Waiter, there’s a [brown person] in my [fictional world]

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power finally debuted on Amazon Prime, and right on cue came the complaints from white fans of Lord of the Rings about “wokeness”.  What seems new about this latest iteration of the “waiter, there’s a [brown person] in my [fictional world]” phenomenon is the deliberate decision of the mainstream media to legitimize these complaints about said fictional world.  The tweet below is a great summation of the journalist malpractice being engaged in here.

When you lead off a piece with complaints about a fictional world with the deputy managing editor of redstate.com, that’s bad enough.  But it’s even worse when you conflate fans of Tolkien with actual scholars.  Running a story like this–which elevates the weakest of arguments from people with thin credentials at best–seems to be a preview of what we can expect from the new, “neutral” CNN.

I’ve written only briefly about Star Wars being my earliest fandom.  But nearly as old as my Star Wars fandom is my love of The Lord of the Rings.  I came to it first through watching the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit in the early 80s, then the books.  The Lord of the Rings definitely contributed to my becoming a D&D player later on (and a reader of many other books in the fantasy genre).  In college, I took the comparative mythology class taught by Dr. Verlyn Flieger (a well-known Tolkien scholar) because it gave me an excuse to read The Silmarillion for credit instead of just for fun.  It’s been nearly 30 years since I took her course, but I still remember it because to her credit she gave us what would later be called a trigger warning regarding the depictions of Gollum in Tolkien’s work (which wasn’t perceived as racist by many people then, but likely would be now).  I don’t recall if she gave us a similar warning regarding the descriptions of orcs, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she did.  N.K. Jemisin (the 1st and only sci-fi author to win 3 consecutive Hugo Awards for best novel in the genre) has definitely made that criticism of Tolkien’s description of orcs.

When Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy came out, my fellow Tolkien nerds and I made sure to see all three movies at The Uptown, the best theater in the area at the time.  I bought and watched the extended editions of all three movies on DVD, and am overdue to add to my collection whatever 4K version of the trilogy my XBox One X will play.  I even watched the not-as-good Hobbit trilogy.  The books of the trilogy, The Silmarillion, and an old copy of The Tolkien Reader are on a shelf in the home office where I’m writing this right now. I’ve read The Children of Hurin (a copy from the public library anyway), but have not yet added a copy to my collection.

Richard Newby is a longstanding member of the black Tolkien nerd tribe, and he’s written the only piece worth reading on this subject.  So rather than write an inferior version of what he’s already written, I’ll write more broadly–because these complaints from white fans aren’t new.  Moses Ingram had to deal with these same people when they objected to her presence as an inquisitor in Obi-Wan Kenobi.  At least Disney (and her co-stars) seemed to have learned something from their failure to stand up for John Boyega when he first showed up as a black stormtrooper in The Force Awakens.  Disney failed Kelly-Marie Tran in a similar way.  Marvel has attracted much of anti-woke ire in recent years, for everything from Black Panther, to She-Hulk, The Eternals, and Ms. Marvel.  Steve Toussaint gets cast to play Corlys Velaryon–cue the anti-woke whining.  Now it’s Sir Lenny Henry’s turn, and Ismael Cruz Cordoba’s turn to contend with toxic fandom.  Toxic fandom can suspend disbelief for magic, dragons, laser swords, faster-than-light travel, and time travel–but not for brown people–human, elven, dwarven, or harfoot in this case.  Even as I write, these sad know-nothings are arguing on Twitter about “the author’s vision” with the likes of Neil Gaiman–who in addition to being a great and prolific fantasy author himself (American Gods, Anansi Boys, The Sandman, and countless others)–has such a deep knowledge of Tolkien’s work that Christopher Tolkien personally thanked him for explaining a reference his father had written years before.

Before the internet, being a black fan of science fiction and fantasy was a lonely pastime.  Depending on where and when you grew up, you might not have had many other black kids as classmates at school or friends at church to begin with.  Add to that an interest that not many other kids might have and you had to be prepared to like or love that thing on your own.  You had to cultivate an appreciation for these stories despite the absence of characters like you playing parts in them at all (except as stereotypes and/or foils for whoever the hero was).  You don’t realize that’s what you’re doing as a black fan of these genres (because you’re in middle school when this starts, or younger), you only see it in retrospect when you’re an adult.  I was most recently reminded of that mental work when I watched Lovecraft Country, and again when I rewatched the Far Beyond the Stars episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these stories impact me the way they do, both set in the 1950s United States, when black people continued to be treated as second-class citizens at best.  Decades after these stories were set, self-appointed gatekeepers are still trying to keep us out of “their” genre–despite the fact that we know and love as well and as much, if not more than they do.

