Discrimination: Often a Rational Thought Process


The purpose of this essay is to expound on some thoughts I have had regarding bias in decisions and actions that people make on a daily basis. I plan to examine the reasons why people have biases, how certain biases are accepted by society while others are not and the reasons for this, and whether the current views in society regarding discrimination are healthy. I have used the word discrimination in the title because of the negative connotations that the word is most frequently associated with. There are two definitions of this word. The first, as listed by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd Edition in verb form, says:

1. a. To make a clear distinction; distinguish: discriminate among the options available. b. To make sensible decisions; judge wisely.

Clearly, this positive action is not what pops up into most people's minds when hearing this word. That would be the second definition:

2. To make distinctions on the basis of class or category without regard to individual merit; show preference or prejudice:
was accused of discriminating against women; discriminated in favor of his cronies.

My intention is to show that the "b" definition in (1) can coexist with definition (2) and in fact does so in society without protest in some cases, but is not accepted in most. I also make the argument that "prejudice", a synonym for "discrimination", isn't inherently an evil thing, even in cases where today's society views it as such. I believe that in many cases it is an "unfortunate" thing, that is a small price to pay for the superior intellect that allows human beings to rationally solve problems.


Right away, there are some clarifications to be made. I don't believe that someone who discriminates based on race is automatically deemed as "racist". To me, a racist is somebody with an intense irrational hatred towards a group of people and wishes to keep a group of people from enjoying the same human rights as others. A racist may also employee physical or verbal blows to this group of people in order to injure them. That is not to say that discrimination without hatred is "okay". In many cases, it is based on ignorance. But in some cases, discrimination, even based on race, is simply a rational thought process. In many cases, a person has a view about a group of people that is ignorant to the facts, however I think that these people want to believe in their ignorant views because subconsciously they are of the hateful type and concoct false reasons to have negative opinion of a group.


To me, the simplest example to illustrate my point, before somebody gets too mad, is to look at discrimination based on factors other than race and how they are accepted by society. Most car rental agencies will not rent cars to individuals under 25 years old. This can be quite upsetting to those young executive-types who may be on a business trip. The questions that should be asked are: 1) Why do these companies do this, 2) Is this practice a "fair" thing to do, and 3) How is the underlying logic of this policy different from a policy that did not rent to a specific race for the same reason as will be discussed in (1)?

It should be quite obvious why car rental companies have this policy in effect. People under 25 are more likely to get in a car accident that people over 25. A few rental companies choose to remedy this fact by charging extra to renters under 25, but most simply exclude them completely. There is hard statistical evidence that shows the correlation between young people and car crashes. These companies wish to minimize the chances that their cars will get wrecked and they feel that this is one easy policy to implement that will result in fewer damaged cars than if the policy were not in effect. There are certainly other items that companies could key on to reduce damage to their cars. They could do background checks on a potential renter's driving history. They could do a personality test. They could interview each potential renter to assess his aggressiveness. They could make them take a driving test, both written and behind-the-wheel. None of these other policies are used, even though they probably would probably have a higher "success" rate than the age rule by finding out troubled drivers of all ages. The reasons these other policies are not used is simply due to the cost and trouble of implementing them. The age rule is simple and costs nothing to implement (except possible lost business) and is based on a factor which is one of the strongest in determining how good a driver is.

So, this leads to the next question of whether this practice is fair or not. When I say something is "fair", I mean to say "fair to society as a whole, a just action to take". The medical school student who is denied access to rent a car feels that the policy is "unfair" because he is near ready to perform intricate life-saving surgery and can't believe he is being treated like a child. But, does this mean that the policy is inherently "unfair"? I maintain that the policy is just. Like many other things in life, there are instances where what happens to an individual is not just in a particular case. In this case, a company must use a low-cost method to weed out problem drivers. This method, as a whole, is the best possible way to minimize crashes while being easy to implement. In the process, qualified drivers are denied access to the rental car while other poor driver, over 25, are allowed it. But the alternatives, allowing all ages to rent cars or implementing a more scrutinizing test to potential renters, is not economically efficient.

On to the third question, let us assume that the same policy exists for a particular race for the same reason that the policy exists for the particular age group. Assume that statistically speaking, it can be said that blacks are more likely to get in car accidents than non-blacks and the correlation is so strong that it makes business sense to not rent to this group, just like for the under-25 group. This would be labeled as discrimination and I agree that it is in both cases. In both cases, the company is discriminating against certain groups of people in making the business decision to exclude them from it's business based on past historical evidence which indicates that it is in the best interest of the company not to do so. Just like for the young drivers, is it "fair" to the blacks who are good drivers to be singled out solely due to their race? It is in the sense that decisions sometime have to be made with limited data; in this case, many times the wrong "unfair" action is taken but on the whole, it is a just policy.

