I fear a lot of white people in America don’t understand the pervasiveness of our culture of white supremacy. Growing up I was indoctrinated in racism and white supremacy and it’s taken many years to understand how those hateful ideas have invaded my mind and try to influence every aspect of my thinking. I think most white Americans are similarly indoctrinated and don’t recognize it. As we face a violent flareup of white supremacy in our current political world it’s important to understand how entrenched the idea is in white Americans that we are superior and the country belongs to us, the "real Americans". Recognizing this indoctrination is the first step in fighting it.

My grandmother was my personal teacher for white supremacy. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Houston as a rich white boy, I was immersed in the culture of white superiority that is the birthright of most white Americans. But it was my grandmother who taught me the specifics. Content warning: the rest of this post discusses racist indoctrination in frank terms. It’s an awful thing, but it is my history and I need to claim it.

My grandmother, Lou Ward Jones, was a hateful woman in many ways both personal and petty and also large and broad. She was a virulent unrepentant racist, albeit a socially acceptable one. She was careful not to say N— out loud where polite people would hear her. That word was saved for moments of anger and for my private education. She interacted with Black people: the waiters in restaurants, a live-in maid in her house. But never as an equal. She wasn’t terrible to "her" maids but also was certainly not kind. That servant / familial relationship that is the uncomfortable way of the South.

Here’s some of the things my grandmother taught me

  • Black people were better off under slavery.

  • The South was the blameless victim of the Civil War.

  • The maitre’d at the Houston Country Club was called "boy". Occasionally to his face and often deliberately in his hearing. A polite and professional Black man of age 50, he would smile and say "yes Mrs. Jones."

  • Slaves were happy, their masters took good care of them.

  • Brazil nuts were called n— toes, this word taught with an impish smile like a naughty girl getting away with something.

  • Desmond Tutu was only a "so-called Archbishop".

  • Little Black Sambo was great and it was terrible you couldn’t buy the books any more. I may still believe this one a tiny bit.

  • The KKK was a necessary civil defense force to protect whites from rampaging N—s.

  • Nelson Mandela was a criminal and it was terrible that he shared a name with her husband and me.

  • N—s were and are too lazy or stupid to care for themselves.

  • Martin Luther King was violent and wanted to kill white people.

These are some of the nuggets of white supremacy I was taught growing up during weekend visits. Not as a programmatic thing, just the background radiation of the white South. But my grandmother made an explicit effort to indoctrinate me. It seemed entirely unremarkable to me at the time, a lot of white people I grew up around talked this way. I absorbed these lessons from my family just like any little kid does.

Fortunately I learned better. My mother would occasionally push back; while she thoughtlessly harbored racism herself she also knew her mother’s racism was wrong. She made it clear I would not be calling the maitre’d "boy". My school did a good job teaching critical thinking and historical facts somewhat free of Southern bias, particularly my junior year US History class. And I developed my own ideas of social justice starting in high school. I became skeptical, anti-racist, argued back. Not so much against my grandmother though; she was a cruel and abusive woman and none of us talked back to her. I learned to hate her instead.

But the indoctrination was strong. The core message was that as a white person I was inherently superior. That these other races of people were here to be servants, or dumb labor, and while regrettably we couldn’t own them any more we could still treat them as lesser people. No matter what challenges I faced I was white and America belonged to me. It’s a comforting and empowering belief, being raised a white supremacist. It is poison.

I’m sorry to write out all this hateful and horrible stuff. But so much of white America is still awash in these attitudes, infected with them. I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to get out of the grip of this indoctrination and I still have tendrils of it in me. Pervasive racism is the single biggest social challenge facing America today, one of the core reasons why roughly half the American population starts life with a significant disadvantage. It goes a long way to explaining Trump’s popularity; people voted for him because he’s a racist, not despite that. This is America.

