Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Old White Women...

Warning: if you're offended by political incorrectness, don't read the rest of this post.

If you ever drop your wallet somewhere, hope that an older white woman finds it – they are the most likely group to deal honestly with a wallet they find. Such are the result of this study, by Paul Kinsella. He made up 100 wallets, complete with cash and other things to challenge the ethics of anyone finding the wallets. He set up cameras to watch the wallets, and waited to see what would happen.

The good news: 74% of the wallets (with their contents) were returned. Those are better odds than I would have guessed.

The bad news: the chances of your wallet being returned depends heavily on the age, gender, and race of the person who finds your wallet. Your wallet is most likely to come back to you if an older white woman finds it; least likely if a younger black male finds it.

Something the web site doesn't mention is that their results are roughly correlated with overall criminality rates: young men (of all races) are by far the most likely to engage in criminal behavior, but young black men are much more likely even within that group. And older white women are quite unlikely to break the law. So perhaps these results shouldn't be surprising.

Doesn anyone have any brilliant ideas for how to encourage honesty amongst young people, and young black people in particular? All of the ideas that I've had would be impossible to put into place, from a political perspective…

This issue struck close to home for me recently. A few years ago, I had a young black man working for me. He was an IT technician – smart, fun to work with, and eager to learn; the kind of employee I cherish. I spent a lot of time mentoring him, and he made a great deal of progress, professionally. He was married and had two very young children, and was very ambitious. He eventually quit his job and started his own business providing IT services to small companies. That all sounds great, doesn't it?

Well, last week I discovered that he was in jail – caught and convicted of selling stolen software licenses to his customers. Software licenses that he stole from the company we both used to work for.

That's a sample of one, far too little to draw any conclusions from. But I can't help doing so, for reasons I haven't yet disclosed: I know from the conversations I had with this man that his attitudes about criminality – his ethics – were far different than mine, in a way that directly applies. Any inhibitions he felt about criminal behavior were founded in a fear of being caught, rather than in any sense of morality. The wallet test is a pretty good filter for ferreting out this difference. I suspect my former employee would have failed the wallet test…

How could we change this? How do people acquire a sense of morality? The religious right has a quick answer (church!), but that had nothing whatever to do with my own sense of morality, or that of many other people know. And black attendance at church, and religiousity in general, is higher than whites. That can't be the answer. But what is? Any ideas?

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