Sunday, April 29, 2012

What Do You Know?

I was watching the latest episode of What Would You Do on ABC, and they set up an interesting scenario. They chained a bicycle to a signpost in a park and then sent in a young person to "steal" the bicycle. If questioned about the bicycle they would usually reverse the question, asking if it belonged to the questioner, although if a passerby asked if they had lost their keys they would usually answer in the affirmative. They did this three times, and it broke down roughly like this:

When the "thief" was a young White man, most of the park patrons (who were almost exclusively White) ignored the young man. Some challenged him or moved to call the police, while, on the other hand, a few offered to help him out. But many decided that they "didn't want to get involved," and went on about their business.

When they replaced the actor with a young Black man, he wasn't so fortunate; and things went downhill in a hurry. Many more people expressed a willingness to call the police, confrontations (sometimes white angry) were common and there were a couple of times when I was a bit concerned for the guy.

The third actor was a young and attractive White woman. She had the easiest time of it. While a couple of women called the police, many men actually helped her to steal the bicycle - even when she admitted to being a thief. (I hope the guy who helped her cut the chain off even while his wife was dialing 911 has a roomy doghouse out back - it's going to be his new address for a while.)

In the context of all of this, I was thinking of the John Derbyshire essay that recently got him into so much trouble, where he basically called out blacks as congenitally violent criminals, and counseled White and Asian parents to advise their children to avoid interactions at all costs - even if that meant letting a person die in the street. (In one commentary on this, it was noted that even among the most rabid Southern segregationists wouldn't have dreamed of acting in such a manner.) It occurred to me that Derbyshire, to an extent, wasn't telling people things they didn't already know - he was just telling Americans that the ways in which they already seemed prone to behave were, in fact, okay.

While the men who helped the young woman were pretty willing to admit to being sexist, or at least drawn in by a pretty face and sexy body. But many of the people who were so quick to confront the Black man were adamant that they've have done the same no matter who they'd seen attempting to take the bike. Conveniently, none of them had to do anything to demonstrate it.

We tend not to see anything wrong with being willing to judge a person by the color of their skin. What we censure is being obvious about it. We should change that. It will force us to see ourselves for who we are, rather than enabling the pretenses that we carry with us today. When people dispute the idea that certain groups are, by their very natures, more criminal than others, people haul out numbers and claim that statistics do not lie. But when presented with evidence that they'll give some people a pass that others don't get, they're just as quick to deny it.

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