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Among the more coherent—which is not to say worthwhile—ideas in Ye’s recent, much-publicized antisemitic social media tirades is the idea that Jewish people control the media and hold disproportionate power within the financial industry. While the Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Kanye-West is obviously (and unapologetically) antisemitic, some might defend his remarks by saying, “I don’t have anything against Jews at all, but what’s so bad about saying Jews are good businesspeople? Calling a group of people ‘good with money’ and ‘intelligent’ is complimenting them, isn’t it?”
No, it actually isn’t.
While it’s generally not socially acceptable to openly espouse negative stereotypes about large groups of people in 2022 (unless you’re a famous rapper or former president of the United States), it’s still common for people to throw out seemingly “good” stereotypes with casual ease. But there is no such thing as a positive stereotype. Ye’s ideas (if you can call them that) are a modern remix of ancient slander against Jews, and even if one has the best intentions, believing in and expressing even so-called positive stereotypes of Jewish people—or any people—is still bigotry, and a simultaneous reinforcement of negative stereotypes, even if you don’t recognize them.
Two sides of the same coin
According to the stereotype content model, if you break down any positive stereotype an in-group holds for an out-group, it’s composed of some combination of traits considered either “warm” or “competent.” Competent positive stereotypes are generally reserved for people regarded as higher status by the in-group, while “warm” traits are ascribed to people seen as lower in status.
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The problem is that there is almost always corresponding negative associations on the opposite pole. For example, “Jews are good with money” is high on the “competence” pole, but the other side of the coin is something like, “because they’re greedy.” That is, they are lacking on the “warmth” side of the equation.
A warm stereotype like “Irish people are funny and like to have a good time,” has the corresponding negative association on the competence side—something along the lines of, “because they’re drunks and are not serious people.”
“Jews always like to be the head of things”
According to the Anti Defamation League’s most recent survey on attitudes toward Jewish people, 25% of Americans agree with the statement “Jews always like to be at the head of things.” What’s wrong with saying Jews are born leaders? For a start, it’s the same thing Hitler said: The Nazi justification for systematic genocide was based largely on the idea that both communism and capitalism were Jewish conspiracies created so Jews could seize power (ie: be “the head of things”) in Germany.
“Jewish people are smart”
Calling Jewish people more intelligent than other races is absurd on its face, because race is a myth and there is no such thing as intelligence either, at least in a biological sense.
There is no genetic marker or physical trait that determines a person’s race, because race is a cultural construct. (It’s obviously an important classification to us, but it doesn’t describe anything biological.) What we call intelligence is only us identifying and evaluating human behaviors within specific contexts (marking the “right”answers while taking an IQ test means you’re “intelligent”) while imagining we are describing something essential about a person. Ultimately, trying to determine how much one made-up category affects another made-up category is as ridiculous as arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
But within the popular imagination, many people have agreed with the idea that “Jews are smart” since the Middle Ages. But this kind of “smartness” is never an isolated “competent” trait. On the flip side is the lack of warmth: I’m sure Ye would agree that Jews would have to be very smart (or “shrewd,” the popular antisemitic stand-in for “smart”) to control the recording industry, but the supposed “smartness” of Jews carries with it the implication of greediness and immorality—coldness. It’s also unspoken that smart people are physically weak and/or sickly. It’s the flip side from saying that Black people are naturally more athletic, a seemingly benign evaluation that is loaded with negativity (“Which means they’re good at playing sports; not good at being being lawyers.”)
“Jews stick together”
According to the ADL’s research, 44% of Americans agree with the idea that “Jews stick together,” a warm assessment with an ugly underbelly suggesting steel-eyed competence. The implication is that Jews are less loyal to America than other people, leading to the belief that “Jewish employers go out of their way to hire other Jews” (1/3 of respondents agree with that) and that “the movie and television industries are pretty much run by Jews,” a statement that both Ye and 17 percent of Americans agree with.
“Positive” stereotypes on an individual level
Historically, widespread acceptance of stereotypes about racial or religious groups led to the slave trade, the holocaust, and countless other expressions of societal evil, but positive stereotypes expressed casually in individual circumstances are negative too, often on a personal, visceral level. Assuming an Asian person is, say, good at math harmful and depersonalizing in and of itself, no matter how you value skill at math. If a hypothetical Asian person happens to actually be good at math, it assumes that math-goodness is a racial trait as opposed to an individual characteristic or the product of personal effort. If they happen to be bad at math, they’ve disappointed the observer and perhaps themselves too, depending on how far they’ve internalized someone else’s stereotype.
Why is stereotyping so common?
Stereotyping is insidious because making quick judgements on outside groups is so easy. People can seem to “live up to” their stereotypes, especially if you really want them to. For instance, a survey of international student exams show that Asian countries are actually the top performing when it comes to math. This doesn’t mean there’s some racial trait that makes Asians better at math (or Jews better at managing money). The lowest math performing country is also in Asia. Accepting stereotypical generalities about groups ignores the complex interplay between culture and history that actually accounts for differences and does a disservice to the world’s impolite Canadians and penniless Jews. Plus, you don’t want to sound like Ye.