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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

 

Why can't he be both, like the late Earl Warren?

Just had a baby on Saturday, but I still can't help thinking about the recent inter-blogger fighting I've been following regarding the now infamous book, The Bell Curve. The arguments remain the same as when the book came out: the book either represents a laudably fearless confrontation of racial questions we all have in our minds but are too uncomfortable to discuss, or it's a thinly veiled racist tract that tries to revive the grotesque beliefs of the eugenicists using more up-to-date sounding language.

After a few semesters of statistics in college, I know just enough to know that I have no business trying to decide whether the methodology used by the authors is valid or not. However, I do have a strong opinion about how this book and the questions it raises are fuel for the casual racism that corrupts our social interactions across racial lines.

What I worry about is the bias toward binary thinking in our society. That is, that any observation made implicitly expresses a belief about a matching opposite. Like how Abbott and Costello form a matched pair, Abbott tall and thin, Costello short and fat. They've got the poles covered.

This becomes pernicious when ascribing "virtues" to entire classes of people by race. I usually notice this in connection with stories whites tell each other and themselves about blacks. Even the black/white matchup feeds into the dynamic - matched opposites. Someone will spout off about how blacks are naturally good dancers, athletes, musicians, etc. Perhaps they'll include some scientific-sounding explanation having to do with muscle fiber density, hyper-extension of the joints, or whatever.

What's the harm? I always hear the harm in the paired opposite that's floating around in the back of my head. "Naturally" for example. Doesn't that imply an unearned characteristic? If I study classical guitar from early childhood and laboriously perfect my technique would you be insulting me to call me a "natural"? Even worse, the set of virtues typically carved out for blacks are all physical with an implied mental "opposite". Sure, you can have a black football star, but he'd never have the mental capacity to coach - too much strategy involved. That's what I hear when the supposed black virtues are identified.

I think that as one takes the time to look for these false pairings, it becomes evident that they're all around us - an implied subtext to so many conversations we have with ourselves and others. The racial/ethnic context is the one that really bothers me, but you can certainly end up limiting your own ability to consider any question by forcing it into an on/off or good/bad pairing.

When I find myself slipping into this kind of thinking, I just ask myself, "Do you want your son to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or a sleazy male stripper?" Not a bad question to ask yourself.

Comments:
I've taken no statistics classes, but I have noticed that 100% of the defenders of The Bell Curve, starting with Andrew Sullivan, are people I wouldn't cross the street to vomit on. Okay, maybe I would.
 
It's important to note whether the subject of your wrath is on fire or not when indicating whether you would be willing to expend a trivial amount of energy to soak them with your bodily fluids.
 
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