The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, January 17, 2008

No "Yee-Haws" Please

In the race versus gender discussion, Steve Perry points out that anecdote doesn’t equal science. He’s right. The trouble is that the relative significance of any non-subjective data (rates of violence, longevity, income, status, etc.) all have to be ranked, ultimately, by human beings. Now, I’m perfectly willing to take the position that the question (Do blacks or women experience more discrimination in America?) can’t be answered. That was MY original intent. It got broadened into “worldwide”, which was NOT my intent, but O.K., I guess that’s an even more important question.

But here’s my point: how do we decide which standards are most important? Each and every one of them can be deconstructed, or de-emphasized according to someone’s political or philosophical position, and I’ve either heard or been a part of discussions in which that happened. Here are some for instances:
1) Income. How important is the comparison between males and females? Or blacks and whites? Feminists typically take the position that the raw figures can be taken into account. Anti-Feminists take the position that this isn’t fair, since you aren’t considering time in job, height, percentage of group willing to compete in this arena (and thus available for networking, etc.) Afrocentrists take the position that white women benefit from being married to those high-earning white men. This forces us to talk not about men and women, but SINGLE men and women. And the argument goes on, with people on each side screaming that they’re right.
2) Life expectancy. Under ordinary circumstances, I’d consider life expectancy to be more important than anything other than Infant Mortality Rate. But the infant mortality rate for white males and white females favors women. For the children of white males and white females…well, that’s pretty obvious. Again, factor in “single” and the stats shift, but that wasn’t a part of the original question, was it? Women live LONGER than men, but that’s partially biological, and partially the result of men having more of the dangerous jobs and being more likely to die due to violence. Perfectly natural for women to point to the fact that men COMMIT most of the violence, so it’s natural they should die from more of it. To which a man can reply that men are programmed, partially by women, to be aggressive and power-seeking. And the two sides scream at each other. Racially, black women live a shorter time than white women, and their children die sooner. Oops! That would seem to be pretty strong, considering that the survival of our children is central to every human group, everywhere in the world. But it could be argued (and is by books like BELL CURVE) that this is due to intrinsic differences between the groups (namely intelligence) and not due to racism. And the two sides scream at each other.

Whether you’re talking about deciding on the arenas in which data will be measured, or giving relative weight to the different arenas, subjectivity is involved. Every human group other than black females will have MORE axe to grind here. Sure, they will too. But even the axe they choose to grind is indicative of whatever stresses they have experienced. Unless we have Martians, completely outside the system of black-white, male-female, I think that this one group comes the closest to having clarity.
Now please note that I’ve worked very hard to keep from coming to a conclusion here, because when it comes right down to it, I don’t believe I can. I am “inside the box” myself, and even my choosing this standard could be somehow loaded. An example is the way I began asking black women this question some years ago. I figured that about ten answers would give me something to average, and an indication of which way the wind blew. I asked about five, and every one of them said the same thing: race.

All right, I said to myself. That wasn’t what I’d expected. I thought that it would be more evenly distributed, and realized that my sample was hardly random. And stopped asking the question. When I decided to do an NPR piece on it, Ellen Silva at All Things Considered asked me to continue canvassing. I combed through my address book, discounting some possibilities (one woman ran a black-themed book shop. I refused to ask her on the same grounds it would have been silly to ask a woman who ran a Feminist book shop), and had a range of ages from 35 to 80, raised all over the country. And I STILL got the same answer.

