I admit that I'm a little late to the party, in that I just recently read Freakonomics, the bestseller from a few years ago. Like everyone else who read the book, I'm amazed at the bizarre factoids and surprising conclusions that it supplies. And it's also convinced me never to buy a swimming pool for my backyard.
In any case, one of the sections in Freakonomics looks at a study done on that forgotten game show The Weakest Link, which is best known for supplying a short-lived catchphrase that I will refrain from repeating.
The Freakonomics authors were curious if data would uncover hidden racial prejudice or sexism among the contestants on the show. Their conclusion was that blacks and women were not discriminated against. They write, in a burst of set-you-up optimism, that "perhaps ... discrimination was practically eradicated during the twentieth century, like polio."
Wouldn't that be most cool? Racism eradicated - with game shows like The Weakest Link serving as a mass-media, pop-culture Salk vaccine! How nifty keen is that?
Well, as you may have predicted, the story doesn't end there. The authors point out that "the Weakest Link voting data do indicate two kinds of contestants who are consistently discriminated against: the elderly and Hispanics."
Somehow I knew this case study would end badly for us.
What the authors are saying is that my grandmother would have been eliminated from the show before the announcer finished his intro.
So why are Latinos and the elderly picked on? Well, the authors conclude that "all but the most insensitive people take pains to at least appear fair-minded, at least in public," and that discrimination still pops up when aimed at "other groups that society doesn't protect as well."
In other words, white people will go out of their way to avoid looking like they're picking on black people. But when it comes to, say, Hispanics, all bets are off.
The authors even pinpoint the form of bigotry aimed at Latinos. They say that "Hispanics suffer information-based discrimination," which is when someone "believes that another type of person has poor skills, and acts accordingly." The authors note that "other contestants seem to view the Hispanics as poor players, even when they are not."
The prejudice against the elderly, in contrast, is "taste-based discrimination," which is when someone "prefers to not interact with a particular type of other person."
So the good news is that many Americans don't get skived out at Hispanics the same way they do at, for example, old people. It's just that they automatically think that we're really, really stupid.
Well, that makes me feel better.
Regardless, the Freakonomics study creates a conundrum. It assumes that Latinos are a group that "society doesn't protect as well." This confuses me because I have been told, repeatedly, that we live in a post-race society. Ergo, even the slightest suggestion that people are treated differently - or that some groups receive more societal protection or favoritism than others - is a roundhouse left to the legacy of MLK. At least, this is what I've heard from my conservative friends.
Another issue that the study raises is whether the parsing of bigotry is even possible or relevant. If we categorize prejudice, can we combat it more effectively? Or is it all just shop talk for academics?
Assuming that discrimination comes in different flavors, can we tackle it with more education? After all, the majority culture is not creeped out by Latinos (as opposed to the universal disgust aimed at those icky old people), which implies that this type of prejudice is more analytical than emotional. As such, can we convince others that we're not total morons, or is it a doomed enterprise, because minds are already made up? And isn't the very attempt to persuade the majority culture of our worth a degrading endeavor?
Obviously, I don't know the answer to these questions. Maybe I'm not smart enough. But I do know that, henceforth, I'll do my best to avoid verifying the majority culture's perceptions of Latinos. I will take great pains to not appear like a total ignoramus.
From now on, I vow to be all, like, intellectual ... and stuff ... yup.