This essay inspired by Michael Twitty's essay about white visitors to Southern plantations.
politics
  2019-08-21 21:03 Z

The Supreme Court yesterday heard a case about whether the US census can include a question on whether the person is a citizen, a question placed there by Wilbur Ross for the Trump administration. They’ve already lost this case in three federal courts but now it’s going to the Supreme Court. Despite the politics, there’s some important non-political arguments here that matter and aren’t being well reported. Let me highlight them.

The goal of the decennial census is an accurate count of all people. The basis of the Census comes from Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution as amended by the 14th Amendment. The key phrase here is "counting the whole number of persons in each State". Not counting just citizens. In particular, representatives to the House are apportioned based on the entire population of each state, not just the population of citizens.

The accuracy of the count matters. It directly affects the number of House of Representatives seats and also Electoral College votes. The count also greatly influences funding apportionment, social security, etc. It’s not just statistical data for planning purposes, it is the count of record for all sorts of legislative matters.

The citizenship question would result in an undercount. The problem with the citizenship question is it will cause a lot of non-citizens to not answer the census and thus not be counted. It’s not hard to imagine why someone who is living here illegally would not want to disclose that fact to a federal officer, particularly now. But the citizenship question also discourages people who are here legally. Don’t take my word for it: the Census’ Chief Scientist John Abowd said "Three distinct analyses support the conclusion of an adverse impact on self-response and, as a result, on the accuracy and quality of the 2020 Census."

We already ask about citizenship. In addition to the decennial census, the Census Bureau also runs a fantastic demographic research program called the American Community Survey. They send detailed questionnaires of various types to a subset of American households, some every month, and collect detailed data on ethnicity, education, economics, even a count of how many people own computers. The ACS also asks about citizenship; here’s a quick view of the some of data.

We know the citizenship question will result in an undercount because of the ACS’ experience with the question. They have detailed estimates of how many people don’t answer the census at all, don’t answer the citizenship question, or quit the survey right where the citizenship question is asked. Abowd’s memo about this is long (100MB PDF), here’s a shorter relevant excerpt. Broadly speaking there’s two separate concerns; that the census taker doesn’t answer the one citizenship question, or that they don’t answer the whole census because of the presence of that one citizenship question. There’s corroborating studies from outside Census that also show the question will result in a significant undercount.

The decennial census has to be an exact count. Thanks to a 1999 Supreme Court decision the Census data used for apportionment must be an actual head count. No form of sampling or extrapolation is allowed, despite the fact that would result in a number closer to the true count. That means there’s no way to correct a census flawed with an undercount from the citizenship question.

I’ve tried to present politically neutral arguments above. How do we most accurately get an exact count of people in the US? By not adding a new question about citizenship. But of course the politics of the census can’t be ignored. The Census estimates 6.5M people may be undercounted because of this question, that’s nearly 2% of the US population. The people being undercounted tend to be Hispanic and immigrants and also tend to be pro-Democrat. Those people will be denied representation in the House and those states will be underfunded.

It’s not an accident that this question the Republican administration wants to ask just happens to help Republicans. It’s there because Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach asked Wilbur Ross to put it there, a fact that Ross apparently forgot about in earlier testimony. Ross tried to claim the Justice Department asked him to add the question but it turns out they only asked because Ross requested they ask him. The White House is now refusing to cooperate with a congressional investigation into how the question came to be on the census in the first place. There’s a detailed timeline of the political process. It’s gone much faster than the usual multi-year process for questions to carefully be added to the Census.

The Census Bureau is a competent, careful, non-partisan government agency. It’s a shame to see their work corrupted.

politics
  2019-04-24 22:34 Z

Reminder: it is not normal for the President of the United States to openly embrace the language of fascism.

I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.

Update: Trump tweeted a link to his interview, then deleted it after someone inspired by him murdered 49 people in New Zealand.

politics
  2019-03-15 14:47 Z

I’ve had a mantra since Trump was elected: "it is going to keep getting worse". It’s depressing but I find being clear helps bolster me for the upcoming pain. There is no realistic scenario where the next two years in America are going to go better politically.

