Category Archives: Observations and Musings

Required Reading for White Americans

As of this writing, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has not stepped down (after admitting he has previously worn blackface), but he has promised to rehabilitate his career with a renewed focus on racial equity. Also, he has a reading assignment! Reportedly, Northam is reading Alex Haley’s “Roots” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.”

Why stop there?

I have some additional book ideas for Northam – and anyone else who wants to better understand our American legacy of slavery, botched reconciliation, and segregation. I heartily recommend the following (in no particular order):

Nonfiction

  1. Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips
  2. We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  3. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  4. The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation by Daina Ramey Berry
  5. The Half That Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist
  6. The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington
  7. A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schools by Rachel Devlin
  8. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin Diangelo
  9. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon
  10. The Groveland Four: The Sad Story of a Legal Lynching by Gary Corsair
  11. Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle by Kristen Green
  12. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
  13. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
  14. Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America by Beryl Satter
  15. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America by Ira Katznelson
  16. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

Prefer a novel? Try these:

  1. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
  2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  3. Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
  4. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  5. Beloved by Toni Morrison (truly, anything by Toni Morrison)
  6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  7. The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Have you read any of the above?  What else should be on this list?

 

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The Secrets of My Graduate School Yearbook

Given the dumpster fire that is Virginia politics these days, after the revelation of horribly racist photos that may or may not show Governor Ralph Northam, some are asking: Would any of us really want our graduate school yearbooks flung open for all to see? Who among us could possibly be fit for public office if the misdeeds of our youth were revealed in black and white?

I dug up my old Harvard Business School yearbook to see what secrets lay within. Are members of the HBS Class of ’97 hiding awful secrets? What would happen to the prominent careers and reputations of my classmates today if these photos were made public?

There are, in fact, some very embarrassing photos in that yearbook – I can’t deny it. If they ever get out, here’s what the world would see:

  • People drinking beer
  • People drinking beer DIRECTLY OUT OF THE CAN (and it was Budweiser!!!)
  • Classroom photos of eager students raising their hands with an ivy-league amount assertiveness and confidence
  • One guy with a big heart-shaped tattoo on his arm (but upon closer inspection, the tattoo isn’t real – it was drawn with a Sharpie)
  • Someone at a party wearing a plastic Viking hat with horns (cultural appropriation, for sure)
  • Drinks, drinks, and more drinks – alcohol was featured prominently, though not quite so much as in Brett Kavanaugh’s high school (!) yearbook
  • Grinning future-one-percenters wearing tuxedos while unlit cigars dangle from their lips (I do NOT remember this many parties – I must have been in the library)

That’s about the worst of it. Mainly, the yearbook is full of wholesome scenes of the Harvard milieu straight out of central casting (Harvard-Yale game celebrations, crew teams sculling on the Charles River, preppy young men frolicking on a perfectly manicured lawn with a football, etc.). Perhaps these simply reflect the editorial choices of a school community with lots to hide. But I don’t think so.

You know what isn’t in my yearbook? A single picture of people in blackface or Klan hoods. Any one of my classmates could proudly serve in public office – some probably are – without worrying about past yearbook photos.

I guess that’s one difference between Harvard Business School and Eastern Virginia Medical School. Another is that our curriculum included Human Resources Management. If I were Northam’s boss, I’d be drafting an email with this handy, all-purpose language:

“Effective immediately, Ralph Northam has chosen to pursue other opportunities. We wish him well in his future endeavors.”

Aiming for Equity: Chromebooks for Everyone!

My daughter’s high school just gave a Chromebook to every sophomore in the school. This is Newton’s attempt to close the technology gap, or at least narrow it. Will it work?

It sure seems convenient for the teachers. They can post assignments online and reasonably expect their students to check for updates, long after class is dismissed. They can hover virtually over students’ shoulders while they write essays, identifying who’s ahead or behind or helplessly stricken with writer’s block. They can even collect assignments electronically, eliminating classic excuses like “the dog ate my homework.” Let’s see the dog eat a Chromebook (“Challenge Accepted!” says every Labrador Retriever)!

In this new world, everyone is a “have.” Backpacks are heavier, but futures are brighter.

Each child will undoubtedly treat the Chromebook like the borrowed, expensive (unaffordable for many, hence this program) item it is. Teenagers never lose or drop anything, never spill drinks, never dump their backpacks on the floor in blessed relief at the end of the day in a way that might damage this device. In any case, Chromebook insurance is available for purchase. For how much? Well, if you have to ask…

The Chromebooks surely will be transported to and from school in sturdy backpacks, carried through safe, leafy neighborhoods by their owners or placed carefully on the seat of a reliable family car. There’s no chance of theft because students don’t walk through sketchy neighborhoods where they may encounter bullies or thieves. Right?

