Same planet, different worlds

“Intersectionality” is a word that is new to my lexicon – a lexicon that constantly expands as I delve deeper into the anti-racist and feminist literature. The word intersectionality refers to (so far as I can tell) the way in which identical variations in one variable can elicit a differential result based on a third variable that doesn’t seem to be related. For example, men and women have good reason to react differently to seemingly-innocuous stimuli, like being approached for sex late at night on an elevator. It is not the nature of the stimulus on its own, but the intersection of the stimulus with the third variable of gender that determines the nature of the response.

Those of us familiar with multivariate regression modeling (yes – this is the single lamest thing I have ever bragged about on the internet) can easily wrap our heads around this concept. For others, it can become quite difficult to grasp how something that might seem completely unrelated to an event could completely change the way we react to that event. To help illustrate the concept, and to tip my hat to one of my favourite comic artists, I am entitling this post Same Planet, Different Worlds.

For historical reasons, race and religion in the United States are not independent variables. However, in a scientific sense there is no biological or chemical reason why, for instance, black people would be more religious than white people. However, we do see an interesting intersection between race, religion, and attitude toward interracial marriage:

Pew’s February Political Typology Poll asked people about recent trends in American society. Pew asked if “more people of different races marrying each other” was good or bad society. Overall, only nine percent of Americans said it was bad for society. However, 16 percent of white evangelicals said this, more than twice the opposition found among other Americans (7 percent). The survey found that 27 percent of Americans overall said more interracial marriage was good for society, compared to 17 percent of evangelicals.

The first thing I want to draw your attention to in the above excerpt and figure is the difference that simply being religious makes on one’s attitude toward interracial marriage. When compared to those who reported having no religion, far fewer Christians look at an increase in marriages that transcend racial barriers as a positive outcome for society. There is nothing inherent in Christianity stating that racial groups are created separate. That kind of idea has been imprinted onto Christianity in the United States since the days of Emancipation, but it is not biblically doctrinal. That being said, because it has become doctrine in many branches of American Christianity, it is no surprise to me that religion would have this effect.

The second thing to look at, however, is the effect that being black and religious has on these attitudes. While the number who view such marriages positively is more or less neck-and-neck with their coreligionists, the number that view them negatively is tiny. It is the intersection of the dueling identities of ‘black’ and ‘Protestant’ that fuels this outcome. Because ‘miscegenation’ is still anathema to the American Christian,* there can be no approval of race mixing. However, at the same time black people have remarkably different attitudes toward interracial marriage. Because of the prevailing societal attitudes about the different races, there are remarkably different social implications for a black person in an interracial marriage than a white person.

I have tried my best so far to avoid using judgmental language in this discussion. It’s difficult, because obviously the subject of interracial marriage is very personal to me. However, I have to remain mindful of the fact that these peoples’ opinions are the product of their environments, rather than some deficit in their character (more on that on Monday). That being said, I can definitely attack the ideas they hold with no restraint, which I will do now.

The kind of evil that fuels the nearly 20% of white evangelical Christians is possible only when you think your small-mindedness is justified by some kind of divine mandate. While there will always be some hateful people in every group, please let these findings put to rest the idea that Christianity makes people more tolerant or better people. What it does, what all religions do, is give people permission to throw aside introspection and thought-based ethics in favour of easy answers and a false sense of superiority. Considering the insular nature of many evangelical communities, the lack of exposure to dissenting opinions simply serves to make matters worse.

I have a sneaking suspicion that most people I know would think that “doesn’t make much of a difference” is the ‘correct’ answer. After all, we are told we are not supposed to have feelings about race, either positive or negative. Personally, if I were asked this question I’d say that more intermingling of racial groups is definitely a good thing for society, since it furthers the erosion and blurring of the lines separating racial groups. When you have kids whose parents are two different ‘things’, then it’s kind of difficult to see either one or the other as superior (though God knows South Africa tried).

To bring it back to my original point, it’s important to recognize that ‘intersectionality’ is a real force, and understanding it is key to understanding why members of a group might have different reactions to an event. It’s certainly important to understand if you, for instance, want to increase the number of visible minorities in your political movement (wink wink, nudge nudge).

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*It is important at this point to note that I don’t think that all Christians in the United States are race-baiting hate mongers. I am merely making the point that this type of ‘safeguarding’ of ‘racial purity’, when couched in religious language, comes from a uniquely American brand of Christianity.

The entrenchment of disparity

I spent a great deal of time last week talking about disparities – differences in access and achievement – that exist along sex or racial lines. Wednesday’s post looked explicitly at a topic that is dear to my heart: education. Education is, in my opinion, the key to societal progress. It is not simply enough to know stuff – we have to be skilled at appraising the truth about the stuff we know, and in finding new ways to test that knowledge. That is what it is to be educated, and when a group of people is held back from obtaining those skills, it has far-reaching effects. When one group is deprived while another has access, we begin to see widening disparities.

