What the End of Affirmative Action in Higher Education Means (and Doesn’t)

Michael Harriot clarifying what the Supreme Court actually struck down with today’s ruling against Harvard and the University of North Carolina

Even though I believed affirmative action would die at the hands of the conservative majority, it still stings to see that belief confirmed. There are plenty of professional writers you can read that have already dissected the various and sundry contradictions, dishonesties, and foolishness in the text of the majority ruling. This piece is primarily about what is likely to happen in the aftermath of the ruling.

The end of affirmative action will require every public and private university in the United States to eliminate race as a factor in their admissions decisions (if they haven’t already done so). In Texas, for example, that means UT-Austin will no longer be able to factor race into such decisions, and neither will private universities like Rice and SMU. However, as Michael Harriot succinctly put it, the end of affirmative action does not mean the end of admission preferences for those whose beneficiaries are primarily white (and/or) wealthy. At elite schools that use legacy admissions, those students will still be accepted at rates from 11% to 30% (far higher than non-legacies). Interestingly enough, some of those advocating for an end to legacy admissions can be found on the campuses that use them.

The end of affirmative action will not mean the end of black people being scapegoated by non-black people for being denied admission to elite universities. When I researched the 6 elite colleges Jon Wang blamed affirmative action for keeping him out of, even after you exclude U.C. Berkeley and CalTech (because California banned affirmative action in higher education via Prop 209 in 1996), the percentage of the undergraduate student body that is Asian-American at the remaining four schools are as follows: MIT (33.9%), Princeton (25%), Harvard (27.9%), Carnegie-Mellon University (over 20%). The percentage of the undergraduate student body that is black at those same schools: MIT (7%), Princeton (9%), Harvard (15.2%), Carnegie-Mellon University (3%). Years before this latest ruling, Abigail Fisher blamed affirmative action for the University of Texas at Austin denying her admission, even though 168 black and Latino students with grades as or better than Fisher’s were also rejected for admission.

A hopelessly naive statement about the future of civil rights

A friend forwarded me the tweet above. I’ve reproduced my response to it below:

We aren’t “moving onto the content of our character” portion of civil rights. Barack and Michelle Obama are the most elite couple ever to grace the halls of the White House regardless of race. Christians who actually went to church for non-political reasons. And for the entirety of their 8 years [in the White House] the political right in this country talked about them like dogs. And that’s before you get to the wealthy mediocrity this country elected as a backlash to his presidency. The idea that affirmative action–a policy to which this country’s commitment was uneven at best–should have a time limit of mere decades as a corrective to centuries of chattel slavery and Jim Crow (while legacy admissions continue ad infinitum to perpetuate advantage for wealthy and/or well-connected and mostly white mediocrities who would otherwise be shut out of elite education) has nothing to do with “meritocracy” and everything to do with anti-blackness.

One of my own angry DMs

Contrary to the naive notions of those who have consistently opposed affirmative action—including and especially opposition from certain black conservatives—the end of affirmative action in higher education will not end questions about whether a black person in any elite context has earned their place. Opposition to affirmative action is a very specific, very pernicious form of anti-blackness which rests on two (false) propositions: (1) the number of black people at elite institutions is “unnaturally high”, and (2) native-born black Americans in particular are somehow deficient, even relative to black immigrants. Too many in this country are vested in the notion that no elite institution can be truly meritocratic if too many black people are a part of it. So despite the fact that many in elite spheres are there because of the connections and/or wealth of their parents (rather than their own intellectual or artistic prowess), their presence in the elite is never challenged.

The end of affirmative action will not increase the percentage of Asian-American students accepted to elite universities much–if at all. People of Asian descent are a little over 7% of the U.S. population but are already the largest minority population at elite institutions beyond the half-dozen already named earlier, at three to six times higher a percentage on these campuses than in the general population (over 40% at CalTech for example). Regardless of how badly people want to believe that admission to elite institutions of higher education will somehow be “fairer” in the absence of affirmative action, the reality of college admissions is a far more opaque process. Each incoming class is curated, and the criteria (and how much weight each input to the admissions process is given) are controlled by the institutions–not the applicants. Low admission rates and the relatively small sizes of each class are part of the institutional strategy for maintaining their elite reputations. Legacy admissions almost certainly contribute to the maintenance and growth of the sizable endowments these institutions have. In the years to come, we will see just how few native-born black Americans actually benefited from affirmative action intended for them.

Social media is filled with assertions that elite universities will be able to use socioeconomic status as a proxy for race and still achieve their diversity goals. But this article in the Wall Street Journal reviews data from 8 states in addition to California who banned race-conscious admissions to their higher education institutions and found that there are consistently fewer black, Hispanic, and Native American students despite all the additional efforts the schools put toward achieving their diversity goals through other means. The end of affirmative action will therefore mean far fewer black students (and brown students) at elite higher education institutions. The notable exception to this (which highlights the way in which the Roberts court lacks the courage of its convictions) is military service academies.