When I listened to this episode of Throughline, and heard how the work of Octavia Butler impacted–and still impacts–the life of an NPR co-host (who is originally from Iran), it reminded me of how thrilled I was to read Wild Seed and know that someone who looked like me had written it.  I only watched it in syndication, but still remember how important it was to see Nichelle Nichols play Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek.  Seeing Billy Dee Williams play Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, LeVar Burton and Michael Dorn play Geordi LaForge and Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Avery Brooks play Benjamin Sisko in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine really mattered–not just to my childhood, but into the present.  Deep Space Nine in particular has yet to equaled, much less surpassed in the genre, for its positive representations of black manhood, father-son relationships, even romance between a black man and black woman who are peers (Captains Sisko and Yates).

Today, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Tananarive Due, Victor LaValle, and other black authors are putting out some of the best work on offer across the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres.  Twitter hashtags like #DemDragons allow black fans of these shows to enjoy them together in near real-time.  Facebook groups and private chats (and their moderators) do the work of keeping toxic fans away.  And even when Hollywood makes mistakes, like firing Orlando Jones from American Gods, or policing the language black writers use, we are finally getting to see ourselves more and more in the work of this genre–and the work is better for it.  Studios and fans are fighting back against bitter review bombers.  And while such defenses shouldn’t have to be made, at least they are being made.  Toxic fandom may not like us in their fictional worlds anymore than their real ones, but we aren’t going anywhere in either one.

Who Is Worthy of Forgiveness?

Plenty of people aired (and are still airing) their opinions regarding this question in the wake of President Biden’s long-anticipated decision to cancel some federal student loan debt.  But when I skip the “free at last” responses (from those grateful for the federal student loan debt relief) and dig beneath the specifics of the various responses, they are ultimately judging whether or not the recipient of the debt forgiveness is worthy of receiving it.

Quite a few of our fellow Americans believe those who are getting some (or all) of their federal student loan debt forgiveness are unworthy–undeserving.  Those responses sound a lot like “what about those who already repaid their loans?” and “it’s not fair”.  Publicly expressing my happiness for those eligible for debt cancellation on Facebook prompted 1 negative response from my friend list along exactly those lines.  Sadly and predictably, there are many Christians in that chorus, despite what we claim to believe about forgiveness–despite being undeserving–and what the Bible says about forgiveness, debt, and debtors.  We claim to believe in a Bible with multiple verses about cancellation of debts after 7 years and in a jubilee year and this is how some of us choose to respond?  It’s beyond merely sad, but a poor representation of what Christianity is supposed to stand for.

Ironically, the bulk of the opposition comes from people who very likely supported the Republican president and the Republican Congress who passed the law which made Biden’s action possible:

What really highlighted the fact that this federal student loan debt was really about the worth of the people receiving the relief (instead of the fiscal implications) is the response of critics to being called out as hypocrites by a thread from the official Twitter account of the White House:

Half a dozen Republican congressional representatives were found to have received hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars of forgiveness for Paycheck Protection Program loans. Leaving aside the absurdity of congressional representatives applying for and receiving these loans in the first place, this shabby defense really stood out:

This particular defense reminded me of Mitt Romney’s 47% insult about Obama voters when I first saw it. But after some more thought, it occurs that a better analogy for what David French is doing here is being like the older son in the story of the prodigal son. French (and at least some other self-proclaimed conservatives) see themselves as responsible, faithful, yet neglected while those receiving debt forgiveness are undeserving profligates. Here’s Ted Cruz making essentially the same argument in a far less subtle and far more deliberately insulting fashion than David French:

But when I actually looked for information regarding whether or not the Paycheck Protection Program we’re being told to view as disaster relief actually served that purpose, what I found was not very encouraging. Only 25% of the PPP loans actually protected paychecks as intended. Of the 77% of businesses which received funds, nearly half cut staff anyway. Just one investigative report by Fox43 News in Pennsylvania found numerous examples of this. Despite this (and numerous instances of PPP loan fraud, including $268 million recently recovered by the Secret Service) some 94% of PPP loans granted by the federal government have been forgiven in full.

I found this summation of the way that federal student loan forgiveness will actually work in practice particularly compelling:

And that’s before you get to student loan forgiveness programs that predate Biden’s latest action by years.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz makes a persuasive argument that this program will help the economy instead of harming it. He also turns the discussion to a much more useful place than whether or not the recipients of the forgiveness are worthy, but to whether or not it is beneficial to the country at large. One of the online friends I discussed the loan forgiveness plan with had the following thoughts on it:

I’ve noticed that American discourse tends to frame universities as a place that hands out goodies individuals (access to jobs and prestige) vs a place that expands the human capital of the nation. One way to look at Biden’s plan is it releases a lot of highly educated people to do more risk taking things like open businesses and more altruistic things like work for non-profits. It’s not just good for those people but possibly everybody else in society.

