Acceptable Biases, and Unacceptable Ones

We’ve written in the past about the very thin line that separates an acceptable expression of racial or ethnic bias from an unacceptable one — for instance, the tumult over Andy Rooney writing that “today’s baseball stars are all guys named Rodriguez to me.” As we wrote in Freakonomics, evidence from the TV show Weakest Link suggested that bias against women and blacks was considered less acceptable than bias against Latinos and the elderly.

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a good piece about the degree to which anti-Mormon sentiment hobbled Mitt Romney‘s campaign. (“Mr. Romney’s campaign exposed a surprisingly virulent strain of anti-Mormonism that had been largely hidden to the general public,” writes Suzanne Sataline.) It cites an NBC News/Journal poll in which 50 percent of the respondents said they had “reservations” or would be “very uncomfortable” about a Mormon becoming president, while 81 percent would be “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” with an African-American president and 76 percent with a female president.

And in today’s Times, there’s an article about a high school principal named Shimon Waronker, a Hasidic Jew, who took over a troubled middle school in the Bronx whose students are mostly black and Latino. So far, Waronker’s tenure seems to have been pretty successful. Even though the article is inherently about a clash of cultures, I was pretty shocked to read the following:

Some parents at J.H.S. 22 … were suspicious, viewing Mr. Waronker as too much an outsider. In fact, one parent, Angie Vazquez, 37, acknowledged that her upbringing had led her to wonder: “Wow, we’re going to have a Jewish person, what’s going to happen? Are the kids going to have to pay for lunch?”

Hmm. Is Ms. Vazquez’s bias acceptable because she “acknowledged that her upbringing led her to wonder” it? What kind of debate did the reporter (Elisa Gootman) and her editors have about including this quote? If a black principal took over a yeshiva, would a similar quote in reverse from a Jewish parent have made the newspaper?

Based on today’s newspapers, at least, it looks like Hasidic Jews and Mormons probably wouldn’t have done so well on Weakest Link either.

Alex Apostol

What's so awful about having "reservations" with the prospect of a Mormon president? The idea that the most powerful person in the world might adhere to the laws of imaginary beings or the morals and ethnics of ancient fables, without room for critical thought, ought to be scary for a rational human being.

Such "reservations", as long as they extend to the prospect a president of any religion, are surely warranted.


I am convinced that a large majority of "unacceptable bias" is really nothing more than political-correctness run amuck. That is, it is "unacceptable" because some hyper-sensitive soul says it is, and not because it really, truly is offensive.

Can we all just agree that there are some seeds of truth in most stereotypes? That doesn't mean that a stereotype applies to everyone of the particular group, or that it is to the degree that the stereotype implies, but please, am I the only man on earth that, seeing the way certain cars are "tricked out," can, with almost 100% accuracy, say, "A black person owns that car"?

Why should there be anything at all wrong with, first, simply speaking the truth, and, second, with having some opinion about it?

Likewise, I am sure that there are stereotypes of whites, Asians, and so forth. Stereotyping is a simplification that, while containing some truth, tends to over-weight the negative and less-flattering elements that are observed about a group.

Jews being a bit money-centric? Why, what would ever make us think that, seeing as many of our largest financial institutions were founded by, or are now run by, those of Jewish descent.

Anyone with sense will have the capacity to divide between the stereotype and the larger, grayer truth, but I think we all can grasp--even from the days of scripture--that our Jewish brothers tend to be extra well-informed in such matters, and have a degree of networking with others that may have been ingrained over thousands of years of necessity.

I remember when Reggie White caught such heat for claiming that God gave to each of the races certain "gifts" (if I remember correctly). And yet nothing he said was disagreeable to me--thought the politically-correct crowd went wild.

Do we not discern that, just as blacks are superior athletes, that maybe, just maybe, other races might have "gifts" that through evolution, nuture, history, tradition, or the gift of God, have been given to them?

Of course these are broad generalities, and yet do we not see some truth? Did not Plato recognize that some people fit better here, and others there...some are more fit for leadership...some are more fit for guardianship...some are more fit for production/consumption?

I have this theological theory that all will be well with mankind...if we can simply get beyond our divisions, accept our gifts as they are, and bring them together in accord. But as long as we do not come together, the elements of our well-being are kept separated, and cannot come together for the greater good.

