Friday, May 4, 2007

False Positives

A person of my acquaintance (note: I’m removing as many of the serial numbers as I can, since this involves a private confidence) recently spent several weeks in court, as part of a wrongful death suit that my acquaintance’s family had filed against a trucking company. Several family members had been in an automobile that a truck had run off the road, the car had hit gravel, and the driver, an older member of the family, had lost control of the vehicle. It flipped, killing the driver, and injuring other family members.

The trial took place in a town in the Central Valley of California, near where the small trucking firm was based. The result of the trial was that the family lost, and the trucking firm won. Since it was a civil case, unanimity was not required of the jury, and indeed, there were several dissenting jurors.

The family in question is African-American. This turns out to have mattered quite a bit. After the trial, one of the dissenting jurors contacted the family’s attorney and told him that there was never any possibility that the family would win the case. From the very beginning, they were viewed as attempting to ring up a liability suit “jackpot” at the expense of the trucking company, and that the sentiments had been based on their race. Just a bunch of black folks trying to hit up a poor innocent businessman was the majority view.

It also happened that during the trial, the juror had heard another of the jurors talking to the head of the trucking company about some business dealings, which is also pretty rank, but the bailiff claimed to have heard and seen nothing. Yet another tribute to small town America, and yes, I absolutely do have some prejudices there. I will note that there is one upside; the information provided by the honorable juror makes it very unlikely that there will be a countersuit for legal fees and court costs.

My acquaintance noted that the family had gotten some of the “vibe” that the juror had noted, but had tried to discount it. Nobody wants to see racism everywhere, or to make false accusations, but there you are.

I hope that nobody who has been reading any of these essays thinks that I hold myself out as some sort of color-blind paragon, or exemplar of racial tolerance and understanding. I believe that race exists, not as a valid biological concept mind you, but certainly as a real social and perceptual construct, and if you want to function in human society, you need to be aware of the lines that divide the various types of “us’s” and “thems.” Moreover, I grew up here and I’m in no way immune to the various images, fables, and stereotypes that get implanted in our minds without our approval or even knowledge.

What I will say is that, owing to various circumstances of upbringing, experience, and personal proclivities, for several of the most important racial and ethnic groupings in U.S. society, the positive and negative biases have mostly cancelled out. Sometimes, if I’m paying attention, I can even feel the process at work, bad, good, yes, no, up, down, hmm…I think I might like this guy or gal. Cool.

Introspection also tells me that some of the positive comes from a rejection of the negative and some bit of pride at not getting sucked into the stereotypical view. For example, one of the reasons why I really liked actress Maggie Han in the short-lived TV series “Murphy’s Law” (with George Seagal), was the great juxtaposition of Asian features and a New Jersey accent. I thought that was just adorable.

The net result of all this is that I come up as showing a “small implicit bias” in favor of several major U.S. minority groups, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics on certain sorts of personality tests. I also have a history of getting along pretty well with Jews. On the other hand, (and this is the product of more introspection), there are several racial and ethnic groups that I’ll admit at least a small prejudice against, though not publicly, partly because I think that sort of thing is shameful, and partly because I don’t think that public discussion would be productive. I will admit that I’m more likely to have my knees jerking about religion than race, however, though there are some nationalities thrown in there too.

Now it’s possible that I’m overestimating some of my own prejudices, and overcompensating as a result. Part of living in a society where certain divisions according to perceived race both exist and matter, is that people develop detectors for race. And if one believes that racism is a bad thing, one also develops detectors for racism, which also creates the potential for errors.

Detectors give both false positives and false negatives. There are also “indeterminate readings” if one calibrates the meter in such a fashion as to create a “dead zone” of indeterminacy. That is, after all, what happened to my acquaintance and the trial thing: an indeterminate reading when there was actually a positive showing on the racism meter. The meter “dead zone” had been set too broadly.

One thing I’ve noticed in the ongoing conversation about race in America is this: in most venues, a false positive reading for racism is considered more of a problem than a false negative. Noting that someone is showing a racist sentiment creates far more problems than simply letting the matter pass. And that too is another aspect of racism. I will certainly cop to the fact that my own racism detector is much more sensitive than most other folks, and I know of at least once, in Mexico City, when it was definitely showing a false positive. I expect there have been other times as well. But let’s be honest here, having some say you are exhibiting racist behavior in our society does not carry anything like the downside of being, for example, black. You pretty much have to wear a swastika armband or a white hood to get shunned in our society.

I once asked another friend of mine, who is a member of a minority that isn’t African-American, how often he felt singled out as being a member of his race, how often he encountered racism, in other words. “Every single day,” he told me. Yet I’ve heard other members of his race/ethnic group claim that they seldom encountered racial discrimination or prejudice.

Perhaps they are using a different level of behavior to trigger their “racism meter.” Maybe they have a very broad “dead zone.” More likely, I think, they’ve just learned that mentioning it brings you nothing but grief. They may admit this in private, or they may have internalized it to such an extent that they are now blind to all but egregious examples.

It’s even barely conceivable that they live is some wonderful part of the country where racism has vanished.

But I doubt it.

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