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Thursday, September 22

May there be many more

Moving in with a significant other presents some novel challenges. My favourite so far: last year I didn't have to worry about hiding her anniversary card between buying it and slipping it into her bag to discover on the way to work.
posted @ 9:35 AM -

Tuesday, September 13

Some thoughts on racism (part 2: New Orleans)

In part 1 I wrote about how the very visible racial divisions in Cleveland ended up tainting my own perceptions. Unfortunately Cleveland is far from unique in its racial segregation, and I think has had important consequences in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

There have been many accusations that overt racial bias is the reason why New Orleans seems to have been under-prepared for the effects of the storm, and why the emergency response was so slow to get going. I think that these accusations over-simplify the situation in a disingenuous way. I think overt racism of the sort that would lead someone at any level of government to say we don't need to worry about those black people stranded in New Orleans really is a thing of the past here, and even if that were not the case I find it hard to believe that a President who would appoint a black Secretary of State is at the same time guilty of such overt prejudice.

Having said that, it's impossible to ignore the extreme predominance of black faces among the people left behind in New Orleans, and it's quite clear that even within the majority-black population of that city, a disproportiante number of the people left behind were black. So if it's not overt racism, then what went on?

I think that there probably is some extent to which unconscious prejudice has contributed to the problems here. Perhaps it's easier to empathise with people like us, so once we start viewing the world through a racially distorting lens that turns black people into an outgroup, their plight doesn't motivate quite as powerful a response as it might. This theory suggests that just as news coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami focussed disproportionately on those places where westerners go on holiday, because that would make people care, images of black people stuck in a flooded city didn't make people care quite enough.

I'm not convinced that this theory accounts for more than a very small effect, mainly because the images from New Orleans were so extremely harrowing that I can't imagine anyone seeing them and failing to empathise. I think the real problem is something more subtle: the people were left behind because they were poor.

Some of the effects of poverty are very obvious; particularly the fact that these people didn't have cars. Others took me longer to understand. Mano Singham wrote a particularly good post on the subject, and rather than repeat his argument I'll add a personal example. If my apartment were to disappear off the face of the earth, with all its contents, Melinda and I would be well placed to recover. Because we have more than the bare minimum income we would need to feed and clothe ourselves, this household has insurance. Because we're considered good lending risks for banks [well, I am in the UK, and would be in the US if I were a permanent resident] we both have credit cards that would allow us to buy food and rent accommodation without having to wait for the insurance to cough up. Because we've travelled for university and jobs rather than always living in one city, we have friends and family who we could turn to even if the whole of Seattle were to disappear. Sure, we would experience great upheaval, but we needn't be stuck.

If we had both lived on the poverty line for our whole lives, none of this would be true.

By now it should be fairly obvious that poverty and race are not seperable issues in the US. Granted, there are poor white people and rich black people, but across a lot of the country race and poverty correlate starkly, as do race and access to education, and race and pretty much anything else that would provide an escape from the poverty trap, or an escape from a flooded city. This is the real scandal of race in the US; not that white people sit in their castles and decide to let the black people drown, but that when something comes along that affects poor people disproportionately it turns into a race issue because poverty really is a race issue here.
posted @ 9:26 PM -

Some thoughts on racism (part 1: Cleveland)

Even before Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, I had been meaning to write something about the problem of racism and racial divisions in the US. This was initially inspired by a reflective post on Steaming Turd, in which Barry discussed his discomfort travelling through the blackest residential areas of Cleveland, so I'll address that first because it leads on to the race issues exposed by Katrina.

Barry's post consisted of a few stories about peoples' perceived safety in various places, so I'll respond with a few of my own.

Cleveland has three areas that I think of as ghettoes, in the sense that their population is either entirely black or close to it, they are very visibly deprived areas, they have shockingly clearly defined borders with wealthy suburbs, and [non-black] people I know consider them unsafe to enter. They're not completely separate from each other, but there are either major roads or administrative boundaries separating them, and relative to where I lived they were in different directions. They're also not the only places in greater Cleveland where black people live; there are also areas that are predominantly black without being visible enclaves of poverty.

Anyway, I have cycled into or all the way through all three for different reasons, and often felt uncomfortable. The only part of them that I ever went into at night (discounting my trip right through East Cleveland when I didn't know any better) was just the edge of the ghetto because some friends lived a couple of blocks past the border of Cleveland Heights. By the time they moved, I had found myself seriously questioning the wisdom of cycling to their place, because inevitably I'd leave there late at night, and several times my hackles were raised by gratuitously aggressive teenagers on the street. Closer to my house, there is an area between where I lived and the Towpath Trail entrance, which I never even contemplated entering at night, because when I rode through it by day I felt like people were stopping to stare at the honky.

