Category Archives: Racial Equality

Another Indicator–As If We Needed Confirmation

Time Magazine recently reported on a study of bias in the “sharing” economy.

Users of accommodations-booking site Airbnb that have African-American sounding names are less likely to have their rental requests approved by potential hosts, according to a new report that highlights the difficulties minorities face when taking part in the sharing economy.

The study’s findings probably shouldn’t come as a surprise; we have literally mountains of data demonstrating similar results among job-seekers.

This particular report joins daily news reports of attacks on Mosques and Muslims, pushback against efforts like “Black Lives Matter,” and of course, the increasingly unhinged and unapologetic racism of Donald Trump (which has thus far been met with only tepid condemnation from most of the other GOP candidates).

I doubt that Americans will ever be able to have a truly frank, open discussion of race and racism. Even the eruption of long-suppressed animus in the wake of Obama’s election has been met with denial; the existence of overwhelming, vicious hatred directed at the First Family has been denied, or–if admitted–attributed to Obama’s “leftism” (what a joke that is!) or other personal deficits.

And before I get angry posts to the effect that it is legitimate to disagree with the President’s actions and priorities, of course it is.  Criticisms of policies are perfectly reasonable. No one–certainly not this writer–is suggesting that any President is beyond reproach, or that he, or any other political figure, should not be subject to criticism based upon performance.

But let’s get real.Only the willfully blind can miss the obvious: the extent to which the ferocity of attacks on the President and First Lady are based upon the President’s perceived “otherness.”

Racism has been called “America’s Original Sin.” It’s time we dealt with it.

I certainly don’t have a magic wand, nor do I know how to change a culture that accommodates categorizing people on the basis of religion or skin color or sexual orientation. I do know that we can’t solve problems when we refuse to admit they exist.

And we definitely have a problem.

If Evidence Mattered…

Despite the fact that he has no legal authority to do so, Governor Pence has doubled down on his rejection of Syrian refugees. He continues to insist that he is just concerned for the safety of Indiana residents.

Indiana’s Governor lives in a wholly fact-free zone, of course. Refugees are highly unlikely to pose a threat to Hoosiers. (Unrestricted access to guns, however, which he enthusiastically supports, represents a huge and demonstrable threat…).

Not only have refugees proven to be virtually all law-abiding, but the danger posed even by genuine, avowed jihadists is actually quite low. Per The New York Times:

Despite public anxiety about extremists inspired by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the number of violent plots by such individuals has remained very low. Since 9/11, an average of nine American Muslims per year have been involved in an average of six terrorism-related plots against targets in the United States. Most were disrupted, but the 20 plots that were carried out accounted for 50 fatalities over the past 13 and a half years.

In contrast, right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities, according to a study by Arie Perliger, a professor at the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. The toll has increased since the study was released in 2012.

Other data sets, using different definitions of political violence, tell comparable stories….

Meanwhile, terrorism of all forms has accounted for a tiny proportion of violence in America. There have been more than 215,000 murders in the United States since 9/11. For every person killed by Muslim extremists, there have been 4,300 homicides from other threats.

A colleague with whom I was discussing this data shared an interesting article from Slate about the venues supplying our home-grown terrorists. The article’s sub-head advised “Forget Syria. The most dangerous religious extremists are migrants from North and South Carolina.”

Today, Republican presidential candidates are climbing over one another in a race to block the entry of Syrian refugees. They’re doing this even though, among the nearly 800,000 refugees we’ve accepted since 9/11, not one has been convicted of—or has even been arrested for—plotting a terror attack in this country. (A few have been arrested for links to terrorism elsewhere.) Why do refugees have such a clean record? Because they have to go through an elaborate process: screening by U.N. evaluators, “biometric and biographic checks,” consultations with U.S. counterterrorism agencies, and an in-person interview with the Department of Homeland Security. On average, the process takes about a year and a half—or, in the case of Syrian refugees, about two years.

Terrorists from North Carolina encounter no such scrutiny. They just climb into their cars, cross the border, and proceed to Georgia, Kansas, or Colorado. They’re protected by Article IV of the Constitution, which, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, guarantees citizens “the right of free ingress into other States.” That’s why, among the 27 fatal terror attacks inflicted in this country since 9/11, 20 were committed by domestic right-wing extremists. (The other seven attacks were committed by domestic jihadists, not by foreign terrorist organizations.) Of the 77 people killed in these 27 incidents, two-thirds died at the hands of anti-abortion fanatics, “Christian Identity” zealots, white anti-Semites, or other right-wing militants.

The writer concluded by wondering “why, as we close our doors to refugees who have done us no harm, we pay so little attention to our enemies within.”

Let’s be candid, even if the Governor isn’t: it’s because we fear those who don’t look like “us.”

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.