But, while education is a major part of what is needed for a group of people to make progress, it is not alone in the pantheon of resources in which we see major disparities. Submitted for your scrutiny, here is a top 10 list of career areas in which black people are disproportionately underrepresented:

  1. Teaching
  2. Law
  3. Science and Technology
  4. Academia
  5. College Athletics
  6. Advertising
  7. Construction
  8. Media and Telecommunications
  9. Health Care
  10. Fashion

These positions are better fleshed out in the article itself, but even a cursory glance at this list paints a pretty bleak picture. The order I’ve listed these fields is the order in which they’ve been printed in the article, but I think a better story can be told if we can group them thematically. If you’ll allow me, I’ll point to some trends I see in this list.

Black people don’t lead (#1, #4, #5, #8)

Everyone can point to teachers that changed their lives. I had Ms. Mooney in high school, and Drs. Anthony and Ward in my undergraduate that laid down the foundation for a lot of my professional life through constant encouragement and support. While I wasn’t involved in sports (I was a drama kid – there were more girls in the school play than on the football team), I know many people who received mentorship and guidance from their coaches. Media figures also help young people develop their ideas and expose them to differing perspectives on the world.

The underrepresentation of black people in these fields means that there are few black role models in leadership positions. We know from psychology that modeling is one of the principal ways that humans learn, and actually differentiates us from many other animal species that learn through a more trial/error process. In absence of models in the black community in leadership positions, an unconscious equivalence between non-black skin and leadership (or, conversely, the lack of association between black skin and leadership) becomes more deeply entrenched as generations pass.

Black people don’t innovate (#2, #3, #4)

A modern nation is defined by its laws. Most of the major fights happening in Canada and the United States are happening in the courts. Indeed, many of our political leaders come from the legal sphere. Beyond the simple legal battles, the developed world doesn’t make its money through manufacturing or agriculture anymore – it does it by developing new and innovative ideas and technologies. Because we have a big slice of the world’s money, we’re the only ones that can really afford to test new ideas and “waste” time on avenuesof research that don’t immediately pan out.

When black people are disproportionately excluded from the fields of law, science and academics, we find ourselves outside the process looking in. Instead of being a part of the process of choosing and developing innovative ideas, we are instead relegated to observing them (whilst hoping they aren’t used to our disadvantage, which they often are). As I noted with the lack of black faces in the halls of political power, an absence of black people in the decision-making process means that people make decisions on their (our) behalf, often without having any first-hand knowledge of the issues we consider important.

Black people don’t contribute (#7, #9)

There is a certain level of pride and ownership that comes with building things, or with caring for each other. Beyond the simple instrumental utility of having a bridge or mending a broken bone, public works help bring us together as a society. When someone can point to a building and say “I helped build that” or to a child and say “I helped deliver her”, it reminds us of how connected we are to each other and how important our communal sense really is to our day-to-day lives.

When one group is removed from that process, however, they can become alienated. I’ve seen this with First Nations groups who reject intervention by government, not because it’s ineffective, but because they had no hand in building it. Not only could black people begin to feel like outsiders, but we also begin to be seen as outsiders that aren’t helping. It doesn’t take too exhaustive a perusal of white supremacist writings to uncover the pervasive myth that white people built our country, and everyone else is just there to sponge off of “their” hard work.

Black people don’t control our own brand (#6. #8, #10)

The longer I do this kind of writing, the more I get the feeling that what antiracists like myself are actually doing is a type of brand management – we are concerned with the way black people (or pick your group of interest) are perceived and portrayed by the public. Media outlets, commercial interest, and other industries concerned with image are what help create, sell, and defend a brand. If I can be so callous and mechanistic about a serious topic, we really are talking about taking control of our own public face.

However, when we see our group missing from the ranks of those that really sell that brand, then we have little control over how we are seen. When our news outlets, our advertising and our haute couture are run by people who may not have the most favourable impression of black folks, it’s no wonder that negative perceptions pervade our popular culture.

So we see the kinds of employment disparity at play here can have effects that reach far beyond simple lack of certain types of jobs. They have significant impact in a larger culture that dictates how we think of certain groups. This difference doesn’t simply stop with those who are unemployed – it means that there is less likely to be a next generation of people who are more interested in challenging the status quo. Far from racism becoming eradicated, we are more likely to see an organic type of segregation that has the effect of Jim Crow laws, without the need for legislation.

Once again, and I grow more convinced on this point as I learn more, if we are interested in seeing these disparities fade, then we need to make an active concerted effort. Simply sitting idly and waiting for the situation to resolve spontaneously will have the effect of allowing these non-intentional types of racism become cemented. The article from which the list is taken raises this issue, and points to efforts that have been made to balance the scales. However, without public support these programs come under fire by those who think that giving someone a leg up is cutting the legs out from under someone else.

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Health care; we still live in the world

So as you may have deduced from yesterday’s marathon post, I am back from my trip. While I spent the first week in sunny and beautiful Amsterdam, I spent the second week in sunnier Toronto – my old home. This trip wasn’t all pleasure though; in fact, I was traveling for business. I don’t talk about this on the blog often, but I work as a health economist. Basically, health economics is a branch of research concerned with resource allocation and decision-making in health care. We look at alternative methods of health care delivery, technologies, programs, etc. and apply the scientific method to work out which options are worth the investment of time, energy, and (ultimately) money. The goal, at least for me, is to maintain the public health system so that it is viable in the long term.

