Monday, January 15, 2018

A Path Will Emerge
There are many great reflections available on this MLK day and I encourage you to read widely. This is mine, but as a white guy I encourage you (if you are also white) to hear Melissa Harris or Coates or West or Eugene Robinson or Maya Angelou or John King or listen to your black neighbor today. Nevertheless, here are my reflections. 

John King wrote a thoughtful commentary for the Baltimore Sun that was reprinted in our home town Akron Beacon Journal today. Well worth reading in full.

His central argument is that we cannot fully understand racism today (that is, understand deeply enough such that we are able to find ways to productively address it), without taking a sober look at our past.

We cannot fully understand frequent police shootings of young black men, with officers exonerated and communities broken and silenced, if we allow ourselves to believe (the obviously false) story that ‘once there was slavery, then MLK pointed the way, and today all is good.’

Or the even less accurate version that concludes the only racism today is that blacks keep bringing up racism. As I read John King, I thought, as a nation we should all participate in book clubs to read New Jim Crow together, because that book (in a powerful and clear way) shows us the scars and wounds and concentrated disadvantages that are a cancer on the great American experiment today and flow from slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, urban ghettos, and the prison-industrial complex.

We know from numerous studies that job opportunities (call backs for interviews, job offers, and promotions) are dramatically reduced for our fellow citizens with darker skin. Their experience with public education is captured by John King as 'less than'… “less quality preschool, less access to effective teachers, less access to advanced coursework, less access to school counselors, and less access to resources need to thrive.”

One analysis concluded that we have an educational system best described as Punishing Schools: for decades we have punished our public schools by starving them of funding and encouraging them to adopt zero tolerance postures such that these institutions become more instruments of punishment (punishing schools) than instruments of education.

We know that unemployment hits those with darker skin more than twice as hard, that average wealth of families with darker skin is 7-12 times less than for white families, and that even though white citizens sell and consume drugs more often it is black citizens who are many times more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for this illegal behavior more often perpetrated by whites. Yes, the penitentiaries are filled with blacks, but not because they are more criminal or violent.

We also know, that while this data and legacy are not secret many or even most white Americans are unaware, not yet aware, or choose to ignore our own history and present when it comes to race and racism. This includes many very good white Americans; not because they have hate in their hearts, but (at least in part, and for many) because they do not understand our own history or present, because too many white elites discourage us all from understanding, AND because one characteristic of white privilege is we can afford to live our lives oblivious to this problem in our midst.

Side Bar: white privilege does not mean my (or any other white) grandparents did not work hard or that my family does not deserve the meager rewards we have earned. It does, however, mean that there are other grandparents, with darker skin, who worked just as hard and also earned a purple heart defeating the Nazis, but they were denied the FHA loans and GI Bill benefits that made it possible for so many white GIs to accumulate the wealth we now see as their American dream.

WP means that there are others who worked just as hard but were denied the same reward. We cannot continue to refuse to see and hear this fact by pretending it is an insult against our family’s hard work. It is not. Not even close. That is one aspect of understanding our own history and present that John King is talking about today.

This is also why it is important, today, to begin conversations about race and racism by familiarizing ourselves with this basic data and history of the present.

But that is only step one. The difficult dialogues remain to be engaged. Because even with a more shared and data-driven understanding of our history and present, the challenges we face today remain gnarly. It is not entirely clear how this deeper understanding, for instance, should impact a workplace conversation about changing vacation policy, a legislative deliberation about hiring local contractors, administrative plans to address opioid addiction, or a neighborhood meeting about how to address rowdy teenagers.

Even with a deeper understanding, these conversations remain tough…for those with lighter and darker skin. In part because policymaking is always about difficult trade-offs, weighing short and long term costs and benefits, balancing competing needs and interests. And overlaying these already complicated trade-offs are layers of familiarity: each need or concern or interest is always associated with real people and some of these look more like me and others do not.

We know from studies of policing, for instance, that this is not a trivial added layer. Donald Black’s groundbreaking ‘determinants of arrest’ study found that the most important factor driving an officer to choose between a warning and an arrest is the level of respect shown to the officer by the accused. Not evidence or facts, but respect. And when there is a familiarity gap between the cultural experiences of the officer and accused, lots of things can feel like disrespect, in both directions.

Thus, Black concluded that officers are more often enforcing their own authority than they are enforcing the law. This is not how the rule of law is designed to work; and this layering effect also impacts all the other conversations noted above: that is why we call them difficult dialogues.

So, what is the second step, after a sober engagement with our history and present, engagement with the best available data on prejudice and privilege based on skin color? (Of course, this is best not thought of as discrete steps, since step one here should be ongoing. But if we do use the step framework to help us identify our next action item, what does it let us see?)

