Category Archives: Race and Racism

One Person No Vote: Listen to Carol Anderson et al

Spread the love

My new favorite podcast is Now & Then, with Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman (formerly one of the “American History Guys”).

Several issues back, Richardson and Freeman invited Carol Anderson, author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy* to talk about voting suppression.

On this episode of Now & Then, “Voting Rights: The Big Picture,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman talk about the history of voter suppression with Carol Anderson, professor of African American Studies at Emory University and author of One Person No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy and The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. The trio discuss the concept of the “consent of the governed” during the founding period, the emergence of Jim Crow laws after the Civil War, and the evolution of voting suppression efforts in the modern era. How have politicians justified restrictive voting policies? How do these policies damage American democracy? And what strategies might protect the franchise today?

The podcast is here.

One of the great features of Now & Then is that the hosts spend a lot of time running up to the body of the work laying down foundations and drawing in context. Very Maddowesque. But for this reason the podcast can have a slow start. In this episode, it takes a while for Carol Anderson to get the mic and start her thing, but once she does you will be blow away, even if you thought you knew stuff about voter suppression (and voting rights, not the same thing).


Spread the love

No more black pastors

Spread the love

Did you hear that white supremacist on the defense team of the white supremacist posse-men who murdered Ahmaud Arbrey said?

Watch:

I have no comments on this, it is obvious how wrong this is. But, I have some memes based on the reaction of one of those present.

By the way if you look at the video, and watch the woman to our right (the one with the non-curly hair) you will see one of the best aborted face-palms ever.

See also:


Spread the love

Yes, CRT is being taught in our schools, if this is CRT:

Spread the love

Everyone knows that CRT, aka, Critical Race Theory, is a law school or graduate level subject that is not taught in American K-12 classrooms. More precisely, and I quote Wikipedia, “Critical race theory (CRT) is a body of legal scholarship and an academic movement of civil-rights scholars and activists who seek to examine the intersection of race and law in the United States and to challenge mainstream American liberal approaches to racial justice.”

Everyone also knows that when Right Wing Goons, Contaminants, and Bloody Insurrectionists talk about CRT they are not actually talking about the law school class. They are using CRT to refer to things that are actually being taught in KL-12 schools, that they don’t want taught there. Continue reading Yes, CRT is being taught in our schools, if this is CRT:


Spread the love

The Third Worlding

Spread the love

One day I returned home and realized I had forgotten the shampoo. It was a devastating revelation.

You are probably thinking, “First World problem,” right? Well, it wasn’t because at the time I was living in the actual co-called “Third World.*”

Home, for me at the time, was one of the most remote non-polar research sites ever. “Going to the store” meant driving across nearly impassible roads for a day, a ride that would cause enough damage to the old Land Rover to require some $500 of repair on average. Then a few days in a sort of city (Isiro, Zaire) where I would spend considerable effort assembling the food and other supplies for a stint as long as I could manage, hopefully 4 to 6 weeks. Basically, as much as the old Land Rover could hold. Then, the trip back. So, going to the store was a week out of my research time, costly, and dangerous (because of the roads).

I had taken a shower the morning of my return to the field, at my friend Bwana Ndgege’s house, and left the shampoo in the bathroom. Yes, devastating.

What I did not know at the time was this. Later that very morning, Bwana Nndege saw the bottle of shampoo in the bathroom. He picked it up and walked out in front of his house, which was located in a part of the city where one might see people waking around on their daily business, but not too many people. Shortly, he saw a man walking down the street, and hailed him over. Bwana Ndege did not know this man.

“Say, do you happen to know the researchers that live in Ngodingodi, a research village down the road past Wamba, on the Mambasa road?”

“There is still a road there?” the man asked.

“Truth be told, not really a road any more, but they go town there with their land rover. The blue one with the different color doors. Know it?”

“No, not really, never heard of any of this,” the man answered.

So, Bwana Ndege handed him the shampoo, and said, “Well, anyway, could you pass this on to someone who might? They left it here this morning.”

“OK, no problem,” the man said, taking the shampoo.

Now, I should mention, that the good people of the Eastern Congo are averse to crime, and are honest. There are, of course, criminals there just like anywhere else, but such is not your average Zairois. At the same time, a bottle of shampoo is a commodity people save up for, feel lucky to have, and desire. Handing this man the bottle of shampoo with only the vaguest instructions or prospects like this would be similar to finding a random person on the street of an American city and handing them a short stack of loose ten dollar bills and asking them to pass it on to someone who might pass it on to someone etc. with the hope that it gets to a city 500 miles away, and to a particular vague address. It just would not work.

So what happened next?

