Monday, August 31, 2015

Racism's circular dance goes round and round

The history of race and racism in America is beautifully summarized in the PBS miniseries Race: The Power of an Illusion. I highly recommend it. I watched the series with the Banneker Institute this summer. In fact, on the day that we watched the first episode, we were visited by one of the stars of the series, Dr. Evelynn Hammonds, a Professor of the History of Science and a Professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard. 

Prof. Hammonds
Truth be told, I didn't plan this wonderful confluence of events. I met with Prof. Hammonds before the summer started and we happened to have scheduled her to visit on the same day that the students were going to watch Episode 1. She came into the room, asked what we were going to do on our Social Justice Friday, and when I told her we were watching the first of the series, she launched into a beautiful 10-minute summary and history of the documentary. I said, "Wow, that was a lovely summary. I can't believe you had that info right at your finger tips like that!" She said, "Well, I should know something about it since I was a part of the project!" 

I encourage everyone to rent the three-part series from Vimeo (URL) for five bucks and watch it with friends and family. I know we live in an era in which online stuff is often free. But trust me, this is $5 well spent. The series covers about 20 books worth of material in an extremely well-produced, entertaining , highly educational documentary. You can use it as a basis for having a grown-up discussions about race with friends and family (hopefully!). 

Okay, to the topic in the title of this post. As I watched Episode 2 for the second time, one passage stood out to me (full transcript here):
AUDREY SMEDLEY, ANTHROPOLOGIST: Slavery became identified with Africans--blackness and slavery went together. That gave white Americans the idea that Africans were a different kind of people. 
MIA BAY, HISTORIAN: There's a racial divide emerging that people begin to, um, see as natural, and that's part of where the idea of race comes from. It's just in the tendency for people to see existing power relationships as having some sort of natural quality to them. 
NARRATOR: By the time Jefferson sat down to write Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781, a plantation economy dependent on slavery was deeply entrenched. Slavery had become so widespread that to many whites it seemed the natural state for black people. But when Jefferson turned his attention to Indians in Notes, what appeared natural about them was their status as free people, brave warriors protecting their lands. This led Jefferson to suspect that Indians were not much different from Europeans.
This historical summary illustrates what I think of as the circular "dance" of racism. The steps of this circular reasoning are relatively simple and predictable, if not completely infuriating:
  • People with power (namely white people, but men in the case of sexism; cis-het people and heterosexism; able-bodied people and ableism) leverage their power to create the social conditions for and limit the options of another group (non-white people; women; LGBTQI people; disabled people). 
  • These social conditions result in non-optimal outcomes for the "inferior" group, such as poverty and underrepresentation.
  • These conditions are then observed by subsequent (and current) generations of people in power, and the conditions are attributed to the intrinsic inferior nature of the oppressed group, and are used as justification for their inferior status. 
Racism (and other *isms) are so powerful because they are self-replicating, self-realizing and self-supporting. *isms are used to create suboptimal conditions that are then used to a posteriori justify those conditions and then perpetuate them into the future. This process is also known as "naturalization" (Bonilla-Silva 2010). This is why "let the past be in the past" is such a common refrain for white people who are ignorant about the nature of race and racism in our country. Examining the past immediately identifies white people and their ancestors as the culprits for the current conditions that they use to justify the inferiority of other people!

