1 personal update and 10 browser tabs

I haven't spent much time on personal updates here the past several years, but it matters on some topics to know what my personal affiliations are, so I wanted to share that I've left Oculus as of mid July. I'm not sure what's next yet, but I've enjoyed having some time to travel to see friends and family, catch up on reading, and get outside on my bike the past few weeks.

It's also been great to have the chance to connect with some of the smart people of the Bay Area, many of whom I've never met before except online. Bouncing ideas around with some of the interesting thinkers here is something I wish I did more of sooner, and I'm trying to make up for lost time. It has certainly helped me to refine my thinking about many topics, including my next venture, whatever that turns out to be.

Please ping me if you'd like to grab a coffee.

***

One of my goals during this break is to clear out a lot of things I've accumulated over the years. I donated six massive boxes of books to the local library the other week, and I've been running to a Goodwill dropoff center every few days. 

The other cruft I've accumulated is of a digital nature, mostly an embarrassing number of browser tabs, some of which have been open since before an orange president became the new black. Such digital cruft is no less a mental burden than its physical counterparts, so I'm going to start to zap them, ten at a time. I have to; my Macbook Pro can no longer handle the sheer volume of tabs open, the fan is always on full throttle like a jet engine.

Here are the first ten to go.

1. The War Against Chinese Restaurants

Startlingly, however, there was once a national movement to eliminate Chinese restaurants, using innovative legal methods to drive them out. Chinese restaurants were objectionable for two reasons. First, they threatened white women, who were subject to seduction by Chinese men, through intrinsic female weakness, or employment of nefarious techniques such as opium addiction. In addition, Chinese restaurants competed with “American” restaurants, thus threatening the livelihoods of white owners, cooks and servers; unions were the driving force behind the movement. 


The effort was creative; Chicago used anti-Chinese zoning, Los Angeles restricted restaurant jobs to citizens, Boston authorities decreed Chinese restaurants would be denied licenses, the New York Police Department simply ordered whites out of Chinatown. Perhaps the most interesting technique was a law, endorsed by the American Federation of Labor for adoption in all jurisdictions, prohibiting white women from working in Asian restaurants. Most measures failed or were struck down. However, Asians still lost; the unions did not eliminate Chinese restaurants, but they achieved their more important goal, extending the federal policy of racial exclusion in immigration from Chinese to all Asians. The campaign is of more than historical interest. As current anti-immigration sentiments and efforts show, even today the idea that white Americans should have a privileged place in the economy, or that non-whites are culturally incongruous, persists among some.
 

The core of the story of America is its deep seated struggle with race, not surprising for a country founded on the ideal of the equality of all even as it could not live up to that itself, in its founding moment. That continual grasping at resolving that paradox and hypocrisy is at the heart of what makes the U.S. the most fascinating social experiment in the world, and one reason I struggle to imagine living elsewhere right now.

2. Two related pieces: The revolt of the public and the “age of post-truth” and In Defense of Hierarchy 

From the former:

A complex society can’t dispense with elites.  That is the hard reality of our condition, and it involves much more than a demand for scarce technical skills.  In all human history, across continents and cultures, the way to get things done has been command and control within a formal hierarchy.  The pyramid can be made flatter or steeper, and an informal network is invariably overlaid on it:  but the structural necessity holds.  Only a tiny minority can be bishops of the church.  This may seem trivially apparent when it comes to running a government or managing a corporation, but it applies with equal strength to the dispensation of truth.
 
So here is the heart of the matter.  The sociopolitical disorders that torment our moment in history, including the fragmentation of truth into “post-truth,” flow primarily from a failure of legitimacy, of the bond of trust between rulers and ruled.  Everything begins with the public’s conviction that elites have lost their authorizing magic.  Those at the top have forsaken their function yet cling, illicitly, to their privileged perches.  Only in this context do we come to questions of equality or democracy.
 
If my analysis is correct, the re-formation of the system, and the recovery of truth, must depend on the emergence of a legitimate elite class.
 

From the latter:

To protect against abuse by those with higher status, hierarchies should also be domain-specific: hierarchies become problematic when they become generalised, so that people who have power, authority or respect in one domain command it in others too. Most obviously, we see this when holders of political power wield disproportionate legal power, being if not completely above the law then at least subject to less legal accountability than ordinary citizens. Hence, we need to guard against what we might call hierarchical drift: the extension of power from a specific, legitimate domain to other, illegitimate ones. 
 
This hierarchical drift occurs not only in politics, but in other complex human arenas. It’s tempting to think that the best people to make decisions are experts. But the complexity of most real-world problems means that this would often be a mistake. With complicated issues, general-purpose competences such as open-mindedness and, especially, reasonableness are essential for successful deliberation.
 
