Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Can facts be racist?

Here's a fact:

[D]ifferences in home and neighborhood quality do not fully explain the devaluation of homes in black neighborhoods. Homes of similar quality in neighborhoods with similar amenities are worth 23 percent less ($48,000 per home on average, amounting to $156 billion in cumulative losses) in majority black neighborhoods, compared to those with very few or no black residents

(And here is some analysis of that fact.)

Here is another fact:

The government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation drew a line around Bedford-Stuyvesant on a map, colored the area red and gave it a “D,” the worst grade possible, denoting a hazardous place to underwrite mortgages.

Lines like these, drawn in cities across the country to separate “hazardous” and “declining” from “desirable” and “best,” codified patterns of racial segregation and disparities in access to credit. Now economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, analyzing data from recently digitized copies of those maps, show that the consequences lasted for decades.

As recently as 2010, they find, differences in the level of racial segregation, homeownership rates, home values and credit scores were still apparent where these boundaries were drawn.

And here is a recent data point:

Abena and Alex Horton wanted to take advantage of low home-refinance rates brought on by the coronavirus crisis. So in June, they took the first step in that process, welcoming a home appraiser into their four-bedroom, four-bath ranch-style house in Jacksonville, Fla.

The Hortons live just minutes from the Ortega River, in a predominantly white neighborhood of 1950s homes that tend to sell for $350,000 to $550,000. They had expected their home to appraise for around $450,000, but the appraiser felt differently, assigning a value of $330,000. Ms. Horton, who is Black, immediately suspected discrimination.

The couple’s bank agreed that the value was off and ordered a second appraisal. But before the new appraiser could arrive, Ms. Horton, a lawyer, began an experiment: She took all family photos off the mantle. Instead, she hung up a series of oil paintings of Mr. Horton, who is white, and his grandparents that had been in storage. Books by Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison were taken off the shelves, and holiday photo cards sent by friends were edited so that only those showing white families were left on display. On the day of the appraisal, Ms. Horton took the couple’s 6-year-old son on a shopping trip to Target, and left Mr. Horton alone at home to answer the door.

The new appraiser gave their home a value of $465,000 — a more than 40 percent increase from the first appraisal.

Nothing but facts and data here, no different from the fact (and it is a fact) that blacks are by and large better basketball players than whites, and that this is not because blacks are taller (because they aren't).  To this point I have drawn no conclusions and made no value judgements.  All I've done is cite facts from credible sources.

Now, I am going to draw a conclusion, and then I'm going to make a value judgement, but I want to make it very clear that I am not going to take a position on the titular question of this post (because I have learned the hard way that that is fraught with all manner of rhetorical peril).  The conclusion I draw is this:

The facts I've presented above are an indication of the existence of a very serious problem in our society, and this problem has something to do with race.

Note well that I have intentionally said nothing about the exact nature of this problem except that it is serious and it has something to do with race.  In particular, I have not said that it has anything to do with real estate prices nor with playing basketball.

Now, I can imagine at least three different kinds of reactions to this:

1.  "Yes, there is a problem.  It is mainly a result of some external influence over which blacks have little to no control, like systemic institutionalized racism, or well-meaning but ultimately misguided government intervention, or something like that."

2.  "Yes, there is a problem.  It is mainly a result of some deficiency in the black community and so only the black community can do anything about it."

3.  "I disagree that these facts are an indication of a problem.  This is just the free market operating as expected (or something like that).  Everything is as it should be."

There is a fourth possibility.  Someone could reject the premise that these "facts" are in fact facts and say that they are lies, the product of a disinformation campaign, or something like that.  Fake news.  For the purposes of this discussion we can discount this.  The fact (and on this view it is manifestly a fact) that lies like this can so effectively masquerade as facts is a problem in and of itself, and that brings up back to 1-3.

Now I am going to make my value judgement: if you subscribe to reaction #3 then there is something deeply wrong with you.  If you can look at the current state of affairs and say that there is no problem at all, that this is the best humanity is capable of, that there is nothing left for our society to aspire to, then you are suffering from some kind of serious mental deficiency.  You either lack empathy or imagination or the ability to properly process information or something.  If that offends you, then you should probably stop reading my blog and seek counseling.

If you are still with me, then we agree that there is a problem, but potentially disagree on its nature and source.  That's fine, reasonable people can disagree about these things.  But now here are a few more facts:

1.  There was at one time legal institutional discrimination against black people in the United States, first through chattel slavery, and then through Jim Crow laws.

2.  Neither slavery nor Jim Crow were ended by societal consensus.  Slavery was ended by a civil war, and Jim Crow was ended by a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1950s and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, i.e. well within living memory.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was highly contentious, with the Southern states overwhelmingly opposed to it.

