Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2016

The Bright Line is not Monotonic

The anthology of myths commonly known as America rests upon the notion that history is linear. In the past people in this country ignorantly did bad things to other people. But thanks to the passage of time, we can now "let the past to be the past," because today we live in a time when things have gotten much better. Furthermore, any problem that our society faces in the present will inevitably be solved as "the old guard" dies off and a new generation of better people takes their place.  Of course this story isn't told so simply or explicitly. But the assumption lurks beneath the other stories we, as Americans, tell ourselves and each other. The myth certainly undergirds the notion that racism is a thing of the past, and that today we inhabit a "post-racial" world in which all people, regardless of race have equal access to betterment, dignity and happiness. We are lulled into beliving that at some point in the mid to late 1960's, a wise reve

More on the Construction of Black Criminality

I forgot to include this video animation of Ta-Nehisi Coates' take on the myth of Black criminality. His narration picks up after I said, "However, while antebellum slaves were generally considered loyal, religious, morally upstanding, and only threatening when they suffered from drapetomania (the so-called mental illness that caused slaves to escape captivity)." Never forget that slaves who escaped their masters stole their bodies  in violation of US American law. 

The Construction of Black Criminality

On September 19 this year a man named Terence Crutcher was driving home after attending a music class at a community college in Tulsa, OK. His car broke down and he was forced to stop on the road and seek assistance. The police showed up with their guns drawn responding to a 911 call from another motorist worried about a threatening man by a car stopped in the middle of the road. Video footage from a police helicopter hovering overhead shows Cutcher with his hands up. In the audio one of the pilots remarks, " looks like a bad dude …might be on something." Moments later, officer Betty Shelby shoots and kills him. There are many curious and horrible aspects of this tale. First and foremost, it is horrible that a human being was killed by people sworn to protect him. What was curious was the diagnosis of drug use and the determination of evil intent, made from hundreds of feet above Crutcher and the scene unfolding below. Without the benefit of hearing the man, seeing his

Chickens and Eggs, Oppression and Race

Here's a riddle: Long ago, did race exist and then people decided to oppress people based on it, specifically in the form of slavery? Or did oppression exist first, followed by the emergence of race at a later time? To many (most) this sounds like a chicken-or-the-egg question. But it's only a riddle because of the society in which we live, and the continuous and pervasive lessons we learn while immersed in it. In fact, the answer is clearly spelled out in our nation's history, and there is a bright line that connects the distant past to our current state of affairs. Following this bright line can help us understand much about our country, from police shootings, to the paucity of people of color on our university faculties, to the emergence of an autocratic racial demagogue as our national leader.  So let's go back and take a look. What follows is spelled out in greater detail in this essay , and this book (and  here  and  here ). The ~Start of That Bright Line

The Freedom to Discriminate

Imagine for a moment that you work in university student housing and your job description states that you are "responsible for the physical well being and safety of students in the residential college, as well as for fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college." Now imagine that a subset of your students has experienced verbal harassment, taunting, and bullying from some of their fellow students. In response to their mistreatment, the targeted students repeatedly complain to the administration. After some time, the administration sends out a campus-wide email diplomatically asking all students to be thoughtful about their behavior and avoid mistreating their fellow students. Given all that, which of the following responses to the administration's email would fit your job description: a) Calling into question whether it is the university's role to request that students modify their behavior so as to not harass,

(un)Accessible Astronomy: Ableism in Science

My self-directed, community-supported (re)education about US-American society has fueled my focus on, and pursuit of, social justice. I believe that a just society allows all members to have equal opportunities for success in life, and equal access to social, political and economic opportunities and power. This should be regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion—and sadly that's where these statements of social justice too often end. What is often missing, even in my own thinking until relatively recently, is an acknowledgement that physical and mental dis ability must  be included in this list . 

An Expert's View of Changing Academic Culture

In what follows I provide some background and setup for a strong endorsement of Prof. Katie Hinde's exemplary, pitch-perfect, framework-shifting essay " Work in Progress: Changing Academic Culture. " It's arguments and lessons will stay with me for a lifetime. And just in case that's not enough of an endorsement, here's my intro, in which I,  among other things,  brag about knowing the author :-) Prof Katie Hinde in the field in Namibia When I arrived at Harvard, I was contacted by a Prof. Katie Hinde from the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology (HEB). It turned out that one of her students was partnered with one of my students. Small world! She had also read my blog post on The simple power of presence in even modest numbers , which really resonated with her. She invited me to coffee and we quickly figured out that we were kindred spirits.  I am honored to have Prof. Hinde as one of my true friends, and given all the amazing

Required reading for those who prioritize diversity

In the title, I use the word "prioritize" purposefully. Most, if not all educational institutions have statements on their webpages that say that they value diversity, while assigning themselves the label "equal-opportunity employer," or some such. But among the most important lessons I've learned in my academic career is that words are less than cheap. What are less than rare are actions that would increase diversity by addressing barriers to it, backed by funding and effort.  This shortfall of actual effort is nothing short of a crisis of leadership so extensive , so old , and so well-practiced that it is institutionalized (James Baldwin  wrote on it  in 1984). Indeed, this crisis is a key pillar of institutional *isms; inaction as action that supports the status quo.  Where we can find vibrant leadership—actual active leading instead of labels—is among the voices of color in academia. They (we) have a vantage point, a perspective borne of daily e