The biggest problem with public provision of health care (or really, any kind of health care provision) is that there are a finite amount of resources available. At every turn, we are confronted by the fact that while costs of care are climbing steadily, the amount of money available to fund treatment can’t even come close to keeping up. At some point, while we’d like to see that everyone gets all the treatment she/he needs and would like, we have to draw a line.

Sometimes we get in our own way a little:

A B.C. woman with a rare, serious skin disease can’t understand why the province refuses to cover a one-time treatment that would likely put it into remission — but will pay for much more expensive treatment that only helps relieve her symptoms…

Dermatologist Gabriele Weichert wrote to PharmaCare, recommending a one-time treatment with Rituximab instead. The drug is approved for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions, and Weichert said the drug has also shown much better results in treating pemphigus.

So here it seems there is a clear-cut case where government bureaucracy is getting in the way of medical decision-making. We’ve got a disease, a drug that treats it (at lower cost, no less), and a bloated, inefficient system that won’t cover the cost of the medication because it’s not on “the list”. Pretty shocking, right? Well, until we read this:

A spokesperson for PharmaCare told CBC News approval was denied because Health Canada has yet to approve Rituximab for treatment of pemphigus. Using it to treat that condition is considered “off-label”.

Rituximab is part of a class of drugs called ‘monoclonal antibodies’ that basically mimic the body’s own immune response to foreign proteins. When a strange substance (in immunology, called an “antigen”) enters the body, it is recognized by the white blood cells. They form a chemical impression of the proteins that make up the antigen and begin creating antibodies. Those antibodies coat the foreign protein, signalling other blood cells to envelop and destroy them. Sort of like adding bacon bits to an otherwise-unpalatable salad. Monoclonal antibody drugs do this, but for tumour cells (which are not recognized as ‘foreign’ because they come from the body’s own tissue).

As you might suspect, these drugs are typically used for cancer. Using rituximab for skin disease is indeed an ‘off-label’ usage, and those can be potentially disastrous. The kind of cowboy prescription involved in giving treatments for which efficacy is not established can have potentially fatal consequences, as we’ve seen in the furore around so-called ‘Liberation Therapy’ for multiple sclerosis. The problem here is that there is likely never going to be the kind of trial that we would consider sufficiently strong evidence to justify covering rituximab for use in this setting – the disease is just too rare.

So why not just give it anyway? It’s medicine, right? What possible harm could there be in prescribing it? Well… how about death?

Four people with rheumatoid arthritis have died after being treated with Rituxan, says the drug’s manufacturer, which has issued safety information about the medication in conjunction with Health Canada. None of the deaths caused by a severe infusion-related reaction occurred among Canadian patients, Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd. said in a release.

All drugs have potential adverse effects, and some of those effects might be fatal. Doctors know this, which is why they take such precaution with filling prescriptions (well… that’s debatable I suppose). Giving a medication for an indication that is unknown may result in a miraculous cure, but it might also kill the patient. Because of the vast divide in knowledge between the doctor and the patient, and the unique level of trust that characterizes that relationship, physicians must be extremely careful in the advice they give. When the stakes are high, patients will often leap at opportunities for cures without really understanding all of the variables involved.

This is the tightrope that the health care system must walk every day. If they adhere to the rules and regulations too strictly, they run the risk of undertreating patients, or promoting practices that are inefficient and ineffective. Relax the rules too much and they run the risk of seeing patients die from inappropriate or experimental treatment at the hands of well-intentioned but ultimately misguided care providers. There are horror stories on either side of this divide, which can be (and are) milked in order to shift policy and public opinion.

There is no perfect solution to this set of problems. Different countries employ a variety of different approaches to find a way to maximize patient autonomy whilst simultaneously protecting them from the consequences of their own ignorance. Whenever there are failures, they should be brought up and discussed. The key to any system is one that is not so intractably bound by regulation that it cannot respond to times of crisis (like in the treatment of pehphigus), but not so flexible as to undermine its own ability to safeguard its stakeholders.

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A warning about increasing diversity

Regular readers will probably have noticed that my post this morning was a bit more verbose than they’re used to seeing. In the interest of not making these things too ponderous (and also in the interest of serving my own short attention span) I try to cap blog posts around 1,000 words. Sometimes the ‘Monday Think Pieces’ go a bit over, but today’s post was knocking down the door of 2,000 words. In my defense, there was a lot of ground to cover and I wanted to make sure I didn’t leave any ideas unexplored.

That being said, there is still one thing that I didn’t say in this morning’s piece. Part of it was sheer post length, and part of it was that inclusion would have severely interrupted the flow of the piece by introducing a topic that is only tangentially related to what I was trying to convey. If you’ll forgive the indulgence, I’ll raise it here (if you won’t forgive the indulgence, then fuck you; this is my site :P).

I met Jen McCreight once when she came to Vancouver to discuss women in the atheist movement. Since then I have seen her write several blog posts about the importance of women in the atheist movement, sit on ‘diversity panels’, and give presentations at meetings all around the continent on pretty much the same set of topics. Given the frequency with which she is asked to give these presentations, it is fairly easy to forget that Jen is a biologist. Her life is devoted (at least in part) to discussing gene expression and mapping and all kinds of neat biology stuff; all of which seemingly tends to take a back seat to the fact that she owns a uterus.