Justice Sotomayor calls out Chief Justice Roberts’ hypocrisy in allowing military service academies to continue using affirmative action but not religious institutions

It was cowardly enough for Chief Justice Roberts to put the exception in a footnote. But even had he been bold enough to put the exception in the main body of the majority opinion, his message to black Americans is clear: you do not belong in the elite institutions of civilian life, but you are welcome to risk life and limb in the furtherance of this nation’s military goals.

Finally (for now), the end of affirmative action is far from the end of anti-black rulings from this court. Affirmative action in employment will almost certainly be the next thing to be ruled unconstitutional. Nor do I believe the court to be finished diminishing the voting rights of this country’s black citizens (despite recent rulings preserving what remains of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act).

Memorial Days, Past and Present

According to this article by Dave Roos, the earliest Memorial Day commemoration took place May 1, 1865. Formerly enslaved people and white missionaries staged a parade around the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, South Carolina, which during the war had been pressed into service as a prisoner-of-war camp for Union soldiers. After the mayor of Charleston surrendered on February 18, 1865 and Confederate troops left the city, newly-freed people exhumed over 260 Union soldiers from a mass grave behind the racetrack’s grandstand and gave them proper burials in a new cemetery. Exhuming and properly burying so many bodies took two weeks.

Like too many stories of the African-American experience of this country, it could have remained in the realm of solely oral tradition (if not lost entirely). But a Union veteran’s written remembrance and the persistence searching of historian David Blight (among others) led to a news account of the event in The New York Tribune (founded by Horace Greeley) and another in the Charleston Courier, brought this origin story of Memorial Day into the light.

Memorial Day 2023, the remembrances of American military veterans who have died will include those killed in action as part of Ukraine’s foreign legion.  Malcolm Nance, a U.S. Navy veteran intelligence officer and commentator for MSNBC is perhaps the highest-profile of these volunteers, having joined the legion after his contract with MSNBC expired. He (and others) have done this as private citizens, despite repeated warnings not to do so from the Biden administration. In explaining his reasons for volunteering, Nance referenced the story of Eugene Bullard, one of a small handful of black pilots during World War I, and the only one who fought on behalf of France.

I’m especially struck by the story of Cooper T. Andrews, a retired Marine Corps sergeant who reported died last month at age 26 in a mortar attack while helping to evacuate people from Bahkmut, Ukraine (which recently fell to the mercenaries of Wagner Group). Andrews grew up around Cleveland, Ohio and according to his mother his passion for social justice was fueled at least in part by Tamir Rice’s death at the hands of police in 2014. Also according to his mother, his experiences with his Ukrainian unit were better than those during his service in the Marine Corps, where he experienced racism from his fellow Marines. This in particular reminded me of what I’ve read in history about the Harlem Hellfighters, who fought under French command during World War I. As of this writing, Willow Andrews (the mother of Cooper) is still fighting to have her son’s remains returned to the U.S. for burial, having struggled to do so via the U.S. State Department.

It saddens me that even today it can still be the case sometimes that an African-American finds more kinship and common ground abroad with the fighting men of those countries than in the country of their birth and citizenship. 

A Nation Without Mercy

Yesterday, Daniel Penny was charged with second-degree manslaughter for the death of Jordan Neely from his chokehold. In response, Florida governor and presumed presidential candidate Ron DeSantis tweeted the following:

The anti-Semitic dog whistle is bad enough, but DeSantis’ branding of Penny as a Good Samaritan is equally troubling to me. DeSantis has plenty of company in this opinion, including the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, and the congressional representative of Texas’ 38th district:

I presumed this branding to be an egregious perversion of the meaning of the parable itself, but found it to be even worse than I recalled when I went back to read the parable in its full context. I reproduce it below (with my own emphases):

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25-37, New International Version

It is easy to forget that the original context in which Jesus told this parable was in response to the question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is this that should be, but too often is not, the animating principle of those of us who call ourselves Christians. The expert in the law quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 when Jesus asks him what is written in the Law. I highlight verses 29, 36, and 37, because it is how many of those in social media have answered the question “who is my neighbor?” that reveal us to be a nation without mercy.

As we observed last week (and unfortunately continue to observe even now), the prevailing sentiment of too many on social media (and in the nation at large) regarding Jordan Neely can be summed up as “he had to die, just in case”. Within hours of his death on the floor of the F train, the media made sure we knew about Neely’s mental illness, his long arrest record, previous violent assaults, even one of his public anti-LGBT outbursts. This latest impromptu obituary of a black man after a violent death had the same effect of those written before–to tell the public that the dead man deserved his fate.

