Crashing Into Stereotypes
By Bryan Caplan
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.