White “flight”? Not exactly

This morning we looked at a demographics paper by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity that looked at the phenomenon of suburban diversity, and found that while they tended to have tons of advantages over segregated communities (political balance, integrated schools, economic opportunity, increased cultural tolerance), they were also the least stable in terms of demographics. The data strongly suggested that while racially diverse communities were more likely to resegregate than segregated communities were to integrate, this was not a bidirectional phenomenon: it suggests that people of colour (PoCs) move in to white communities, while white people move out of integrated communities.

The relevant question is why is this happening? Is this truly an example of white people being horrible xenophobes who hate brown people? Is it simple in-group preference wherein people simply prefer to live with people who look like them and/or share a culture? Perhaps it’s a cohort effect whereby white people in suburbs have been there longer as a group, and have therefore had more time to accumulate wealth – wealth they use to afford to live in ‘nicer’ neighbourhoods that PoCs simply can’t afford yet?

Any self-respecting skeptic will likely recognize that it could be (and probably is) some combination of all of these things. The relative strength of each of these forces is going to vary widely due to factors geographic, historical, socioeconomic, academic – there’s a lot of moving parts to the equation. However, the authors point explicitly to a few mechanisms by which racial discrimination (systemic and otherwise) plays a major role in resegregating communities. Get ready to rage. [Read more…]

Absence makes the heart… familiarity breeds…

One fascinating historical narrative from the United States is called “white flight“. Essentially, this was a mass migration of white Americans out of major urban centres, into the suburbs. As with previous mass migrations of white folks in the USA, this was the result of various factors as kind of a ‘push-pull’. The ‘pull’ was the increased affordability of housing thanks in a large part to the GI Bill, as well as massive federal investments in transportation infrastructure and electricification*. The ‘push’ was multifaceted – cities were crowded, dangerous, and dirty – but it would be naive to assume that racial dynamics did not play a major role.

Whatever the causes of white flight, it is worth noting that one of the effects of it is that our whole notion of what the suburbs mean and are is inherently tied up in whiteness. The oft-invoked Rockwellian image of the suburbs is white because that’s who got there first and defined what that meant. And, just as we saw in yesterday’s examination of the impact that racist ideologies from our founders had on generations of immigrants, the ‘whitening’ of the suburbs at the hands of government subsidies have far-reaching effects that outstrip the mere fact of the legislation. The suburbs are white because they got there first, and anyone who comes after and doesn’t comport to that image and behaviour is ‘doing it wrong’.

That being said, shifts in economics, immigration, policy, politics, and the very character of race relations in the United States have made it increasingly possible for people of colour (PoCs) to move into suburban areas, which has led to new possibilities: 1) suburbs that are a mixture of whites and PoCs, or 2) suburbs that are populated predominantly by PoC. A report by the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School examines this phenomenon and gives us some insight into some fascinating and relevant results. [Read more…]

The past is not passed

If you were reading the blog this past February, you are at least somewhat familiarwith Canada’s history of overt, ‘classical’ anti-black racism. Despite its avowed contemporary multiculturalism, Canada’s history is stained with the kind of racism that we only talk about in American History class (and even then, in hushed, clucking tones and sighs of relief about how much better things are now). Those who understand the historical arc of white supremacy and the instrumental role it played in both colonization and the rise of the European powers would probably not be surprised to see it survive through several generations of Canadian government. Even then, some of the details are still pretty shocking:

In 1885, John A. Macdonald told the House of Commons that, if the Chinese were not excluded from Canada, “the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed …” This was the precise moment in the histories of Canada and the British Dominions when Macdonald personally introduced race as a defining legal principle of the state. He did this not just in any piece of legislation, but in the Electoral Franchise Act, an act that defined the federal polity of adult male property holders and that he called “my greatest achievement.” [Read more…]

A ten-percent solution, a ten-percent problem

An enduring American meme within the contemporary Republican party*, especially in this latest primary season, is that America is a white country. This one is no longer explicitly vocalized as plain and notorious expressions of racial supremacy have become less acceptable, but in the current political climate the layer of rhetoric that is cloaking the racist motivations behind many of the statements made by mainstream politicians are about as thick as an onion skin (and nearly as transparent).

Another salient foundational myth (and one that has more than a little currency in Canada) is that it is, and always has been, a “Christian nation”. The contemporary face of this quaint notion is the Republican Party’s current fascination with historical fiction yarn-spinner David Barton (a man who lacks the decency to advertise or even admit that his accounts are not based on fact). And despite the minimalizing language I’m using to describe the meme and its champion, the idea of America as a Christian nation has major national currency, to the point where it meaningfully informs policy.

It is an interesting exercise to try to imagine what the world looks like when seen through Republican eyes. In order to maintain any of these myths, one needs someone like David Barton with a knack for selectively abstracting enough fact to build a framework and then plastering over that framework with a thick layer of conveniently-invented bullshit. However, knowing what we know about how privilege can strip away levels of awareness by blinding you to significant facts, and the magnifying effect that being surrounded by others who share your perspective can have, I found the following exercise interesting. [Read more…]

The eye of the beholder

One common claim that comes up in discussions of social justice issues is the following, predominantly uttered by a member of the majority group:

I am against all kinds of discrimination. In fact, I am never hesitant to call others on their own prejudiced behaviours!

