Saturday, March 21, 2009

Weekend edition: racial profiling at the beach

Regular readers will know that I double as a surf lifesaver at Bronte Beach.  I was on patrol today.

It was relatively calm, warm without being hot and 21 centigrade (70 Fahrenheit in the water).

Bliss.

The patrol captain (Johnson) wandered by – said you should keep an eye on (he points) those three guys… then shouts “I am going in”.

I went in after him.

Two of the three made it back to the sandbar but the third guy – a Japanese tourist was pretty close to drowning.  Johnson was holding him up – but it was tough.  The extra person made it easier.  We waived to the shore for more assistance (a board) and with some effort we got our victim onto the board.  Five minutes later (and after I had swum in against the rip) he told me we saved his life.  I confirmed we knew that.

Like most people rescued he disappeared pretty quickly – I suspect a mixture of shock and embarrassment.  

How did Johnson know?  Well the victim was Japanese and pretty clearly a tourist.  Maybe it was racial profiling – but there are a fair few Asian Australians.  Maybe it was just fashion profiling (the tourists dress differently).  But Johnson was watching from before the victim got in the water.

Racial profiling is a large part of how surf lifesavers operate.  It is hard to see the struggling swimmer when there are 300 people in the water.  Much better to identify "customers" in advance.

Many of our “customers” fit clich├ęs – pasty English of both sexes*, drunken Irish men (but seldom their women), militant Germans, strapping men 6 foot tall who say to female lifesaver dressed in baggy figure-hiding clothing** that they are champion swimmers only to reveal they have never swum in the surf by picking the most dangerous part of the beach to swim, Slavic men who see big surf as a test of their machismo, hoards of Asian (especially Japanese) tourists, and Muslims whose modesty means that they often swim in so much clothing that they risk drowning when knocked over by a wave in waist-deep water.  Racial profile here is mostly a short-hand for detecting inexperience in the surf.  Race is fairly well correlated with competence.

Racial profiling doesn’t work at all on a really hot day because then the Australians who go to the beach only once a year (and are as inexperienced as the pasty Poms) get in the water.  They need rescuing too – and we find it hard to tell who they are in advance.  Fortunately on those days the beach is so crowded that other swimmers do most the initial rescue.  Anyway on really hot days the correlation between race and competence breaks down.

I don’t think our Japanese tourist today – safe back in his backpackers’ hostel rather than being shipped back to Japan in a body bag – is unhappy about our racial profiling.  I would prefer a better method for doing this – but frankly we don’t have one.




John

*The pasty English needing rescues include a fair number of younger female backpackers whose idea of an adventure on their holiday is to seduce a Bondi surf lifesaver.  I have seen more than one deliberately get themselves in a position that they needed to be rescued.

**The female lifesaver hiding behind the baggy (sun protective) clothing is an Olympic triathlete and is generally amused at what the German guys think passes for good swimming.   By contrast I know what good swimming looks like - and it is not and never will be something I can do...

PS.  Investmentgardener's comment below - is I think an accurate appraisal of this...

Stereotyping is a method that allows our brain to make split-second decisions based on a 'shortcut' reasoning. It doesn't matter that you're wrong sometimes, as long as you are right when a split-second reaction is needed. Nevertheless the 'shortcut' is not a rational way of reasoning. There is no rational reason why someone who looks like a pasty pom (and very well may be one) would be more likely to drown than his olympic swimmer girlfriend. At least not on an individual level. Stereotyping and generalisations are good, as long as you don't confuse them with reality.

It pays to use stereotypes - especially in split-second decision making like life-saving - and it pays to be absolutely conscious of how wrong they can be when making complex decisions...

Now the goal is to get good at both the split-second and the long-term decision making...

11 comments:

investmentgardener said...

Stereotyping is a method that allows our brain to make split-second decisions based on a 'shortcut' reasoning. It doesn't matter that you're wrong sometimes, as long as you are right when a split-second reaction is needed. Nevertheless the 'shortcut' is not a rational way of reasoning. There is no rational reason why someone who looks like a pasty pom (and very well may be one) would be more likely to drown than his olympic swimmer girlfriend. At least not on an individual level. Stereotyping and generalisations are good, as long as you don't confuse them with reality.

John Hempton said...