This phenomenon seems to be fairly typical – women are invited to speak about “women’s issues” rather than skepticism at large. Greta Christina is perhaps my favourite atheist blogger, and it has almost nothing to do with the fact that she’s a woman. Her writing is what does it for me, and while she does offer her insights when it comes to gender diversity in the freethinking community, she writes some really great stuff about atheism in general that isn’t a “women’s issue” in any sense.

So here’s my point: while diversity is an important topic, and while many people (myself included) are happy to talk your ear off about it, it may in fact be the case that not every member of a minority group wants to spend all of their time focussed on being a member of a minority group. We have interests that go beyond our sex/gender or ethnic background, and insofar as we are good at discussing those interests it might be nice to be invited to speak on them, rather than offering our alternative perspective.

I am not not not suggesting that this is a recurrent and exhaustive phenomenon – Neil Degrasse Tyson, for example, is a black freethinker that spends hardly any time talking about race. He brings it up when he chooses to, and when he feels it’s relevant. Hemant Mehta spends more time talking about education and youth activism than he does about being brown. It is not always the case that minority members are pigeon-holed as I describe above. I want to make that clear.

That being said, as we begin to embrace diversity and come to a better understanding of what it means and why it’s important, I just want to raise general caution at how easy it is to embrace tokenism and type-casting at the same time.

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Why do we want diversity?

A copy of this post appears at Phil Ferguson’s Skeptic Money blog.

The skeptic/atheist movement is an interesting case study in group dynamics. It is a group that is subject to all the same vices and cognitive blindnesses that plague all human beings: self-centredness, arrogance, in-group bias, lack of self-awareness, hostility and stubbornness in the face of dissenting ideas. However, it is simultaneously a group that is acutely aware of human failings and constantly looks for ways to overcome them. As a result, we see pretty regular blow-ups, scandals, and strings of self-righteous blog posts that take opposing sides of pretty much every minor issue that crops up.

I, for one, wouldn’t change that for the world. Political movements thrive on passion, and provided we don’t start splitting ourselves into irreconcilable camps that are too busy tearing each other down to work together, occasional (read: incessant) spats are a small price to pay. Debate is good, debate is important.

One of my favourite aspects of the group is that, despite the diversity of beliefs, we tend to be a fairly liberal bunch. This is, to my mind, the natural result of being a critical thinker – when you replace “obviously” with “evidently” as the sufficiently persuasive criterion, your beliefs become more fluid and nuanced. Things that are “obvious” are seldom so to everyone, and usually coloured with a whole host of assumptions, many of which are unwarranted. Freethinkers have been quick to adopt the cause of the LGBT movement, and are currently struggling through the task of embracing feminism. Freethinkers like Debbie Goddard, Sikivu Hutchinson, and myself (if I can flatter myself and place my name in such august company) are pushing to introduce anti-racist ideas into the freethinkers toolbox.

At the same time, I also recognize that there is a great deal of normative pressure involved in the group dynamic – even among a group of freethinkers, a fair amount of ‘group think’ tends to go on that we try and sweep under the carpet. Some ideas are adopted as slogans without really being vetted by the cerebral cortex. We’re only human and not every idea can be fully chewed over – we’d cease getting anything else done.

I’ve said all the above to say the following. The freethinking community has, of late, embraced the word “diversity” with both arms. Panels are popping up at major meetings to discuss the need for multiple voices, groups are starting to look less monocultural/monosexual, and discussants nod their heads sagely when ‘the D word’ comes up in conversation. We are, as a group, beginning to talk more and more about the importance of including women and visible minorities in the conversation.

Of course, I couldn’t call myself a skeptic if I wasn’t just a little bit cynical about what is fueling this fairly rapid adoption. Maybe ‘rapid’ is a mischaracterization borne of my own recent arrival to the movement, but it seems as though a few people started talking about diversity and then within a span of a year or so, everyone was talking about it. It may in fact be the case that people were flogging this issue for years before I started paying attention, and I just noticed at the last minute. If this is so, then I apologize. However, the salient point is that diversity went from being “not a big deal” to “central to the freethinking movement” very quickly.

The most optimistic explanation of this fact is simple: because the freethinking movement is open to new ideas and stocked with humanists, we are of course going to work to address inequities when they happen within our own ranks. It is no strange feat, therefore, for this particular group to make rapid wholesale changes in how they (we) talk and think about important issues. Diversity of thought is embraced because it is important, and we have recognized that.

A slightly more nuanced explanation is that a small number of opinion leaders started listening to those who had been speaking about the need for diversity, and the audiences of those opinion leaders adopted the new position. When speakers and media figures and bloggers began talking about the need for diversity in the movement, people who watch read and listen incorporated the subject into their lexicon without really needing the kind of understanding that is borne of a full explanation.