The priest and the Levite in the parable are understood to be fellow Israelites–who nevertheless left their countryman in the road to die. The Samaritan by contrast, despite being someone for whom Israelites had such contempt they would not travel through Samaria or associate with them in any way, had mercy on the man. So if there is any parallel to be drawn between the parable of the Good Samaritan, and what happened on the train it is this: we are the priest and the Levite. By “we” I don’t just mean the people on the train, I mean all of us. A journalist named Issac Bailey has written this sentiment far more eloquently than I have, despite having treated a homeless man in New York City with far more humanity far more recently than I have in the place I call home. My days as a soup kitchen volunteer, feeding the poor and the homeless in the greater Washington area are years behind me. Far more recently I’ve stared past them, pretended they weren’t there, anything and everything other than actually trying to help them.

Beyond the immediate moment, we haven’t pushed back against the active and ongoing dehumanization and criminalization of the poor and mentally-ill. Both the rhetoric and the legislation of those we put and keep in power are an unfortunate reflection of our national contempt for those Jesus called “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” in yet another parable, that of the sheep and the goats. That parable too, like that of the Good Samaritan is really about eternal life and how our earthly deeds reflect whether or not we love God, and our neighbor as ourselves.

Murder on the F Train: Vigilantism is America’s New Normal

On May 1, 2023, Jordan Neely breathed his last breath on the floor of the F train after another passenger, Daniel Penny, held him in a chokehold for approximately 15 minutes (a few of which were recorded by a freelance journalist named Juan Alberto Vazquez). As is seemingly always the case when a black man dies a violent death in this country, we very quickly learned every possible negative thing there was to learn about Jordan Neely: his mental illness, his dozens of arrests, time spent in prison, previous violent assaults, even a verbal attack on the LGBT community. Even learning Penny’s name took quite a bit longer to learn than the entirety of Neely’s life story, despite his being questioned by police and released without charges.

Despite Neely’s past (none of which Penny could have known before he murdered Neely), the most physically-aggressive action he reportedly engaged in during this encounter was throwing trash at other passengers and throwing his own jacket on the ground. Beyond that, he yelled about being hungry and thirsty and verbally threatened to hurt anyone on the train. And for this–not even a wound to another passenger–Penny attacked Neely from behind and strangled him to death while other passengers watched and two reportedly helped Penny hold Neely down, ultimately leaving him to die on the train floor in his own waste as he’d involuntarily soiled himself as he died.

As I write this on May 8, social media continues to be filled with ex post facto rationalizations of Neely’s murder. The volume and frequency of these pro-vigilante, pro-murder takes was such that it brought to mind a literal, Biblical description of the degree of wickedness that prevailed in the world before the flood:

Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, Listen to my voice, you wives of Lamech, Pay attention to my words, For I have killed a man for wounding me; And a boy for striking me!”

Genesis 4:23, NASB

An uncomfortably close parallel to the words of Lamech in Genesis might be those of Filemon Baltazar, who Neely assaulted in 2019.

Everyone in different situations has reasons for what they do. The Marine shouldn’t be punished. Who knows what that guy might have done to other people,” Balthazar said of Neely, who he insisted “should have been in some rehab center.”

Alec Schemmel, The National Desk, May 5, 2023, CBS 6 Albany News

At least he suggests that Neely should have been in a rehab center. Others lack even that modicum of sympathy.

Here’s Batya Ungar-Sargon, an opinion editor with Newsweek:

Note the complete absence of any connection between what actually happened, and the hypothetical she’s spinning. Note also the shot at men who “just sit there and pretend it’s not happening.” For Ungar-Sargon, what happened to Neely doesn’t happen enough.

This execrable New York Post opinion piece leads off by saying Neely’s murder followed “a struggle with other passengers” and uses his death to advocate for involuntary commitment, despite the decades-ago push for deinstitutionalization of the mentally-ill led by Ronald Reagan as governor of California, and again by Reagan as president at the federal level. Reagan signed a bill repealing the vast majority of The Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, signed into law by Jimmy Carter. This legislation would be the only attempt at the federal level to improve mental healthcare in this country for the next 30 years.

Beyond the usual bots and low follower count trolls on Twitter amplifying longstanding political, racial, and other divides the country has, two commentators stand head-and-shoulders among the chattering class in their response to this murder: Thomas Chatterton Williams and Conor Friedersdorf. Both have displayed over the course of days levels of ignorance, cynicism, and moral bankruptcy I still find shocking despite their previous displays of most of these same qualities in different circumstances.

LARPing is “live-action roleplaying”–Williams is accusing people protesting Neely’s murder of pretending to be concerned. He goes on to blame “the state” for Neely’s death (instead of Penny, who actually murdered him). Friedersdorf goes on to display an ignorance of the impacts of the Montgomery Bus Boycott so profound, so fundamental, that I actually felt despair that someone so illiterate in this country’s history continues to have the platform he does to shape the viewpoints of people who actually hold power in this country.

