What’s Prejudice?

Walter E. Williams, TownHall.com, September 20, 2006

A fortnight ago, my column made a stab at applying dispassionate analysis to come up with an operational definition for discrimination. Basically, discrimination is the act of choice, and choice is a necessary fact of life. Now let’s turn to prejudice, keeping in mind that for sound thinking, one should avoid confusing one phenomenon with another.

Prejudice is a useful term that’s often misused. Its Latin root is praejudicium, meaning “an opinion or judgment formed . . . without due examination.” Thus, we might define prejudicial acts as decision-making on the basis of incomplete information.

In a world of costly information, people seek to economize on information costs. Imagine heading off to work, you open your front door, only to be greeted by a full-grown tiger. The uninteresting prediction is the average person would slam the door or otherwise seek safety.

Why they do so is more interesting. It’s unlikely that person’s decision is based on any detailed information held about that particular tiger. More likely his decision is based on tiger folklore or how he’s seen other tigers behave. He prejudges, or stereotypes, that tiger.

If a person didn’t pre-judge tigers, he would seek more information prior to his decision. He might attempt to pet the tiger, talk to him and seek safety only if the tiger responded in a menacing fashion. The average person wouldn’t choose that path, surmising that the expected cost of getting more information about the tiger is greater than the expected benefit and concluding, “All I need to know is he’s a tiger, and he’s probably like the rest of them.” By observing this person’s behavior, there’s no way one can say unambiguously whether the person likes or dislikes tigers.

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No one says that all young black males, not even a majority, pose a threat, but people are assigning probabilities. Such an assignment differs little from a physician, knowing that incidences of cardiovascular diseases are 30 percent higher among blacks than whites and prostate cancer is twice as high, giving his black patients more careful screening for these two diseases. Like the cabbies, pizza deliverers and Rev. Jackson, the physician is engaging in what some have called racial profiling—using race as an indicator of something else.

For analytical purposes, it’s important to correctly identify behavior. Asserting that a particular behavior reflects racial likes and dislikes, which it could, when in fact it does not, is to mislead and confound whatever problem or issue one is addressing.


See also Dr. Williams’s article on New Century Foundation’s “The Color Of Crime”:

What About Hate Crimes By Blacks?, Creators Syndicate, August 22, 1999



There’s so much confusion and emotionalism about discrimination that I thought I’d take a stab at a dispassionate analysis. Discrimination is simply the act of choice. When we choose Bordeaux wine, we discriminate against Burgundy wine. When I married Mrs. Williams, I discriminated against other women. Even though I occasionally think about equal opportunity, Mrs. Williams demands continued discrimination.

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I’ve sometimes asked students if they believe in equal opportunity in employment. Invariably, they answer yes. Then I ask them, when they graduate, whether they plan to give every employer an equal opportunity to hire them. Most often they answer no; they plan to discriminate against certain employers. Then I ask them, if they’re not going to give every employer an equal opportunity to hire them, what’s fair about requiring an employer to give them an equal opportunity to be hired?

Sometimes students will argue that certain forms of discrimination are OK but it’s racial discrimination that’s truly offensive. That’s when I confess my own history of racial discrimination. In the late 1950s, whilst selecting a lifelong mate, even though white, Mexican, Indian, Chinese and Japanese women might have been just as qualified as a mate, I gave them no chance whatsoever. It appears that most Americans act identically by racially discriminating in setting up marriage contracts. According to the 1992 Census Bureau, only 2.2 percent of Americans are married to people other than their own race or ethnicity.

You say, “All right, Williams, discrimination in marriage doesn’t have the impact on society that other forms of discrimination have.” You’re wrong again. When there is assortive (non-random) mate selection, it heightens whatever group differences exist in the population. For instance, higher IQ individuals tend toward mates with high IQs. High-income people tend to mate with other high-income people.

It’s the same with education. To the extent there is a racial correlation between these characteristics, racial discrimination in mate selection exaggerates the differences in the society’s intelligence and income distribution. There would be greater equality if there weren’t this kind of discrimination in mate selection.

In other words, if high-IQ people were forced to select low-IQ mates, high-income people forced to select low-income mates, and highly educated people forced to select lowly educated mates, there would be greater social equality. While there would be greater social equality, the divorce rate would soar since gross dissimilarities would make for conflict.

Common sense suggests that not all discrimination should be eliminated, so the question is, what kind of discrimination should be permitted? I’m guessing the answer depends on one’s values for freedom of association, keeping in mind freedom of association implies freedom not to associate.

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