What usually follows is the word ‘but’, and then some explanation of how ze is the real victim of discrimination because people keep telling hir to check hir privilege, often with accusations of being bigoted* or something of that nature. The reasoning, I imagine, goes something like this:

I believe myself to be opposed to discrimination
I behave in a way that is consistent with someone who is opposed to discrimination
Therefore your accusations of my prejudice are misplaced

I can certainly appreciate how much it sucks to have someone call you a bigot when all you’re trying to do is express reasonable skepticism about something. This is especially true when you are a passionate defender of the very people making the accusation. From an outsider’s perspective, it can certainly seem as though the name-calling is completely offside – they should recognize that you are an ally and you are doing your best.

Maybe the following expansion of the above syllogism can help flesh out why this attitude is problematic and will lead you into more trouble: [Read more…]

Skepticism and Social Justice

One of the arguments that I often hear from skeptics and the skeptical community is that while skepticism is a powerful tool for analyzing truth claims or the efficacy of medical modalities, it is poorly suited to examining issues of social policy or politics. Examining claims about the efficacy of homeopathy is relatively easy (it doesn’t work) but, the argument goes, it is far more difficult for skeptics to draw any conclusions about specific policy goals or initiatives. How ought skeptics to examine abortion? What about capital punishment? Should skeptics have anything to say about political platforms?

This argument isn’t unique to skepticism either. As Jen McCreight and others have pointed out, the same sorts of assertions are often made by so-called ‘dictionary atheists’ who argue that atheism is only ever about not believing in god, and that topics like feminism or social justice lie far outside atheism’s bailiwick.  Why should atheists or skeptics concern themselves with the issues of feminism; why should skeptics look at economics or jurisprudence? Why shouldn’t skeptics stay holed up in the ‘hard’ sciences and leave issues of social policy and social justice to the sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists?

Because those issues matter; that’s why those of us who call ourselves skeptics ought to become involved. Well, that and the fact that many of us in the skeptical movement are anthropologists, sociologists, economists, or political scientists. Is homeopathy harmful? Obviously; it encourages people to abandon tested and proven medical treatments in favour of eating candy. But you know what else is harmful? How about lopsided justice systems that impose harsher penalties on some segments of the population based on their skin colour or heritage. How about political campaigns that aim to strip women of the right to seek abortions – even in cases of rape or incest? How about relying on economic models that benefit the ultra-wealthy at the expense of the poorest members of society – or models that reject empirical research or statistical modelling?

Sure, my questions are built on fundamental social biases – I believe that women ought to be able to control their own bodies and their own destinies; I believe that even the poorest members of our society deserve to be treated fairly and ought to be able to obtain help from those of us with the means to do so (yes, I like the idea of taxation to pay for social safety nets). I believe that people ought to be protected from predatory business practices that prey on the uninformed and ignorant. We all have these sorts of underlying biases, and we should be debating them too – that’s sort of the whole point of skepticism, isn’t it?

Skeptical inquiry alone may not be able to tell us if, for example, capital punishment for violent crimes is a good thing (‘good’ in the moral sense – should we put people to death for killing other people?), but it can allow us to examine the claims that it is a successful deterrent (it isn’t). Similarly, skeptical inquiry can help us determine the extent to which comprehensive sex education has helped to lower teen pregnancy rates in Canada (it has). Once we know the answer to these questions, we have gone a long way towards answering the follow-up question: what steps should we take now? If the stated aim of the ‘War on Drugs’ was to reduce the consumption of illegal substances and therefore dry up the market for them, then we can demonstrate, empirically, that it was a failure. Is it reasonable to continue funding a failed policy? No? Then is the United States still doing it?  Skeptical inquiry gives us the tools required to tug at the threads of social policy, and by doing so, we can follow those threads all through the social fabric in order to see what other policies and initiatives they are bound to.

I think that at least part of the reason why there are relatively few prominent social scientist skeptics is perhaps because of the worn out cliché that the social sciences are ‘subjective’ or that “there really isn’t a right or wrong way of looking at ‘X’”. A large part of the reason for the existence of this cliché probably has something to do with how the social sciences and traditional sciences have interacted over the last few decades. There was a lot of fallout from the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s; the ‘Sokal Affair’ and similar conflicts certainly helped to foster the growing rift between the sciences and the social sciences. In some universities, it isn’t uncommon for the social sciences and the traditional sciences to not talk to each other. Some of this is certainly related to funding; money is a finite resource, and there are often strong disagreements over where it should be spent. But there is also the problem of language; in a very real sense, these disciplines all speak different languages and sometimes words mean different things to different people. It takes time and effort sometimes for each party to understand the other, and in academia, time is often in very short supply.

