Unintentional Racism

Anyone who stops to think about it should notice that racism is everywhere in The United States.  Strangely, many people don’t seem to notice it.  This is something I’ve known for quite a long time, but I’ve never understood it.  The evidence is everywhere from our schools to our prisons to our military to our businesses and even in our friendships and romantic relationships.  I’ve considered that people are myopic, that they are full of cognitive biases, that they live in bubbles and that they are stupid, but these don’t seem to explain people missing the evidence.  Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about racism and intentions.  I still don’t understand how people miss the racism, but I feel like I might be on to something.

The thing that got me thinking about racism and intentions is this story from the Hartford Courant.  Basically, the Republicans in Connecticut’s state legislature got upset because they think Governor Malloy called them racists.  He was talking about the laws that require stronger penalties for drug crimes committed in a “school zone”.  This is what he said, “To treat those folks differently because they live in those communities is patently unfair and, if not racist in intent, is racist in its outcome.”  It’s pretty clear that he was not accusing the Republicans of racism.  He was simply identifying a problem in our society and proposing a way to fix it.  The fact that the Republicans took offense is disgusting on many levels, but it isn’t what I want to talk about now.

The thing that I want to talk about is the, “if not racist in intent, is racist in its outcome,” part of Malloy’s statement.  I can only speculate about the intent of the law.  It was implemented when I was a kid and I was not following politics at that time.  And besides, there isn’t a politician in Connecticut in my lifetime that would admit to racism.  But, it is plausible that race had nothing to do with the intent of creating drug free school zones.  It could have been as simple as some legislator saying, “We need a way to keep drug dealers from targeting children.  What if we make tougher penalties for selling drugs in and around schools?”  When looked at from that perspective, I can see how the law got passed.  I’ll bet everyone was pretty happy about it at the time.

I can also see how that particular framing can make it harder to recognize the problems with the law.  We all know the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” but we don’t live by it.  We use the intentions to judge something’s effectiveness.  Since the intent was to punish drug dealers who target children, the law looks pretty effective because of all those scummy druggies rotting in prisons.  The thing is, legislation has to be viewed from a consequentialist perspective*.  And it is rare that anything has only one consequence.  Even granting that the intent of the law was to keep drugs away from schools and that it worked, that is only one of the consequences.  Another consequence is that people who happen to live in densely populated areas (minorities and poor people) are sentenced more harshly when they commit the exact same crime as people who live in lightly populated areas (white people and the wealthy).  The is simply wrong.  Equality under the law is supposed to be one of our most cherished principles.  The intent behind the law doesn’t matter and shouldn’t factor into our judgment of the law.  It is unjust.

Perhaps if we look at non-legal things that are similar it would become clear.  The intent of prescribing thalidomide to pregnant women was to prevent morning sickness.  Judged only by that standard, it was quite effective.  Should we conclude that thalidomide was good?  No, because it also had a secondary consequence.  It caused severe birth defects.  DDT was intended to be an insecticide.  It was supposed to help fight malaria and increase crop yields.  Judge by that standard it is pretty effective.  So, should we conclude that DDT was good?  No, because it also had a secondary consequence.  It killed bald eagles.  And just one more, lead was added to gasoline to prevent knocking and pinging.  Judged by that standard, it was quite effective.  Should we conclude that leaded gasoline was good?  No, because lead is highly toxic and every time we drove we were adding it to our environment.

My point is simply that we have to stop looking at intent and start looking at consequences.  I don’t care what the intent of drug free school zones was, the consequences are racist and unjust.  I don’t care what the intent of making crack penalties stricter than coke penalties, but the consequences of that are racist and unjust.  I don’t care what the intent of educational deferments from the draft was.  The consequences of that were racist and unjust.   What we need is more people like Governor Malloy, people with the power to change things who will call out racism when they see it.  It’s the only way for people to start noticing the obvious.

* On an unrelated note, conservatives are always saying that even if there is climate change, it is not caused by people.  I always think, “Who cares?”  The consequences will be the same whether it’s caused by people, horses or aliens.  Should we look at Californians in desperate need of water and say, “Well, we didn’t cause this drought, so we don’t have to do anything about it?”  Should we look at Texans devastated by floods and shrug and say, “Whatever, it’s not our fault?”


A Problem With the Financial Services Industry

Notice I said a, not the.  There are myriad problems with the financial services industry.  This one is a relatively small problem, but I find it incredibly annoying.  This problem is that I have two bills due tomorrow.  The reason this is a problem is that tomorrow is Memorial Day which is a bank holiday, which means that the bills cannot be paid tomorrow.  I’ve been burned by this before, so I paid both bills on Friday, but it’s slimy to make a due date unavailable.