How does the circular dance play out in modern times? Well, let's start with the dance vis-à-vis Blackness in historical times and follow the bright line forward to the present. I'll focus on Blackness for simplicity, but also because anti-blackness is the fulcrum of white supremacy:
  • As per the quote above: First, force Black people into slavery, notice that only Black people are slaves. Note that full humans wouldn’t be in such a wretched state, so slavery must be a feature of Blackness and evidence of the inferiority of Black people.
  • After emancipation, white people lost their access to cheap (read: free) labor. They found a loophole in the 13th amendment, and started the institution of convict leasing. Black people in prison were sold into bondage (cf Blackmon's Slavery By Another Name as well as the PBS documentary). When they ran out of Black convicts, they went out and arrested more on trumped up charges such as loitering, unemployment, spitting, cursing, etc. In 20 years the Black prison population increased from 4% to 70%. By 1898, convict leasing made up 73% of Southern state revenues (Perkinson 2010). Why isn't this taught in our schools? Because white supremacy!
Black men laboring in post-emancipation US under de facto slavery,
providing white America with profit and wealth, as well as a handy
stereotype of Blacks as a unique criminal class in our country, what
Ta-Nehisi Coates calls America's Premier Outlaw Class
(Image credit: Wiki Commons).
  • Note that Black people were, and still are, disproportionately imprisoned, so criminality must be a feature of Blackness. As it was then, so it is today.
  • Note that Black people are often arrested for theft, vagrancy and loitering. Laziness and theft are features of Blackness. 
  • Black people were denied high-paying jobs and most worked as sharecroppers in a permanent state of indebtedness to white landowners. During the Great Depression aid was limited to people in nonagricultural jobs, pushing Black people further into slavery. FHA and GI Bill loans were given disproportionately to white people, with Black people locked out of white neighborhoods by housing covenants and Black neighborhoods redlined. Blockbusting, white flight and contract leasing further denied Black people the ability to own homes and accumulate wealth. As a result, there exists today an 18:1 wealth gap between Blacks and whites.
  • Note that Black people are disproportionately poor. Poverty must be a feature of Blackness. 
  • Poverty limits access to higher education, since college is expensive. Further, it is difficult to earn good grades when a student has to work one or several jobs in addition to maintaining their studies; it is difficult to adjust to college life without family members to give advice and guidance; it is difficult to find study partners and build a community, particularly in the sciences, since there are so few other people of color present; stereotype threat depresses student performance, particularly on tests. Note that there are very few Black students with high grades in STEM fields. A disinclination to, and inferior performance in science must be a feature of Blackness.
And the cycle goes round and round, resulting in this: 
And this:
And even this:

White people have historically held and continue to hold the power to shape the outcomes of other racial groups in our country, and very frequently do so to the detriment of people of color. Having relegated POC to lesser positions, this lower status is assigned as a feature of that group and used as an explanation for that state of being. Pretty slick, eh?

What other forms of circular logic have you noticed? Let's discuss in the comments!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Colorbindness" and the Cruel Non Sequitur "all lives matter"

Dear "colorblind" white people:

Imagine that your house and the houses of your neighbors were broken into repeatedly over the course of a month. Further, imagine that there was no response from law enforcement. If you and your neighbors complained, "Our houses are being broken into and no one is protecting us!" would it be appropriate for the police to respond, "All houses matter" and then do nothing about it?

This is analogous* to responding to #BlackLivesMatter with "all lives matter." It's easy to say when your house isn't being broken into, and saying it reveals a profound lack of empathy for other human beings. So if you're not going to do anything about the destruction of Black lives by the very people sworn to protect those lives, please keep your tin-eared responses to yourself. It's saying nothing, which is literally the least you can do.

Protestors carrying placards at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York City (Wikipedia)
This insult of "all lives matter" thinking is another painful example of the abject failure of "colorblindness," the modern approach to race and racism in America. It is undertaken in the false belief that racism is just people of one race being mean to people of another race. Sorry, no, that's what we call prejudice. It's not good, but it's not racism.

Another wishful, yet ignorant view is that naming race and its effects in this country is racist. It almost sounds right, especially if you think about race for a few minutes at a time. But again, no. My pointing out that white people are white and as a result often behave in specific, predictable ways as the normative, dominant group in our society is not racism. It's simple observation by someone who has to think about race all the time because I am not a part of the normative group. (Also, stop with the silliness about "reverse racism." It's not a thing.)

