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st_wie writes: "We need to prove him wrong on those assumptions, that those black dudes deserved to be quoted higher prices because their blackness gave off some incriminating information."

Doesn't this get back to the seemingly-discarded Sailer argument about blacks wanting to be seen as big spenders or something like that?

Christopher Horn

How painful is it to change the subject after 158 posts? If anyone is still reading, did anyone see tonight's TCU blowout in the Pointsettia Bowl?

The halftime shpiel featured perhaps the most cringeworthy moment in the history of televised sports. The ol' football was thrown around, topic: which is the most exciting bowl? and one of the commentators talked at great length about the "Cal-Texas" game -

- including specific matchups between Cal and Texas players he was excited to see -

- even though Cal is playing Texas A&M, as the graphic at the bottom of the screen made perfectly clear.

It was the kind of ignominious mistake that might otherwise draw howls of ridicule and outrage in the blogosphere or MSM, but I am betting you won't hear a peep:

the commenter in question was black.

Quickly, my point: remember when you were in high school, and you were in speech or English class, and there was a kid named Todd in there, you know, the one who wore the muscle shirts to school and hung around machine shop all day?

And one day Todd had to give a speech, and he talked about souping up a hot rod, and all you wanted to do was crawl under your desk and hope the moment went away? You perceived Todd as mostly hopeless, you just wanted the moment to pass.

I propose that, as a function of race, we react to that oblivious announcer in the same way we reacted to Todd. We are afraid to laugh or make mockery, ostensibly because we are afraid of being labelled racist.

But folks, you have to wonder. Is the reason we didn't make fun of Todd because we simply had lower expectations for him?

Is the same thing true about tonight's announcer due to his race?

Without addressing the difficult issue of whether our response to the announcer is "right", we ought to ask earnestly what outcomes it would bring.

Maybe Todd from machine shop was a sucker when it came to car purchases. Do we set up other groups in society to so respond?

In any event, I am endlessly amazed that professional, prominent blacks tolerate the soft-pedaling of less successful, but visible blacks, on the basis of race.

It is really terribly patronizing.


You are right on the money, Chris.
We need to separate the good high-achieving Negroes from the bad low expectation Negroes, the Todds of this world, and give those dunces all manner of financial incentives to stop breeding and pulling down their more worthy brothers -- For social justice!

(Don't worry, Malcolm, you're one of the good ones! :))

Let's start the process right now:
Chris, name this affirmative action sportscaster so we can ridicule him properly!


Christopher Horn:
"In any event, I am endlessly amazed that professional, prominent blacks tolerate the soft-pedaling of less successful, but visible blacks, on the basis of race."

Here in the UK we call this kind of thing "the soft bigotry of low expectations" - judging people by different and lower standards on account of their race. It seems like this kind of thing is so ingrained in the USA's culture though that anyone pointing it out gets labelled the R-word, as in WmShockley's sarcastic post above.

FWIW, my personal experience: I teach in a UK University, undergraduates are a mix of white, black and south-Asian students mostly, about 80% female. In the UK we don't have official Affirmative Action, so students should have roughly the same median ability.

What I've noticed is that the black female students consistently produce significantly better quality work than their white & south-Asian peers. This is true for course work but is particularly noticeable in the exams. Are the black students smarter than the whites & south-Asians, or harder working, or both? I don't know, but what I do know is that they do not have the same self-confidence in their academic prowess as their peers of similar ability. Sometimes when I say "Congratulations on that great essay" they are convinced I've got them mixed up with somebody else!

Maybe their lack of confidence is due to racism, but it's not the hard 'Jim Crow' style racism. I suspect rather that the patronising white liberal culture in our high schools is so convinced that these young black women must be shielded from the risk of failure, that they have never really been given the chance to show what they can accomplish.
Shielded from failure, they were also shielded from success.

This kind of 'liberal racism' sees blacks as inherently incapable of achieving on equal terms with whites, and determines to shield blacks from this terrible truth. But the real truth is that given a chance, the black students I see aren't equal to their white peers - they're BETTER.



