(This post was has its roots the discussion of a paper presented by Ronni Sadovsky at the 2011 Strategies of Critique conference.)
An attitude can be prejudiced even if the beliefs it is based on are true. Although it may be the case that blue-collar workers in the U.S. don’t tend to be well-informed about French literature, it would seem a prejudiced thing to do to assume that the people on the maintenance staff of your building probably don’t know much about Marcel Proust and, for instance, condescendingly explain to one of them who Proust is without bothering to find out whether they already know. What makes this action prejudiced is not an epistemic deficiency – you may well be justified in believing that the person you’re talking to is probably unfamiliar with Proust – but an unfairness that crops up at some point on the path from knowledge to action. Is information about correlations between groups of people and traits simply inadmissible in how we choose our actions?
It isn’t so simple. To continue with the example, imagine that you approach a group of maintenance workers and ask, without prompting, whether any of them has read À la recherche du temps perdu. Instead of coming off as charitable, this could, in certain circumstances, give them the impression that you are lording your superior education over them. Assuming that it is plausible, this serves as an example of a case where it’s actually necessary to make a judgment based on correlations between traits and groups to maintain a respectful attitude – namely, the judgment that the topic of Proust should be broached in a different way among the maintenance staff than it should be among, say, the attendees of a French Literature colloquium.
Why is it acceptable to make a judgment based on group-trait correlations in the second case and not in the first? One way of answering this would be to claim that in second case the judgment that one has to make is not about blue-collar workers but about French Literature colloquium attendees. The approach that you should take with the maintenance staff is the same that you should take with anyone unless you have a particular reason to think they know about Proust. The question, then, is why it is not an example of prejudice to assume that French Literature colloquium members are probably familiar with Proust. Two answers immediately come to mind, but I don’t think that either of them is right. One would be that it is not an example of prejudice because the assumption being made is of a positive valence. This would also imply, though, that assuming that all young black males are knowledgable about hip-hop is acceptable (because knowing a lot about hip-hop is generally speaking a good thing), while it is clearly still an instance of prejudice. Another answer would be that the difference is in relevance. One could claim the property of familiarity with Proust is relevant to the identity of the French department group in a way that it is not to the maintenance staff group, and that this is the difference. But relevance is a slippery concept, and it could lead to question-begging – one could claim that knowledge of hip-hop is relevant to the identity of young black males. This way of thinking leads us nowhere good.
I think that any satisfactory solution to this problem is going to have to account for the fact that categories of class and race are, in an ethically significant way, different from categories of profession. I wouldn’t say that the difference is that one can choose one’s profession – choice is another slippery concept – but there is a sense in which one’s race and class are necessarily prior to one’s membership in other categories that is significant, and this is, perhaps, why acting on knowledge about them in certain ways is ethically wrong.
As another data point, take this article from the Onion.