Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dorothy Roberts: Fatal Invention

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If you've been to liberal arts school, you've read Dorothy Roberts' Killing the Black Body. The story of reproductive rights is often told as the story of abortion rights as they relate to white women, and Roberts changed the picture in 1997, for those who would listen. Fatal Invention is a complicated book with a complex argument, and I'm not going to do it justice, but I'll try.

 Essentially, we know that race is socially constructed. There is no such thing as a "black" person or a "brown" person or a "white person"- there are only people and distinctions fall where society tells us they fall. The definitions of "blackness" and "whiteness" have changed over time, and for various political reasons- the famous 1 drop rule is an obvious example. Who is white has changed in America (and obviously, in other places)- Jews and Irish immigrants were not always white, though now they're considered religious or ethnic minorities, not distinct races. One would think that advances in genetic science would help put this discussion to bed for all time: people are people, genetically indistinguishable- it wouldn't even make sense to attempt to distinguish people by race when talking about genetics since we've already established why race is socially constructed. Further, it wouldn't make sense to try to prove racial difference on a genetic/scientific level. However, Roberts shows that the opposite is happening: as our understanding of science improves, the level of effort going into thought about race on a scientific level is increasing, not decreasing, and is further entrenching the thoughts of racial difference as truth, rather than construction.

At first glance, it's easy for us leftists to think, oh, I would never do that! Those must be conservatives trying to pull that kind of shenanigans. But one of the most awesome things about Roberts is that she's not about to let anyone off the hook. Just like Killing the Black Body took the reproductive rights movement to task, Fatal Invention reminds us that liberals are in on this, whether we like it or not. This is not (again, this is a complicated book with a lot of paradoxical arguments) an easy subject. For example, some of the racial divisions in scientific studies come from well-meaning places. Historically, the vast majority of scientific studies used white men as the clinical subjects. In the 1980s, critics asked for a shift to be more inclusive. This sounds good, right? We don't want all science-y stuff to only take into account the perceived majority. Beginning in 1986, racial categories were institutionalized for reporting purposes- in order to receive federal funding, trials had to include minorities as subjects and had to analyze findings by race. In theory, this could have been awesome. It could have been a way to analyze systemic issues facing minorities, women or children. Instead, the generalized response has been to look at biological/intrinsic reasons that different racial groups respond in the studies. "The legislation's emphasis on potential racial differences fosters the racism that its creators want to abrogate by establishing government sponsored research on the basis of belief that there are significant biological differences among the races," says Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society. Biological definitions of race are thus reinforced in studies by these practices designed to eliminate racial disparity- this can only be done by looking at social inequality. Whoops. In fact, racial categories are now so entrenched in scientific research that they're used as a reason (read: excuse) for the research itself. Only, a 2006 study found that the race-based independent variable is specious: "The research team found that 72 percent of the studies failed to explain their methods for assigning race to research subjects. Despite this glaring flaw, 67 percent of the same studies drew conclusions associating genetics, health outcomes, and race."

It isn't just science that is helping to re-entrench the ideal of biological races. Science is a particularly tricky one, because, well, it's science, but also because liberals pride themselves on turning to science where more conservative factions might turn to history or feelings or religion. When science leads us astray, we're in big trouble (not that science hasn't made mistakes in the past...) But big business also has a lot invested in this new (old) racial science. Roberts tells the story of BiDil, a prescription drug for African Americans with heart disease. BiDil was developed as a drug for everyone, but didn't meet the FDA muster, so the developers went back and saw that the drug seemed to do well with African Americans due to those mandated racial reporting numbers listed above. They repitched the same drug and got it to the market as a drug specifically for black people. There is, of course, no such thing as a drug that works specifically for black people. Heart disease is heart disease. What's driving this is a move towards "personalized medicine": the idea that once we know our genes (think the breast cancer gene), we can know what medical decisions we might want to make, even before we have a particular health problem. The makers of BiDil pushed hard with all kinds of black physicians and medical groups and worked hard to make this the first success of personalized (racial) medicine. It didn't work, for a variety of reasons- it wasn't available in the generic so medicare wouldn't cover it, it required more pills per day than the standard treatment, etc. The main reason, Roberts finds, that it didn't get a lot of support was that the very people who were supposed to jump all over a pill just for them were totally suspicious (and, it turns out, rightly so.) Black people remember what "black medicine" meant and still means: subpar care with subpar facilities, shady and illegal studies like the Tuskegee trials and other nepharious examples. Why would they want a special black pill? "I'm fine with whatever the white people are taking" is a recurring theme among people offered BiDil. And it turns out, their gut was right: BiDil was being sold at a higher dose for African Americans than the FDA recommended for anyone else, because of those racial reporting requirements and because of the rush to put it on the market. The amounts being sold weren't necessarily the safest for "white" people or "Asian" people, but were the safest for "black" people.

