The University of Chicago Strikes Out

My alma mater the University of Chicago has managed to get what it’s always wanted: attention from the national press.  Unfortunately, it did so by sending a completely unnecessary letter to incoming students announcing the school’s opposition to trigger warnings and safe spaces, concepts the letter doesn’t seem to understand at all.  So let me wade into this muck in the hope of achieving some clarity.  As the University of Chicago taught me, it’s best to begin by defining one’s terms.

Just as sexual harassment is a form of expression which is nonetheless regulated to make it possible for women to function in the workplace, various kinds of campus behavior are forms of expression which may nonetheless be regulated to make it possible for non-majority students to function in academe. Surely there are ludicrous examples of demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, just as there are egregious examples of on-campus hostility and discrimination (e.g. men parading outside a women’s dorm yelling “No means yes! Yes means anal!”).  The issue in either case is the boundary between free expression and expression designed to intimidate or silence. No one can deny that a burning cross is an example of expression but as its purpose is to terrorize, it’s considered to be on the wrong side of that boundary. So, in Europe, is Holocaust denial, though it’s tolerated on American college campuses (while assertions that the earth is flat, say, would not be).

Thus people who take seriously the possibility that a person calling black women “water buffaloes” intends to demean and silence them are simply engaging in the type of critical thinking to which universities are supposed to be dedicated as well as the complementary analysis of what is necessary to protect an environment of civil discourse.

I’m a passionate advocate of the educational experience I had at the U of C, and nonetheless I think the letter to incoming students could more succinctly have been rendered as “F**k you if you imagine anything you think will be of interest or concern to us; you must have mistaken us for someplace that cares. And if you don’t like it take your female and black and brown and queer sensibilities elsewhere.” And I am revolted that my alma mater decided its reputation was best spent on that kind of dog-whistle right-wing nonsense.

You don’t want to use trigger warnings? Don’t. But there’s no need to denounce them unless your real purpose is to let people (especially, perhaps, donors) know that you’re indifferent to any concerns about mistreatment based on identity, and that any complaints about such mistreatment will be met with dismissiveness and derision because how dare any of these 21st Century concerns impinge on the 19th Century approach to which we’ve apparently dedicated our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor?

When I spoke up at the law school, I was thanked for expressing “what the women think.” When a classmate objected to the teaching of Plato’s Symposium as though it didn’t refer to gay love, he was told that the University didn’t “cater to special interests.” When students and faculty spoke out for diversifying the curriculum beyond the dead white “mods and greats” beloved of the British university system, the response (from Saul Bellow, no less) was “where is the Proust of the Papuans?” though the whole point of his query was to ridicule the idea of our finding out.

There was nothing “micro” about these aggressions; they were perfectly visible examples of the majority’s desire to humiliate and stifle the minorities.  And the University’s admissions policies in those days (though not now, happily) were carefully designed to make sure that black and brown and even female people were in the tiniest minorities possible.

So the U of C has a long history of behaving as if modernity were a personal insult, and this letter to first-years is as much in keeping with that tradition as any boob’s expressed desire to make America great (meaning white) again.

I’ve heard there are donors to other schools who’ve withdrawn their support when their alma maters have acknowledged their role in slavery or in any way made a reckoning with the imperfections of the past.  So just to balance things out, I’m withdrawing my support of an institution which seems to glory in denying there ever were any such imperfections or that any discrimination or hostility continues to exist today. The U of C exercised its privilege of flipping the bird to its incoming students and I’m exercising my privilege to flip the bird to the U of C.

I hope the faculty and administration don’t experience that as traumatic; but just in case I’m providing this trigger warning.

What Rahm says/What Chicago hears

I once saw a cartoon entitled “What You Say/What Your Dog Hears.”  In the first panel we see the owner shrieking: “You’re a very bad dog, Ginger!  Look how you broke my favorite lamp, Ginger!  Bad, bad Ginger!”  In the second panel we see the dog wagging its tail with glee as it hears, “Ooooooo, Ginger! Oooooooo, Ginger! Oooo, oooo Ginger!”

This came to mind as I read the latest chin-strokers about the impact of Rahm Emanuel’s personality on the likelihood that he’ll hold onto Chicago’s mayoralty.  Journalists have emptied their thesauri searching for the closest analogue to the unprintable “asshole;” but most of their accounts suggest that the entire topic is unworthy of discussion.

