Tuesday, January 10, 2017

And We Settled for Mediocrity

This, y'all:
This got me thinking again about a revelation I had not long ago, but admittedly not long enough ago. I'm going to explore some tough truths here. So before I get going, let me explicitly state some of my working assumptions. First, I believe that all humans, no matter how one cares to group them, whether by race, religion, physical ability, gender, sexuality, possess the same distribution of intellectual abilities. For example, I believe that a group of 100 undocumented, Lutheran, Latinx transwomen have the same distribution of mental talents as a group of 100 straight, cisgender, white, atheist men. Can I prove this beyond doubt and within 0.1% precision? Nope, probably not. But it's an historical fact that the biological and social sciences in Europe and US America have focused on this question for most of their existence, with the explicit aim of proving the superiority of the latter group. Given that these fields have thus far failed to find evidence to support the superiority of one group over the other, I feel fairly confident in this assumption. 

Anyone disagree with this assumption? If so, please read no further, because A) you won't find much that you like in what follows and B) "This...person I am not trying to convince".

My assumption of equality naturally leads to the conclusion that the lack of any specific group from academia or any other intellectual pursuit is not a natural outcome, but instead due to actions that keep them out, not because they can't do what is necessary to be there. Our society tends to focus on words that describe the state of being at the exclusion of the actions that lead to that state. This is why we focus on diversity, and the lack thereof, while going out of our way to avoid naming the features of our societal landscape, and the actions of people who traverse that landscape, that exclude specific groups of humans and leads to a reduction of diversity that would otherwise be present. Since groupings of people are meaningless when selecting for things like intellectual acumen, creativity and general talent, a paucity of diversity is an unnatural outcome that must be the result of factors extrinsic to the missing groups.

I hope that I have lost many of my readers thus far. Okay, now for the hard truths.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.

One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific culture is something that was somehow attached to the practice of inquiry at its inception and remains throughout time in order for that practice to be what it is.

One can find evidence of this belief in astronomy in heavy reliance on "tradition" within departments for practices including admissions policies; examination formats and course requirements; and daily social interactions such as astro-ph discussions and Q&A during/after seminars. Appeals to tradition are most frequently raised in defense of the status quo against calls for change (see discussions around dropping the Physics GRE requirement for admissions to Astronomy graduate programs). These appeals imply that our scientific discipline functions as a viable scientific field because of the ways in which scientists interact, and as a result science requires those ways of interaction in order to function at all. A change to the way we do science will necessarily lead to a weakening or breakdown of science itself. 

There is some truth to the linking of interaction and the functionality of science, but the truth is more subtle. First of all, in full disclosure: I've never been a fan of traditions. This is probably because I, as a person of color, can (relatively) clearly see the ways in which traditions benefit white (cisgender, ablebodied, straight) men at the expense of others. But before I could name this particular aspect of the culture of science, I did what I often do when my thinking about a subject is unclear: start with the definition of the word in question. There are many definitions, including definitions specific to biology lab work that don't serve this essay particularly well. Also, definitions can be biased given that one demographic is in charge of printing dictionaries. That said, here's a pretty good hybrid that will serve as a working definition:

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Bright Line is not Monotonic

The anthology of myths commonly known as America rests upon the notion that history is linear. In the past people in this country ignorantly did bad things to other people. But thanks to the passage of time, we can now "let the past to be the past," because today we live in a time when things have gotten much better. Furthermore, any problem that our society faces in the present will inevitably be solved as "the old guard" dies off and a new generation of better people takes their place. 

Of course this story isn't told so simply or explicitly. But the assumption lurks beneath the other stories we, as Americans, tell ourselves and each other. The myth certainly undergirds the notion that racism is a thing of the past, and that today we inhabit a "post-racial" world in which all people, regardless of race have equal access to betterment, dignity and happiness. We are lulled into beliving that at some point in the mid to late 1960's, a wise reverend implored the nation to judge others by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, and America heeded his call, dropped racism from our social fabric, and we all moved forward into the light. 

Time heals all wounds, or so the story goes.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

More on the Construction of Black Criminality

I forgot to include this video animation of Ta-Nehisi Coates' take on the myth of Black criminality. His narration picks up after I said, "However, while antebellum slaves were generally considered loyal, religious, morally upstanding, and only threatening when they suffered from drapetomania (the so-called mental illness that caused slaves to escape captivity)." Never forget that slaves who escaped their masters stole their bodies in violation of US American law. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Construction of Black Criminality

On September 19 this year a man named Terence Crutcher was driving home after attending a music class at a community college in Tulsa, OK. His car broke down and he was forced to stop on the road and seek assistance. The police showed up with their guns drawn responding to a 911 call from another motorist worried about a threatening man by a car stopped in the middle of the road. Video footage from a police helicopter hovering overhead shows Cutcher with his hands up. In the audio one of the pilots remarks, "looks like a bad dude…might be on something." Moments later, officer Betty Shelby shoots and kills him.