 The recent interest in getting personalized genetic information also has racial implications. I have only heard of 23andMe, but apparently there are dozens of these things, including ones specifically being marketed toward black people. With these "spit kits," you pay some money, spit in a tube, and learn about your genes. You also learn about your race, or, in the more sneaky versions, your ancestral location: which of the four or five main areas did your ancestors come from- Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Native North America or Europe? Essentially, what race are you? It's important to remember here that race is socially constructed. What we call a "race" is GENERALLY aligned with these areas but does not have any stability over these lines- what people in the US might call one race differs from what one in Mexico or China might call another race, further proving the social construct of race. It's also important to remember that the boundaries of racial demarcations are constantly shifting over time. The idea of a spit kit telling you you're from Europe is a euphemism for saying that you are white- that somewhere, at sometime, there was a pure European- or a pure "white" person. For you to be 10% European means that someone was 100% European. It also means that someone else is 100% anything-else: people can be differentiated biologically by race.

Some kits are being marketed specifically toward black people, who often have no solid way of tracing their ancestry further back than slave ships. Using markers, the kits might tell someone their ancestors are from a tribe in Sierra Leone. This has been greeted with great fanfare among some in the African American community. But Roberts reminds us that this ancestral marking is only ONE ancestor among, at that level of background, at least 32 ancestors- it is not evidence that the individual is uniquely from said tribe in Sierra Leone anymore than the fact that my grandmother was born in St Louis is evidence that I am originally from St Louis. Further, she reminds us that tribal demarcations and borders of countries as we know them now are ahistorical and products of colonialism: to be proud of heritage from Sierra Leone is nice, if it gives you something, but it is also based on a false version of history.

I know this is a lot to take in, and if you're like me, you're probably wondering, well, wait- we ARE from somewhere, right? Or, maybe in the back of your mind, you're saying, well, aren't certain kinds of people more prone to certain diseases than others? What about Jews and Tay Sachs? (That's the one I kept thinking of- I don't know anything about genes, but I'm Jewish, and have been told as long as I can remember that Jews have to be screened for Tay Sachs because it's something we carry. Sounds like biological race, right?) For one thing, Tay Sachs is located on one gene- it's been located and identified, unlike most diseases which are not easily identified, partly because they're spread across multiple. For another, it is rare: it is very highly concentrated in an ethnic group (though it is not exclusive to Jews). Roberts writes, "genetic mutations are not grouped by race. Race-based testing reinforces the myth that races are genetically distinct from one another and that our genetic risks are determined by our race." The BRCA1/2 mutation (breast cancer) is commonly thought to have a higher incidence among women with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. But there is a gap in who gets the genetic testing: the test costs $3000, and white women are almost 5 times as likely to undergo counseling. As Roberts explains, "it is just as useful clinically for black at-risk women to be tested as white at-risk women." Until that happens, our common perception that the BRCA1/2 mutation is exclusive to Jews is dangerous, as is the reverse of the tautology: that the incidence of BRCA1/2 in Jews proves the biological construction of race.

This stuff is all troublesome. But the outcomes are more troublesome. When we start looking for genetic answers to racial disparities, we let ourselves off the hook for the real causes the differences: systemic issues. Roberts uses the example of the hugely genetically different group of African Americans (Africa is a giant continent, remember?). It would be pretty strange for such a genetically diverse group to inherit "so many bad things." More likely, "given the persistence of unequal health outcomes along the social matrix of race, is that they are caused by social factors."We live in a troubling time that is hard to make sense of- genetic differences help us cope with some terrible statistics Robert throws at us. For example, "There are more blacks under correctional control today than there were slaves in 1860." It's easier to find some gene, like the "warrior gene" to explain this than to look at the money involved in the prison system or the lack of money involved in the school system. It's easier to think in the back of our minds that "'they' were born that way" than to think that we need to take a hard look at the environmental, social and judicial injustices we practice that keep socially constructed racial groups in such low places. We are all people, we are all the same. We have to make that a reality.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Introducing Catfish

Rollie loves dogs. He adores them- starts prancing around and making all this noise and picking up toys and throwing them and you get it. He is happiest when another dog is around. I've never wanted two dogs- I was fine with Mac not liking other dogs; a perfect reason to only have one dog. I've had Rollie for over two years now, and it's been clear that he wants another dog. I've fostered a couple and he's so happy when they're here. The only thing is that he doesn't like the change that happens- the baby gates I put up and xpens- I usually have puppies that can't have free rein of the house. Rollie's vision is poor and it seems like he can't quite see the gates- they're like invisible walls.

