The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 5

(For earlier installments in this series, see part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

It is quite possible for someone who has a seemingly spotless record on matters of race, who has said all the correct things, who associates freely with people of other groups, to take political actions that have a disproportionately harmful effect on other races. And often such people’s actions are not closely scrutinized because they are seen as not being racist.

For example, take former President Clinton. Because he seemed so at ease with black people, he was welcomed by many black leaders, even being occasionally referred to as ‘America’s first black president.’ He seemed quite at home in black churches and showed no awkwardness at all in interacting with black people. I am quite willing to accept that he is not a racist. And yet he was the architect of a so-called welfare reform program that had a huge and negative impact on the lives of poor people, disproportionately black. But because he was perceived as not being personally “anti-black,” he was able to enact these policies and escape the kind of criticism that would have erupted had the same thing been done by someone like George Bush, whose bona fides on race are more suspect.

Another example is that of former Education Secretary William Bennett. On his radio show, in response to a caller, said: “[Y]ou could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” It was clear that he was making a hypothetical case and not advocating this as policy because he immediately followed this by saying that such an action “would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do.” But his statement created an uproar, with charges that Bennett is a racist and should be taken off the air, and he and his supporters vehemently denying it.

Is Bennett a racist? I don’t know and frankly, I don’t think that that is an important question. It is the policies that he advocates and implements that concern me. And there is evidence that have nothing to do with his private beliefs about race that he was exactly the wrong person for the job of Education Secretary. Reed Hundt, the former head of the Federal Communication Commission recently recounted the following story about Bennett:

When I was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (1993-97), I asked Bill Bennett to visit my office so that I could ask him for help in seeking legislation that would pay for internet access in all classrooms and libraries in the country. Eventually Senators Olympia Snowe and Jay Rockefeller, with the White House leadership of President Clinton and Vice President Gore, put that provision in the Telecommunications Law of 1996, and today nearly 90% of all classrooms and libraries do have such access. The schools covered were public and private. So far the federal funding (actually collected from everyone as part of the phone bill) has been matched more or less equally with school district funding to total about $20 billion over the last seven years. More than 90% of all teachers praise the impact of such technology on their work. At any rate, since Mr. Bennett had been Secretary of Education I asked him to support the bill in the crucial stage when we needed Republican allies. He told me he would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers, charter schools, religious schools, and other forms of private education.

To me, this story is a far more damning indictment of Bennett’s suitability for public office, especially that of Education Secretary, than his speculations about the relationship between race and abortion and crime. It is truly appalling that he so badly wants public schools to fail that he is willing to withhold important resources from them. If public schools are to be deprived of resources and pushed along the road to failure, this has a huge and disproportionately negative effect on poor and black children. So his actions in this case, his unwillingness to support this measure and the reasons for doing so, are a much better measure of his suitability for public office than whether he hangs out with black friends in the evening. And yet, this particular story from Reed Hundt has attracted next to no attention, while everyone looks for clues to see whether Bennett is ‘really’ a racist or not.

Conversely, during the last presidential election, there was a minor fuss made about the fact that Howard Dean had few black people in his cabinet when he was governor of Vermont. The attempt was made, and was marginally successful, to use this to portray him as somehow unfriendly to black people. But on the other hand, as governor he had instituted health care reforms that opened up access health care to almost all the population of his state. This meant that the poor, who are disproportionately black, had more access to health care than before. To my mind, those are the measures that are important, rather than appointments to cabinet offices, which can be symbolic and not substantive.

It is hard for us to get rid of the prejudices we have. One of the things that my many years of teaching have taught me is that the beliefs that students bring with them into the classroom are the most powerful beliefs of all, and have a far stronger hold on their minds than the new things they learn from their teachers in their formal classes. This is because the things we learn informally are based on our life experiences and are what our minds have worked out for themselves, even if not done consciously. Our stereotypes and prejudices have been constructed over many years, starting when we were very young. They are a kind of theoretical model based on bits of actual data, things we were told by the peers and adults in our lives, conversations we have had, books we have read, and films and TV that we have watched. Our minds have taken all these things and created a network of ideas. And it is precisely because we have created this mental structure ourselves that it is so powerful. We cannot simply will them away. As the economist John Maynard Keynes said: “The difficulty lies not in new ideas but in escaping from old ones.” (The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936)

Stereotypes and prejudices are part of our own constructed knowledge structure and we may never be able to get rid of them completely however much we wish to. But rather than trying to hide their existence, we need to bring our prejudices out of the subconscious and unconscious where they usually exist so that we can more effectively deal with them. Then we can let our intellectual commitment to deal with people fairly do battle with our instincts.

The battle between our intellect and our instincts will always be an ongoing one. Race is a very sensitive topic and people shy away from it. What I have written this week on the topic may have caused discomfort and even offense to some and if so, I apologize.

But if the battle is fought in the arena of our conscious minds, and in open dialogue with others, we are more likely to be able to defeat racism. Can we ever have such a frank discussion about race? I don’t know. The real question is whether we can afford not to try.

POST SCRIPT: Some Friday video fun

See this video where people are interviewed about which country they think should be invaded next in the “war on terror.” One person even suggests Sri Lanka.

JibJab also has a new video where they take on Walmart. Take a look.