The next step is to work together. I am not trying to be flip. It is precisely this easy and this difficult.

What I mean by this is that in addition to facing our history and present we need to face each other. We need to recognize the power of the familiar, the pull of tribalism on all sides, and the inescapable injustices attached to having darker skin in America. And we need to do this with others, in conversation with fellow citizens with skin tones unlike our own, listening to their stories and telling our own stories with an open mind and open heart.

Why? Because the challenges we face are gnarly, complicated, and always involve trade-offs. To figure these out, without reinforcing long-standing racial disparities that feel ‘normal’ because they are familiar, we need to listen and discuss, experiment, and share the objective of learning how to work together across racial (and other) divides.

Focusing on this deeper level of conflict, the process level or the communicative action level, lacks the drama associated with focusing on whatever presenting conflict promises to capture headlines and deliver the goods we seek right now. But it is this deeper level that is transformative and will result in delivering the goods in ways that are more just and stable and democratic.

Responsibility is shared here, but not equally.

The key is we share a responsibility to share the goal of finding ways to figure this out together. The path to this place, however, remains largely uncharted, but a path will emerge when enough people walk on it.  We share a responsibility to walk together.

But the well-worn path we are, therefore, choosing to depart from is one where white skin results in privilege & power denied those with dark skin. Just like any situation where there is a power imbalance, if the (currently) power-rich group does not accept more responsibility, the power-poor groups cannot do it alone.

So, we share a responsibility to learn how to walk together and, when we hit inevitable bumps in the path, it is reasonable to expect that the more powerful group will learn to listen more and speak less to ensure they are not confusing ‘the right thing to do’ with ‘what is best for my group by reinforcing existing power imbalances.’

This is a principle, more like a compass than a commandment, not an infallible answer-key that tells us the right thing to do. The added responsibility for the power-rich group is to remain committed to figuring this out and that involves (see step one and two above) understanding and working together, as well as (step three) humility that comes from recognizing that our skin tone carries privilege beyond what we earned.

This does not leave the power-poor group without responsibility. Just as the power-rich group is expected to do the work to be the change, to make ourselves the organic bridge between a deeper understanding and figuring out how to apply this to the actual challenges we face every day…

…in the same way, the power-poor group has a responsibility to similarly learn to see the actual fellow citizens across the table we are working with and work with them, rather than sitting in the familiar and simply repeating the data on disparity and privilege—join in efforts to apply these insights by weighing trade-offs and sharing the goal of finding ways to walk a new path together.

Just like focusing on the process level is less dramatic and less satisfying, rolling up our sleeves and accepting the inevitable trade-offs (while central to just democratic decision making) requires us to moderate and temper and compromise in order to create a new path by walking it together.

We all have a responsibility and more power brings more responsibility. But, even in the shadow of the great disruptor in chief, my confidence grows in our capacity to accept this responsibility to walk a new path together, because I see courageous leadership, enacting the spirit of MLK, at the local level every day, particularly among the 20-and-30-something generation.

As Cornel West argues, we all—liberal and conservative—need to learn to see and overcome our own blind spots. While some of us only see institutional structures perpetuating injustice, some of us only see irresponsible individual behaviors. West argues that we all need to learn that structure and agency are inescapably intertwined. Until we do this, we cannot fully understand the world we live in.

When Tupac describes his life growing up “poor, but even worse I’m black” in Changes, he is (in my view) enacting West’s analytical strategy. He is pointing to both macro-structures & individual behaviors. He is treating cultural institutions (like churches and schools and families) as structures similar to political and economic structures. And his lyrics make it impossible not to at least catch a glimpse of the ‘ratta-tat-tat-tat’ monumental loss of hope that may be the most devastating legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the new Jim Crow today.

We all understand, from experience, the fragility of life. We know how difficult it can be to make ends meet. For those of us who are white, like me, it should not be tough to then see that all these challenges become even harder to overcome when one grows up with darker skin. If we can start from that shared insight, and come together around a desire to walk a new path, we stand a chance of learning the skills it takes to be real, learning to see each other as siblings instead of two distant strangers.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Quiet Heroes, Behind the Scenes
I just learned today that Zhou Youguang is the linguist who created the pin yin system I depended on as I struggled (mostly enjoyed, but sometimes less so) learning Chinese in the 1980s. Of course, I knew pin yin existed. I just never asked who created it? When? How? Why? I just used it. 

His creation was officially adopted in mainland China in 1958.

