Stereotypes about stereotypes

Thomas Sowell
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Posted: May 17, 2002 12:00 AM

Vanderbilt University is one of a number of academic institutions that are making a special effort to attract Jewish students. The idea is that these students tend to have higher test scores, which will raise the average test scores of these institutions -- which in turn will cause them to rise in academic rankings.

Whatever one thinks of this goal, or about academic rankings themselves, reaching out to Jewish students seems fairly innocuous, especially after colleges and universities have made special efforts to attract foreign students and students from various domestic minorities. Nevertheless, there have been hostile responses from a number of individuals and organizations, including some who are Jewish.

Officials of some predominantly Jewish high schools have called it "reprehensible" to single out Jews, even for special recruitment. A spokesman for a high school in suburban New York said, "a positive stereotype is just as pernicious as a negative one."

But is it just a stereotype that some groups do better at some things than other groups do? Do blacks not really play basketball any better than whites? Do our eyes deceive us when we notice the racial make-up of the NBA?

Is it just a coincidence that people of German ancestry produce the leading brands of beer in the United States -- and the leading brand of beer in China, not to mention Germany's position as the leading beer producer in Europe? Can anyone deny that people of Italian ancestry have long been over-represented among the world's leading figures in music -- classical and popular, vocal and instrumental?

It is one thing to say that everyone should be equal before the law or is entitled to equal opportunity. It is something else to deny the most blatant facts before our eyes, and insist on a dogma of equality of performance, when virtually every individual or group is better at some things than at others.

More is involved than incidental pious nonsense. Such ideological make-believe has come to dominate public policy and even judicial decisions in the highest courts in the land. Statistical disparities among groups are routinely equated with discrimination, as if there could not possibly be any differences in behavior or performance among the groups themselves.

It gets worse. Whole nations and civilizations are equated, despite enormous disparities between them. People may be living in air-conditioned homes with all the modern amenities in one culture and in huts and shacks without running water or adequate sewage disposal in another. People in one culture may have better health, longer life, more advanced technology, more stable government, and greater personal freedom and safety than others. Moreover, people from other cultures are constantly migrating to these cultures, which fashionable dogmas say are no better than the cultures they are leaving.

Those people who say that all cultures are equal never explain why the results of those cultures are so grossly unequal. Anything that goes against the prevailing social dogma is virtually certain to be dismissed as a stereotype.

To find anything comparable in its blind denial of facts before their eyes, and such fierce and ruthless insistence on an arbitrary party line, you have to go back to the worst days of 20th century totalitarianism. Ironically, it is in our most elite prep schools and colleges that this totalitarian mindset is most deeply entrenched and most intolerant of any other views.

Institutions that force-feed students the new trinity of race, class, and gender victimhood throughout the academic year are often unwilling to risk allowing even one lecture by a visiting spokesman for an opposing viewpoint. Like the Communist regimes which electronically jammed broadcasts from the Voice of America during the Cold War, the new academic totalitarians apparently fear lest their years-long propaganda efforts be knocked over like a house of cards by one brief exposure to a few facts and a different vision.

Why do parents send their children to such places, much less pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to have them brainwashed with political correctness? The harm is not limited to the particular social dogmas they are taught. The larger harm is in being forced to accept dogmas imposed by authorities, rather than learning to use their own minds.