The most cynical of the potential explanations is that because the movement is chock-a-block with white liberals, the popularity of diversity is due to a strong desire to avoid appearing sexist/racist/anti-gay. Anyone familiar with the term ‘white guilt’ will immediately understand what I’m driving at – oftentimes being a member of the majority leaves you with a feeling of obligation and the overwhelming drive to ensure that nothing you do can be construed as bigoted. While this is a useful way of getting white people to do what you want (as a minority), it’s an incredibly limited and shallow solution that eventually breeds resentment.

My reason for suspecting the presence of this third motive comes from a few sources, but there is one instance that sticks out in my mind. I shared a link to a blog post I had written on Reddit’s r/atheism subgroup. In the comments section, someone disagreed with my general thrust along a predictable line (“why do people need to identify as black atheists? Why can’t we all just be atheists?”) When I tried to explain my position, the conversation ended with the commenter saying “well you should post an AMA [ask me anything – a common type of post on Reddit] about what it’s like to be a black atheist.” My response was “I have an entire blog about that. You should read it – it’s good.”

My interlocutor seemed to think that his involvement in the conversation was over by telling me that it was my responsibility to explain myself – despite the fact that I had already explained myself to him, and despite the fact that I have an entire website explaining myself. His interest was in shutting down the conversation because the topic was making him uncomfortable. The onus wasn’t on him to learn something, it was on me to make him feel better. This is typically symptomatic of white guilt – I am interested in feeling better, not in learning how to contribute.

I am inclined to think that there is a bit of all three of the above motives going on. As I said earlier, while we are freethinkers and skeptics, we are also human beings, and human beings are full of frailties and flaws. As much as we’d like to believe our thoughts are pure, true skepticism is an ideal only – not achievable in a complete sense. Also insofar as we are talking about a group of people, there are going to be a variety of factors that compel us to act. Given that fact, I am going to take a moment to speak to those who understand that diversity is good, but may not really understand why.

Why do we want diversity?

Most everyone is familiar with the parable of the blind men and the elephant – a group of men who cannot see encounter an elephant and each describes it differently, based on which part they are feeling. The resolution to that story, depending on the cultural context, is that a wiser man (or one who has encountered an elephant before) tells them that they are all right, despite their wildly disparate descriptions.

The truth is rarely accessible from a single perspective – there are often a wide variety of interpretations that bring us a fuller understanding of a phenomenon, particularly when we are talking about topics related to personal interaction. This is not to say that “all perspectives are equally valid” – that’s a load of post-modernist bullcrap. What it is to say is that when it comes to perception, it is rare that any one narrative captures the full experience, and that multiple overlapping points of view brings us a much better picture.

Given that one’s experiences as, say, a black woman or a gay man or a person with physical disability colours one’s perception in ways that someone outside of that group might have difficulty understanding, it is expedient to include members of those groups. Doing so grants us a wider and richer set of experiences that we might not otherwise be able to access. It opens us up to avenues and sensitivities and nuances that we’d overlook unless we were particularly attuned to them.

The typical rejoinder often comes back: “so are you saying it’s impossible for a white person to understand issues facing black people?” No, I am not saying that. If I believed that, then I’d have given up on writing long ago. There are certainly many white people that are scholars of the black experience that probably know the issues better than most black people themselves. What I am saying is that it is far more difficult to find people like that, and far easier instead to include people who have had those experiences personally, rather than by proxy.

Beyond this simple issue of expediency of wisdom, however, there is another reason why diversity is a good thing. I alluded to it last week, and while the example I gave was perhaps not the ‘smoking gun’ type of evidence for me to draw this conclusion, I hope that I may be granted a bit of leeway. It is entirely possible that diversity makes us smarter – that bringing a variety of experiences and types of communication to a group may, counter-intuitively, collectively make us better at solving problems. Failing to foster a diverse environment may be hurting our cause needlessly – surely the monocultural environment reported by minority skeptics isn’t intentional – more likely simply a product of ordinary inattention.

Concluding thoughts

While the freethinking movement has gained a great deal of momentum in the past few years, it is important to reflect and ‘take stock’ of where we are going. We have a number of tools at our disposal, and I think we are doing ourselves a disservice if we don’t begin to see diversity of experience as an asset rather than an obligation. Whatever our reasons for ‘talking the talk’ when it comes to diversity, the sooner we come to realize that it is a boon for us to ‘walk the walk’, the faster this process will take place.

TL/DR: There has been a lot of talk about ‘diversity’ in the skeptic/atheist movement of late, and I am a tad suspicious as to why it has gained such rapid acceptance. There are a number of reasons why this may be so, some more noble than others. Regardless of our motives, diversity is a benefit to the movement, and this should be a good enough reason on its own to work to encourage it.

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Movie Friday: Seinfeld

I spent a lot of time talking about the ways in which inequalities – particularly those that fall along racial lines – manifest themselves. I made a point of highlighting those cases where it was clear that the root of the problem was systemic rather than personal; that is, where racism could not be chalked up to personal malice but rather to ordinary cognitive blindness.

However, my thesis has always been that systemic racism and personal racism are simply two sides of the same coin – that the real root of racism is the practice of ascribing group characteristics to individuals, wherein an entire person can be reduced to her/his race. To try and illustrate this point, I am posting this video today:
Danny on seinfeld

(Cannot get embed code to work – Dailymotion is a horseshit server, and I apologize. The clip is worth clicking through to see though, I promise.)

