Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Martin Luther King on the need for restructuring

We all know that Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. Fewer of us know what he really stood for, fought for and just how radical his views were considered at the time, and even now (the FBI knew, though, thanks to their copious wiretaps and 24-hour spy program in the years following the 1965 bus boycotts).

Here's a side of MLK that most don't know:
“Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo. 
“When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process. Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate healthcare — each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our heritage. Each will require billions of dollars to correct. Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost to society will be substantial in financial as well as human terms. This fact has not been fully grasped, because most of the gains of the past decade were obtained at bargain rates. The desegregation of public facilities cost nothing; neither did the election and appointment of a few black public officials.” [emphasis mine]
I'd argue that this fact still has not been fully grasped by white Americans. I'd argue that these words are just as true for American society in the 1960's as it is for astronomy today. To increase inclusion, and to offer truly equal opportunity to all citizens we must recognize and destroy the racist foundations of our institutions of higher learning. We must fundamentally rethink the way we do science. Our current structure was not borne out of notions of equal opportunity. Out system was not established as a meritocracy since many were originally, and many continue to be excluded. Academia in general and astronomy in particular finds its cultural roots in elitism; in the notion that white men are the only citizens capable of pursuing scientific thought. Today, that legacy is propagated by in-group benefits; benefits that are largely invisible to the people who receive them.

One cannot work for a more fair and equitable field of science while ignoring the existence of racism, both in our past and in our everyday lives today. I've seen far too many "diversity" programs fall by the wayside because the focus on treating symptoms (e.g. low test scores) rather than root causes (e.g. racist stereotypes); aiming for feel-good diversity, rather than radically seeking equal opportunity and the establishment of a true meritocracy; and by falling into the pitfall belief that "excellence" is something objectively measured, rather than subjectively (and often arbitrarily) bequeathed by a privileged class. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Between two ferns feat. President Obama

I had to watch this twice. The first time I was too surprised that this actually happened! I was like Obama, "Seriously?!" The second time I was over my disbelief and free to just laugh. I'm a big fan of Zach, Between Two Ferns, our president and universal health care. So quad-win!

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Poker Tournament

When I was a graduate student, I started playing online poker and I became a student of the game. I kept detailed logs of the tournaments I played in, key decisions, outcomes, etc. When I wasn't talking about astronomy or basketball, I was talking about poker. I did well online, but my learning really paid off when I was a postdoc at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA). In Honolulu, I found a vibrant underground poker scene, in which games of all levels, from \$1-\$2 to \$10-\$20, were spread in people's apartments, garages and trailer parks. The games were safe, because at any given moment there was at least 2-3 cops, firefighters or Marines at the table. The people running the games took a percentage of each pot to pay rent, as well as to valet park the players' cars, do food runs and comp drinks.

I did well in Hawaii's poker landscape, typically playing \$2-\$5 no-limit hold 'em. It paid for Marcus' diapers, date nights, and even helped with rent. All told, I won a decent sum over 1.5 years. Let's just say that there was good money to be made for those who know how to do math in their head. It all ended with the 2008 market crash, which took people's disposable incomes. I was applying for jobs that year anyway, so it was a good time to hang up the spurs, so to speak.

Poker is back in my life again as my sons have discovered a passion for the game. Owen loves the math, Marcus loves muscling his older brother (and father) out of pots with aggressive betting, Mom and Dad enjoy the family bonding. I've also found the game to be a wonderful analogy for many aspects of life, including teaching my sons about race and racism in America. What follows is an allegory with a no-so-hidden meaning.


Marcus takes down another pot, much to Owen's dismay.

In a country far away, it had long ago been decided that there would be a giant poker tournament, in which all of the nation's people, both blue and red, would compete. The game would be long, but well worth playing, for it would help determine who was better and most deserving of the nation's scarce resources. 

The game of poker was determined to be ideal, since it involved both luck and skill in nearly equal proportions. The luck allowed those who started with little to gain much, and those who had successfully done so loved to talk about how they were self-made women/men, and had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. 