There are many curious and horrible aspects of this tale. First and foremost, it is horrible that a human being was killed by people sworn to protect him. What was curious was the diagnosis of drug use and the determination of evil intent, made from hundreds of feet above Crutcher and the scene unfolding below. Without the benefit of hearing the man, seeing his facial expressions, or reading the fine details of his body language, the police helicopter pilot somehow determined that Crutcher was villainous. One piece of information that was available and visible from ~100 feet: Crutcher was Black. And in America, Blackness is tragically, yet purposefully linked to criminality. 

It's commonplace for people to wonder whether the Tulsa police officers, or other officers involved in extrajudicial killings of Black and Brown women and men, are racists. Implicit in this question is the misconception that racism must involve malicious intent coupled with a conscious belief that someone of another race is lesser. But in our country, and many places in the world, racism need not be intentional. Humans are social creatures, and much of what we think and do is a result of the lessons we learn as we interact with our society. Our actions then feed back into society, showing others what is normative and acceptable, and we thereby create and recreate culture. Thus, the question should not be whether officer Shelby is a racist, but rather why is it that our society allows racist actions like this to play out predictably over and over again.

A simple example of the lessons we, as social creatures living in the US learn, is the way we head to the end of a line when enter a bank or approach a fast food restaurant counter. When we do so it signals to others that this is the correct behavior, and subtle yet clear social cues are sent to those who do otherwise. I cannot remember the origin of my "lineist" behavior, and I'm rarely conscious of it. Indeed, I can do other tasks such as reading an article on my cell phone at the pharmacy and simultaneously find my way to the correct position in a line. 

Similarly, the assumption of Crutcher's criminality, and mortal danger he posed to armed police officers who have him outnumbered six-to-one, was not an original nor conscious idea of the pilot hovering far above. His "commonsense" observation, and the actions of the officer-turned-executioner on the ground below were the tragic, yet predictable result of an idea that was created—constructed—over 150 years ago: the concept of Black criminality. 

The idea that race is meaningful enough to cause a human being like Crutcher, an otherwise social creature, to be inclined toward violent and antisocial behavior is absurd, especially since it was long ago determined that race is not a biological reality. No credible biologist, psychologist, anthropologist, or sociologist explicitly believes that the thickness of one's lips, the texture of one's hair, the tone of one's skin have a bearing on mental processes. This despite the incentives to discover otherwise, and despite race being the primary focus of these scientific enterprises for more than a century following Thomas Jefferson's inquiry into why it was that African slaves are inferior to those of European descent (not whether, but why. The faulty framing of this question should disturb any scientist). Yet Crutcher's skin tone was enough of a visual clue to signal his bad-dudeness to people empowered by the state to execute him. 

To understand this and other state-sanctioned police executions of Black and brown women and men, we need to follow that bright line stretching from the present back into the distant past. 

Profit and Ideology in the Land of the Free


The men pictured above lived in Alabama. Their days consisted of waking up before sunrise and working in a coal mine until long after dark. They often worked to fulfill a quota of two to three tons of ore mined per day. For meeting this quota, they received no remuneration other than a meager meal and a short night's sleep before repeating their toil the following day. For not achieving their quota, they could be beaten, whipped, waterboarded, or tortured by numerous other methods. These men were leased to private companies by the state of Alabama, and the income earned provided the state with upwards of 73 percent of its annual revenue, while the owners of coal mines made a fortune off of this source of inexpensive labor. 

If I told you this happened in the years just prior to the Civil War, you might not be too surprised. Slavery is a well known, ugly part of our nation's history. But what if I told you that the photo above was taken in 1907, more than four decades after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment? Said amendment to the Constitution of the US stated, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude...shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." So how was it that these men, and thousands upon thousands of others like them were sold, enslaved and most often worked to their deaths?