About three weeks after I returned, sans shampoo, I was up in the hilltop research camp working on some notes, when I smelled something different. I asked one of the local people who worked there what that might be. She sniffed the air, and said, “Maybe the nomads?”

There is a local tribe called the Bahama (or Wahama, or just Hama) who rarely pass through with their small herds of cattle. Cattle don’t live in this forest, and can’t survive the parasites, but a couple/few times a year, a Hama man will pass through with a couple dozen head. Probably, some circumstance in his life and business makes passing through a zone where some of his cattle will get sick better than going some other route. One can imagine.

Anyway, she was right. The smell was the cattle coming down the road. We stood on the top of the hill and watched as a couple of dozen long horned Sanga cattle passed by, followed by a few straggling calves and a Hama man driving them. He glanced up the hill and saw me, which caused him to sprint up the path and issue a greeting.

Sanga Cattle. Not the Congo, but nearby Rwanda. From Wilson, RT, “Crossbreeding of Cattle in Africa” DOI: 10.15640/jaes.v7n1a3
“Hey, what’s new?” (Standard greeting in the area: “Habari gani?”)

“No news,” I replied. I asked our local employee to get the water bottle and cup, assuming he wanted a fresh drink. Which he did.

As he appreciatively downed the liquid, he asked me, “Is this Ngodigodi? The place where you white people work?”

“Yes, it is,” I replied, bemused that he would know that, since our presence was semi-secretive, in order to avoid drawing attention to our neighborhood, which would in turn potentially mess up the folks who lived around us.

That’s when he pulled out the bottle of shampoo and handed it to me. “Some guy up the road a ways told me to give this to you.”

In sum: First world problem and third world solution.

The thing is, this was not an unusual event. It was normal.

Well, it was a somewhat extreme and amusing, story-generating version of normal. Normal is more like I go to a guy’s store and say I want to exchange money, and he says he can’t but he knows someone who can, and it turns out that is also the guy I’m hoping to get a rebuilt fuel injector from, and he is the sibling of a person who is offering bags of ground cassava for pretty cheap, but they all live in different places but are visiting relatives, and somebody needs a ride across town. Three people, actually, with stops along the way. So, after three hours of driving around with people and stuff, three hours of meeting and greeting, counting out giant piles of near worthless local currency, goods and services being exchanged, a couple cups of tea and a chupa of beer or two, and at the end of the day, I end up completing an important bank transaction in the land without banks, my truck will get fixed, and we can eat for a month, all stuff I would have done in the US in less than 45 minutes, but here, it is a series of social events bound together with a ToDo list, and a full day’s activity.

Yesterday morning my wife stopped at her usual coffee shop to pick up the coffee she ordered in advance on line. The barista’s kid was sick so he was not there, and the shop was closed. But the person working at the adjoining business said, “yeah, he’s out, but I’ll tell him you get a free coffee tomorrow.” Then this morning, she stopped by and a third person who also did not work there said, “are you the person who gets the free crafted press? Here, saving it for you” and so on. A series of trust-based events to fix a supply chain problem, a supply chain problem that is an amateur version of the Big Giant Supply Chain Problem that every human being who lives anywhere that is not the First World experiences daily with all things, where it is simply the way it is, all the time.

A supply chain problem in the US could be called a First World problem, but really, it is something a little different. It is the thin but heretofore persistent veneer of the First World sloughing off in a spot or two, revealing the fundamental Third World nature of human society and economics, underneath it all. The great First World accomplishment is re-organizing the Third World reality so things run more smoothly and everything takes less time. The benefit is that a term like “supply chain problem” is a bemusing neologism rather than a daily descriptor for most Americans. The cost is the dehumanization of the system.

The Republicans broke one of our oldest, most stable, and most useful institutions.
Just hours after the coffee exchange, I happened to see in a newspaper report another neologism: Skimpflation. The New York Times muses: “The quality of many services has deteriorated since the start of the pandemic — a problem that the NPR show “Planet Money” has labeled “skimpflation.”” What the Gray Lady and its commentators do with this concept is to launch on a Biden-Leveling screed meant to keep the fight between the left and the right even-looking, which is a crime that paper commits every day. But what they hit on, accidentally, is the point I’m making here. Two points, really. 1) Third World life is just under the surface, and 2) If you get your expectations in order, this change we are having has some serious benefits; it isn’t all down side.

There is a third point. This is all Trump’s fault. And the Republicans. By ripping apart as many systems as they could, and by encouraging rather than fighting the Covid pandemic, they damaged or broke all the things that matter to most of the people, while leaving the rich intact. We are now more like Zaire/Congo than we ever were. (Like our postal system, on the verge of collapse. Many countries don’t even have a postal system. They just have this guy who happens to be walking down the street, or a muzungu with a working vehicle who happens to be going across town…) The Republican goal is to turn the US into a sea of Third World humanity with the supply chain ever broken, with a small wealthy and somewhat larger and less wealthy ex-patriot-esque community living behind walls in some serious priv. That is what Republicans always wanted, that is what they are finally getting.