Barry effectively asked whether his feeling a similar discomfort in the same areas makes him a racist, and argued that it doesn't because it's a response to the area, not to black people in general. His account reminded me of how Brighton, in spite of being a generally very safe place to walk around, does have an area I wouldn't set foot in (Whitehawk). Really, my issues with Whitehawk were quite similar to my issues with East Cleveland, except that the population of Whitehawk is predominantly white, and it's subtler things like accent and clothing that set me apart there. So this discomfort in an area isn't necessarily down to issues of race.

Having said that, in my case I have to confess that I think I did become racially prejudiced because of what I was seeing. I say this for two reasons: the first is that my discomfort in the ghetto grew with repeated encounters, and the second requires another story.

Whenever I wanted to get to and from campus [and Melinda's house] without either riding my bike or getting a ride from someone, I could take the bus. There was a fairly frequent and reliable bus that went close enough to door-to-door that it was very convenient. I was usually the only non-black person on the bus, and to begin with this didn't disturb me at all. By the time I left Cleveland, I was no longer comfortable taking the bus at night. I hadn't been attacked or anything, but I had had some decidedly unpleasant interactions—with the drivers of all people—that smacked of racism on their part, and for two years I had been reading a succession of crime reports from university security in which the perpetrators were invariably a group of armed black males. I had reached the point where I did perceive a stranger in the street differently based on their skin colour. There's an important contrast between this situation and my perceptions of Whitehawk when I lived in Brighton: if I encountered someone who looked and sounded like they came from Whitehawk in another part of town, I wouldn't have any problem with them, but in Cleveland I reached the point of being nervous around black people wherever I was.

So I think I had absorbed the structural racism that permeates Cleveland, and it had started to colour my interactions with individuals (did that bus driver not stop when I pressed the button just because I'm a honky, or was it just because he was an arsehole to everyone? I'll never know). This made me very angry with both the city and myself.

I don't think I can write all of this and then deny that this is partly a matter of personal weakness. I abhor racism, and rationally I recognise that these sorts of prejudices are completely self-sustaining and that it's horribly unfair to judge a stranger on the colour of their skin. Yet I wasn't able to avoid making an over-generalisation that I know is irrational and that utterly disgusts me. That is mental weakness if ever I've seen it.

On the other hand, I didn't invent this prejudice. I picked it up from a city where the black and non-black [other minorities are much better represented in the middle classes of Cleveland—and in the student population at Case—than black people] populations live largely separate lives, in separate suburbs marked out in some cases by subtle signals like the presence or absence of trees or potholes on a street, and in others by horrifyingly blatant ones like roadblocks. I picked it up from a public transport system that is used almost exclusively by one group, because every member of the other seems to own a car and it's seen as seriously weird to choose to get around without one. I picked it up from a university which employs plenty of black people, but almost universally in administrative or manual jobs as opposed to teaching or research jobs, which were almost universally filled by white people or foreigners.

So my sin was merely to not be strong enough to reject a noxious influence from my environment. And I'm pleased to say that it hasn't taken me long since leaving Cleveland to shake this off. It's not that Seattle is free of race issues, but they are far less stark, and that's been enough to let me re-learn to treat people as individuals.

Unfortunately, the problem of poverty and education levels being so strongly correlated with race is far from endemic to Cleveland, and this is what brings my thoughts to New Orleans.
posted @ 7:58 PM -

Sunday, September 11

Quick update

The conference was excellent. Some things I really disliked about the venue and such details, but more importantly it had the highest concentration of interesting, relevant papers of the three conferences I've been to so far, and I got to know many interesting people, including one in particular who is working on very similar problems to my own work.

Canterbury is much nicer than I remembered from the University of Kent open day that I left early because I couldn't imagine living there, but it's still a very small place with not much of interest beyond the very touristy old city.

The Cathedral is impressive, but I found it rather overbearing, and it is a bit of an architectural hodge-podge. I have photos here. There is more to Canterbury than just the Cathedral itself, but I had neither the time nor the wide-angle lens I would have needed to take pictures elsewhere that would have been remotely worth sharing.

You know you're in a tourist town when the beggars can afford to feed the pigeons.

The time in London and Brighton either side of the conference (this trip was both business and pleasure, or like a mullet as Ben put it) was also great, but I wish I could have had a few more days. It was nice being able to not worry about work except while I was at the conference; quite a major contrast with the last time I was here.

I'm heading back to Seattle tomorrow (Monday). I can't wait to see Melinda again. This is the longest we've been apart since we met, and by far the longest we've been apart since moving in together, and it's been tough. I don't like being without her, and I especially don't like waking up without her next to me.
posted @ 4:25 PM -

Thursday, September 1

London photos

I've put pictures from yesterday up in a Flickr album. I neither wanted to interrupt the roadtrip photos on the photoblog nor wait months before putting these online, so this is the solution. They haven't been edited anywhere near as strictly as I do for the photoblog, but I have at least taken all the duplicates and pictures that came out badly out.
posted @ 1:35 AM -
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