This comment gets at the heart of a very particular way in which too many of today’s political leaders fall short when compared to their predecessors. Instead of elected officials (particularly those in the GOP) using their positions to govern in a way that benefits as many people in their particular sphere of responsibility as possible, many choose instead to validate and amplify a false individualism. They deliberately heighten the “us vs them” dynamic that already exists in the country to retain their own power, defining more and more Americans (those eligible for student loan forgiveness in this case) as an unworthy “them”. However imperfect Biden’s debt forgiveness plan is, it at least attempts to do something for the benefit of a broad set of Americans who can use the help.

An Ironic Independence Day

In two days, this country celebrates 246 years since the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, after a Supreme Court term that has seen the Supreme Court overturn Roe v Wade and Casey v Planned Parenthood, expand qualified immunity for police officers, weaken enforcement of Miranda rights, issue multiple rulings undermining the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, issue multiple rulings undermining tribal sovereignty, and issue a ruling undermining the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions and fight global warming. The featured image for this post, which I took during a walking tour of Old Philadelphia on June 19th (Juneteenth) after Alito’s draft of the Dobbs decision but before the final issuance on June 24th, is an unfortunately timely encapsulation of the contradiction between America’s founding documents and ideals and the reality of how the failures to live up to them played out in the lives of everyone else. Our guide, a Philadelphia public school history teacher, did not hesitate to point out the contradictions here or at any other point in his tour.

During this time in history, and the period just after from which Alito drew his arbitrary rationale, women in general had few rights the US government was bound to respect and black men and women had none. As has been written far more eloquently by Adam Serwer among others, it seems that the 19th century is the era to which Alito would have us return. Having heard and read the parallels drawn between the Texas Heartbeat Act and fugitive slave laws, I found it very educational to visit the Independence National Historical Park (home of the so-called Liberty Bell) and read exhibits describing the impact of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act on black people.

A portion of the Fugitive Slave Acts exhibit at Independence National Historical Park

Before seeing this exhibit, I wasn’t aware of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 which preceded the 1850 law. Fugitive slave laws weren’t just a feature of the 13 colonies prior to independence, the US Constitution itself contains a fugitive slave clause added at the behest of southern politicians. Whether traveling for freedom from enslavement or to a state where abortion remains legal, it is quite disturbing to be able to draw any parallel between a woman’s legal status in 1851 and her status in 2022. It simply should not be the case that my daughter should grow up in a modern democracy with fewer rights than my wife did when it comes to her body. In the wake of the Dobbs decision, nightmarish stories such as this are already coming out:

The very idea of a rape victim being this young is horrific enough. But the state compelling a child to bring another child into the world only compounds the horror–especially if whoever committed this crime was a family member.

Autonomy is one of a number of synonyms for independence. The overturning of the Roe and Casey decisions has certainly taken that autonomy away from women and girls in states with so-called trigger laws. It appears the losses of autonomy won’t stop there however, regardless of the words of Justice Kavanaugh’s cynical concurrence with the Dobbs decision. Beyond the Supreme Court’s decision to undermine tribal sovereignty, a decision so egregious that even Neil Gorsuch dissented from it, the political right in this country intends to ban abortion nationwide if they gain sufficient power. Justice Thomas’ concurrence with the Alito-authored opinion puts the rights granted by decisions like Griswold v Connecticut, Lawrence v Texas, and Obergefell v Hodges (but not Loving v Virginia, despite it having the same rationale) in the crosshairs for repeal.

At the same time the Supreme Court has seen fit to seize autonomy from women and marginalized groups with multiple decisions in the recent term, it has granted increasing autonomy to religious institutions–especially Christian ones–under a questionable interpretation of religious freedom. The court’s ruling in Carson v Makin compels states to fund private religious schools. In Kennedy v Bremerton School District, a ruling which granted a right to Christian prayer led by a state employee, the majority’s stated grounds for doing so were so obviously false that Justice Sotomayor was able to include photographic evidence in her dissent of the coach in question conducting what was clearly not private, individual prayer.

A little over a year ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Fulton v City of Philadelphia that despite being funded by taxpayers and acting as an agent of the government, a Catholic foster agency could use religious grounds to discriminate against LGBTQ couples in adoption. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court also used religious freedom as the rationale to exempt churches from government rules broadly applied to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (despite well-documented evidence that church gatherings both domestically and internationally had proven to be superspreader events in the early days of the pandemic). The unwillingness of some of my fellow believers to be part of slowing and stopping a pandemic that killed 1 million of our fellow Americans and over 6 million worldwide has been a frankly depressing thing to see. Regular church attendance has been part of my life for decades, the point of origin of many of my longest lasting friendships, and where I met my wife. Church had been a regular part of our children’s lives as well until the pandemic hit, and for the better part of two years we’ve forgone in-person church attendance in hopes of helping bring the pandemic to an end. Looking to the interests of others instead of ourselves is just one of many lessons of Philippians 2 that the American church has not done a good job of exemplifying of late.

