Malcolm Gladwell Blinks At Racial Realities
Gladwell describes Blink as
"A book about rapid cognition, about the kind of
thinking that happens in a blink of an eye."
Because both Gladwell and I write
about what the
human sciences have to say about daily life, and
because we have fairly similar example-laden prose
styles, I was looking forward to his book.
Especially after I learned that he
$1,000,000 per year just from public speaking (25
appearances annually at $40,000 each, mostly in front of
Maybe I could pick up a few
pointers from Gladwell!
So, from Gladwell`s book, here`s
what I learned about what the corporate audience wants a
nonfiction writer to do:
- Find or concoct marketable
buzzwords for concepts with which readers are
already familiar. For example, Gladwell uses the term
"thin-slicing" to put a positive new spin on
the old practice of judging a book by its
- Don`t even try to make sense.
Logic and consistency just annoy most readers.
Blink`s individual anecdotes
are interesting and well-written. But taken as a whole,
the book is a mish-mash of contradictions. Gladwell
strongly encourages you to rely upon your snap judgments
… except when you shouldn`t.
- For example, Gladwell cites a
study showing that college students can tell how good
a class is just by
watching two seconds of videotape of the professor
lecturing … with the sound off!
- On the other hand, Gladwell
endorses another study showing that experienced
emergency room physicians should not use their
intuition when deciding whether patients complaining
of chest pains are suffering a heart attack. Instead,
they should follow a rigid algorithm that had been
laboriously worked out by statistical analysis of
thousands of cases.
- On the other other hand, the
Getty Museum in LA should not have relied
on the painstaking scientific analyses that supported
the authenticity of an
ancient-looking statue for which the museum paid
$9 million. No, they should have relied instead on the
instant snap judgment of various art critics who
thought it looked phony—as, indeed, it turned out to
- On the other other other hand
… well, I could go on all day quoting contradictory
anecdotes from Blink.
Now, it would be tremendously
useful if Gladwell had figured out some general rules of
thumb for when to rely on your instantaneous hunches and
when not to.
But as far as I can tell, his book reduces to two messages:
- Go with your gut reactions, but
only when they are right.
- And even when your gut reactions
are factually correct, ignore them when they are
Gladwell does make a
genuinely useful point about how when people try to put
their ideas into words, they often distort them into
meaninglessness or falsehood.
Ironically, this happens to
Gladwell every time he writes about race.
Because there were already plenty
of books on the market advising
corporate workers in tiresome detail how to look
before they leap, the sales potential of a book telling
them, "Wotthehell, just go ahead and leap," was
Unfortunately for Gladwell, the
best-known examples of
thinking without thinking are racial and gender
prejudices. But, then, you`ve forgotten Rule #2—Readers
despise logic and consistency. So Gladwell just assumes
that his otherwise beloved "rapid cognition" is
100% wrong whenever it`s based on race or gender
(And that`s why he makes a $1
million annually and I don`t.)
The most intriguing aspect of
Gladwell`s book is that its hopeless confusion and
mind-melting political correctness stem from the
author`s own racial background. Although mostly white,
Gladwell is partly of African descent (his
mother was black, Scottish, and Jewish). But he
doesn`t look noticeably black in
most of his
The origin of Blink, he
writes on his
website, came when, "on a whim," he let his
hair grow long into a loose but large Afro.
As you can see in this picture of
Gladwell with his Afro, he wound up with more of a
Napoleon Dynamite Mormon `fro than the
genuine kinky kind that
ABA basketball players espoused back in the 1970s.
Still, it does finally make him look marginally black.
As soon as Gladwell grew his Afro,
he claims, he started getting hassled by The Man:
highway patrolmen wrote him
speeding tickets, airport security gave him the evil
eye, and the
NYPD questioned him for 20 minutes because they were
looking for a rapist with an Afro.
"That episode on the street got
me thinking about the weird power of first impressions,"
he says. "And that thinking led to Blink."
Obviously, Gladwell is not being
wholly honest about why he chose to grow an Afro, which
is an extremely high-maintenance hairstyle.
(I know, because I looked just like
Napoleon Dynamite myself back in 1978. If you are
thinking about growing an Afro yourself, trust me when I
tell you that anytime you lean your head against a wall
or the back of your chair, you will dent your `fro.)
People pick a hairstyle to project
an image, and Gladwell presumably wanted to shed his
nerdy son-of-a-math-professor look and start making
first impressions that reeked of that dangerous, sexy,
black rebel glamour associated with famous Afro-wearers
like Black Panther
Eldridge Cleaver and blaxploitation movie hero
"Who`s the cat that won`t cop out
When there`s danger all about?
Now the inevitable downside of
trying to look dangerous to impress girls and
interviewers is that you look dangerous to cops.
But you aren`t going to hear about
tradeoffs from Gladwell, nor about racial differences.
