Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Being a world-renowned professor while black

Prof. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. -- Harvard University Professor, editor of the Root, etc. etc. -- was arrested on his own front porch after it was determined that he was, indeed, the legitimate homeowner as far as I can tell. Writer Samantha Henig of Slate and the Double X Factor comments on this and links to some other good commentaries:

Just as upsetting to me as the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest, Emily, is the way that so many people have been responding, including in our own comments section. There’s this reflexive defense mechanism that so often kicks in with white people (of which I am one) in situations like these; an urge to stand up for the white person accused of discrimination because hey, I’m white, and I’m not racist. I’ll admit, I feel that pull too at times—I cringe at people who fling around groundless accusations of racism [and other hot-button issues].

But this is not a case where people should get all smug about being “brave” and “honest” enough to question whether race was a factor; to suggest that maybe it was Gates who was out of line, not the cop. In all the steps of this story—the neighbor who called the cops, the way the officer spoke to Gates, the fact that the kerfuffle between them, no matter how much it was instigated by Gates, led to an actual arrest—it is just so hard to imagine that not one of them was influenced by Gates (and his driver) being black.

Blogger Kate Harding has a thorough explanation of why declarations that race isn’t a part of this arrest are coming from a position of white privilege. And to “people are trying to be all devil’s advocatey about it and suggest that Gates bears responsibility for making matters worse,” she offers this: “I’m sorry, who wouldn’t be a belligerent prick after getting off a long flight, coming home to a jammed door, then finding a cop in your living room accusing you of trying to steal your own shit? I sure would.” Ditto that.

Read the rest here.

Obama and Cheney, together in bed, giving H-E-A...

With apologies to The Coup.

But; srsly?

The Obama administration asserted a legal argument that a federal judge called the Jon Stewart “Daily Show exemption,” as the Justice Department continued a court fight to protect ex-Vice President Dick Cheney from disclosures about his role in the leak of a CIA officer’s identity six years ago.

At a federal court hearing Tuesday, Jeffrey Smith, an attorney in the Justice Department’s Civil Division, argued that the transcript of Cheney’s 2004 interview with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald about the CIA leak should remain secret for as long as 10 more years.

Last month, Smith cited the possibility that the transcript’s release might discourage future vice presidents from cooperating with criminal investigations because their words could become “fodder for The Daily Show.”

When Smith revived that argument on Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Emmett Sullivan said, “You’re getting back to the Daily Show exemption. You’re not going back there, are you?”

Read the whole thing, "Obama Lawyers Shield Cheney on Leak" by Jason Leopold, at Consortium News.

Monday, July 20, 2009

It might be inaccurate, but at least it's fast

An article today at Slate discussing Body Mass Index (BMI) and how it's actually a poor measure of obesity -- and why it's used so commonly to diagnose said obesity. Rather like many population measures -- time at menarche or onset of puberty, age at death, literacy, whatnot -- the overall averages won't tell you what's going on with any given individual. But alas, the almight BMI is convenient, so it's commonly used.

This reminds of the (related) phenomenon, back during the Atkins Diet craze, when I read an article talking about it and its actual relationship to healthy eating and longevity (questionable at best, negative at worst). It quoted some scientists as arguing that at least Atkins brought people's attention to dietary questions; in my experience, however, it was just another fad diet, and people adhered to it specifically. There was little spillover into more generalized health concerns, exercise, etc., just cutting down on carbs -- which as many scientists in that article and out pointed out, is not terribly related to long-term health, as the fats associated with much of the protein people ate instead did little for their cardiovascular health, and they missed out on the nutrients and micronutrients chiefly gleaned from eating complex carbs (i.e. the anti-Wonder Bread).

Anyway, like BMI or even worse our focus mainly on weight, the article expressed a point of view that I like to summarize as, "Things are so bad, we need a solution -- even if it's a wrong one that won't work."


Monday, July 13, 2009

Frank Ricci: Firefighter, Successful Supreme Court Litigant... Serial Suer?