What's worse is that research shows that the "colorblindness" of white parents actually leads to and reinforces racist attitudes in their kids. Children will see racial differences and derive meaning from their parents' attitudes and relationships (75% of white people have no close, Black friends, and no Black or Latina/o people in their professional and social networks). It should therefore be little surprise that even in a liberal city like Austin, TX, among a large group of white children sociology researchers discovered this:
[Researchers] asked all the kids a very blunt question: "Do your parents like black people?" Fourteen percent said outright, "No, my parents don't like black people"; 38 percent of the kids answered, "I don't know." In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions—many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.
Why does it always have to be about race? you ask. Because white people invented race, built a country on it, used it for profit and wealth, and as a result race is a major factor in the lives of non-white people and a powerful aspect of our society. We people of color would rather it not be this way, just like you. But its not that way. Its the other way. Its the way that white people designed it to be. And having set the rules of the game, white people don't get to ignore them without acting truly racist, intentionally or not. Inaction and/or turning a blind eye to race reinforces the status quo that white people designed, implemented through policy, and enforce to this day.

So what is racism? I could give you a definition, but racism is best seen in its results. This chart, for example, illustrates the racism that #BlackLivesMatter tries to bring to the nation's attention:
To put it another way:
Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica reported: One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica's analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week.
Would you like a better response when seeing something like this, or when someone says #BlackLivesMatter---a response that doesn't make you look like an incurious, simple-minded racist? Try something simple like this:

"It's not right, it's not fair, and I'm sorry you have to experience this sort of injustice in your life."

It's a short, simple expression of empathy for your fellow American citizens, who by virtue of being born into the wrong race must deal with the terror of knowing that an interaction with someone sworn to protect them could end in bodily harm or destruction. As a bonus, the statement contains fewer than 140 characters. I challenge you to try using it as a new response to a #BlackLivesMatter post. You'll manage to appear human to the other person and you may well brighten their life in a small yet significant way on a morning the woke up to find yet another hashtag announcing the extrajudicial destruction of another Black life.

If you'd like to go next level, you could actually attempt to do something about this injustice. Start by promoting and supporting #CampaignZero, learn how to talk to your children about race, find a way to get people of color into your social and professional networks, and read some books. In other words, give up on the myth of colorblindness.

*Actually, the proper analogy would be to have the police doing the burglarizing, which would be particularly terrifying for the homeowners since the protectors are doing the crime. But understanding that takes next-level empathy.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Thoughts, Take 1: On Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me

I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, Between the World and Me, and I'm moved to meditate and write. Coates' writing is direct, concise, and...hard. There are no soft edges because he doesn't seek to offer a salve. What he has on offer is truth distilled. His writing is to Seeing White as David Simon's The Wire is to CSI: Miami. There's no exposition. Rather, the reader is dropped directly into the fray and left to scramble to catch up. 

The book spans a dense 176 pages and follows in the spiritual, if not structural, path forged by James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, a book that has forever changed me (many thanks to Nia for lending me her copy). In 1963 Baldwin wrote a letter to his nephew and told a story of race and America that could've been told yesterday. Coates directs his message to his 14-year-old son, Samori, saying things that could've been told just as accurately and poignantly 50 years ago. In a world in which the stories of Black people are erased, marginalized and/or told by everyone but Us, Coates' book is a cold glass of water after a long day in the Sun, an elixir that sends a jolt to the system making you understand what's been missing. As Toni Morrison wrote: "I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died."
James Baldwin. Image from Google Images with no attribution
In this series I'll go back over the some of the passages I highlighted as I read on my Kindle and share my thoughts. My primary audience is a 43-year-old man named Professor Johnson, a man who has not lived yet. Once he is realized, he will have climbed an exponential learning curve and advanced in his understanding far from this point. But knowing 38-year-old Professor Johnson as well as I do, I expect that my future self will appreciate this mile marker, and will no doubt need it in his darker moments. For dark moments are on their way as they have always been for those with dark skin in this peculiar country of ours. But I will endure, I will struggle, as We always have...provided I still have my body.