The game also involved skill, so it was not just a roll of the dice. The best of the best, those who were truly Excellent, consistently accumulated chips and survived in larger proportions than those who were less meritorious. Thus, the players were proud of their meritocracy, while also pointing to their "mobility" and frequently cited the "National Dream," wherein anyone could win.



(Aside: It should be noted that “red” and “blue” were, at the time of this story, known to scientists to be artificial social constructs: red and blue people were not inherently different. But people liked the red/blue dichotomy and it persisted in the nation's society. As red players often liked to point out, "We’re all in this together.")

Over time, millions if not billions of hands were played. Sets were flopped, straights were rivered, bluffs succeeded and failed. Some players were knocked out, while others progressed in the tournament while accumulating chips. Those who played long enough to retire or pass away were allowed to pass their chips to their descendants, who continued playing in their stead. 

But not all were happy. The blue players were consistently stuck with short stacks, and were ten times more likely to get knocked out, even after adjusting for their minority fraction of the population. They consistently found themselves with stacks shorter than the red players. For example, all but one of the top-50 chip leaders were red. The red players shrugged their shoulders and offered explanations such as, "Well, maybe blue players play too loosely and call too much. If they'd only learn to play more carefully, they'd have as many chips as everyone else." 

In response to these common explanations, some of the blue players pointed out that when the game began their ancestors were given only one tenth starting chips as the red players. In the past, blue players were deemed less skilled and less worthy, a priori, by virtue of being blue. The blue players pointed out that those who made the rules of the game were all red. In the past, all close calls regarding the rules had outcomes that favored the red players. It was clear to blue players that their present-day condition was related to the historical decisions made by red rule makers, which preferentially benefited red players, then and now.

Some of the more liberal-minded red players acknowledged the there were problems in the past. The original rules were, indeed, unfair. But the present-day situation was very complicated and solutions were not obvious. If only something could be done. After expressing this regret, they promptly returned to their tables and began playing again, often forgetting the question and their answer.

Other red players were willing to recognize this past injustice, but they quickly pointed out to various modifications made to the rules since then that made the game fairer for all. For example, blue players were now allowed to eat in the same place as red players during breaks. They were very proud of these rule adjustments.

Other red players were less patient with the discussion, and took the complaints of blue players as personal insults. They pointed out that those rules were made long ago, before they even started playing, so how could they be blamed? Their ancestors had joined the game via late registration, and worked their way up to their current positions through smart, solid play. Blue players pointed out that these late registrants, though they started out behind owing to their late start, were given the same starting stack as the other red players and were even allowed to buy more chips. They also pointed to rules that only allowed red players to join late.

This only angered the red players who were proud of how far they and their ancestors had come. Still other red players held onto the old belief that red players were just inherently better at poker. It could not be helped that the culture of blue players was so self-defeating. It could not be helped that blue players had such bad strategies and made such risky moves. And just look at how all the rules decisions went: blue people were almost always guilty of breaking the rules, while red players rarely were. Blue players should stop complaining and learn to play better and follow the rules. Those who were complaining were free to leave the game, after all. "Then get out of our game," was a common response.

After strenuous protests by the blue players, and with the support of a relatively large contingent of red players, it was eventually recognized that the game was not fair. Something should be done. Rule adjustments were proposed and accepted. But the implementation of rules was always left to the local tournament directors (who, remember, were all red). The directors often ignored the rule changes, or applied them sporadically. When the rules didn't have the desired effect, they complained amongst themselves about how if the rules didn't work, they must be fundamentally wrong.


The directors also made subtle rule changes that resulted in red players playing at their own tables, and blue players at other tables. As a result, not long after, most red players knew nothing about the blue players except what made it to the game telecasts. When the cameras visited the blue tables, they tended to focus on the times when blue players broke the rules (remember that infamous incident when the blue player stole another player's chips?!), or when they fought with each other (so much blue-on-blue fighting!), or when they argued with the directors (they should focus on the game instead of complaining all the time!). Never mind that rule infractions were equal, by proportion, at both red and blue tables.