That’s probably because many journalists have backgrounds like mine.  When Rahm speaks, I hear the boys I went to high school with, or the guys with whom I practiced law: loud and obnoxious, blunt and profane.  Plenty of those guys were assholes—but just as many weren’t.  Their swearing and yelling was pretty much beside the point, just a matter of style.  And a familiar style, at that: the style of urban Jews from loud-mouthed families where you had to shout to be heard.

So when the mayor is rude, I don’t take it personally.  But it seems likely that what African-Americans hear is disrespect, and they do take it personally.  Nor would I claim that they shouldn’t.  I suspect to many black people Rahm’s profanity and flippancy register as ways of saying, “You’re so unimportant I can’t even bother to be polite to you.”  It comes across as one of the thousands of variations on addressing adults as “boy.”

So the issue isn’t whether Chicagoans are too thin-skinned to handle a tough-talking mayor; it’s whether what they hear is tough talk, or disdain.  And given Rahm’s determination to do things his own way and his reluctance to listen to other people’s points of view, the ones whose reaction is that the mayor doesn’t care what they think or even believe them qualified to have opinions—those people cannot be held to be wrong.

Black poverty and white poverty are not the same, and here’s why

Black poverty and white poverty are not the same.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates demonstrates in this brilliant article in The Atlantic, African-Americans have been subjected to continuous, intentional and organized theft by a kleptocracy masquerading as a democracy.  If you’re not angry by the time you’re done reading about how the US government maintained black poverty to benefit white people, you haven’t been paying attention.  The title, “The Case for Reparations,” is a bit misleading, as Coates is less concerned with a financial reckoning than with a moral one.

The article should be of especial interest to Chicago readers, as it includes an account of the scams and cheats and outright thefts which created today’s hopelessly segregated city.  The nearly-forgotten “contract sellers” bought houses low because they’d terrified white owners with the prospect of black neighbors, and then sold the self-same houses high to black families barred from moving into unsegregated neighborhoods.  Then they took the houses back on any pretext, or none at all, leaving their “purchasers” with nothing.  But these sellers were the only option for African-Americans who wanted to own a home, because the Federal Housing Administration statute and regulations essentially precluded bank lending to black people.

Come to think of it, the article should be of especial interest to anyone who’s ever been moved by A Raisin in the Sun.   Hansberry’s version of the story of housing segregation is more uplifting, but Coates’s is truer.

A must-read.


Cross-posted with

Giving Tuesday, No Giving Required; and Jail for the President

Over on The Nonprofiteer, I critique the whole Giving Tuesday concept and particularly its latest iteration, in which people don’t have to actually give to participate.

Plus, h/t to our friends at Political Wire, for quoting a Republican legislator who can’t seem to imagine a black man who isn’t incarcerated.


The Genetics Profession Confronts its Troublesome Inheritance

On August 8, a remarkable letter appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Written by a group of five leading evolutionary geneticists and signed by another 135, it repudiated the main conclusions of Nicolas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. Wade was for many years the main science reporter for the New York Times covering developments in genetics and biology. His book purported to summarize the main findings of the research he had been covering: that the European, African, and Asian races are genetically defined and that they have faced different evolutionary pressures that have given them what he claimed are different intellectual, behavioral, and civilizational capacities.

The book has been widely reviewed and, apart from a glowing endorsement from conservative policy writer Charles Murray, has received largely negative assessments. Wade’s main response has been that the commentators lack the stature and expertise to criticize his ideas. Thus, when the 135 scientists, many of whom Wade cites as his own authorities, blasted his argument as “incomplete and inaccurate” and with “no support from the field of population genetics,” his thesis had been dealt a mortal blow.

But to understand what makes the move of these geneticists so remarkable, you need some history and sociology of claims that genetic science explains racial differences in intellect and behavior.

In 1969, educational psychologist Arthur Jensen used ideas from the emerging field of behavior genetics in an article claiming that the IQ and educational achievement gaps between black and white children were due in large part to genetic differences between the races, and that educational efforts to close the gap must therefore fail. This was the era of intense conflicts over civil rights and President Johnson’s Great Society. Jensen’s writings sparked student protests and heated academic debates. Not surprisingly many education scholars, social scientists, and psychologists denounced Jensen’s work, but so too did many geneticists. In 1975, 1,390 members of the Genetics Society of America co-signed a statement that said “there is no convincing evidence as to whether there is or is not an appreciable genetic difference in intelligence between races” and over nine hundred had signed a stronger repudiation of Jensen’s work.

