“Rational” Racism

“Rational” Racism June 23, 2008

Previous in Series: Racism without Race?

Start with a question that at first glance may seem far removed from matters of race and racism: why do teenagers pay higher rates for car insurance than do other drivers? The answer, obviously, is that they have a higher rate of accidents. Note, though, that a particular teenager will still be a higher rate even if he happens to be an excellent driver and will never get into an accident. Why? Because while a particular teenager might be safe, many of his peers are reckless and/or inexperienced, and it is not possible for the insurance companies to distinguish him from the others. To the extent that there was a low cost way of distinguishing between good drivers and bad drivers, insurance companies would use it, and in fact teen drivers do often pay more or less for insurance depending on their sex, because it turns out that teenage boys get into a lot more accidents than teenage girls.

This process is known as statistical discrimination, and in many areas of life it is considered unobjectionable. Yet, as with so many other things, when it comes to race matters are different.

In my last post, I mentioned an experiment in which students used statistical discrimination to pick who to hire based on the different average education levels of randomly assigned “green” or “purple” students. Despite the fact that “green” and “purple” were not pre-existing categories, many people seemed inclined to call what the “employer” students did racist. Interestingly, no one considered the actions of the employee students to be racist, even though it was based on exactly the same statistical calculation as the student employers. I suspect that, if the two randomly assigned groups had been called “left” and “right” rather than “green” and “purple,” people would have been less likely to consider what the student employers did racist. But whatever one thinks about that particular example, if a real employer were to use the same method to not hire real racial minorities, few would doubt that this was racist.

And therein lies the rub. For to engage in this sort of statistical discrimination, one needn’t be motivated by any sort of animus or hatred of a particular racial group.

Nor is statistical discrimination the only case in which racial discrimination can be “rational,” at least in terms of one’s narrow self-interest. Consider, for example, a white restaurant owner in 1920s America. This owner may harbor no particular animus against blacks. He may even wish that he could get their business. Yet in all likelihood he will have a policy not to serve blacks in his restaurant. Why? Because he knows that if he does so, whites will stop frequenting his establishment, and he will not be able to make up this lost business with the additional business he would get from serving blacks. Whatever we might think of such a person (and I doubt there are many who would want to give him a medal for being such a rational calculator), the point is that his decision to discriminate need not be based on dislike for a particular racial group. Which means that our previous attempt to define racism in terms of actions motivated by racial animus must fail.

Next in Series: Racism without Racists?

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  • You may have a point that the restaurant owner who participates in racial discrimination may not be motivated by his or her personal dislike but the racial dislike of his or her clientele. However, the result and the ultimate motivation is the same. In both cases the result is that minorities will be discriminated against and that the ultimate source of that racial discrimination is someone’s prejudice and/or hatred. The fact that the restaurant owner chooses to support the racial discrimination of the clientele does not mitigate the fact that the discrimination is motivated by “racial animus”.


  • blackadderiv

    I agree that the result is the same. But the motivation in the two cases is different (to say this is not to justify the behavior of the restaurant owner who acts only out of economic self interest).

  • c matt

    So are you suggesting that racism should be defined more broadly – as in anything that is racially discriminatory in result, regardless of motivation?

  • jpf

    My basic issue, a white business owner discriminates against blacks and a black, asian or hispanic business owner discriminates against other racial groups. So what?

    What we are talking about here is freedom of association. I may choose to associate or not associate with people for rational or irrational reasons. Why is it the place of the government to make that decision for me or anyone else? That means state mandated segregation as well as laws forbiding persons to discriminate based upon race.

    The argument of course is that minorities suffer as a result. But this has not been the case with all minorities, here or in the United States. Homosexuals and Asians tend to do well financially here in the U.S. and elsewhere despite being minorities. Likewise in other nations minority groups such as Indians and Chinese (or Jews) have tend to thrive financially in nations where are dispised minorities.

