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Race mattters

FacesMany people like to think they're colorblind.

"I just don't notice people's color," they say. "And if I do, it makes no difference to me." Sure.

Unfortunately, there's plenty of evidence to the contrary. Most recently, researchers at Yale conducted an experiment on eBay, the popular online auction site.

They put some vintage baseball cards up for sale. In the accompanying photos, some of the cards were held by a light-skinned Caucasian hand, others by a dark-skinned African-American hand. 

Cards held by African-American sellers sold for about 20% less than those held by Caucasian sellers, and the race effect was more pronounced in sales of minority player cards.

So race -- or more accurately, color -- matters.

In fact, Dr. Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College, told me it's probably a mistake to set out to be "colorblind," much less to pretend to be.  I interviewed her for Otherwise and she told me, “Being ‘colorblind’ is not a good thing.”

“Race matters in our society," she said, "and it’s important to acknowledge that fact, not to wallow in it or to point fingers, but to recognize that some problems are influenced by negative racial attitudes.”

It's also important to realize that those attitudes aren't limited to the kind of people who trade baseball cards. Even those of us who think we're part of the post-racial world harbor unconscious bias.

Owning up to that is part of becoming Otherwise. 


Skeptic or cynic?

IfillI followed PBS' Gwen Ifill on a speaking platform yesterday.  

She was, as expected, witty, insightful, thoughtful, and a tough act to follow.

Much of what she said in her wide-ranging survey of the times we live in was relevant to my work on Otherwise.

For example, her thoughts on the difference between a skeptic and a cynic.  "A skeptic asks questions," she said. "A cynic has all the answers."  

Sadly, it appears we are becoming a nation of cynics.

Iffil said that when she speaks to young people, she's often asked how she can stand to share a stage with people she obviously disagrees with. The question saddens her.

She tells them they should always enter a conversation -- or even an argument -- open to the possibility that they'll learn something.

She calls it being "open to unlikely outcomes." 

Separated at birth?

OWSvsTPJim Sinclair describes himself as a "liberal-leaning libertarian who believes in tolerance, diversity, and compassion, and is offended way too easily."

He's also brilliant, as demonstrated by the Venn diagram to the left. It neatly captures the over-lapping concerns that are animating both Wall Street Occupiers and Tea Partiers.

As Sinclair puts it, the Occupiers and Partiers are "raging against different halves of the same machine" -- big corporations and big government working together to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

Now, Venn diagrams are as popular with consultants as two-by-two matrices and waterfall charts. But they do have their uses. And in this case, I think they capture what's actually going on behind all the hijinks and outrageousness the media devotes so much time to.

It may be too much to say that these two groups were separated at birth.  But, as I suggested before -- but didn't illustrate so graphically -- they have much more in common than they realize.

It's time for them to figure that out.


Tocqueville_tea_party2 (1)"American exceptionalism" is a widely misunderstood political concept.

Alexis de Tocqueville (left) coined the term in his classic survey of the United States, Democracy in America.  

De Tocqueville simply meant that democracy took a different course in America because we didn't have the old world's baggage, such as a class of aristocrats and a state religion. To de Tocqueville, exceptional meant different, not better.  

But some Americans have long believed that we truly are "exceptional" in the sense of "above normal standards of behavior."  These are the people who don't want us in the UN or at least not paying for it, and, under no circumstances, listening to it.

It seems to me that there are now two new strands of exceptionalism in the land.  

On the one hand, are politicians who believe in "Beltway exceptionalism," the notion that Washington knows best. That's what seems to have the Tea Party in a boil.  

At the other end of the political scrum are the Occupy Wall Street protestors who are all worked up about "Corporate exceptionalism," the idea that Big Business shouldn't be encumbered by the nusiances of regulations or held to any goal but piling up lots of cash.  

The Tea Partiers and the Occupiers may have more in common than they think. In their own bizarre ways, they both object to factions whose sense of common good has been blinded by their own self-righteousness.  

 Now if they could only recognize it in themselves.                                                               



What do they want?

06TH_WALL_STREET_800793fMany of us who came of age during the Vietnam era have trouble understanding the Wall Street protestors.

In our day, we occupied a few parks, as well as the offices of college presidents and military recruiting stations. We were just as loosely organized. But our message was coherent and simple -- end the war, bring the troops home.  

Of course, when the war finally did end, it was anything but simple. But by then we were on to different causes, like earning a living and building a career.

So maybe we should cut the Wall Street protestors some slack.

If they don't have a consistent message and aren't terribly specific about remedies, it may simply reflect the complexities of the problem.

For example, read Joe Nocera's column in today's New York Times and you'll begin to understand how unprecedented our current economic situation is.  And how difficult it will be to return to something appoaching normalcy. 

Meanwhile, I think it would be a grave mistake to underestimate those kids in downtown New York -- as well as their cohorts around the country. They may not know what they want, in legislative terms, but the source of their anger and fear should be obvious.

Some 15 million Americans don't have jobs.  Another 10 million can only find part-time work. Overall, the median household income has fallen 10 percent since 2007. Nearly a quarter of home owners owe more on their houses than they're worth. A record number of families (45 million) are receiving Food Stamps.

In contrast, corporations are sitting on a cash hoard of $2 trillion dollars. Earnings are up. Hedge fund managers and CEOs are taking home eight and ten-digit salaries. Income inequality has not been as high since the 1920s.

Politicians and business leaders had better pay attention. The people in Zucotti Park may move inside when it gets colder and starts to snow. But their anger and fear won't go away. 




Moral genes

Brain (1)
The philosophers' long-running monopoly on questions of morality may be ending.

 Biologists may have discovered the genetic basis of what some call our "moral instincts."

Working under a grant from the National Institutes of Health, a group of scientists have located a single gene that seems to be involved in certain moral decisions.

The particular moral decision they tested is the familiar Trolley Car problem. You control a switch that will route a runaway trolley onto one of two tracks. Throw it one way, and five people will be killed; the other way, one person will be killed. What do you do?

Most people would say that, under the circumstances, switching the trolley onto the track with only one person is morally justified. But some people disagree.  

The researchers discovered that people who have the "short" version of a single gene were more reluctant "to endorse actions resulting in foreseen harm to an innocent individual."

The gene in question controls how serotonin is transported in the brain. Researchers have long known that serotonin levels can influence people's emotional reaction to such situations. But this is the first time the phenomenon was traced to different forms of a single gene.

You can find the news release announcing their discovery here.

All of which may help explain why even philosophers have difficulty agreeing on the right solution to moral dilemmas. 


Haves and have-nots

Haves havenots P
ew Research has discovered that the nation is split when asked if we are a country of "haves" and "have-nots."

The complete report is here.

While 45% say that is a fair description of American society, 52% say it is incorrect to think of the country this way.  

Democrats and Independents are more likely to see economic divisions (59% and 47%) than are Republicans (27%).  

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of African-Americans see a nation that is economically divided, while less than half (40%) of Whites do.  

So we appear to be divided on which divisions divide us.

Interestingly, despite the Great Recession, those numbers have not changed very much since 2008, though they are significantly higher than in the 1980s when far larger majorities rejected the idea that we are a nation of "haves" and "have-nots."

But what's even more interesting is the big change in the numbers who consider themselves to be among the have-nots.  In 1987, just 14% did; that number has now doubled to 34%.