Portrait of Artest as a Young Man

Portrait of Artest as a Young Man

Portrait of Artest as a Young Man

Science, technology, and life.
May 12 2009 8:11 AM

Portrait of Artest as a Young Man

It's hard to keep your mind on work when your favorite sports team is playing out of its mind. My team, the Houston Rockets , lost its star guard, Tracy McGrady , midway through the season. Then it lost its backup center, Dikembe Mutombo . Then, three days ago, it lost its center, Yao Ming . Yao and McGrady are done for the season; Mutombo is done for good. You might as well ask a country to fight a war without its army, navy, and air force. But on Sunday afternoon, the Yaoless, McGradyless, Mutomboless Rockets—a bunch of role players who'd been shrugged off by general managers around the NBA— stomped the Los Angeles Lakers , this year's front-runners for the league title. Their playoff series stands tied at 2-2.

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Why am I bringing this up in a science blog? Because we've been talking lately about stereotypes , and the subject came up in a New York Times account of a confrontation between the Rockets' Ron Artest and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant during the series. Artest was angry that Bryant

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had elbowed him near his neck. He jawed angrily at Bryant, at close range. Then, having made his point—and having been ejected by the referees—Artest calmly walked off the Staples Center court. ... Artest's turbulent past—a blur of technical fouls, scuffles, a smashed television camera and a domestic violence arrest—is fading but not forgotten. The consensus among the Rockets was that the Game 2 ejection stemmed not from Artest's actions but his résumé. Artest joked that it was akin to racial profiling—"past history profiling," he said with a chuckle.

"The thing about Ron is, he will never get the benefit of the doubt again," [Rockets forward Shane] Battier said. "Any questionable situation, people will automatically stereotype and refuse to give him the benefit of the doubt."

I love these guys. But there's no such thing as stereotyping a man based on his own past. Stereo means more than one person. Being judged by your own behavior is the opposite of stereotyping. And "racial profiling," as defined by the ACLU , means "targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual's race, ethnicity, religion or national origin." If Artest were being targeted based on race, Battier would be getting the same treatment. But Battier gets the opposite treatment: If your grandmother bumped into Battier while asking for his autograph, she'd be whistled for a charge.

It seems a bit unfair that Battier gets the benefit of the doubt and that Artest doesn't. Referees, like the rest of us, are influenced, often unconsciously, by opinions they've formed about each player. Battier has earned a reputation for lawyerly adherence to the league's rules. Artest has earned a reputation for hotheadedness. For this reason, Artest is far more likely than Battier to be deemed guilty of a foul, even in identical circumstances.

Is this kind of discrimination wrong? If so, you'd better take it up with Martin Luther King Jr. His dream was that people would "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Character isn't whatever you did just now. It's the pattern of your life: your personality, your reputation, your profile. Judging a man by his character means taking account of that pattern. "Past-history profiling," the neologism Artest coined in jest, is actually a pretty good translation of what King envisioned.

So don't fret about the profiling, Ron. The civil rights generation fought for your right to be judged on your own history. The rest is up to you.