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 4

(For earlier installments in this series, see part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

In order to begin an honest discussion about race, it might be good to start by accepting certain things. The first is that all of us harbor stereotypes, and have prejudices based on them. These come about despite our best intentions. People should be able to concede this without fear of being labeled racist.

The second is that people who have been the victims of prejudicial actions by others are not immune from thinking and acting prejudicially against others. Being a victim of racial prejudice is not some kind of vaccine that inoculates you against carrying the disease yourself. It is very easy, when one or one’s group has been the victim of prejudice, to convince oneself that one’s own actions towards others must be beyond reproach. This kind of hubris can lead to appalling injustices perpetrated by one discriminated group against another.

The third is that just because one believes in stereotypes and has prejudices based upon them, does not automatically imply that one cannot be fair in one’s actions. It is perfectly true that some people may not like people of another color/ethnicity/religion, etc. They may dislike the thought of having such people as neighbors or marrying into their family. But such people might also be opposed to taking any steps to restrict the rights of the groups they dislike, to prevent them from living where they wish and marrying whom they want. In other words, they may well want the very people they are uncomfortable to be around to be treated fairly.

For example, during the time of slavery, there were many white people who felt that having slaves was wrong. Often they aided the escape of slaves and, as jurors, often refused to convict others who had provided such aid. It is quite possible (even likely given the times they lived in) that the people who did these good things may not have actually liked black people or wanted them as guests in their homes. But many people respond to the higher call of justice, and an appeal to it can produce good results that appeals to other qualities cannot. As I have often said in the past, people have an intuitive sense of justice. You can’t force people to like other people, but you can expect people to act justly. It is the one quality that seems to have universal appeal.

I believe that it is easier to deal with a person who does not wish to associate with people of different color/race/religion but who also believes in justice and fairness than to deal with someone who may think that they are free of prejudice, and says all the right things, but cannot see that they may be acting is subtle ways that are harmful to other groups.

The relationship of private beliefs and public actions becomes more important when it enters the public political sphere. Some of you may be aware that following the inept response of the federal government in response to hurricane Katrina, singer Kanye West said on live TV during a fundraising event that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” This naturally stirred up a storm of controversy, as any public statement about race always does, and people looked for evidence that either supported or undermined his assertion. As usual, what was looked at was whether Bush had close friends and associates and advisors who were black, whether he appointed black people to positions of authority, and whether his statements could be analyzed to see what he really felt about race, etc.

I have seen these kinds of discussion many times before. In Sri Lanka, which has had a long history of ethnic strife between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority, the government has always been in the hands of the majority community and when it comes to ethnic matters there is always a close examination of the head of state to try and discern what that person’s private feelings about the minority community are, using the same measures that are being used to gauge George Bush’s ‘true’ feeling towards blacks following Kanye West’s allegation. So people try and look closely into the leader’s life to see if they can find clues as to whether they are “anti-Tamil” (as they say in Sri Lanka) or whether he treats the Tamil people around him well.

It has been my view that such analyses are largely a waste of time. It really does not matter what Bush thinks privately, or even what his actions are in relationship to the people in his immediate world. It is what he does publicly and politically and have a large-scale impact that matters. Someone (I wish I could remember who, because the words had a strong impact on me) wisely said something along the lines of “It is very difficult to determine the private beliefs of public figures, and even if, after much trouble, one is able to do so, it is not clear that the knowledge gained is worth the effort.”

To be continued tomorrow…

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 3

(For earlier installments in this series, see part 1 and part 2)

The problem with fighting prejudice is that we think that conceding that we have any prejudices at all is in itself shameful. So to avoid being thought badly of, we deny that we have them or avoid conversations that run any risk that we might unwittingly reveal our prejudices. This is why it is so hard to have an honest discussion about race in America (or most places for that matter). Any discussion that does take place either ends up with people holding hands and singing “We shall overcome” or “Kumbaya” or uttering platitudes about everyone being the same or being guarded and defensive.

It always amazes me, for example, when I hear people say that they do not see the ‘color’ of people. For example, I have done a lot of work with the public education system in urban areas in and around Cleveland. There are immediate color issues that arise in schools because the majority of teachers are white and many of the students are black. This imbalance carries with the ever-present danger that any teacher-student conflict will be interpreted in race terms. Teachers often try to preempt this by saying that they do not ‘see’ their students in terms of their color. But I often wonder if that is really possible or if they are just trying to fool themselves.

I think that they say this to imply that they are not prejudiced. But I find it hard to accept that people literally do not see color, when people’s skin color is such an important factor in our lives. I remember someone once trying to help me identify someone else who had attended a meeting by describing that person. I was given various pieces of information but at one point I asked “Was she black?” And the person said “yes.” If I had been given that piece of obviously useful information right at the beginning, I could have identified the person much earlier. I think the reason that my friend had not volunteered this important identifying marker right up front was due to the fear that if he had said so, that meant that the person’s color had been noted by him and thus he was prejudiced.