Once students are home, the Chromebooks will be safe at the kitchen island homework station or in a child’s own comfy bedroom. As long as these lucky kids never stay in housing projects or at shelters or on their Aunt Linda’s couch, there is no risk the Chromebook could be stolen or misplaced or pawned for rent money. Students are also expected to charge their Chromebooks each night. This requires a lifestyle in which the electric bill is never past due, and the power is reliably on. It helps to live in a tidy, organized house where the power cord won’t get lost or damaged. Did I mention you need WiFi?

For most of the sophomores, having a Chromebook is great – a real help, if they didn’t already have a laptop to bring to school. But for a few, this great new “technology gap narrower” might do the opposite. This program shines a bright light on disparities that used to be merely challenging but now may feel even more pronounced.

Does this mean schools shouldn’t even try experiments like this? Not necessarily, because designing policy based on the most extreme cases isn’t good practice. But designing policy that creates hardship for the most vulnerable isn’t good practice, either.

I don’t know what the right answer is, but surely the first step is to imagine what it means to kids who takes multiple city buses to get to Newton, who stay intermittently with various relatives or friends, who have no private safe space to keep valuables, and who can’t afford the insurance on a device they really can’t afford to lose. Giving everyone a Chromebook might feel like equity, but all bets are off when students leave school grounds. And God help those who have a dog.

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He Said, She Said. Can Both be Telling the Truth?

US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has been accused of assaulting a fellow teenager when they were both in high school. He vehemently denies it. Does that mean one of them is lying?

Maybe not.

Here’s the thing about assaults like this: as we’ve learned from the many personal stories unearthed by the “Me Too” movement, the parties involved in these incidents often remember them differently.

MAJOR DISCLAIMER: Most men are good and decent and would never commit assault. You know who you are! 

HOWEVER, those men who do commit assault might not even realize their own behavior is wrong, because the behavior has absolutely no consequences (at least not for them – there are very significant consequences for the victims).

Men have gotten away with this for years (decades, centuries, millennia!) because their victims were:

  1. Their own employees who would lose their jobs if they protested
  2. Their wives, and therefore their property to assault/abuse as they wished
  3. Afraid to speak up, because of the inevitable personal attacks such a decision invites
  4. Inferior in social or economic status, and therefore powerless to complain
  5. Wearing revealing clothing, and therefore “asking for it”
  6. Of imperfect character, and therefore wouldn’t be believed
  7. Etcetera…

So for most of human history, men who committed assault arrived at the perfectly logical conclusion that forcing themselves on women or playing grabby-grab couldn’t be that bad, because no one complained when they did it! Harvey Weinstein was shocked when karma finally caught up with him. He earnestly explained, “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.”

It was indeed. To him, it was a culture of entitlement and permissiveness. The women involved remember it differently – they describe these incidents as terrifying and absolutely unforgettable. For Harvey, it was all just another day in the life of a movie mogul.

A story from a Georgia restaurant that went viral this summer is a perfect example of this dichotomy: security camera footage shows a man casually grabbing a waitress on the buttocks. He does it without even breaking stride. He doesn’t hesitate or slow down – just executes a smooth, on-the-move squeeze. It looks suspiciously natural (how many times has he done this?). If not for the reaction of the waitress (she slammed him to the ground and asked her co-worker to call the police), he probably would have forgotten all about it. Just another day in life of a regular dude.

The waitress, however, was having none of it. If the incident was a “first” for her, more power to her. More likely, this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. And she hadn’t forgotten about any of the other straws. Because every incident, no matter how relatively small, leaves a mark. And a memory.

Which brings us to Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford, whose character is already being pummeled in the media (see #3, above). Her recollection of details may be fuzzy, but her memory of the assault itself is sharp as a knife. She reported to the Washington Post that she sought treatment for “long term effects of the incident.” From the moment she escaped by hiding in a bathroom and then fleeing from the house, the events of that day remained significant and traumatic.

If her story is true, Brett Kavanaugh was drunk and, after she ran away and hid, he gave up the chase to rejoin the party. For whatever reason – maybe the alcohol or maybe because it was so long ago – he says he doesn’t remember. No one called the police or confronted him. No one complained.