In this case, the devil is in the ellipses. In my quote of the Thirteenth Amendment the omitted text reads , "...except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." You see, according to our constitution, slavery is abolished...except for convicted criminals. By exploiting this loophole, Southern states and wealthy industrialists were able to literally recapture the cheap labor they lost following the Civil War. All that was needed were a few more laws worthy of prison time (vagrancy, cursing, spitting) along with law enforcement officials who would round up Black people found in violation of these laws. The result was Slavery by Another Name

This was yet another example of an American institution created to enrich the few at the expense of the many, just as indentured servitude and slavery were used prior to the Civil War . However, while antebellum slaves were generally considered loyal, religious, morally upstanding, and only threatening when they suffered from drapetomania (the so-called mental illness that caused slaves to escape captivity), the new system required a manufactured linkage between Blackness and criminality. Thus the origin of the social construct of Black criminality, together with the creation of regional police forces that were actively hostile toward the Black citizenry. Therein lay the what and how that led directly to Terence Crutcher's extrajudicial execution. But we should never forget that, as there was with antebellum slavery, the why is just as important. 

Convict leasing is another example of the utility of racism. Racism isn't simply a collection of ideas floating about in people's heads. Racism is an ideology that finds its origins in myriad motivating factors such as corporate profit and political power. But critically, it also requires the animating force of people continually creating and recreating it through their words and actions (and inactions). These words and actions need not involve rallies with hoods and burning crosses. It requires liberal academics—the "good" people—to sit idly by, or at most make a fleeting comment, when a political candidate talks about violence in Black ("urban") communities without discussing the violence visited on the people there by the state. It requires liberal academics to have no response when a relative asks "but what about Black-on-Black crime?" despite the ridiculousness of a concept, such as crime, having a race. What of Black-on-Black dining? Such a concept cannot be sanctioned without the tacit acceptance of the myth of Black criminality that has been created and recreated over the past century and a half.

Without people actively challenging the concept of Black criminality today, then a candidate's message and promise on "law and order" will continue to resonate with a white populace who harbor deep-seated, and historically old, fears of the menace of Black criminals. The leverage provided by that ancient fear can, and will, be extended to other groups to create nonsense such as Mexican (Latinx) illegality and Islamic terrorism. Mounting this challenge requires leadership from white people who are willing to dig deep into their history and follow the bright line that connects the men rounded up into a new slavery to the tragic murder of Terence Crutcher earlier this year.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Chickens and Eggs, Oppression and Race

Here's a riddle: Long ago, did race exist and then people decided to oppress people based on it, specifically in the form of slavery? Or did oppression exist first, followed by the emergence of race at a later time? To many (most) this sounds like a chicken-or-the-egg question. But it's only a riddle because of the society in which we live, and the continuous and pervasive lessons we learn while immersed in it. In fact, the answer is clearly spelled out in our nation's history, and there is a bright line that connects the distant past to our current state of affairs. Following this bright line can help us understand much about our country, from police shootings, to the paucity of people of color on our university faculties, to the emergence of an autocratic racial demagogue as our national leader. 

So let's go back and take a look. What follows is spelled out in greater detail in this essay, and this book (and here and here).

The ~Start of That Bright Line

In 1619, a Dutch ship arrived in Jamestown with roughly twenty people originally from Africa onboard. Not much is known about these African arrivals to North America, but it is likely that they were indentured servants who worked alongside their European counterparts. Around this time, and in the years leading up to it, there were few,  if any, records or accounts of "race," particularly as we know it today (the concept of limpieza de sangre perhaps comes as close as one will find, but even that was in reference to the blood lineage of religion). There existed strong distinctions in nationality, and certainly divisions among religions. But the concept of race was still in its infancy, and there were far more European indentured servants in the early American colonies than anyone else. This was due to both convenience, as colonists were coming from Europe; necessity since England had too many poor people and too little land for them to work; and pragmatism since reducing labor costs is and has always been the most effective way of maximizing profits. 

As Fields states:
Whatever truths may have appeared self-evident in those days, neither an inalienable right to life and liberty nor the founding of government on the consent of the governed was among them. Virginia was a profit-seeking venture, and no one stood to make a profit growing tobacco by democratic methods. Only those who could force large numbers of people to work tobacco for them stood to get rich during the tobacco boom. Neither white skin nor English nationality protected servants from the grossest forms of brutality and exploitation.
What is clear from an examination of the history of 17th century Virginia is that oppression existed before any recorded notion of race, and race-based slavery specifically. Indeed, by sheer numbers, English people were by far the most oppressed people of that time, considering that the total number of African people in Virginia was no more than 2,000 in 1660. Oppression and slavery did not exist because of race or notions of white superiority. People were in bondage because growing tobacco was only profitable through cheap labor. It's also important to note that long before privilege could be afforded to "white" people, the wealthy elite were busy oppressing and deriving most, if not all of the benefit from it.