But this is raising the bar for evidence of lack of prejudice to an absurd and unreachable level. Of course we register the color of the people we meet. How can we not when skin color is such a major part of our political and social dialogue? When I go into a roomful of people, I immediately register people on the basis of their skin color and gender and age and size (height/weight) because these are the major identifying categories that I use. Interestingly, I find that I do not register hair or eye color, although many other people do. When someone asks me if so-and-so has blue eyes or brown hair, I find that I cannot recall this kind of detail at all. This may be because in Sri Lanka, everyone has black hair and dark brown eyes so we never use hair and eye color as identifying markers, and I have not acquired that habit. But although we are all brown skinned, there was a wide range of shades and skin color is an important feature.

If we really want to have honest discussions about race we need to start by acknowledging that it is natural to believe in stereotypes and to have prejudices. By natural, I do not mean that it is admirable (it is not) or that we can do nothing about it (we can). We can and should strive to eliminate such thinking. But at this stage of our social development, both individually and as a society, we have stereotypes and prejudices and it is not use denying them. It may be more helpful to simply concede that we have them and think about how we can prevent ourselves from taking actions based on them.

Fortunately in my own case, I have been lucky to have worked with people with whom I can discuss issues of race honestly, and am able to ask them questions about customs, practices, and behavior that increase my awareness of the culture of other communities. This has enabled me to increase my personal store of information about others that I hope will slowly eat away at the false knowledge structures that were built on inadequate data. But it is foolish to think that this has enabled me to eliminate all my prejudices. At best, it has helped me to remove some of my major misapprehensions.

To be continued tomorrow…

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 2

As I get older and more introspective, it is becoming increasingly clear that I have deep within me all kinds of stereotypes about other groups of people based on their religion and ethnicity and nationality and class. So I am sure that, if I go deep into my psyche, I will discover beliefs about Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Norwegians, Chinese, Ugandans, working class people, rich people, in fact every group that I myself am not a member of, that would be seen as laughable, absurd or even offensive by members of those groups. The reason is that basically I know very little about any of these groups.

Because of this I have learned that I cannot trust my instincts, because they have been acquired using inadequate and erroneous data. In order to combat my stereotypical thinking, I have to fall back on my intellectual understanding of politics and race and class. In my intellectual/analytical mode, I know that stereotypes are unreliable guides to predicting the behavior of people, that race has no validity as a biological construct, and hence no inferences can be drawn about what various ethnic groups are ‘really’ like, as if there is some innate and unchangeable quality that characterizes groups of people. We are the products of our upbringing and while there is variation due to genetics and heredity, these qualities do not correlate with ‘race, ‘ because the concept of race is not a biological one.

But to say that intellectually I understand that my stereotypes have little basis in science and reality is not to imply that the prejudices the stereotypes generate have no power over me. It is that when it comes to issues of race (and class), my intellectual knowledge is in a constant struggle with my ‘gut’ feelings, and I have to constantly guard against making snap judgments. While I trust my intuition in many areas of life (say in applying laws of physics to situations), I know that it is unreliable in making judgments involving race, and so I have got into the habit of being on my guard whenever issues of race comes up. This is why I was so skeptical of the initial reports of people of color behaving badly after Katrina. It was not because I am not prejudiced. It was because I am consciously aware of the existence of my prejudices and so realize the need to be alert whenever I encounter news reports that have racial implications. I needed to see harder evidence about the events of Katrina to convince myself that I was not believing things because I was succumbing to my prejudices. And that hard evidence never materialized.

I think that we all have such stereotypes. We cannot help it. It seems to be an instinctive trait that we make generalizations and create theories (often unconsciously) about everything in life that we encounter. It is well known in the educational literature that even very young children develop quite intricate models of how the world works, prior to, and even in the face of, formal instruction. The less actual data that we have about any thing, the more likely that our theories will be faulty, and thus are stereotypes and prejudices born, often at a very young age.

Stereotypes are not necessarily completely false. They usually have kernels of truth. In my own case, there exist stereotypes about each of the categories of the community of people that I grew up in, which consisted of middle class Protestant Christian Tamil Sri Lankans. They are not completely untrue. The difference is that since I know that community very well, I am well aware that the common features that give rise to stereotypes are dwarfed by the huge diversity and variation that exists within that group. And because of that variation, I know that it is foolish to judge any individual in that group based on the stereotype, because any given person in that group might come nowhere close to it. So while elements of the stereotype may be true, it would be a mistake to judge any individual person based on that stereotype.

To take a trivial example, Sri Lankans in general have the stereotype about being somewhat casual about punctuality, especially in attending social events. This has an element of truth and I recognize it. So when one is invited to dinner at a Sri Lankan home, one should not be surprised to see people arrive at a range of times spanning a couple of hours.

But recently I was invited to a surprise party in the US where a sizeable number of Sri Lankan Americans had been invited. These kinds of parties depend on all the guests arriving by the scheduled time in order for the surprise to be effective. I discovered that all the Sri Lankan invitees had been given a starting time that was an hour earlier than that given to other guests, on the assumption that then they would arrive by the scheduled time. When I discovered this little ruse after arrival, I found it mildly offensive, even though it would have been too petty to complain. I resented being put in a box, when the hosts had no idea whether I was a punctual person or not. From my personal experience I knew that, despite the stereotype, there are many Sri Lankans who are punctual and they should not have to be treated based on the stereotype.

This is where I think the problem lies. While it is perhaps inevitable that each of us harbors prejudices about other groups of people based on stereotypes, we should not base any specific actions on them. It is not what we believe that is the problem, it is what we do with those beliefs.

