Some people discount the existence of bigotry, but I have been profiled recently — and it ain’t pretty, folks!
Yet often snap judgments based on cursory information, including appearance, are economically efficient. Social scientists call this “heuristics.”
We are moving from a house to a condo. I still work getting the house ready to sell. I wear old clothes and get dirty. Late one night, I wearily got in the elevator. A well-dressed older lady eyed me. She saw unkempt hair, faded jeans, cement splashes and a smear of tar. “Are you working in the building?” she asked sharply.
I get stares from new neighbors. This week, going in the main entrance, I waited as a resident let a deliveryman in. I waited, key in hand, for her to let the door close so I could enter myself. But she turned, asking sharply, “Do you live in this building?”
The impulse to challenge outsiders has deep socio-biological roots. Any village that did not challenge menacing strangers got decimated. In a condominium dominated by retired university faculty, evidence of labor marks one as an interloper. Statistically, a disheveled guy in dirty clothes probably is more dangerous than someone neat. Physical safety is a reason seniors buy such units.
Challenging possibly is a civic virtue, the social cohesion Robert Putnam hailed in his 2000 book “Bowling Alone.” Communities where residents call the police when unfamiliar teens cluster or who are alert to elderly neighbors are healthier than neighborhoods where looking the other way prevails. Public safety is cheaper and more effective when citizens are involved.
But a society becomes unjust when black adolescents walking home get angry stares while white classmates are ignored. And it is unjust for police to target African-American motorists for minor infractions while ignoring similar ones made by whites.
People are less likely to engage when most of their contacts with authorities are negative. Last week, I was ahead of a police cruiser when I merged left two lanes. Only then did I remember a burned-out left rear turn signal. The cop I crossed in front of did not stop me.
Which brings to mind Philando Castile, the black man pulled over for a bad taillight in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., before being shot to death. That officer now faces manslaughter charges.
But why was he stopped so often and I never? Were the police last week on an urgent task? Did they not notice my lack of signals? In 50 years of driving, bulbs went out many times, but I was stopped once. Why?
Is it because I am a white guy? I may be profiled by my neighbors, but I also benefit from privilege.
The 195 miles to our farm are wearily familiar. I often exceed 55. One recent late night, a sheriff’s deputy stopped me. Walking up, he played his flashlight over my pickup. I gave him my license.
“How fast were you going?”
“At least 70.”
“Where you going?”
“Home to St. Paul, been working on the farm.”
Flicking his flashlight to decals on my window, he asked:
“That red ‘AA,’ that’s the 82nd. What’s the white wing and red sword?”
“173rd Airborne, at LZ English.”
“Thanks for your service. Keep it under 65.”
The deputy was using “heuristics,” for an approximate solution when getting all data for an optimal one solution is difficult.
The deputy’s heuristic apparently was “tabs current, cutting torch, manure against tailgate, sweet corn, sober, white, old, driver’s license OK, Vietnam vet — let off with warning.”
Perhaps that was an efficient use of taxpayer money. Monitoring people leaving a bar may improve public safety more than ticketing me. So might a recon of byroads where adolescents gather to drink.
But what if I had been black, everything else equal, including Army decals? Would the heuristics have been the same? Would the deputy have let me go without even checking priors? If the deputy had checked, I should have gotten a ticket. What if I had been a 20-year-old Hispanic man with my same cutting torch? Would the deputy’s heuristic have been, “hobby farmer” or, “torch set, where did this Mexican steal it?”
We recently hired a masterful stuccoer. He had stuccoed in our country for 22 years. But he lacks a green card. If the U.S. deports 3 million undocumented immigrants, supposedly with criminal records, what heuristics will we use to identify them? Will these be consistent with our Constitution? With common decency? Will we scour poor neighborhoods, looking at faces, listening for speech? How about wealthy suburbs? Will battalions of linguists troll construction sites and restaurants, evaluating accents?
There are efficiency reasons to use profiling and other heuristics. If a shopkeeper bursts out his door yelling, “I’ve been robbed,” and a young male is running in one direction and an elderly woman shuffling in the other, is there any question which a police officer should pursue? What if one is a codger in dirty jeans and the other sports a natty jacket? What if one is a white guy with a mullet and tattoos and the other is a Somali teen in dress clothes?
Bigotry exists. The impulse to make quick decisions based on limited cues is deep. Such decisions affect our economy. They may save police time. And they may waste the productivity of millions. The Federal Land Bank rep used a heuristic in 1958: “Mrs. Lotterman, our policy is that we don’t make loans to women.” That rule of thumb, reflecting the social mores of the age, perhaps simplified his office. But it was deeply unjust and reflected a huge waste of economic resources nationally.
St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.