Expertise can actually get in the way of these competences. Because there is a trade-off between width and depth of expertise, the greater the expert, the narrower the area of competence. Hence the best role for experts is often not as decision-makers, but as external resources to be consulted by a panel of non-specialist generalists selected for general-purpose competences. These generalists should interrogate the experts and integrate their answers from a range of specialised aspects into a coherent decision. So, for example, parole boards cannot defer to one type of expert but must draw on the expertise of psychologists, social workers, prison guards, those who know the community into which a specific prisoner might be released, and so on. This is a kind of collective, democratic decision-making that makes use of hierarchies of expertise without slavishly deferring to them.  
 

What would constitute a new legitimate elite class? It's a mystery, and a grave one. When truth is largely socially and politically constructed, it weighs nothing. The whole psychology replication crisis couldn't have hit at a worse time. With the internet, you can Google and find a study to back up just about any of your views, yet it's not clear which of the studies are actually sound.

At the same time, we can't all be expected to be experts on everything, even if, with the internet, everyone pretends to be.

3. Why Men Don't Live As Long As Women

Evidence points at testosterone, which is useful for mating but costly in many other ways. I maintain there is nothing more frightening in the world than a bunch of single young men full of testosterone.

This does not mean, however, that men cannot evolve other reproductive strategies. Despite their propensity to engage in risky behavior and exhibit expensive, life-shortening physical traits, men have evolved an alternative form of reproductive effort in the form of paternal investment—something very rare in primates (and mammals in general). For paternal investment to evolve, males have to make sure they are around to take care of their offspring. Risky behavior and expensive tissue have to take a backseat to investment that reflects better health and perhaps prolongs lifespan. Indeed, men can exhibit declines in testosterone and put on a bit of weight when they become fathers and engage in paternal care.10, 11 Perhaps, then, fatherhood is good for health.
 

Perhaps we should be extolling the virtuous signal that is dadbod to a much greater degree than we have. And, on the flipside, we should look with a skeptical eye on fathers with chiseled abs. How does one get a six pack from attending imaginary tea parties with one's daughter for hours on end?

4. Increasing consumer well-being: risk as potential driver of happiness

We show that, even if, ex ante, consumers fear high risk and do not associate it to a high level of happiness, their ex post evaluation of well-being is generally higher when identical consequences result from a high-risk situation than from a low-risk situation. Control over risk-taking reinforces the gap between ex ante and ex post measures of happiness. Thus, our article provides empirical evidence about a positive relation between risk and individual well-being, suggesting that risky experiences have the potential to increase consumer well-being.
 

While I'm not certain what I'm going to do next, I would like to increase my risk profile. It seems a shame not to when I'm fortunate enough to live with very little downside risk.

5. “When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready, the teacher will disappear.”  —  Lao Tzu

There is some debate over the provenance of this quote but I have rarely read the second sentence, the first part is the one which has had the more enduring life, and for good reason. It's a rhetorical gem.

The second half is underrated. The best coaches know when stepping aside and pushing the student to new challenges is the only path to greater heights. Rather than becoming some Girardian rival like Bill Murray in Rushmore, the best teachers disappear. In the case of Yoda in Return of the Jedi, he literally disappears, though not until giving Luke his next homework assignment: to face Darth Vader.

6. The third wave of globalisation may be the hardest

First we enabled the movement of goods across borders. Then the internet unleashed the movement of ideas. Free movement of people, though? Recent nationalist backlashes aren't a promising sign. Maybe it will happen in its fullest online, maybe in virtual reality.

I am pro-immigration; my life is in so many ways the result of my parents coming to America in college. For decades, the United States has had essentially first pick of the world's hungriest, most talented dreamers, like a sports team that gets to pick at the top of the draft year after year despite winning the championship the year before. Trust the process, as Sam Hinkie might say.

On the other hand, taking off my American goggles, the diversity in the world's cultures, political and social systems, and ideologies is a source of global health. It feels like everyone should be encouraged (and supported) to spend a year abroad before, during, or after college, prior to entering the world, just to understand just how much socially acquired knowledge is path dependent and essentially arbitrary. 

7. Tyler Cowen's Reddit AMA

What is the most underrated city in the US? In the world?
TylerCowen
Los Angeles is my favorite city in the whole world, just love driving around it, seeing the scenery, eating there. I still miss living in the area.

I don't know if I have a favorite city in the world, but I'd agree Los Angeles is the most underrated city in the U.S. considering how many people spit on its very mention. Best dining destination of the major U.S. cities.