To be continued tomorrow…

POST SCRIPT: Real Time with Bill Maher discussion on religion

Bill Maher, Salman Rushdie, Ben Affleck, and Andrew Sullivan discuss religion on the TV program Real Time.

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices

Growing up in Sri Lanka, I never met any African Americans. As far as I could tell, none ever lived there. Looking back at that time, the only African American in Sri Lanka that I can recall was the US Ambassador to that country, whose picture occasionally appeared in the paper giving a speech at some formal function or attending some cocktail party. Given that my only contact with African Americans (if you can call it contact since, not being a member of high society, I never actually met him) was based on a single very important and distinguished-looking black man, you might expect that growing up I would have been spared the acquisition of negative stereotypes of black people that we saw surfacing during the post-Katrina coverage.

But unfortunately that was not the case. When I arrived in the US to start graduate school and came into contact with black people, I discovered that I probably had every stereotype and prejudice that the average person who grew up in the US had.

I have been thinking a lot about race all my life, even more so since the events triggered by Katrina. Race seems to be the primary prism through which we view and interpret events, with class close behind, although the two concepts are inextricably intertwined. W. E. B. Du Bois, the author of the classic book Souls of Black Folk said in 1903: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” I think that it is even more true than he thought. I also think that this issue, broadened to race in general, will dominate discussions well into the twenty-first century.

I don’t think any of us are exempt from the fact that race and class always distorts the way we view events. I too am guilty of instinctively seeing things in a way that interprets the actions of poor (and people of color) in a more negative way than if the same actions were done by middle class (and white) people, even though I am also a person of color. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink suggests that even people of color are not immune from the powerful pressures of the environment that cause us to have negative stereotypes even about ourselves.

I wrote earlier about a research study by Harvard University that measures the level of negative associations we make about race. If you want to check it out for yourself, go to the test site, click on “Demonstration”, then on “Go to Demonstration Tests”, then on “I wish to proceed”. This takes you to a list of Implicit Association Tests (or IATs) and you can choose which kinds of associations you wish to check that you make.

I took the Race IAT because that was what was discussed in Gladwell’s book, and it took me less than five minutes to complete. This test looks at the role that race plays in making associations. In particular it looks at whether we instinctively associate black/white people with good/bad qualities.

It turns out that more than 80% of people who have taken this test have pro-white associations, meaning that they tend to associate good qualities with white people and bad qualities with black people. This does not mean that such people are racists. They may well be very opposed to any kind of racist thinking or policies. What these tests are measuring are the unconscious associations that we pick up (from the media, the people we know, our community, etc.) without being aware of them, and that we have little control over.

Gladwell himself says that the test “always leaves me feeling a bit creepy.” He found himself being rated as having a moderate automatic preference for whites although he labels himself half black because his mother is Jamaican.

So in a way, it should not be surprising that even though I had never met any black people growing up, I should fall prey to the same kind of prejudices that the average American has. US culture has permeated the world, for both good and bad, and my impressions of America and Americans was formed by my reading of the news, magazines, films, and books. If we go back to the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up, black people were generally either absent or portrayed in negative ways in those media. Although the civil rights struggle in the US and Martin Luther King were inspiring because of the dignity with which they were largely carried out, that was the exception. The image that dominated was that of black people as poor, uneducated, and prone to violence and crime. It should not be surprising that I absorbed all those images in my formative years and they should have such a powerful influence on my thinking even now.

To be continued tomorrow…

Using Katrina to beat up on poor people

There is no question that people of color lag behind whites in almost all the indicators of social and economic well-being. One can respond to this realization by seeing it as a consequence of institutional structures that perpetuate long standing injustices, try to identify the causes of this situation, and urge the adoption of measures that provide the promise of ameliorating those injustices.

Or one can adopt the much easier course and either blame such people for their condition by saying that they willfully engage in behaviors that are self-destructive (which I call the socio-pathological model of inequality) or argue that this condition is due to largely unchangeable (and presumably genetic) qualities.

One reason that the immediate (and false) characterization of people in New Orleans as primarily antisocial beings who used the breakdown of civil society to engage in widespread and rampant looting, thuggery, raping, and murdering was so easily believed is that this is how poor people are often portrayed. And Katrina enabled a lot of pundits to dust off their well-worn sermons on what is wrong with poor people.

George Will uses the occasion to point the finger of blame at unmarried African American women with children.

Given that most African Americans are middle class and almost half live outside central cities, and that 76 percent of all births to Louisiana African Americans were to unmarried women, it is a safe surmise that more than 80 percent of African American births in inner-city New Orleans — as in some other inner cities — were to women without husbands. That translates into a large and constantly renewed cohort of lightly parented adolescent males, and that translates into chaos in neighborhoods and schools, come rain or come shine.

And you can always rely on Charles Murray (of The Bell Curve fame) to surface again and recycle his thesis that America has a permanent “underclass” that is beyond improvement, due to largely hereditarian factors. It does not matter that his book (co-authored by Richard Herrnstein) has been shown to be really shoddy scholarship. As Nicholas Lehman asserts: “The Bell Curve, it turns out, is full of mistakes ranging from sloppy reasoning to mis-citations of sources to outright mathematical errors. Unsurprisingly, all the mistakes are in the direction of supporting the authors’ thesis.”

