Saturday, September 09, 2006

Racism and Pessimism

My wife and I were watching a re-run of Black/White, the show where a black family puts on whiteface to explore the white world, and a white family puts on blackface to explore the black world.

At one point, a black man explains how white people seem improbably curious. "When white people hear a strange noise, they go to see what's making it. When black people hear a noise, they try to get as far away as possible."

It struck me that this is fundamentally the difference between optimism and pessimism. When I have time, I'll post my summary of Marty Seligman's "Learned Optimism," a true classic. For right now, I'll content myself with two of Marty's observations.

One, optimism is *generally* a more productive strategy. Optimists are happier, healthier, and more successful.

Two, pessimism has an important role to play, because pessimists perceive reality more accurately than optimists. If your pilot is deciding whether or not to cancel a flight because of ice on the wings, you probably want a pessimist in the cockpit! When the cost of failure is high, pessimism is the more effective way of thinking.

This maps very well to race and racism. If racism makes the cost of failure higher for black people, pessimism is a logical and effective strategy, albeit one which comes at the cost of some happiness. If research shows that African-Americans tend to be less happy, perhaps this is because their cost of failure is higher.


Foobarista said...

I'd say there's a difference between optimism and street smarts. Someone without street smarts who hears a disturbance may move toward it out of curiosity. Someone with street smarts would know that street disturbances have a nonzero chance of involving weapons that get bystanders killed, so they'd move away.

I'm not sure what optimism has to do with it, nor am I sure the observation is really about black versus white as much as street-smart inner-city types versus credulous people from the burbs.

Chris said...

My thesis would be that someone who spends most of their time using their street smarts in a dangerous environment would be unlikely to be optimistic.

When that individual was placed in a less dangerous environment, his or her work performance and happiness would be lower than that of a more optimistic person.

This link between danger and pessimism can explain several things:

1) White people can't understand the pessimism of black people because they view the world through their own optimistic lens.

2) Black people from disadvantaged backgrounds have a harder time succeeding in the "white" world because the same pessimism which is so effective in dangerous situations, is a negative in the sheltered world of the affluent.