On the other hand, what I believe to be unjust discrimination is a company not renting to a particular group solely for purposes of hatred or dislike to that group. Maybe the head of the company truly is racist in the sense of wanting to deny blacks the convenience of renting a car with the feeling that he is doing his part to "keep the race down." A worker at the car agency could purposely overcharge a black customer because of his negative views and wanting to "hurt" this person financially in the small way that he has power to do at the moment. These examples of discrimination of motivated by hatred and are no doubt wrong.

Basically, in the cases where no racism is involved, race is just another demographic characteristic of a person, such as income, sex, age, weight, height, education, etc. The fact that certain demographic characteristics are okay to discriminate against and others are not is what makes me wonder, what are the differences? Males are charged higher rates for life insurance than females because of the long history of women living longer than males. This makes sense and I can't imagine any male being upset for this. Assuming that the historical data showed that a particular race had a lower life expectancy, would this be improper to charge this racial group a higher premium? I believe it would be just. In this case, it is not being done to harm the group financially, it is being done for purely rational economic reasons. And even though a member of this racial group may be upset because he is very healthy, it is something he must live with, just like the healthy male who feels persecuted because of the reputation of his sex, even though he knows he is healthier than the average beer-swilling, pork-eating guy. Now in this case, there may be offsetting credits that go to the healthier-living members of these groups that have higher rates. So, the male has a higher base rate, but get credits for being thin, or being a member of a health club. This is more "fair" and hopefully, this is the kind of analysis that all companies do, rather than make broad judgements on a single characteristic. But as I said before, it is not always feasible to make decisions based on this fine breakdown of data, and hence some unfair generalization are made that are philosophically just.

Everyday Discrimination

The human mind is very curious. We are always trying to figure things out. Often, we do not have all of the information we need to make 100% certain that we are coming up with the right answer. In these cases, we must take what information is available and make decisions based on them. Sometimes, decisions need to be made in seconds after surveying the available information. Other times, it is in the best interest of the decision-maker to take more time in making the decision in order to obtain more information and be more sure that the correct action is taken. The following example will explain this idea.

I am the hiring manager for the Postal Service in San Francisco. I have to get someone quickly to replace a worker who quit unexpectingly. Basically, I am desperate and will hire the first person that I see. I have two people waiting for interviews. One is of normal weight and the other is weighs 300 pounds. I discriminate against the over-weight person (he's 5'6") and send him away and hire the skinny person. My basis for this is the immediate deduction that this overweight person very likely will not be able to handle walking up all the hills to deliver that mail. I have nothing against fat people personally, but only have knowledge of those that I have observed not being physically fit. If I had more time, I would want to run the two through a test course and see who comes in first, do some mental tests to make sure which has a better attention to detail, and run criminal history checks. What I did not know, was that the over-weight individual happened to be in very good shape, in the sense of handling physically taxing work, despite his appearance and would have made a fine carrier. In this case, the decision-maker had limited information to go on due to the limited time he had to make the decision. He keyed on a fact and made his decision based on his knowledge that a good percentage of people who look to be obese, are often not able to handle physical tasks as well as people who appear to be in good shape. It may even be the case that I had the time to actually run the additional tests, but I don't want to go to the trouble to do so because I am near certain that I am making the right decision. In this case, it would be up to the decision-maker how much trouble he wanted to go to in order to have a particular degree of certainty that the correct decision was made. While it is understandable that the obese person would be bitter that nobody gives him a chance to prove that he is actually capable to performing tasks as well as thinner people, it would not be fair to make others to go through all the trouble to make absolutely sure that a generalization applies in each particular case. Incorrect generalizations will eventually hurt the decision-maker by eliminating potential good candidates. If we assume competition in the market place for labor, a smart businessperson will see that a group has potential to be valuable employees. If, in fact, this were made to be a law that every person applying to be a postman must be given an opportunity to take a delivery test, the cost of hiring people would increase substantially, penalizing all people seeking jobs and raising the costs to users of the postal service. Likewise, more tests could be run on the under-25 drivers seeking to rent cars and if passed, they would be allowed to do so. However, the cost and hassle of implementing this test, while more "fair" to the young people being wrongly deemed poor drivers, would raise the cost of renting a car to everyone.

