Bryan Caplan  

Crashing Into Stereotypes

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I normally wouldn't want to watch a movie in which "A series of racially charged events connects the lives of a disparate lot of Los Angelenos," (full review here) but the reviews of Crash were so glowing that I made an exception. And the reviews are right. The story, the writing, and the performances are all great - and it's now available on DVD.

The trite official theme of the movie - the evils of narrow-minded prejudice - could have sunk the whole project. But as in a lot of compelling fiction, the official theme of Crash contradicts the details of the story. If you are paying attention, it soon becomes obvious that virtually none of the characters suffer from "narrow-minded prejudice." No one makes up their grievances out of thin air.

Instead, the characters mostly engage in statistical discrimination. They generalize from their experience to form stereotypes about the members of different ethnic groups (including their own!), and act on those stereotypes when it is costly to make case-by-case judgments (as it usually is). In the story, moreover, stereotypes are almost invariably depicted as statistically accurate. Young black men are more likely to be car thieves; white cops are more likely to abuse black suspects; and Persians have bad tempers. Of course, the story also makes the point that some members of these groups violate the stereotype. But that "insight" is basic to all statistical reasoning.

Crash goes on to show that statistical discrimination sometimes gives way to sheer malevolence and sadism. The cop played by Matt Dillon abuses black suspects for the fun of it, even when he knows that these particular suspects are harmless. But this is the exception; the rule in Crash is that busy people see others as average members of their groups until proven otherwise.

It is particularly interesting that Crash illustrates one of the deep truths of models of statistical discrimination: The real social conflict is not between groups, but within groups. People who are below-average for their group make life worse for people who are above-average for their group. Women who get job training and then quit to have children hurt the careers of single-minded career women, because they reduce the profitability of the average woman. This lesson is beautifully expressed in the scene where the successful black t.v. producer (Terrence Howard) chews out the black teen-ager (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) who unsuccessfully tried to car-jack him:

You embarrass me. You embarrass yourself.

The upshot: If you really want to improve your group's image, telling other groups to stop stereotyping won't work. The stereotype is based on the underlying distribution of fact. It is far more realistic to turn your complaining inward, and pressure the bad apples in your group to stop pulling down the average.


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TRACKBACKS (15 to date)
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The author at De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum in a related article titled Estereótipos writes:
    Eis aí um bom post. Quantas vezes você não viu alguém fazer o que está descrito abaixo? (...) the characters mostly engage in statistical discrimination. They generalization from their experience to form stereotypes about the members of different ... [Tracked on September 23, 2005 8:33 AM]
The author at The Liberal Order in a related article titled Discrimination, Statistics and Who's to Blame writes:
    I'm going to go out on a limb here and bet that the guy pictured [Tracked on September 23, 2005 7:26 PM]
The author at Stumbling and Mumbling in a related article titled Discrimination versus prejudice writes:
    Bryan Caplan posts, insightfully as ever, on statistical discrimination. There’s one issue here, though, that troubles me. Just how robust is the distinction between statistical discrimination - generalizing from personal experience to form stereotyp... [Tracked on September 25, 2005 8:09 AM]
The author at Hispanic Pundit in a related article titled Quote Of The Day writes:
    “It is particularly interesting that Crash illustrates one of the deep truths of models of statistical discrimination: The real social conflict is not between groups, but within groups. People who are below-average for their group make life wors... [Tracked on September 25, 2005 11:35 PM]
The author at Asymmetrical Information in a related article titled Fight discrimination the hard way writes:
    Bryan Caplan practices what he preaches: In a recent post, I said: If you really want to improve your group's image, telling other groups to stop stereotyping won't work. The stereotype is based on the underlying distribution of fact. It is far more re... [Tracked on September 29, 2005 7:36 AM]
COMMENTS (15 to date)
Danno writes:

Let me summarize your post for you: narrow-minded prejudice is okay because people think it's right most of the time.

