Wednesday, November 26, 2014


I have read a lot about race as a biological or, (more accurately, for humans) as a pseudoscientific idea. There are no human races. There is only one living species of humans, Homo sapiens. We don’t speak of red roses and yellow roses as races of roses.  We speak of them as varieties.  There are many varieties of humans. Some differ in skin color, some differ in hair texture, some differ in the shape of eyes, some differ in size, and when it comes to what we cannot see, like blood groups, HLA types, and “genetic markers” in our DNA, we get even more numerous varieties of humanity.  The varieties measured by skin color are different from the varieties measured by blood group or by DNA markers.  In general darker skin color correlates with equatorial distribution.  In general lighter skin correlates with northern latitudes.  We know that humans had an out of Africa origin about 50,000 to 100,000 years ago and spread across the world. When a baby is adopted by an American couple from Africa, from Rumania, from Colombia, or New Guinea, that child will speak English, share American cultural values of the state in which she or he is raised, and reflect the values and culture of the nurturing parents.  What we call race in popular usage is really our perception of cultural or ethnic differences.
I am skeptical that we have innate fear of other races or cultures.  Young children tend to play together without regard to racial difference unless their culture makes them biased. That happens a lot.  It leads to a fear of those who are seen as a cultural threat. The police officer who killed an unarmed black youth (firing 12 times) saw him as a threat, a menacing hulk, although both were 6 feet 4 inches tall. The police officer saw himself as cowering and frightened by this perceived threat. Even if this were true, it tells us that there was something missing in his police training. If our police officers are to shoot first out of fear, civilians would be at risk. Every black youth would have to wonder: Do I respond to a police officer by lowering my head?  Do I say Yes sir at the end of each sentence?  If I lift up my arms in a surrender pose, will he see this initial movement as a threatening movement?  Will I hear him accurately?  Did he say don’ t move or did he say move out of the way?  If I respond will he think I am defiant?  Those questions are not as likely to run through the head of a white youth confronted by a white police officer.
I suggest the following. Use stun guns more frequently than bullet guns when dealing with unarmed suspects.  There are fewer deaths from jolts of electricity to subdue a suspect. Train police officers to deal with their panic and fears.  They could try role playing and imagine how they would respond if they were black and confronted by white police.  Hire more black police.  Use more black police to patrol black neighborhoods (they would help reduce the crime rate in such neighborhoods).  Stress community building in which police help youth with projects that better their neighborhoods.  Provide schools in black neighborhoods that at least have the same standards and quality as most white public schools. Provide opportunities for employment: clearing abandoned property and constructing pocket parks, community centers, and play grounds. Change use of drugs and minor drug dealing to misdemeanors and eliminate mandatory sentencing. Provide more lighting in public streets.

Racism is difficult to eliminate. Changes that improve education, safety, employment opportunities, and fair treatment are easier to change because they are specific and not theoretical.  Remember, too, that those incidents involving the shooting of unarmed black youths happen once or more each year and ask yourself, when was the last time you read about a white officer shooting an unarmed white youth? 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

How the World Works: Great People or the People’s History?

I like to read different slants on topics.  I learned that from my father, an elevator operator, who brought home the discarded newspapers of the clients he took to their floors. He brought home the New York Times, the Daily News, the Herald Tribune, the New York Post, and PM. I learned there was a left, right, and centrist view on how the world worked, which included war news, business news, the events of interest to New York City, politics, and World News. I also liked the variety of political cartoons and comic strip pages. Some saw President Roosevelt as First Dictator of the Republic (FDR) and others as a saintly presence who cared for the laboring man and his family.  I enjoy reading books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I also enjoy reading biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Taft.  The historians bring out the human side of names that otherwise just test items on an examination.  Implied in Zinn’s history is that “We the people” are both participants and creators of that history.  We like to single out the few great names (Presidents, financiers, scientists, writers) but their work would have been impossible without the ordinary tinkerers in the arts, mechanics, farming, business, and politics. 

I know it is true that every word in this Blog had an individual inventor whose name is mostly unknown to us.  Who first used read, topic, elevator operator, newspaper, comic strip, historian, inventor, or family?   Was it first used in English or did it get translated into English? We could ask that authorship for even simpler words like but, the, a, how, of, in, or that.  We might track down “newspaper” but who first used “the”?  The same is true for the first shirt, underwear, socks, shoes, or hats.  Much of it might be prehistoric. The people’s history of a country or a field of knowledge (like science) brings out the practical people of unknown name who first used the stars to navigate, who figured out how to make fire, who figured out how to harden copper into bronze, and who discovered which herbs were of medicinal value and which were poisonous or inert. The authors of people’s histories also include the stories of who first made bricks or urns or blades from metal instead of from flakes of stone. At the same time, it becomes harder after the industrial revolution for ordinary people to enter science without undergraduate and college coursework and laboratory experience. No amateur could work out the structure of DNA without some knowledge of x-ray diffraction or biochemical familiarity of the nucleic acids and their chemical components. No amateur could work out the function of the mitochondria without some knowledge of how living things oxidize the digested foods we eat to produce energy, carbon dioxide, and water as outcomes of the process.  We still need tinkerers and amateurs to improve the original findings, devices, and theories which are often not quite as accurate as they are claimed to be.  Thousands of papers have been published since 1953 clarifying the mechanism and circumstances for DNA replication, structure, and function.  Biographies and histories of fields of knowledge and the arts give us a richer insight into many of the wonderful accomplishments of civilization.  It is not an either/or choice.  Read both. They enrich our understanding of how civilization works.