Eventually, a solution was proposed and the implementation was, at long last, left to the Head Director rather than the local tournament directors. The solution was that any time a blue player moved to a red table, they would be given additional chips and a seat to the left of the chip leaders (since, in poker parlance, chips "roll downhill," or clockwise) This greatly angered red players, but for a while they held their tongues and kept playing. After all, red players were better than blue players, so this shouldn't matter much.

Then, strange things started to happen: blue players started knocking out red players more regularly, the top-50 chip leaders added a few more blue players, and red players found themselves ever more in direct contact and competition with blue players. This made red players very uncomfortable, for they had seen the telecasts, with those loud, confrontational and frankly, scary blue players moving to their tables. 

During breaks, red players started complaining as their compatriots started getting knocked out of the tournament, thereby allowing blue players to move up. "This is so unfair! It's colorist! It's discriminatory against red players!" They started acting in contradictory ways, at one moment talking about how color-blind they were, and how color doesn't matter since, you know, the National Dream! The next moment they would complain bitterly about how one of their friends was knocked out by a red player who was obviously less qualified. When asked how they knew, they'd say, "You know, all those liberal diversity programs promoting unqualified minorities!" Was there evidence for this? "Of course, the evidence is hard to come by." But they knew it to be true. They felt it was becoming more and more difficult to be a red player with all this reverse discrimination. 

The blue players couldn't help but hear the underlying message: any red player who advances does so on their merit. Any blue player who succeeds does so just because of that liberal program that attempts to take action to affirm the equality of red and blue players. You know, that damn affirmative action. 

Eventually, the red players filed a petition with the tournament directors, and a ruling was made: It was not fair to discriminate based on color, ever. It was only fair to remove color from the equation. So blue players would no longer be given chip subsidies and seating preferences.

A little while later, all players remaining in the game were red. This affirmed the deeply, if privately held beliefs of the red players: Red is better than blue. The evidence was in the outcome of the game, clear as day and as indisputable as the weather.

With their meritocracy restored, the red players lived happily ever after.

--------
Epilogue: The real world

In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration was established to set "standards for construction, and the underwriting and insurance of loans made by banks and other private lenders for home building. The goals of this organization are to improve housing standards and conditions, provide an adequate home financing system through insurance of mortgage loans, and to stabilize the mortgage market." (quote from Wikipedia)

This agency was federal, and the ultimate decision-making was ceded to state-level FHA offices, which interpreted and applied the laws according to local customs (reference). In the South, this resulted in the vast majority of FHA loans going to whites, at the exclusion of prospective Black homeowners (because of Jim Crow). In the North, loans were approved based on the location of the house to be purchased. This ushered in the era of "redlining," which "refers to the practice of marking a red line on a map to delineate the area where banks would not invest." (cf also the effects of contract buying and blockbusting)

Historical redlining maps can be used to predict the present-day locations in which Black and brown people are concentrated in Northern cities. Even today, there exist very few minority homeowners in these areas (see also The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson).

During this same time period, there was an influx of European immigrants. Yes, they often were greeted with xenophobia and faced more hardships that white Americans---those who immigrated before them---didn't have to deal with. But one cannot ignore the fact that the Naturalization Act of 1790 granted citizenship only "to immigrants who were free white persons of good character." This law remained on the books until it was superseded by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Note that Native people, who were here for 14,000 years before Europeans were not granted citizenship until 1924. (Now that's some shameful shit I didn't learn in high school).

2009 Pew Research Center report found that there existed a 20:1 wealth gap between Black and white people, and an 18:1 gap between white and Latina/o. Remember, wealth is assets minus debts. The median household wealth of white families in 2009 was \$113,000; in Black and Latina/o households it was \$5,600 and \$6,300, respectively (cf Understanding White Privilege, by Frances Kendall). Compare that to the average annual tuition for college, around \$30,000/year. The single largest asset for average Americans? The home they own.