XYZ writes:

"Young black men are more likely to be car thieves" than other groups. Does that mean: car thieves are more likely to be young, black men? After all, there are comparatively few young, black men. Are young black men likely (in absolutel terms- not just compared to other groups) to be car thieves? After all, perhaps only a small percentage of them are. I am not American, so cannot tell. Is this prejudice statistically justified?

Mikael writes:

There is an experiment going on in Sweden to try to remove these externalitites coming from statistical discrimination. In Sweden you can have 12 months of parental leave with your newborn and collecting 80% of your salary. These months can be divided more or less freely by the parents (2 months are assigned to each parent, and then they can divide the remaining 8 months how they please).

The result has been that mostly males take their 2 months, while the women take 10 months. This, of course, leads to pure rational statistical discrimnation of women in the labor market. The idea from some parties are now to make it compulsary for the parents to take 6 months each (well, of course you don't have to take the months at all if you wish) if they are to get 80% of their salary.

Even though I'm highly against it on a political standpoint (I think these kind of negative externalities are something we have to accept), but it can be an interesting economic experiment if it is introduced. Statistical discrimination of women in the age between 25-40 should really be minimized (since the men are just as likely to be gone 6 months from their workplace). Though...perhaps the result is that the men won't take their 6 months, and families will hire a nanny or put their child in kindergarten.

But, otherwise a potential research paper there is.

Randy writes:

Bryan,

That was bold. Though you have stated the obvious and stated it well, it takes courage to do so.

My thought, though I seldom say it out loud, is that a man without prejudice would step in front of a moving car because he couldn't be certain it would hit him. Prejudice is a survival skill, and like many survival skills, it often has unintended consequences - which doesn't mean we can do without it.

Mark Wonsil writes:

Crash is an excellent movie and one should view it before discussing it. It will challenge your beliefs, at least it is designed to challenge them. Right from the opening sequence it keeps you off-balance. The lesson I took away from the movie, you must temper your beliefs based on stereotypes, because what you think is true might not be.

It is far more realistic to turn your complaining inward, and pressure the bad apples in your group to stop pulling down the average.

Which is what Jewish Americans did to new immigrants from Eastern Europe, according to Thomas Sowell. Which tactic has been unfortunately curtailed by racial etiquette since the 1960s for Blacks, with tragic results.

Matt writes:

Ugh. Well I guess people see what they want to see in movies. What I saw was a different message - prejudices are generalizations about groups that, when you let your guard down, can lead you to some really awful actions.

I suppose in defense of my vision as opposed to Bryan's I could recall the only two violent confrontations in the movie - both involved prejudiced men shooting innocent ones.

While the movie humanized "racists" by portraying people we can sympathize with as doing things we find understandable, I think the primary message wasn't intended for the Terrence Howards, but rather the Sandra Bullocks - we lesser prejudiced should monitor more closely our own actions rather than taking comfort in the perceived statistical basis of our prejudism. After all, pretty much every person in the movie who defied a stereotype had something horrible happen to them. Maybe there is a lesson for those of us outside of a disadvantaged class as well, Bryan?

sumokid writes:

As a warning for those of you that haven't seen this movie, you may, like I did, feel like you're watching an overly preachy after-school special with more famous actors. I agree with what Bryan concludes, but I think you'd have to be an economist or a statistician to get that out of the movie.

David J. Balan writes:

The standard lefty answer when someone suggests that some sort of statistical discrimination is a good idea is simply to deny that there are statistical differences across groups of people. Of course, this is stupid. A much better, genuinely liberal response is to recognize that such differences do exist, but in most cases to just ignore them. Often the expected private benefit of acting on one's knowledge of differences across groups is small relative to the social costs of acting on that knowledge. Those social costs include not only insult and hurt feelings and social exclusion and animosity, but also really screwed up incentives, both for people in "good" groups and for people in "bad" ones. So the bottom line is that, most of the time, people should just take one for the team and refuse to statistically discriminate.