The world where that story of shampoo happened unraveled, several times, in the intervening period between then and now. Hundreds of thousands have died violent deaths there, or worse, and there was even a systematic holocaust. A region about a third of the United States with a population of about a fifth of the United States has been living in economic strife and social upheaval because that top-heavy post colonial system eventually blows up. We will have that here as well, if the Third Worlding planned by Bannon, Trump, McConnell and the other Republicans is fully realized.

We could be rescued, of course, by a fascist superhero of some kind. Yes, this is Hitler’s playbook being applied. It is a very plausible scenario. Fear creates a movement, spiritual and physical terror, propaganda. Or, as they say in Mein Kampf, “Angst schafft Bewegung, spirituellen und physischen Terror, Propaganda.” Hitler’s program worked because Germany of the time was a broken society with a broken economy and a balkanized government. The White Supremacist program wouldn’t work well in an America that wasn’t beaten and damaged. Lucky for the Republicans, this handy dandy disease came along just in time to put us on the mat and hold us down long enough to create the beginnings of a Third World society, in which a movement could grow, spiritual and physical terror could be applied, and propaganda deployed. MAGA, insurrection, CRT/Replacement Theory.

Perhaps it is time to start stocking up on shampoo.


Note: The term “Third World” is considered inappropriate to refer to countries previously referred to as “Third World.” Untwist your shorts, I did not use that term to mean that in this essay. Thank you very much, re-read if necessary.


Spread the love

Anti CRT? That makes you a racist.

Spread the love

Sorry, had to say it. Had to say the truth.

There might be some other problems too.

If you are anti-CRT being taught in K-12 schools, you are a moron, because it isn’t. If you are one of the emerging gaggle of goons who now insist that “liberals are denying CRT being taught in schools” then you are a moronic paranoid eejit.

Maybe you don’t really know much about CRT and realize that, but you have been groomed an organized by a right wing think tank to use CRT as a scare tactic to raise money and run a campaign. The Trump Criminals have a word for when you are being used by someone else, a word I don’t like to use but if fits; You are a cuck. At least you might be less of a moron in this case.

If, however, you understand that CRT is a buzzword for curriculum that honestly addresses history, talks about things like slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the systemic racism that exists in so many area of our society, then maybe you are a person who does not want the finger pointed at you. Maybe you make the argument that you don’t want kids to feel bad about their past, but that is bullshit. What you really don’t want is for your kids to come home and look at you, listen to what you say, realize what you do, figure out how you think, and realize their daddy is a Nazi.

Kind of a sensitive subject, I know, but if you are working to get CRT out of our schools, you are not a good person. In the old days (ten years ago) you would know to sit down and shut up. Please consider doing that now.

Anti CRT? That makes you a racist, and more specifically, a white supremacist. Not a good look.


Spread the love

Anthropology and Racism with Greg Laden, by Brycearonee

Spread the love

The Promethian Secular Frontier presents this excellent interview, which I enjoyed greatly, with, wait for it …. me!

Promethean Secular Frontier (PSF) is an educational/secular humanist page meant to provide a community for discussion on various topics ranging from the natural sciences (astronomy, physics, geology, biology/evolution, etc), to social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, archeology, etc), to philosophy (religion/theology, epistemological, rationalism, morality, etc). Our goal at PSF is to bring concepts that are different for laymen audiences and make them understandable and easily digestible to people seeking knowledge. PSF also wants to create a community that promotes inquiry, skepticism, critical thinking and secular humanism.

Small correction: I was a faculty instructor at Harvard, but actual professor (later) at University of Minnesota.


Spread the love

A Drop of Aryan White Supremacy

Spread the love

As in a drop in a bucket, and Aryan White Supremacy as in actual Nazis.

I usually don’t bring you recommendations for war related books partly because I don’t have any academic authority or meaningful experience in that area, but this one title struck my interest and I’m inclined to read it: The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Brutally Massacred in World War II by Denise George and Robert Child.

The “Lost 11” were part of a segregated artillery unit, all African Americans, that became trapped behind German lines in a part of Belgium that was long part of Germany, and in which many strong sympathizers of Germany and the Nazi regime lived. So, naturally, they were turned over to the Schutzstaffel (the SS), tortured, disfigured, and murdered.

