Thursday, December 15, 2005

What's the Difference Between a Stereotype and a Statistical Finding? 

Sociology professor Rachel Sullivan has been posting a series of pieces on Interracial Marriage over at BlackProf. She is especially interested in the family objections related to such marriages and frequently looks to common stereotypes as the genesis of some objections. I wonder, though, how much statistical backing does a stereotype require in order to be considered a legitimate concern?

I came to this question specifically in reference to the stereotype of black men as sexually flighty, uncommitted and prone to abandonment. Besides the fact that popular media culture makes millions perpetuating this image, there is no denying that hard statistical evidence on absentee fathers and illegitimacy rates in the black community, across all socio-economic strata, lend much credence to the belief that it is a real concern. In fact, it is often cited as one of the most significant social issues facing the black community as a whole. How then should the family of a woman entering into marriage with a black man view this information? It occurs to me that if that woman's family is black it is far more likely that their concerns will be considered more reasonable and founded, while a white family expressing identical concerns may be seen as responding to the "stereotype."

By analogy, if statistical evidence showed that 20% of all blonde men were HIV positive I would be concerned if my daughter began seriously dating a blonde man. Only if such concern continued in the face of contrary evidence and after coming to know the man in question would I consider the concern to be perpetuated by stereotype. Perhaps it is my hard science analytical nature, but I have always been uneasy with any studies that rely upon discerning motivation from behavior, especially in circumstances where the propriety of the behavior itself is dependent upon the underlying motivation.

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