8. What are the hardest and easiest languages to learn?

Language Log offers a concise scale as a shorthand answer.

EASY
1. Mandarin (spoken)
2. Nepali
3. Russian
4. Japanese
5. Sanskrit
6. Chinese (written)
HARD
 

9. Under mentioned side effect of global warming

Time was, the cold and remoteness of the far north kept its freezer door closed to a lot of contagion. Now the north is neither so cold nor so remote. About four million people live in the circumpolar north, sometimes in sizable cities (Murmansk and ­Norilsk, Russia; Tromso, Norway). Oil rigs drill. Tourist ships cruise the Northwest Passage. And as new animals and pathogens arrive and thrive in the warmer, more crowded north, some human sickness is on the rise, too. Sweden saw a record number of tick-borne encephalitis cases in 2011, and again in 2012, as roe deer expanded their range northward with ticks in tow. Researchers think the virus the ticks carry may increase its concentrations in warmer weather. The bacterium Francisella tularensis, which at its worst is so lethal that both the U.S. and the USSR weaponized it during the Cold War, is also on the increase in Sweden. Spread by mosquitoes there, the milder form can cause months of flu-like symptoms. Last summer in Russia’s far north, anthrax reportedly killed a grandmother and a boy after melting permafrost released spores from epidemic-killed deer that had been buried for decades in the once frozen ground.
 

Because we don't already have enough sobering news in the world.

10. Why do our musical tastes ossify in our twenties?

It’s simply not realistic to expect someone to respond to music with such life-defining fervour more than once. And it’s not realistic, either, to expect someone comfortable with his personality to be flailing about for new sensibilities to adopt. I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of those who truly do, as the overused phrase has it, listen to everything. Such schizophrenic tastes seem not so much a symptom of well-roundedness as of an unstable sense of self. Liking everything means loving nothing. If you’re so quick to adopt new sentiments and their expression, then how serious were you about the ones you pushed aside to accommodate them?
 
Oh yeah, and one more thing: music today fucking sucks.
 

I still pursue new music, despite being past my twenties, driven mostly, I suspect, by a hunger for novelty that still seems to be kicking. At some point, I can't really recall when, the signaling function of my musical tastes lost most of its value. Once most of your friends have kids, you can seem cultured merely by having seen a movie that's released in the last year.

Virtue signalling

What is the opposite of a Like on social media? These days, perhaps the closest thing is an accusation of "virtue signalling." Given the current age, one of recursive outrage hurtling to and fro through online conduits at ever increasing frequency, someone was sure to try to claim higher moral ground through accusations of lazy armchair posturing.

James Bartholomew laid claim to coining the phrase in a self-congratulatory article which seems so smug in tone that perhaps he was trying to head off even a hint of faux modesty that might be interpreted as virtue-signalling (the subhead reads "It’s a true privilege to have coined a phrase – even if people credit it to Libby Purves instead").

To my astonishment and delight, the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ has become part of the English language. I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.
 
Since April, I have watched with pleasure and then incredulity how the phrase has leapt from appearing in a single article into the everyday language of political discourse.
 
...
 
I bumped into Dominic Lawson, former editor of The Spectator, who remarked that my life is now complete: I have added to the English language and can retire from the scene, perfectly satisfied. I have reluctantly given up hopes of ever appearing on Desert Island Discs — a pity considering I have been preparing for it for some 35 years — but at least I can comfort myself that I have coined a phrase. I thus join, admittedly at a low level, the ranks of word-creators such as William Shakespeare (‘uncomfortable’ and ‘assassination’ and many others) and Thomas Carlyle (‘dry as dust’ and, most famously, ‘environment’).
 

Given the culture world war that is 2017, last week the NYTimes published an essay on virtue signalling. The implications of the term seem fairly self-evident, but for those who are new to the phrase, the piece provides a primer.

When people offer their vehement condemnation of some injustice in the news, or change their Facebook profile photos to honor the victims of some new tragedy, or write status updates demanding federal action on climate change, observers like Bartholomew smell something fishy: Do these people really care deeply about the issue du jour? They probably aren’t, after all, out volunteering to solve the problem. What if they’re motivated, above all else, by simply looking like people who care?
 