In my first two years of Chinese language study (at UMass) we used an older system called Wade-Giles that I thought at the time was all there was. In September 1980 I went to Beijing, where they used pin yin, and I remember at first thinking it was annoying to learn a new system, but then pretty soon after that feeling like pin yin was so much more intuitive and easy to use. 

Zhou Youguang would have been 112 today. He also translated the Encyclopedia Britannica into Chinese. Seriously—who translated an encyclopedia! Awesome.

Wade-Giles is the system that gave us Peking and TsingTao.  Pin yin is now the nearly universal system of romanization used in programs that allow us to type in Chinese today.

According to Wikipedia..."From 2000, he wrote ten books, of which some have been banned in China.
In 2011, during an interview with NPR, Zhou said that he hoped to see the day China changed its position on the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989, an event he said had ruined Deng Xiaoping's reputation as a reformer. 
He became an advocate of political reform, and was critical of the Communist Party of China's attacks on traditional Chinese culture when it came into power."
The picture to the right looks like several other professors I had while living in China. Dressed simply, emphasizing warmth. Surrounded by books and piles of papers. Writing. Smiling. Listening. Likely just finished, and would soon repeat finishing, a cigarette.
I did not know Zhou Youguang was the creator of pin yin back in the day. Like me, you were studied abroad as an undergraduate. Thanks 周有光 and happy birthday.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post provides a very thoughtful comparison of the current culture wars in the US to the ten years of chaos Cultural Revolution in Mao-era China. 

Like Rampell, the comparison initially struck me as humorous. Upon reflection, however, less so.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Surviving an Authoritarian Plutocrat: Year One
Ruth Marcus provides an optimistic perspective on 2017, reminding us of the value of a free press (even a corporate free press), independent judiciary, and the rule of law.
As this appalling year limps to a close, with President Trump consistently underperforming even the lowest of expectations, a note of holiday cheer: Our country’s institutions and values have, so far, proven remarkably resilient.
While Trump’s first year was ‘dreadful’ and “even worse than we expected, our system, imperfect and battered as it is, withstood the onslaught.
Marcus singles out the mass media, courts, and Congress for special praise.

Many thanks to the heroic efforts of our corporate media. In normal times my tendency is to criticize your work, but at a time when our president encourages 38% of Americans to reject basic facts you have stood tall and demonstrated the value of a free press. Thanks. With the exception of irresponsible and unprofessional outlets like Fox News and others like it, many thanks for your courage.

Thanks to the many justices who have also stood up to our vindictive and misinformed president. With the exception of Gorsuch and his allies on the Supreme Court, thank you for putting the rule of law over party and ideology.

Marcus’ third institutional bulwark is Congress, and I appreciate her perspective here but, in my view, Congress’ unbulwarkiness far outweighs the few times it has not been in lock step with mindless destruction by our plutocrat in chief.  

Instead, my third bulwark is Robert Mueller and his staff. Many thanks for your high standards of professionalism, competence, and perseverance. Thanks for doing the dirty work rather than merely seeking the splashy public news story. Thanks and in 2017 you stand as one of our core Obi-wans, perhaps not ‘our only hope,’ but one of our most hopeful signs and actual bulwarks.

Friday, December 29, 2017


Julie & Jemma, Brian & Casey, Philip & Lauren, Mom & Dad, family & friends, Roundhouse & Squarehouse, Snow Day, Jemma Lemma DingDong, Noto, IIA fundraiser, Keybank, Harry C & Playground, Women’s Network, city council, Social Code, Ben Sasse and JD Vance, teaching through game playing, composting piles and tree herding, Charlottesville, Goodbye Annie, Hello Boomer, Fire & Fury & crotch grabbing & police shootings, Colin respectfully kneels, Puerto Rico ignored, who lost the 2016 election, a shared commitment to aggressively not listen to competing perspectives, Meet John Doe rains windfall on self and top 1% buddies, anti-intellectualism takes center stage white house, thin-skinned juvenocracy masquerading as governance (the problem with disruption alone as an approach to leadership)…

Thankful. Yes, there is a high risk that our petulant president will destroy the planet in a nuclear war started only to boost his poll numbers...but I remain thankful to share my life with Jules and the gang, to teach, to work with amazing colleagues, to live in Akron and Charlestown. Very thankful.

 "When it seems like people are voting against their interests, I have probably failed to understand their interests." This is the quote this year that challenged me most to rethink my own approach to the conflicts we face today (and, just to be clear, JD Vance’s book is garbage and he is a phony.)