Excerpt 1:

Response 1:

I love this notion of "new...people who...believe that they are white." This harkens directly back to Baldwin's 1984 Essay "On Being White...And Other Lies" and eloquently confronts the illusion of race. Race is not a biological reality. There exists no genetic sequence possessed by one race that is not possessed by another. Further, there is an order-of-magnitude greater variation among the genetic makeup of people belonging to one racial group as there is from one racial group to another, no matter how one wishes to define "racial group" (Leeuwin 1976, Barbujani & Colonna 2011). In short, race is make-believe of the highest order, otherwise known as a social construct. 

But in saying this, it is important to acknowledge both the authors and motivation for this construction. Race was invented by a distinct group of people, for distinct aims. These people called themselves "white," and they did so in order to acquire wealth, land and power. If it were possible to remove oneself from the construct of race, it would be difficult not to shake one's head in wonder and awe at how well these people who call themselves white have succeeded in their aims. Indeed, they built the most powerful nation in the world on this simple yet powerful concept.

All business ventures require investment capital, and even once profits are earned, a portion must be reinvested to maintain the enterprise, and wages paid to workers typically represent the largest expense. The clever invention of race allowed those who call themselves white to sidestep these inconvenient overheads by dividing humans by "hue and hair" and dehumanize those with the darker of these attributes. The operative word here is "dehumanize." Do not believe the myth of the benevolent slave holder. No human who owns another human, and their children, and their children's children (i.e. the unique American institution of chattel slavery) can be called benevolent. Slavery was a business enterprise with profit the primary concern. As bluntly put by Baptiste in The Half That Has Never Been Told, "Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity." (See this excerpt at

This arrangement gave birth to racism. Without the made-up notion of race, there cannot exist racism or race-based slavery. This is not to say that slavery didn't previously exist in human history. But what sets the American brand of slavery apart is its racial foundation. Egyptians and Romans had no concept of race. Not that they couldn't have made use of it, but they didn't invent it before America did. Race is an American invention. The same holds for chattel slavery, by which slaves and their offspring are owned like cattle and horses. Slaves of past societies were usually considered the spoils of war or subjects of societal punishment and they were allowed to retain their names and their children were generally not born into slavery. In other words, they were considered humans. Slaves in America were not considered humans on the basis of their "lower" race. As such were beaten if they did not respond to the names given to them by their masters, and their children were the property of their masters, to be sold at a whim and thereby stripped from their mother's hands. How's that for benevolence?

I saw this horrifying engraving from 1862 reposted in American Slavery, American Freedom, and I will be haunted until the day I die. Imagine what it was like to witness this scene and then laboriously engrave it onto a piece of wood. How did the engravers live with themselves after these sorts of tasks? How did white people live with themselves? Is it any wonder that they seek to downplay the horrors of slavery to this day?

A baby torn from its mother's arms by slave traders. (1862) Source: Slavery in South Carolina
and the ex-slaves; or, The Port Royal Mission. By Austa Malinda
Thus, race was invented to justify the institution of chattel slavery, which was then used as the engine to build a new nation on the stolen, destroyed bodies of Black people. As Coates points out, "At the outset of the Civil War our bodies were worth

But if nothing else, American slavery is special because it's our history. We are not Romans nor Egyptians. We are Americans, and slavery is central to our story. The facts described by Coates are our nation's historical facts. It is therefore not hyperbole when Coates writes, "In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage." As it was in the fields of Charles Ball in Congaree, SC in the early 19th century, so too was it for Rekia Boyd in 21st centry Chicago, IL.