So it is up to you, dear reader, to decide what kind of racism is evinced by the cast of Seinfeld – is this personal animus on the part of Jerry and Larry, or is it simply a brain fart? When a minority character can only be exploited for stereotype laughs (of several recurring supporting characters, I can’t think of a single one on the show that wasn’t white – Edit: Jackie the lawyer), is that a reflection of a hidden agenda of personalized racism, or is it just ‘one of those things’?

I put it to you that this seeming contradiction is nothing more than a borderline case between two definitions of racism that are actually two aspects of the same underlying issue, and someone trying to succeed in the industry has to either play into a self-parody token role that undermines their own credibility, or they don’t get paid.

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Today’s edition of “totally unshocking news”

I hope you’re all sitting down, because I’m about to drop a knowledge bomb on you that will completely and irrevocably shatter your view about the way the world works:

336 Share The 2011 edition of the National Journal survey of “Hill people”—that is, high-level staffers to members of Congress—revealed something we probably already knew: Capitol Hill is really white and really male. Now, the question among some is how that indisputable fact may impact policies for women and people of color. According to the survey, which occurs every three years, fully 93 percent of top staffers on the Hill are white. Nearly 70 percent are male. While Democrats have a slightly more equitable gender ratio—62 percent male, 38 percent female—their staff is still 91 percent white.

White people disproportionately control the reins of political power!

Yes, we’re all very surprised over here at the Manifesto. It turns out that in addition to the fact that fewer than 10% of members of Congress in the United States are people of colour (PoCs), their staff members are also predominantly white. I am really ignorant about how people make it into the job of a Congress staffer, but I’d imagine it has a lot to do with lobbying, influence peddling, and favours for old acquaintances from school. Anyone who talks about affirmative action policies taking spaces away from equally-qualified white students are now invited to suck it long and deep, because this goes way beyond who gets the data entry job or the scholarship – systemic racism is placing white people and only white people in the positions of power and influence.

“Hill staff—particularly those who serve with committees—are the gatekeepers to a very important part of the democratic process,” Rockeymoore says. She says that all-white staffers often lead to “mainstream” experts being called to testify at hearings, and in this case, “mainstream” translates into “white” experts speaking on issues that disproportionately affect people of color, women, and the poor. When policy is being crafted post-hearing, the lack of diversity on staff “creates sub-optimal policies that create sub-optimal results for people of color,” Rockeymoore says, which affect everything from education to job creation. “What you get is a biased policy-making process that ends up undermining people of color.”

An argument supporting the morality of affirmative action policies that I’ve found particularly compelling in the past is that being a PoC is in itself a qualification – that you have experiences and insight that are not commonly found in non-PoCs. This is a kind of ‘soft skill’ that doesn’t really fit on a resume, but is particularly relevant when your job is to propose and implement policies that are targeted at issues facing PoCs. To be sure, being a black person doesn’t necessarily give you insight into issues facing Latino immigrants orFirst Nations people (or vice versa), but there is something common in the experience of not being part of the majority that may give you particular sensitivity to problems apparent in other groups.

Also, considering issues of privilege and the completely messed up ideas that people tend to develop when they grow up in an environment completely separated (one might say segregated) from people who aren’t part of their in-group, it might be an absolutely terrible idea to give absolute power to that one group. If the only black people you’ve ever seen are on TV, you’re probably going to make more than a couple of mistakes when you try to write and enact policies that are intended for those people.

And of course, in the same way that educational disparities can echo through generations, lack of political influence can do the same. When policies are enacted that fail to address underlying disparities in access to opportunities and/or ability to achieve success, it becomes unlikely for the next generation of PoCs to rise to the levels of financial and political opportunity that are required to enter the halls of power:

[Washington lawyer Ami] Sanchez diagnoses the lack of diversity on the Hill as a multi-part problem. First, she says, there’s a high bar to entry. Most interns don’t get paid, which limits the pool of those who can access Hill internships. “I would have to leave every day to make it to my job that paid, so I could pay my rent,” she says of her intern days on the Hill. “It’s a huge burden, and those decisions are very real.” Second, people of color who don’t have a family history of higher education often lack the networks and professional connections you need to get opportunities in Washington. “Among folks who have parents who went to college, and had that kind of white-collar professional experience—there’s a real awareness and understanding of what it takes to get on the Hill,” Sanchez says.

Again, the kind of approach we have to take if we’re interested in seeing these disparities decrease requires us to actively change our recruitment strategies in such a way that encourages the hiring of more minority candidates. It is not enough to simply blame, or say “maybe there aren’t enough candidates who qualify” or leave it up to the free market to solve the problem for us – this is simply ideological refusal to engage with the problem.

What I would like to stress with both today’s story and yesterday’s is that these kinds of effects happen even in the absence of active race hatred. We’re not talking about a group of people that hate black and brown people and are actively trying to keep them (us) oppressed. This isn’t an old boy’s club that will disappear on its own in a few years – this is the result of a system that is structurally positioned to benefit the white majority. I do believe that there are a number of well-intentioned white people who truly do wish to see the eradication of racism in our lifetime, but so long as we continue to treat it as simply the active hatred of a tiny handful of people rather than a deeper cognitive and psychological flaw that exists in all of us, we won’t see much progress toward that goal.