People who live paycheck to paycheck know exactly what I’m talking about.  Anyone else may be a little confused.  When money is tight, you need to be very aware of due dates, grace periods and pay days.  It’s the only way to avoid bounced checks and late payments which just create more fees that you can’t afford.  Putting the due date on an unavailable date just moves the due date up a day or two.  When the whole month is planned and delicately balanced, that day or two can make a big difference.  It would be super easy for companies to program in the fact that Sundays and holidays are unavailable, but they don’t.  Any opportunity to collect more fees is good for them and they aren’t too worried about it being bad for everyone else.

Anyway, that’s my little rant for the evening.  I hope everyone who gets a long weekend enjoys their extra day off.

David Letterman

I actually know what I was doing on August 30, 1993. I had just arrived at college for my freshman year. I was going through the usual college freshman feelings of fear, nervousness, loneliness, etc. And I had unwittingly signed up for the all black dorm. I wasn’t inclined to care. My roommate was a nice guy. But it became clear pretty quickly that I wasn’t wanted. There was another white guy, Matt, down the hall who was in the same position as I. Only he was a little older, a transfer student rather than a freshman. And he had a TV in his room. Needless to say, we bonded. And it turns out, we were both fans of Stevie Ray Vaughan and David Letterman. That’s as good a place to form a friendship as I can think of. So, on August 30, 1993 at 11:30 at night, I sat in my new friend’s dorm room and we watched Dave premier his talk show on CBS.

I think I’ve watched more episodes of Late Night than any other TV show.  The only thing I’ve probably watched more is NESN’s coverage of the Sox.  It’s been a few years since I’ve watched Dave regularly, though.  I’m old, work two jobs and have a young daughter.  I just don’t stay up that late anymore.  But, starting last week, I’ve been watching again.  It’s the same old show, and I mean that in the best way.  It’s been like hanging out with an old friend.

Tonight is Dave’s last episode.  I will definitely be watching.  David Letterman was my first good college experience and helped me find my first college friend.  Even though Matt and I haven’t spoken in over 20 years, I hope wherever he is he will be watching, too.

You Did Bad

Dear Boston Marathon Bombing Trial Jury,

Can I call you BMBTJ?  Thanks.  You screwed up.  You had a chance to do something good, but instead you did something bad.  I understand your feelings.  I’m just disappointed that your base feelings won out over reason and goodness.

I know that Tsarnaev and the government put you in a bad position.  I don’t envy you.  I’m quite sure that I would have felt revulsion, fear, anger and hatred had I been forced to sit through that testimony and look at that evidence.  I feel some level of that just having seen it through the sanitizing news lens.  But, BMBTJ, the question itself was rather simple, life in prison or death.  I’m not one for universal rules, but if you have a legitimate choice, death is the wrong one.

What good will Tsarnaev’s death do?  It won’t bring back the dead and it won’t heal the injured.  It isn’t just.  It won’t bring closure even though that’s one of the ways people justify it.  All it will do is satisfy our feelings of revulsion, fear, anger and hatred.  Those are bad feelings and we shouldn’t be looking to satisfy them.

This decision failed to show mercy.  It failed to show compassion.  Those are good things and failure to do good is bad.  It also adds to the perception that America is backwards and barbaric.  That makes the world a more dangerous place.

So, BMBTJ, I just wanted to let you know how I felt.  I hope you understand.  I don’t think you are bad people.  I just think you did a bad thing.


B.B. King

The first time I saw B.B. King perform live was 1992 or 1993.  I’m pretty sure it was my senior year of high school, but I don’t remember which side.  Before I went, a guy that I worked with told me that seeing B.B. is, “like going to church.”  I didn’t really understand what he meant.  I spent my high school years learning about the blues, but I actually got to B.B. a little late.  I knew him from The Cosby Show, but I was really into Chess Records and acoustic blues, so I hadn’t taken a deep dive.

After seeing him live, I started studying.  I went for the classics, Completely Well, Indianola Mississippi Seeds, Live At The Regal, Live At Cook County, stuff like that.  It was great.  And, since he toured constantly, I started seeing him whenever he was within two hours of my house.  I’m not sure I can say this about any other artist, but B.B. never let me down.  Every album I bought was great.  Every show I saw was great.  I came to realize that the most famous and successful blues artist in history was vastly underrated.

I can’t imagine a human being not liking B.B. King.  I love him.  Now that he’s gone, I’m going to pull out all of his records and listen to them.  With work and the kid, it will probably take a few weeks to get through all of them, but it’s going to be great.