Conor Friedersdorf being clueless about the impacts of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Today, Williams exceeded his previous heights in advocacy for vigilantism with this gem:

When I read this, I was reminded of Tucker Carlson’s defense of Kyle Rittenhouse’s vigilantism in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Like Ungar-Sargon, he refers to Neely’s past actions–which no one on the train could have known about beforehand. Williams projects these past actions forward as a justification for Neely’s murder. Instead of seeing Minority Report as a cautionary tale, he sees it as an affirmative path to take only worse–because civilians should feel justified in using deadly force against someone who *might* do something.

Thankfully, Janelle Bouie pointed to Williams’ admitted violent past to highlight the manifold flaws in his hypothetical.

William’s response is not merely inadequate, it fails to even acknowledge the numerous examples of youth not being a defense when you are black and male. Trayvon Martin was just 2 years older than Williams (and hadn’t assaulted a girl in front of multiple witnesses) when George Zimmerman decided to follow him (and ultimately kill him). Ahmaud Arbery was just 25 years old when he was lynched by 3 men attempting to “detain” him for a crime they believed he’d committed.

In my view, Neely’s murder, the recent wave of shootings of people who accidentally went to the wrong house (or car, or driveway), or were playing hide-and-seek too close to the wrong home, and a recent attempted vehicular homicide against homeless people are all connected. So is the militia movement that has taken it upon itself to “police” the southern border, and those who volunteer to “protect businesses from rioters”. More and more often, these vigilantes are aided and abetted by officials elected to maintain law-and-order and/or paid and trained to do so (such as the police). NYPD tacitly endorsed Daniel Penny’s vigilantism by not taking him into custody. Governor Hochul’s comments effectively blamed Neely for his own death. Hochul does not share a political party with Greg Abbott, but her comments about Neely are no less dehumanizing than his regarding the victims of a recent mass shooting. He called them “illegal immigrants”, completely ignoring the fact that they were victims of murder in the state he is governor of. The proliferation of so-called “stand your ground” laws not only remove any requirement for those who own guns to demonstrate competence in their use, they eliminate prosecution and penalties for incompetent use–even if it results in the death of innocents. Despite the strong correlation between weaker gun laws and higher rates of gun violence and gun death, states controlled by the GOP continue to weaken the laws further.

Despite the high-minded talk of those who claim to value life, all the available evidence points to life being even cheaper than ever. The backlash against the “racial reckoning” that some thought would happen in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police has proven so strong that we’ve retreated to the point where a black man like Thomas Chatterton Williams is loudly advocating in favor of a vigilantism that has often claimed black men as victims not just in this country’s long-ago history but in its recent past and present.

Will AI Change My Job or Replace It?

One of my Twitter mutuals recently shared the following tweet with me regarding AI:

I found Dare Obasanjo’s commentary especially interesting because my connection to Stack Overflow runs a bit deeper than it might for some developers. As I mentioned in a much older post, I was a beta tester for the original stackoverflow.com. Every beta tester contributed some of the original questions still on the site today. While the careers site StackOverflow went on to create was sunsetted as a feature last year, it helped me find a role in healthcare IT where I spent a few years of my career before returning to the management ranks. Why is this relevant to AI? Because the purpose of Stack Overflow was (and is) to provide a place for software engineers to ask questions of other software developers and get answers to help them solve programming problems. Obasanjo’s takeaway from the CEO’s letter is that this decade-plus old collection of questions and answers about software development challenges will be used as input for an AI that can replace software engineers altogether. My main takeaway from the same letter is that at some point this summer (possibly later) Stack Overflow and Stack Overflow for Teams (their corporate product) will get some sort of conversational AI capability added, perhaps even without the “hallucination problems” that have made the news recently.

Part of the reason I’m more inclined to believe that [chatbot] + [10+ years of programming Q & A site data] = [better programming Q & A resource] or [better starter app scaffolder] instead of [replacement for junior engineers] is knowing just how long we’ve been trying to replace people with expertise in software development with tools that will enable people without expertise to create software. While enough engineers have copied and pasted code from Stack Overflow into their own projects that it led to an April Fool’s gag product (which later became a real product), I believe we’re probably still quite some distance away from text prompts generating working Java APIs. I’ve lost track of how many companies have come and gone who put products into the market promising to let businesses replace software developers with tools that let you draw what you want and generate working software, or drag and drop boxes and arrows you can connect together that will yield working software, or some other variation on this theme of [idea] + [magic tool] = [working software product] with no testing, validation, or software developers in between. The truth is that there’s much more mileage to be gained from tools that help software developers do their jobs better and more quickly.