But I know that my sample is too small, and still slanted. I still don’t believe I can come to a conclusion. But I’ve tried very, very hard to be fair here, I hope you can see. More importantly, Dan Moran hits a nerve (a good thing) when he points out the nature of damage from rape and abuse. I will die and burn in hell before I deliberately cause a fraction of a hair of pain in women who have been hurt by men. Not in this life time. So I stay with the position: “we can’t know. But if we could, there’s only one group that could tell us.” I’m not trying to convince anyone else. Just describing the way I think.
Muddy meditation this morning. 2007 was the year from heck. Woulda been the year from hell, but after we got the Fox Searchlight papers signed in July or whatever, the stress was all an embarrassment of riches. Most writers would kill to have the “stress” I have in my life right now. I need to keep that in perspective.
Still, I have to be aware of how my brain is processing stuff.
Note that Obama is beating Clinton handily among black voters. Just six weeks ago, the polls were completely different. The shift is that black voters now believe that whites will vote for him. That’s the big one. My cynical side says that they’re looking for plausible reasons to jump ship without making it look as if race is involved. Because if it is, they give whites implicit permission to vote along racial lines as well—a losing position. Note that Hillary can openly talk about “a woman in the White House” while Obama does not. I suggest that this is because of both his inherently non-dualistic philosophy (which I embrace) and because he knows he’ll lose if he tries it. It’s entertaining to watch the two groups jockeying for position. It’s actually the most fun I’ve ever had watching politics. As long as I don’t become convinced she’s some kind of monster (and frankly, I just don’t understand the venom many people, male and female, feel toward her) it’s kind of a win-win for me. Pop the popcorn. And watch people lying with a straight face. Here’s hoping no one pulls a Howard Dean “Yee-Haw!” although I really don’t understand why that screwed up HIS candidacy, either. I guess I’m just oblivious about these things.
My body is finally allowing me to jump rope more easily—I’m working on ten minute segments, while tripping over my feel too damned much, of course. But it gets a little better every time.


Mike Ralls said...

Hey Steve,

On this blog we've talked about the high black out-of-wedlock birth rates before, and I just came across an article that explains a factor involved in that which I never considered before, the high black male prison rate results in those black males who are not in prison having a higher bargaining position in the dating market, and many of them use that power to have sex without marriage;

"What's more, the likelihood of young black women not marrying is greatly exacerbated by another trend: it appears that young black men who are not in prison typically take advantage of their strong bargaining position by not bothering to marry at all.

Charles and Luoh are able to examine this statistically because they have data across all 50 states and for the 1980, 1990 and 2000 census. So they are able to compare the situation of women in different times and places, taking into account background trends as they vary across the country and from decade to decade. They estimate, for instance, that a one percentage point rise in the proportion of young black men in prison reduces the proportion of young black women who have ever been married by three percentage points. In states where 20 or 25 percent of the available men are in prison, young black women become very unlikely to marry. The effect is even more dramatic for uneducated women, since women tend to pair up with men of a similar education level, and uneducated men are particularly likely to end up in jail.

There are a lot of African-American single moms around, and some commentators are inclined to blame this fact on "black culture"—whatever that phrase might mean. But "black culture" doesn't explain why the single moms are disproportionately in the states where lots of young black men are in prison. Economics does: women's bargaining power is badly dented by the imprisonment of potential husbands. The better-educated guys stay out of jail, and they are smart enough to realize that with the competition locked up, they don't have to get married to enjoy themselves. "Culture" is no explanation; that women respond rationally to a tough situation is a much better one."

Anonymous said...


on the basis of my experience
with around 70 women
most of them incest victims
as well as being born into
and raised
(if you can call it that)
under brutal and brutalizing "family" environments
that income figures and profession
hardly make for defining "worse/worser/worst" for them
and there are many more women
(of all colors/races
in the USA and globally
in these conditions
than anyone in her/his right mind
would like to think there are

NB: I am not saying
this makes a case for women having it worse than blacks
I refuse to engage in that particular discussion
there actually hasn't been any screaming here
of the proud/defiant
"I've had it worse" mantra.
so why continue with this,
what seems to me to be,
unproductive disquisition?

what makes it important???


Kukulkan said...