Discriminating Discrimination

Basically, I have said that discrimination based on any attribute is okay when a decision-maker is using available information about a situation, and comparing it to historical knowledge to make a prediction about what is actually true. So, if I am walking down the street at night and see a person in a suit and loafers walking past, I won't be as frightened as if there is two Hispanic youths in Raiders clothing. What right do I have to make this generalization? Perhaps I know the neighborhood has virtually no Hispanics living in it. Perhaps I have knowledge that there are Hispanic gangs in the area. From, various media sources and my own experiences, I have come to the conclusion that people wearing Raiders clothing often are unsavory. I take all of this knowledge and make a decision based on it that these two people on the street may be trouble. I have discriminated against this person because of his race, but race just happened to be a key in this particular situation. The fact that I am using race to make the best decision possible given the situation is not different than using any other information that I may have like seeing a weapon, recognizing a person as a known thug, or simply using the Raider's clothing as a warning. By making the decision to avoid the two people, I am not making an implied blanket statement that all Hispanics are thugs; this is a special case where I have limited time to asses the situation and have to act accordingly. A true ambassador may like to purposely push aside rational thinking because he doesn't want to generalize, but in certain cases, it makes rational sense to do so. Again, it is not fair to these youths that people feel this way about them. It is unfortunate, but something that must be dealt with. I don't think it fair that people think I'm a wild man because my hair is so long, but the only thing you can do is ignore it and live the life you have to live to the best of your ability. By your actions, you can prove to the people who have generalizations about you that they are wrong.

Similarly is the common occurrence of blacks being stopped in predominately white neighborhoods by police. While this is certainly irritating to be treated like this time and time again, it is understandable why this happens. The officers should not be considered racist solely for doing this (though they very well may be, which I will go into soon). They are simply identifying circumstances that appear out of the ordinary, like a missing license plate, a driver who appears to be very nervous, a person looking shifty-eyed. Often time, signs of something out of the ordinary indicate that a crime is taking place. The same can be said about any person walking through a part of town at night where nothing if going on. The police can be suspicious in this case because they logically think, "what could he be doing here" and they realize that there is a good chance it may be for unlawful reasons. The same can be said of blacks in an area where officers rarely see them. They may be there visiting friends or even live there, but to the officers, it is just another out of the ordinary occurrence which leads to suspicion. So, the officer may stop a person on the street because he is black and in an area where few blacks are normally seen, but to him it is no different than if he stops a person because he is running with a purse. It is not just his race that makes the officer suspicious, it is the situation as a whole. Both are situations where out of the ordinary circumstance dictate that a crime may be taking place. This is not to say that there are so sociological problems with racial segregation in the sense that a black person in any area would arouse suspicion, much like a white person would arouse suspicion walking around a predominately black area. I am only arguing for how decision are being made under the current structure of our society. A police officer cannot be a social worker trying to make cities more welcome to all races (which should be the case). He has one very definite duty and that is to stop crime and in investigating out-of-the-ordinary occurrences of any kind, he is performing this function. (Click Here for a recent (3/12/99) Wall Street Journal editorial touching on this particular issue.)

Problem with my Theory

The problem of saying that discrimination is okay for the purposes I have outlined exists in the difficulty in determining the reason the discrimination is taking place. As I said before, I believe that discrimination with intent to cause harm to a group of people is racist or ageist or whatever else and is wrong and unjust. The police officer that does not like blacks because he thinks they are a lower form of life stops them just to irritate them, is practicing the ugly form of discrimination. As is the hiring manager that does not hire Jews because he wishes to harm them economically due to his intense despise of them. As is the apartment manager that will not rent to a Hispanic couple because he "doesn't like their kind" for reasons unrelated to rational thought. We see that I am making the argument here that what is important is the reason for discrimination as opposed to the consequences of discrimination. If blacks are charged more for insurance because statistically, they are greater risks and the data can prove this, this is okay. If blacks are charged more for insurance because the head of the insurance company, or the whole insurance industry has it in for the group for some racist agenda to prevent them from being able to drive, this is wrong. This may seem to not make sense because what does the person being discriminated against care about the reason for it happening? To answer this, I have come up with an example where a Jewish man wishes to marry a Christian woman. The woman declines, even though she likes him a lot, because religion is very important to her and she wants to marry someone who shares her beliefs. In this case, she is basing her decision solely upon religion, but is a decision that is not objectionable (of course, this in itself is up to debate; at worse, this action is misguided, but not hateful). Compare this to if she wasn't very religious, but said she can't marry him because her parents despise Jews as a people. While the situation is the same in both cases for the man, he and most society would be very disturbed with the latter scenario.

The obvious problem is that it is very hard to tell, in most circumstances, whether discrimination based on one of the sensitive areas like race is part of a rational decision-making process or a calculated, hateful way to unjustly cause harm to a group of people. For this reason, in areas where racism or other forms of vindictive discrimination is known to exist, care must be taken in legally allowing pure discrimination to take place. A balance must be established between allowing people to use these sensitive areas to make rational decisions and preserving a society where all are allowed to pursue happiness equally. I do not profess to know where that balancing point lies, but I think that the prevailing view holds more importance in preventing "discrimination" in all cases at the cost of preventing people and businesses from using all available information to make rational decisions.

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