My point here is not to be morbid, but to suggest a touchstone to the history of both racism and white supremacy with direct connections to the present. How many times do we say “our parents/grandparents fought to end facism in Europe so therefore Trump is a ninny” or words to that effect? It is a common memish trope of the day. Its repetition almost makes is ahistorical and trite. Well, let’s un-trite that idea for a moment.

The bloody and torturous massacre of these black men was a nexus for centuries of racism that denigrated and murdered Native Americans in the Spanish colonies, produced the Inquisition, the increasingly strident isolation and repression of Jews from the Atlantic to the Urals, colonialism everywhere, and the ultimate rise of highly organized white supremacy in the form of a Nazi nation with laws and practices intent on wiping out, killing, or enslaving all bipoc people. All bipoc people. If we asked, at the moment these SS troops, informed of the black soldiers’ whereabouts in the home of Mathias Langer, and were closing in on that home, what was to happen next, there would be no uncertainty. The German sympathizers and the Nazi soldiers were true to form. All white supremacists and fascists will be true to form unless they are stopped. That is the lesson of this history.


Spread the love

Policing Reform: Then, now, next

Spread the love

This post is meant to be a rough draft of an overview of police reform activism over recent decades. What I’m saying here is mainly from my own memory. Ever since I’ve been storing and retaining memories, I’ve been one sort of environmentalist or another, but police reform activism has been part of my life since, well, since the Beatles were still together, almost. Recent conversations led me to think about this more than I usually would, and I realized that there is some worthwhile historical insight to be had.

While this overview is based on memory, I did spend a couple of hours this morning looking at old articles, checking Wikipedia pages, etc. There is fodder for a well researched and closely documented essay. This is not that essay. But, feel free to throw your thoughts, experiences, and information into the comments just in case there is such an essay!

Today we are concerned with militarization of the police. This is a little odd in long term historical perspective, because at one time in the past, militarization of the police would have involved reducing their firearms and training capacity considerably.

From around the beginning of the 20th century both the British and American armies used either an Enfield rifle or similar (“Enfield” refers to a range of similar designs made by Lee-Enfield or copied by American manufacturers). You would pull the trigger, then use a bolt to move a new bullet into the chamber, then pull the trigger. The military had other weapons, of course, but the average soldier had this rifle. Meanwhile, in the 1920s and 1930s, when gangsters literally ruled large parts of the United States, both police and the gangsters commonly used a submachine gun. “Militarizing” the police in 1925 would have involved taking away their powerful weapons and downgrading. Over recent decades, militarizing means replacing a handgun with the modern equivalent of a submachine gun.

This perspective on militarization is not very relevant to modern activism, but telling the story here serves the purpose of reminding us that the “old days” were not a few years ago, and history is complex. The relevance of militarization will be more apparent below.

There was a time, back when I first got involved in police reform activism, when it was common practice for the police to shoot people in the back if they fled. It was considered normal, and was part of police training. My own early activism arose from the shooting of a young African American kid named Keith by a New York State Trooper. The kid was caught driving a motor scooter on the New York State Thruway. The trooper told him to stand there, the kid decided to drive away on his scooter. The New York State Troopers had just gotten their much coveted giant .357 magnum side arms, after a long fight in the legislature, where liberals thought the police might use them to kill people and the police wanted them to shoot at cars. My memory is that Keith was shot in the back, and nearly cut in half as the giant high powered bullet tore through his spine and exploded his internal organs, only weeks after that new pistol was issued. Within a few months, 15 year old me was on a bus going to Chicago to participate (and cover for a local anarchist newspaper) the Fight Back conference and protest, sparked by a spate of similar killings.

Our activism, and the legal process, worked. Now there are laws in all but a few states that prohibit shooting a fleeing suspect except in special circumstances. A 1986 (IIRC) supreme court decision said something similar. During that period of time, say from the very late 1960s through the end of the 1980s, our activism led to changes in law, and court outcomes, that cut the number of police killings of citizens to less than half, and made shooting people in the back mostly illegal. You are welcome.

That wasn’t enough of course, more had to be done. And circumstances conspired to make things worse rather than better in the 1980s. During the 1960s (and before) and through the 1970s, drug use was an urban phenomenon, and people would go “downtown” to buy their pot, heroin, etc. Remember the “war on drugs”? Well, that happened when the rise of suburbs shifted the drug marketplace to the suburbs. During the 1980s, you would go to the suburbs to get your pot, as likely as anywhere else. Under Reagan, the War on Drugs turned to the suburbs. I remember a friend of mine who was a cop at that time (the first woman cop in the state, IIRC) told me that if I, ahem, happened to know anyone looking for pot tell them to stay away from the ‘burbs. She could see the writing on the walls. there was going to be some serious federally funded action in the suburbs.