This sort of ostentatious concern is, according to some diagnoses, endemic to the political left. A writer for the conservative website The Daily Caller wrote this summer that virtue signaling ‘‘has been universalized into a sort of cultural tic’’ on the left, ‘‘as compulsive and unavoidable as Tourette’s syndrome.’’ There are plenty on the left who might agree. It’s not difficult to find, in conversations among progressives, widespread eye-rolling over a certain type of person: the one who will take a heroic stance on almost any issue — furious indignation over the casting of a live-action ‘‘Aladdin’’ film, vehement defense of Hillary Clinton’s fashion choices, extravagant emotional investment in the plight of a group to which the speaker does not belong — in what feels like a transparent bid for the praise, likes and aura of righteousness that follows.
 
The charge of virtue signaling, though, has metastasized well beyond this type of comical figure. Once you’ve decided this ‘‘cultural tic’’ has become universal on the left, almost any public utterance of concern becomes easy to write off as false — as mere performance. It applies when people express dismay that a robotics team made up of Afghan girls may be barred from entering the United States; when someone frets about the American poverty rate; when The Associated Press shares information about a deadly oil-tanker fire in Pakistan. Every one of these things has been described online as the unholy product of ‘‘virtue signaling.’’
 

Of course, accusing another person of virtue signalling is its own form of virtue signalling. When I made reference to claiming moral high ground earlier, I should've been more clear. Whe applied to online arguments, moral high ground really means people taking turns sliding a sheet of paper under their feet in succession, ending with both sides about an inch off the ground.

My internet was physically disconnected by mistake last week and I spent a week largely offline, and in the few days since it's been turned back on I've returned back into the aftermath of the Google memo, the day or two we could afford on the North Korean nuclear weapon debacle, and then headlong into Charlottesville. All serious topics, all deeply troubling, but it's the online discourse around them which has quickly destroyed any accumulated peace of mind from my brief internet vacation.

W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" is never far from my mind these days, so spot on it is when applied to current online discourse.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 
 

Much of social media, but in particular Twitter, should be regarded as Scolding as a Service. Unfortunately SaaS has already been claimed as an acronym, but it's not too late to tout this moat as a unique feature on their next quarterly earnings call. You can go to any old social media service for some sweet, sweet confirmation bias, but if you want to be scolded repeatedly and on demand, no service can beat Twitter.

I'm not going to spend much time rehashing the usual arguments on virtue signalling. By traditional signaling theory, much of online signalling, not just instances of moral indignation, is weak by its very nature.

One of the core tenets of signalling theory is that the best and strongest signals are the costliest ones, the canonical example being the peacock's tail. Human equivalents abound; if you drive a half million dollar Ferrari convertible down a busy thoroughfare, your message gets across clearer than if you're driving a $70,000 BMW. Since so much that is done online is inherently low cost, online signals are going to suffer from an amplitude problem in general.

[Some claim that the casual dress among Bay Area billionaires is some variant of that theory of costly signals, but I consider it to be the same; the costly signal there is the demonstration of power in disregarding fashion norms. You have such reputational capital that you need not even resort to traditional signals like nice clothes, like some normie.

It is surprising that ways of attaching verified cost or Talebian "skin in the game" to one's online signals hasn't been tried online. Perhaps an avatar change that can't be made for free but can only be purchased through a donation to some charity, almost like a virtual outfit in some MMORPG. Occasionally someone will match donations to a charity, which is similar, but one of these social networks with an economist on staff is sure to suggest a platform solution at some point.]

This long detour on virtue signalling brings me back to the VC sexual harassment revelations earlier this year. It wasn't that long ago and already it seems like a scandal from another age.

I wrote about the issue from the angle of mutual knowledge becoming common knowledge. In the wake of one woman after another coming forward with their stories of being harassed by various Silicon Valley investors, many in the tech community expressed outrage, and like a moral gag reflex, many of those who expressed outrage were hit with accusations of virtue signalling.

Whether or not you believe those who joined the chorus of outrage when the scandals broke, what they were doing in that context serves an entirely different and important signaling function.

Recall that until the story about Justin Caldbeck broke, many women had held back for years on sharing their own stories, many out of concern they wouldn't be believed, that they might be blackballed by the largely white male investing elites of Silicon Valley. Based on the names of those investors who acknowledged and corroborated the stories of various accusers, the women were right to be concerned.

In fact, many people, myself included, had to update our priors about the incidence of such sexual harassment, and the types of people who might commit such acts. Some who took a fall from grace were highly respected, smart, well-known investors, and the news that yet other stories of harassment might be buried by non-disparagement clauses meant that many had to recalibrate their priors upward even more. The Google memo was a similar issue that had people updating their priors as the volume of visible support both inside and outside the company for Damore took many by surprise.

When a whole lot of people are rapidly updating their priors, signalling where you stand, whether it's virtuous posturing or not, can serve another purpose. It can help people to clarify where you lie on the distribution in question.