But people like Murray, however much their work is shot down (See The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America, Steve Fraser (Ed.), Basic Books, 1995) are always given access to mainstream media to repeat their tired charges of the hopelessness of trying to improve the “underclass”. For people like him, the supposed bad behavior is merely ‘The hallmark of the underclass,’ which is the title of his piece in the latest platform he has been given, the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal where he says:

Other images show us the face of the hard problem: those of the looters and thugs, and those of inert women doing nothing to help themselves or their children. They are the underclass.

The lack of home ownership is not caused by the inability to save money from meager earnings, but because the concept of thrift is alien. You name it, we’ve tried it. It doesn’t work with the underclass.

Despite the exceptions that get the newspaper ink, the statistical reality is that people who get into the American job market and stay there seldom remain poor unless they do something self-destructive. And behaving self-destructively is the hallmark of the underclass.
Hurricane Katrina temporarily blew away the screens that we have erected to keep the underclass out of sight and out of mind. We are now to be treated to a flurry of government efforts from politicians who are shocked, shocked, by what they saw.

Ezra Klein writing in The American Prospect gives Murray his deserved comeuppance

Which brings us to today’s Wall Street Journal atrocity. Penned by Charles Murray, he of The Bell Curve fame, it argues that what we’re seeing post-Katrina isn’t poverty but a once-again visible “underclass,” a sort of shadow society of unsocialized black men with no appetite for work, no capacity to hold jobs, and no ability to be helped through conventional methods. They are, quite literally, savages, unable to function in the world the rest of us inhabit. They are, as he puts it, the “looters and the thugs,” not to mention the “inert women doing nothing to help themselves or their children.” And government attempts to craft helpful policy will fail because, after all, it doesn’t matter if you give a gorilla a college loan, it’s still a gorilla.

I’ve no idea where Murray got the idea that the New Orleans evacuees lacked jobs rather than cars and social skills rather than transportation – from deep within his own prejudices, I’d guess. And where he got the concept that these men and women are somehow incapable of holding jobs and unwilling to send their children to school – that’s all similarly obscure. The absence of autos affects the social and the unsocialized alike; the folks you see on buses are often en route to jobs they hold, contra Murray, perfectly well.

But if his argument is flawed, its aim is clear. All those stories of urban anarchy were, to Murray, accurate, everyday manifestations of the Black people we’d hidden from sight. The normal explanation, that their assumed bad behavior was a reaction to extraordinary circumstance – that was the wrong part. This had nothing to do with Katrina; it was part and parcel of an inferior race, an incorrigible culture.

It is too much to hope that Murray will disappear from the opinion pages of major newspapers. People like him will surface to repeat the same tired and discredited message whenever there is another social upheaval. But there is no reason that we should let their ideas go unchallenged. And the way we do that is be very wary of initial news reports that are unsubstantiated but appeal to popular prejudices. Because otherwise rumors become ‘facts’ and then the ‘facts’ are used to create policies that are more punitive than helpful.

In the final analysis, events like Katrina and our response may reveal more about us and our deeply held prejudices than it does about the nature of the people directly affected by the disaster.

POST SCRIPT: An Atheist’s Manifesto

Sam Harris comes out with another strong essay titled There is No God (And You Know It). Check it out. It is well worth reading.

Why were the New Orleans stories believed?

The degree to which the stories of mayhem in the Superdome and Convention Center were overblown is captured in this story in the Seattle Times:

After five days managing near riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Following days of internationally reported murders, rapes and gang violence inside the stadium, the doctor from FEMA – Beron doesn’t remember his name – came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.

“I’ve got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome,” Beron recalled the doctor saying.

The real total?

Six, Beron said.

Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another jumped to his death in an apparent suicide, said Beron, who personally oversaw the handoff of bodies from a Dome freezer, where they lay atop melting bags of ice.

The vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees – mass murders, rapes and beatings – have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law-enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know.

“I think 99 percent of it is [expletive],” said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, who played a key role in security and humanitarian work inside the Dome. “Don’t get me wrong – bad things happened. But I didn’t see any killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything … 99 percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved.”

As a result of such stories, though, the victims of Katrina continued to suffer further indignities. People of neighboring communities wanted to have nothing to do with people who they thought were capable of such awful behavior. I have already written (see here and here) about how the sheriff of the neighboring town of Gretna fired at a group of people on the bridge leading to their town to prevent them from entering because the townspeople were afraid of looters. (The mayor of Gretna has released his side of the story which can be read here.)

And this negative image spilled over to the people affected by hurricane Rita as well. There are the reports of the buses carrying Rita evacuees to East Texas not being allowed to stop in towns, even for people to buy food or use the rest rooms or just rest, because of similar fears. The evacuees described their journey as like a horror movie, as they met hostility from the various small towns they passed through nds their buses were prevented from stopping and forced to keep moving. The description of their journey is heart wrenching.