    Of course the leading economist in refuting the notion that discrimination is the cause of group inequalities is Thomas Sowell. In Sowell’ Markets and Minorities, Ethnic America, Race and Culture and others, Sowell argues that the importance of such factors as geography, degree of urbanization, cultural structures, field of work, and other factors more relevant than charges of “racism”. He believes that those who make such charges seldom present credible empirical evidence.

    Is racism bad and irrational. Yes, but there are lots of bad feelings and irrational activities that we do not make illegal.

  • Liam

    The problem with this hypothesis is that it reduces suffering to a monetary dimension (very American corporatist/consumerist, but very unCatholic). But discrimination of the sort discussed here has a historical tendency to reinforce the vulnerability of members of a minority group (black, Indian, Asian, Jew, gay, et cet.) to non-monetary forms of suffering that are typically discounted in divers ways by members of the majority.

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  • jpf


    What you are basically saying is that people even though they are not suffering financially are entitled to live a life where they do not suffer at the hands of others due to another peoples evil or irrational actions or beliefs.

    Therefore, I would imagine that you would be one of those individuals who would agree with laws or rules that would prohibit children from taunting each other in the school yard? I also imagine that you agree with the Americans with Disabilities Act which has cost billions to implement. It probably would have been cheaper to pay the disabled to stay home and live on the dole as opposed to restructuring the nation’s infrastructure to accomodate their mainstreaming, but then they would not have “a fulfilled life.” (I wish people would pay for me to have a fulfilled life.)

    What is a fulfilled life? What is rational vs. irrational suffering? Who’ s just being thin skinned and who isn’t ? Unfortunately, it is easier to look at OBJECTIVE criteria to determine if someone is being injured by discrimination.

    Racial discrimination is not a Catholic virtue, but there are lots of Catholic virtues that we do not legally mandate. As the prayer says we are in a “vail of tears” or life’s a witch with a capital B and then we die.

  • jpf

    Make that “vale of tears.” My spelling is always attrocious but that sticks out worse than most.

  • Racism is more than “bad feelings and irrational activities,” jpf.

    Though I am white, I grew up in a black, working class neighborhood in the Sixties and early Seventies. A neighbor of mine told me the story once of a relative who made the mistake of visiting relatives in the South, and flirted with a white woman while he was there. For this “offense” he was dragged out of bed late one night by a group of white men, and had his genitals burned off with a blowtorch prior to being hanged.

    There was a very clear message being sent by the enforcers of white dominance: Touch a white woman – heck, make like you might, at some future time, seriously consider touching a white woman, and suffer the same fate as this “uppity” northerner. It wasn’t just torture and murder being committed, though those were heinous enough: it was the use of torture and murder to communicate and enforce the subjugation of one race by another.

    Any action that enforces the subjugation of one race by another – whether it be violence, the threat of violence, or more subtle forms of intimidation, ought to be against the law.

  • blackadderiv

    The events you describe are quite horrifying. But presumably one needn’t have any particular conception of racism to understand why it would be wrong to take a blow torch to a man’s genitals and then hanging him for flirting with a woman. That would be seriously wrong (and ought to be against the law), regardless of any racial issue.

  • But the specific purpose of the act, the intimidation of one race by another, has everything to do with race, BA. Had he been a white man flirting with a white woman, there would have been no issue at all. As I said – “It wasn’t just torture and murder being committed, though those were heinous enough: it was the use of torture and murder to communicate and enforce the subjugation of one race by another.”

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  • Liam


    You assume suffering is necessarily atomized at the individual level. Again, very American. There is oppression that is designed to be a signal to an entire group. Your failure to get what is so obvious betrays a kind of learned blindness to actual experience.

    (That, btw, is why burning a cross at the house of a black family is particularly awful – it is a form of assault directed as a warning to the entire local black community, just for example. Assault in the meaning of putting people in immediate apprehension of their safety.)

    Btw, if suffering is so wonderful for us, then what’s the problem with the “suffering” created by the restrictions on freedom of association you complain of? Hmm.