Dahlia Lithwick writes at Slate about Frank Ricci's penchant for filing suits over jobs. In what might be irrelevant background, a pattern of sour grapes, or a person "repeatedly victimized by a cruel cadre of employers, first for his dyslexia, then again for his role as a whistle-blower, and then a third time for just being white," the recent victor along with the others of Ricci v. DeStefano also just might be "a serial plaintiff—one who reacts to professional slights and setbacks by filing suit, threatening to file suit, and more or less complaining his way up the chain of command." Ricci, who will testify during Judge Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings, is, as Lithwick says, thus "not the typical GOP heartthrob." The GOP's stance on discrimination lawsuits seems to be along the lines of J-Friend Dan's philosophy of complaining. As he once said: "I don't believe in complaining about things you can't do anything about. On the other hand, I don't really believe in complaining about all the other stuff either." Switch "complaining" with "lawsuits" and you have the Republican philosophy, or its seeming one, regarding lawsuits for rights infringements (see their repeated attacks on tort lawyers and all that rigmarole).

Lithwick's piece is little more than a trifle, though it certainly paints Ricci in a different light (whether or not that's a fair different light is a different conversation) and makes one wonder why this wasn't brought up before now? Surely, this wasn't just discovered. And like I say, it might be irrelevant, but it could've been a choice part of the discourse anyway, considering how much the focus was on "being fair" to Ricci and his colleagues, who "earned" their promotions based on the standards given, regardless of whether the standards were the best ones to evaluate people with or were discriminatory as such Title VII was heretofore determined.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

So, 6 heads of state walk into a summit...

What's wrong with this picture?

That's right: not only aren't half of the leaders women, none of the pictured leaders are women.

Oh, yes, and the failure to agree on a climate plan.

Though, black (male) head of state of a predominantly white country: check. We're still working on consistently representing the other (female) half of humanity, among other things.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

New Haven's Firefighters: Race, White firefighters, and civil rights, Part the Nth

A really fantastic piece, or seemingly from my quick readthrough, by Richard Thompson Ford again, Stanford scholar and previously linked-to commentator on the "New Haven Firefighter Case" of Ricci v. DeStefano.

Ford analyzes how the SCOTUS' finding for the white firefighters (and one Hispanic firefighter) in this promotion case overturns years of civil rights precedent, while going with more recent precedents of treating any attempt at addressing civil rights as creating their own racial (or sexual, in the case of homosexuality) preferences, "reverse discrimination" or "special privileges."

There are two interesting points here (well, many more than that, but two I will make right now.) One is that recent discussions with various J-friends have, unhappily, split pretty clearly along racial lines (though not with any racial overtext, that is, whether or not people agreed or disagreed with the SCOTUS decision fell quite racially within my very small subsample of my friends). BUT, the point of contention seemed to (mainly) fall into "Ricci et al. deserved to win because they played by the rules," that is, the test happened, and taking back what they'd "earned" by going along with the test as written would not be fair, regardless of the errors, biases, whatever of the test. (The "compromise" position found between J-fave D and J was that they were deserving of some recompense for the efforts they put into preparing for the test, even if they were not owed a promotion.) Essentially, as I discussed with J-Mom, it seemed to be a focus on the individual, individualism, and the rights of the individual not to be "harmed" for the good of the whole, or good of another group at least. (This is not at all how the J-friends phrased it, but my interpretation of their objections to my points of view). J-friend Sean felt that institutional racism was real, but of a lessor magnitude than perhaps I may think it was, a lessor magnitude than discrimination from poverty (which is hard, if not impossible, to parse, but suffice it to say I think institutional racism is a profound and not terribly diminished problem, something D seems to agree with to some degree.) Indeed, Sean argued (if I am restating it correctly) that essentially positive preferences for any group are essentially the same, such that discrimination "for" blacks was as bad as discrimination against them (and you can replace "black" with white or Hispanic or what have you here).