The midterms were a success for the Democrats. They decisively took the House. A victory, hooray! But what does that victory get us? Very little. At best, it slows down the horrible deluge of atrocities that are still coming.

Trump will remain President. There’s no likely path to an actual impeachment; even if Mueller has clear evidence of treason the Republicans in the Senate will protect Trump. And if they decide to get rid of Trump the result would be President Pence. That may be less stupid and crazy but Pence is also a bad and dangerous politician. And it is the entire Republican party that is the problem, not just Trump, and they will remain in power.

The best outcome from these midterms is the Democrats will use the investigatory powers of the House to unearth some of the Trump Administration’s crimes and malfeasance. (There’s an active debate on how aggressive the Democrats want to be.) A little truth-and-reconciliation would help things. Unearth the Trump Organization’s financial double dealings that corrupt the presidency. Get to the bottom of how our country stole thousands of children from their parents at the border and then lost several hundred of them, permanently orphaning the kids. Expose the Republican strategy of denying people voting rights to win elections. A little fresh air will feel good but it won’t actually change anything. We are way, way beyond where appeals to truth or decency matter.

Meantime, the Republicans will continue their campaign of vandalism. They will continue to undermine Obamacare. They will continue to demonize immigrants in a rank display of racism. They will continue to undermine LGBT rights, particularly transgender peoples’. They will continue to destroy our economy with reckless tax cuts. If not via legislation, then via executive action.

And forget our government taking normal action on necessary things like funding infrastructure, improving healthcare, setting reasonable foreign policy. Gridlock is better than active harm, but the best we have to hope for is gridlock.

That’s normal politics. It could get much worse. Trump is entirely unpredictable. It seems quite likely he will draw a page from the Putin playbook and start a war next year to help galvanize support for his re-election. Maybe Iran, Venezuela, Yemen. Maybe some "shithole" country he decides to attack. Nothing will stand in his way of creating a war.

Even that’s somewhat normal by American experience (see: 2003 in Iraq). The scariest thing to me is the rising fascism in American political rhetoric. The increasing appeals to violence. The demonizing of journalism. The frighteningly aggressive rhetoric of Trump’s rallies. The gun and bomb attacks by brownshirts. I was genuinely afraid the 2018 elections would be marred by some violent event, a mass shooting at a polling place or something. I’m glad I was wrong. I’m not going to be any less worried about that after two more years of Trump.

The country is breaking.

politics
  2018-11-08 18:51 Z

The first phase of undoing the Republican policy of separating children from their parents at the border is over. The July 26 deadline to reunite all families passed; the result is about ⅓ are together again. The details of the other thousands of parents and kids are complicated. For example 431 parents were deported without their children, it’s not clear they will ever be reunited. 21 kids are still separated because their parents failed a background check. According to past reports, some kids or their parents are simply just lost, the system can’t find them.

The pain of this separation policy will continue for years. Right now we still have to make sure every single other child separated from their parents is treated humanely and legally and eventually reunited with their family. Long term, the mental health of some of these kids will be permanently harmed by the trauma of separation and incarceration. And we’ve yet to hear about any abuses inside the detention system; given past experience there are horrors to come.

The whole thing has been an atrocity. A deliberate policy of white nationalism enacted by the Trump Administration and the Republican Party. It’s one thing to have differing opinions on immigration quotas or asylum procedures. It is another entirely to snatch children from their mothers. America committed a deliberate human rights abuse. Trump’s rhetoric demonizing and dehumanizing immigrants set the stage. The deep racism of many Americans encouraged this outrage along with the silent complicitly of so many citizens who want to just ignore an atrocity as it happens.

