I’m a little disappointed by the lack of attention I’ve given this blog, so I apologize for the long hiatus. I have a few ideas that hopefully will get the ball rolling for much more frequent updates. I’ve really enjoyed writing these thoughts so far and I hope to expand the topics I cover in the future or turn the blog into something more discussion oriented. I’d also really like to incorporate some information about my day to day work and the way these articles are applied practically in my life in the near future. I posted on facebook about a year ago that I wanted to start this blog and someone told me as long as it wasn’t a reinvention of Fooled By Randomness then it would be good. I’m just finishing that book for the first time and I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment in retrospect. I think Taleb did a great job of breaking down common perception biases and how they affect the world of finance but he barely scratches the surface of how randomness can impact our personal lives. Hopefully the way this site progresses I’ll be able to look at variance in fields where nobody talks about variance and the extreme importance of understanding probability in everything. That said, thanks for the comments and suggestions and please keep them coming! Also I do have a real post to submit below.
There’s a lot of information to take in when you meet someone you don’t know. Everything you notice at first glance is going to influence your opinion on that person and shape the way your first interactions proceed. For example, young children are unlikely to have received enough formal education to be familiar with major political events, so if I met a twelve year old child and had to start a conversation, I’d probably talk about comic books and not the recent NATO protests. Similarly, if I met a college kid at a bar wearing a Kyle Korver jersey, I’d aim the conversation towards sports, not Battlestar Galactica. I’ll be wrong sometimes, though, trying to make a quick judgement of someone I don’t know. That kid might be three years older than I’d estimated, already planning to be on track for law school because of a politically active father. And that college kid might be a huge fan of sci-fi television, only wearing the jersey because she came from a Bulls game with her boyfriend and thinks Korver is super cute. (I’ll bet you assumed that second example was a male just because I was talking about sports and never specified her gender. It’s a harmless first judgement, but everyone makes them, and sometimes they’re not so harmless.)
Racism and sterotyping are extremely different concepts. It’s often useful to stereotype and in some cases it’d be ignorant not to. Good decision making comes from gathering evidence, making some assumptions and using them in conjunction to draw the most likely conclusion. Racism (and any other form of bigotry) is often the result of gathering very little evidence, making a lot of assumptions and using that to reaffirm a pre-existing bias. It doesn’t make you a racist if you get skiddish around a homeless black man stumbling through the subway muttering to himself about the end of the world. I would consider you a racist if you somehow manage see the same scenario with a homeless white man and decide it’s a good time to take out your iphone or count the money in your wallet. In both cases there’s a lot of evidence that this guy isn’t doing so well financially and you’re at a higher risk than usual of getting robbed if he spots a good opportunity. His skin tone is a minute piece of evidence that isn’t going to change a rational person’s first impression of the situation.
If you’re familiar with statistical analysis you might think of race as another input variable that’s commonly used along with gender, age, education, income, etc. Yes, there are strong correlations between a person’s race and a variety of factors, but in almost all cases you can reach the same conclusion using different inputs. It’s obvious that there’s nothing inherent about being Hispanic that makes you more likely to rob someone. There is however something inherent about living in a low income household and (somewhere along the same pathway) being involved in gang activity–which applies to a large number of minorities and a small number of white people. Until that changes (and it won’t in my lifetime), there will be a loud and ignorant majority who doesn’t understand variance and will live and die by untrue generalizations because of their desire to simiplify the world.
I’m still trying to figure out where I’m going with this, so bear with me. It’s not that racism is circumstantially okay, or even remotely acceptable. Racism is a serious issue but I want to try and weed out in what way racist people are making an irrational mistake in their judgement. A rational person sees race as a trait, something that can supplement other evidence and perhaps help draw conclusions but in almost no case will be sufficient to yield a logical end without additional information. An irrational person may think of race as a category with a unique set of traits, much like they would with women, young people or homosexuals. The problem is that there are no categories of people with identical personalities or habits. Anyone who chooses to ignore that is acting irrationally in favor of believing a bias that doesn’t exist. Statistical analysis on these groups will absolutely find a correlation to their most common stereotypes, but we all know correlation isn’t causation. The rational man will break down the true source of that stereotype and understand why something is going on instead of simply what.
The last thing I want to address is acceptable stereotyping that gets labelled racist, in my opinion, incorrectly. There’s a great scene in Seinfeld that touches on this topic where Jerry is looking for the nearest Chinese restaurant and asks a mailman who at the time was bent over to empty the mailbox. When he stands up straight he turns out to be a Chinese mailman and gets offended at the question, thinking Jerry asked him because he was Chinese and thus would obviously know where all the Chinese restaurants are. Now what I don’t understand is why it’s taboo to try to ask the person who you’d deem most likely to know the answer to your question (Jerry defends himself because he thought a mailman would know the city better than anyone, but even so you’re more likely to find out where the restaurant is if you ask a Chinese person first). If you were in a hurry to translate something from Spanish would you call the first person in your phone book or the first hispanic person? Even if your Mexican friend ends up knowing fewer Spanish words than you do it was the obvious choice and there’s no reason for him or her to be offended by the call. This practice goes unnoticed if the stereotype is clearly harmless, but race is a topic that can stir up emotions and emotion often leads to bad judgement. Hopefully more of us in future generations aren’t so sensitive as to ignore the difference between purposeful stereotyping and irrational racism.