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Friday, August 13, 2010

How prejudices form

(Elias Abduelazam)

There's been a fair amount of publicity recently over the white serial killer from Flint Michigan who made his way to Leesburg, Virginia, stabbing 18 men along the way, and killing 5 of them. At least 15 of his victims were black.

The killer, Elias Abuelazam, 33, was arrested yesterday as he tried to board a flight from Atlanta to Tel Aviv.

It's rare that a serial killer of one race goes after victims of another race; the DC Snipers and Jeffrey Dahmer are about the only exceptions who come to mind. Abuelazam is also the rare serial killer who had no sexual (or even financial) motive for his killings. He just drove around, stopping to ask various men for directions or help with his "broken down" car, then slashing them.

An article from the AP appeared this morning titled, "Fears remain in Mich. after stabbing spree arrest." The article quoted one Aldridge Gardner, 46, whom they interviewed as he waited for a bus: "It makes you not want to give anybody a hand with a vehicle if it breaks down. If it was a female, I would help her. If it was a guy, I'd be skeptical."

This seems a reasonable enough statement, and the authors of the article, Corey Williams and David Runk, did not question Gardner's overt "sexism." After all, since it was a man committing all these crimes, it would be downright silly not to be more suspicious of men. Of course, in this case it was only one man, and he had already been arrested. Nonetheless, Gardner's statement didn't seem to raise any hackles. And it shouldn't have.

But imagine for a moment that the killer had been a woman serial killer (that rarest of creatures). Had Gardner then said that he would help a man but think twice before helping a woman, the authors of this article would probably have done a double take. First, because of the obvious silliness of Gardner's statement -- everybody knows that men commit far more violent crime than women do -- but also because he would have brushed up against political correctness: it's okay to favor women over men, but not the other way around.

Now imagine that Gardner had said that that he would help a black man but not a white man --because, after all, Abuelazam was white. This would be reasonable if the killer were still at large, but he has been arrested. And as Department of Justice statistics show, and as everybody pretty much knows, blacks -- on a per capita basis -- commit far more violent crime than do whites.

But what if some innocent visitor from, say, Mars, said after reviewing the DOJ statistics, "Wow -- from now on I'm going to be really careful around black people. I had no idea they committed so much more crime per capita. I'm going to avoid black neighborhoods, be more suspicious of young black men I see on the street, and be much more reluctant to help black people asking for directions."

Given the statistics, this would not be an unreasonable reaction. And, in actuality, this is exactly the way most white people -- liberal as well as conservative -- act. Yet it's the fear that dare not speak its name.

I applaud Aldridge Gardner -- whom I'll guess is black, judging from his name and hometown -- for his straightforward logic and honesty.


Anonymous said...

This is an interesting discussion John, but I would quibble a little with title. "Prejudice" is "a preconceived belief, opinion, or judgment made without recourse to reason." I think you are arguing that people rationally behave (to borrow terms from Bayesian stats) using a priori knowledge, which can then be updated based on new information. (I expect we would be much less successful as a species if we did not!) In your example, Mr. Gardner seems to be describing just this process. In the context of human relations this might be mis-characterized as prejudice, but as you say it is not.
(That is not to say that prejudice does not exist.)

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- You are absolutely 100% right. I have always objected to the misuse of the word myself, but just got lazy here and used it the way it's always used. I've always felt that "postjudice" would be a better word for what is normally called prejudice.