The monuments at Pere Lachaise cemetery

I wept Sunday, placing stones at various Holocaust memorials at Paris’s Pere Lachaise. I cried  remembering various survivors I have known, many now deceased: The neighbor up the street, my friends’ parents growing up in Rochester, NY. the math professor  Lipman Bers, who introduced me to multivariable calculus many years ago.  He reminisced in class about the Big Ben-style clock in Prague’s old Jewish ghetto. It ran counter-clockwise in homage to the Jewish tradition.

As human beings and citizens, we have such an obligation to oppose cruelty, discrimination, group hatred, and dehumanizing rhetoric. In every form. Always.

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Racist genetics

What is the “scientific” racist hypothesis?

I can’t get my head round genetic racism. I don’t mean why people believe comforting rubbish, that’s easy to understand. I mean: what exactly is the proposition? “Blacks are naturally dumber than whites” doesn’t hack it. “Dumber” is usually defined as “scoring lower on IQ tests”. There’s a whole argument about the relevance of IQ, and its malleability as shown by the Flynn effect, but it is a reproducible test with a fair correlation with other sorts of mental skills, so the meaning is clear and I’ll let it ride for the sake of the argument. But just who are “blacks” and “whites”, in multi-ethnic populations like that of the USA with a long history of miscegenation? My genetic knowledge is pretty thin, but it may be interesting to see how far you can get on the genuine science with Wikipedia articles, until someone with real expertise shows up.

There is no black race. Continue reading “Racist genetics”

“Hurt people hurt people.” That’s true of youth violence. It’s true in politics, too

Sunday’s Washington Post included a front-page story, “Fear, hope, and deportations,” which merits a careful and sympathetic read from liberals, conservatives, and journalists trying to understand what is happening in America  today.

Reporters Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan profile a 59-year-old Texas woman named Tamara Estes. She was born into some affluence, raised in “a grand home with a built-in pool.” But her mom died when she was four. Her dad died when she was nineteen. She married young, and by age 26 she was divorced with two kids. She has since traveled a sad path of downward economic mobility, never going to college, taking a succession of dead-end jobs. She now works as a school bus driver in Valley View, Texas, with an annual income of $24,000. “With four days left to payday, she has $118.72 in her checking account.”

She is a die-hard Trump supporter. She seethes at undocumented immigrants and their children in her own community. It’s pitiful to hear her. President Trump brings out the worst in his own neediest supporters before he betrays them.

Ms. Estes is also uninsured. Yet she supports a president and a party that specifically propose to put coverage out of reach for low-income near-retirees like herself. She so perfectly fits a certain political-demographic story that her biographic details might have been perfected at the MIT Media Lab or Huffington Post. As with most things, though, it’s a bit more complicated. I looked up what’s available to her under ACA, and it’s hardly surprising that she doesn’t feel particularly grateful for it.

I wrote about her story at There’s a little snippet below.

Tamara Estes is not the world’s most appealing or most perfect person. She should take fewer puffs on bigoted and deceptive right-wing radio. She shouldn’t blame immigrants for her life’s disappointments and problems. Harming immigrants will do nothing to help her. As a friend noted on email, it wouldn’t hurt her to learn a little Spanish, too. If nothing else, she might learn a few kinds words for the kids she transports. She might be less lonely and isolated if she got to know her immigrant neighbors, who seem like lovely people.

But I can’t hate her. In violence prevention, we like to say: “Hurt people hurt people.” That’s true in politics, too. Tamara Estes is hurting, and she’s lashing out at her own neighbors. That’s ugly to see.

But she still needs help. She didn’t get enough from the ACA. She’ll get a lot less from President Trump, but we supporters of expanded coverage have given her too little reason to really know that. Whatever happens in the current knife-fight over health reform. We face a daunting moral and political challenge to fix that, to go in precisely the opposite direction Republicans are determined to go.

More here.

“Your papers, please”

My friend Jeremy Paretsky - whose sermon on the knowledge of God was posted here some time ago - is now the Sub-Prior (administrator) of a small Dominican Order house in New York.  A man who works for him - a legal permanent resident of the United States, the father of two natural-born U.S. citizens - just had a deeply troubling experience with Donald Trump’s “unshackled” ICE. He was stopped for no reason other than his appearance, treated rudely, manhandled, held for interrogation for 90 minutes, and finally released without any apology or explanation other than that the stop was “routine”: which implies that it could be repeated at any time.

In the movies of my childhood, the cold-faced men demanding “Your papers, please” had German or Russian accents.  I preferred it that way.

This event makes me think that whatever the shackles were, they need to be put back in place.  Fr. Paretsky’s letter to Sen. Gillibrand follows.  I can provide his contact information to any journalist or lawyer who would like to follow up.