Sorry white male investors accusing others of virtue signalling, it may feel silly to have to publicly declare that you're not going to harass the next woman (especially an Asian woman) entrepreneur that you come into contact with, but after hearing so many stories of harassment from such a wide variety of white male investors, many in the community honestly have no idea which of you are prone to such behavior. Clearly, identifying those of you who are wasn't as simple as identifying, say, a white supremacist, who might be Sieg Heiling or waving a Confederate or Nazi flag in public. The sexual harassers didn't have any such villainous mustache or common identifying feature other than being white men. If the signs were clearer, those stories wouldn't have made for such explosive news.

Signaling for one side or the other to help people establish proper priors really matters when it comes to sexual harassment. The more female entrepreneurs believe that the majority of investors are going to give them a fair shake, rather than try to exploit the inherent leverage in the investor-entrepreneur relationship, the more those entrepreneurs will feel safe raising money and calling out bad behavior when it does occur.

In other times in history, having proper priors was a matter of life or death. So for white male investors, to take the example at hand, it could certainly be worse. You could be black, and have to signal that you're not a criminal every day you walk around in public, for fear of being arrested or worse, shot. You could be female and have to signal every day of your life that you're not passive, that you're technically capable of doing your job. For most of history, being white and a man has been the default, meaning that those lucky enough to be in that group have had no socially inherited identity debt to manage or pay down.

More and more, white men, and white people, are being treated as a distinct segment, with their own cultural brand, rather than as the default. Some of this is by choice, some of it is exogenous pressure.

The transition won't be easy. It never is, because it is difficult to notice the absence of something. It's easier to detect if you reverse your surroundings. When I travel to a place like Taiwan, where the majority of people around me share my ethnicity, I feel a bit like Kal-El landing on Earth, a planet with much lower gravity than my home. I feel a weight lifted off of me. The journey many white men are taking now is the reverse.

In the trailer for the next Justice League movie, Barry Allen, the Flash, turns to Bruce Wayne at one point and asks, "What are your superpowers again?"

Ben Affleck, in what will likely be the best line in the entire movie, responds, "I'm rich."

He should have said, "I'm white." It may be suffering a bit of depreciation recently, but it's still just about the most effective signal going.

Decoding restaurants

Last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of restaurant desegregation, we celebrated a signifying moment in the long march toward full and equal citizenship for black Americans. But we delude ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that there is a difference between being admitted and being welcomed.
 
The court order that ended desegregation stipulated that every cafe, tavern, Waffle House, and roadside joint must open its doors to all. It did not, could not, stipulate that whites in the South must also open their hearts and minds to all. Welcome was, and is, the final barrier to racial parity.
 
We have witnessed remarkable progress over the past five decades, yes, and we should acknowledge this, too. What seemed fanciful, even utopian, a generation ago is now so commonplace as to not bear any comment at all. We have come to expect and accept black and white in the workplace, on the playing field, in politics, in the military, and we congratulate ourselves on our steady march to racial harmony. But our neighborhoods and our restaurants do not look much different today than they did fifty years ago. That Kingly vision of sitting down at the same table together and breaking bread is as smudgy as it’s ever been.
 

Todd Kliman set out to try to understand why, decades after desegregation, so few restaurants host a mixed clientele of black and white. Of course, the issues is about more than just restaurants. The questions he asks and the theories he uncovers can be pointed at bars, clubs, neighborhoods, and schools.

It was a man named Andy Shallal who helped me to understand the possibilities for a better, more integrated future while also reinforcing the manifold problems of the present. Shallal made me understand that no one ever need say, “keep out.” That a message is embedded in the room, in the menu, in the plates and silverware, in the music, in the color scheme. That a restaurant is a network of codes. It’s a phrase that, yes, has all sorts of overtones and undertones, still, in the South. I’m using it, here, in the semiotic sense—the communication by signs and symbols and patterns.
 
I don’t see coding as inherently malicious. But we need to remember that restaurants have long existed to perpetuate a class of insiders and a class of outsiders, the better to cultivate an air of desirability. Tablecloths, waiters in jackets and ties, soft music—these are all forms of code. They all send a very specific, clear message. That is, they communicate without words (and so without incurring a legal risk or inviting criticism or censure from the public) the policy, the philosophy, the aim of the establishment.
 
Today, there are many more forms of code than the old codes of the aristocracy. Bass-thumping music. Cement floors and lights dangling from the ceiling. Tattooed cooks. But these are still forms of code. They simultaneously send an unmistakable signal to the target audience and repel all those who fall outside that desired group.
 