These facts seem to be of importance, at least in my view. But sadly, they are not considered so in the opinion of our school boards, which reflect the will of the general citizenry, the majority of whom are white. These facts are not widely known in our country, and for good reason: they do not paint a flattering picture of our so-called "Puritan work ethic." There is nothing pure nor ethical about the exploitation and destruction of tens of millions of bodies during the two and a half centuries of U.S. slavery. If this had happened in central Europe in the 1930's and 1940's, we'd be able to name it clearly and understand its historical consequences clearly.

I've heard it said that those who do not recall history are doomed to repeat it. At this point in my life, I don't understand the pejorative in this sentiment, at least when white people utter it. Forgetting history is another key aspect of American heritage. Those who forget history have the luxury of repeating it again and again under the guise of American Exceptionalism, with great profit in the immediate future. Of course, America's exceptional nature is not in the good it does. Far from it. I don't think I stand alone as an American capable of recognizing the evil our country has wrought in this world. It can be seen from Baghdad and our war of choice there to "Canfield neighborhood of Ferguson, Mo., where [Michael Brown's] bullet-riddled body lay for four and a half hour...[on] August 9, 2014" (Cooper 2015).

Many white people would like to see things change. The so-called progressives sense that something is very wrong. Hell, even the Tea Partiers know that all is not well in this country, even if they can't see it as clearly as they could. And herein lies the tragedy of the new people's desperate belief in their whiteness. They do not know their real history, and as a result, cannot find solutions. As Baldwin put it "To accept one's past—one's history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a drought."

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Banneker Institute at Harvard: Summer of 2015

Looking back at my blog this Summer I was both surprised and not surprised that the last post dates back to the beginning of July, more than a month ago! It's surprising in the way that time often seems to fly, especially during the summer months in contrast to, say, late February during a snow storm. But I digress. It was not surprising because I was giving all of my available energy, along with some of my reserves, to my latest "Moonshot" initiative, the Banneker Institute (our new website is now live! Ups to Erin Johnson for the pro bono web design work. Also, follow @TheBanneker Institute on Twitter).

I'm proud to report that this summer was a smashing success, thanks in no small part to the brilliance of my students. Make no mistake, #BlackExcellence and #BrownExcellence were on full display this summer, f'real. This is not surprising give that race is a social construct, completely divorced from scientific reality. This is surprising given our nation's foundation on the principles of white supremacy*.

I'm so very proud of my students:

Ana Colón (rising sophomore, Dartmouth)
Ryan Diaz-Perez (rising senior, UMass Boston)
Moiya McTier (rising senior, Harvard)
Justin Myles (rising junior, Yale)
Justin Otor (rising senior, Princeton)
Jamila Pegues (rising senior, Princeton)
Maurice Wilson (rising senior, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University)
Aara'L Yarber (rising senior, Howard University)

The links for each student's name connect to their summer blogs where they kept a running journal of their experiences and research notes. My instructions on style were open-ended and this is reflected in the diversity of writing styles the students brought to the fore. The key was to document what they were learning, so they could look back on the summer and remember important aspects of their development as burgeoning astrophysicists.

At the end of the summer I gave a review of the Institute's first summer; the students gave outstanding, grad-level research presentations; and we had three guest lectures by Dr. Jedidah Isler, Prof. Jorge Moreno and a keynote address by Prof. Sylvester "Jim" Gates. It was a wonderful, and historic day at the CfA. Dare I say that there has never before been such a display of excellence from so large a group of astronomers of color than Friday, August 15, 2015. And as the Institute grows and meets its ultimate goals, this summer will mark the start of excellence through diversity here at the CfA and beyond.

Here's the Google Slides presentation I gave at the beginning of the end-of-summer celebration, along with some notes for various slides below the embedded slides. The student and guest talks were recorded, and I'll post them once they've been edited. 