Many threads came together this year to push me to think more deeply about race and racial conflict. As we watched counterprotesters in Charlottesville and yet were repulsed by the president’s suggestion that both sides were to blame; as we watched more police shootings and were repulsed by the president’s suggestion that respectfully kneeling in protest was somehow disrespectful to veterans; as we watched white supremacists take positions as top presidential advisers and were repulsed by the president’s suggestion that removing monuments to our nation’s history of racism was itself racist …it became more important, for me at least, to again sort out the meaning of racism.

“Racism is about the abuse of power and privilege. If your race denies you power and privilege, then you can’t be racist.”

This definition is persuasive to me. And important. It is about power & resources, institutions, processes, and traditions.

At the same time, one of the many reasons these conflicts become gnarly is that I do not get to decide what is important. One side does not get to decide the definition of the phenomena in question—this is always part of the conflict itself, usually the most important part.

So, persuasive to me is not enough. Persuasive to my group or sect or party—not enough.

To work toward resolution or a better understanding requires us to try to achieve agreements (including on the definition of key terms). These cannot be imposed at the start to stack the deck to favor our own side, but instead are creative & collaborative efforts to dialogue in inclusive ways that account for the concerns and experiences of as many parties as possible.

What if we accept these two dictionary definitions as an approximate statement of what someone mobilizing a non-academic understanding of racism might be thinking?

“Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.”

“The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”

These share the idea that racism is an antagonism based on race (that is, active hostility based on race). Before we dismiss out of hand the use of dictionary definitions for such a loaded concept, consider this: anyone who might see racism operating in reverse, as wrong-headed as we might think they are, might be observing an antagonism based on race.

For me, this changes our question and reframes our challenge.

When someone brings a lens that mobilizes these more ordinary language understandings of racism we need to recognize that this has its own internal logic. It makes sense to them and simply asserting that it is incorrect is unlikely to persuade them or improve the situation.

This is where we need to be able to translate on the fly.

This is where, if we believe it is about power, that we need to use our alternative understanding to demonstrate that it helps us see more clearly and find better solutions to real problems—not to simple assert our correctness to silence their incorrectness.

We have internalized a powerful argument that has resulted in us concluding that racism, dictionary notwithstanding, is about power imbalances and privileges allocated on the basis of race.

From this perspective, the ordinary language understanding of antagonism based on race is a rudimentary starting point. But it is a real-world starting point and where we need to start if we want to persuade.

For me, this is one instance of a larger point from 2017: we all need to do a better job of listening to others, particularly those who see and experience the world differently than we do, and to then use this listening to find ways (together) to think & talk about the challenges we face in ways that do not silence or dismiss our opposition by fiat—but instead, name the challenges in ways that make achieving agreements, no matter how small, more likely.

Thankful for family & friends in 2017 and hopeful that 2018 will see more listening, empathy, reaching out, humility and appreciation.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Our Prime Directive
The president’s promise to help Puerto Rico, where he gave himself high praise for his response, remains cynically unfulfilled. 

Thousands still without water and power. And the GOP tax bill that just passed will unnecessarily increase the hardships being suffered by these American citizens.

Dana Milbank reminds us that there is a pattern here.

“You might recognize this pattern, even if you don’t care about Puerto Rico and the suffering of the more than 3 million Americans there.

[THE PATTERN] Trump comes in with razzle-dazzle and self-congratulation, promising great things to come. Then, when the cameras are off, comes the quiet collapse."
And it is both long-established and increasingly harmful.

"The prototype is the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. In April 1990, it opened with much fanfare as the world’s largest casino-hotel complex. Six months later, it defaulted on payments. Nine months after that, it filed for bankruptcy. Now this happens on a world scale.

1.     Trump promises an easy peace in the Middle East but winds up setting off a new wave of violence.
2.   He promises a tax cut for the middle class and winds up with a giveaway to corporations and millionaires.
3.   He promises to improve upon Obamacare but ravages the program with no replacement.

In business, when Trump attended the ribbon-cutting and then moved on while deals went south, people lost their investments.
But when the United States walks away from promises, people lose rather more.

Nearly a million low-income Puerto Ricans are in danger of losing health care early in the New Year….”

As Milbank points out, there are more than 5 million Puerto Ricans living in the mainland of the US and they vote. Another ally for our 2018 coalition of women, scientists, innovators, business leaders, teachers, decent Republicans and Democrats, Red Staters about to lose their health care, those opposed to a nuclear war with North Korea or fanning the flames of war in the Middle East, minorities, students, parents who value public education, immigrants (all of us), those who hope we can find a way to make democracy both possible and desirable, moderate conservatives and progressives, those who believe in the value of a free press, those opposed and offended by governance through the one-two punch of razzle-dazzle and quiet collapse....

We all share one prime directive: we must take back control of Congress or many more will get hurt.