She was right. There were major busts in one suburb or another across the US every single day for a few years. Reagan drove drugs back into the “inner city” where they belonged, at least according to the nice people in the suburbs.

There was not a lot of shooting and killing connected with that operation, but I believe the results were deadly. By pushing drug dealing back into the urban zone, it also pushed it more into the hands of people of color. Tough drug laws, a product of the 1970s, were expanded and increased. Police were given more powers, like the ability to take property used in drug transport. They were also given more weapons and other forms of support, though nothing like the later militarization. The ultimate result: crime fighting was equated with the war on drugs, and both were equated with police repression of people living in ethnically diverse, but mainly Black or Hispanic, urban zones. It wasn’t just the drugs, it was everything in life. The systematic, daily, attacks on people in certain neighborhoods increased. Meanwhile, the police procedurals and shows like Cops taught people in the suburbs that sometimes the police just had to get tough on on the bad boys. What ya gonna do when they come for you? Don’t run, don’t hide, keep your hands in sight or you die. Police repression of the people of the “Inner City” or “Downtown” became a feature of American society and was normalized in the minds of the middle class, whose very parents or grandparents used to live in those neighborhoods.

I don’t know much first hand about political activism regarding police reform in the mid 1980s through the mid 1990s. I was mostly out of the country or buried in the library or lab in graduate school, or teaching. My weekly political act when in the US focused on pro choice clinic defense, then later I added defending science in the classroom. I was as much looking the other way as the rest of us white people of priv, speeding through higher education, or working corporate, or whatever. (Still a citizen of the urban zone, though … the ‘burbs still feel new to me.) And fruitlessly fighting the Republican takeover of everything.

Then 9/11 happened. Everyone seemed to freak out. The nation and anything that looked like defense or protection, policing or investigation, became the child who would not stop crying to which you acquiesce and give whatever candy they want. The right wing introduced a bill called “S1” which made many crimes punishable by death, gave police and investigative agencies broad powers, etc. etc. They introduced that, IIRC, in the 1970s, and kept introducing it again and again and again, and it would always be defeated, or simply ignored, because it was so extreme and draconian. It would change our society into a police state. It was unacceptable.

Within months after 9/11, that bill was strengthened and passed. You know of it as the Patriot Act. And, it made militarization of the police not only acceptable, but required, and funded.

I don’t think is is safe to say that the police were less bad in the late 1970s or early 1980s, after the right to shoot a fleeing suspect was removed, but before the War on Drugs Reagan style. It might have been, though. The police were less armed, less numerous, and had had their wings clipped, at least to some extent. But if they were less dangerous, it was only for a while.

I would like to know if it is true that there is a combat vet to cop pipeline, and if that has made our police forces more dangerous by concentrating, exacerbating, and arming PTSD. I would like to know if it is still true (or really ever was) that police forces avoid hiring people who show some degree of intelligence, on purpose. I would like to know how badly we’ve messed up by increasingly linking corporate costs of doing business to police funding. What percentage of a police officer’s lifetime salary is ultimately paid for by large corporations rather than taxpayers, right now, and how has that changed? It is imperative to get a handle on the relationship between government lawyers and police agencies, if we expect to police the police. What needs to happen there?

Finally, I think we need to assess our victories. The Chauvin murder conviction is only barely a victory. It is a great thing for those immediately involved, and it is a demonstration that accountably is possible. But saying that the Chauvin conviction is a step in the right direction is ingenuous. He held the man down for 6 minutes while he died, and another 3 minutes for good measure, guarded by his fellow cops, whom he was teaching how to be a cop, while surrounded by citizens making the moral, legal, and logical case against what he was doing, filming the whole time. This is like saying to your dog, “you pooped, good boy.” This was not an accomplishment of the system.

One of the more recent changes in police behavior and associated law, the one we are dealing with now, is the right of a cop to kill a person if doing so conforms to expectations of what a cop would do, with special consideration to the cop being afraid. This is why the police who carried out most of the recent killings in Minnesota got off. There is recent case law supporting the concept. It is like the shoot the fleeing suspect rule. At one time shooting the fleeing suspect was considered normal by much of society, was codified in law, supported by the courts, and taught in police training. Now, none of those things are true (mostly). Today, killing a suspect because you are afraid of black people is codified in law and court doctrine, built into training, and accepted as normal and expected behavior by much of society.

Stop that.


Spread the love

How the Chauvin Trial Will Go, and other matters of White supremacy

Spread the love

I don’t expect convictions in the Chauvin or Rittenhouse trials.

In both cases, it is about White supremacy. I don’t subscribe to the idea half of the country comprises batshit crazy right wing red hat wearing insurrectionist Nazis. Not half. But enough that in putting together a pool of 12 people, it is almost impossible to not get one or two. They will obviate any criminal jury decision. This will apply to these two trials as well as many of the Capitol attack/Jan 6th criminals as well.