Even when non-white people own homes, they don't get as much benefit from home ownership as white people do, thanks to segregation, and recessions hit them disproportionately harder:
2013 Brandeis University report noted that not only is home ownership lower among blacks than whites, but that black-owned homes tend not to appreciate in value as much as white-owned homes, which the Brandeis researchers attributed to “residential segregation artificially lower[ing] demand, placing a forced ceiling on home equity for African-Americans who own homes in non-white neighborhoods.” Blacks also tend to carry proportionately more mortgage debt, at higher rates, than whites. And, as a 2011 Pew Research Center report found, the housing crash was harder on blacks than whites (though both groups fared better than Hispanics).
Note, too, that Black people, in the main, were not granted access to the GI Bill, which has a similar discriminatory history as the FHA (Herbold 1994, see also this brief overview on Wikipedia, and references therein). The same goes for most New Deal programs. "No jobs for niggers until every white man has a job," was a common refrain during the Great Depression, during which Black children died of starvation in the Land of the Free. 

In the debate over affirmative action and the role of race and racism in our society, history not only matters. History is everything. The question is not why are there not more Black kids at your college or university---the question that started me on this journey of discovery. The question should be: why are white people so overrepresented? 

The answer is knowable, and the mechanisms that led us to where we are today are recorded in plain sight in our history books. And once one understands that history, it becomes extremely difficult to take a cogent stand against affirmative action. Sadly, most people are ignorant of the relevant history, and instead rely on emotional arguments that exist in a historical vacuum. And this ignorance is carrying the day, even among otherwise educated people.

Want to help? 
  • Stop talking about affirmative action as if it's a bad word, especially if you don't know what it is (hint: it is not and has never been about quotas). White people having ignorant debates about affirmative action hurts people of color, thereby contributing further to the racist underpinnings of our country. Also, remember that some relevant and valuable aspects of white privilege that feed into discussions of affirmative action are:
    • The assumption that an opinion is valid simply because a white person voices it. A more nuanced yet adult viewpoint is that you are not entitled to your opinion. Having your ill-informed, ahistorical opinion shot down by a knowledgeable person is not suppressing your freedom of speech, despite that opinion being voiced by numerous, otherwise educated white people I know.
    • The ability to make your personal family history relevant to a discussion rooted in hundreds of years of history. If you are white, your lived experience is often automatically considered more valid than the history of an entire people. But it's not just about you.
    • There are no consequences for you not knowing non-white history. Whereas we'd be shocked if a US college student didn't know about Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, there's no price to pay in not knowing anything about Jim Crow laws or the history of housing discrimination.



  • If you are ever tempted to tell a person of color or a white woman that they got their job just because they are ____ (insert irrelevant characteristic), close your mouth, count down from 10, and say something considerate and helpful instead. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

If Black People Talked White

I've been told that I "talk white" or that "I don't sound like a Black person." I sense that these comments are often offered as compliments. But if so, a complement for what? My temporary acceptance by a white person? Thanks.


The fact of the matter is that I talk like a person born in this country. I speak English. But there is a way I could actually talk white.

If I wanted to speak white, I'd go around talking about the personal attributes of individual Black people as if they were not individuals, but rather merely representatives of a larger group; as fulfillments or exceptions to my ill-informed conceptions of Black people. If I wanted to talk like a white person, I'd make sure that my comments to Black people remind them of how they are other---non-normative---how they don't really belong to American society, and if they do, they are add-ons. They are options to be checked on a list of extras under the heading "Diversity." If I talked white, the existence of people of color in my institution would be a cause for me to pat myself on the back. 

(Once, when I complained about the lack of diversity at Caltech, my colleague said, "How can you say we're not diverse? We hired you!" Once, when I tried to express my frustration of a racist incident I encountered on my walk across campus to visit a colleague, she told me, "You know, I don't even think of you as a Black person." At that moment of hurt and vulnerability, she didn't see me.)



If I talked like a white person, I'd become upset if a Black person called me white, because I'm an individual, I'd remind them. And if I talked like a white person, I'd see no conflict in my simultaneous view of a Black person as a member of a group of "minorities" and myself as an individual person, not a member of a group of whites. If I talked like a white person, all of this would make sense, and if any Black person attempted to point out my logical inconsistencies, well, I'd view that person as just a little bit insane. But they can't help it. They're Black, after all.

Okay, fine. I get it. What can I do to help?

