Malcolm Gladwell keeps picking away at his self-inflicted wound:
Bad Stereotyping ...
This is my third (and last) comment on the Ayres study. My first point, as those of you who have been following my thoughts on this know, is that price discrimination against black males by car salesmen is morally wrong. My second point is that it is a bad business strategy. My third—and in some ways most important point—is that its lousy stereotyping.
Let’s go back to the study. The male and female, black and white testers who Ayres sent out to car dealerships all gave the salesmen the same set of facts. They were all roughly the same age (late twenties). They all drove the same kind of car into the lot. They all dressed neatly and conservatively. They identified themselves as college-educated professionals (sample job: systems analyst at a bank). And they said they lived in the upper-income Chicago neighborhood of Streeterville. The car salesman, then, has several pieces of data from which to create his stereotype. He has the gender, race, age, occupation, educational level, and class (or at least a class proxy) of his potential customer. And what did he do? With the black men, he zeroed in on age and race, and ignored everything else.
In his critique of my analysis of Ayres, Judge Posner did the same thing. When he says that it may be “sensible to ascribe the group's average characteristics to each member of the group,” the “group” he’s talking about is race. But why is Posner—like the car salesmen—so hung up about race? Wouldn’t it be just as sensible, in the case of black men, to define their “group” as the group of college-educated, upper income professionals? So too with Steve Sailer. He says that car salesman are acting rationally, based on the fact that black men—as a group—like to be seen overpaying for cars. I have made my feelings known about what I see as the motivation behind that particular comment. But let’s just focus here on its appropriateness. Why is Sailer—like Posner and Ayres’car dealers—so intent on zeroing in on what is only one of many available and relevant facts about the customer?
The short answer to that question, I think, is that this is what racial prejudice is: it is the irrational elevation of race-based considerations over other, equally or more relevant factors.
But let me make two other points. First, thinking of the Ayres study this way gives us, I think, some insight into the anger that continues to be felt in the African-American community over discrimination. Put yourself in the shoes of one of those black males in Ayres study. You go to college. You get a good job. You make a lot of money. You move to a posh neighborhood. And when you walk into a car dealership all of those achievemens—and what they signal about you—vanish, and the salesmen only sees the color of your skin. Can you understand now why I’ve been hammering away on this subject?
Second, some of the commenters to my previous posts seem to have been of the opinion that price discrimination represented a kind of shrewd, profit-maximization strategy by salesmen. Shrewd? Tell me what’s so shrewd about being given four critical facts about a potential customer, and deciding to discard three of them?
The logical implication of Malcolm's argument is that Americans need to cultivate more sophisticated stereotypes, which is what I've been pointing out for years. In 2003 I wrote:
"I think it would be good for society if whites become more aware of black social class markers. Something that drives black anger is when a young black man with a college degree is crossing the street and he hears from inside all the cars at the stoplight the "ka-chunk" of white motorists locking their doors to keep him from carjacking them.
"For about a decade, I've assumed that a younger black man wearing those small, typically round wire-rimmed glasses is making a statement about his social class and aspirations, indicating something like "I'm no nerd, but I have definitely been to college. I'm hip-hop, but I'm not ghet-to. I'm cool, but I'm a thinker."
"The first celebrity I can remember with this look was John Singleton, director of "Boyz 'n the Hood," back about 1992. Laurence Fishburne's guru Morpheus in "The Matrix" (above) is another example. (The head doesn't have to be shaved and the lenses don't have to be tinted, but that doesn't hurt the image). You often hear a particular accent from wire-rimmed glasses wearing black guys, too: it sounds both black and educated, but rugged, not prissy."
In the past, the educated black man would adopt a white accent and white visual styles. But, the more recent generations of college-educated black men don't want to do that. They want to assert their blackness. On the other hand, they also want to assert their social class. So, they've adopted some subtle clues that other blacks can easily pick up on. Unfortunately, the little glasses and this new accent are too subtle for many whites to notice.
So, what America needs is More and Better Stereotyping!