A sojourn to the east coast by way of an internal-combustion-engine-empowered vehicle (aka car) reminded me of at least one acceptable prejudice that remains available to Americans — automobile profiling. I dare say, 80 percent of drivers in the U.S. size up other drivers on the basis of the car they drive. With a high end car, a BMW or a Lexus, we make assumptions at least about the socio-economic status and the driver’s willingness to drive fast. Add a vanity plate like VULGR1, and you can make even further assumptions about the driver’s character. (Truth in advertising, this driver has an OLD LIFE plate. Surprisingly, that combination of letters was still available in Michigan when we arrived.)
Another prejudice that most perceptive drivers have is one about those who sit behind the wheel of a mini-van. These are vehicles that may have lots of functionality, but have to be as dull in design and performance as The Brady Bunch. That means, if you are like me, you try to pass a mini-van driver as quickly as possible, even if it means racing ahead at a stop light or passing on the right. Is it fair to assume that all drivers of mini-vans (especially younger women) are slow drivers who will keep you from your appointed rounds? Maybe not. But almost no one wants to take the risk of finding out.
Of course, automobile profiling is not as loaded with social costs as racial or ethnic profiling. But acknowledging that we do make assumptions about people based on makes and models of cars does suggest that making judgments on the basis of appearance comes naturally to homo sapiens. I imagine that back in the day when all men wore suits, ties, and hats, and women wore dresses, gloves, and high heels, profiling people outside vehicles was much more difficult than it is today when clothes, hair cuts, tattoos, and studs are chosen to be a personal statement (like a vanity plate).
This seems like another version of the cultural inconsistency that attended the news that NSA was reading my email (as if it’s that juicy). Americans take umbrage at the thought that government officials are invading our privacy at the same time that we divulge intimate matters on widely accessible social media outlets. In the same way, Americans take great offense at the idea that others might judge us on the basis of our appearance even while we fashion a public image that invites others to draw a conclusion about our identity based on “style.”