July 29, 2007

Never Complain or Explain

by PG

In a post about why people may not report instances of discrimination or harassment that may have violated the law, David Schraub notes, "A new label, 'troublemaker,' also carries negative consequences for the individual. ... Besides avoiding the negative consequences of complaining, people may discover direct benefits from enduring discrimination without complaint." The only benefit he describes is a sense of empowerment from being capable of absorbing harm. There may be an additional benefit: the benefit of getting the reputation of being the Good Girl or Good Negro.

This is one who's not a troublemaker or a complainer, who understands how things are done around here and who is willing to go the extra mile to prove herself a member of a community dominated by men/ whites. This person is more of a mascot than a "token," because she proves that the community is not discriminatory -- see, they have women/ people of color! I've certainly witnessed white people, and non-white people in a superior position, who say that so-and-so is great because she is not like those others of her group who are always complaining. It can be a very useful tool for the person willing to undergo the discrimination without complaint, and sadly can act as a factor against supporting a new person who does make a complaint. First, the person who didn't has to reconcile her own inaction; second, she feels like she is losing status because the stereotypes of the others with whom she curried favor have been shown true: here is this woman/ person of color who walks in and immediately starts complaining. Doesn't this newcomer understand that you've got to work extra hard around here?

One may observe that reaction among a few African Americans, for example, when another black person complains about not getting served when he's wearing baggy jeans and Tshirt. "What does he expect," they say, "dressing like a thug." The complainer, of course, thinks he should be able to dress this way and be treated just like the white kid who walked in ahead and was dressed the same way. But other black people, especially those of a certain age and/or socioeconomic class, will tell him that that's not the standard he's judged by. He's got to dress better, speak better, send better signals than the white guy, because his blackness is itself a negative.

I once had a white person tell me that race is a useful, albeit unfair, way to distinguish who is a good and safe customer from who is not, and that we would have lower-priced (and thus a greater variety) services in American big cities if we didn't make racial discrimination a Title VII violation. Then business owners could keep out the majority of bad customers, along with a relatively small group of people who would have been good customers but set off a false positive because of their race, while serving the majority of good customers. It's basically the same as any racial profiling argument: we'll make some mistakes, and some people will be treated unfairly because of it, but it is an efficient way to do it.

Despite the acknowledgement of false positives and the injustice done to some individuals because of them, generally ignored in such arguments is the likelihood of false negatives. If the shopkeeper is occupied watching the black customers to ensure they don't shoplift, it's easier for the presumed-good white customers to do so. Similarly, if an innkeeper wants to ensure he gets a sufficient clientele and he's screening out any black person not in a suit, he's likely to accept some white people who don't look as tidy as he'd like, and they turn out to be disruptive, dirty, whatever.

But even if someone could show empirically that the number of false negatives is negligible, and thus the harm to the business owner and other customers of using this profiling is negligible, we'd still be troubled by profiling because of the American instinct to prioritize fairness, and concern that a benefit to some is created by putting a burden on others. It makes us uncomfortable to confront that people are treated unequally based on race, and we are willing to make sacrifices to ensure that doesn't happen. So in NYC, profiling for service is done by price rather than race; anyone can get into the Waldorf, no matter how he's dressed, if he can afford it. The Waldorf assumes that if you can pay, you're either a decently orderly person, or can foot the bill for whatever goes wrong. (Thus all the celebrities that still get hotel rooms after trashing a prior one.)

This prioritization of fairness distinguishes the U.S. from other nations that put a much lower priority on fairness compared to efficiency, even though Americans have the reputation of prizing efficiency and productivity uber alles. Perhaps it's a social productivity that interlaces with the perceived economic efficiency; if the "outsiders" have to work harder to be treated equally with insiders, the society gets the benefit of their extra hard work. The society has minorities who feel compelled to look better, speak better, act better, while there is little cost to the majority/ socially dominant group.

July 29, 2007 12:41 AM | TrackBack

Just to clarify, the quote you ascribe to me is from Professor Minow. Sadly, I'm not that bright.

The temptation to make a comment about sentence diagramming (I remember doing that in seventh grade, and by "remember" I mean I distinctly remember day-dreaming through it every day) is overwhelming, but for the fact that'll you'll probably come back at me with scary grammar words like "gerund."

Posted by: David Schraub at July 29, 2007 01:27 AM
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