I believe the following things are true, correct me if I’m wrong.

1) Criminal trials require a unanimous decision and for burden of proof, rely on the concept of “shadow of doubt.”

2) Civil trials require a majority decision, and for burden of proof, rely on the concept of preponderance of evidence.

4) Normally, day to day, when a jury trial happens, there is a conviction most of the time.

5) On the infrequent occasion when a trial is highly visible and the stakes include things like White supremacy or other socio-political issues, when a jury trial happens, there is a hung jury or acquittal.

(Those last two points are conjecture, but it feels that way.)

Given all this, I expect these trials to involve both acquittals and some sort of examination of our thousand-year old history of the jury system. (The latter will lead to nothing.) I expect that in a subset of these cases (including the murder of Mr. Floyd) there will be a civil trial, and the civil trial will produce the equivalent of a conviction. And yes, I do think the OJ Simpson saga fits into this pattern.

Fight me.


Spread the love

Combating Specious Ideas: Review of How To Argue With A Racist

Spread the love

I wrote a review of Adam Rutherford’s new book, “How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don’t) Say About Human Difference.” The review is published in American Scientist. American Scientist, by the way, is a great magazine that I highly recommend. A notch or two above all the others. Three notches in some cases.

The review is here.


Spread the love

Racial inequity in teacher evaluation leads to racial inequity in education

Spread the love

This is an oversimplification but it is true and part of the problem: There is a great deal of racial inequity in our school system. Put another way, kids of color get screwed over by our school system. One way to help with this is to increase diversity in the teaching and administrative staff of schools. However, the pipeline of incoming teachers and administrators is very white. Why? There are a number of reasons, and probably a lot of unknown unknowns. But one factor is bias against teachers of color. We see this bias all the time. A friend of mine called me up two years ago about this. Have you heard anything about Mr. X (a particular teacher in our school)? No, I haven’t, I said. I’ve heard from five people that he is a bad teacher, but my kid is in his class now and he is hands down the best teacher she has had. I wonder why people say that, I asked. I was wondering, she said, if it is because he’s black. He’s the only black teacher in the school. Were those parents complaining about him white? Ya. OK then.

Anecdotes are not evidence. But put together enough anecdotes and you get culture.

Anyhow, a recent study demonstrates that Black teachers might be discriminated against through a Catch-22 effect, whereby variation in performance across teachers is context dependent in a way that privileges White teachers and screws over Black teachers. The study is here. The abstract of the study says:

“Racial gaps in teacher performance ratings have emerged nationwide across newly implemented educator evaluation systems. Using Chicago Public Schools data, we quantify the magnitude of the race gap in teachers’ classroom observation scores, examine its determinants, and describe the potential implications for teacher diversity. Between-school differences explain most of the race gap and within-school classroom-level differences—poverty, incoming achievement, and prior-year misconduct of a teacher’s students—explain the remainder of the race gap. Teachers’ value-added scores explain none of the race gap. Leveraging within-teacher variation in the teacher–evaluator race match, we find that racial mismatch does not influence observation scores. Adjusting observation scores for classroom and school context will generate more equitable ratings of teacher performance and mitigate potential adverse consequences for teacher diversity.”

The press release includes this quote from one of the study’s authors:

“Our findings indicate that these classroom observation scores do not equitably compare the performance of teachers who taught in very different classroom and school settings,” said Steinberg, an associate professor of education policy at George Mason University. “The race gap in teacher scores does not reflect real differences in teacher performance.”

“Left unadjusted, these scores may lead to disproportionate and incorrect identification of Black teachers for remediation and dismissal, and may have serious implications for the diversity of the teacher workforce,” Steinberg said. “Our study, which focused on Chicago, raises questions about how classroom observation scores are being analyzed and used by school leaders across the United States. School leaders everywhere need to account for the potential impact of school and classroom factors on teacher scores.”

This picture shows two really important things. Frse, these bell curves overlap enough to tell us that small biases could make the difference. That’s the one on the upper left. Then the other graphs show how when we consider all the factors, the distribution of scores showing “racial” differences are explained by other factors.

This next picture shows the different factors found to explain differences in scores sorted by “race.” Note that the teacher is not a cause of the explainable variation, statistically.

There is a lot more than that in this paper, but that’s the basic idea.


Steinberg, Matthew and Lauren Sartain. 2020. What Explains the Race Gap in Teacher Performance Ratings? Evidence From Chicago Public Schools. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.