The same codes are at work in websites and applications, though they often act subconsciously. Color, typography, imagery, layout, and so many other aspects of the user experience make different users feel more welcome than others.

Is your service more welcoming to the old or the young? Women or men? One ethnicity or another? The rich or the poor? The tech savvy or those less so? Those with fast internet access or those without? The visually inclined or the more textually focused? To new users or longtime users? The famous or the not-so-famous? Content creators or consumers?

It's rare the service that is perfectly neutral.

Control

Really great piece at Vox on how you can over-control tests to the point where the thing you're trying to detect is controlled away in a misleading way. 

Statistical controls are great! Except when they're not.

The problem with controls is that it's often hard to tell the difference between a variable that's obscuring the thing you're studying and a variable that is the thing you're studying. 

An example is research around the gender wage gap, which tries to control for so many things that it ends up controlling for the thing it's trying to measure. As my colleague Matt Yglesias wrote:

The commonly cited statistic that American women suffer from a 23 percent wage gap through which they make just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns is much too simplistic. On the other hand, the frequently heard conservative counterargument that we should subject this raw wage gap to a massive list of statistical controls until it nearly vanishes is an enormous oversimplification in the opposite direction. After all, for many purposes gender is itself a standard demographic control to add to studies — and when you control for gender the wage gap disappears entirely!

"The question to ask about the various statistical controls that can be applied to shrink the gender gap is what are they actually telling us," he continued. "The answer, I think, is that it's telling how the wage gap works."

It's a difficult chicken and egg problem, very relevant to studies of racism in police enforcement.

Imagine applying these controls to society itself. We still have race, but people of all races have the same amount of money, and they live in the same kinds of neighborhoods, and they do the same kinds of drugs, and they even drive the same kinds of cars. That society would be a lot less racist. But part of the reason we're so far from that society is racism. Discrimination perpetuates itself.

In some ways, what's amazing about many of these studies is that they show a racial effect even after controlling for so much of racism's work. They show that racism exists even in our control society — the one with equality of income, and education, and neighborhood, and car choices. The one where we've wiped out most every difference but pigment. The one where we've left ourselves no excuses for our prejudice. It is remarkable how much discrimination can survive.

Read through Harold Pollack's emailed thoughts at the bottom of the piece.

Serial and White Reporter Privilege

Also in the second episode of Serial, Koenig reads passages from Hae’s diary. Koenig notes, “Her diary, by the way—well I’m not exactly sure what I expected her diary to be like but—it’s such a teenage girls diary.” (My emphasis added.) This statement seems to suggest a colorblind ideal: In Koenig’s Baltimore, kids will be kids, regardless of race or background. But I imagine there are many listeners—especially amongst people of color—who pause and ask, “Wait, what did you expect her diary to be like?” or “Why do you feel the need to point out that a Korean teenage girl’s diary is just like a teenage girl’s diary?” and perhaps, most importantly, “Where does your model for ‘such a teenage girl’s diary’ come from?” These are annoying questions, not only to those who would prefer to mute the nuances of race and identity for the sake of a clean, “relatable” narrative, but also for those of us who have to ask them because Koenig is talking about our communities, and, in large part, getting it wrong.

The accumulation of Koenig’s little judgments throughout the show—and there are many more examples—should feel familiar to anyone who has spent much of her life around well-intentioned white people who believe that equality and empathy can only be achieved through a full, but ultimately bankrupt, understanding of one another’s cultures. Who among us (and here, I’m talking to fellow people of color) hasn’t felt that subtle, discomforting burn whenever the very nice white person across the table expresses fascination with every detail about our families that strays outside of the expected narrative? Who hasn’t said a word like “parameters” and watched, with grim annoyance, as it turns into “immigrant parents?” These are usually silent, cringing moments – it never quite feels worth it to call out the offender because you’ll never convince them that their intentions might not be as good as they think they are.

Koenig does ultimately address Syed’s Muslim faith in Serial, but only to debunk the state’s claim that Syed’s murderous rage came out of cultural factors. The discussion feels remarkably perfunctory—Koenig quickly dispenses with Syed’s race and religion. She seems to want Syed and Lee, by way of her diary, to be, in the words of Ira Glass, “relatable,” which, sadly, in this case, reads “white.” As a result, Chaudry believes Koenig has left out an essential part of Syed’s story—that his arrest, his indictment and his conviction were all influenced by his faith and the color of his skin. “You have an urban jury in Baltimore city, mostly African American, maybe people who identify with Jay [an African-American friend of Syed's who is the state’s seemingly unreliable star witness] more than Adnan, who is represented by a community in headscarves and men in beards,” Chaudry said. “The visuals of the courtroom itself leaves an impression and there’s no escaping the racial implications there.”