Christopher Horn


That's a fantastic post. "Soft bigotry of low expectations" indeed.

To WmShockley's sarcastic question about the identity of the sportscaster:

I'm not 100% certain, and in any event, I'm not gonna verify it.

Perhaps that is a small courtesy to high-achieving, successful blacks (such as Simon's students) who are possibly troubled by the implications of the sportscaster story...


"Perhaps that is a small courtesy to high-achieving, successful blacks (such as Simon's students)"

Well, like I said, they get good marks, but I'm concerned that their relative lack of self-confidence in their academic ability means they may not be as successful in their careers as their abilities warrant. As I said, I think the liberal racism "Blacks aren't as smart as whites, but we must all agree not to talk about it!" is particularly harmful to these students, because it means that they are rarely given a chance to show what they can really achieve. Frankly, if these black students were as successful as their abilities indicate they should be, many of them would not even be at my second-tier University, they'd be at one of the high-status Universities; if not Oxford or Cambridge, maybe Bristol or one of the University of London colleges.

It used to be that we had a rigorous secondary education system in the UK that could identify talented children and channel them upwards; nowadays we don't have that, social mobility is less, and good schooling depends on the parents' wealth more than the child's ability. This harms smart white children from poorer backgrounds too, but it likely harms smart black children most of all.


Chris, Simon -- I am shock(ley)ed you would accuse me of racism or the "R-word" as you put it in such PC terms. I am only advocating that the UNDERACHIEVING Negroes, Chris's Todds, be put in their place so that they do not impede the progress that superior Negroes deserve and have earned.

What do you propose we do? Sit back and cluck our tongues at the injustice being perpetrated by our liberal masters? That, to me, smacks like the kind of lipservice mentality of the liberal elite.

Don't backpeddle, Chris -- whatever damage these oversensitive high-achieving Negroes might feel has already been done by your vague anecdote of black buffoonery. In fact, it is exactly that vagueness that makes this kind of story so confidence-destroying. You can make this right by ID'ing this clown so these worthy Negroes can dissociate themselves from him in their minds -- as he is right now, he's an amorphous bogeyman of low expections.

Christopher Horn

Any student of Simon's (black, white, pink, blue, you name it) who shows up for an exam woefully unprepared, and subsequently fails miserably -

- ought to receive back the exam marked up with seas of red ink, as well as suggestions for improvement, and ideally a path to make those changes.

I'm not speaking about the "successful" (blacks, whites, pinks, blues, you name it).

Rather, it is about the impact of our response to those that are 'less successful', and specifically the potential negative impact that response has on their well-being.

I certainly apologize if that wasn't clear earlier.

Guy Larkin

I'm clearly late to the party, but I find it hard to believe that anyone is defending the car salesmen. And the comment by Byrne Hobart that "The only variable in the experiment was race...but you'd need to do another experiment (keep race constant and vary age, for example) before you can argue that the car salesmen were only focusing on race." is inane. If race is the only variable, then there can't be anything else that the salesmen were focused on. (Technically, race isn't the only variable. Sex is also a variable.)

I am appalled that people will rush to defend definitively racist actions when presented with such clear evidence.


Guy Larkin, you're so late to the party you didn't bother trying to ascertain what the hell actually occurred. Nobody is "defending" the salesmen; the claim is that they rationally try to squeeze as much cash out of customers as they possibly can. Gladwell is claiming the poor things are suckering themselves out of making more money. The ethics of their actions is not what is being disputed. Your commentary on the study, controls, and variables is mind-bogglingly stupid. The study revealed that race was a factor, as was gender. To "zero in" means to focus on one thing to the exclusion of others. In order to show that salesmen "zero in" on race, it needs to be shown that they treat it as more important than other factors rather than simply treating it as a factor, and that can only be shown by not controlling for those factors. Verstehen Sie?


poor guy larkin. he thought he'd be dealing primarily with people who would understand what he meant by the term "variable" and who had some foundation in empirical research. he really is new to this debate.

run, honey; run like the bleepin' wind.

