Although ethnic stereotyping can be positive for less talented and weaker members of a favorably stereotyped group, the usual effect of stereotyping is an unfounded negative bias toward undeserving individuals that can contribute to making their lives more difficult. Members of certain immigrant groups–particularly Middle Easterners and Muslims generally–are popular targets of negative stereotypes in the United States. Because of stereotyping, immigrants are often perceived as undesirable and even potentially dangerous people to allow in the country, especially during times of national crises.
Stereotyping can be based on traits associated with race, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, age, gender, and even occupations and physical disabilities. Ethnic stereotyping pinpoints any category of people in the larger society who have the same national origin, common history, or religion, and who share similar physical, cultural, or social traits. The modern population of the United States is made up of people and their descendants from all over the world–a conglomeration of ethnic groups whose members have historically jockeyed for ascendancy over one another. Part of that jockeying has involved stereotyping–occasionally positive, but much more frequently negative.
When the independent republic of the United States emerged from more than a century and a half of British colonial rule during the late eighteenth century, the great bulk of its free citizens were culturally comparatively homogeneous, as most of them were of British ancestry. A half century later, the new nation began receiving great waves of newcomers, most of whom came from different cultural backgrounds.
As the young American nation spread out and built towns and cities, immigrants poured in to supply the labor. Generally, these newcomers were willing to work for less pay than their already established American counterparts; after all, even the low wages received in America were more than they could have earned in their homelands. Because they seemed satisfied with such compensation, employers were delighted to hire them–a fact that caused the American-born workers to resent the immigrants.
During the early nineteenth century, Irish men were prime targets for American comedy. They were often caricatured in periodicals and political cartoons as hairy, muscle-bound workmen with nearly simian features–protruding jaws, cheek whiskers, and small noses over thick upper lips. They were typically drawn wearing derby hats and clinching pipes in their teeth, when not downing whiskey.
The immigration waves between the end of Reconstruction (1877) and beginning of World War I (1914-1918) brought large numbers of new immigrant groups to the United States. Increasing numbers of eastern and southern Europeans began arriving, looking for work and better lives, as their predecessors had done. These immigrants were non-Protestant for the most part and were consequently promptly disliked because of their religions. Some Americans believed rumors that many of these new immigrants had been expelled from their homelands because they were, at best, petty criminals. By the time World War I began, most new immigrants were being stereotyped as “slum-creating, soap-shy, illiterate, jargon-speaking, standoffish” interlopers without civilized values. Depending on their specific origins, they were labeled as “dagos,”“wops,” “hunkys,” “bohunks,” “polacks,” and “yids.”
Since passage of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, many immigrants from non-European countries have flooded into the United States, causing Americans new concerns and generating new types of stereotypes. As in the past, most of the new immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America have come looking for work. Others, however, have come to escape from natural disasters, persecution, and wars in their homelands. Despite the fact that many of these immigrants have been well educated, professionally trained, and even financially well off, they have been targets of damaging negative stereotypes.
One prevailing stereotype of immigrants who arrive with little money and with school-age children is that they drain America’s health care system. They take advantage of emergency rooms in urban hospitals and most often do so without the ability to pay for the services they get. As more and more hospitals close their emergency rooms altogether, the reduction in medical care for all residents of the area is blamed on the inundation of immigrants seeking care that the taxpayers must pay for.
The stereotypes of immigrant workers who take jobs away from native-born Americans and contribute to lowering wage scales has continued to persist. Because of the notion that without the immigrants’ ready acceptance of menial work and lower wages, American workers would command higher wages. Consequently, immigrants are often as “scabs” in the workplace.
Immigrants do in fact take jobs that most Americans do not want, such as fruit picking, lawn care and gardening, maid and child care, washing cars, and cooking–especially in fast food restaurants, Many of these jobs can be done “off the books,” saving employers from having to withhold taxes or pay benefits, thereby making such workers even more attractive. American-born workers disparage immigrants for accepting such jobs because they themselves would take such jobs if the pay rates were higher.
Immigrants who have brought their families with them or who marry in the United States and begin raising their children are accused of draining America’s educational resources. Their children, who often speak no English when they start school, must first be taught enough English to permit them to assimilate into regular classes. The outlay of time and money to provide this extra instruction is obviously more than what the normal expenditures for a school system would be. So school boards must make budget adjustments to accommodate these necessary costs, which too often result in the elimination of other, popular academic programs. The idea that immigrants are thereby damaging the educational system is another common stereotype.
In addition to these drains on the nation’s economy, some Americans level another charge that contributes to negative stereotyping: the idea that immigrants avoid paying taxes despite all the benefits they receive. If illegal immigrants do not pay taxes on their earnings, it is usually because doing so would bring them to the attention of the government and possibly lead to their deportation. On the other hand, legal immigrants have been found to pay more taxes and contribute more to the Social Security System than they receive in government benefits.
Barkau, Eliot R. And Still They Come: Immigrants and American Society, 1920 to the 1990’s. Wheeling, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1996. Broad history of twentieth century immigration with chapters dealing on anti-Semitism, refugee concerns, and wartime issues regarding ethnicity. Illustrated with photographs. Berry, Gordon L., and Joy Asamen, eds. Children and TV: Images in a Changing Socio-Cultural World. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1993. General work on the influence of television on children, with chapters devoted to stereotyping of members of specific ethnic groups in programs. Browder, Laura. Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Discussion of the ways in which people have passed themselves off as being members of different ethnic groups throughout American history. Ferrie, Joseph P. Yankeys Now: Immigrants in the Antebellum United States, 1840-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Examination of early nineteenth century immigration, with chapters on discrimination against immigrants, particularly the Irish. Hechinger, Kevin, and Curtis Hechinger. Hechinger’s Field Guide to Ethnic Stereotypes. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009. Humorously written and intriguing look at ethnic Americans, categorized as “Blacks,” “Browns,” “Whites,” “Yellows,” and “Exotic Breeds.” Lester, Paul M., and Susan D. Ross, eds. Images That Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996. Collection of essays about how visual images have helped to perpetuate misleading ethnic and other stereotypes and the societal consequences. Shaheen, Jack. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001. Discusses twentieth century portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in eight hundred films, alphabetically arranged with descriptions of particular scenes in which negative stereotyping occurs. Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay Books, 2008. Explores Anglo attitudes toward various other cultural and ethnic groups and races, and how those groups struggle to make a new life in America.