I think you hit a nail head on. Whites looking at polling results cannot help but conclude that Obama is dominating the Black votes because of race. I assume the following: (1) there is some percentage of Whites (hopefully small) who will not vote for a Black, (2) there is some percentage of Whites who consider the race of the candidate (some will consider Black a positive and others a negative) as a factor in deciding how to vote, (3) there is some percentage of Whites (probably small) who honestly are agnostic as to race when deciding how to vote. The second group is the group Obama needs to court most assiduously, and it's also the group most likely to alter how they vote based on the polls showing Blacks solidly behind Obama. By seeing such a clear example of race based decision making, some Whites in the second group inevitably are going to feel threatened in an us versus them way and will increase the negative weight they give to race in deciding how to vote. Some Whites will say to themselves, if Blacks can vote based on race, so can I.

In short, I think the fact that the polls show such overwhelming solidarity amongst Black voters may have a negative impact on the White vote for Obama.

I hate polls, since they do more than reflect the thinking of the voting populace -- they alter they way people think. Moreover, you can influence the results of a poll simply by how the questions are phrased. The power of the media frightens me.

Steven Barnes said...


What makes it important is that there are people who HAVE made up their minds one way or another, and they inserted themselves into the national dialogue. That makes the question of interest to me, because I realized I had a perspective on it I'd never heard before, and I wanted to implant that meme in the culture.

Mar said...

Hi Steve,
You wrote
"... hoping no one pulls a Howard Dean “Yee-Haw!”... I guess I’m just oblivious about these things."

I doubt that you are oblivious, I suspect that you are so smart and sensative that you are not deceived into seeing what is not there. When others are deceived it leaves you wondering what they saw that you missed, but in reality they missed what you saw.

I think that most of what we hear in the MSM are lies. What Hillary said about MLK did not sound like she dis'ed him or Obama when the entire statement is available. The NYTimes "reprinted" her statement 3 times WRONG! Each time it sounded inflammatory in a different way, and I don't see that it was. Today's tempest in a teacup is about Obama's comparison of himself to Reagan. Taken in context, it is a reasonable comment although Obama is far more qualified and way smarter than Reagan. Why it is being blown out of proportion with a negative twist is a mystery to me. Same with Dean's statement four years ago that seems to have ended his presidential bid, it was pushed and pulled all out of proportion.

Perhaps I go on and on, so here I'll cut to the bottom line:

I think we are being herded like cattle in an abattoir.

One switch in that herding is that Swift Boat Kiley is back slandering McCain. I saw an article quote Kiley's crap without mentioning that it was Kiley's crap. Later I saw a similar article do the same thing, then two screens or many inches away, talk about Kiley's crap without calling it crap. People DO NOT RECEIVE Purple Hearts just because they were wounded. There has to be an element of valour, honesty in reporting of the incident, and several other standards. The DOD sends out investigators who have read & studied in depth the written reports concerning the incident, to investigate the situation surrounding it. Kerry, McCain, and Murtha were all genuine war heroes who have been slandered (bearing false witness if you want to get 10 commandments about it).

Re Who's worse off?

While who is worse off is an interesting topic, especially the measurement points, and reading what studies have been done, etc., it is most important that we elect people who can start turning this around instead of promoting discrimination for their own financial benefit.

It makes me sick to think that there are ten of thousands of young black men and women who think their only "career" path is pushing drugs or taking drugs. In my part of the world the unemployment rates are at a 40 year low, as is crime (duh). High paying jobs, like commercial electricians, go unfilled because of a shortage of skilled labor. Why don't boys and girls learn that these trade jobs are there for them if they can complete the apprenticeship. These jobs pay between $80,000 and $150,000 a year. There was racial discrimination in the past and there may be now, but discrimination will end when it is side stepped/stepped over, and ignored for the individual's own betterment.

This country needs to pull itself up by the bootstraps and be great again. It is not going to happen with the GOP (Grand Old Perverts) standing in the way. While I would like to see Ron Paul blast through the Republicans (be skeptical about the reports of massive racism by him, since they are coming from the same folks that love Swift Boat stories), I will be a "yellow dog" Democrat and whoever gets the nomination gets my vote.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Mar, I don't think the word is getting out about what a good deal the skilled trades are. I'm something of an input junkie, and even I hadn't heard that electricians are being paid that well.

