Category Archives: Politics

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.”

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.

Is the College Admissions Process Unfair?

This is the question everyone is buzzing about, especially after recent reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears poised to challenge affirmative action policies in university admissions.  The move is a nod to President Trump’s base, which, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, believes that white Americans are “losing out” because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics.  The news follows years of legal battles on the subject, including cases involving University of Texas and University of Michigan that have been decided by the US Supreme Court.

 The debate is not going away anytime soon, for two reasons. First of all, universities and their applicants have completely different expectations from the admissions process; and second, it’s so hard to agree what “fair” really means.

 Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in the University of Texas case, used a common argument against affirmative action – she claimed that her achievements were better than those of others who were accepted. “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference…was the color of our skin” she says in a YouTube video discussing her case.

 Obviously high school achievements matter to colleges. But a close look at their missions reveals that other things matter, too.

 University of Texas says its core purpose is “to transform lives for the benefit of society.” The mission of Harvard College is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” Yale “is committed to improving the world today and for future generations…” through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.”

 None of these statements brags about the exceptional resumes of the 17-year-olds these colleges admit. Rather, they believe in “educating citizen leaders for our society” and “improving the world…for future generations” and “transforming lives.”

 In short, the obsession with comparing test scores and extracurricular activities misses the point: that the mission of many colleges is to select and prepare students for a promising future, not to reward students for an impressive past.

 So how can colleges “fairly” select the young people they want to educate and send out into the world to make a difference? And what would that mean?

 However hard we try, it’s impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons of people. Even standardized tests, arguably the most objective of the metrics, have limitations. Let’s say one kid takes an SAT prep class, works with an SAT tutor, takes the test 3 times, and eventually scores a personal best of 1350. Another kid can barely afford to take the test once; prep classes and tutors are out of the question. That kid gets a 1340. Who is smarter?

 Other metrics are even more subjective. GPA, sports, and clubs? High schools offer very different levels of academic rigor and options for extracurricular activities. Hobbies? Applicants’ choices about how to spend personal time are impacted by geography, disposable income, and family particulars.  Harvard just admitted 2,038 people into its next freshman class, but are they the “best” or “most qualified” of the 39,506 applicants? How can anyone know?

 Obviously Harvard believes they chose the right 2,038 people to become “citizen leaders for our society.” And by “our society,” Harvard certainly means our diverse society. The class of 2021 comes from all the regions of the US and from around the world; some are “legacies” and others are the first in their families to attend college. For the first time, fewer than 50% are white.

 Certainly their test scores and grades are impressive. But Harvard probably could have admitted only applicants from private schools in the Northeast and formed a class with even higher test scores and grades. Would that be fairer? Would anyone want to go to such a school?

 The college application process will never be “fair” because people are not numbers, and numbers are not everything. My advice (unsolicited) to Jeff Sessions is to stop worrying about how unfair life is for white Americans.  When they become scarce at elite universities – or in the President’s cabinet – he can consider affirmative action policies to address those disparities. 

All I Want For Christmas

Some women want jewelry; others want designer bags. Not me. I want to play Jedi mind tricks on American political leaders. According to the official Star Wars website, “the Force can have a powerful effect on the weak-minded, a phenomenon Jedi sometimes take advantage of in pursuing their missions.”

Perfect.

What’s my mission? To make 2017 better than 2016. It’s a low bar. If I could just harness the Force, I’d point it directly at our “weak-minded” lawmakers so they would…

  1. …Stop worrying so much about where other people go to the bathroom.

I’m looking at you, North Carolina. When the most well-known piece of legislation to come out of your statehouse is called the Bathroom Bill, it’s time to reflect upon your governing priorities. This panic over public bathrooms is the very definition of a First World Problem, and I use the word “problem” loosely. If you are really that concerned about bathroom habits, consider focusing your time and resources a little further away from home.

Fun Fact: nearly 2.4 billion people in the world don’t have proper toilets (according to the World Health Organization.) So instead of demanding that we show our birth certificates to the ‘potty police’ every time nature calls, consider writing a check to UNICEF.

  1. Remember that America asks the world to “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” even when those huddled masses come from Syria.

Half the population of Syria has been displaced and a generation of children is growing up in refugee camps without education or security or hope. Why isn’t our government doing more about it? I’ll tell you why: because we can never be 100% sure that a terrorist won’t slip in among those refugees!

I can’t argue that, but let’s unpack the threat. Suppose 1 of every 1000 refugees is a terrorist (a totally absurd assumption since in fiscal year 2016 we admitted over 6,726 Syrian refugees, of whom exactly zero were terrorists). Canada had welcomed over 25,000 refugees as of last February, and none of them is on Santa’s naughty list.

If we welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees and if 1 of every 1000 was not only a terrorist but also successfully committed a terrorist act, approximately 44 Americans would die in those attacks (fatality assumptions based on 2016 data).

That means we won’t risk the chance that 44 Americans might die, in order to save 25,000 people. Either this great country is filled with cowards, or we are bad at math. Or possibly both (given the falling regard for all things scientific or fact-based, and the tiny percent of us who serve in the military).

  1. …Act like decent humans.

It doesn’t seem that hard, does it? Yet time after time, our elected leaders behave like babies (at best) or heartless bastards (at worst). I am tired of turning on the news and hearing about a certain someone grabbing women by the privates, whining about his press coverage, and threatening to create a Muslim registry. I don’t know what’s more exhausting: keeping track of it all, or sustaining an appropriate level of outrage. But what can I do about it?

If I get the Force for Christmas. I will play my Jedi mind tricks. And by this time next year, the 24-hour cable news cycle will go dark for lack of material because our president will actually be presidential. We’ll have some new Americans with whom to celebrate the holidays. North Carolina will no longer be the butt (ha ha) of much bathroom humor.

If my stocking is empty, however, I fear 2017 may be even worse than 2016. In which case, I will seriously consider relocating. To a galaxy far, far away.