I found myself nodding as I read Jay Caspian Kang's excellent piece on the new hit podcast Serial.

The dancing around race throughout Serial has been the most glaring and particular choice in the series. I'm enjoying Serial, it has us all questioning why no one ported the serial genre to the podcasting medium earlier, but the more episodes I hear, the greater my frustration with having my attention in the case narrowly focused by Sarah Koenig's world view, and the more I just want to throw myself into the Serial subreddit, spoilers be damned, and start hearing from a more diverse group of detectives.

And I did, just for a bit. Rabia Chaudry, the civil rights attorney who originally reached out to Koenig to see if she might be interested in the case, posted a link there to a piece he just wrote about episode 8: Confirmation Bias FTW:

Raise your hand if you were surprised by what Jay had to say in this week’s episode. No one better have their hand raised. If you thought for an instant that “Mr. Your-Plea-Deal-Is-Good-Unless-You-Change-Your-Story” was going to do another “ok I come clean” when two random women show up at his door, I’ve got a bridge and a mid-east peace plan to sell you. You may have been surprised, however, with how Jay was described. Or you may have been confused. His is a catalog of contradictory personality traits, from goofy to mean, from animal lover to rat-eating-frog enthusiast (sorry, you kind of can’t be both – Google that ish and you’ll see what I mean). Unlike Adnan, who has overwhelmingly been described in similar terms by most people who know him, Jay poses a challenge to us. Other than being identified as the odd guy out, there was little similarity between what people had to say about him. What to make of his conflicted, yet beautiful, unconventionality? Nothing. That’s right. You make nothing of it. Because at this point if you really think you can assess the truth and reality of who a person is through a superficial, carefully edited and crafted, partial but maybe not impartial treatment of his (or any) character in a production, then you will forever be lost in crazy-making cognitive mazes. Is it too much of a stretch to say unless you know someone personally, you can’t really know them? You can’t. Trust me on this. Listeners will never be able to figure out whether Adnan is a sociopath or a nice guy, Jay is a psychopath or a victim, or Sarah is a bewildered glutton for punishment or a master weaver of addictive narrative (come on now). So let’s stop pretending we can psychoanalyze the depths of the souls of these people through 30-40 minute podcasts. If you still think you’re just special that way, I recommend you watch the documentaries “Paradise Lost“, “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations“, and “West of Memphis” and get back to me. A TL;DR of that experience is that you, as the consumer of a show, are at the mercy of the storytellers, second and third hand narrators, and incomplete profiles of people. The only thing you can do in such a situation is try and pin down what you can, make an assessment with a sack of salt, and then forget that assessment the minute a new tidbit of information is revealed.

Like many other listeners to Serial, I've been bracing myself for the possibility of an open-ended conclusion, one in which we never learn whether Adnan was really guilty or not. Even if we find out he's innocent, maybe we never learn who the actual murderer was.

But perhaps we're obsessing too much over the details of one particular case, one which may be unsolvable with the facts at hand. The greater legacy of the podcast may be the exposure of the insidious ubiquity of confirmation bias, nesting in on itself recursively so that it's almost impossible for us to trace back to the origin.

How stereotypes persist

Martin and his family may be what politicians and teachers say is the American ideal, but the actual rewards -- the acting jobs, the record deals, the social acceptance, the money -- largely go to the African-Americans who exemplify the N-word, who embrace the suffocating, limiting image of male blackness. The decision to perpetuate this image isn't made solely by the black community but by the white suits who decided long ago how the part is supposed to look and what black behavior they will compensate; think of that LeBron cover again. Corporations seem to doubt the authenticity and marketability of black men who live outside the primal construct.

This represents the ultimate victory of racism: the belief that exists among both whites and blacks that being educated, being articulate, having manners, is the sole province of being white. It is why Jonathan Martin appears so foreign, so threatening, to his teammates, and why a nothing like Richie Incognito makes them feel right at home.

Howard Bryant on how powerfully the stereotype of the angry and primal black man persists, aided by an entertainment industry that packages and resells it.

Racial diversity in American cities

I killed a good half hour playing with this racial diversity dot map. It visualizes some of the spatial racial distribution of cities that you can only intuit from ground level as a resident. While a city may seem quite integrated and diverse, it isn't until you zoom in that you see that what looks like a diverse blob of people is really a series of segregated neighborhoods. 

