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African Americans and Pathological Stereotypes

Assumptions about race can lead to wrong conclusions and prejudice.

Pathological stereotypes are ideas about groups of people that exist to explain and justify inequalities. Social status or group position determines the content of stereotypes, not the actual personal characteristics of the people in the stereotyped group. Groups that enjoy fewer social and economic advantages will be stereotyped in a way that helps explain disparities, such as lower-income and lower employment rates. Pathological stereotypes about racial groups lead to discrimination, racism, and reduced opportunities.

Stereotypes versus reality

Although there are many negative stereotypes about African Americans, most people are surprised to learn that the stereotypes are wrong. In this article, I present examples from three pathological stereotypes about African Americans — one historical and two current.

A historical example

Throughout the greater half of the twentieth century, African Americans were stereotyped as dirty and contaminated. Although it is easy to imagine that lower-income individuals may not have had sufficient money for cleaning supplies and might be less concerned about cleanliness, this was simply never true about African Americans. Rather, this stereotype festered to justify laws segregating Black and White Americans under the false notion of cleanliness and disease prevention.

Segregation statutes prevented Blacks and Whites from utilizing the same restrooms, drinking fountains, and swimming facilities under the assumption that Whites would be contaminated by shared use. Back in the day, Jim Crow was considered "just common sense." The medical establishment agreed, proclaiming that African Americans were carriers of disease, "a social menace whose collective superstitions, ignorance, and carefree demeanour stood as a stubborn affront to modern notions of hygiene ... " (Wailoo, 2006).

Meanwhile, Black Americans were commonly employed as cleaning ladies in White establishments, and nannies and maids for White families, illustrating the paradoxical nature of pathological stereotypes. Black people could cook food for White people, but could not sit at the same dinner table. Blacks could enter homes in White neighborhoods to clean them but not to buy them.

Even today, despite lower per capita incomes, Black Americans spend more on laundry and cleaning supplies than their White counterparts, even after adjusting for differences in average annual spending. African American women engage in increased hygiene practices and report more cleaning and grooming behaviors. In fact, a greater emphasis on cleaning behaviors appears to be a cultural norm for African Americans. When taking in these facts and our history as a whole, it's not difficult to see how the stereotype was wrong, and distortion of reality was used to justify the disenfranchisement of a disadvantaged population.

A current example

So, that was history, but what about today? If I ask you what a "typical drug user" looks like, who do you see — a Black person?

Most people are surprised to learn that African American youth are significantly less likely to use tobacco, alcohol, or drugs than White or Hispanic Americans. Large-scale national surveys like the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R) find that African Americans are significantly less likely to have substance use disorders than their White counterparts.

Given that African Americans are a statistical minority in the US, the overwhelming majority of drug abusers will therefore be White. Nonetheless, African Americans are disproportionately targeted, arrested, and jailed for drug-related crimes.

People use the pathological stereotype of the Black junkie or drug dealer to rationalize the imbalanced scales of justice. We stuff our prisons with "those people" to propagate an illusion of safety. We like to think the world is fair, so if Black people are overrepresented in jails for drug-related crimes, we think they must be locked up because they deserve it, perpetuating the pathological stereotype.

What if pathological stereotypes are true?

Certainly, in some cases, it would seem that the stereotype must represent real differences between groups. For example, African Americans are pathologically stereotyped as poor, and indeed on average Black Americans are poorer than their White counterparts, though not in numbers nearly as high as estimated by the average American (29% reality versus 50% believed). Wouldn't this amount to a "kernel of truth," about group members?

Although some pathological stereotypes may represent measurable differences between groups, there will be many members of the group who possess some or none of the stereotypical traits. If we pathologically stereotype Blacks as "poor," and two out of three Black people are not poor, we'll be wrong most of the time. Despite what you might see on the nightly news, most Black people are in the middle class and many are upper class as well.

So, when you are standing in line at the supermarket next to a random Black woman in a hoodie and jogging pants, don't make assumptions about class or income. That woman may have a Ph.D. in neurobiology, speak fluent German and French, and earn more than you as a clinical director at a European pharmaceutical company. And if you do bump her, give her a hearty "Guten Tag!" from me, because you've probably run into my younger sister.

Go to Part II - The Circular Nature of Pathological Stereotypes


Beckett, K., Nyrop, K., & Pfingst, L. (2006). Race, drugs, and policing: understanding disparities in drug delivery arrests. Criminology, 44, 1, 105-137.

Kessler, R. C., Bergland, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. R., & Walters, E. E. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset of DSM-IV disorders in the national comorbidity survey replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 593-602.

Wailoo K. (2006). Stigma, race, and disease in 20th century America. The Lancet, 367(9509), 531(3).

Williams, M. T., Abramowitz, J. S., Olatunji, B. O. (2012). The Relationship between Contamination Cognitions, Anxiety, and Disgust in Two Ethnic Groups. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 43, 632-637.