Responses to prominent reputations provide a framework for understanding the growth and decline of group prejudice. In the 1930s, the connection between American Jews and Communism was both an empirical and cognitive reality - Jews constituted a significant portion of the American Communist Party and many Americans stereotyped them as such. However, by mid-century, the perceptual linkage between Jew and Communist had largely vanished. We explain the change in public attitudes by treating prejudice as a cultural framework for collective memory. Building on Blumer (1958) and the empirical conclusions of other prominent sociologists of the period, we argue that group prejudice depends on a group's distinctiveness, its perceived moral imbalance, and the discursive utility of attacks. When components of this three-part frame weaken, prejudice dissipates. Specifically, we claim that the specificity of reputations serves as a concrete stand-in for more diffuse images of social groups. While group position is not only the result of the reputation of prominent figures, the public images of these figures help to shape prejudice and its decline. As an empirical case, we examine the cultural framework for interpreting the linkage of American Jews and Communism in the late 1940s and early 1950s through the reputations of Alger Hiss, Roy Cohn, and Adolf Hitler. Presented by reputational entrepreneurs, these images emphasize American Communists who were decidedly non-Jewish, underline the prominence of anti-Communist American Jews, and delegitimize public anti-Semitism.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Sociology and Political Science