Category Archives: Racial Equality

First World Problems

I know I’m going to get a load of blowback for this, but I’m posting it anyway.

In Bangladesh right now, religious extremists are murdering advocates of secular democracy. Recent religious conflicts in East Timor, the Ivory Coast, Bosnia, Ireland, India and many other countries have been persistent, vicious and bloody.

Meanwhile, here in the good old U.S. of A., college students are irate over insensitive Halloween costumes and fundamentalists are whining about Starbucks unadorned coffee cups.

I have to agree with Asher Miller, who wrote in a recent Resilience column

If offensive Halloween costumes and throwaway holiday coffee cups can generate this much discord and animosity, what happens when Americans are faced with far more complex and challenging situations? I’m afraid that in the coming months and decades there will be no shortage of these …

In this our mainstream media and politicians are doing us no favors, as they feed on anger, resentment, and an “us vs. them” mentality to capture eyeballs, votes, and dollars. Nor is modern communication technology, which fosters an expectation of immediate gratification and instant answers, while allowing us to filter information and interactions to those that reinforce our cognitive biases.

What is really worrisome about our homegrown conflicts is not that they exist, nor that they reflect different perspectives on our common culture. We live in a diverse society, and we should expect–and to the extent possible, accommodate–such differences. What is troubling is the lack of proportion.

So many of these “culture war” conflicts–some manufactured out of whole cloth, some vastly overblown–are what my youngest son calls “First World Problems.”

Let me stipulate that people have every right to criticize clueless folks who appropriate others’ identities or insult minorities by their choice of Halloween costumes. It’s insensitive and tasteless behavior. In the scheme of things, however, it ranks considerably behind machete-wielding in Bangladesh (or for that matter, racist bullying and gay-bashing in the United States).

Coffee cup hysteria is harder to justify. When people’s real lives and liberties are so secure that they have to go looking for offense at Starbucks, we can only assume that they have a very tenuous relation with reality and a deep-seated psychological need to see themselves as victims.

Americans can and should discuss differences in our perceptions and approaches. We should try to understand each other, and appreciate where other folks are coming from.

But we also need to recognize the difference between actual threats to personal safety and/or liberty, and First World Problems.

Americans need to get a grip.

The Real Danger to America

Facts are such inconvenient things.

Over the past year, we’ve seen an upsurge in anti-Muslim animus in the U.S. Protestors and pandering politicians routinely conflate Islam with terrorism; fear of “the other” has generated a whole narrative in which swarthy, suspicious outsiders pose an existential threat to “us”–aka “real Americans.” Anti-Obama partisans evidently think that calling the President a Muslim is somehow a slur.

Of course, the data shows that the real threat looks remarkably like the 50s kid next door.

Leave out gun violence, which endangers us all. Focus just on the actions of crazed religious extremists doing violence within the United States. The perpetrators tend to be pretty pale….and overwhelmingly Christian. Think Ku Klux Klan….

The New York Times reported back in June that since Sept. 11, 2001, almost twice as many people have died at the hands of white supremacists and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims. Using data compiled by New America, a Washington Research center, a study found that 48 people have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim—including the mass killings in Charleston, S.C.—compared to the 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists.  However, this does not factor in yesterday’s tragic shooting or less publicized incidents like the Las Vegas couple who murdered two police officers and left a Swastika on one of the bodies.

Why do I think that facts, data and objective reality won’t make any difference to the people who  gather to protest the building of a mosque, or continue to insist that President Obama is a Muslim?

Because racism and bigotry are impervious to reason.


Perpetuating Inequality

The Washington Post’s Wonkblog recently reported on an education experiment in Ft. Lauderdale that holds so many lessons—not just about inequality, but about institutional and unintentional racism, the waste of human capital, and the difficulty of seeing things that lie outside our comfortable worldviews.

In 2003, Cynthia Park asked her staff to make a map showing where every gifted student lived in Broward County, Fla.

The result was an atlas of inequality.

“All of them were scattered in the suburbs and in the wealthier communities, where parents were more involved in education,” recalls Park, who oversaw the county’s gifted students program. “The map was virtually void in other areas.”

The map convinced Park that the district needed to work harder to identify gifted children from impoverished areas, and in 2005, it began giving a short test to all students in the second grade. Children who scored well on the test were then evaluated to determine whether they should be enrolled in the system’s gifted program.

The result? The district identified an additional 300 gifted children between 2005 and 2006—and the impact on racial equity was huge: 80 percent more black students and 130 percent more Hispanic students were now entering gifted programs in third grade.

Prior to this change in the method for identifying precocious children, the school district had relied upon referrals by teachers—a system used by many, if not most, school districts around the country. (Not, I am pleased to report, in IPS, which uses a system similar to the one in Ft. Lauderdale.) And therein lies the problem. As the Wonkblog notes

Critics say gifted programs amplify inequality because they disproportionately recruit children from high-income families — another example of how opportunity accrues to those already blessed with opportunity.

This is a perfect example of how systemic bias operates.

People who dismiss the notion of structural racism or advantage do so because they see bias as intentional, and success or failure solely as a measure of individual effort and/or merit. They look around and no one is burning a cross on that black family’s lawn, or otherwise displaying hurtful antisocial behavior, so they draw the (not-unreasonable albeit inaccurate) conclusion that bias is absent.