ReSharper is a tool I used for many years when I was writing production C# code that went a long way toward reducing (if not eliminating) a lot of the drudgery of software development. Boilerplate code, variable renaming, class renaming are just a few of the boring (and time-consuming) things it accelerated immensely. And that’s before you get to the numerous quick fixes it suggested to improve your code, and static code analysis to find and warn you of potential problems. I haven’t used GitHub Copilot (Microsoft’s so-called “AI pair programmer) myself (in part because I’m management and don’t write production code anymore, in part because there are probably unpleasant legal ramifications to giving such a tool access to code owned by an employer), but it sounds very much like ReSharper on steroids.

Anthony B (on Twitter and Substack) has a far more profane, hilarious (and accurate) take on what ChatGPT, Bard, and other systems some (very) generously call conversational AI actually are:

His Substack piece goes into more detail, and as amusing as the term “spicy autocomplete” is, his comparison of how large language model systems handle uncertainty to how spam detection systems handle uncertainty provides real insight into the limitations of these systems in their current state. Another aspect of the challenge he touches on briefly in the piece is training data. In the case of Stack Overflow in particular, having asked and answered dozens of questions that will presumably be part of the training data set for their chatbot, the quality of both questions and answers varies widely. The upvotes and downvotes for each are decent quality clues but are not necessarily authoritative. A Stack Overflow chatbot could conceivably respond with an answer based on something with a lot of upvotes that might actually not be correct.

There’s an entirely different discussion to be had (and litigation in progress against an AI image generation startup, and a lawsuit against Microsoft, GitHub, and OpenAI) regarding the training of large language models on copyrighted material without paying copyright holders. How the lawsuits turn out (via judgments or settlements) should answer at least some questions about what would-be chatbot creators can use for training data (and how lucrative it might be for copyright holders to make some of their material available for this purpose). But in the meantime, I do not expect my job to be replaced by AI anytime soon.

Reading The South Through the Lens of Caste

I recently finished reading Adolph L. Reed, Jr’s memoir of life in the Jim Crow South and afterwards.  Having read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste just before (and The Warmth of Other Suns years earlier), I went into Reed’s slim volume looking for points of agreement and points of conflict  between it and Wilkerson’s previous works.

I hadn’t read any of Reed’s book-length work prior to The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives, but from a few of his articles I understand him to be a left-wing critic of anti-racism and identity politics.  The memoir focuses far more on the way Jim Crow functioned in practice than on criticism of anti-racism and identity politics in the present.  Like Wilkerson’s previous works, Reed’s memoir highlights the arbitrary nature of the penalties to blacks people for challenging the social and legal structures of Jim Crow.  The capriciousness of enforcement is heightened by Reed’s stories of travel from points north to places where Jim Crow governed expectations of behavior even after it was officially repudiated.  As depicted by Reed, the level of effort black people had to go through to comply with the strictures of Jim Crow was substantial, and a thing he only realized in retrospect. 

Reed doesn’t soft pedal the apartheid system Jim Crow was in the least, nor the nature of the chattel slavery system that preceded it. He quotes at length from the infamous Cornerstone Speech, references other ordinances of secession from southern states,  and makes clear that the South shot first with the aim of preserving slavery.  White supremacy clearly undergirds both slavery and Jim Crow in Reed’s telling.  But ultimately, Reed’s memoir reinforces his “class-first” worldview and that of others on the left (including his preferred presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders). 

Reed’s account of life under Jim Crow and afterwards is very enlightening. His lived experiences across decades and regions of the United States are both broad and deep, including New York City, DC, and parts of Louisiana (including New Orleans), Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia. That said, I think there are limits to the power of the Jim Crow experience to explain the present. Reed’s book was published just last year, in the wake of a Trump presidency (a direct repudiation of the nation’s only black president) Trump’s role in encouraging an insurrection to remain in power, and the continuing engagement in overt appeals to white nationalism by numerous GOP pols and those in their orbit. I find it difficult to square these facts with assertions that “race essentialism” on the part of black folks is the real problem.

Wilkerson’s Caste, published in the summer of 2020, does a better job of capturing the subtleties and nuances of how we engage with each other by broadening our vision beyond race (race and class, instead of race or class). I still remember her interview with Terry Gross, and being initially skeptical of the book because of her response to the question of why the apartheid system in South Africa was not included in the book.

My response on Twitter in a thread with Thomas Chatterton Williams regarding Wilkerson’s Caste

Actually reading the book revealed not only a larger number of commonalities between the way race and class interact in the U.S. and the way caste works in India than I realized, but a wealth of research in the U.S. during Jim Crow which studied it from the inside and called it a caste system. Some of the takeaways on Caste I took note of separately (so as to keep the copy I borrowed from the public library as pristine as possible):

  • Dalits had an equivalent to the sharecropping system some black farmers endured
  • W.E.B. DuBois and Bhimrao Ambedkar corresponded at least once regarding the similarity of the position of their people in their respective countries
  • Madison Grant (a popular eugenicist of the early 20th century) saw India’s caste system as a model to be emulated
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was seen by Indian untouchables as an American untouchable
  • Among the earliest of the people to use the term “caste” to describe segregated schools in Boston was abolitionist and U.S. senator Charles Sumner.
  • Gunnar Myrdal (Swedish social economist) and Ashley Montagu (British-American anthropologist) used the term “caste” to describe the the way black people (and others) were treated in the U.S.

