Africentric school approved in Toronto

There are periodically – not often, mind you, but occasionally – points in race conversation when I am tempted to throw up my hands and say “you’re white, and you don’t get it! Just accept that I am right!” Oftentimes race issues require so much unpacking – privilege, history, demographics, sociology, the list goes on – that a seemingly innocuous topic or opinion actually takes a monumental effort to resolve.

Of course my “job”, as someone who blogs explicitly about race as I do, is to do such unpacking so that anyone can walk their way through the argument. Most of the time I am game for this, particularly if I can refer the person back to some article or another that I’ve written in the past. I recognize that the conversation doesn’t get completely explored in the span of a single blog post, and I get e-mails from people telling me that my work here has helped them change their minds about some race issue or other (those are really appreciated, by the way).

But there are periodically points in this conversation where I just want to cop out and say “because I’m black and I’m right, dammit!” One of those times has just reared its nuanced and complex head: [Read more…]

Throwing the book at the problem of poverty

The concept of ‘spending money to make money’ seems to elude many people. When the stimulus came up in the United States (and to a lesser extent here in Canada), people were outraged. “Isn’t that just like a liberal to try and spend their way out of a problem? Spending is what got us in this problem to begin with!” Ignoring for a moment that the question of ‘spending on what‘ is rarely addressed (except by libertarians, to their credit), this complaint still suffers from a central flaw.

If you’re on a motorcycle 3/4 of the way down a ramp that faces a yawning chasm, you might be tempted to throw on the brakes. The problem with that strategy is that your momentum is likely to carry you over the edge of the precipice, where your lack of speed will kill you. Sometimes, paradoxically, you have to pick up speed to clear the gap. That’s when you can think about braking. It’s not a complicated concept, but it seems to elude many people.

What very rarely gets discussed, however, is the cost of not doing anything. To put a point on it – anyone reading my post this morning might have found the admonition to spend money on improving education and infrastructure to be nothing but bleeding heart liberal nonsense. “Where are you going to find the money?” say our ‘fiscal conservative’ friends. It’s a question that’s actually easier to answer than you think: [Read more…]

Bacon, porn, and rainbows: poverty edition

I am a liberal. I am not a hyphenated liberal, or a centre-left or a “social liberal, fiscal conservative” or any such nonsense. Probably the least liberal thing about me is that I refuse to dither over whether or not I am a liberal. I believe, proudly in fact, that people can get together and solve social problems. I further believe that government, properly scrutinized by the public, can be a place where those solutions can be implemented. I am aware that there are arguments for and against public sector involvement – I am far more comfortable with democracy than I am with unregulated free markets.

When we apply our shoulders to the wheels of social policy, we can make monumental changes that make life better for the people who need it most. When we fail to make the commitment to act, it makes life worse: [Read more…]

Behind the 8 ball

This morning I went on a bit of a tear about the ludicrous idea of a ‘culture of poverty’. I suppose calling it ludicrous is not fair, since on the surface, if you’re ignorant of a lot of facts, the idea at least has some superficial credibility. What I didn’t get around to is the illustration of what might be a better explanation. It will probably come as an eye-rolling lack of surprise to most when I point to racism as a potential explanation. I am not referring simply to the active kind of racism whereby black and brown kids are discriminated against by teachers, or wherein employers don’t hire people with funny sounding names. No, the kind of racism I am referring to is far more structural and ephemeral than that.

Imagine you were born with a limp. In our modern society, that’s certainly not a major hurdle to overcome. We have, through conscious effort as a consequence of advocacy, built mechanisms into our infrastructure to allow people with mobility issues to live fulfilling and productive lives. We have actively reduced structural discrimination against people who, through no fault of their own, have a disadvantage. Now sure, you’re not going to be an Olympic sprinter or anything like that – your physical condition precludes that. But, there’s no reason you couldn’t be a physicist or a spot welder or any other occupation that doesn’t require extraordinary leg strength or mobility.

Contrast what your life would be like if you had been born with the same limp in, say, ancient Sparta. Because you would need full mobility to participate in even the basic parts of your society, you’d be in serious trouble. Not only would you be unable to access things you need to live, but you’d be excluded from involvement in social and political life – not because you couldn’t do them, but because you’d spend all your time struggling just to keep your head above water. Your inability to thrive would likely be seen as some kind of curse from the gods, or worse still as your own fault. If you want to succeed, you have to work harder than your more able-bodied peers to achieve anything.

These are the two different models of society we can contrast – one that puts the necessary effort to ensure that physical traits like a limp don’t preclude you from engaging in activities for which a limp is not a real handicap, and one in which no attempt is made to overcome a disability in such a way as to make it essentially impossible to participate even in those things that your disability doesn’t apply to.

Which society do you think we live in when it comes to race?

Click image to enlarge

I put it to you that being born black or hispanic puts you at a disadvantage. That being in one of these groups, even before we get into issues like a ‘culture of poverty’, places extra hurdles in your way. Not hurdles that are actually related to your success, but hurdles that prevent you from reaching it nonetheless. This kind of systemic racism operates in the background without any kind of conscious intent or active discrimination on behalf of a secret cabal of bigots. It has the same force as active racism though, since your racial identity is a strong predictor of your chances of success, even though this connection is highly erroneous.