Thompson argues that this places many, many programs to address racial programs at risk, as in the end, they all hinge on treating one group differently than another or end up displacing some people who would otherwise have received a job, promotion, or college acceptance. (He uses the example of the 10% programs, where, for example, Texas admits the top 10% of students in their high school class, a supposedly "race-neutral" way of achieving the end of diversity and representation of minorities. As has been pointed out by others, this only works because Texas schools are segregated, thus, you get diverse representation because the top 10% of the class at predominantly black or Latino schools is itself predominantly black, so minorities get represented essentially because they are not integrated (or have lower relative average scores where they are more integrated). As Thompson says:
The university now admits any student in the top 10 percent of his or her public high-school class, and because so many of the public schools in Texas are racially segregated, this guarantees a racially diverse student body. Opponents of race-conscious affirmative action have pointed to this policy as an example of a viable, race-neutral alternative. But no one denies that the motivation for dropping the traditional admissions criteria in favor of the 10 percent plan is to achieve a better racial mix. Extending the logic of Ricci, this looks like impermissible race discrimination against the students who would have been admitted under the old criteria, just as dropping the firefighter promotion exam was impermissible race discrimination against the white firefighters who would have been promoted.

I think this poses a challenge to those who agree with the Ricci decision, unless they hold the very narrow stance that it is only because the test already happened that it was unfair discrimination. As Thompson points out, how would the case be (legally) different if, before the test, the city chose to use one test that they knew from previous data would tend to favor a more diverse mix (i.e. less whites and more minorities) rather than a test that would favor more whites. The intent there is almost exactly the same as throwing out the results for, as some of my friends posed it, "having too many white people". So if Ricci is unfairly discriminating against whites, using a test that you know would admit more minorities also should be, to be logically consistent.

The second point, which you may have forgotten I even supposedly had at this point, is that Ford reiterates that Ricci is a change in the status quo. As J-Mom AND the article by Bazelon I've prattled about here for the past week pointed out, the previous standard for a "discriminatory" test was just that the results were discriminatory. Governments typically used an "80% rule":
Title VII requires employers not just to inspect their hearts and not find any discriminatory intent, but to consider the racial impact of things like tests. And the EEOC, in interpreting this requirement, has given clear guidance about what impact counts as suspect:

"A selection rate for any race, sex, or ethnic group which is less than four-fifths (4/5) (or eighty percent) of the rate for the group with the highest rate will generally be regarded by the Federal enforcement agencies as evidence of adverse impact, while a greater than four-fifths rate will generally not be regarded by Federal enforcement agencies as evidence of adverse impact."

The rates at which blacks and Hispanics passed the New Haven tests were well below 80% of the rate at which whites passed. That means that those tests were presumptively in violation of the law. (from Obsidian Wings)

Thus, the Court set aside the typical way things were done, where (as I have pointed out to J-friends), a test that has that much racial disparity is presumptively discriminatory, which seems to me a fine first pass at such things in a world of institutional discrimination, which I see as a very large on-going problem, contra J-friend EssEee.

As to the earlier point over the "fairness" to the individual, two other interesting bits:

Obsidian Wings: I have read many professions of outrage about this decision, but most of them focus on whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that Frank Ricci didn't get his promotion, rather than what the law requires. This puzzled me.

And Walter Dellinger:
Given that no one had been promoted and no one had been denied promotion, it's very hard to see how the firefighters who brought suit were able to establish the very first element of a Title VII action: the existence of an "adverse employment action." In addition to satisfying the statute, it would have been far better for the process to judge New Haven actions after promotion decisions were actually made using whatever new standards the city chose to adopt. Completing the process would have shed light on the question of whether there were in fact equally good (or perhaps, better) criteria for determining promotions, and with far less racial disproportion... Which takes us to the fact that Justice Kennedy's opinion relies in part on a logically flawed, categorical error. He writes: "If an employer cannot rescore a test based on the candidates' race [citing the Title VII provision], then it follows a fortiori that it may not take the greater step of discarding the test altogether to achieve a more desirable racial distribution of promotion-eligible candidates..." This is wrong. There is a very powerful difference between setting aside the results of a test based on what you learn from general racial statistics about those who took the test, on the one hand, and adjusting individual test scores on the basis of race, on the other... Using race to identify a problem has never before been considered problematic. It is what necessarily happens before institutions adopt the most widely accepted race-neutral actions, like using admissions criteria for every applicant that have less of a racial impact (for example, accepting students in the top 10 percent of their high-school class, which, in states like Texas, would produce a racially diverse student body). Contrary to Kennedy's assertion, deciding not to use test results should be far less problematic than "rescoring based on race." ...Here, all New Haven did was set aside the results of a test. It seems to me that test would have been very hard to defend, given the other questionable employment rules that surrounded it. New Haven counts the multiple-choice test as 60 percent of what determines promotion. That places twice the weight on test-taking as the median for firefighter promotions around the country. How can that unusually great a weight be justified? Kennedy says only that it was insisted upon by the union. Yep. That was two decades ago, when the union was dominated by the white firefighters. That so great a weight should necessarily be given to a multiple-choice test used to pick leaders out of a group of qualified firefighters is hard to see.