And biases are perhaps intuitive markers--some more worthy than others, I'm afraid--that a wise man might be able to mine for truths about just where we all fit in this grand equation.


Jami L.

Alex A. wrote:

What's so awful about having “reservations” with the prospect of a Mormon president? The idea that the most powerful person in the world might adhere to the laws of imaginary beings or the morals and ethnics of ancient fables, without room for critical thought, ought to be scary for a rational human being.

You're right - that would be almost as scary as having a president who's a Bible-thumping, born-again Christian who makes national policy based on his religious beliefs, even to the point of attempting to overturn established law, such as Roe v. Wade.....oh, wait a minute......


Indeed, let's be sure to exclude those born-again Christians who, thinking it is a heaven or hell issue, determine to live lives of integrity, fairness, and goodness. Heaven knows, we need men in office whose only governing ethical principle is to serve themselves.

I don't at all suppose that every Christian candidate would live up to such standards (perhaps none of them would), but take heed, those who are ignorant of Christianity, that because I believe in Armageddon does not mean that I want it to take place, or wish to hasten the day.

Nor does it believe that I am blindly pro-Israel. In fact, a true Christian--one that would speak the truth, no matter what, as did Jesus--would have no problem with taking Israel (or the Palestinians) to task for wrong-doing.

I think Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrates the good that can come from Christian leadership.

For that matter, just watch the movie, "Amazing Grace" and see what Christian leadership did for the slave trade in England.

Read the history of America and find that the issue of slavery was, on some level, a struggle between theology/doctrine, and, thankfully, the abolitionist side of the argument won.

Yes, give me CHRISTIAN leadership--TRUE Christian leadership--for then I will know that I am governed with the best of intentions.



The fact the the evangelical vote has become so powerful is frightening to me. Let's be honest - they are clear the only things that matter to them are gay marriage and abortion, and nominating judges to prevent either. All other matters such as constitutional authority, civil right and personal freedom, fiscal and monetary policy are thrown to the wayside. And wars are ok as long as you kills Muslims. I am no bleeding heart liberal but these guys scare me. Of course they wouldn't vote for Romney, they can only see one thing- religion. So a guy like Huckabee becomes the first presidential hopeful to preach for his stump speech.

We have a constitution. That is what the president swears to uphold. If Romeny, Mcain Hillary or Obama have shown the propensity to uphold that constitution they should be electable, regardless of black, white, jewish, catholic, even evangelical

B K Ray

What makes biases unacceptable is pretty much how tightly we hold to them, especially in the face of contradicting evidence.

Even when you do have a bias, it is not neccessary to be insulting with it, unless you are Lisa Lampanelli or something.


I too had second thoughts about a Mormon on the Republican ticket. However, they would have been laid to rest had Mr. Romney 1) had something worthwhile to say 2) stood by his statements. Integrity is an important issue to me.


David Sirota's column yesterday comments on Americans' biases effect how Obama can and cannot speak about class:


We are a little hard on each other. (A hat tip to Dubner there). We are all gifted with a set of biases unique in magnitude, and texture. They are there for reasons equally unique to every individual, and aren't going away anytime soon, anytime ever. Yes, they'll change over and over again, until the old ones, hung on to by new-old folks, seem silly to those progressive youngsters in the present. So what? I don't particularly care since jumping into the mind of another individual and tearing out their stupidity gland is beyond my ability. Not to mention there'd be people in my head all the time as well; I'm sure.


A question about the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll: the WSJ reported "that 50% of Americans said they would have reservations or be 'very uncomfortable' about a Mormon as president." Did they ask whether people would be comfortable or uncomfortable with a devout Christian as president? I wonder whether the poll results are misleading because some Americans are suspicious of the devoutly religious in political office, and perceive Mormons to be devoutly religious.


It is not "unconstitutional to care" about any aspect of a person in general or a candidate for public office in particular. It would be unconstitutional to not allow the individual to run, but voters are free to use any criteria in making their decisions. If I want to vote for the person with the cutest pet rather that the person I feel would run the country in the most effective manner, that is my right.

It would make me an idiot but not an unconstitutional one.


@Derek your statement "Mormonism surely makes even more unbelievable claims that the mainstream Christian religions" is all based on your point of view. To a Mormon, the claims are not unbelievable. If you examine all belief systems you will find some non-Mormon's that might find the claims of Mormon's less unbelievable then others.