The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not we’re interested in fixing this problem. If we’re content to allow this state of affairs to continue, then there’s no reason to make any changes. Of course, as I suggested before, this ends up hurting everyone. It would be much better for all members of society for there to be fewer poor people. If we’re interested in seeing that happen, then we have to work to reduce these inequalities. Otherwise we’ll have a segment of society still stuck behind the 8 ball, with no hope of getting ahead.

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Divine Law

It seems like it’s been forever since I enjoyed a solid bashing of religion (note: it has been, in fact, 3 weeks). My apologies for those readers who like me to get up on my soapbox and stick it to the religious establishment – it seems as though it’s been racial topics swimming around in my brain for a while. I’d apologize to those of you who are fans of my free speech stuff, but statistics suggest that you don’t exist :P.

A common complaint about anti-theists like myself is that we rail against a type of religiosity that nobody really believes in. After all, the complaint goes, most religious people just want to keep to themselves and exist quietly without harming anyone. Who am I, therefore, to rail against the evils of their religion? They don’t force their beliefs on me, so why should I try to force my non-belief on them?

Of course every anti-theist reading those words has just breathed a tired sigh and rolled their eyes for emphasis. It is, of course, not at all the case that religious people just want to be left alone to worship in peace. Anyone who thinks that is either not paying attention or finds the lie more comforting than the truth (but Crommunist, why can’t it be both?). Religious believers are constantly agitating for their beliefs to be mandated as laws that apply to believers and nonbelievers alike. The entire story of the gay rights, women’s rights, and black civil rights movements are perfect historical examples of religious people staunchly refusing to keep their beliefs to themselves.

How about some non-historical examples?

Hindu scripture order prompts row in Karnataka state 

Opposition parties and minority groups in India’s Karnataka state are angry that the Hindu scripture, Bhagvad Gita, must be taught in schools. The state authorities recently directed schools to teach the Hindu holy book for three hours a week. Education Minister Visveswara Hegde Kageri said that those who did not want to learn the Gita should leave India. Opponents of the move say that the state government order violates their constitutional rights.

So the funny thing about India is that they’re supposedly a secular country. But according to the education minister, it is only those who “want to promote religious ideologies of foreign countries” that believe that secularism includes the right to be free from religious indoctrination in public schools. I wonder if Minister Kageri knows that Hinduism has its origins in a foreign country too. Probably not. After all, that would require him to have the same quality secular education that I had, rather than the feeble interference of a backwards theocracy. Because it’s clearly too much to ask that the education minister be, y’know, educated.

Indian politicians place disagreements ‘before god’ 

Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa has been accused by opposition leader HD Kumaraswamy of corruption. Mr Kumaraswamy has threatened to expose land scams allegedly committed by Mr Yeddyurappa, in addition to accusing the chief minister of trying to “buy” his silence on the matter through intermediaries. In reply, Mr Yeddyurappa has rubbished the allegations as “humbug”, and has challenged his rival to stand before Lord Manjunatha and repeat his charge. Mr Kumaraswamy has accepted the challenge.

Okay, I have to confess that this one is just hilarious. First of all, the guy accused of corruption is called “BS”. Second, it happened in the same place as the Gita fight above, which suggests that these aren’t exactly the most… shall we say ‘enlightened’ people on the planet. Third, he actually used the word “humbug”. Fourth, he used it right before he challenged someone to swear his truthful nature in front of a god, as though he has no idea what the word ‘humbug’ means. At least his colleagues have the good sense to be embarrassed by this whole state of affairs.

Malaysian ‘teapot cult’ woman loses Islam legal bid 

Malaysia’s civil court has refused a woman permission to leave Islam to avoid being jailed for apostasy. Kamariah Ali, 60, says she should not be tried under Islamic law because she is no longer a Muslim. She follows the Sky Kingdom sect, known as the teapot cult because it built a giant teapot to symbolise its belief in the healing purity of water. But judges ruled that only Malaysia’s Islamic courts could decide on the case because Ms Kamariah was born a Muslim. Malaysia’s Islamic courts have authority over only Muslims – the rest of the population are not bound by their rules.

Where’s my ‘lolwut’ pear?

So apparently in Malaysia, there are two things that are true. One is that you can be assigned a religious belief by the courts. The second is that there are people that actually worship a teapot. Betrand Russel must be spinning in his grave.

Here’s the problem: while these stories are all hilarious examples of people doing stupid stuff because of their wacky superstitions, they’re all being taken seriously by the legal system. Instead of being justifiably bounced out of court or laughed out of office, the wacky “personal beliefs” of the people involved are actually granted the status of law. Why is this problematic? Well, aside from the fact that a secular state isn’t supposed to get involved in matters of faith, religious beliefs have no mechanism by which truth can be demonstrated. The only standard by which the ‘correctness’ of religious practice can be established is by sincerity of faith. I have no doubt whatsoever that Minister Kageri, Minister Yeddyurappa and the court presiding over Ms. Ali sincerely believe in the positions they are advocating. That doesn’t change the fact that from a neutral (read: scientific) standpoint, they’re all wrong.

Seriously? A teapot?

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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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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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