Spread the love

Making Racism Uncomfortable

Spread the love

In his book, “The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioural Science,”* Philosopher Abraham Kaplan wrote “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” There are other versions of this hammer-nail link. In the normal course of things, the human mind is prepared to hammer new information into ready made spaces, an efficient but not always accurate way to think. That the brain works this way was not lost on the 19th and early 20th century philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce saw the human mind as an ever developing collection of “habits” formed of new experiences. A novel experience, usually involving some sort of linguistic or symbolic interaction, is associated with an emotional state that could not be confused with comfort (any other emotional state might due) until that kind of experience stopped being that way, and became habit-formed. Because of this individualized developmental process, individuals have ways of thinking that are normal, comfortable, generally unexamined, and the product of the culture in which we formed (and are still forming). Culturally embedded sexist and racist thinking are examples of this.

When new information comes along, the most comfortable thing to do is to place it into an existing framework. Over recent years, we seem to have gotten good at doing this using only headlines flashed across social media. So, if a headline has the words “gene” and “intelligence,” we conclude that more evidence for a genetic basic of intelligence, probably organized in categories of race, has been found. It does not matter that the article may have shown contrary evidence for a gene-intelligence link, and it seems to never matter that most modern research about genes and abilities do not make any reference to human divisibility into genetically discrete groups that could be called “races.” In our minds we have spaces for races and a need for genes, and a hammer at hand to put things in their place. The article headlines reinforce our pre-existing racist beliefs.

When a liberal-minded anti-racist thinker encounters evidence of race-based biology in humans, excuses are made. People of African descent can be celebrated for their amazing prowess in sports, and Jews (as good a “race” as any) have evolved and passed on among themselves measurably high levels of intelligence. And so on. Liberal guilt is assuaged when we hand out a few well placed goodies. This passive, seemingly (but not really) harmless version of race based thinking probably keeps a certain amount of racism alive in places where it should have withered in antiquity.

This is part of Adam Rutherford’s message in his new book, “How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don’t) Say About Human Difference.”*

This book does not really tell us how to argue with a racist. Well, it covers Part I of doing so. Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, and don’t bring half baked notions and shoddy data to a debate with a white supremacist who is up on his Stormfront reading. Rutherford’s book can prepare you with key data, clear concepts, and a rich reference to the relevant literature. You’ll need to find the techniques of argument elsewhere.

Rutherford trashes the commonly held framework for race, genetics and DNA. The concept of race itself, that humans can be divided into a number of categories (“White,” “Black,” “Whatever”) does not come close to reflecting the underlying genetic and historical reality of our species. I’ve made this argument countless times, and I’ve read most of the other stabs at it as well, and Rutherford’s version is the best, and most up to date. Beyond this, Rutherford takes to task, with engagingly presented detail and impeccable logic, some of the key myths about race, such as the aforementioned kudos to African-heritage athletes, and more generally, the racialization of sports.

Consider runners. Rutherford documents the fact that there has not been a record-fast white person in the Olympics since the entirely non-white American running team boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and that was a fluke year. For endurance running, in subsequent years, it has been mainly Kenyans and Ethiopians who have won the vast majority of high stakes marathons. If you start with the assumption that there is a gene for “fast” or a gene for “endurance,” you’ll quickly find one for each of these traits, and the innate causality argument presents itself. But if you broaden the argument to full interrogation of the human species, to use the genetic model to explain fastness or endurance across the wide world of sports, the argument quickly dissipates. If certain genes lent great fast, or long distance, running prowess to dozens of specific populations around the world, why do only two such populations produce these runners?

This is how scientists are supposed to operate. We observe variation in something, then try to understand the variation. When an explanation explains only a tiny amount of the overall variation, it probably fails. A genetic argument for rapid or powerful muscles predicts that several different populations should dominate in certain sports, not just one or two out of hundreds. A parallel genetic argument regarding lung capacity, or adapting to living at high altitude, predicts that several different populations should dominate the marathon. But they don’t. Rutherford does what scientists do, and observes another possible source of variation that could explain why Kenyans and Ethiopians seem to always win marathons. Turns out, it is cultural. (You’ll find details in the book.)

How to Argue With a Racist provides a good summary of the history of “race science,” a term Rutherford asks us to stop using (there are no races, and this isn’t science). The author explores arguments about physicality, sexuality, morality, athleticism, and intelligence. I would like to have seen the section on IQ expanded, since it is important for documenting how nefarious race science has been especially in apartheid era South Africa. Here is where our role as variation explainers is possibly clearest. The full range of modern IQ values for any large American population is of the same magnitude of the range of historical IQ means over time, with the earliest values being low and modern values being high. (The “Flynn Effect.”) The same is true with human stature, by the way. Populations of US immigrants, as well as several European nations, gained considerable height and IQ points over nearly a century of time. Yet, the cemetaries are not full of non-reproducing short dim people. We did not genetically evolve tall stature and IQ’s of 100 on average. Genetics does not explain variation in IQ (or stature) over time, so we might wonder how well genetics explains either of these traits across space synchronously.