In fact, I bet there are many people who would find the belief's of atheists incredibly unbelievable and borderline silly. When it comes to belief systems there is no "normal" only popular, and popular is not necessarily right.

El Christador

I can't agree that “there are some seeds of truth in most stereotypes.” That is a stereotype in itself and a false one.

It's an interesting question. In The Blank Slate Steven Pinker says that research on stereotypes found that usually stereotypes are accurate representations of average properties of the groups concerned, with notable exceptions being malicious stereotypes or those made without any knowledge of the group being stereotyped.

What are the research references you have in mind when you claim that there aren't seeds of truth in most stereotypes?

El Christador

If people were leery of voting for a Scientologist, would that be an unreasonable bias or just good common sense?


To say Mormonism is no different than any other religion ignores one central fact: other religions date their revelations back two thousand years or more. While admittedly, this doesn't make their claims any less silly or implausible than Mormonism's, it does muddy the historical record thoroughly enough that people can comfortably give those religions and their adherents the benefit of the doubt. At the very least, for instance, Jesus was a historical figure and left behind an inspiring record; I don't think anyone can quarrel with the content of stuff like the Beatitudes.

On the other hand, we have a clear historical record of what a self-serving crackpot and swindler Joseph Smith was, and many of his revelations ring of the sort of hucksterish sleight-of-hand ("I have golden tablets from God but you can't look... Oh no I lost them, welp.") that's common among modern cult leaders.

Older religions exist in a grey area. Personally, I'm an agnostic, but I don't think less of people who look at the same period and come to a different conclusion. It's a matter of faith. Mormonism, on the other hand, is so fully illuminated by the historical record that faith ought to overpowered by more rational faculties, and consequently any adult in this day and age who really believes the words of Joseph Smith lacks some critical thinking skills. The fact that Romney took spineless positions on the issues accentuated the problem with the incredibility of his religious beliefs.

That's not really much of a functional bias though, considering the fact that the only time it's ever come into play has been this election, and Romney dropped out/lost before I could vote against him.

I should also ad the dislike of Romney has a lot more to do with the man himself than with Mormonism, but his speech on faith in politics was enough of a slap to the face of unbelievers that I'm comfortable publically trashing his cult.


El Christador

How about a member Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church ("the Moonies")? Or a Hare Krishna? Or an adherent of the Order of the Solar Temple or Heavens's Gate? Or a Raelian? Or a New Age enthusiast into crystals and aligning auras and cleansing chakras or whatever it is they do?

Or how about some creeds that are not religious but are awfully close in some ways, in that they provide life philosophies, value systems, ritual observances (grooming, dress), an in-group/out-group distinction, and a community to identify with: goths, punks, and such like?

El Christador

And what exactly is wrong with wanting your political representatives to be someone like you, anyway?

Underrepresentation of women and minorities in political offices is usually thought to be a bad thing because it is assumed that people want people like them representing them. Or is it bigotry to want your representatives to have something in common with you? If some women like Hillary because she's a woman, or some blacks like Obama because he's black, are they bigoted?



So by your logic the worship of Zeus and other greek gods is more valid than the belief in Christ because it out dates Christ by a wide margin. Good to now that. I was getting tired of these upstart Christians and their hippy lord.


I am fascinated when people believe that one religion is less significant than another because of some arbitrary measure such as age. They seem to forget that the religions of today bare little resemblance of what they were 100, 500, or 2000 years ago. They continually involve to fit the times (since much of what they believe in keeps getting contradicted by little things like reality and science). Mormism, along with the other 100 or so versions of Christianity out there, is no more valid or less valid than any other religion. I also feel the same about Scientology (newer than Mormism) and Judaism (older than christianity.)


The story of Shimon Waronker, the head of the school in the Bronx, in the New York section of today's NYTimes, includes the following statement, "While considered one of the stars, he was among the last to get a job, as school officials deemed him “not a fit”..."

Mr. Waronker was deemed 'not a fit'. Why? He was of a different background than the community of this school. Even though he was ".. considered one of the stars, he was among the last to get a job.." .

Here is the full story:

The accompanying video is even more revealing than the story.

I ask, if this statement were applied to an African-American or a woman ( or some other group) what would the reaction be?


There are a LOT of reasons why Romney should never be president. "Wrong religion" shouldn't be one of them.