The willingness of my fellow Christians to abuse the power of the state and the judiciary to impose their particular interpretation of the Bible on those who don’t share that interpretation (or share their faith at all) does not merely bode ill for both the church and the state, but is contrary to the free will we believe God grants to accept or reject salvation. Having seen not just the Supreme Court, but conservative politicians so blithely dismiss the rights of those who do not share their beliefs or worldview, it is not difficult to imagine a future that is as bad as our past when it comes to religious pluralism. My own home state of Maryland, originally intended as a refuge for Catholics (though few actual Catholics were part of its founding), ultimately brought up the rear in this respect for the entire country at the time.

An exhibit from the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History

The Declaration of Independence may be 246 years old soon, but true democracy in this country is much younger. The response of this country to both 9/11 and 1/6 demonstrate that the experiment is far more fragile than many Americans realized. We are in grave danger of becoming far more a cautionary tale than an example to be emulated.

What Do Black Americans Think About Roe v. Wade—and Why

What Do Black Americans Think About Roe v. Wade—and Why

Another excellent piece by Dr. Ted Johnson that makes sense of the disconnect between the voting patterns of black Americans and their personal views.  Johnson touches only briefly on the ways in which black distrust of medical and governmental institutions is informed by a long history of abuses visited upon black people by those same institutions.  It’s bad enough that maternal mortality in the United States is among the worst in the developed world.  The rate of maternal mortality in the US for black women is even worse.  The end of Roe v. Wade will certainly reduce the availability of safe, legal abortion care and will disproportionately impact poor women, black women, and other women of color.

Our Dishonest Discourse About “The Hard R”

A controversy that began with this open letter asking Spotify to “take action against the mass-misinformation events which continue to occur on its platform” (with regards to COVID-19 and vaccines) and musicians including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell pulling their music from the platform took an interesting turn when India.Arie shared a supercut of Rogan not just using “the hard r”, but calling black people apes in talking about why she was pulling her music from Spotify. Joe Rogan has since apologized, and Spotify removed 70 podcast episodes where he used the slur.

It is possible, if not highly likely that I am being overly cynical regarding the sincerity of Rogan’s apology. My cynicism is animated at least in part by how often mea culpas for this sort of thing include phrases similar to this:
“It’s a video that’s made of clips taken out of context of me of 12 years of conversations on my podcast. It’s all smushed together and it looks f—— horrible, even to me”

and this:
“I never used it to be racist.”

and especially this:
“I do hope that this can be a teachable moment.”

This last quote in particular is one that provides an opportunity to pivot to academic usage of “the hard r”. Randall Kennedy argued last year in favor of what might be called a pedagogical exception for the word to be used in full for teaching purposes. Included in his argument however, are skepticism of some of the claims of hurt by students hearing the word used. Further, he argues that his race should not give him more leeway to use the n-word than his white colleagues. Dr. John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics, has written about the n-word on multiple occasions prior to the controversy over Rogan’s usage of it. Beyond pedagogy (in use) or virtue-signaling (in non-use), the question not being asked or adequately answered is why this debate only seems to persist around the use of a slur that only applies to black people (though there is a modifier for it that applies to Middle Eastern people that I first heard in the movie The Siege)?

This quote by James Baldwin poses and answers that question more eloquently and bluntly:
“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it is necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place, because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.”

A poem written in 1912 and attributed to H.P. Lovecraft, provides another answer to where the necessity for the word (and the idea) comes from:
“When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shap’d at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next design’d;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Fill’d it with vice, and call’d the thing a NIGGER.”

In Lovecraft’s conception (and almost certainly in the conception of others who subscribed to the eugenics movement as he did), black people were not fully human. We were beasts to be feared, objects of and/or causes of lust, purveyors of vices, corrupters of innocence–but not human beings like everyone else. While Lovecraft is long since dead, the sentiments behind his poetically-expressed contempt for black folks live on in others–not just in the body politic, but in some of its leaders as well. This is why the governor of an entire state can say publicly that Joe Rogan should not have apologized (for using the n-word). I believe this to be at the heart of why the debate over the word continues.

To borrow from James Baldwin again, he expresses the sentiment well regarding how American society in his time used and viewed black people:
“That in a way black men were very useful for the American. Because, in a country so absolutely undefined – so amorphous – where there were no limits – no height really and no depth – there was one thing of which one could be certain. One knew where one was, by knowing where the Negro was. You knew that you were not on the bottom because the Negro was there.”
Though decades have passed since Baldwin spoke these words, it seems that America has yet to outgrow its need for black people to define where the bottom of society is, and the casual (if not unapologetic) usage of the n-word is just one manifestation of that broader sentiment. I maintain no illusions that this affliction is unique to the political right, or to libertarian ideology. Those on the political left are no shrinking violets when it comes to using “the hard r”.