For the past six weeks I’ve been making an effort to tweet every single day about the unfolding story. I’ve been worried it’d be far too easy for this human rights crisis to go unnoticed, for us to forget that there were thousands of children living in cages and crying for their parents. So I’ve carefully read every single story I could find, highlighted something new every single day. I can’t keep that level of engagement up going forward. It seems absurd to allow this atrocity to just go on the pile along with all the other horrible Trump outrages. This particular event, the abuse of children, is singularly evil.

politics
  2018-07-27 22:42 Z

Between May 5 and June 9 at least 2,342 children were snatched from their parents because of a Trump / Republican policy change. That new policy was suspended June 20 but the children are still separated. They joined another 1,768 kids that were taken from their parents Oct 2016 – Feb 2018. As of last week there were a total of 11,869 children being held in HHS custody. These numbers sound comfortingly precise but the reality is a lot more confused. The immigrant child custody system has never worked well and was stressed significantly by adding 25% more kids in one month.

So where are the kids? The government has not published a comprehensive list or map. Several journalism agencies are trying: Reveal and ProPublica both have maps of immigration detention facilities for children, based in part on data from the Texas Tribune. These range from a 10 bed Catholic shelter in the Bronx to a converted Walmart for 1500 kids in Brownsville, TX. So far the reporting is that these shelters have been treating children decently. But between the strain on the shelter system and the historical lack of oversight it seems likely more kids will be abused. Just being separated from their parents is hugely damaging.

What’s next for the kids? The June 20 executive order reduces the number of children being separated in the future but does nothing to help the ones who were already snatched. This CNN timeline summarizes court decisions on what happens next.

  • July 6: parents must be able to contact their children
  • July 10: children under 5 reunited with their parents
  • July 26: all children reunited with their parents

It seems likely that “reunited with their parents” means “placed into immigrant detention with their parents”. This creates a new problem, kids can only be held in immigrant jails for 20 days. So far there is no solution proposed for that limit. Expect another crisis maybe as early as July 10.

Some of the snatched kids have already been given back to their parents. But it’s very unclear how the rest of the kids will be reunited. HHS is talking like they have excellent records. But lawyers for parents say that’s not really true. Many parents don’t have legal representation at all, no help for finding their kids. There’s also a lot of confusion as some parents may have already been deported and various kids have different statuses. The fact that HHS says they are building a system now does not inspire confidence; is that system going to be working and complete in two weeks?

The separation policy is an atrocity. It was deliberately engineered to cause significant harm to children for political gain. The baffling array of different motivations stated for the policy only added to the confusion. But two stated reasons for taking kids away stand out as clearly important. One, to create a deterrent to future immigrants. And two, to create pressure in Congress to change immigration law. Holding 2,342 children hostage for these goals is monstrous.

I literally lay awake at night wondering about what is happening to these children. I feel powerless to do much to help them. I’ve given money, I’ve marched in protest, I’ve called my Congressman. Lately I’ve been trying to tweet one humanizing thing about these kids a day, just to keep some attention on a continuing human rights crisis.

politics
  2018-07-09 15:49 Z

Like any other decent human I’ve been horrified at the atrocity of Trump and the Republicans separating children from their parents. The immediate crisis seems to be over but there’s still an immense need for legal aid for immigrants. To try to unite the snatched kids back with their parents, to help asylum seekers in need. Every person deserves legal representation.

I went looking for well organized legal aid charities in California that I could donate to. I asked on Reddit and Metafilter and found a few helpful lists of organizations: San Francisco Magazine, Slate, Immigration Advocates Network.

I ended up having a hard time picking California specific organizations because there are so many small groups and I don’t know how to evaluate them all. Here’s what I ended up donating to:

politics
  2018-06-21 20:24 Z

America is treating immigrant children as subhuman, taking them from their parents, abusing them, losing them. Social media is full out of outrage about this so it seems a bit redundant to write it all down. But it is an atrocity that is happening and the least I can do is bear witness.

America has a newly aggressive policy of separating children from parents if ICE thinks the parents entered the country illegally. It is a supreme form of cruelty being perpetrated by the state, often against families fleeing persecution and trauma.