Also not mentioned by Rutherford is the racist physical anthropology of J. Philippe Rushton, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps Rutherford is not as comfortable with bones as he is with genes (human biology is subdivided into these areas). The short version of that story is that Rushton was in a long line of physical anthropologists who got very good at massaging brain size estimates so that they would correlate with largely useless statistics about intelligence, morality, and sexuality, across the three main “races” of White, Black and Asian. In this case, though, the variation in brain size isn’t simply explained better by a non race based explanation. The variation is made up, introduced by “adjusting” the already iffy data.

Another concept not covered by Rutherford is the role of culture and childhood. Interestingly, Rutherford does mention Henry Harpending, who was a member of the famous Kalahari Project led by Irven Devore (my PhD advisor) and Richard Lee, to study the ways of the Ju’/hoansi bushmen of Namibia and Botswana. Harpending was the geneticist on that project. Later in his career, he wrote a paper and a book dismantled by Rutherford on the intellectual superiority of the Jewish people. He was also known for making rather startling statements about race (I will not repeat here my conversations with him, but I can verify Rutherford’s impression of Harpending’s running commentary.) Another person on that same research project was Mel Konner, husband of Marjorie Shostak (author of Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman).* I believe it was Konner who first fully articulated the role of childhood in making a little human into a big one. (See his book The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind*)

Childhood is a special derived feature of humans. It is deadly, costly, and often annoying. Clearly, such a trait must be maintained by strong selection. The things that make our fully formed brains so impressive, such as the use of language, human style “theory of mind,” and so on, arise in a typical individual during this period of slowed down maturation. We humans reach maturity years later than we should (compared to other apes) because of this costly childhood phase. We are who we are as individuals because of our culture, and childhood is the delivery mechanism for culture. If we want to explain variation across individuals or across geography in human behavior, look to culture and its development first, and if there is much left unexplained, consider genes. This is, by the way, how we can make two seemingly contradictory statements unironically: There is no such thing as race; yet race is an important human concept. Genetically, no races. Culturally, race is a possibility (but not a necessity).

Slavery of Africans did not breed better athletes, repression and widespread murder of Ashkenazim did not breed professors and Fed chairs, the genetic variation we see in humans is best explained by distance across geographic space and not by bounded internally consistent races, and there are very few cases of variable human traits that map neatly onto underlying simple variation in genes.

Rutherford’s book also addresses genealogy, both the kind you get when you do documentary research into your family tree, and the kind you get when you spit in a tube and send it to a commercial DNA analysis place. In some ways, that might be the most important part of the book, because of the extreme popularity of this exercise, and its link in some quarters to white supremacy. You will be amused, shocked, and amazed by this discussion, and you won’t believe some of it even though it is really true. Rutherford is a geneticist, and he understands and does a great job explaining the concept of genetic isopoint. An example: All living Europeans (as a quasi racial group that includes, for example, Albanians, Brits, Poles, and Ukrainians, etc.) have as ancestors every person who lived in Europe at the time of William the Conqueror.

The global isopoint is much more recent than people think, being only a few thousand years in the past, and post dating the earliest, and even some of the latest, regional origins of agriculture. Everyone alive at that time was either the ancestor of everyone alive today or the ancestor of no one alive today. So, the idea that an African foraging population split off into different regions, some of which developed agriculture or this or that civilizations, others remaining as foragers, etc. is simply not an accurate way to describe genetic history. Stephen Miller in the White House and a Maasai Woman in a traditional village in Tanzania share a set of isopointal ancestors about 3-5 thousand years ago, like it or not. And I’m sure she does not. I know you don’t believe this, but just read the book and come back and complain if you like. As the descendant of royalty, I don’t care.


Spread the love

I shall not presume to dwell at length about the associations that cluster about this day….

Spread the love

And if you like that kind of talk, I’ve got more for you in a minute.

The person who said those words was the Vice Presidential running mate on the Equal Rights Party ticket (though he did not ask to be). He was a criminal; born a slave, but escaped. He’s on a stamp. Two stamps, I think. He wrote this book, this book, and this book. And, he gave a few speeches.

Here are some great kids, and by “great” I mean “great, great, great, great, great!” kids giving his Forth of July Speech, originally delivered on July 5th, 1852. By Frederick Douglass

Don’t be fulled by the children’s brevity. Nobody was brief in 1852. Here is the full speech: Continue reading I shall not presume to dwell at length about the associations that cluster about this day….


Spread the love