It is very telling that many of the same people who rush to defend voices of dissent in other contexts lack the same concern when it comes to black people objecting to the use of a slur targeting them. The social norms against using slurs and stereotypes which attack Jews, or Italians, or the Irish, or Hispanics, or Asian people remain intact. You rarely (if ever) see people from those communities presuming to give out metaphorical hall passes for others to use slurs against them without consequences. Because black people are still not seen or treated as full citizens of this country, our opinions on “the contours of acceptable speech” lack the same weight as those of others. Too many people in this country apparently still prefer an older version of it where slurs against black people could be said without consequence. But that isn’t a version of America we’re returning to.

Social “Firsts” and the Supreme Court

A few days ago, Stephen Breyer announced his retirement from the Supreme Court of the United States at the end of the current term.  Because Joe Biden pledged to nominate a black woman to the nation’s highest court if he became president, he now has an opportunity to make good on that pledge.  Predictably, we began to hear and see a lot of high-minded (and hypocritical) commentary about how Biden should be choosing the “most-qualified” justice–regardless of their skin color.  Our attention span as a country is so short, we’ve already forgotten that Trump’s rise to the presidency was powered at least in part by publicizing a Federalist Society-authored list of high court nominees he would choose from if the opportunity presented itself.  We’ve already forgotten that Ronald Reagan promised to name a woman to the Supreme Court.

But the history of using the Supreme Court to accomplish social firsts stretches back much further than we might suppose from current commentary.  This thread by David Frum takes us all the way back to 1887, when President Grover Cleveland appointed Lucius Quintus Lamar to the high court in a bid to gain the support of conservative white southern Democrats for re-election.  Read Frum’s thread in full to get a complete sense of how unrepentant a Confederate Mr. Lamar was.  This dubious social first—the appointment of a traitor to the Union to nation’s highest court–would prove very important for a reason not fully touched on at all in Mr. Frum’s thread.  1887 marked the year the US federal government fully abandoned Reconstruction–and the nation’s black citizens to decades of voter disenfranchisement, terrorism, property theft, murder, and Jim Crow laws.

No discussion of the Supreme Court and social firsts would be complete without mentioning Maryland’s own Thurgood Marshall.  He earned his undergraduate and law degrees from 2 HBCUs (graduating 1st in his class from Howard Law because the University of Maryland School of Law was still segregated).  Out of 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court, Marshall won 29, losing just 3.  He served as a federal appeals court judge for the second circuit for a number of years prior to becoming the nation’s first black solicitor general.  Some months of his tenure as an appeals court judge were served as a recess appointment due to certain southern senators holding up his official appointment, including the same segregationist James Eastland that Joe Biden recalled a civil relationship with.  He would win 14 cases on behalf of the government in that role, losing just 5.  Among his peers both at the time and since, there may not be a more successful justice at winning arguments before the Supreme Court prior to becoming a member of it.

Discussing the legal and rhetorical brilliance of Thurgood Marshall requires discussion of his successor.  Few nominations to the high court are a better demonstration of the hypocrisy of many of today’s conservatives regarding “qualifications” (including those who oppose Trump) than the absence of such concerns being raised when Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court.  In contrast to the years served as an appellate court judge and solicitor general by Marshall, Thomas was an appellate judge for the DC circuit for just 16 months.  Thomas graduated in the middle of his law school class at Yale in contrast to Marshall’s 1st in class at Howard.  The White House and Senate Republicans apparently pressured the American Bar Association (ABA) to give Thomas a qualified rating even while attempting to discredit the ABA as partisan–and this is before Anita Hill’s interview with the FBI was leaked to the press and led to the re-opening of Thomas’ confirmation hearings.  The same GOP that loves to quote that one line from that one speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could not have cared less about “the content of [Thomas’] character”.  They cared that he was both conservative and black.  The way the Senate treated Anita Hill during those re-opened confirmation hearings would in retrospect be a preview of the treatment awaiting future black women appointees to federal roles.

How Thomas fared during his confirmation hearings almost certainly animated the treatment of Lani Guinier after her nomination to become assistant attorney general for civil rights by Republicans.  Her treatment by them, conservative media, and by the White House who nominated her was utterly shameful.  Conservatives lied about her positions.  The same Joe Biden who contributed to the poor treatment that Anita Hill received before the Senate Judiciary Committee he chaired 2 years earlier, reported “grew lukewarm about Guinier”.  President Clinton would ultimately withdraw the nomination in the face of lies and distortions about her writings.  His administration had apparently instructed her not to make any public statements about until after he’d already decided to withdraw her nomination, enabling her opponents to smear her in the press and her “allies” to get cold feet about supporting her.  Particularly now as a wave of anti-CRT legislation, book bans, and attacks on affirmative action gain traction around the country (especially in light of Guinier’s recent death), it is important to remember that Guinier only got to make her case to the public in one interview with Ted Koppel–and the public received her views well.  She never got the Senate hearing that even Robert Bork got for his extreme views because Bill Clinton–her friend from Yale Law School–pulled her nomination instead.