You are of course right. I neglected to mention that the olympic athelete hiding behind baggy clothes was once a pom - but she migrated...

J

And - yes - a split-second decision was needed - or my Japanese tourist would be dead. That simple.

John Hempton said...

But the lack of ANY sun damage to skin is a very good indicator of incompetence in the surf.

It is simply impossible to have been bought up going to Austrlaian beaches and have blemishless skin.

The beautiful blemishless skin associated with many Northern Europeans is an absolute lay-down sign that they are inexperienced in the surf.

Stereotype or not - simple appearances are able to make the right decision as to who to watch very consistently.

---

Oh, and if you do not think that the men of some cultures are more likely to test their machismo in big surf than the men of other cultures then - frankly - you do not watch.

Ditto men together with an excess of men over women are mroe likely to test machismo.

Alcohol is a big inducement too.

J

IF said...

I am curious to learn what makes Australian beaches dangerous. Any links to material?

I don't have much skin damage, even though I used to be a fair pool swimmer. But I like diving for Abalone in N. California. Which is done in full 7mm suits (or better), usually with a board to get the haul out of the water. Sharks are a much smaller problem than in A. The main problems are the cold water, big swell, rocky beaches. Going far out there is a current parallel to shore (you might have to drift to the next cove). I have never seen something people call a riptide or undercurrent. (Or anything else fancy.) Just brutal waves when the weather is bad.

Oh, no life guards. I have once been in the water when they started searching for a missing diver. Coast Guard helicopter, lots of Zodiacs in the water. Body found next day. Rumored to be a lightweight Asian diabetic with a weight belt heavy enough to sink a fat white guy. (Probably an unfair racial stereotype.)

Blank Xavier said...

Military adage: what matters in an officer is the ability to make decisions *quickly*. If they happen to be right as well, all the better.

John Hempton said...

What makes aussie beaches dangerous?

Well - they are not really. Sharks are a myth. We have - on a crowded day at Bondi - about 50 thousand people on the beach.

We have had one shark attack in 70 years.

In New South Wales (the state I live in) there are about 100 drownings a year - and probably about 1 shark death.

What makes the beaches dangerous is just water.

Now the beaches all have lots of water coming in. Sometimes the saves are small (yesterday). Sometimes they are big. But when all that water comes in it must go out.

Its warm, the water is inviting. There combination of large amounts of moving water and inexperience is bad. Experienced people do not drown.

---

Now one thing that is odd in the statistics is the number of muslim drownings. About 100 people drown. Probably a quarter are muslim - even though they are about 1% of the population and a lower percentage still of beach goers.

What is going on is that their modesty sends them to remote beaches.

What makes beaches safe is people - and the possibility of rescue.

Inexperience (and sometimes inappropriate clothing) and remote beaches is a form of Russian Roulette.

J

IF said...

50 thousand is a lot people. Didn't realize Australia was that big. But it sounds like the water temperature kills. It is too cozy.

John Hempton said...

If has it - water temperature kills.

The water is really inviting. And only modestly dangerous.

But modestly dangerous is sufficient to kill...

J

# 56 said...

John,
Wondering if you had any comment on this:
http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2009/03/wamu-sues-fdic/
If I recall you had a rather strong opinion, and it runs counter to Ritholz's obvious implication.
Odd, if WAMU was run out of business improperly by the FDIC why would Barry object to the suit? If they were not the suit will be swept out of court. Given what is going on around us, how does anyone work up a lather over this issue?

Mrs. Watanabe said...

Yeah, but you're not really describing racial profiling. You're describing physical profiling for a physical task (swimming). Basically, if they don't look like a raisin, they can't swim.

That's easy. That's no different than picking out kids for a basketball team, track team, etc.

The problem with racial profiling is when you start associating someone's race with competency on a mental task. That, I have a huge problem with.

John Hempton said...

I would object to Mrs Watanabe's comment if the job of swimming in the surf were just about physical profile...

I am - by far - the weakest swimmer I know who works as a lifesaver. But I read surf very well indeed.

I get out fast and in fast because I can read the currents.

I swim MUCH faster and better in surf than in a pool (where there is no moving water to help me).

--

The German guys are physically up to it. But they go and swim on the calmest place on the beach which for reasons I have explained elsewhere turns out to be the most dangerous place on the beach.

Their KNOWLEDGE is deficient.

J

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