Thinking about... fables involving scorpions, and how they relate to racism, in housing and elsewhere.
With gratitude to a good friend, not on this web site, who knows a lot more about finance than I do, whose paraphrased insights are included.
The fable "The Scorpion and the Frog" is often misattributed to Aesop (and I can think of no higher compliment than that), but in fact it seems to date from the 20th century, derived from the 12th-century original "The Scorpion and the Turtle."
The story of the Scorpion and the Frog goes that one day, a scorpion wanted to cross a river. Unable to swim, they asked a passing frog for help. The frog at first refused, saying "No, you'll sting me." The scorpion replied, "Of course not. If I sting you, I'll die too." The frog agreed and set off across the river with the scorpion on their back.
Halfway across, the scorpion stung the frog.
With their last breath, the frog turned and asked, "Why?" and the scorpion replied, "It's in my nature." Both died.
When mortgage lenders use a criterion other than risk of default to decide whether to accept or reject an applicant at a given price, they're losing money, because either they don't lend to someone creditworthy, or they do lend to someone who's not. Redlining (and more oblique discriminatory policies) causes the lender to accept high-risk white applicants and reject low-risk Black applicants.
From this, it's theoretically possible to calculate the exact amount that a lender is willing to lose for racism.
Housing discrimination is just an example, of course, but many forms of prejudice have that kind of cost. Like the scorpion, those who make such decisions are harming others and acting against their own self-interest all at once. They know full well that they have every incentive to do right, but they choose to do wrong. To say "it's in their nature" isn't the most satisfying explanation, nor is it much consolation to the frog, but like all great fables, it carries a powerful truth.
There's another version of the story. In it, rather than a frog, the scorpion is instead helped by a turtle, who has no qualms about their own safety from the beginning. And when the scorpion stings the turtle in transit, they survive because of their hard shell. Although unharmed, the turtle demands an explanation all the same, and, finding "It's in my nature" inadequate, dives, drowning the scorpion in punishment.
I think they complement each other very nicely.
The two stories share many themes. The emptiness of the scorpion's explanation, and the knowledge that no better one follows. The fundamental unfairness of the outcome, in which kindness is repaid with hostility. The inadequacy of trusting in others' self-interest.
It's informative to contrast the experiences of the turtle and the frog. The secure turtle trusts the scorpion implicitly, while the vulnerable frog seeks reassurance. The turtle survives to avenge themselves, but the frog is avenged by nature.
The condition of living in society means everyone very often enters into situations where all they can do is trust in someone or something else. One thing this fable demonstrates is that this trust can always be betrayed, even when there's no logical reason for it.
Some will have the privilege to find themselves more often like the turtle, able to protect themselves from that wrongdoing. Others will more often be exposed to harm like the frog. So be mindful of your own security or lack thereof.
What's more, we all very often enter situations where others can do nothing but put their trust in us, or in some institution that we contribute to. If at these times we do nothing more or less than what's "in our nature," sooner or later someone's getting stung.
The frog and the turtle both ask the question, but it's really the audience who wants to know: why did the scorpion sting their benefactor? And I think part of the reason we want to know is so that we can avoid it in ourselves.
That's all I got.
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