Not even two weeks have passed since the annual hypocrisy-fest that is MLK Day, and a significant majority of Americans surveyed seem to have decided once again that black women should wait for what should be theirs.

The attacks on the first black woman Supreme Court nominee will be fierce (if Biden follows through on his commitment).

When it comes to the Supreme Court and credentialism however, perhaps the best example of the double standard that seems to exist for women generally is the brief nomination of Harriet Miers.  Conservatives in particular dragged this woman for her lack of elite education (she earned degrees in mathematics and law at Southern Methodist University).  Only in looking back did I learn that Harry Reid (Senate minority leader at the time) actually recommended Miers as the successor to O’Connor, and that other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee hoped to see nominees from outside the federal appellate court system.  Perhaps because Reid earned his law degree in George Washington University’s part-time program, he didn’t put as much stock in an Ivy League pedigree as he did in bringing the perspective of an experienced practicing lawyer to the Supreme Court.  Potential conflict of interest concerns raised by Miers’ relationship with President Bush and his staff might ultimately have sunk her nomination anyway had she not withdrawn it.  By contrast, Clarence Thomas has ruled in numerous cases where he had clear conflicts of interest with little or no criticism from his supporters on the political right.

Considering the sorts of cases which will soon come before the Supreme Court, we should remember that as an institution it has been used as often as a tool to remove and restrict rights as it has to grant them (if not more so).  The aforementioned appointment of Lucius Lamar is not the only time that the Supreme Court has been used to undermine full citizenship for black people in the United States.  Before William Rehnquist became associate justice (nominated by Nixon), then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (nominated by Reagan), he was a “poll watcher” in Arizona under the auspices of Operation Eagle Eye, a nationwide campaign by the Republican National Committee to suppress black votes.  This 2021 piece by Charles Pierce makes a convincing argument Rehnquist tried to pass off his personal opposition to the ultimate outcome of Brown v Board of Education as that of the justice he clerked for (Robert Jackson, Jr).  In this memo, he defended Plessy v Ferguson as good law, and likely lied about it in both of his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.  From the time he became one of Rehnquist’s law clerks, to replacing him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts has had the Voting Rights Act in his sights as a law to be weakened (if not destroyed).

Contrary to the polls (and numerous previous demonstrations of an utter lack of spine), Lindsey Graham has emerged as a supporter of the idea of a black woman nominee to the Supreme Court.  Current US District Court judge J. Michelle Childs of South Carolina being a possible nominee certainly doesn’t hurt.  If the current shortlist is any indication, any of the black women Biden selects from it will be just as qualified–and likely more so–than any of their colleagues at the time of their selection.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Biden chose Breyer’s former clerk (Ketanji Brown Jackson) to succeed him.  But as a state university graduate myself, part of me hopes that someone with at least one degree from outside the Ivy League gets selected.

Two Tales of Tech Recruiting

In an industry that has had (and continues to have) persistent problems when it comes to how it hires and treats black people within its ranks, few things are worse than a black woman announcing on social media that she short-changed a candidate of $45,000 because “I personally don’t have the bandwidth to give lessons on salary negotiation”.

I’ve worked with both contract recruiters and full-time recruiters in 10 years as a manager staffing software engineering positions on multiple teams and none of them low-balled any candidate I chose to extend an offer because I intended to keep those folks for as long as I could. The alternative–losing good people to companies that can poach them simply by offering more money–meant not just losing their skills, and having fewer people to divide the same amount of work between, but my employer incurring costs trying to backfill the open position. Especially in a market where the competition for talented people is more and more challenging, the last way any company should start a relationship with a new employee is by undervaluing them from the moment they join.

A position I only filled a couple of weeks ago had been open for two solid months before that. Rather than risk losing a good candidate over $10,000, I requested an exception to offer a larger signing bonus. With the exception granted, we made a best and final offer that he accepted. The onboarding process is going smoothly, and since we’re paying him what he’s actually worth based on the geography we’re in and what our competitors are offering, he will be harder to poach with just money.

Fortunately, there are good examples of recruiters doing well by the people they recruit.

Unlike the first Johnson, this one probably built a significant amount of goodwill and trust–not just between herself and the candidate, but between the candidate and the company she will be working for. In an industry where software engineers are encouraged to switch jobs every couple of years, this company has a good chance of growing this junior software engineer into a senior software engineer–perhaps even a engineering leader–because a recruiter put their best foot forward.

