I was struck by the juxtaposition of articles in the newspaper this morning regarding preferential behavior.

           First, there is the matter of “Ethnic Profiling in Paris,” where a five-month survey at the Chatelet – les Halles RER Station and the Gare du Nord found a significantly greater likelihood police would stop and frisk young Arab and black males than young whites. We had that in the U.S., with New Jersey State Troopers stopping a disproportionally large number of black drivers on I-95.

          Compare this to Ricci v. DeStefano, No. 071428, the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling yesterday that local government cannot disregard “lawful and beneficial promotional exams even when there is little if any evidence of disparate-impact discrimination.” J. Kennedy. Exam results favored whites over blacks as candidates to become firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut. Had hiring been based on this testing, the City might have faced lawsuits from lower-scoring black candidates alleging disparate treatment under the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

          The message on race discrimination is that racial profiling is as wrong in France as it was in New Jersey. But throwing out objective test results because minorities score lower than whites is wrong as well.

           In an experiment recounted in the Science Section of the June 30th 2009 New York Times, one group consuming wine is told their bottle is cheap while the other is told it is expensive.  Thereafter, quality ratings are consistently higher for the wine people thought was more costly, even if the wine consumed by the two groups cost the same.

          Another study involved the selection of main courses from a restaurant menu. One group received no information about à la carte prices, while the other group learned some items cost significantly more than others. You might expect — based on the wine example — that test subjects would favor higher-priced entrées; but that was not the case. Pricing information had no effect; each menu alternative was chosen an approximately equal number of times.  What conclusion should be drawn? Intrinsic value influences a person’s appreciation of an item in retrospect, but does not play an up-front role in selection.

           Here is a possible correlation to the Paris transit stations and the New Haven firefighters: If a selection is occurring in real time (the Paris policeman deciding whom to stop and frisk); then the objective standard of equal rights is like the pricing on the restaurant menu. It will be disregarded in favor of personal bias such as a taste for shrimp gnocchi or a belief blacks and Arabs are more likely to carry contraband.       

          Conversely, If a selection has already occurred (and you are, for example, a New Haven city official looking at job applicant test results) then an objective standard (e.g., fear of lawsuits by blacks claiming discrimination) is going to trump any personal views about race.

           Finally, there is the matter of mate selection among fireflies. The length and frequency of male illumination directly correlates with the size of the protein package that the male will deliver upon fertilization. But there is a limit: The brighter the light, the more likely the male firefly will be consumed by a predator. 

          The message to be drawn from France, Connecticut, food, wine and fireflies seems to be the following: Among humans and lesser species there is always going to be triage. However, any selection process has to occur within reasonable limits lest it result in counterproductive consequences.