, and the following answers move toward a definition. The following uses of generalization would be wrong (racist):

  • When you want a person to fit a negative generalization that you have formed about a group (even if the generalization statistically is true).
  • When you assume that a statistically true negative generalization is true of a particular person in the face of individual evidence to the contrary.
  • When you treat all the members of a group as if all must be characterized by a negative generalization.
  • When you speak disparagingly of an entire group on the basis of a negative generalization without any regard for those in the group who don’t fit the generalization. Or: When you speak negatively of a group based on a generalization without giving any evidence that you acknowledge and appreciate the exceptions. (I assume that Jesus’ generalizations about the Pharisees [Matthew 23] and Paul’s generalization about the Cretans [Titus 1:12] are not sinful because they did have such regard and did appreciate the exceptions.)

Implication for Christians: While realizing that life is not livable without generalizations, be careful not to let your pride lead you to use statistical generalizations in unloving ways.

Longing to think and love like Jesus,

Pastor John