Steve Sailer writes:

Here's my review of "Crash:"

Crash

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, June 6, 2005

On Los Angeles' Wilshire Boulevard in 1991, during the murderous crack era, two young black men shoved snub-nosed .38s in the faces of screenwriter Paul Haggis and his wife and car-jacked their new Porsche. Out of that horrifying incident grew Haggis' strong directorial debut, the ensemble drama "Crash."

More than making up for the phoniness of his portrayal of women's boxing in "Million Dollar Baby," Haggis's "Crash" is perhaps the most honest movie yet about how America's racial patterns in crime generate corrosive, but sadly accurate, ethnic prejudices.

The press, though, doesn't consider crime victims to be real victims because they are just random human beings, not organized pressure groups. Most critics have misinterpreted "Crash," praising it, bizarrely, for supposedly discrediting the racial stereotypes it actually explains.

As two African-American men emerge from an expensive restaurant, one (played well by rapper Ludacris) entertainingly rants about how their waitress gave them poor service just because they are black. While his sidekick points out that she was black, too, they pass L.A.'s district attorney (Brendan Fraser of "The Mummy") and his Brentwood socialite wife (Sandra Bullock of "Speed"). Although heavily Botoxed, she visibly flinches at the sight of black guys just walking past her. This blatant racism enrages Ludacris, so he chooses the DA's Lincoln Navigator as tonight's vehicle to car-jack.

Afterwards, the DA groans, "Why'd they have to be black?" Calculating that the news is going to cost him either the black vote or the "law-and-order vote," he immediately instructs his aides to find some black to publicly promote.

Meanwhile, a black LAPD detective (Don Cheadle of "Hotel Rwanda") is investigating a road rage incident in which a white undercover policeman shot an out-of-control off-duty black cop. The DA's oily Irish-American fixer (character actor William Fichtner) lets Cheadle know the boss wants to prosecute the white cop to appease black voters, so he's not happy when Cheadle reveals the dead black officer had $300,000 in his trunk. (This is based on a 1997 LAPD scandal.)

The politico blurts out his frustration at how the tidy deals he engineers are constantly undermined by black malfeasance. "Why do blacks get themselves thrown in prison eight times more often per capita than whites?" he demands of Cheadle, who has no answer. Cheadle finally agrees to frame the innocent white cop in exchange for a promotion and the dropping of felony charges against his younger brother (who turns out to be one of the car-jackers).

The rest of my review is at http://www.isteve.com/Film_Crash.htm

By the way, the black to white incarceration rate appears to have improved somewhat since Haggis did his research: the most recent estimate is that African-Americans are incarcerated at a rate 7.2 times that of non-Hispanic whites. Hispanics are incarerated 2.9 times as much, but Asian-Americans only 0.22 times as often. The black to Asian ratio is almost 33 to 1. Other ways of measuring crime rates, such as the FBI annual survey of 150,000 people for crime victimization gives similar racial ratios. For more details, see: http://www.vdare.com/sailer/050918_crime.htm

Steve Sailer writes:

David J. Balan writes:

"So the bottom line is that, most of the time, people should just take one for the team and refuse to statistically discriminate."

Okay, but how forcing your child to "just take one for the team"? I hear a lot of fine talk, but I sure don't see a lot of affluent white people forcing their children to live in crime-ridden neighborhoods or attend violence-racked schools just for the sake of principle.

My in-laws, a classical musician and a special ed teacher, tried to live by their beliefs. When blacks started to move into my inlaw's neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago in 1967, they joined a liberal group that pledged to not sell out and to keep the neighborhood integrated. But in 1968 my future wife, then 9, was mugged on their street twice and her seven-year-old brother once. And all the shops in the neighborhood were looted and burned during the Martin Luther King riots in April of that year.