Going back to Ford to wrap up, he asks:
And why stop there? Even recruitment efforts aimed at underrepresented minorities are designed to increase the representation of those groups in work forces and entering classes with a limited number of openings. If these outreach efforts are successful, some minorities will necessarily displace some whites who would otherwise have been hired or admitted. Are those efforts discriminatory, too?

Among other things, I see this case as reflecting a problem of where many want us to be, especially in white America, and where we actually are (or at least how we perceive it in black America, to speak in broad generalities). If you think racism is a significant and real, persistent still-present problem, interventions of a certain size, from affirmative action to throwing out the New Haven test (which depending on how you look at it, was unfair to those who would have been promoted based on how the test was set up before hand by taking away what they'd earned, or would have been permissible because it threw out results based on the heretofore legally correct presumption that such skewed results were de facto racist) seem reasonable. If you think, know, or wish that racism has receded to the point where a lot less aggressive, race-blind, and minor intervention is all that's needed, it seems understandable to take it from Ricci's side.

Argh. Ok, I have a headache now (unrelated to the post, I think). Até...

GoldFISHER... The Waste with the Supreme Court Touch

Ok, that title is horrible.

BUT, so (seemingly) is the Supreme Court decision in Coeur Alaska v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. AND, the seeming complete LACK of analysis of this decision anywhere other than The Colbert Report. (If you can find some other good analyses, please let us at the Continuum know.)

From Colbert and quick skimming of other sources, it seems to be that a gold company in Alaska got permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to dispose of "tailings" from a gold mine but filling up a lake of a depth of 75 ft or so to a depth of 74 ft, killing (of course) everything in the lake, what with the lake becoming a "kiddie pool" and the toxic nature of the "tailings."

Apparently, the issue was: the gold mine waste is technically "fill" and "fill" is under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers, not the EPA, which only has jurisdiction of "waste". So the toxic fill could be used to fill up the lake because it wasn't toxic waste, but toxic fill. Somehow involved in this was a Bush Administration regulation (I believe they changed it so that "fill" was no longer covered by the EPA, but I could be off on that), and the Court ruled that it should give deference to the EPA's own interpretation of its regulations, such that apparently filling up a lake with toxic fill isn't the same as filling it up with toxic waste. (This seems to me to clash with Scalia's untenuous philosophy of using only the "plain sense meaning" of laws, but whatever.)

I'd really like to read more in depth analysis of this case, but it seems to be lacking. I guess we're too busy with celebrity deaths, strip-searching teenagers, and firefighters.

Actual SCOTUS decision is here.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Deforestation for Sustainable Development neither Develops nor is Sustainable

A recent study by Rodrigues et al. finds that development projects in the Brazilian Amazon didn't really increase people's long-term quality of life (there was an increasing quality of life as deforestation began and then it decreased back to a similarly low point as it started at). Among other things, this sort of belies (yet again) what's been called the environmental Kuznet's curve, roughly speaking, the idea that the economy has to "develop" or expand before you can "afford" environmental protection. If you in the end neither provide measurable development nor protect the environment, well... Anyway. Bjorn Lomborg: 0; Reality: Many.

There's much more to be said about development, resource use, sustainability, and the economics, politics and forces at work encouraging deforestation and supposed development scheme, but they won't be said right now.