Going Nucular compiles essays by the linguist Geoff Nunberg. Each essay focuses on a linguistic oddity that provides some insight into our ever-changing world. In an essay originally published in the New York Times Week in Review (2002.12.22) entitled “Some of My Best Friends,” he points out one that has been incorporated into my (and other political scientists’) work.
Racism … blurred the distinction between thoughts and deeds. The social scientists of the 1950s had insisted that prejudice and discrimination were different things…. the word bias acquired the same ambiguity around this time, as people began to use it not just for a mental predilection but for the actions that followed from it, as in “housing bias.”
Or, urban bias for that matter. This transition from predilections to the actions that follow from them happens constantly in economics and political science. The reverse is also the case. Actions are used to measure preferences. Allport (cited by Nunberg) in his The Nature of Prejudice argues that prejudice is not necessarily action-inducing, offering the example of “an employer who dislikes Jews but treats them the same as anyone else.” The dividing line between prejudice and discrimination seems like a tough one to do in the case of racism. It is clear that the “urban bias” that I and others are interested in is the actions that are a result of the predilections, not the predilections themselves.
Another linguistic issue with the term exists. I have previously noted that the term “urban bias” – with bias meaning discrimination – requires a normative assessment of when policies began or ceased being discriminatory. I address this by focusing on comparisons and changes – policies are either more or less urban-biased, either across cases or over time. Any thoughts on additional ways to deal with this issue would be appreciated.