So why were these stories of poor people behaving badly so easily believed and broadcast in the face of so little evidence? In actual fact, what you had, apart from isolated incidents, were people behaving remarkably well in the face of tremendous hardship. It is here that the issues of race and class come to the surface. Most of the people whose plight was dramatized and cast in a negative light were poor, representing the wide range of ethnicities that live in New Orleans. Even though much of the ‘looting’ was done out of desperate need, it was portrayed differently depending on who did it. When tourists staying at hotels raided nearby drugstores for food and water and when Roman Catholic nuns looking after elderly and infirm patients in a nursing home in a flooded area looted a store to try and get supplies to ease the conditions of their dying patients, these were rightly seen as justifiable acts based on need.

But when the people taking the same kinds of things were poor and people of color, the acts were viewed by some as the kinds of things you could expect, once the institutions of law and order crumbled, from people who were basically criminally inclined. Although TVs and car stereos are stolen every day and in every city without much attention paid to it, when the same things happened in post-Katrina New Orleans, those acts were given a symbolism they did not merit, and used to stigmatize a whole community. There are always criminals who seize on instability to try and enrich themselves. But I am at a loss to understand why, when the urgent need was for the relief and rescue of people, so much attention was focused on the loss of goods.

In the next posting we will examine how people have seized upon the false reports out of the aftermath of Katrina to pursue various political agendas.

Treating Katrina evacuees as the enemy

Because of the widely believed rumors of anarchy that followed the hurricane, the emphasis shifted almost overnight from rescue and assistance to control. This resulted in delays in providing relief to people who were living in appalling conditions inside the Superdome and Convention Center and desperately in need of assistance.

For example, as this Wall Street Journal report indicates, the people left behind in New Orleans in Katrina’s wake were perceived by the National Guard and other military forces as the ‘enemy’ to be conquered rather than helped and this militaristic mindset delayed the shipment of much needed food and water to the evacuees. In addition, buses that could have moved people out of the Superdome and the Convention Center were not allowed in because it was not perceived to be safe, and the buses that were already there did not move evacuees out because the drivers were scared.

One of the mysteries of the fumbling federal response to Hurricane Katrina has been why the military, which was standing by, and federal disaster agencies, which had pre-positioned supplies in the area, didn’t move in more quickly and with greater force.
Senior government officials now say that one major reason for the delay was that they believed they had to plan for a far more complicated military operation, rather than a straight-ahead relief effort.
Accounts from local officials of widespread looting and unspeakable violence – which now appear to have been significantly overstated – raised the specter at the time that soldiers might be forced to confront or even kill American citizens. The prospect of such a scenario added political and tactical complications to the job of filling the city with troops and set back relief efforts by days.

To add insult to injury, the report goes on to say that even much of the publicized ‘looting’ that did occur was not by ordinary people but by the authorities themselves.

But some of the most spectacular looting — the sacking of the Wal-Mart in the lower Garden District and the summary emptying of the Office Depot Uptown, appear to have been initiated not by organized bands of thieves but police and City Hall bureaucrats intent on securing supplies.

Nowhere is the idea that the wretched people struggling to stay alive in New Orleans were viewed as the enemy than the statements in this briefing by Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief, National Guard Bureau, who oversaw the National Guard response, about how they ‘took down’ the Convention Center almost a week after the hurricane (thanks to Tex in his Antiwar.com blog).

GEN. BLUM: “…We waited until we had enough force in place to do an overwhelming force. Went in with police powers, 1,000 National Guard military policemen under the command and control of the adjutant general of the State of Louisiana, Major General Landreneau, yesterday shortly after noon stormed the convention center, for lack of a better term, and there was absolutely no opposition, complete cooperation, and we attribute that to an excellent plan, superbly executed with great military precision. It was rather complex. It was executed absolutely flawlessly in that there was no violent resistance, no one injured, no one shot, even though there were stabbed, even though there were weapons in the area. There were no soldiers injured and we did not have to fire a shot.

Some people asked why didn’t we go in sooner. Had we gone in with less force it may have been challenged, innocents may have been caught in a fight between the Guard military police and those who did not want to be processed or apprehended, and we would put innocents’ lives at risk. As soon as we could mass the appropriate force, which we flew in from all over the states at the rate of 1,400 a day, they were immediately moved off the tail gates of C-130 aircraft flown by the Air National Guard, moved right to the scene, briefed, rehearsed, and then they went in and took this convention center down.

It’s a great success story — a terrific success story.”

A great success story? A terrific success story? Yes, if you see the situation as a military operation against an enemy. Then indeed seizing territory without suffering any casualties is a success. But this is not Iraq, it is a city after a flood. The people are not an enemy army, they are people who have been made homeless and destitute by a natural catastrophe. As Tex points out: “The UPI, reporting on Blum’s “storming” of an American city, makes the Iraq mentality even more explicit“:

On Friday, 1,000 National Guard troops and police executed a ‘clear and hold’ mission on the New Orleans convention center. Once host to the 1988 Republican National Convention, the convention center was now unofficial host to thousands of refugees – squatters all – who were mixed in with criminals and thugs. There was no official government presence there.

Note how the people who took shelter in the Convention Center, and who had been told to go there, are being referred to as ‘squatters.’ Note also the terminology of ‘clear and hold’ which is what is used to describe operations in Iraq where the US goes into an area where they suspect insurgent activity. It is hard to believe that this language is being used on people who are the victims of a natural disaster.