Even granting that if everyone knew those are good jobs, the competition for them would go up, it would still help if some publicity/word of mouth/something were done.

Long ago, I read a Wall Street Journal piece which claimed the problem in the skilled trades was a combination of unions not wanting the competition, and high school counselors who thought it was college or nothing, and a third factor I don't remember.

Stored rant: I think part of the problem is that we have an education system with no clear goal. Some possible goals would be "live well in the modern world" "good citizen" "entrepreneur" "virtue". I've heard that in the Renaissance, one of the major goals was being able to defend oneself in a lawsuit.

However, what we've got is a vague "do the usual academic things well enough to get a credential". I've heard a politician say that everyone should get a college degree so that they can get a good job and not be dependent on government aid. There was no mention of learning anything directly useful or enjoyable.

While I'm ranting: I'm horrified by the implications of the mortgage crisis-- it's not just the immorality of selling mortgages people can't possibly cover, it's that the financial industry, which gets paid a bloody fortune to make money, could not pull its act together enough to do research about what it was buying. And when I talk about this, I'm gently told that the incentives in the industry are such that there's no hope of it becoming more competent.

It's enough to make a person believe in psychohistory. (Psychohistory is an science fictional science invented by Isaac Asimov. Part of the idea is that sometimes societies get themselves into holes they can't get out of. If the emperor can't trust the generals not to raise their own armies and take over, that empire can not have an effective military.)

I don't despair for this country-- recent politics have shown that we have more resources that the folks who were expecting a straight slide into dictatorship knew, but what we need isn't just trying harder, it's a jump of insight.

Mar said...

I didn't know about the trades until I met some men (I've never met a woman in this trade, but I've heard of them from the men I know) in the trade. It is one of the highest paid trades, but everyone except apprentices makes more than most (all) teachers, most accountants, salesmen, some lawyers and computer programmers. You have to be smart enough to understand electricity, wiring designs, all the codes, read blueprints, do math, and have the physical strength to install pipe (what electrical cables run through) and pull the cable. That said, I think that lots of people could do it. Welding is another trade that doesn't get any respect. The list goes on and on. I asked one fellow about racism the other day, and he said that they don't have the luxury of that. They need people who can do the job, not horse around (guy was fired a few months ago for pointing a nail gun at someone's head while joking around), no drugs (a massive problem), and show up 40 to 80 hours a week (think of the overtime on top of great wages -- these are union jobs).

I think you are right about the college or nothing attitude of school counselors. But I am shocked at how little the unions know about tapping into young people when they are in jr. high school. I don't see many job fairs any more.

Love your rant on financial advisors: it takes a lot less to be a financial adviser than to be an electrician. I recently turned in my registered investment advisor licensing because I did not do it. Having taken the test, I can tell you that it was dead simple, focused on the regulatory law (which is important), and completely passed over how you do it. NOT ONE QUESTION!!!! Advisers get all their information from the company that hires them, so bank advisers, who get almost not support, recommend IRAs and savings accounts, while people in companies interested in mortgages get information on mortgages, and so on. I've had a real problem with the whole sub-prime market because what about the words "sub-prime" say anything but really risky!

There's a union bumper sticker (like little Zen sayings traveling randomly around town) that reads: "Apprenticeship: the original four year degree".

I think that self-respect and personal success would do a lot to change attitudes that continue to foment sexism and racism.

However telling people that something gives them success and it doesn't is not enough and even wrong. Sort of a digression, because this reminds me, however, of Bill O'Reilly saying that there are no vets living under bridges -- I gather from other sources there are about 100,000 Iraq/Afghanistan vets homeless today.

There is something so out of whack in our society when the military is seen as some savior for young people (yes it can be, but it's not the only one) while honest trades jobs are dis'ed.

Thanks for the rant space, Steve.