Hans Gruber

I don't think Gladwell's recent error here is that big of a deal; but I do wonder, with his error being abundantly clear in retrospect, why he doesn't concede the point, at least insofar as it pertains to the study supporting the conclusion that the salesman "zeroed in on race, and ignored everything else."

The study cannot support that conclusion because, as has been pointed out ad naseum, the study was designed to keep those other variables the SAME, so they could isolate the effect of race easier. To prove that salesman "ignored everything else" when it comes to selling black men cars, one would have to design a study where income, class, education varied, which would then allow us to see the difference between, for example, high school and college gradutes of the same race. If all black men were then still offered the same amount, regardless of income, age, or occupation, that would support Gladwell's characterization. But that seems to me a rather implausible scenario, that car salesman would use identical sales tactics regardless of other social cues.

So much of this debate has been raging over things not in dispute. All participants seems to agree that this study shows that salesmen use different negotiation strategies with blacks than they do with whites.

Nobody defended this practice (in fact, one of Sailer's most stinging criticisms was that Gladwell actually believed in the virtue of the car salesmen).

The issue is whether this discrimination can be rational from a profit-maximizing perspective (Gladwell seems to have given up arguing that it was "unconscious" discrimination).

In order for the discrimination to be rational, a necessary (but not sufficient) condition is that blacks and whites must vary in their negotiation preferences, on average. Even on this point Gladwell seems to have retreated, in that he is only arguing in this post that a good salesmen will evaluate clients holistically (in Sailer's view, "more and better stereotyping").

So, who disagrees with the following:

1) Car salesmen base their negotiations at least partly on the race of the buyer. This strategy is more conscious than unconscious.

2) There is the potential this strategy is rational if blacks and whites, on average, vary in their negotiation preferences, especially given time constraints and the limited information available to salesmen.


Dear Malcolm,


Save us from the madness - sales race, race sales, varying constants, constant variables


Start a new topic

We are going in circles of


Of circles of

Circles of circles

 How about that Idlewild flick - pretty wild huh?

Charles Follymacher

I saw this post in my bloglines thingy a while back and i immediately thought of some economics term that talked about the difference in knowledge between buyer and seller. Off and on I've been trying to find that thing I saw (dang it, why didn't i bookmark it?!), but why don't I leave it to you folk with the tall foreheads.
In my view, that's a big part of what we're talking about here (or what I assume is being talked about-- no time to scroll thru 171 comments, sorry). In an adversarial interaction such as car sales, the game for the seller is to get as much as s/he can, while buyer tries to spend as little as possible. Outside of Saturn (if they still do that), there is no flat pricing. It's difficult to ascribe racial malice, exactly, on these salesfolk, tho that may indeed be part of the motivation. For some reason they've keyed on Black racial characteristics as a signifier to start (way) higher in the back an forth process.

The question for me is why is it Black men don't have access to the same info White guys do? We assume if Black men knew they could get away with a lower price they wouldn't settle for a substantially higher one (and the salesperson would not risk losing a sale with a ridiculous opening offer). Is it cuz more White guys have access to "inside" info via friends, or friends of friends who know the real score? Be b=intresting to find out what happens in Black dealerships, if theres enough statistical relevance.

Scott Tudd

Mr. Gladwell,

This comment has nothing to do with your article.

Write your next book on how buildings influence how people act. Find interesting stories on why buildings have evolved the way they have. Find out how people define space, and how it defines them, etc.
You write it. I'll buy it.


it's the uncertainty principle.
Heisenberg's physics win!
here's how:
the closer you get to measuring
something, the more you alter its
outcome. for example: if no one's
watching, i will make the putt.
if everyone's watching...i miss
by 4 feet.
same thing with sales (and comedy)
...analysis is paralysis. there's
a "flow" and it's not logical or
measurable or repeatable. it's
NOT science. it's How She Feels
at That Instant. three seconds
later, and the "flow" disintegrates. google
Schrodinger's cat.