So, I've been idly thinking about getting another dog- an older, mellower dog. I met a lovely dog, allegedly 10- possibly younger, last weekend, and thought, well, I could do this. Then I went to the shelter Sunday afternoon to go meet another dog, allegedly 10. The picture on the website was terrible- just a black blob. Well, the dog didn't look 10. The boyfriend and I actually laughed when we saw her. She was decrepit- looks closer to 14, no teeth, arthritic, has spondlyosis, curved over, spine fused, very little control of her back end. It just seemed very silly to have her in the shelter. She met Rollie and tolerated him, which is saying something, because he's rude. He plays like a puppy, and loudly.

So I went home and thought about it. And then I realized I was still thinking about it. I decided to bring the dog (formerly Gracie) home, and give her whatever time she had left at my house. Somehow I forgot how pathetic she really was. I gave her a bath and she looks better now, but she looks... really bad. The dogs are having fun- attempting to play and then falling over, then napping on the bed and then switching beds, etc. She's tiny- supposed to be maybe 40 pounds, but is so underweight that she's 32lbs now. She makes Rollie, at 42lbs, look HUGE. And young and spry.

 She jumped right in the car (or tried before I could stop her- her back end isn't strong enough to get in by herself). She has tried about 5 times to sneak on the couch, and she's fast enough to do it when my back is turned. She runs right into the crate- even put herself there after I gave her a bath. Poor dog was stinky and dirty and has another one in her near future.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Roxanne Gay: Bad Feminist

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What I'm about to say is going to come out totally wrong, and I apologize in advance for any potential meanness that it may sound like I'm projecting- that's not what I'm going for. A little jealousy, maybe, a little bewilderment, sure, but in the not-judgemental sense of the word.

Bad Feminist is a collection of insightful, often right-on "damn, I was thinking that but I sure wish I had written that" blog posts. The cover says "essays" but the whole time I was reading it, I was thinking, man, I want to get well-respected enough and famous enough to have enough time to think out and expand my blog posts and have an editor help me clean up my blog posts and then put them together in a nicely designed book and call them essays! Again, this is not a bad thing. I am not being a bad feminist (I think Roxanne Gay would understand this, at least I hope she would- and I suspect she might be the type of person who occasionally googles her name to see who's writing about her- much of her writing is very timely, which I love, and talks about the effect and importance of the internet and social media on our culture). I am not taking a slam at Gay by saying she shouldn't be able to publish a book full of insightful, sometimes funny, critical, important blog posts, I'm just startled and a little jealous.

The fact that Bad Feminist reads like a bunch of blog posts strung together makes it a not-great-read. Ten years ago, before the possibility of it being published blogs, I would have said it was made to be a text book- lots of great fodder for college readers. I'm not sure I would have been any less critical- still hard slogging through a book that really should be a reader. That said, many of the essays are great, timely and kind of like if a smarter, more educated version of me had been writing what I was thinking. You know, when I try to explain to people why The Help and Django really aren't the most wonderful, sensitive, be all end all pieces on race? No one gets it. My boyfriend says I'm taking it to far. Gay says it. She says it well, emphatically, and I would like to see the looks on unbelievers' faces when they have to pick their jaws back up off the floor. OH, you mean, I didn't really need to fetishize slavery by watching ANOTHER movie about it? I already knew it was bad? OH! The Help made black women help out a young white woman again? Or rather, the young white woman helped the adult black women "find" themselves? Gee, we haven't heard that before? Gay writes insightfully about trigger warnings (blugh), men ruling women's lives because women's rights aren't actually inalienable (true story), being likable (or not), and what feminism is or isn't. Strangely, even though this is a book I don't love, it's a book I wish I own (not borrow from the library) so I can pull out certain essays and look at them again or xeorox them and slip them under unsuspecting and needing-education friend's/neighbor's/relatives doors.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I've been Branded.

After admitting a current crisis of faith to my family, they united together and decided that I should be branded: possibly with a capital "R" for Republican or maybe worse, a small "c" for Conservative. I've mockingly called myself a conservative before and I have written about how we get more stodgy (read: conservative) as we age, like it or not, but this is the first time I have felt like my politics are shifting because of my circumstances. (It may just be the first time I can remember- I have a bad short term memory and you know we block out things about ourselves that we want to forget!)