While I have seen pushback elsewhere regarding aspects of Wilkerson’s book (mainly people attributing causes other than racism to the personal experiences she recounts in the book), the only place I really disagreed with Wilkerson’s book was the suggestion that the indigenous people of America were exiled from the caste system. From reading The Great Oklahoma Swindle, I learned (among other things) that the Five Civilized Tribes fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War and owned black people as slaves.

Wilkerson’s book is a lot longer than Reed’s, but no less valuable to the reader attempting to increase their understanding of the American experience for black people. Reading them close together in time provoked thoughts and revealed insights I suspect I would not otherwise have had.

GenXJamerican.com Moves to Amazon Lightsail, A Follow-Up

One change I missed after migrating to Lightsail, was ensuring that all the posts with images in them were displaying those images on the new site the way they were on the old. A scroll backward through previous posts revealed the problem quickly enough, but life is busy so it took awhile until I had enough time fix it. The steps I expected I would need to take to resolve the missing images issue were roughly the following:

  • Start up the old EC2 instance
  • Download the old images
  • Upload the old images to the new instance on Lightsail

Because I only stopped the previous EC2 instance instead of terminating it, I was able to re-start it. To download the old images, I’d have to find them first. Having self-hosted WordPress for awhile, I knew the images would be in subfolders under wp-content/uploads, so the only real question remaining was where exactly the old Bitnami image rooted the install. Once I “sshed” into the instance, that location turned out to be ~/stack/apps/wordpress/htdocs/wp-content/uploads. Images were further organized by year and month of blog posts. To simplify the downloading of old images, I had to knock the rust off my usage of the tar command. Once I’d compressed all those years of images into a few archive files it was time to get them off the machine. I used this Medium post to figure out the right syntax for my scp commands.

Once the archive files were on my local machine, I needed to get them onto the Lightsail instance (and expand them into its uploads folder). But just as I did compressing and pulling the files down from the EC2 instance, I had to figure out where they were in the new Bitnami image. As it turned out, the path was slightly different in the Lightsail image: ~/stack/wordpress/wp-content/uploads. Once I uploaded the files with scp, I had to figure out how to move them into the years and months structure that would match my existing blog posts. Using the in-brower terminal, I was reminded that the tar command wouldn’t let me expand the files into an existing folder structure, so I created an uploads-old folder and expanded them there. Then I had to figure out how to recursively copy the files there into uploads. It took a few tries but the command that ultimately got me the result I wanted was this:

sudo cp -R ./uploads-old/<year>/* ./<year>

Now, every post with images has them back again.

Salman Rushdie Talks Writing, Democracy, History & More

I recently listened to David Remnick’s interview of Salman Rushdie–his first since barely surviving attempted murder by a young man not even born at the time Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination in 1989. He took the opportunity primarily to talk about his latest book, Victory City, but along the way talked about the attack on him, the impact of the fatwa on him, and democracy and history in India, England, and the United States. There are many places to listen to and/or watch the full interview, as well as reading Remnick’s piece in The New Yorker

Toward the end of the interview, Rushdie’s response to one of Remnick’s questions did an excellent job of summarizing the danger democracy faces in all the places he is connected to by birth, education, and citizenship. I’ve attempted to transcribe Rushdie’s spoken words below, emphasizing what stood out most to me:

The problem in India is this, that the current government, which to people of my way of thinking is alarming, is very popular. It’s the difference for example between India and Trump. Trump was only just about popular. And his level of unpopularity was at least as high as his popularity, that’s not so in India because the Modi government is very popular in India, has huge support. And that makes it possible for them to get away with it.  To create this very autocratic state which is unkind to minorities, which is fantastically oppressive of journalists, where people are very afraid. Which in a way it’s getting to be difficult to call it a democracy.

A democracy is not just who wins the election, it’s whether you feel safe in the country whether you voted for the government or not. India has a problem. The way in which this book just marginally engages with it is that it takes on the subject of sectarianism, and tries to say this is not the history of India. The history of India is much more complicated than that.  It’s not that there was an ancient culture that another culture came in and destroyed, that’s a false description of the past.

And as we know we live in a world in which false descriptions of the past are being used everywhere to justify terrible behavior in the present. England pretending there’s a golden age before any foreigners showed up, and completing ignoring the fact that they were <expletive> over foreigners in their countries in order to make possible their wealth and affluence at home.  America, talking about being great again. I want to know when was that? What was the date? It was obviously before the Civil Rights Act. Was it before women had the vote? Was it when there was still slavery? What are we hark[en]ing back to? A fantasy past becomes a way of justifying bad behavior today.