3.  Before the Civil War, negro slavery (as it was then invariably referred to) was openly defended by many Southerners as a positive good:

Slavery as a positive good was the prevailing view of White Southern U.S. politicians and intellectuals just before the American Civil War, as opposed to a "necessary evil." They defended the legal enslavement of people for their labor as a benevolent, paternalistic institution with social and economic benefits, an important bulwark of civilization, and a divine institution similar or superior to the free labor in the North.  Proponents of enslavement as "a good — a great good" often attacked the system of industrial capitalism, contending that the free laborer in the North, called by them a "wage slave", was as much enslaved by capitalist owners as were the African people enslaved by Whites in the South.

The right of white people to own negro slaves was explicitly enshrined in the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, which specifically provided that, "No ... law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed."

So for hundreds of years there were substantial numbers of people in the U.S. willing to defend, at times quite literally with their lives, not just racial discrimination against blacks, but race-based chattel slavery, and willing to do so openly and on the merits.  The defenders of slavery genuinely believed in their heart of hearts that they were the good guys.

Very few people openly advocate racial discrimination on the merits today, but there are some who do.  That link is to a video, one which I find rather shocking, but it is worth watching.  I am, of course, repulsed by the ideology espoused by the subjects of the film, but I really do think that these people believe in their heart of hearts that they are the good guys.  Furthermore, I respect the fact that they are willing to stand up openly for what they believe.  They wear the badge of "racist" with pride (4:00).  They leave no doubt about where they stand: "We are a white nation, founded for and by the white man." (2:40).  And, it is well worth noting, that that, too, is a fact.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Game over for the USA

I would like to think that Ruth Bader Ginsberg's untimely passing is not the catastrophe that it appears to be.  I would like to think that Mitch McConnell is a man of principle, and having once said that the Senate should not confirm a Supreme Court justice in an election year he will not brazenly expose himself as a hypocrite and confirm a Supreme Court justice in an election year.

I would like to think these things, but I can't.  My ability to suspend disbelief only goes so far.  Of course McConnell is not a man of principle.  Of course he will ram Trump's third Supreme Court nomination through the Senate in the next few weeks.  That much is absolutely certain.

What is only a little less certain is what happens after that.  If you eliminate the totally unrealistic scenario that Biden wins the election in an overwhelming landslide and Trump concedes, what are we left with?  Either Trump wins outright, or he loses on the margins, and we have a replay of Bush v. Gore, except that this time it will be adjudicated by a Supreme Court with a conservative majority, and three of nine justices appointed by the very president whose fate they are deciding.  If you think they will rule against Trump, well, I wish I shared your ability to suspend disbelief.

So the legitimacy of the government of the United States of America after January 2021 is now very much in doubt (if it isn't already).  The legitimacy of the Supreme Court is already very much in doubt, and has been ever since Mitch McConnell exercised his extra-Constitutional veto power over Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland.  We are facing the very real prospect of a second Trump term even if Biden wins, to say nothing of losing 70 years of social progress.  Roe v. Wade is already as good as dead, as is the separation of church and state, and we are now we are looking at the very real prospect of also losing Obergefell v. Hodges, possibly even Griswold v. Connecticut.  LGBT rights, worker's rights, minority rights, immigrant rights, gone, squished under the new Christian theocracy thinly disguised as "religious freedom."

Fundamentalist Christians voted for Trump because he promised them power.  Some have speculated that they might be having buyers remorse but I'm pretty sure today the opposite is true.  Trump has delivered what he promised.  In spades.  His legacy will last generations.  It may never be possible to undo the damage.  The United States of America may soon be a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump Organization.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

This is what the apocalypse looks like

 This is a photo of our house taken at noon today:


















This is not the raw image.  I took this with an iPhone, whose auto-exposure made the image look much brighter than it actually is.  I've adjusted the brightness and color balance to match the actual appearance as much as I can.  Even so, this image doesn't do justice to the reality.  For one thing, the sky is much too blue.  The actual color of the sky is a reddish brown, the same overall hue as the rest of the image.  But the main thing to notice is that the lights in front of our house are on.  Those lights are on sensors that are supposed to make them only come on at night.  But here they are on at high noon in summer.  It's dark.  It feels like twilight.  We have to have lights on inside the house.  It is deeply creepy.

The cause of this is, of course, smoke from fires that are burning all around us, probably combined with some marine-layer overcast, though it is impossible to tell because the sky has absolutely no texture at all.  In 32 years of living in California full time, I have never seen anything like this.  No one has.  There has never been anything like this in recorded history.

Three days ago we set a record high at our house of 103 degrees.  Today it was 62 degrees when I woke up, and now at noon it has warmed up to a balmy 64.

I think we broke the planet.

UPDATE: The Washington Post has a story about this with better photos.

UPDATE2: It is now 2:30 in the afternoon and it just straight-up looks like night outside.  The sky is still glowing a faint dull red, about what you would expect an hour or so after sunset, but anywhere else you look it is full-on dark.  It is genuinely scary.