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that for the most part the luminaries of the skeptical movement remain firmly ensconced in the sciences, while other fields of inquiry remain overlooked. And they shouldn’t be. Homeopathy is harmful, sure. But so was the repeal of Glass-Steagall. So is institutionalized racism, or discrimination against members of the LGBT communities. So is the perpetuation of toxic patterns of masculinity.

The social sciences are every bit as important as the traditional sciences for skeptical inquiry, and social justice is just as important a topic as medical claims or creationism. As skeptics, we need to realize this and begin turning our attention to these often-overlooked areas.* Just as the atheist movement has begun to talk about issues of social justice, the skeptical movement needs to loudly begin doing the same – skepticism+**, if you will. Why not? We’re a big movement now, and we should be able to tackle many different topics at once. Surely we can walk and chew bubble-gum at the same time?

PS: I feel that it’s necessary to point out that I could be entirely wrong about there being a lack of focus on social justice in the skeptical movement. I just haven’t really seen it outside of some blogs and a podcast or two. I’d love to see it at TAM; I’d love to see it at NECSS CON. I’d love to hear more about it on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.

* This is not to minimize or ignore the fantastic work done by people like the Skepchicks. They’ve been leading the charge against sexism and harassment within the movement. I’m saying that they need backup and support; they cannot do it alone, and they shouldn’t have to.

** While I understand that many people within atheist communities are also skeptics, the two terms are not synonymous, nor are the communities the same. I’m sure that most of you reading this already know this, but I’m pedantic and I feel the need to point it out anyway.

Movie Friday: Edwin Hodge defines white supremacy

If you haven’t yet picked up on it, blog contributor Edwin Hodge is a smart fucking guy. I felt privileged, therefore, to be able to see him speak to the British Columbia Humanists Association last Friday night. Unfortunately I had to duck out early to play a gig, but I managed to grab the first few minutes of his talk. In this snippet, Edwin provides an operational definition for white supremacy:

You can see his whole presentation below the fold, as videotaped by the BCHA. If you’re a humanist in BC, consider lending your voice and support to this active and growing group, under the skilled leadership of Ian Bushfield.

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Today’s word-boner: Ta-Nehisi Coates

One of the great tragedies of my life is that while I love language, I can barely find enough time to write as much as I want, let alone read. There are writers out there like Teju Cole, Amanda Marcotte, Jamelle Bouie, Sikivu Hutchinson, Touré, Greta Christina, Tim Wise, and countless others whose ability to work the language makes me feel like a rank amateur, scribbling with my own feces on the wall of a cave*. From time to time though, I manage to get myself organized enough (or, more often, I decide to let another aspect of my life slide enough) to read the latest offering from my favourite writers, but more often I watch yet another masterwork sail past me, like I was a goldfish intently watching Shark Week.

Happily, today was one of those days when I managed to scrape together a few minutes, and I was rewarded handsomely:

But it would be wrong to attribute the burgeoning support for Zimmerman to the blunders of Spike Lee or an NBC producer. Before President Obama spoke, the death of Trayvon Martin was generally regarded as a national tragedy. After Obama spoke, Martin became material for an Internet vendor flogging paper gun-range targets that mimicked his hoodie and his bag of Skittles. (The vendor sold out within a week.) Before the president spoke, George Zimmerman was arguably the most reviled man in America. After the president spoke, Zimmerman became the patron saint of those who believe that an apt history of racism begins with Tawana Brawley and ends with the Duke lacrosse team.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such. [Read more…]

Because I am an atheist: Miriam

Today’s contribution comes from Miriam, who blogs at Brute Reason, where this post originally appears.

Because I am an atheist…

…I get to develop my own moral code. Many people get their sense of morality from religion. That’s totally okay. But I relish the opportunity to create my own.

My morality is a sort of combination of utilitarianism and the Golden Rule. When I decide how to act, I weigh the pros and cons. Will this help someone else at very little cost to myself? If so, then I’ll do it. Will it help someone else at a great cost to myself? If so, I might do it if the cause is important enough to me. Is this act self-serving, with a potential for hurting the other person? If so, I probably won’t do it, unless I really, really need to.

That’s not to say that I always act ethically or that I never hurt anyone. At least, though, I get to own my actions whether they’re positive or negative. Regardless of the outcome, nobody made me do it. My holy book didn’t tell me to do it. My pastor/rabbi/what-have-you didn’t tell me to do it. I told myself to do it, and if it turned out badly, I can do better next time. [Read more…]

Atheism Plus? Sounds awesome!


I’d like to begin by stating that I’m in full agreement with Jen McCreight’s general sentiment in her recent essay: “We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.” 100% agreement, no reservations.

While the so-called New Atheists (or Gnu Atheists, or whatever) have brought great public attention to religious issues in the the bastion of Christianity that is the US, they have been, in my opinion, largely a step back when it comes to… Well, things that matter.

Now before you leap down to the comment section, bear with me a second. Let me elaborate.

[Read more…]