David Remnick interview with Salman Rushdie from February 6, 2023

India’s Ministry of Finance searching the offices of the BBC in New Delhi and Mumbai and accusing them of tax evasion so soon after their airing of a show critical of Prime Minister Modi is exactly the point Rushdie was making about oppression of journalists. Shireen Abu Aqla was shot in the head and killed in the West Bank, likely by a soldier in the Israeli military (according to their own investigation). Here in the U.S., police arrested, shot, and tear-gassed numerous journalists covering protests that occurred in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. Ali Velshi and his team of journalists were shot by rubber bullets from police during a live broadcast. A photojournalist named Lindo Tirado was shot by police with a non-lethal round and lost sight in one eye as a result. At least one journalist was arrested, handcuffed, and taken away while in the middle of a live broadcast. Nearly three years later, I haven’t seen any evidence of disciplinary action against the cops who did all this shooting.

Rushdie’s definition of democracy was an especially interesting one to me. My parents’ native Jamaica has a long history of political violence where the party you supported could have the most serious consequences for your physical well-being. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has written about mob violence and vigilantism occurring w/ the knowledge and consent of political parties not just in India, but elsewhere in southern Asia (https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/09/03/political-violence-in-south-asia-triumph-of-state-pub-82641). Here in the U.S., video from some of these school board meetings, heavily-armed people protesting COVID restrictions, threats and harassment of election workers, voter intimidation, and the insurrection at the Capitol in 2021 make me worry that we’re returning to the sort of political violence which was once the stuff of history books.  

What Rushdie says about false or fantasy pasts being used to justify bad behavior in the present resonated the most strongly with me because of how much present bad behavior it explains. Putin comparing himself to Peter the Great as he rationalizes his continuing invasion of Ukraine is a present example. The MAGA movement led by Donald Trump (though leadership of that movement is being quite vigorously contested now) is certainly another. The conservative Christian groups I’ve written about previously are certainly harkening back to a pre-Civil Rights Movement point in American history as the place to which they want the entire country to return. In retrospect, even some of the rulings of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court are explained by this framing. As I wrote last year after the leak of Alito’s draft opinion which would ultimately overturn Roe vs Wade, black men and women had no rights the government was bound to respect and (white) women were scarcely better off than that. I’m old enough now to remember a culture warrior from decades earlier, Pat Buchanan, harkening back to what (in my memory at least) was probably the Revolutionary War with his “ride to the sound of the guns” catchphrase.

Beyond Rushdie’s clear-eyed views of India, England, and the United States, his life speaks volumes regarding how petty and small what we call “cancel culture” today really is. The list of detractors regarding his novel The Satanic Verses is quite long, and included Prince (now King) Charles, John le Carré, Roald Dahl, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the British Foreign Secretary, and Jimmy Carter, among others. Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) agreed with the fatwa calling for Rushdie to be murdered. Remnick’s piece includes the following shameful remark from the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper:

I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them. If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit, and literature would not suffer.”

The Defiance of Salman Rushdie, by David Remnick, The New Yorker, February 13 & 20, 2023 Issue

Trevor-Roper’s remark can only be seen as more gruesome in the light of attempted and successful murders of translators of the book into Italian and Japanese, the attempted murder of the book’s Norwegian publisher, and the firebombing of bookstores that carried it. In light of the rough reception his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid would receive less than two decades later, I wonder if former president Carter ever revisited and revised his opinion of Rushdie’s book. Rushdie proves far more gracious to at least one of his critics than they were to him:

Meanwhile, the New York Times published a defense of J.K. Rowling–using Rushdie as an example of what could happen to her if she continued to be criticized–just a day after hundreds of current and former New York Times contributors published an open letter critical of the paper’s coverage of trans people. Rowling, like Rushdie, was a signatory of the Letter on Justice and Open Debate published in Harper’s Magazine a couple of years ago. The ways in which the two signatories choose to use their free speech (one to attack trans people, the other to write novels) couldn’t be more different, but the New York Times (predictably, in my view) treats them as the same. I still believe, as I wrote then, that the signatories of the Harper’s letter were asking that “controversial” speech be somehow more privileged than other speech. But Rushdie has paid a far higher price for his art–from other artists and his own government (beyond the one that actually issued the fatwa)–than Rowling has paid (or will ever pay) for using her substantial platform to punch down at a community that has been, and continues to be under siege.