However, this situation was not sustainable as a number of dilemmas presented themselves to the wealthy elite. The first problem was that indentured servants started living long enough to reach the end of their terms. Prior to that, life expectancy in the colonies was much shorter than the seven-year terms of servitude. At the same time that life expectancies started lengthening, the landowners were facing down several other problems. The price of tobacco started falling, and the number of poor, exploitable Europeans flowing from the old continent started to slow to a trickle. Faced with rising labor costs, the landowning elite started reneging on the terms of servitude by adding time for petty offenses and refusing to pay out land to freedmen. Predictably, this led to resistance among the indentured servants. One of the most famous incidents was Bacon's Rebellion, which saw working class people rise up in armed revolt against the wealthy landowners, Africans and Europeans side by side. 

While these early rebellions failed to change the status quo in favor of the working class, they did instill a great deal of fear in the landowners. Faced with a growing number of revolts, the elite decided to shift to slave labor imported from the Caribbean as their primary source of cheap labor. As an added benefit, these African slaves had been "seasoned" during their time in the harsh conditions of the sugar cane fields. Further, their dark skin provided a highly visible marker in the colonial society. Unlike their European counterparts, it was far more difficult for them to blend into the general colonial populace should they escape. 

This historical narrative demonstrates that slavery as practiced in colonial America was motivated by the same forces as slavery in other societies such as Rome and Egypt, namely: the building of wealth for a powerful few. That Africans were enslaved had nothing to do with the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, or any of the other markers of race as we know it today. Indeed, our modern conception of race was unknown to the ruling class of the time. What was known, then as it is now, is that cheap labor leads to increased profits.

From this, we can see the correct "order of operations" in the riddle I offered at the beginning of this post: oppression came first, race came decades after. As always, Prof. Fields puts it better than I can:
Race as a coherent ideology did not spring into being simultaneously with slavery, but took even more time than slavery did to become systematic. A commonplace that few stop to examine holds that people are more readily oppressed when they are already perceived as inferior by nature. The reverse is more to the point. People are more readily perceived as inferior by nature when they are already seen as oppressed. Africans and their descendants might be, to the eye of the English, heathen in religion, outlandish in nationality, and weird in appearance. But that did not add up to an ideology of racial inferiority until a further historical ingredient got stirred into the mixture: the incorporation of Africans and their descendants into a polity and society in which they lacked rights that others not only took for granted, but claimed as a matter of self-evident natural law.
Its probably tempting for academic types to nod sagely at this point. But this order of operations is a subtle point that many educated individuals (myself included) miss completely. Evidence for this "whiff" usually comes in the form of a comment such as, "Well, it's human nature to classify people, and divide them into groups. Race was what was used at that particular time." The history of slavery in our country gives lie to this notion: African and European people alike were oppressed long before the racial classification, and these people resisted and revolted side by side before the ruling class switched to African slave labor over indentured servitude.

The legal groundwork for race was laid near the end of the 17th century, motivated primarily by the need of the elite to keep the workers class divided. Divide and conquer is a tried and true tactic employed by the powerful, and given how badly outnumbered they were by free—and armed—Europeans spreading across the nascent country, the tactic was absolutely vital at this point in history. The relative privilege of poor European colonists compared to the bondage of their African counterparts was one of the first, and most visible "wages of whiteness" on this continent.

Once the colonies asserted their independence from the English royalty based on the radical notion that all men are created equal, race made a key evolutionary step from expedient tactic to national ideology. The claim of freedom and equality for all in a nation in which a sizable portion of the population is in bondage for perpetuity makes no sense on its own. However, by linking the oppression of African slaves to their inferiority, the framework of race provided an out: African (black) slaves were not fully human and exempt from the founding principles of the new nation.

This is how ideologies work. They provide a set of narratives, customs and a language to help people understand their social landscape. Why was she born enslaved, while he enjoys the freedom to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with the protections of our Constitution? Thanks to the construction of race, that quandary has "simple," common-sense answer: her Blackness is inferior to his whiteness. This conclusion need not even be stated explicitly. All that is needed is a populace willing to see millions of Black people in bondage and accept the situation under the implicit assumption that all is normal and right.  The ideology of race allows one to see injustice of a double standard and not name it. As long as this is the case, then the profits of oppression roll in unabated.

Social Construct? But Why and for What?

Many people in various anti-racism workshops I've run and attended over the past couple years can quickly identify race as a "social construct." The problem is that what follows is a dusting of hands and an eagerness to move on with the discussion. But to do so overlooks a key aspect of a construction, social or otherwise. Generally speaking, one does not construct, say, a bridge without a reason to do so, namely the need to get from one point to another. If someone points to the Golden State Bridge and asks "what is that," replying "a construct" is accurate but grossly inadequate. Stating that race is a construct is similarly inadequate. Race was constructed out of necessity to solve a problem: maximizing profit through cheap labor (and in so doing, building a country), and race is still constructed and reconstructed today because its utility remains undiminished.