Brian Martin

Hi. I have to say, you all are so academic about this. Maybe I'm missing something here. I've known salesmen from peanut pushers to Sears siding slickers. A GOOD salesman see's a person in one color. Green. Qxtrs


Sailer and Posner assume that the car salespeople's must be acting rationally to maximize profit, that they have accurate perceptions of black males. What about the salespeople's perception of women? The ranking goes:
white men
white women
black women
black men
with regard to quoted prices rising. So what are the assumptions being made about white women?
White chicks like to spend lots of money. (Alas for all the advertising directed at their household management thrift!)
White chicks are suckers, but not as much as black chicks are.

As for the claim that if a black salesman does this, it means there's no racism involved, black people *are* capable of being racist toward other black people (as well as Asian, Latinos, Arabs...). I don't think there's a specific faulting of white people. Heck, does Ayres even say what race the salespeople are? I had a black salesman the last time I bought a car -- they're out there! (I'm a brown woman, I had a white man with me, paid $8000 for a 2003 Pontiac Grand Am in good aesthetic condition but that needs to have the accelerator a little pumped to start -- did I get screwed on price?)


that's not heisenberg's uncertainty, turkeydance, it's bohr's complementarity. and that isn't really how it works, and even if it were it wouldn't apply here, since the salesmen weren't aware of the study and thus weren't being observed any more than they would have been in any other sales situation. but thanks for the entertaining aside.


You seem to be trying to make an economic argument, or at least some appeal to rationality, but this kind of stereotyping isn't rational at all. (I agree with ANM).

Racial stereotyping is a very primitive defensive behavior that sorts people as with us or against us. If you are not from my tribe you are a threat. This is part of our old brain.

The hope is that in a civilized society people learn to overcome that.

That old song "You have to be taught to hate" isn't necessarily true.

People can easily demonize others based on the smallest difference. That why so many people are still being slaughtered. Sunnis or Sheites anyone? Catholics or Protestants?

Susan Jones

There are few gifts one can give that last a lifetime, the inspiration you’ve so willingly and unselfishly shared with the world through your talent is one. I’ve been a fortunate benefactor, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and the very best of the new year to you and yours.


There seems to be a series of illogical contradictory thought processes that I think discount any theory claiming that the variations in the car prices are due to an economical or other beneficial purpose. A dominant stereotype of blacks is that they are less wealthy than whites. Actually, on average, statistically this is fact. Thus, if a car salesman were to give one of the two races a lower price for the financial health of the company, he/she would give a black person a lower price assuming that the black person cannot afford a higher price. The salesman would also want to offer a wealthier person, perceived to be a white person, a higher price because a wealthier person is probably less likely to scrutinize over a slightly high price. (Of course, as Gladwell points out, if this information became public, there would be a great deal of protest from the party getting the higher prices). In this study, however, each customer went to the salesman offering the same information on wealth and status - thus, a salesman cannot rely on racial stereotypes depicting blacks as poorer than whites because the study clearly defines this as a nonissue. Then what do we make of Malcolm Gladwell's point that of the four important facts given to the salesmen, only one (the race) was not discarded? In order for a salesman to be offering different prices for the benefit of the company, he or she would want to offer blacks the lower price based on financial stereotypes. When this is stereotypical information is discounted by the information given by the customers, the salesman must change strategy knowing that the blacks could afford the same as a white. Then how do we explain the higher prices offered to blacks, which is what really occurred? Is the salesman now relying on stereotypes depicting blacks as poorer decision makers and worse negotiators, and is thus offering the higher price to the blacks assuming this strategy will now benefit the company more? I find this hard to believe for the simple fact that results from negotiating vary on a case-by-case basis and are hard to predict. It seems more to me that the higher prices are a result of lack of interest in selling to blacks and somewhat malicious in intent.

Christopher Horn

To Malcolm and all the other usual suspects that have made this such an interesting forum this year:

Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays!

And all the best to all of you in the New Year.

Ingrid Abrash

Wow. I just stopped by while procrastinating at work, and certainly didn't expect to see something like this. Hey, I'm not expert on economic theory -- and clearly many of the commentators aren't either -- but isn't there something to be said for the fact that the cars salesmen discounted every factor but race OVER AND OVER? Their actions can't be considered rational *hundreds* of times, right? The racism masked as rational-actor economic theory is disgusting

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