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Disparities: Whither comest thou?

I throw around the terms ‘inequality’ and ‘disparity’ quite often when discussing issues of race and gender. Most often I am talking about differences in levels of access or achievement that are rooted in traditional prejudices relating to majority opinion of minority members, but the concept can really be used to describe any differential level in access/achievement that are based on anything other than merit (however one wishes to define that). I think it is a safe conceit on my part to assume that I don’t need to explain why merit is a legitimate basis for discrimination, whereas others are not.

What is not a safe assumption, however, is to assume that we all have the same idea of why these disparities exist, particularly how they manifest themselves in a contemporary setting. In yesterday’s discussion of the usefulness of diversity, I pointed out that it is in our societal best interest to reduce the amount of disparity (by increasing access) in group membership selection. I made a vague reference to the fact that I imagine that increased diversity along lines other than gender alone may have a benefit to the group that operates along similar lines. I’d like to extend that argument a bit today, in a discussion of one facet of race-based disparity in access and achievement – education:

The College Board is releasing two reports today on the crisis facing young black and Latino men, who, the reports find, continue to be measurably less educated than minority women and white men. According to the reports, 16 percent of Latino and 28 percent of African-American men ages 25 to 34 had obtained an associate’s degree or higher as of 2008, while the comparable figure for white men was 44 percent and for Asian men, 70 percent.

The report also said that foreign-born members of those lagging minority groups were more likely to drop out than those born in the United States, especially in the case of Hispanics. While the total dropout rate for male Latinos is 20 percent, the foreign-born dropout rate is 14 percentage points higher.

Before I delve fully into my argument, I want to make two points that I don’t think really connect to the main substance of my argument but are worth pointing out. First, as far as I am concerned education is the be-all-end-all of improving quality of life and moving society forward. Full stop. The better educated a society is, the more equipped it is to deal with new challenges, and understand the strengths and weaknesses of proposed solutions to novel problems. Fixing educational systems means fixing societies.

The second thing is that I found it fascinating that foreign-born students performed worse than domestic students, given what I felt was a fairly strong hypothesis proposed by John Ogbu – that black and hispanic students’ failure to thrive had something to do with feelings of displacement that are not shared by those who willingly immigrate. I wonder whether financial pressures or language skill disparity plays a role in this finding, or if the hypothesis itself must be thrown out and a new explanation found.

Okay, now on to the point I want to make. There are a number of reasons why black and brown people may do worse than white people. Some of that undoubtedly has to do with different cultures and the expectations that people have for themselves – if education is not prioritized in your home then you’re less likely to take it as seriously. I am unsure as to what the state of the evidence is that supports how different these cultures are, but for a moment I will grant that this factor has some explanatory power. Many others point to differential treatment and expectation by teachers – that teachers expect black and brown students to fail, so they encourage those pupils less than white students. Again, I am unsure of how strong the evidence for this conjecture is.

However, even granting those partial explanations, pre-existing poverty and lack of financial ability plays a huge role. Especially in the United States where private schools are often the only way for kids to have a fighting chance of getting into a good college, being poor is a huge barrier to success.

The second, smaller report shares firsthand stories from minority men. One African-American student currently enrolled as a freshman in a public university seems jaded about the process. The authors write: “He remembers that all through school people told him to get good grades so he could succeed and go to college, but senior year he realized it was all about money and affordability.” Money is cited as one of the biggest roadblocks to gaining an education, along with social stigma and lowered aspirations.

If you have to work part- or full-time to support yourself as you go through school, you have less time to devote to your studies. Even more so if you also have to support family members or a family of your own.

So we have a situation where black and brown (and apparently Asian as well) kids are less likely to be able to get an education. Follow me through a thought experiment: if education and income are linked (and they are), then being less-educated means that you have lower lifetime earning potential. If you have children of your own, those children will have less financial access than if you had been better educated. This creates a further gap in their ability to access education, which means their earning potential suffers. It is a problem that persists through generations, resulting in a systemic disparity in access/achievement that falls explicitly along racial lines.

The article offers no solutions to this problem, and I will not spend too long offering my own. I think that if we want to see these disparities reduced, we cannot simply stand by and wait for them to solve themselves. It is also no good to simply blame people for their lot in life – that might feel good (and I’ll even pretend for a second that it might be correct… I feel dirty now), but it does not solve the problem, it simply absolves us of any responsibility for ameliorating it. We must take an active role to improve levels of access and genuine chances for success, so that any differences in achievement are not due to the structure of the education system. If the schools fail our kids, how can our kids succeed at our schools?

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Diversity makes us smarter

I often find myself drawn to discussions of ‘diversity’, which, it should be noted, is a term that can have a lot of different meanings – a diversity of meanings, if you will. Oh, you won’t? *Gulp* Sorry.

