The very real cost of racism in human lives

There is a very important article in Slate that everyone should read.

Racism Is a Pandemic

When two colleagues and I started examining infectious mortality rates during the early 20th century, we were looking for regional differences in how the United States handled influenza, tuberculosis, and other kinds of infections. Of course, we were especially interested in that era’s deadly pandemic. The 1918 flu had killed on a scale that’s hard to fathom: an estimated 50 million people worldwide, and half a million in the U.S.

To get a detailed look at infectious disease mortality in that era, we digitized and carefully checked old public health records, linked them to census population estimates, and categorized the causes of death. We didn’t believe the results. We discovered that white mortality during the 1918 flu pandemic was still lower than Black mortality, up to that point, had ever been. This wasn’t only true in the South, but in every region of the United States. This wasn’t about regional public health—it was about racism.

[…]

This spring, while recovering from my own COVID-19 infection, I wondered whether the same thing would still be true today. I found it unfathomable that the disaster unfolding around me that spring in New York, where my parents live and where I had become sick, could bear any resemblance to more typical life in the United States. And yet, thinking about how the 1918 results had stunned me, I wanted to see for myself. As life ground to a halt in the midst of another cataclysmic pandemic, how did the toll of this one compare to that of the more ordinary, ubiquitous catastrophe? Will white mortality during the coronavirus pandemic still be less than what Blacks experience routinely, without any pandemic? I began to work out equations and search for data.

[…]

If the Black population did not experience a single death due to COVID-19, if the pandemic only affected white people, Black mortality in 2020 would probably still be higher than white mortality.

This is a thought experiment. In reality, of course, COVID has hit Black populations hardest, and the inequality in death rates is likely to greater than it has been in many years. Racism is making Black Americans, along with indigenous and immigrant populations, most vulnerable to the pandemic. But the hypotheticals give us an important perspective on the reality: Racism gave Black people pandemic-level mortality long before COVID.

And it is racism that is killing Black people. “Mortality modelers” like me know that there are an awful lot of reasons one person might live longer than another. But when we see that one group in a society consistently dies at younger ages than another, we can look for trends. America excludes Black people from mechanisms of generating wealth, consigns them to the worst schools, confines them to neighborhoods with more pollution and more poverty, targets them with routine violence by state authorities, and treats them with suspicion and hostility when they seek medical care. There is no mystery in those early deaths.

We all know the devastating cost of COVID-19, yet as the article makes clear, the cost of racism on the Black communities is as high, or even higher, year after year.

This has to change. As the article states:

It is time we honestly confront the magnitude of racial inequality in the United States: a pandemic’s worth of death, every single year. Once we do that, our question about radical proposals to combat racism should shift from what is politically palatable to, simply, what will work.

Let’s mourn Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I woke up to the horrible news that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, 87 years old.

As probably was the case for most of you, I immediately start thinking about the consequences of her death – i.e. what horrible candidate Trump would think up, how the Democrats could fight that, and what the consequences would be of that. This is of course, important, and if you want to hear some good thoughts about that, I recommend listening to the Opening Arguments podcast special episode, made just after the hosts learned about her death.

But I also think it is important that we pay proper respect to Ruth Bader Gindburg, or Notorious R.B.G. as she was often referred to on the internet. She was a icon of feminism and civil rights, and should be remembered for her role in fighting gender inequality in the US.

Before becoming a judge, she worked at the ACLU, and they have released an obituary of her.

In Memory of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice who first rose to national prominence as an ACLU lawyer fighting for equal rights for women, has died at 87 years old.

She began Harvard Law School as a young mother and one of only nine women in her class, and became the architect of a legal strategy to eradicate gender discrimination in the United States. She modeled her approach after that of Thurgood Marshall on race discrimination, planning for a series of cases at the Supreme Court, each precedent paving the way for the next that would further expand rights and protections. In 1993, she joined the court as an associate justice, and over the decades became a cultural icon beloved for her vision and passion in defending the rights of women.

As the obituary makes clear, RBG’s impact came from not just her work as a justice on the US Supreme Court, but also from her work before becoming a justice.

This is also the point of the obituary of the Guardian

Ruth Bader Ginsburg changed America long before she joined the supreme court

The most important feminist lawyer in the history of the American republic has died. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a supreme court justice and singularly influential legal mind, was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993, the court’s second-ever female justice, and served for nearly 30 years. She passed away due to complications from cancer on Friday. She was 87.

Strategic, contemplative and disciplined, but with a passion for the feminist cause that is rarely admitted into the halls of power, Ginsburg established an impressive legal legacy long before she became a judge. Over the course of a two-decade career as a lawyer before her appointment to the DC circuit court of appeals, she successfully argued cases that expanded civil rights law and 14th amendment protections to women, undoing a dense network of laws that had codified sex discrimination in all areas of American life. After she was elevated to the nation’s highest court, she found her own views moving left as the institution was pushed to the right. Her career was defined by courageous dissents that stood up for the principle of equal justice and kept alive the promise of a more free and fair America.

In the coming days, where the death of Ginsburg undoubtedly will expose the hypocrisy of McConnell, it will be all too easy to forget to mourn Gindburg the person, and not just mourn and feel angry at the consequences of her death. She doesn’t deserve that. She deserve to be remembered as the force of good that she has been through her life.

Rest in power Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

How to completely miss the point

The Danish government party, Socialdemokratiet/The Social Democrats, have made a video which is supposed to show that they support all children.

You don’t have to be able to speak English to get the gist of what the video is about. It is based on the Privilege walk exercise, which is based on Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, and has is meant to illustrate how privilege will affect people.

Now, look at the video from the Social Democrats, and you’ll probably notice straight away that they have completely missed the point of the exercise. The group of children in the video is extremely homogeneous, and there are none with different ethnical backgrounds or with visible handicaps.