So Kavanaugh’s denial, which reads, “This is a completely false allegation. I have never done anything like what the accuser describes – to her or to anyone,” may be truthful. Her description of the event was pretty horrible (“I thought he might inadvertently kill me”), but he may sincerely remember just another summer day, drinking at a party, having some fun. Just another day in the life of a promising young man.

They may both be telling the truth.

 

#KeepFacebook

When my kids were old enough to start using social media and smartphones, they heard me repeat one piece of advice so often you’d think they were training for the eye-rolling Olympics:

“Always remember, anything you share electronically is no longer your own, and nothing online is private.”

Facebook users expressing outrage at a violation of their “privacy” should remember the same.

I’m not saying Facebook is blameless – as I write this, Mark Zuckerberg is facing a gallery of angry senators and telling them Facebook was wrong, they screwed up, he’s sorry. Cambridge Analytica played fast and loose with user data, and Facebook either didn’t try hard enough or didn’t care enough to stop it.

But the vitriol against Facebook today is broader than anger at the Cambridge Analytica situation. Users seem to think the content we post on the site is somehow private, that we own it, and even that Facebook should have to pay us for it.

We need to reflect upon these three truths:

First, Facebook is paying us for our data. Software engineers built a great site. They give us a way to share ridiculous selfies, our kids’ recital videos, and pictures of every restaurant meal we’ve eaten since 2009. They remind us when it’s our cousin’s birthday and help us find that cute kid from our 6th grade class we’ve always wondered about. All this has been given to users in exchange for some profile data. It’s not nothing.

Second, we don’t really care about privacy. We share vacation itineraries, job updates, and pictures of injuries (even x-rays!) with the hundreds or thousands of “friends.” Only fools can possibly believe this stuff was ever private to begin with. Defying all common sense, teenagers post photos of themselves chugging suspiciously from red Solo cups and cliquey adults post pictures of parties to which only the “in” crowd was invited. We’ve all cringed after hurting someone’s feelings because a second-tier friend saw us post that we were in their hometown and didn’t call. When Facebook asks, “What’s on your mind?” we can’t help but answer.

Third, please admit that we wouldn’t want it any other way. All evidence suggests Americans are happy to relinquish some privacy in exchange for free use of social media platforms. Facebook isn’t the only one that knows a lot about us. There are 328 million Twitter users worldwide. When I type, “best beach…” Google answers “reads” before I finish the phrase. All these products could shift to a subscription model, but nobody wants to pay for things we’ve come to expect for free. The airlines have tried that with checked bags and seat selection, and does anyone love that? Face it – we’d rather look at targeted ads.

Still not convinced? Last I checked, use of Facebook (and Twitter, etc.) was voluntary. No one is holding a gun to our heads and forcing us to “like” baby pictures or comment on our Republican uncle’s diatribe about the Second Amendment. Having a Facebook account isn’t like being gay – we aren’t born with it, we choose it.

I’ll say it again – nothing you put online is private. Rolling your eyes won’t make that any less true.

Doing the Math on Sexual Harassment

The numbers are staggering. Every five minutes, ’BREAKING NEWS” reports that yet another politician/journalist/executive has groped at his colleagues’ private parts/answered the door in a towel/paid out thousands of dollars in hush money/ etcetera, etcetera. It’s getting exhausting.

And those numbers don’t even include the countless, nameless everyday working class men who absolutely do this but aren’t famous so, therefore, no one cares. The women they grab suffer silently and anonymously, for now.

To those innocents who are shocked – shocked! – by the endless parade of victims and the steady stream of accusations, I have bad news. What you’re seeing now is only the very tiny little tippy top of the iceberg.

And yet – we all know Good Men. So I’ve been wondering about ratios.

If every woman has a harassment story (or twenty), and we know that there are plenty of Good Men out there who know how to behave, how busy are the other dudes?

Very busy, I suspect. The Pareto Principle, also known as the “80/20 rule,” states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. If this applies to sexual harassment, 20% of men may be responsible for most of the mess.

I sincerely hope this is true, and my personal experience backs it up. I’ve worked in retail stores, a Fortune 500 corporate office, countless nonprofits, and the military – I’ve had thousands of male colleagues. Most of them were absolutely awesome, fully civilized adults who would never do any of the crap in today’s headlines. But I can recall one really bad apple who was very busy indeed.

Of the men who’ve been publicly accused so far, none of them has only a single complaint against him. They are overachievers! They weren’t guilty of “making a mistake” so much as they were successful at “being very persistent” and “not taking a hint.”

