Letters to the Editors, August/September 2008

Hardly Black and White
InThe Social Psychology of Success,” by S. Alexander Haslam, Jessica Salvatore, Thomas Kessler and Stephen D. Reicher, it seems the authors’ bar graphs concerning blacks’ perceptions of inferiority are adding to problems inherent in group comparisons. The flat tops of the graphs on page 27 imply that all whites are smarter than all blacks. Each bar should actually be a compressed bell curve, showing that only a small percent of whites have superior intelligence and that many blacks are smarter than many whites.

Dan Robinson
Eugene, Ore.

Justified Prejudice?
Siri Carpenter’sBuried Prejudice” opens with a quote from Jesse Jackson about hearing a pedestrian’s footsteps behind him and feeling relief when he notices that his follower is white. The quote was a good opener, but it was quickly dropped without a thorough examination. Dinesh D’Souza’s book The End of Racism (Free Press, 1995) contains a deeper analysis, ending with a most pertinent point: “Given the crime rates of young black males, ‘the stereotype is not a stereotype any more,’ says Howard University education professor Kenneth Tollett. ‘A stereotype is an overgeneralization. The statements we have called stereotypes in the past have become true.’ ”

Accordingly, I found most interesting the views expressed in your article by Northwestern University psychologist Jennifer A. Richeson, who speculates that our brains may automatically give preferential attention to blacks as a category, just as they do for threatening animals such as snakes.

That idea will surely provoke a negative response from those who see prejudice on her part for likening young black men to snakes, but I see a perfect analogy: it is wise to fear what is dangerous. Thousands of people die every year from snakebites. Thousands are victims of the criminal acts of young black men, one out of four of whom have a criminal record. Is it prejudice to reason rationally and logically? It certainly has become politically incorrect.

Jeffry L. Smith
via e-mail

CARPENTER REPLIES: Many people find this line of reasoning persuasive, but it is incomplete. It is unfair to judge an individual based solely on his or her group membership, and such presumptions of guilt by association do not promote accuracy in decision making. For example, although blacks are arrested and incarcerated in disproportionate numbers, the majority of people of all races are law-abiding citizens. To assume that a randomly chosen black person is probably a criminal would be erroneous and unjust.

We all use statistical base rates to guide our decisions. For example, we use a person’s age and gender to set car insurance premiums, and we usually include only women in breast cancer research, even though men can develop the disease. But this statistical reasoning has both costs and benefits. Before deploying a stereotype to judge another person, we need to weigh the trade-offs. What do whites gain if we assume black men are dangerous? What do we as a society—not to mention innocent black men—lose when we’re wrong? As work on implicit bias shows, the presence of stereotypes of which we may not be aware means that we are in the unhappy position of relying on stereotypes even when we don’t want to.

A Poor Choice
I wonder why you used a picture of Senator Barack Obama in Kurt Kleiner’s article “In Your Face” [Head Lines]. The article rightly reveals that the “shouting heads” of television news affect our views partly because of the extreme close-up position of the cameras. But why didn’t you use a picture of one of the actual confrontational political commentators? Bill O’Reilly, perhaps?

This article was originally published with the title "April/May 2008 Issue."

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