The IQ and race controversy was traumatic for researchers interested in genes and behavior. As debates raged about science, politics, and ethics of the research, the field fragmented into mutually distrusting groups and many geneticists completely abandoned behavior as a topic.

A quarter century later psychologist Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, an 845 page doorstop that made a very similar argument to Jensen’s: the lack of success of Latinos and African Americans relative to whites and Asians has a strong genetic basis. American inequality, they argued, is mostly genetic. This time, the response was very different. Social scientists and liberal pundits decried the work, criticizing the science and linking it to the history of scientific racism. However, biologists and geneticists largely ignored the debate. Those who tried to intervene, like Stephen J. Gould, were often perceived as politically, rather than scientifically, motivated. Geneticist David Botstein explained his peers’ silence: The Bell Curve “is so stupid that it is not rebuttable.” Members of the Human Genome Project’s (HGP) Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues (ELSI) division hoped to organize project leadership to publicly distance genetics from the book’s racial ideas. It took two years for an ELSI statement to be allowed to appear in a specialist genetics journal, but HGP leadership remained publicly quiet. Soon thereafter ELSI was reorganized and its public activism discouraged.

We tend to think of a scientist’s public responsibility as a matter of individual commitment. But it has much to do with the structure and culture of scientific communities. The IQ controversy from the 1970s had spurred changes driving geneticists’ disengaged approach to The Bell Curve in the 1990s. Conflicts fragmented the research community so geneticists rarely interacted with behavioral scientists and weren’t comfortable engaging their claims critically. Mistrust made it impossible to see public criticism as legitimately scientific rather than purely political. And the outsourcing of ethics to ELSI made it difficult for many geneticists to see the public interpretation of scientific controversies as their business.

The genetic evidence for racial behavioral differences hasn’t changed in the 45 years since Jensen wrote, but geneticists’ public responses have. The recent collective response to Wade’s book is heartening because it indicates that geneticists are coming to see that a new approach to the public interpretation of their science is needed. Because it aims to tell us about human similarities and differences, capacities and potential for change, there will always be a public politics to genetics. The difficult work of the public interpretation of contentious issues cannot be left to social scientists and ethicists (whose genetics credentials will be questioned) or to individual geneticists (whose motivations will be questioned). This group will take heat for their stand, but they cannot be doubted as scientists or marginalized as individuals. They will learn, I believe, that being political in this way—soundly criticizing public misappropriations of their research—can only be good for the long term legitimacy of genetics.

Aaron Panofsky is Associate Professor in Public Policy and the Institute for Society and Genetics at UCLA. His recent book, Misbehaving Science considers the scientific and political controversies surrounding behavior genetics.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Intruder

“Schlockmeister” Roger Corman made a serious, even daring film about racism that remains potent today: The Intruder

the-intruder-6It is pretty hard to imagine a Hollywood Producer sitting in a meeting in 1962 and saying “I want a daring and powerful film about racism in the civil rights era…get Roger Corman and Bill Shatner on the phone pronto!”. Yet the B-Movie king and television’s most beloved overactor did indeed make such a movie, and it still packs a punch today. It’s this week’s film recommendation: The Intruder.

The story opens with an angelic-looking charmer (Shatner) named Adam Cramer arriving at a small Southern town for the purpose of “social work”. He is boyish and innocent-seeming at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that he is a member of a John Birch-type society and intends to stir up racial animosity concurrent with the arrival of school integration. He preys on weakness in all its forms and foments hatred and violence which spins out of control. Disgusted by Cramer, a fence-sitting newspaper editor (Frank Maxwell) has an attack of conscience and moves to side decisively with integration, at horrible cost to himself and his family.

Maybe because it was his first movie leading role or because Corman kept him under control, Shatner is unusually restrained here and it really works well for him. Then young and handsome, he is particularly effective at portraying seductive yet smarmy sexuality. Most of the extras and small roles were people of the town in which the crew filmed and were eventually chased out of because of the dirty laundry the movie was airing. Charles Barnes as the high school senior leading the first Black students into the previously segregated school movingly conveys strength, dignity and sadness all at once. This was a role from the heart for him as the prior year he had actually done the same thing in real life.

Although The Intruder can be experienced as a film about racism, it can be even better appreciated as a mesmerizing character study. Adam Cramer is an admixture of the calm salesman and someone desperate to obtain, a bully and a weakling, an Adonis who is deeply ugly. The development of this strange yet realistic character is the best thing about Charles Beaumont’s script. For someone with a tragically short life, Beaumont had significant artistic impact, including co-creating The Twilight Zone with Rod Serling and going on with Corman and much of the cast here to make the first adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s work for the big screen (The above-average horror film, The Haunted Palace).