Brady’s Soft, Squishy Balls Have Made Him More Likable

I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I really think Roger Goodell is trying to destroy the National Football League.  Since he took over as commissioner, everything he has done has made the league less enjoyable.  The coddling of quarterbacks makes the game itself less interesting.  The way they have “addressed” the issue of head injuries is criminal.  And they way they have ignored and celebrated actual criminals leaves a bad taste in my mouth every time I watch a game.  And let’s not even talk about the replacement refs.  I used to watch football almost every Sunday during the season.  Now, I’ve missed two of the last three Super Bowls.

I’ve never been a Patriots fan.  I grew up with the Giants and always prefer the NFC.  Tom Brady has always been vaguely annoying.  Not in the “I want to punch him in the face” way that Eli Manning is annoying, but I’m not a fan.  He’s just boring.  So, when it came out that Tom Brady played the AFC Championship game with balls that were softer than regulation, I thought it was pretty funny.  It was like Joe Niekro being caught with an emery board in his pocket or Sammy Sosa getting caught with a corked bat.  It’s great fodder for jokes for a couple of weeks, but on no level is it a big deal.

However, the press and the league decided that it is a big deal.  They are saying that the very integrity of the game has been called into question because Tom Brady likes playing with soft balls.  If this is that big a deal, why weren’t the Vikings and Jaguars punished for playing with heated balls?  If this is that big a deal, why does the rule only stipulate a fine?  The only reason I can think of is to make Brady a scapegoat for every mistake the league has made during Goodell’s tenure.  He’s finally showing that he’s tough and will do what he has to to protect the sport.  Only he picked such an inconsequential thing to get tough about that he just looks like an idiot.

There is no way around the fact that the NFL and Roger Goodell have made the decision that deflating some footballs is more serious than illegal drugs, child abuse, battery, and purposely trying to injure other players.  That makes Goodell and the NFL the bad guys.  And if they are the bad guys, Tom Brady and the Patriots have become the good guys.  I never thought I’d say this, but go Patriots.

Knife Control

In the news surrounding Freddie Gray’s murder and the ensuing outcry in Baltimore, one thing has shocked me.  It’s really sad that only one thing has shocked me.  It ought to shock me that the police would arrest someone without cause and then kill that person while transporting him to jail.  It ought to shock me that the police officers involved would fail to show any remorse for what happened.  And it ought to shock me that the police union and other powers that be would blindly support the police officers involved.  Unfortunately, those are all common enough occurrences that they don’t shock me.  The thing that shocked me was learning about America’s knife laws.

The police officers that arrested Freddie Gray are claiming that they were justified because Gray was carrying an illegal knife.  Let’s ignore the fact that he was not attacking someone with that knife, he was not brandishing it or talking about it or threatening anyone with it.  He was simply carrying it.  When I read that, I started to wonder about what can make a knife illegal.  Did he modify it in some way?  Did he buy it on the black market?  Was it too big?  Too sharp?  Not sharp enough?  This was partly curiosity, and partly practical.  I like to fish, and I have been known to carry knives with me on fishing and camping trips.  Have I been breaking the law?  I know knives can be dangerous, but I try to be safe with them.  I certainly never thought I was doing anything illegal.

Like everything else in the United States, knife laws vary greatly from place to place.  If I understand the law correctly, an automatic knife can be owned in Maryland, but it cannot be carried.  An automatic knife is apparently a knife like a switchblade.  The police are claiming that Gray’s knife was an automatic knife while the lawyers representing Gray’s family say it was not.  They say it was spring assisted, but not automatic.

I think it was the phrase “automatic knife” that got my attention.  It seems that the reasoning behind the illegality of carrying an automatic knife is that it’s sole use is as a weapon.  The same is true of stilettos and even brass knuckles.  This would seem to be sound reasoning until the moment we remember that guns are weapons, too.

Every time there is a law restricting guns, people, led by the NRA, go crazy.  It is supposedly an infringement of our second amendment rights to disallow carrying handguns or requiring a license for concealed carry or banning large magazines or banning automatic guns.  But, the thing is, none of those things have any use other than as weapons.  The NRA argues that they are used for self-defense, but why can’t a switchblade be used for self-defense?

The second amendment says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  It doesn’t say a word about guns.  It just says arms.  That would include swords, knives and bayonets, especially when looked at from the point of view of the founding fathers.  It is incredible to me that the courts and legislatures allow sensible knife control when they steadfastly refuse to have sensible gun control.  At least I’ve now done a little research and know that I have not been acting illegally.  In my state, it is legal for hunters and fishermen to carry knives, provided those knives are being used for hunting or fishing.