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Thoughts on racism (3): the incidence argument

English: Newark, New Jersey at night

English: Newark, New Jersey at night (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In paragraphs 6-11 of “Racism” (pp. 148-49), Rand discusses and rebuts an argument she ascribes to “modern racists,” and which I call the incidence argument. In broad form, the incidence argument licenses inferences from claims about the high/low incidence of good/bad traits in a (supposedly) representative sample of individuals from a given race, to claims about the traits possessed via membership in the race as such. One common version of the inference–there are many variations, both stronger and weaker–goes as follows:

The high incidence of a good trait, G among a representative sample of individuals from race R indicates that (e.g.) you can naturally expect any given R-individual to have G unless proven otherwise in a given case.

And something similar applies, mutatis mutandis, for bad traits.

Here are some cases I’ll be discussing in my “racism” presentation at the TAS Seminar, intended to get clear on the implications of the incidence argument. Again, I’ll discuss my answers to the questions below at the Seminar, and on the blog after the Seminar.

1. You’re not black. You’re going to law school in Newark, New Jersey. Three times in the three years you spend in law school, you are the victim of serious crimes. In year 1, you are mugged in the parking lot of the law school by two people. In year 2, your car is stolen out of the same parking lot by two different people. In year 3, you are car-jacked at gunpoint from that same lot by three (yet) different people. In all three cases, the seven perpetrators are arrested, tried, and fairly convicted on the evidence of all charges. All seven are black. Should these experiences induce you to reach any conclusions about black people in general? Should they merely be construed as experiences about precisely the seven individuals involved? Is there some justifiable intermediate conclusion to reach, narrower than “about black people in general” but wider than “about precisely the seven individuals”?

2. You’re not Jewish. You’re in business in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. You have a total of twenty clients, five of whom are Jewish. Every one of the five strikes you as abrasive, insensitive, tribalist (in the sense of favoring other Jews at the expense of non-Jews), greedy, and obsessed with Israel, even to the point of claiming explicitly to favor Israel’s interests over those of the US. You at first try to shrug this off, but the judgment persists; it’s not a belief you’ve reached on the spur of the moment. Should these experiences induce you to reach any conclusions about Jews in general? Should they merely be construed as experiences about precisely the five individuals involved? Is there some justifiable intermediate conclusion to reach, narrower than “about Jews in general” but wider than “about precisely the five individuals involved”?

3. You’re black, but sufficiently light-skinned so that it’s not always apparent to outsiders that you are black. You live in the suburbs of Chicago. Every now and then you find yourself eavesdropping, incognito, on the conversations of white people who are under the impression that they are speaking in confidence to other white people out of the earshot of non-whites. In five of the last ten such conversations you overheard, the white people referred to blacks pejoratively in a way they would not in front of blacks themselves. In one of these conversations, blacks were referred to as “niggers.” In another, two members of a suburban zoning committee discussed the propriety of not selling one’s home to a prospective black buyer in order to keep property values up. Same questions as in (1) and (2) above.

4. Consider the following claim:

What we may call “hard” profiling uses race as the only factor in assessing criminal suspiciousness: an officer sees a black person and, without more to go on, pulls him over for a pat-down on the chance that he may be carrying drugs or weapons. “Soft” racial profiling is using race as one factor among others in gauging criminal suspiciousness: the highway police, for example, have intelligence that Jamaican drug posses with a fondness for Nissan Pathfinders are transporting marijuana along the northeast corridor. A New Jersey trooper sees a black motorist speeding in a Pathfinder and pulls him over in the hope of finding drugs.

Is soft profiling legitimate? Consider the same example of soft profiling, but delete the reference to Nissan Pathfinders, and specify that a white motorist traveling at that speed would not have been stopped. Is the trooper justified in pulling over the motorist? The quotation comes from Heather Mac Donald, “The Myth of Racial Profiling,” City Journal, Spring 2001.

5. My own variation on (4): What we may call “hard” affirmative action uses race as the only factor in assessing worthiness for a position: a committee notes that a candidate is black, and without more to go on, gives him the position. “Soft” affirmative action is using race as one factor among others in gauging worthiness for a position. A committee looks over a dossier, for example, notes that the candidate is black, notes that he lives in a ‘rough’ neighborhood, and concludes that the black candidate has lived a life of poverty and discrimination not suffered by a white candidate with comparable credentials. The committee offers the position to the black candidate on this basis; the white candidate is rejected. Same questions as (4) above.

Map of Pakistan

Map of Pakistan (Photo credit: Omer Wazir)

6. Since 9/11, the Pakistani authorities have encountered a large number of Arabs in the northwest territories of Pakistan whose sole reason for being there is participation in criminal activity related to terrorism. There is, however, no accurate count of the ratio of Arab criminals/terrorists to Arab non-criminals/non-terrorists in so nebulously-defined a region as “the northwest territories of Pakistan.” Should the Pakistani authorities regard all Arabs in the northwest territories of Pakistan as prima facie suspicious? Should anyone overheard to be speaking (colloquial) Arabic be put under surveillance? (Note: The number of Pakistani locals who speak colloquial Arabic can be presumed to be close to 0. “Colloquial Arabic” contrasts here with the liturgical Arabic used by all Muslims, Arab or non-Arab, in religious contexts. In general, Arabs have a discernibly different physical appearance from Pakistanis, but perceptual judgments of this type are highly defeasible.)

6*. Bonus question: same set-up at (6), but the Arab in question is 6′ 4″, lives in a huge compound surrounded by barbed wire in Abbottabad, and habitually wears a cowboy hat. You’re a traffic cop in Abbottabad, and you stop this guy for speeding. Should you have any particular suspicions about him? Would it be racist to ask him to please remove the hat so as to get a look at his face?

Irfan

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