What is interesting is that even during the time of reports of mayhem in the Convention Center, it appears that there were armed members of the National Guard actually in the Center but they were hiding from the evacuees. According to a Washington Post article:

That futility was symbolized by the presence in the convention center for three of the most chaotic days of at least 250 armed troops from the Louisiana National Guard. They were camped out in a huge exhibition hall separated from the crowd by a wall, and used their trucks as a barricade when they were afraid the crowd would break in.

The troops were never deployed to restore order and eventually withdrew, despite the pleas of the convention center’s management. Louisiana Guard commanders said their units’ mission was not to secure the facility, and soldiers on the scene feared inciting further bloodshed if they had intervened. “We didn’t want another Kent State,” said Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of the active-duty military forces responding to Katrina. “They weren’t trained for crowd control.”

I find this hard to comprehend. Even if everyone believed the false reports that the people in New Orleans were being terrorized by armed gangs, how could it be that the decision was made to let all the other unarmed and defenseless people (which included children, the elderly, and the invalid) who were reportedly being assaulted, raped and murdered, fend for themselves? How can it be more important to protect troops than displaced and helpless civilians?

After all, at most the people causing trouble had to be common criminals, acting independently and using low-level weaponry, and could not be a trained army with a command structure that was seeking to do battle with the military. How hard could it be for a professional army to deal with such a rag-tag group of hoodlums? Although I have no military experience, I find it hard to believe that 250 trained troops in a single building would not be sufficient to maintain and keep order against criminals.

I remember reading one report about an army base commander grounding all the helicopters that had been sent to rescue people from rooftops because of a report that someone had shot at a helicopter. (There is doubt now even about this shooting. See this Knight-Ridder report that documents the many rumors.) Even if the shooting incident had occurred, I remember being startled by the decision to ground the entire fleet. After all, these are not hospital medical helicopters or TV news helicopter crews who do not experience hostile fire in the course of their normal work. These are military helicopters. Surely they of all people should be able to deal with occasional and random fire from street toughs?

There is a delicate line that has to be drawn about the use of the military in times of unrest. There are good reasons for restricting the ability of the armed services to be given police powers, even during times of seeming lawlessness. These restrictions are covered by the Posse Comitatus law of 1878 and one should be cautious about the attempts by some in the current administration to loosen the provisions of this act. The Katrina disaster should not be used as an excuse to increase the militarization of society in the way that the events of September 11 were used to encroach on the civil liberties of people by way of the USA PATRIOT act. (See Alan Bock’s thoughtful analysis on the Posse Comitatus law.)

The focus should be on the fact that it was not the restrictions of the current law that led to the post-Katrina mess but the erroneous perception of the situation on the ground.

When rumors kill

In a series of previous posts (see here and here), I suggested that we should all be very skeptical of news reports that immediately follow any major news event because those early versions can turn out to be very wrong on the facts but succeed in leaving a highly misleading imprint on the minds of people.

In particular, I pointed out that governments and official sources often lie to reporters so that they can initially get favorable reactions and support for their actions, knowing that people tend to be reluctant to change their views later, even if the facts change. I gave as examples of such lies Reagan’s comments on the aftermath of the shooting of the Iranian Airbus airliner, Clinton’s justification for the bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, and the British authorities’ initial version of the killing of the innocent Brazilian in the wake of the London bombings in July. And of course, we have the whole series of lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which turns out to be one of the biggest and most reprehensible causes of the invasion of Iraq and the consequent debacle that is currently occurring in that country.

So we should be highly skeptical when high level government officials are the main or only sources of information on a big story. My belief is that low-level officials are much more likely to tell the truth for several reasons, all of which are precisely because they are low-level: (a) they know that they can easily get into trouble for lying unless they have powerful patrons to protect them, and even then they know they can be sacrificed for the sake of political expediency; (b) they are not aware of the big picture purposes the lie is designed to serve; (c) they have not, or do not wish to, become expert at the kinds of lying that is required to rise in the ranks to become a high level official.

But there is another situation when we should be highly skeptical about initial news reports and that is when those reports feed into our existing stereotypes about people and behavior. And nowhere is this kind of danger better exemplified than what happened to the people of New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

I watched in horror as, within the space of just one or two days after the hurricane struck, the displaced people of that city became transformed from desperate victims deserving of immediate help, to the ranks of the undeserving, with descriptions of them ranging from incompetent and selfish helpless whiners and complainers, to thugs and looters and rapists and murderers descending into ‘animalistic’ behavior. As a result, the emphasis seemed to shift from helping them to suppressing and controlling them.

As reports begin to emerge (and I will write about them later), it is clear that the kinds of criminality that received such huge coverage were vastly overblown. What was so harmful about this was that this hugely negative portrayal resulted in delays in rescue operations that undoubtedly led to unnecessary and avoidable deaths and misery.

Almost a month after the hurricane, the New York Times offered this sober reappraisal:

After the storm came the siege. In the days after Hurricane Katrina, terror from crimes seen and unseen, real and rumored, gripped New Orleans. The fears changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit, grounded helicopters. Edwin P. Compass III, the police superintendent, said that tourists – the core of the city’s economy – were being robbed and raped on streets that had slid into anarchy.

The mass misery in the city’s two unlit and uncooled primary shelters, the convention center and the Superdome, was compounded, officials said, by gangs that were raping women and children.