He makes a huge amount of money lecturing corporations,
and he prudently toes the EEOC-enforced party line about
how there`s no contradiction whatsoever between
"diversity" and profit
Ayres sent matched testers into
auto show rooms where they found that car dealers gave
the lowest initial offers to white men, followed by
white women, black women, and finally black men. Even
after 40 minutes of negotiating, the black guy shoppers
were still being offered prices nearly $800 higher than
the initial offer made to the white guys.
(Although Gladwell doesn`t mention
this, the race or sex of the salesperson didn`t
matter—e.g., on average, black saleswomen quote higher
prices to black women than to white men.)
loyal lackey of multiculti capitalism, Gladwell
theorizes that the car salespeople just didn`t realize
"how egregiously they were cheating women and
minorities." He seems to hold the novel opinion that
auto dealers are well-meaning but uninformed about
salesmen would have offered their female and
black shoppers lower prices if only they had
known (perhaps from reading Blink) that they
suffered from irrational prejudices that were keeping
them from making more money!
would not occur to Gladwell, a good liberal, that an
auto salesman`s discriminating on the basis of race or
sex might be a rational form of the "rapid cognition"
that he admires… [I]t may be sensible to ascribe
the group`s average characteristics to each member of
the group, even though one knows that many members
deviate from the average. An individual`s
characteristics may be difficult to determine in a brief
encounter, and a salesman cannot afford to waste his
time in a protracted one, and so he may quote a high
price to every black shopper even though he knows that
some blacks are just as shrewd and experienced car
shoppers as the average white, or more so. Economists
use the term `statistical discrimination` to describe
actually going on in showrooms is this:
Women dislike hurting other people`s feelings more
than men do, and
car salesmen are very good at acting emotionally
you try to lowball them. When I`ve gone car
shopping with my wife, I`ve seen her flinch in
empathetic pain when I scoff at a dealer`s highball
offer. But, after I`ve bought our new car for a
$1,000 less than she would have settled for, she
- Black men,
for whatever complicated reasons, enjoy being
seen as big spenders. And car salesmen are all too
willing to help them spend big.
differences in how hard groups will bargain extend far
beyond basic black and white. For example, a friend of
mine who is a small businessman in Los Angeles can
rattle off a ranked list of how difficult it is to
bargain with the myriad ethnic groups he deals with.
ferocious negotiators he runs into are the Armenians,
Koreans, and Israelis. The most aristocratically
insouciant about prices and terms are the
white South Americans.
discrimination is a troubling phenomenon, because it
chips away at the libertarian assumption that
competitive markets eliminate racial discrimination, as
they do away with most things that are irrationally
costly. (See my 1996 article "How
Jackie Robinson Desegregated America" for a
classic statement of this optimistic view of the free
Gladwell`s multicultural liberalism, he isn`t going to
tell us anything interesting like that.
Gladwell has taken the IAT`s race test repeatedly and it
keeps reporting that he has a
preference for whites."
He`s one of those
"millions of Americans that link the words `Evil` and
`Criminal` with `African-American` on the Race IAT."
He`s not alone:
"It turns out that more
than 80 percent of all those who have ever taken the
test end up having pro-white associations, meaning that
it takes them measurably longer to complete answers when
they are required to put good words in the `Black`
category than when they are required to link bad things
with black people."
Interestingly, 48 percent of the 50,000 blacks who have
taken the IAT also register as associating black faces
more automatically than white faces with words like
For whatever it`s worth, when I
took the IAT, it concluded, "Your data suggest a
moderate automatic preference for Black relative to
This finding would allow me
to get on my moral high horse and condescend to
scientifically-proven racist bigots like Gladwell. But
I`ll instead defend his prejudice.
Occam`s Razor suggests a simple,
sensible reason why Gladwell tends to unconsciously link
black faces with negative words like "criminal"—because
blacks are indeed vastly more likely than whites to be
seven-to-one ratio is a bit of an understatement
because, although the government normally strives to
break ethnic Hispanics out from non-Hispanic whites in
most of its measures, its crime statistics
notoriously lump many Hispanics in with non-Hispanic
Hispanics have a higher crime rate on average, this
artificially lowers the black-white crime ratio.
strenuous effort to count Hispanics accurately came in a
2001 report by the liberal advocacy group
National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. I
crunched their data on incarcerations in 1997 and found
black imprisonment rate was 9.1 times the white
rate. (The Hispanic rate was 3.7 times the white rate.
The Asian rate was not broken out, but I would guess it
was considerably lower than the white rate.)
So Gladwell`s association of blackness with
criminality on the IAT is a perfectly rational and fact-based example of
the "thin-slicing" that he otherwise endorses.
Not that you`ll ever hear that from
him. Too many $40,000 corporate speaking gigs at stake!
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and