Corman was known for making cheap, unpretentious grindhouse films about motorcycles, monsters and mayhem (Including Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, one of which was recommended here at RBC). He also, famously, never lost money on a movie. Until The Intruder that is, which was denied bookings in much of The South and in other parts of the country where the film was considered too controversial. It was re-titled multiple times to try to get it into theaters (as “Shame” and later with the cringe worthy exploitation title “I Hate Your Guts!”), but with minimal success. As the film’s reputation grew and it was the subject of some recent documentaries and festivals, it finally broke even four decades after its release.

The only thing I didn’t love about The Intruder was the climax, which though still downbeat comes out a bit happier than I expect it would have in real life. But if Corman had gone for complete realism his film would never have been released at all. This was daring stuff for its time, and both for its themes and character development The Intruder holds up as an impressive piece of cinema over 50 years later.

The Intruder is in the public domain and I am posting it here. It took only the first six minutes for me to be completely hooked.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

“Targeted demobilization of minority voters”—the most disgraceful practice in American politics today

Perspectives on Politics is a leading journal published by the American Political Science Association. December’s issue includes a sobering article by Keith G. Bentele and Erin E. O’Brien titled, “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies.” The abstract tells the basic story:

Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in state legislation likely to reduce access for some voters, including photo identification and proof of citizenship requirements, registration restrictions, absentee ballot voting restrictions, and reductions in early voting. Political operatives often ascribe malicious motives when their opponents either endorse or oppose such legislation. In an effort to bring empirical clarity and epistemological standards to what has been a deeply-charged, partisan, and frequently anecdotal debate, we use multiple specialized regression approaches to examine factors associated with both the proposal and adoption of restrictive voter access legislation from 2006–2011. Our results indicate that proposal and passage are highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs. These findings are consistent with a scenario in which the targeted demobilization of minority voters and African Americans is a central driver of recent legislative developments…. [emphasis added]

Bentele and O’Brien’s statistical analysis of 2006-2011 data makes plain what was already pretty obvious. Republican governors and legislatures have sought to hinder minority turnout for partisan purposes. States were especially likely to pass restrictive voting laws if Republicans were politically dominant, but where the state observed rising minority turnout or where the state was becoming more competitive in the national presidential race. Variables that capture the strategic value to Republicans of minority voter suppression are more powerful predictors of restrictive voting legislation than is actual incidence of voter fraud.

This is the most disgraceful and toxic practice in American political life. It’s out there. It’s blatant. I keep waiting for decent conservatives to speak out against this stuff. Now that would be a Sister Souldjah moment worth watching. So far, no takers.

Memories of these efforts will darken the Republican Party’s reputation for many years. It certainly should.

Megyn Kelly and the arc of history

Yes, Megyn Kelly is dreaming of a white Christmas. But she assumes that Jews are white. Who knew?

Yes, we all know that Megyn Kelly is dreaming of a white Christmas, with a white Santa and a white Jesus. And yes, she’s collecting the mockery she deserves.

But look on the bright side. Kelly’s puzzlement is based on her unthinking assumption that Jews are white people. That seems uncontroversial today, but the Megyn Kellys of a century ago regarded Jews as a racially different group, along with Italians and Slavs, in arguing for the immigration laws the Megyn Kellys of today still defend, though the targets of ethnic exclusion have shifted. And two generations earlier than that, the Know-Nothings would have raised serious questions about Kelly’s own whiteness.

So be cheerful. The arc of history does indeed bend toward justice; it’s just that on Fox News it has a larger radius of curvature.

Benefit of the doubt

With a medium as susceptible to miscommunication as Twitter, aren’t we under some obligation to give authors some measure of benefit of the doubt?

I can’t help but feel as though it takes willful cynicism to read the phrasing of the following tweet as conveying triumph about the end of racism. In instances such as this, for which meaning can just as permissibly be read in the past tense as in the present, I hope readers would extend me the courtesy of, to borrow from Wikipedia, “a favorable judgment in the absence of full evidence” about my intentions. The process — ending racism — needn’t have been completed for Parks’ contribution to warrant remembrance.

Yes, the author has re-written the tweet, as is appropriate when meaning can be easily clarified. But the original wording is hardly grounds for the imbroglio it precipitated. If you’re looking for racism in Republican rhetoric, there’s no need to resort to equivocal tweets like this.