When I talk about diversity, I generally refer to a non-sociological definition – one that is really more grounded in colloquial usage: having representation of a variety of different groups, all working toward the same goal. So ‘diversity’ in a classroom means that you have many different types of students, all working toward the goal of learning. ‘Diversity’ in a government agency might refer to having people with differing socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, working toward the goal of achieving the agency’s objectives.

Another colloquial usage of ‘diversity’ refers explicitly to increasing the number of minority group members in an organization. Usually this refers to racial minorities and women, since many of our institutions tend to be white and male dominated (although we have been getting better about this). It has also become a dirty word for that same reason, since many see any advancement of minority groups as taking something away from the majority group. My argument has always been that this isn’t the case.

This post was supposed to follow a post that’s planned for this Monday, but I have decided to push it up for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s easy to write about and I have limited time while I’m away from home. Second, because it’s interesting. Third, because it’s relevant to a fight that’s currently happening on my Facebook wall:

Professors Woolley and Malone, along with Christopher Chabris, Sandy Pentland, and Nada Hashmi, gave subjects aged 18 to 60 standard intelligence tests and assigned them randomly to teams. Each team was asked to complete several tasks—including brainstorming, decision making, and visual puzzles—and to solve one complex problem. Teams were given intelligence scores based on their performance. Though the teams that had members with higher IQs didn’t earn much higher scores, those that had more women did.

This isn’t really the substance of the fight – it has more to do with the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ (which I have discussed in depth before) and wage equality for women. However, the issue of ‘tokenism’ has come up, and I feel the need to respond to it in more words than are really wieldy on a Facebook comment. The argument that a certain friend made is that there are women in positions of power, so we should really consider the issue of accessibility more or less solved – at least we shouldn’t consider it something worth making a big deal about.

‘Tokenism’, for those of you that haven’t encountered the phrase before, refers to having a single member of a non-majority group present in an organization, who can then be pointed to whenever discussions of diversity come up (“we’re not _____ist, we’ve got Pat, who is a _____!”). The problem with this ‘solution’ to the problem is that it does not reflect real diversity, only the wish to avoid appearances of selective hiring. This study I’ve cited above seems to suggest that having more diverse groups (at least gender-diverse groups) makes those groups actually work better.

Woolley: We’ve replicated the findings twice now. Many of the factors you might think would be predictive of group performance were not. Things like group satisfaction, group cohesion, group motivation—none were correlated with collective intelligence. And, of course, individual intelligence wasn’t highly correlated, either.

Malone: Before we did the research, we were afraid that collective intelligence would be just the average of all the individual IQs in a group. So we were surprised but intrigued to find that group intelligence had relatively little to do with individual intelligence.

So if the individual IQ of the group members doesn’t predict group performance, what is important? Apparently, women are (for reasons that are likely sociological as much as – or more than – biological) better at understanding non-verbal communication and can facilitate group co-operation and problem solving more adeptly than men, allowing the group to get the best from all of its members. While it is obvious from even a cursory examination of the people in your life, there are some men that are better at this skill than some women, the underlying point remains – having a variety of kinds of people and kinds of skills is a boon to group effectiveness that goes far beyond the simple appearance of diversity.

While it is certainly convenient to point to individual examples of women in positions of power as evidence that sexism isn’t as bad as it once was, nobody is making the argument that there has been zero progress along the lines of gender inequality. The point is that we can still do better about addressing the inequalities we continue to see. If and when we do that, we will have done more than simply righted a moral injustice, or made women stop complaining, or reached some faux-liberal goal of making sure nobody feels excluded ever. We will have improved our society in such a way that it improves life for everyone.

It is a stretch to cite this article as proof that reducing racial inequalities will have the same effect, and I am not claiming this to be conclusive evidence of that. My personal belief in this matter is that increasing diversity in general results in a similar outcome – more people who can bring unique experience and perspective to a novel problem will tend to outperform groups that are more homogeneous, regardless of individual merit of the members of those groups. I will flesh this idea out in greater detail on Monday.

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This post is for Lawrence Hill

Regular readers here will remember my frustration and anger toward a Dutch group representing ancestors of former slaves, who threatened to burn a book by one of my favourite authors, Lawrence Hill. Not only are book burnings stupid and counterproductive (since they elevate the profile of the idea you’re attempting to destroy), but they are barbaric and violent. Burning a book is an implicit threat to the author of that book, not simply a rejection of an idea.

The second part of my frustration was the fact that it was clear that the people involved had not bothered to even read coverage of the book. They let their single-minded focus on the issue of the title completely blind them to the fact that the book is about slavery and its related horrors. Not only that, but the title of the book (the source of their objection) is based on an actual existing document – it is a reference to a real thing. If they had stopped for 5 seconds before getting their backs up, they would have easily understood the significance.

However, they chose to ignore the lessons of history and just good sense, and staged the burning anyway. They did it at the slavery memorial in Osterpark in Amsterdam. As you know, I was in Amsterdam recently, and I visited Osterpark.

Mr. Hill, these photos are for you:


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We shouldn’t burn books. We certainly shouldn’t burn great books. We should learn from them, and if we disagree we should exercise our rights to free speech to do so. Those same free speech rights protect things we like and dislike, and threatening those rights with fire is threatening our entire civilization.

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