I was listening to an interview with an author this evening who dedicated his work to the priests and nuns who suffer from association from the rare percentage of those who have caused the whole establishment to be called into question. This, following closely on the incident at of Fort Hood gave me pause to consider how it is that some groups are given over to stereotyping and tainting by the actions of one individual.
For instance... all sorts of murders, serial killings and a variety of other social ills can be lain at the feet of maladjusted 20-something WASP males, and yet I am not given over to any sort of prejudice as a result of that. In fact, this anomaly has been noted, especially by comedians of color who are wont to point out that it generally isn't the African-American and Hispanic-American minorities who snap and shoot up a room full of people, bomb a federal building, or even gain notoriety for being a serial killer. By and large, it's stressed-out, crazy, white dudes.
I'm sure that there's an analysis to be done as far as the treatment of a minority population by a majority population here, and yet, in addition to this, there are certain groups (members of the cloth, for instance) who are equally stigmatized. Obviously, this doesn't negate the fact that American society seems to leap at the opportunity to label groups of people who it doesn't quite understand by means of one or two notable actors, but I don't think that's the whole story. After all, the Virginia Tech killings did not seem to generate a notable reaction to the Asian-American community... but this isn't to say that there have not been abuses of that community.
The only thing that I can really point to is that groups of people from whom there are no representative faces in mainstream American culture tend to be the most susceptible to association with individual bad actors. For instance, the Muslim community has no real presence in mainstream American media and so individual incidents tend to drive the collective consciousness much faster than, say, the Oklahoma City Bombing.
Likewise, televangelists tend to get a much easier treatment than members of the Catholic clergy because, while there have been a number of tarnished individuals in the televangelist community, there are also a large number who are in our collective view. The clergy, on the other hand, is absent except for abuse cases and rare appearances of the pope (who, I might add, is far enough removed from America most of the time so as not to figure in with the typical American assessment of those of the cloth.)
So, in the end, where does this leave us? Frankly, with the notion that Americans are far too stupid to be left to understand groups of people who are ideologically different from themselves. Left with no representative for Islam than the 9/11 hijackers, the typical American will automatically assume that all Muslims are out to get us. Likewise with ethnic minorities, religious minorities and any group of people not regularly in the public view. And thus the argument must be made that the average American will create a crude caricature of any group with whose membership he or she does not regularly meet. And even that will become a caricature if the interacted group is not sufficiently diverse as to introduce the foreign notion that the set is not knowable by any small subset.