Once separated from their parents we harm the children further. Some of those children are physically abused by Border Patrol officers, kids being punched, kicked, sexually assaulted, held in solitary confinement. ICE then destroys the evidence of the abuse. Many kids are placed in foster care but then we lose a large number of them, like literally don’t know what happened to them. Some of them ended up in the hands of traffickers. “Sorry Mom, we lost your kid, check the local brothels.” This problem is not new but much worse under Trump.

All of this is happening in the dangerous context of dehumanizing immigrants.

“I called them animals the other day, and I was met with rebuke,” he said. “They said, ‘They’re people.’ They’re not people. These are animals, and we have to be very, very tough.”
“They exploited the loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors.” Trump added: “They look so innocent. They’re not innocent.”
See, they’re not immigrant children at all. They are criminals. And animals. So it’s OK to abuse them, to separate them from their parents.

It is going to keep getting worse.

politics
  2018-05-26 17:09 Z

This week seems to have broken a lot of my friends politically. Lots of folks withdrawing, feeling despair, etc. Me too, only I may reached that point a week or two ago.

The final straw this week seems to be the new Republican tax law. Cynically creating an enormous new deficit to give tax breaks to the richest Americans. While raising taxes on middle class people, particularly in high tax states like California and New York. It is a terrible law that will cause significant harm to our country. Combined with the destruction of the Affordable Care Act it will bring misery to many Americans.

But there’s so much more awfulness. The sexual misconduct revelations are a constant reminder of how shitty so many men are. Topped off by our Sexual Predator in Chief and his not-quite endorsement of child botherer Roy Moore. Trump’s tweets of anti-Muslim hate propaganda. The reversal of net neutrality. Trump’s off the cuff insults against Native Americans. Ongoing efforts to suppress the vote. Lurching towards nuclear war with North Korea with a State Department stripped of competency.

The only “bright spot”, as it were, is Mueller’s investigation. As if discovering the President’s staff worked with Russian intelligence to subvert the US election is somehow a positive thing. It’s not, it’s terrible, and so far we’ve done nothing to make the 2018 election more secure. Also it’s not really not clear that Mueller can save the Republic even with ironclad evidence of Trump campaign collusion with Russia. The Republicans hold the power and have shown themselves completely uninterested in decency or the rule of law. Remember the outcome of the Iran-Contra affair?

It’s going to get worse. It may not get better. He may get us all killed.

politics
  2017-12-03 18:12 Z

One crucial political aim for 2018 and 2020 is making sure the vote is fair and representative. The GOP has a clear strategy for voter suppression. They also will try to further cement their control of the House starting in 2020 with gerrymandering. Here are some people working to protect voters’ rights.

Jason Kander is leading the fight against voter suppression with the organization Let America Vote. Right now that’s mostly agitation against Trump’s voter suppression committee but it’s backed by legal and political action. (Kander is hilarious on Twitter, I enjoy following his personal account.) The ACLU is also very active in protecting voting rights.

I’ve been spending a lot of time educating myself about gerrymandering. The #1 thing I’d recommend is the book Ratf**ked; the New Yorker review gives a summary. That book is mostly a report on REDMAP, the GOP districting effort in 2010 (and now 2020). The DNC’s districting effort in 2020 is the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by Eric Holder. They’ve been relatively quiet but that may be because it’s mostly a technical and per-state issue.

The big news in gerrymandering this fall is the Wisconsin case, to be heard in the Supreme Court in October. It is considering the question about whether an explicitly partisan gerrymander is legal. There’s a lot of excitement about a measure called the efficiency gap which quantifies partisan bias. I’m doing a little work in this area myself, there’s a fun statistics + maps problem there.

I’ve left out a third topic, protecting the vote from foreign influence. I’m not as up to date on that topic. Also it’s a bit different in that voting security should be a bipartisan issue. Unfortunately a bunch of Republicans are ignoring obvious evidence of Russian election tampering as a misguided attempt to protect Trump. Secure voting machines and easy auditability are important themes.

politics
  2017-07-30 16:47 Z