Without the ability to use race to get things done, race is as meaningless as hand size or the shape of people's ears. Indeed, if categorizing is such an innate human tendency, then why do we not categorize people by hand shape? Hands are almost always visible, and we often touch hands when greeting each other. Haven't you noticed that some people have square hands, and other people have round hands? No? Well, neither have I. But if the median round-handed family had 20 times the wealth of a square-handed family, then we'd be keenly aware of the hand sizes of people in any given social setting. We'd probably also talk disparagingly about the culture of poverty embraced round-handed people living in ghettos, and wonder why they can't just obey and respect police officers.

While one's social class isn't determined by hand size, it is by race. This is the present-day utility of race: it marks the boundaries between the various castes in US American society. It's not just stereotypes and bigotry. It's the power of one group to make those stereotypes stick and the societal sanction of the words and actions of bigots. It's one thing for someone to assume that another person is a criminal based on the color of their skin and texture of their hair. In isolation we'd simply call this person mentally unstable. However, its an entirely different thing to reinforce this stereotype through media images, from The Birth of a Nation in 1915 to modern day news broadcasts.

Creating and reinforcing stereotypes with the blessing of the larger national culture is the what. But why? Well, we live in a country with a staggeringly large and steadily increasing wealth disparity between the elite few and the rest of everyone else. The wealth gap between the richest and poorest Americans is so large that numbers fail to capture it. Ian Haney-Lopez in his book provides a helpful analogy: "The six heirs to the Wal-mart empire currently hold the same amount of wealth...as the poorest 30 percent of Americans combined." Six of the top have as much wealth as the 73 million people at the bottom!

I believe that Trump supporters sense the outlines of this problem and suffer from the symptoms—joblessness, poverty, despair leading to drug use—albeit not to the extent that Black and Brown folks do. But rather than becoming angry at those who are hoarding all of the wealth at the top, such as people like Trump, the white working (middle) class have been conditioned to see poor Black and Brown people as the problem, and a wealthy con man as their savior. This reaction is as old as our country, and politicians on both sides of the aisle have found ways to take advantage of the structural racism woven into the fabric of our culture, as well as the historical narratives that, e.g., link Blackness to criminality, Muslim-ness to terrorism, femininity to weakness, in order to mobilize the electorate to vote against their apparent best interests.

Indeed, as I'll explore in a future post based on Ian Haney-Lopez's Dog Whistle Politics, over the past sixty years, racism has been the most powerful force shaping US American politics, and this election cycle was a strong demonstration of this fact on many levels. Today, the lower caste comprising "illegal" Latinx immigrants, "radical Islamic" terrorists, and Black "welfare queens" and "thugs" receive the outrage of of the white middle caste, while the uber-wealthy upper caste get away with looting everyone's pockets. And while ultimately everybody, white and non-white, suffers to some degree, there are actual people—human beings with hopes, dreams, and the full range of human emotions—who suffer most severely under the influence of racism in our country. It is this human suffering that should mobilize those who consider themselves progressive. This is not a theoretical, academic matter. This is very real. Unless people, white Americans in particular, start learning about the history and nature of race, we are doomed to continue the same vicious cycle of racial oppression and general exploitation for another 400 years. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Freedom to Discriminate

Imagine for a moment that you work in university student housing and your job description states that you are "responsible for the physical well being and safety of students in the residential college, as well as for fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college." Now imagine that a subset of your students has experienced verbal harassment, taunting, and bullying from some of their fellow students. In response to their mistreatment, the targeted students repeatedly complain to the administration. After some time, the administration sends out a campus-wide email diplomatically asking all students to be thoughtful about their behavior and avoid mistreating their fellow students.

Given all that, which of the following responses to the administration's email would fit your job description:

a) Calling into question whether it is the university's role to request that students modify their behavior so as to not harass, taunt and bully their fellow students.

b) Comparing student engagement in harassment, taunting and bullying to children engaging in make-believe and asking, "Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?"

c) Tell the bullied students that "if you don’t like [someone's taunting], look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence [sic] are the hallmarks of a free and open society."

d) Call a meeting with your students and let them know that harassment, taunting and bullying degrade the educational life and character of your institution. Tell them that these actions deny their fellow students equal access to education, and as such are not tolerated on your watch.