So, my inlaws finally sold their duplex, but for half of what they could have gotten for it the year before, losing much of their life savings, and they moved 65 miles out of Chicago to a farm that didn't have indoor toilets for the first two years they were there.

Svigor writes:

Let me summarize your post for you: narrow-minded prejudice is okay because people think it's right most of the time.

Let me summarize your post for you:
"Heretic!"

"Young black men are more likely to be car thieves" than other groups. Does that mean: car thieves are more likely to be young, black men? After all, there are comparatively few young, black men. Are young black men likely (in absolutel terms- not just compared to other groups) to be car thieves? After all, perhaps only a small percentage of them are. I am not American, so cannot tell. Is this prejudice statistically justified?

You're putting out quite a bit of squid ink here.

First, you attempt to rephrase the issue so you can beat a straw man. Blacks are 12% of the American population, non-blacks are 88%. One would certainly hope to God that they aren't the majority of car thieves.

Then, you again attempt to rephrase the issue so you can beat a straw man. No, it is not likely that any given American is a car thief. It is not likely that any given black is a murderer. Does this change the fact that the black murder rate is seven times the white murder rate? If x is how dangerous statistics tell us the average white man is, 7x is the number for the average black man. Characterizing x as small doesn't change the relationship between x and 7x.

You don't need to be American to find this stuff out; it's all on the Internet.

Ugh. Well I guess people see what they want to see in movies. What I saw was a different message - prejudices are generalizations about groups that, when you let your guard down, can lead you to some really awful actions.

Indeed. What I saw was a film that showed an utter* lack of respect for Multicultural dogma. The rainbow doesn't look too wonderful in Crash. In fact it looks like a source of conflict. Crash also violated one of the central PC rules of Hollywood - never, ever show a white racist in a positive light.

*(relatively speaking; this is Hollywood we're talking about)

It also seemed to give Mexicans a pass, in stark contrast to every other group in the film. "They're all saints" seems to be the message.

both involved prejudiced men shooting innocent ones.

A chronic carjacker is an "innocent" man?

Colin Powell writes:

Mikael writes: There is an experiment going on in Sweden to try to remove these externalitites coming from statistical discrimination. In Sweden you can have 12 months of parental leave with your newborn and collecting 80% of your salary.

"There is an experiment going on in Sweden..."

Ha ha. Yes. Of course. Isn't there always an experiment going on in Sweden?

How about this as an experiment: The end of NATO and the end of the USA military umbrella providing Euro parasites like Sweden with an undeserved massive peace dividend. Stand up to the Russians and the Chinese yourselves! You boring, humorless degenerates.

Once Euros start providing for their own defense they'll have to forego this socialist garbage. 12 months @ 80% salary. What poo! What a gigantic, utopian colostomy bag Sweden has become.

Take those crappy leftwing Nobel prizes and shove them straight north, skunks.

Here's to the day (not far off) when the "morally superior", "neutral", "pacifist" political tradition in Sweden is dead.

David J. Balan writes:

Steve Sailer writes:

"Okay, but how forcing your child to "just take one for the team"? I hear a lot of fine talk, but I sure don't see a lot of affluent white people forcing their children to live in crime-ridden neighborhoods or attend violence-racked schools just for the sake of principle."

I am not suggesting that people should be willing to pay an infinite price to avoid even a small amount of statistical discrimination. I'm certainly not willing to do that. I am saying that: (i) avoiding statistical discrimination is a worthy liberal principal that is worth sacrificing for; and (ii) the social payoffs are likely to be large.

BTW, the example is not a good one because in the example the relevant fact is that the neighborhood is crime-ridden, which presumably can be objectively known without recourse to statistical discrimination.

wkwillis writes:

By the way, the Swedes here are laughing at you. Sweden has and had a significant military budget because they knew damn well that they weren't going to be defended by the American forces.
They also had independent munitions manufacture because our munitions people were so corrupt that the inefficiency of running their own munitions plants was still cheaper. They built their own jet fighters, for god's sake!

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