What do you do if you’re a 60-year-old man and the first 25-year-old woman to whom you reveal your shriveled privates doesn’t swoon with delight? You try, try again! What if the first woman whose ass you grab doesn’t enthusiastically grab yours back, with a welcoming twinkle in her eye? Have your HR department write a settlement check – shhh. What if your new intern isn’t thrilled at the chance to sleep with you in exchange for a reference? Don’t give up – you know she wants you!

If the Pareto Principle applies, the numbers indicate a large pool of jerks but an even larger pool of decency. That’s the good news. What we need now is for the 80% to make life really miserable for the 20%. Let’s shrink the number to 10% or even 5%. Let’s make the number so small that all the names will fit on a list for girls to memorize as part of the 8th grade Health Curriculum (because apparently, at age 14, you are fair game).

Not all men are comforted by the new transparency (Warning: if this describes you, you may be part of the 20%). In the comment section of a New York Times opinion piece on harassment, a man named Mark whined, “Is every man in your life reduced to a ‘groper’ or a ‘not groper?’” Well, Mark, the answer is YES, to be blunt. But here’s the great news for you – God blessed you with free will and a sturdy zipper on your pants. Use both wisely.

What is Wrong – and Right – With the Navy?

Since January, four warships in the US Navy’s 7th Fleet have been involved in serious accidents. The most recent occurred this week when the destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with a tanker near Singapore; the USS Fitzgerald experienced a fatal collision in June. In both cases, sleeping sailors (no doubt exhausted from the daily grind of life at sea) awoke suddenly to the sound of tearing metal and the rush of seawater. These incidents have many wondering: what on earth is wrong with the navy?

As a former Surface Warfare Officer who spent hundreds of hours standing watch on the bridge of a warship, I know that many things have to go wrong for collisions to occur at sea.  Nearly all of them involve human error by the officers in charge.  Whatever else is going on, it appears the navy has a serious leadership problem.

New reports suggest that the John S. McCain suffered a “steering malfunction” prior to its accident. But navy ships are designed with system redundancy, and well-trained watch teams practice and prepare for such emergencies. When I was a young junior officer, we constantly trained for potential loss of steering, man overboard, and engine room fires. We’d cover the bridge windows with old nautical charts to practice navigating in low-visibility. Our senior officers purposely created training opportunities designed to prepare us for anything. 

That the commanding officer of the Fitzgerald was in his stateroom at the time of the accident is a huge red flag. All watch standers should be familiar with the captain’s “Standing Orders,” which require him to be notified when other vessels get within close range. Were they afraid to tell the boss they’d let another ship get so near? Did they completely lose basic situational awareness? Both are bad; the investigation will eventually determine the truth.

Meanwhile, the responses by the enlisted crew members in both accidents demonstrate what the navy is doing right.  In each instance, berthing compartments flooded in mere minutes – another emergency for which sailors prepare. I will never forget that training simulator, in a dark compartment with cold, high-pressure water spraying in our faces.  As the water quickly rose over our boots, above our waists, and to our armpits, we struggled to stay calm while working to contain the flooding and get everyone out safely.

It’s no wonder the sailors who did just that, after waking suddenly upon impact, are being called heroes for saving so many lives. In the case of the Fitzgerald, they have been commended for keeping the entire ship afloat.

Early investigation results specifically highlight the bravery of Gary Leo Rehm, Jr., who was posthumously advanced to Chief Petty Officer based on his actions. Survivors report that he personally evacuated many shipmates from the flooding compartment. Men like Chief Rehm represent what’s “right” with the navy.

Something else the navy gets right is accountability. To date, the three senior leaders on the Fitzgerald have been removed, and several junior officers were relieved of their duties by the U.S. 7th Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin. Ironically, Vice Adm. Aucoin himself was relieved after the John S. McCain accident.  More firings are sure to come.

Holding leadership accountable, however important, feels “too little, too late.” In these recent tragedies, the officers paid with their careers but the enlisted sailors paid with their lives.

The upcoming operational pause – also known as a “safety stand-down” – is an important first step, but I am concerned about restoring trust. The navy today needs the kind of leaders I remember, who demand exceptional performance and ensure they get it by relentlessly training their teams.

Our sailors deserve nothing less. They deserve to hit the rack after a long day at sea with confidence that their ship is in well-trained, capable hands. The only thing jarring them awake should be the too-early call of “Reveille.”