The Ft. Lauderdale teachers who failed to identify precocious poor children weren’t bigots—they wouldn’t have been in those classrooms, working with poor children, if they were. But like most of us, they’d been socialized to connect intellectual capacity with certain markers of behavior—markers that children from disadvantaged families are less likely to exhibit.

A similar phenomenon occurs when businesses have job openings. Positions tend to be filled via “networking.” The word gets out to people already in those networks, who mention the opportunity to their friends, and to people with whom they feel comfortable. People who look and sound and act like them. It isn’t intentionally nefarious—it’s human. It’s the way the world works.

But in the aggregate, these otherwise innocent social networks operate to keep advantage where it is, and to exclude access to those whose talents and abilities are less recognized, because they are expressed differently. These are the “old boy’s networks” that continue to constrain women’s progress, the continuing friendships of alumni from elite schools disproportionately populated by the offspring of wealthy families, and the many other “communities of interest”—professional or social—where, as the old saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together.”

America cannot afford to lose the contributions of talented citizens simply because that talent comes in unfamiliar forms. We need to break through the barriers that keep us from seeing each other accurately. The Ft. Lauderdale approach is one small step in that direction.




The Social Construction of Expectations

Consider this a postscript to yesterday’s post about the unequal prosecution of the drug war, and the effect of that disparity on public attitudes toward African-Americans.

A few days ago, a Brookings Institution study confirmed what many of us have suspected–

The 2015 recipient of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) National Teacher of the Year Award, Shanna Peeples, recently spoke about the importance of teachers believing in their students—and imparting their expectations to students—particularly students who doubt their ability to succeed academically. Students have similar feelings and frequently report favoring teachers who “believe in [students’] ability to succeed”. Teachers’ expectations may either counteract or reinforce negative expectations held by traditionally disadvantaged students who lack access to educationally-successful role models. To date, however, little is known about how teachers form expectations and whether their expectations are systematically biased.

Along with colleagues at American University and Johns Hopkins University, I begin to address these questions in a recent study. We find evidence of systematic biases in teachers’ expectations for the educational attainment of black students. Specifically, non-black teachers have significantly lower educational expectations for black students than black teachers do when evaluating the same students. …

For example, when a black student is evaluated by one black teacher and by one non-black teacher, the non-black teacher is about 30 percent less likely to expect that the student will complete a four-year college degree than the black teacher.

There is a fair amount of research confirming the belief that teachers’ evaluation of student capacities affect student performance. (This will hardly come as a shock to those of us who are parents.Kids live up–or down–to our expectations.)

It bears repeating–again–that these disparities in expectation are not evidence of conscious racial bias. I’d be willing to bet that most of these non-black teachers genuinely care about all of their students, whatever their ethnicity or skin color.

These lowered expectations are reinforced by multiple, ingrained cultural messages–they are part and parcel of social attitudes that become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The question is: how do we change those attitudes? How do we train teachers to base their demands for student performance on more appropriate criteria than skin color?


That War on Drugs…

When I was still practicing law, I had several friends who were criminal defense lawyers. I still remember a conversation with one of them about the clients he represented in the so-called “drug war.”

Since research confirms that similar percentages of whites and blacks abuse drugs, I wanted to know why  virtually all of the defendants I saw in drug court were black. He told me that earlier in his career, he had represented fairly equal numbers of whites and blacks, but that the young white men disproportionately came from well-connected families–people who “knew people” and could make things uncomfortable for the police and prosecutors. Over the years, forays into comfortable suburban enclaves had diminished, and law enforcement concentrated its efforts in the more “urban” areas from which his then-current clients were drawn.

So I was not at all surprised, to read this recent statement by Former U.S. Marshal and DEA Agent Matthew Fogg.

“We were jumping on guys in the middle of the night, all of that. Swooping down on folks all across the country, using these sorts of attack tactics that we went out on, that you would use in Vietnam, or some kind of war-torn zone. All of the stuff that we were doing, just calling it the war on drugs. And there wasn’t very many black guys in my position.

So when I would go into the war room, where we were setting up all of our drug and gun and addiction task force determining what cities we were going to hit, I would notice that most of the time it always appeared to be urban areas.

That’s when I asked the question, well, don’t they sell drugs out in Potomac and Springfield, and places like that? Maybe you all think they don’t, but statistics show they use more drugs out in those areas than anywhere. The special agent in charge, he says ‘You know, if we go out there and start messing with those folks, they know judges, they know lawyers, they know politicians. You start locking their kids up; somebody’s going to jerk our chain.’ He said, ‘they’re going to call us on it, and before you know it, they’re going to shut us down, and there goes your overtime.’”

When people talk about “systemic” racism, this is the sort of thing they mean. I seriously doubt that these officers were personally racist; they were just responding to the reality that going after more privileged folks is a more complicated proposition.

Of course, when the media covers the “drug war,” and the video shows mostly black faces, it confirms viewers’ impression that drugs are an “urban” problem. It reinforces the stereotypes.

And the band plays on….