One personal hunch, though, is that how diverse a city feels is not just based on how segregated the population is based on their place of residence but how much those populations interact in day to day life, and that is a function of city density and the developmental maturity of the city's public transportation. While New York City looks like Chicago or San Francisco or other big cities in being a collection of segregated neighborhoods, it felt like the most diverse city I've ever lived in because those populations crossed paths on the city streets and subways every day in high numbers. 

Thomas Schelling's Segregation Model, one of the more powerful agent based models I've ever studied, shows how the extreme segregation of American cities might arise from much milder racial preferences. It's a critical model to study, one that is useful to keep in mind when trying to avoid a variant of fundamental attribution error when trying to explain how something that builds over time ended up in a bad state.

This report (PDF) from 2011 studies long term racial segregation trends in America and comes to this conclusion:

The 2010 Census offers new information on changes in residential segregation in metropolitan regions across the country as they continue to become more diverse. We take a long view, assessing trends since 1980. There are two main findings: 1) the slow pace of lowering black-white segregation has continued, but there is now some change in the traditional Ghetto Belt cities of the Northeast and Midwest; and 2) the rapidly growing Hispanic and Asian populations are as segregated today as they were thirty years ago, and their growth is creating more intense ethnic enclaves in many parts of the country.

 

Notable pieces on Trayvon Martin

I think the jury basically got it right. The only real eyewitness to the death of Trayvon Martin was the man who killed him. At no point did I think that the state proved second degree murder. I also never thought they proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted recklessly. They had no ability to counter his basic narrative, because there were no other eye-witnesses.

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I think the message of this episode is unfortunate. By Florida law, in any violent confrontation ending in a disputed act of lethal self-defense, without eye-witnesses, the advantage goes to the living. 

From Ta-Nehisi Coates on the killing of Trayvon Martin. More from Coates here:

In trying to assess the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, two seemingly conflicting truths emerge for me. The first is that based on the case presented by the state, and based on Florida law, George Zimmerman should not have been convicted of second degree murder or manslaughter. The second is that the killing of Trayvon Martin is a profound injustice.
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It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of American justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended. To expect our juries, our schools, our police to single-handedly correct for this, is to look at the final play in the final minute of the final quarter and wonder why we couldn't come back from twenty-four down.

From Amy Davidson at The New Yorker: What Should Trayvon Martin Have Done? 

There is an echo, in what people say Martin should and shouldn’t have done, of what people say to women when bad things happen to them in dark places. Why did you walk that way, why were you out in the rain? Why did you walk in the direction of the man instead of running? Why did you think you had the privilege to go out and get candy for a child? You didn’t; you should have known. It shouldn’t be that way. A woman should be able to walk on a dark street in Florida, or anywhere. That she might not be able to doesn’t make a similar restraint on Martin any more reasonable—one injustice doesn’t vindicate another—and, in a way, only adds to the pain. One of the answers, among the most mortifying, and rightly underlying the rage at the verdict, is that Trayvon Martin wasn’t supposed to act like a man.

He wasn’t quite one, yet. He was a child, who had just turned seventeen. He was learning how to be a man—and he had some reasonable guides in his parents, as we have learned through watching their utter dignity throughout the trial. That night, though, Martin was just guessing.

Finally, from Obama's speech:

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African- American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that -- that doesn’t go away.

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.

Obama is at his best, in my opinion, when speaking on issues like this, as in what I consider his best speech, the one on race and Reverend Wright (PDF). 

I was in France when the Zimmerman verdict came in, and at that moment the issue of race was fresh on my mind. I'd had brunch with my friend Michelle, a Chinese American, who has been living in Paris for a few years. She noted that a strain of anti-immigrant sentiment had been running through the city and country for some time, and she often had to make clear that she was an American and not an immigrant from China as the Chinese were among the target immigrant groups for such French resentment. An exception, she said, was being or seeming Japanese.

Her words echoed in my head later that day when my friends and I were strolling near the Louvre. Three of the four of us were Chinese American. A guy walking past us about a hundred feet away shouted an epithet in our direction. I looked over my shoulder, uncertain who it was directed at, and the guy made eye contact with me. This time he paired the insult with an unmistakeable hand gesture, a couple sharp jabs of his index finger directed at my face.

This is not to condemn France or Paris based on the actions of one ignorant guy as we had an otherwise amazing time all throughout the country. But it was a vivid reminder of anti-immigrant sentiments that are prevalent in many countries throughout the world, and of how in many more places in the world than the ones I typically move in that race is one of the most powerful shapers of one's context that exists.

We are still far from a race-blind world, and how tragic it must be to to be in a double bind in which one of your choices is to deny who you are.