The good news is that Sen. Gillibrand has offered to help. The bad news is that the victim of this outrage - I repeat, a legal permanent resident of this country, who has been accused of no wrongdoing of any kind - is too afraid to allow his name to be used.  In the United States of America.

Footnote Do you routinely carry documents proving that you’re a U.S. citizen? Neither do I.

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75 years ago today….

On February 19, 1942, Franklin Roosevelt reached the moral low point of his presidency, signing Executive Order 9066. This authorized the internment of Japanese Americans in flagrant violation of the Constitution and our best national values.

Public hysteria to expel or deport Japanese-Americans rested on racial paranoia and resentment partly rooted in the competitive success of Japanese Americans in California and other western states. Yeah, Jewish readers would find much of the popular discourse-not to mention various sundry details regarding neighbors’ theft of property belonging to interned families-rather chilling in its familiarity. An amazing exhibit at the Japanese American national museum details much of this history. It is worth a visit.

President Trump is the most comprehensively unworthy man to occupy the Oval Office in modern American history. Yet far better men perpetrated worse injustices than we have seen thus far in the Trump administration. As Keith rightly notes in the first comment below, Earl Warren and many others supported the Japanese internment. Most other Americans acquiesced with their silence. Hopefully, our society and basic institutions learned from these experiences and failures, and will step up to resist contemporary injustices.

Dorothea Lange’s censored pictures of the Japanese-American internment, available through the Library of Congress, provide a heartbreaking reminder. For more information, check out Linda Gordon’s Impounded Dorothea Lange & the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment. 

LC-USZ62-24815-no known restrictions on publication

Continue reading “75 years ago today….”

Attention White People: Your Economic Grievances Do Not Excuse Your Racism

My wife and I did GOTV in Las Vegas on Monday and Tuesday. Half an hour before the Nevada polls closed on Tuesday night we were knocking on doors when I suddenly noticed a red laser pointer on my chest. I looked around, then saw it move to my wife. (For those of you who don’t know, laser-sighting mechanisms are used on firearms.) We were being sent a message. We crossed the street and the red dot kept reappearing. I looked back and saw someone standing in the shadows of a cracked open door aiming the laser pointer (attached to who knows what). We called an Uber and left.

I continue to be shaken by this, but I also know that it is an exceptional moment in my life. At no point did I feel like I was without recourse. I had the money to call someone to get me out of there, and I know that if I had called the cops, I would be believed. I’m white. (My wife is brown, but, in these kinds of situations, for reasons that are both sad and distressingly normalized, I am the designated spokesperson for our family.) I know that my voice counts. When I talk to officials, my opinion isn’t automatically viewed with suspicion, or qualifiers, or modifiers. I have full citizenship and freedom-by which I mean, as Nina Simone described in the excellent documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, that I am free because I am (generally) not afraid.

Flash back about 15 years. I was hanging “remember to vote” literature on people’s doors early one morning in Echo Park, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. A friend of mine was running for city council; his father, at the time, was District Attorney. I saw a black-and-white police car speeding towards me on the wrong side of the road. They pulled up on the sidewalk in front of me, jumped out, and yelled “Stop!“ I looked around, wondering who was in so much trouble. Then they drew their weapons and yelled “Stop!” again, at which point I realized I was the one in trouble. I was cuffed as one officer, weapon drawn, yelled “What are you doing?” I said, “Handing out flyers for Eric Garcetti.” He yelled the same question again; I gave the same answer. He was so convinced that I was doing something wrong that it took a while for the data to sink in with him and his partner, even though my story checked out at every point: all the campaign lit in my bag, the button I was wearing, the lack of contraband. In the meantime I had to deal with passersby in cars and on foot staring at me, the man in cuffs, being interrogated by the cops.

This, too, shook me, but it was also, as I knew even then, a one-off event. I didn’t have anything to hide. I even knew the DA. I thought that when the cops were coming, they weren’t coming for me. This is because I’m so white that when I see the cops, I think, instinctively, that they are there to protect me. That when you call them, you will be believed. That good things will happen once they get there. I actually feel like the experience of being stopped wrongly has given me some insights that most white people don’t have-what it is like to be telling the truth but to be powerless (at least initially) to make someone believe you. To be hassled and shamed. To have someone point a gun at you. Even though I am an insider, it scared the hell out of me. I have no idea what it would feel like to be an outsider, to have that happen and not “know people” who would help me. To have that be more than just one story, but, instead, just a part of life-not even that noteworthy. My telling this story as an unusual event is itself part of the privilege of being white.

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Quote of the Day

This is not the republic of my imagination.

-Charles Dickens, letter to William Macready, from Baltimore (1842)