Exploring Mastodon Continued: Moving to Hachyderm.io

After almost 4 months of using Mastodon, I found the community on Hachyderm.io (and its administrator, Kris Nóva) so interesting that I decided to move from the larger instance I initially joined (mastodon.cloud). The advice in my first post about sticking with a larger server unless you come across a particular server/community that really interests you still holds. The specific way I applied it is tied to a Mastodon feature I didn’t fully grasp the utility of back then: the Local timeline. I wrote about timelines later, but what only became clear after creating an account on hachyderm.io and using Local timeline was that because the vast majority of people there are techies like me, there was a much higher volume of interesting toots there than on a large instance like mastodon.cloud.

One of my Mastodon mutuals switched from mastodon.cloud to hachyderm.io due to racist harassment being directed at his account from a domain they don’t block. Not only does hachyderm.io proactively block that domain, they do things like give you a chance to review certain follow requests even if your account isn’t locked, as shown below:

Screenshot of follow request approval on hachyderm.io

The actual steps I followed to migrate were a combination of this article, and this post from Eugen Rochko (in that order). Migrating doesn’t delete the old account, but it does disable the old account so it looks like this:

My disabled account on mastodon.cloud

Migrating to a new account meant updating my account metadata as well to verify that new account belongs to me.

Only the posts from my original Mastodon account can’t make the move to hachyderm.io–but only because I don’t control the instance. If I were willing to run my own Mastodon server, it might be possible to import the archive I downloaded from my previous account and republish them there.

In addition to migrating to hachyderm.io, I provided a small donation to the administrator through ko-fi.com. In addition to the charitable giving I’m doing this year, I’ll be putting more into these tip jars for online services that I find valuable. I contribute a bit to the main Mastodon project through Patreon.

From “Quiet Quitting” to Loud Layoffs

One of the more loathsome inventions of the business press in this pandemic-impacted era of work is the term “quiet quitting”. Ed Zitron is far more eloquent than I in expressing his fury regarding the term. But here is my own response to an article about a CEO complaining about the backlash he received to a LinkedIn post about firing 2 engineers who were working multiple full-time jobs:

“The Business Insider piece is kinda trash because they let the CEO posture and moralize. There’s an obvious double standard for what CEOs are allowed to do versus regular workers and they didn’t interrogate that at all. Perhaps some people work parallel jobs to make ends meet, but there are definitely folks taking advantage as well. The collusion of the press with business to invent this concept of “quiet quitting” still makes me angry. Having seen and been subject to layoffs [myself], stingy benefits, and being underpaid relative to my experience and skillset for a good chunk of my career, it’s laughable to me that these companies expect loyalty for how little they offer in return. Even though I wouldn’t do the parallel jobs thing myself, I can see how people rationalize it. They’re just being as transactional with employers as employers have been with workers for decades now.

me in an online chat with friends from October 2022

Fast-forward to today and the news is filled with layoff announcements. PagerDuty literally quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr as part of a blog post laying off some 7% of their workforce. Friends of mine at 2 other companies regularly in the news are now out of work. My own employer laid off a little over 2% of the workforce. While I am still employed, a number of people I’ve done great work with over the past 5 years are now out of jobs. As far as I can see, these layoffs do not have a thing to do with performance. And given the profit numbers some of the most prominent companies in layoff news have posted over the past couple of years, these are not cuts needed to ensure the survival of these companies.

Ed Zitron’s take on what should happen to the CEOs laying off all these people seems extreme at first, but is it really? Microsoft posted record results for fiscal 2022, but they’re still laying off thousands. Is it really the fault of all those workers Google, Facebook, and others hired during the depths of the pandemic (as if consumer habits were going to remain that way forever) that the pandemic loosened its grip and consumer behavior moved back toward pre-pandemic norms? Perhaps we aren’t being skeptical enough, or critical enough of cuts of this size and scale. As often as we’ve heard about and/or read about “the business cycle”, CEOs who make the kind of money they do ought to know better than to assume that

I survived more than a few layoffs back when the internet bubble burst (leaving an internet consulting firm for a new role just months before it declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy). The company I joined, a telecom equipment manufacturer, turned out to be at the height of its headcount. Over the 4 years I was there, they shed well over half their workforce (even as they acquired failing competitors). The friends of mine at those companies that lost jobs never seemed to lose them because of performance. The RIFs I would be on the wrong side of in later years never seemed to be either. In a world of work that long ago replaced pensions with 401(k)s, we are just numbers when push comes to shove.

Not every company is as honest as Netflix in modeling themselves after a professional sports team, and all that entails about the short shelf life of the average player. I’ve been working more than long enough to know that any company that refers to itself as a “family” is a company not to be trusted. This season of layoffs is just the latest reminder that what matters most in life are the people who matter to you and the people who treat you like you matter in return–regardless of the work you do for a living, be they family or friends. When it comes to work, we should enjoy it and do it well, but not at the expense of what matters most. If we’re going to give loyalty, let it be to people who have earned it and reciprocate it, not to institutions.