I love to brag about my love of paying taxes. It's like a party trick- sure, I voted for that tax increase! Yes, I love paying taxes- how else will we get x, y, z? I always fill my parking meter, as those fees go to vital services. I rail against the money from our federal taxes that is allocated toward war and defense and other pukey, conservative causes, but I pay up anyway. Basically, I'm a liberal. I willy-nilly check boxes to raise local taxes, knowing that Oakland is woefully lacking in quality basic public services like infrastructure, public safety and schools.

Until now. I purchased my house almost a year ago (I had lived here 2 years before that). When I was busy voting for increased taxes, I wasn't busy PAYING the taxes. Life as a renter had its problems, for sure, but paying property taxes wasn't one of them. Feeding parking meters is great, but it doesn't come close to the money that Oakland home owners- not all of us wealthy- pay in property taxes. (Note: I'm still feeding meters!)

This year in Oakland, we're voting for a couple of fairly substantial property taxes. The first is Measure Z, an extension of Measure Y. Measure Y is a parcel tax (and a parking surcharge tax) used to fund public safety stuff like fire and police, notably community policing and measures like ceasefire. It is sunsetting this year and Measure Z is the proposed renewal, for another ten years. $88/year, at $99.77/year, to do the same thing. Mostly everyone is for it, except for those who think that the City didn't do what they said they would do with Measure Y funds and, well, those who don't like to pay more taxes.

Then there's Measure N. EVERYONE is for Measure N. In the ballot where you look to see the opposition arguments, it says "there is no formal opposition to Measure N." All of the newspapers and people that matter (or at least have loud voices like the newspapers) support N. A coalition of politicians who don't even like each other very much phone banked together for Measure N. Measure N, "College and Career Readiness for All,"is too big to fail. Only, it is $120/year for 10 years, and honestly, I can't find any reason TO vote for it. (Senior citizens and those who qualify for "very low income" are exempt, but it's my understanding that this is on an opt-out basis, as in, you have to know that you don't have to pay, and then you have to be brave enough in this very liberal town to stand up against people like me who and this Measure with huge public support and say hey, I am opting out!) And this is where my crisis of faith started.

Oakland has a lot of problems and schools are one of them. I'm not going to go into the details- if you don't know them, they're easy to find. The thing is, we're already paying a lot of taxes, and the problems don't seem to be getting much better. (I put all the property taxes here.) As noted above, I don't mind paying taxes. But the more attention I pay to Oakland politics, the more I wonder where this money is going to. And we're already paying $195/year in a parcel tax to OUSD- this tax does not sunset- it's indefinite. You can read Measure G, passed in 2008, here. Basically, it adds to the normal taxes that we pay to do things like recruit teachers, shrink class size, buy books, etc. Like, normal things.

So what does Measure N do? If I read it right, it changes the education strategy to "Linked Learning." And I can't figure out why we need more taxes for that, since we're already paying a lot of taxes for a broken system. Here are my questions, which I have yet to find answers to anywhere. If this makes me a Republican, I am worried about my future. Jeb, you running??

  • Is Linked Learning the future of OUSD? 
    • If so, would it be possible to reorganize the existing org structure, mission statement, strategy and budget to do this? 
    • Why is new money needed- does a strategy shift require outside resources? 
    • What happens after the 10 years? 
  • Does Linked Learning have proven success? Outside OUSD? More importantly, inside OUSD?
    • Has a pilot study at OUSD been done? Longitudinal study?
    • What does "success" look like? Is data being used to measure success? 
  • Are stakeholders already involved in this project?
    • Linked Learning relies heavily on "work place learning" and career training. Have job sites already been identified and/or have local companies committed to placing hundreds or thousands of OUSD students? (It is my experience with the local charter "internship" school that this is done last minute with minimal supervision. Local nonprofits and small businesses are called on and then expected to find work out of goodwill.) 
    • Certain "career pathways" are more likely to be actually successful than others- ie: there are job sectors that are predicted to grow and jobs sectors (like library science!) that aren't. Has OUSD established which these are? Has OUSD figured out how to both encourage students to pursue their dreams (go librarians!) and be realistic in a career-readiness track? (ie: is this a realistic job preparation program where there are pathways to service jobs, healthcare jobs and law enforcement type jobs?)
  • How will OUSD avoid the career portion of Linked Learning becoming the worst form of internships on a mass scale? (No secret that I have some issues with internships.)
    • How will OUSD insure that students are provided with a meaningful learning experience in their workplace experiences?
    • How will OUSD insure that workers are not displaced with the unpaid labor provided by yearly students on career pathways?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pretty fucking awesome

No, really.