  • Recognize your whiteness, and pursue knowledge of what your whiteness means in our society, what it does for you, and how it affects people of color around you. Educate yourself. If you don't understand what white privilege is, don't assume it doesn't exist. Treat it like I treat asteroseismology: I didn't get it, so I picked up some books and papers and turned myself into a student again. Do the same with your whiteness, your white history, and your white privilege. 

  • Know that your whiteness is both impersonal and very personal. It's not personal, because you are one of roughly half a billion white Americans. It's personal because you, and not everyone else---not people of color---benefit from it. It's not personal in that your whiteness, by itself, does not make you a good or bad person. You can be terrible and still benefit. You can be an antiracism activist...and still benefit. It's personal in that you need to own it in order to counter it.

  • Do not expect your local person of color (LPOC) to educate you. Your LPOC likely will not trust you, will not open up to you, will not be themselves around you until you can be yourself as a white person. Until you lay your privilege explicitly on the table before talking with them, and until you demonstrate your willingness to improve and learn. For every 10 "allies" in my life, only one of them has ever shown me that they can take actions to improve themselves, rather than pat themselves on the back for "mentoring" me and "teaching" me how to make it in their (white) world.
  • Related to the second bullet above, taking real actions to help has nothing to do with you, but everything to do with you. It has nothing to do with you in that you cannot expect to earn a cookie for each step you take. You aren't out to earn a Top-Coder-like badge. You're in it to be a better citizen of your country. You are to do what you do to improve the world around you. You're in it because you want a just world and because you want to believe that you work in a meritocracy---this is a chance to make a real meritocracy. It's about you, because as part of the privileged class in our country, only you have full access to the social, economic and political power structures in your institution and greater world that need to change. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

What would racial equality look like?

In a 2002 Charter Day speech at Howard University, Franklin D. Raines, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Fannie Mae, laid out the raw numbers:
We gather at an auspicious time for our nation. After a decade of peace, prosperity, and progress, we are met by an unexpected peril. Not just the peril of terrorism and war. We face a peril of self-delusion as well. 
A few weeks ago, a newspaper here in Washington carried a four-part series titled, "Black Money." It said that life for African Americans has never been better, suggesting that the quest for racial equality in America was complete. 
In fact, that is what most Americans believe. In a major national poll last year, a majority said when it comes to jobs, income, health care, and education, black Americans are doing just as well as whites. 
Well, we looked at the facts. And then we asked, "What would life be like if the majority of Americans were right? What if the racial gaps were closed? What would we gain?" So we did the math. 
If America had racial equality in education and jobs, African Americans would have two million more high school degrees...two million more college degrees...nearly two million more professional and managerial jobs...and nearly \$200 billion more income.
If America had racial equality in housing, three million more African Americans would own their homes. 
And if America had racial equality in wealth, African Americans would have \$760 billion more in home equity value. Two hundred billion dollars more in the stock market. One hundred twenty billion dollars more in their retirement funds. And \$80 billion more in the bank. That alone would total over \$1 trillion more in wealth. 
These gaps demonstrate that the long journey of black Americans from an enslaved people to full participants in our society -- a journey that began 137 years ago -- is far from complete. 
We have come a long way. We have won the equal right to education, to employment, to housing, and to success. And yet the racial gaps persist. Why is that? How can we close the gaps?
One trillion dollars! One way of looking at this is that this is the wealth "missing" from the Black community. But once you examine the history of our nation, from the invention of whiteness and slavery in the early 1600s, to present-day housing segregation, predatory lending and employment discrimination, you start to see the outlines of something else. Something more sinister and ugly. Something far from the American Ideal.

What you see is one of the greatest thefts in human history. The theft of land from Native people, the theft of personhood in order to build a nation on that land, and the theft of labor from Mexicans. The theft of wealth on a grand scale with a vector pointing from non-white to white.

Please keep this in mind during your next local discussion of affirmative action. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thursday evening music break: Rega

Because I've been dealing with too much shit today, I need a music break. I present Rega with "agility." 

I wonder what kind of asian they are :) I love that they are fusing together two forms of music invented by Black folk---rock and jazz---and infusing it with their own cultural influence. Because diversity = excellence and music is universal. 






What kind of Asian are you?