Slide 2: Not convinced that white supremacy and racism are still things? Then ask yourself why such a remarkable man's history is not taught in our "American history" courses. Banneker's biography is available on Amazon, and you can read a nice summary of his life and accomplishments on Wikipedia. cf also E.E. Just and Kathrine Johnson, among other Black scientists of note (but not noted in our country's history).
Slide 3: Astronomy is a white pursuit with a strong overrepresentation of white people and a corresponding order-of-magnitude underrepresentation of Black, Latino and Native people. This is not due to a lack of interest. The study of the Universe is...universal, and non-white people pay taxes that fund NSF and NASA, too, even as they have been and continue to be actively excluded from participating in science. Still? Note that the Harvard has only 1% Black representation across all sciences despite earning 8-9% of STEM degrees nationwide. These numbers hold for Latin@ representation at Harvard and degrees earned nationally. 
Slide 4: Old/busted vs. New/hotness. Striving for diversity without addressing the historical causes of the lack of diversity (e.g. racism) is like calling for people to do less coughing during a tuberculosis outbreak. 
Slide 5: Harvard Exolab represent, represent! Big ups to Exolab members Jason Eastman, Luan Ghezzi, Ben Montet and David Kipping for advising/mentoring six of the Banneker students. Prof. Karin Oberg and I advised a student each.
Slide 7: Dr. Dawson = Bekki Dawson, who spent a week with us. Dr. Joye = CfA software engineer and DS9 author Bill Joye who gave generously of his time to teach us how to maximize the potential of his powerful image processing and analysis tool. Dr. Imara is Harvard Future Faculty Leaders postdoctoral fellow Nia Imara. Dr. Shields = NSF AAPF and UC Presidents Postdoctoral Fellow Aomawa Shields who spent the summer at the CfA acting like the professor she'll soon be, and Dr. Swift = Jon Swift, teacher at Thacher School and director of the Thacher observatory who spent a week with the B.I. 
Slide 14: Social Justice Fridays are just what one needs at the end of the week as a person of color studying science! We all learned volumes from our various visitors. Note that this slide shows only a third of all who participated. Big ups to Prof. Jorge Moreno for helping out on Fridays in particular, and all summer long generally as a Harvard visiting scholar this summer. Look out for the partner effort known as the Aztlán Institute at Harvard starting next summer thanks to the support of Harvard Astronomy chair Avi Loeb, the NSF AAPF, and funding sources TBD!
Slide 15: AARG matey! Challenging whiteness on this high seas of academe since 2015!
Slide 16: Arrows pointing to: Brenda Achison, founding member of the Banneker Institute and CfA admin; Dr. Nia Imara; Dr. Aomawa Shields; and John Lewis III.
Slide 19: "It's not just a pledge, it's a way of life!" - B.I. scholar Moiya McTier
Do you know of any outstanding Black or Latin@ students at your institution going into their sophomore or junior years who would benefit from the Banneker Institute? Please send me an email and put me in contact with them!
*One of America's "founding fathers," Thomas Jefferson, wrote in 1784:
I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind...This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. 
Jefferson called upon scientists to back up his suspicion and demonstrate why Black people were lesser than whites (not if, but why). The call was ultimately answered in 1850 by Harvard professor, Louis Agassiz. From the transcript of NPR's Race: The Power of an Illusion (Episode 2):
NARRATOR: In 1850, Louis Agassiz by then Harvard's most prominent professor, told his fellow members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that "viewed zoologically, the several races of men were well marked and distinct." Josiah Nott wrote to Samuel Morton, "With Agassiz in the war the battle is ours." 
BAKER: Here was the most objective, the pinnacle of the scientific man influenced by American racism, and who transformed his deeply held belief in the unity of mankind. I think that says more than anything else, that the power of the ideology of race can change peoples' minds. 
NARRATOR: Three years later, Agassiz contributed a chapter to a forthcoming book co-authored by Nott. The 738-page Types of Mankind was greatly anticipated. It pre-sold its entire first edition. 
BAKER: Types of Mankind was tremendously influential. It was the first time that scientists pulled together all of the research that justified the argument that African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, et cetera were different species.