Is there a stereotypical doctor in the house?
March 7, 2013 1 Comment
I tweeted this today:
Just saw this. Librarian to Asian man: "Are you a doctor?" Man: "Yes." Librarian: "We have someone in the front suffering a cardiac arrest."
The man wasn’t wearing a stethoscope, a lab coat, or scrubs. If you had asked me to guess what he did for a living, I wouldn’t have been able to. He was sitting with his son in the children’s section at the back of the library, and they were reading together.
When he rushed off with the librarian to tend to the heart-attack victim, I saw his son, a concerned-looking Asian woman, and an Asian girl watch him go. I’m guessing the whole family had come to the library together.
Meanwhile, there was an announcement still being made over a loudspeaker:
"If there is a medical doctor in the library, please come immediately to the front desk!"
The announcement was repeated several times.
As my son and I later made our way out of the library, I asked the librarian if the ambulance had come in time. She said yes and told me she thought the woman (the victim, I assume) would be fine. I wanted to ask her why she had guessed that the Asian dad was an MD, but I resisted the urge. I figured the question would embarrass her. I’m guessing, in fact, that everyone there had understood that the quick-thinking librarian had done an efficient bit of racial profiling — and thank goodness she had done so — but no one wanted to acknowledge what had happened or how appropriate it was.
There were only two other adults in the children’s section: the Asian mom and yours truly. I have a picture in my head of the librarian’s mental calculus. Man or woman? Go for the man. Asian man or white man? Go for the Asian man.
The event reminded me of article that I thought was by Walter E. Williams about the rationality and legitimacy of stereotypes, discrimination, and prejudice. In the article, as I remember it, the reader is asked to imagine a contest in which you’re allowed to ask a stranger for help with a math problem in order to win a big cash prize.
I spent a silly amount of time searching Williams’s articles and couldn’t find it. I found plenty of articles on the same general subject, making the same general points, but none of them posited this hypothetical contest.
Then I found a passage by Williams that triggered the necessary memories for me:
[G]oing to the word’s Latin root, to pre-judge simply means: making decisions on the basis of incomplete information. Here’s an example. Suppose leaving your workplace you see a full-grown tiger standing outside the door. Most people would endeavor to leave the area in great dispatch. That prediction isn’t all that interesting but the question is why. Is your decision to run based on any detailed information about that particular tiger or is it based on tiger folklore and how you’ve seen other tigers behaving? It’s probably the latter. You simply pre-judge that tiger; you stereotype him. If you didn’t pre-judge and stereotype that tiger, you’d endeavor to obtain more information, like petting him on the head and doing other friendly things to determine whether he’s dangerous. Most people quickly calculate that the likely cost of an additional unit of information about the tiger exceeded any benefit and wouldn’t bother to seek additional information. In other words, all they need to know is he’s a tiger.
That tiger story reminded me of the image in the old Mises Daily “Stereotyping Defended” by Ninos Malek, a former student of Walter Williams’s. Malek quotes the same story. He also offers as a thought experiment the contest scenario I’d been remembering:
[I]f somebody offered you $1 million to solve a complex mathematical problem and, furthermore, you could choose anybody on a university campus to help you, I doubt you would choose the Paris Hilton–type sorority girl or the Abercrombie and Fitch–wearing fraternity boy. Now consider the young man wearing glasses and a pocket protector in his short-sleeve, button-down shirt: would you not think that he is a better bet?
I liked Malek’s example. It’s the sort of thing that works well for those of us whose principled thinking leans toward the abstract. But for many people, concrete and factual examples are far more compelling. If you feel like writing about the issue of stereotypes (assuming you’d like to take the far-less-popular position that stereotyping can be rational, useful, even — as it turns out — lifesaving) then please feel free to use this real-life example from our afternoon visit to the library.
Now, having taken the anti-knee-jerk, politically incorrect position on the legitimacy of discrimination, I’ll say that there’s a reason that Williams and Malek and I all use extreme cases to illustrate this point. Tigers and heart attacks are life threatening. A million bucks is a lot of money. In the more mundane cases of our day-to-day lives, we can easily be led astray by falling back too readily on our prejudices. Keeping an open mind is a good intellectual exercise if nothing else.
I’m thinking of a story my father tells. He was hanging out with a Texan, a white guy, who’d been informally run out of his home state by the police because they didn’t like his hobby. His hobby was killing people in self-defense. He carried big knives, visited dangerous places, and insulted deadly hot heads. Then when they attacked him, he’d use lethal force in self-defense. Sounds like a lovely person.
The way my father tells the story, he and the Texan were standing in line with an old lady in front of them and a black man behind them. The old lady was struggling with a parcel she couldn’t manage to open. She looked up from her struggle, looked right past the two white men behind her, and said to the black man, “Boy, can I borrow your knife?” (This was in New York City, in the early 1960s, when old white ladies called black men “boy” and the stereotype for young black men was that they all carried knives.) The black man apparently answered politely that he didn’t have one. But I bet he hated her assumption, and it’s hard to blame him. The Texan just grinned knowingly at my father.
Even when a stereotype is based on true patterns — and aren’t most of them? — knowing what assumptions people will make is a good way to fool them. When people can predict your expectations, they will also know how to violate those expectations. That black New Yorker probably got searched for knives more often than the homicidal Texan did.