As is sometimes the case on Twitter in cases like this, someone tagged the company Mercedes S. Johnson is recruiting on behalf of–and someone responded requesting a DM with more information. The tweet that actually led me to this whole story was about doxxing and how Ms. Johnson shouldn’t lose her job over the post. I’ve written about at-will employment and cancel culture before, and people have definitely lost their jobs for less than what this woman bragged on Twitter about doing. As of this writing, she was still defending her action.

If you work in tech recruiting and the opportunity presents itself, choose to be a Briana instead of a Mercedes. Both the companies you hire for and the candidates you recruit for them will thank you.

MLK Day 2022

The third Monday in January is here, and once again people who oppose everything Dr. King stood for are abusing the one line they know from the I Have a Dream Speech (because they don’t know any others) for their own political ends.  This annual whitewashing of King’s legacy only succeeds to the degree it has because the people doing the whitewashing don’t dare venture beyond the confines of that line in that speech because too much of what he written stands in direct opposition to their political aims.  This applies not just to the secular, but to the religious as well.

One of my cousins read his children Letter from Birmingham Jail yesterday.  This letter is where we can find the phrase “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”    This letter is also where we can find this phrase: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider“.  You can be certain that none of the hypocrites quoting King today will quote that.  Decades after this letter was written, we’ve seen how this country continues to treat and talk about certain immigrants.  Decades after this letter was written, the segregation and police brutality of which King wrote in 1963 are still problems in this country today.  Actually reading his letter reveals that direct action was chosen as a last resort, only after the local leaders they negotiated with broke their promises.

This passage from the letter is sadly relevant once again in the wake of GOP measures to make it harder for those in the electorate who oppose their program to cast votes:

An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because it did not have the unhampered right to vote. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up the segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout the state of Alabama all types of conniving methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties without a single Negro registered to vote, despite the fact that the Negroes constitute a majority of the population. Can any law set up in such a state be considered democratically structured?

When you read the letter written by eight Alabama clergyman that King was responding to, the motivation for this paragraph becomes crystal-clear:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

One key insight among many in King’s five-and-a-half page letter is the different ways in which the black community responded to the stubborn persistence of Jim Crow & segregation: adjusting to it, being desensitized to the problems of those black less secure economically and academically than themselves, or bitterness.   His warnings about what could happen if the nonviolent efforts for justice he supported were rejected would unfortunately become true–not just in the immediate wake of his assassination five years after this letter, but many times in the wake of police violence resulting in the death of someone in their custody (and/or acquittals as the result of the rare court trials officers faced for such violence).

King’s decades-old criticism of the contemporary Christian church in the America of his day should shame today’s Christian church:

The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.

The hypocrites referencing King on this day are doing things like invoking his name in support of “All Lives Matter”, or to support their bans on Critical Race Theory (which could pretty easily prevent children in our public schools from actually learning anything about King’s letter).  Some More News has a hilarious, profane, and correct take on the annual whitewashing of King’s legacy.

1/6 and 9/11

Absent from much of the written commentary I’ve read about the insurrection at the US Capitol last year has been any mention of how much the nation’s response to the 9/11 attacks helped to pave the way to where we are now.  A friend sent me this piece by a Canadian professor which serves as a good example of what I mean.

Though he correctly identifies specific individuals and economic forces going back 40 years that transferred wealth upward even as they directed discontent (if not rage) about this state of affairs against poor and minority populations at home and “foreign aid” abroad, there is not a single mention of the nation’s response to the 9/11 attacks.  The nation’s lurch toward authoritarianism in the wake of those attacks was bipartisan.  Just a single congresswoman, Barbara Lee of California, voted against the open-ended Authorization for Use of United States Armed Forces which would later be used to invade Iraq on pretexts that would prove false.  Large bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate drafted and approved the Patriot Act for George W. Bush to sign into law.  It authorized the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.  George W. Bush’s administration engaged in warrantless surveillance of millions of Americans, extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects, and torture of those same suspects.  Enemy combatant status was created out of thin air, as were the military tribunals in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba–all to deny people the rights they should have had under our Constitution.  The NYPD illegally surveilled Muslims both inside and outside New York City for over a decade after the attacks.  The LAPD tried and failed to create a similar surveillance program in 2007.

Thomas Homer-Dixon’s piece mentions Christians just twice, once as fertile soil for the seeds of white nationalist great replacement theory to take root and flourish, and again as a group that would be super-empowered in a second Trump administration.  He projects a rise in violence by vigilante, paramilitary groups in the same sentence, though the use of Christian symbols and rhetoric by such groups has a history stretching back well over a century in the US.  The involvement of conservative Christian groups in the insurrection is much less-surprising however when you look back at their response to 9/11.  When surveyed in 2009 by the Pew Research Center, a majority of white evangelical Protestants said that torture against terrorism suspects could sometimes or often be justified.  This belief was held both by majorities of Christians who attended church a few times a year or monthly, and those who attended church weekly–or more often.  Years after the original survey, you could even find a piece like this one in The Federalist quoting Bible passages and Thomas Aquinas to argue that Christians can support torture.