A month later, a review of the available evidence now shows that some, though not all, of the most alarming stories that coursed through the city appear to be little more than figments of frightened imaginations, the product of chaotic circumstances that included no reliable communications, and perhaps the residue of the longstanding raw relations between some police officers and members of the public.

The question is why these stories took hold so quickly and were seemingly believed and propagated by people in positions of authority even when they had no evidence that they were true. How could it be that the New Orleans superintendent of police (who resigned without explanation last week) could have himself believed those erroneous reports and how could it be that the Mayor could describe the people of the city as ‘animalistic’? These statements were passed on by reporters, and coupled with all the other rumors of vile behavior passed on as fact, became the reality for people all over the world. The nation and the world seemed to find it easy to believe them even though what they were describing was shocking.

Why was this? As I will argue in subsequent postings, what we tend to believe and not believe in the aftermath of such events is largely determined by our prior conceptions of people and our prejudices, and New Orleans opened a window into what we believe poor (and people of color) are like, and the picture is not pretty.

Paley’s watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design – 2

In the previous posting I described a popular IDC argument that things like watches and Mount Rushmore are obviously ‘designed’ objects and thus imply the existence of a designer. By analogy, it is asserted that certain biological systems are also supposed to bear the hallmarks of design and thus must require a designer (aka god) too.

This argument seems to be persuasive to many people because I repeatedly hear it various forms. The usual response to it by scientists is to argue that the appearance of biological design is only an illusion and that random mutation and natural selection are perfectly capable of producing the seemingly complex biological forms that seem to stymie the IDC people.

But there is a philosophical issue here as well and that is what I want to address. First of all, while we all supposedly can agree that a watch and Mount Rushmore could not have simply appeared without human action, how is it that we are so sure that this is the case that we can accede to it without argument? How is it that in these cases we can definitely identify them as designed objects and say that other things (like rocks) are not designed?

Identifying the methods we use to classify things is an old and important question that has been addressed by many philosophers, most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein. To illustrate how Wittgenstein differed from his predecessors, I will quote Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (pages 44-45):

What need we know, Wittgenstein asked, in order that we can apply terms like ‘chair,’ or ‘leaf,’ or ‘game’ unequivocally and without provoking argument?

That question is very old and has generally been answered by saying that we must know, consciously or intuitively, what a chair, or a leaf, or a game is. We must, that is, grasp some set of attributes that all games and that only games have in common. Wittgenstein, however, concluded that, given the way we use language and the sort of world to which we apply it, there need be no such set of characteristics. Though a discussion of some of the attributes shared by a number of games or chairs or leaves often helps us learn how to employ the corresponding term, there is no set of characteristics that is simultaneously applicable to all members of a class and to them alone. [Note: This is essentially the demarcation problem dealing with the difficulty of requiring necessary and sufficient conditions that was discussed in an earlier posting - MS] Instead, confronted with a previously unobserved activity, we apply the term ‘game’ because what we are seeing bears a close “family resemblance” to a number of the activities that we have previously learned to call by that name. For Wittgenstein, in short, games, and chairs, and leaves are natural families, each constituted by a network of overlapping and crisscross resemblances. (emphasis in original)

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We can recognize objects designed by humans because we have seen multiple examples of things designed by humans and we can recognize the differences between them and those found ‘in nature’ (and thus not designed by humans) like rocks, grass, rivers, etc.. The reason why we can all so easily agree that watches are designed is that they have a family resemblance to other items (cars, trains, aeroplanes, iPods, etc.) that we know were definitely designed by humans. Similarly with Rushmore, we have seen numerous examples of sculptures and other art definitely designed by humans and so we can recognize the family resemblance of Rushmore to them.

Small children very quickly can learn to identify, purely on the basis of such family resemblances, whether the animal they see in a field is a horse or a cow even though they may not be able to precisely define each animal. This happens after they have seen some horses and cows and been told by their parents which is which. Even parents don’t try to define the animals. They just tell children which is which and that seems to be sufficient.

But when we use this as an analogy, as IDC advocates do, to identifying items (like Behe’s bacterial flagellum) as being designed by god, we run into a problem. In order to make that kind of family resemblance identification, we have to already know for sure many examples of things that have been designed by god and those that have not. But how can we know this? Of all the things that we see around us, what examples do we have of things that we definitely know have been designed by god and those that have not? That might be hard to get consensus on.

If you believe in a god who designed everything (grains of sand, rocks, Rush Limbaugh), then the classification system breaks down. If you believe in a god who designed only some things and let others come about ‘naturally’, then you get caught in a vicious cycle where the things you simply believe to be designed are then used again as models for identifying design of other things.

How, for example, would we teach children how to distinguish between things that are designed by god and those that are not, like we do with horses and cows? What are the things we could point to as exemplars of those two categories? While each of us has a personal experiential database that we can draw upon and use to identify family resemblances between human-designed objects and non-human designed objects, we do not have corresponding databases of god-designed and non-god designed objects.

Thus the watch/Rushmore analogy argument for design does not work in identifying the existence of god as a designer, unless we have an independent means of knowing which items were definitely designed by god and which were not, so that we can classify any specific item according to the family resemblance to each group.