More Books- tale of the Erics

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Eric Schlosser wrote Fast Food Nation- you've probably read it- an eminently readable expose into the food behind fast food. If you haven't read it, you should. Then he wrote a book called Reefer Madness which I have not read. His most recent book, Command and Control, is about the nuclear weapons system, told through the story of the serious accident in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980. This book is a little longer and a little less eminently readable than Fast Food Nation, but it's still a good one, and it's quite disturbing. Where Garry Wills walks us through how the bomb has changed America's government (for the worse), Schlosser tells us just how perilous the bombs (plural) are.

You may have known, but I did not, that nuclear weapons were designed with no thoughts about safety. As in, bombmakers were concerned only with ensuring accurate eruption, not how to keep them from explosion when they weren't supposed to, like in the middle of a flight over non-enemy territory, or when a mission had been aborted, or if a switch was accidentally switched when it wasn't supposed to be. Then there were little details that were overlooked like communications between warring powers during the Cold War. At the height of the Cold War, there was no red phone like we see in movies for Russia and the United States to communicate with each other. Nuclear war could be accidentally triggered well, basically anytime- by a swarm of birds flying over the radar or the wrong disk being put into the computer system that implied that warheads had been launched. It could take hours for the communications telling the other side that it was a false alarm to arrive. Also, planes carrying live nuclear warheads were constantly in flight over Siberia, just in case. Basically, it was a miracle that there were no accidental nuclear explosions during the Cold War. Although safety measures have since improved, it's not clear (Schlosser's book stops in 1980) just how much, and honestly, I'm too scared to look. This book is a force- a little long- but worth a read. Just be warned- you might not sleep well at night afterwards.

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According to the back of the book, Eric Ambler "invented the modern suspense novel." I'm not sure how I found this book (THB?), but it is quite a suspenseful book. Written in 1939, this isn't a suspense book or a thriller like any other suspense book I've read or you've likely read- the old timey language and scenarios are more like reading Sherlock Holmes than John Grisham. There are all kinds of European shenanigans and parties and cross continent trips. There are fig pickers and faked passports and investigators in uniforms. The book is both a trip down a nostalgic (in the sense of nostalgia that you haven't lived) lane and a sweet, suspenseful read.

Friday, October 17, 2014

When I am a highly paid and well respected librarian...

I won't make things like this, because I'm shy.
BUT! I will wish I did.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

More Books

Doris Kearns Goodwin- Wait Till Next Year. This book was highly recommended to me, and I understand why. Goodwin was raised by a baseball fan dad who taught her to score when she was young. Her memoir is as much of a memoir about growing up with the Brooklyn Dodgers as it is about being a kid. It's sweet and a little bit salty (just a little bit) and I should like it. But I don't. I remember trying to read something else by Kearns Goodwin and finding it unreadable, and, although I slogged through this one, the subject matter wasn't enough. It's a great story, and I love my dad and how he taught me (indoctrinated me?) baseball young just like she does, but some sappy writing just can't be overcome.

Melissa Mohr- Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. I was really looking forward to reading this book. I requested it at the library months ago. And the first half did not disappoint. Mohr romps through the history of our most taboo words, which have, of course, changed over time. The "holy" in the title refers to the fact that swearing used to actually mean taking God's name in vain in various ways. "By God's bones" is one of Mohr's favorite examples- talking about God's various body parts was actually dangerous- you could injure God's bones by cursing in this way. Words that we consider exceptionally offensive (nasty words for our body parts, for example), were, at various points in history, quite inane words, used in dialogue and literature like no big thing. The thing is, Mohr's book goes on for way too long. I gave up when she gets to about the 1920s. Each section includes about 50 examples, and really could do with 25. I liked the book, but could have done with 200 pages, not 275. Sad, because 275 isn't even a long book.

Edward Achorn- The Summer of Beer and Whiskey. The best book of the bunch, Achorn tells the story of the 1883 season and, he says, the popularization and salvation of baseball as the American pastime. The National League (the only professional league at the time) was a stodgy place in the 1880s: no drinking, expensive (50 cents) tickets and no baseball on Sundays. Along came a German immigrant by the name of Chris Von der Ahe who wanted to make some money. He probably liked baseball, too. He owned a beer garden in St. Louis and realized that baseball could be highly profitable if gate fares were lowered, the game was played on a day when working class people could make it and beer was sold. So he founded a league- the American Association, which eventually merged with the National League- and, as in the Field of Dreams, they built it and they came. Achorn's lively book is a pretty awesome book for those interested in baseball (duh!) and also Americana. Baseball as capitalism and history and beer, well, not bad. Readable and short- maybe I should have saved this for the offseason (tomorrow!) to liven up the dull, sad days of winter.