Not mentioned at all in the Homer-Dixon piece–significant increases in anti-Muslim sentiment in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  The first murder victim of an anti-Muslim hate crime turned out to be a naturalized American citizen, Balbir Singh Sodhi. The turban he wore in adherence to the Sikh faith was sufficient cause for a bigot to murder him.  Anti-Muslim sentiment would later take the form of the birther conspiracy, for whom Donald Trump would become the most powerful cheerleader.  We have seen other anti-Muslim murders due to the ignorance of bigots (in Olathe, Kansas) as well as violent assaults. We’ve also seen the political right demagogue Park51 into the “Ground Zero mosque”.  That same year (2010) saw the introduction of anti-Sharia bills in a significant majority of our 50 states.  The number of conservative professed Christians who believed (and perhaps still believe) the birther conspiracy is in retrospect perhaps one explanation for the ease with which the QAnon conspiracy spread within the same community.  But looking back a bit further, that community’s response to 9/11 might have revealed a predisposition to conspiracy theories more generally.  In 2006, a division of the denomination publishers for the Presbyterian Church published a 9/11 conspiracy book.

There will certainly be more commentary about January 6th as this year progresses–particularly as more insurrectionists plead guilty to the crimes with which they’re charged or (finally) face trial.  But the absence of a full reckoning with how this country’s responses to 9/11 helped pave the way for 1/6 will prevent us from fully understanding that event–and might enable the next insurrection to succeed.

Is a College Degree Worth It?

Public discourse has turned (again) to the question of whether or not a college degree is “worth it”. I say again because in the tech industry, this question has been asked about computer science (CS) degrees over a decade ago. I was prompted to revisit this blog post from over 14(!) years ago by Scott Hanselman’s response to a TikTok video saying a computer science degree is never worth it:

 

Back in 2007, I was managing a team which consisted mostly of what Tarver calls “street programmers”.   In that particular experience, Tarver was wrong about street programmers being superior to formally-trained CS graduates.  The members of my staff who consistently turned out the highest-quality code (which not coincidentally was also the best-tested and the least likely to require re-work) all had CS degrees.  In my next role, one of my colleagues was an Air Force veteran who was self-taught in software engineering.  He was one of the most skilled engineers I’ve worked with in my entire career, and taught me a ton about the practice of continuous integration over a decade ago that I still use in my work today.  

In re-reading Tarver’s post, even he concedes that the combination of hands-on programming practice and a strong grasp of theory creates a superior programmer when compared to one trained only in university or only on-the-job.  The other thing which struck me as odd in retrospect was the lack of any mention of summer internships.  Back in the early-to-mid 90s when I was earning my own computer science degree, it was definitely the expectation that CS majors would complete at least one summer internship before they graduated so they had at least a little experience with programming outside of coursework requirements.  I found an on-campus job where I worked during the semester which at least had tasks that I could automate with scripts, as well as database work.  My summer internship with The Washington Post as a tech intern turned into a part-time job my last semester of undergrad and a full-time job offer at the end of the year.  So instead of a declarative statement such as “college is never worth it” or “college is always worth it”, a better answer to the question is more like “it depends”.

Quite a lot has changed since 2007 when it comes to the variety of ways available to learn about programming.  There are lots of programmer bootcamps now.  My current employer partners with one to train college graduates with degrees in fields other than computer science for entry-level software engineering roles with us.  Beyond instructor-led bootcamps, there are a wealth of online education options both free and paid.  Having worked with engineers who came into the field via the bootcamp route at two different companies now, I’ve seen enough inconsistency in the readiness of bootcamp graduates for professional work that most require more oversight and supervision at entry-level positions than graduates from computer science programs.

At least some of the discussion about the worth of college degrees (in CS or many other fields) is a function of tuition continuing to increase at rates triple that of inflation (and have been doing so for decades).  The total amount my parents spent on in-state tuition for my CS degree in the 90s might not even cover 2 years at the same school today.  A year of tuition at my 1st-choice school today, Carnegie-Mellon University costs at least triple the $24,000 they charged in 1992.  It might be possible to rationalize paying high tuition for a STEM degree with high long-term earning potential, but those high tuition rates apply regardless of major.

Another issue that discussions of whether or not college degrees are “worth it” consistently misses is how open different fields and companies within those fields are to hiring people without formal training.  Particularly in tech, that openness exists for white men in a way that it definitely does not for people of color.   Shawn Wildermuth’s documentary Hello World gets deep into why women and minorities tend not to pursue careers in software development and even with the credential of a college degree and experience, it can be very challenging to sustain a tech career–much less advance–if you don’t look like the people who make hiring and promotion decisions.

Count me in the camp of those who believe a CS degree is worth it.  I wouldn’t have the tech career I have today without it.