Yes, the video ends up with great differences between the children, but the big distance this is only possible because they have changed the questions in order to remove any referring to white and able bodied privileges, and instead focusing on only those that can affect this particular group of children. It is understandable why they have done this, but it goes against the whole concept for the exercise.

I cannot even begin to understand why anyone would do this particular exercise without any representations for the groups that faces systematic discrimination in the Danish society. I can only think that this was done deliberately to not draw attention to the plight of those groups, and instead focuses on more traditionally social democratic priorities – e.g. class and education. This is, unfortunately, not surprising, given how the Danish Social Democrats has become more and more anti-immigrant, in order to win voters back from the xenophobic Danish Peoples’ Party.

Ola Bini arrested in Ecuador

Gizmodo reports on the arrest of programmer superstar Ola Bini by the Ecuadorean government:

Police in Ecuador have arrested Swedish programmer and digital privacy activist Ola Bini for allegedly trying to destabilize the Ecuadorian government by “collaborating” with WikiLeaks. Bini was arrested at Quito Airport in Ecuador on his way to Japan.

Ola Bini is a Swedish programmer with a truly impressive resume, and a frequent speaker at conferences. According to his own website, he has choose to focus on “privacy enhanching technologies”.

So far, it doesn’t seem like Ola Bini has been charged with anything, but the claims made by the Ecuadorian government are very serious.

The EFF has come out in defense of Ola Bini: The Ecuadorean Authorities Have No Reason to Detain Free Software Developer Ola Bini

I am entirely on the side of the EFF on this. I have met Ola Bini, and find it very doubtful that he would do anything like the things claimed by the Ecuadorian government. And even if he had, he should still be allowed proper due process, unlike how he has been treated so far, according to his lawyers.

There is a petition to get Ola Bini released, which you can sign here

How many innocent people must be freed? A sweeping review is needed

There is a well-known saying, called Blackstone’s formulation, which is supposed to represent the concept behind the judicial systems in the West

It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer

Yet, looking at the US judicial system, it seems like the exact opposite is the case. A lot of people are wrongfully convicted – either through being forced into plea bargains, or though plain wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project, which has been working to free innocent people for 25 years, have freed hundreds of people, many from the death row. Unfortunately, there is not enough resources to help everybody, and sometimes it takes a very unlikely series of events for someone innocent to get the attention of someone who can help.

This is the case with Valentino Dixon. He was wrongfully convicted of murder, and had served 27 years behind bars before getting his conviction overturned. While he family had fought for him getting released, the big breakthrough came when a golf magazine took up his case. Dixon came to the attention of Golf Digest because of his golf-related drawings. And as Golfworld explains, it didn’t take long for the magazine to notice that his conviction seemed rather doubtful.

It took about a hundred drawings before Golf Digest noticed, but when we did, we also noticed his conviction seemed flimsy. So we investigated the case and raised the question of his innocence.

The case is complicated, but on the surface it involves shoddy police work, zero physical evidence linking Dixon, conflicting testimony of unreliable witnesses, the videotaped confession to the crime by another man, a public defender who didn’t call a witness at trial, and perjury charges against those who said Dixon didn’t do it. All together, a fairly clear instance of local officials hastily railroading a young black man with a prior criminal record into jail. Dixon’s past wasn’t spotless, he had sold some cocaine, but that didn’t make him a murderer.

Golf Digest wrote about this, and the story was picked up by other media, without Dixon’s case got any traction. Then his case was picked by 3 Georgetown undergraduate students as their case in a Prison Reform Project course.

Dixon’s case was certainly the most advanced, mostly because he already had an attorney representing him and pursuing his innocence. But the case had stalled. One barrier to such efforts is the challenge of proving there is new evidence that needs to be considered — difficult in this case, since the real killer’s confessions had been well-known for decades.

The three students working on Dixon’s case kept pushing, traveling to visit Dixon in prison, tracking down witnesses, and interviewing the key figures in his original trial. Several interviews revealed the blatant incompetence and callousness of his original trial attorney, who didn’t seem troubled at all by the conviction.

But the bombshell moment occurred when the original prosecutor, unprompted, revealed that after Dixon had been arrested, the investigators had conducted gun residue testing on his hands and clothes, and the test came back negative.

This was a blatant violation of the landmark Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, which ruled prosecutors are obligated to provide defense attorneys with any material evidence helpful to the defense. Yet in this case, no one knew about the test until the Georgetown students captured the prosecutor talking about it on camera.

In short, these remarkable students broke new investigative ground and contributed to Dixon’s lawyers’ final and ultimately successful motion to overturn his conviction based on new evidence.

If Gold Digest hadn’t picked up the story, creating some media buzz, it is unlikely the case would have gotten the attention of the Georgetown professors running the course, and then the graduate students wouldn’t have begun their digging.

I cannot help wonder how many other wrongfully convicted people there are out there without the benefit of a passion that catches the eye of someone outside the prison. Given what we know about the conduct of US prosecutors and police forces, and in many cases public defenders, I can’t help but think that every case should be reviewed, especially those against poor, non-white people, who historically has been badly served by the US judicial system. This is not a small task, but it should be possible to identify cases with a high risk of wrongful conviction – this would be cases from districts where there has already been identified problems with the methods used by the prosecutor and the police force, cases where the public defender has a noteworthy bad record, and cases where there is evidence of a bias in the system (e.g. black crime against white people).

This is unlikely to happen as long as the GOP, and other though-on-crime politicians, are in political position – including the position of public prosecutor and judge in many cases. The only way to change this, is to vote for better politicians, and then pressure the elected politicians to work for justice, rather than being though on crime.

The original 2012 article in Golf Digest: Golf Saved My Life – Drawings From Prison