The Rational Bigot

There are a few old white ladies in their 80s who might wish to blow up a plane, but on the whole, if your job is in airline security and security is your only concern, it would be rational to pay closer scrutiny to passengers who are single, young males, probably of south Asian or Middle Eastern or East African appearance. In yesterday’s Comment Is Free, Simon Woolley wrote disapprovingly about the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The EHRC had written to several police forces because it had identified that ethnic minorities in their areas had been disproportionately stopped and searched.

Wooley seemed to suggest that the EHRC was at fault in not going further – and labelling the police ‘racist’. Racial profiling is a complex subject and as it’s so contentious and appears so often in the news, I hope to be able to return to the subject in the future. I have no idea about the statistics, but it may well be that those individuals who were stopped and searched were members of ethnic groups that disproportionately committed crimes in the same proportion as they were disproportionately stopped and searched.

The interesting question is whether the rational and the moral can be teased apart in such cases: whether it can be immoral (for the police, say) to behave rationally. But to start with, we need a clear cut account of what we can all agree is blatant, straight-forward racism. Even this is hard. Here’s my proposal. One type of racist attitude involves the following elements:

–    A correlation between race and another characteristic is drawn (a man claims that blacks are lazier than whites) and,
–    No such statistical correlation exists (blacks are not lazier than whites) and,
–    There is no good reason for believing in such a correlation.

However, this requires further refinement – two more ingredients, at least:

–    The extrapolation drawn must be a negative one (we’d be less likely to accuse a man of racism if he lavished unjustified praise on a group).
–    The attitude must be part of a pattern or structure of believes that has a serious impact or has the potential to have a serious impact on people’s lives, or it reflects or helps cement the existing stratification of society. The reason we don’t label jokey references to ginger-haired people as ginger-ist, is because society is not structured in any significant way by hair colour.

If it turned out that for no good reason the police believed that members of an ethnic group were disproportionately likely to commit criminal acts, and so stopped them disproportionately, then the term ‘racist’ would be entirely apt. But, as I said, the more vexing cases involve statistically valid inferences. Can there be rational racism? A topic to be tackled in a future post…

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2 Responses to The Rational Bigot

  • Anna B says:

    I’ve been singled out for being blonde and blue-eyed once. Somehow I don’t think I’d get very far with a discrimination suit (even though it made me miss my flight).

    The problem could be that even if police are justified in screening on certain ethnic traits, they could still, in fact, be doing it because they’re a bunch of racist bigots. I don’t think that would ever be the reason on a large scale, but in individual cases, I’m quite sure it happens.

    If you happen to have blue eyes, it’s easy to believe that police had received reports of a certain criminal group using “innocent-looking” girls to transport their wares. If you’re brown, though… the world is a different place. And having statistical justification is something else than being just.

  • David Edmonds says:

    Hi Anna

    For an ‘ist or an ‘ism to be attached to the picking on those with blue eyes – blue-eye-ism – this would have to be a frequent occurrence, not a one-off.

    Whether the rational and the just can be separated is precisely the question I’m interested in. One test would be to find two example where the statistical correlation is identical, but where it is permissible to act on one correlation but not on the other.

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