Smart people saying smart things

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “A Flawed America in Context”

When you study racism, with all its attendent woes, there is something comforting about those kind of numbers. It tells you that whatever you are struggling with here is not a deviation from the human experience, but an expression of it. There is very little that “white people” have done to “black people” that I can’t imagine them doing to each other. America’s particular failings are remarkable because America is remarkable, but they are not particularly deviant or outstanding on the misery index. This is just sort of what we do. The question hanging over us though is this: Is this what we what we will always do?

Kathleen Geier: “Internet payday loans and the major banks that enable them: a growing scourge”

So what do the major banks get from participating in payday loans? It’s simple: it’s all about the overdraft fees. The automatic withdrawals frequently result in overdrafts, and that can add up to big bucks in overdraft charges for the banks. The Times article relates one particularly nightmarish story of a woman who visited her local Chase branch and closed her account — or at least, she thought she closed it. But it remained open, and Chase ended up charging her $1,523 in overdraft fees. Overdraft fees running into hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year are not uncommon. The payday lenders are by no means the only bloodsuckers here.

Rosemary Radford Ruether: “Can Men Be Ordained?”

A synod of bishops from the four corners of the earth, and a full panoply of Mother Superiors, recently converged on the Holy City of Rome to consider the vexed question of the ordination of men. The Holy See had received many tearful appeals from the cruder sex claiming to have a call to the priesthood directly from God Herself. But Her Holiness had firmly replied to these appeals that the call must have been a wrong number. Our Holy Mother in Heaven would never call to the ministry those so obviouslv disqualified by reason of gender. But the men had refused to take no for an answer. Throwing down their picks and shovels, they had declared that they would do no more maintenance work for the Church until there was equality of rites. They sent petitions to the Holy See, filled with arguments for the ordination of men, both theological and practical. Although, of course, they could cite no example from Jesus himself, the incarnation of Holy Wisdom, since he most evidently had ordained no men to the priesthood (or women either).

John McKay: “Mini-Snopes: Congressional pay edition: again”

I’m all for economic populism, but let’s focus on the right things. How much pay Congress makes is not important. How much pay you make is. How much Social Security and Medicare your parents, grandparents or you collect is. How much food, rent, and medical support other vulnerable Americans get is. If you’ve fallen into the the trap of hating the poor, then do it for the veterans. Many of them are poor, old, hungry, and sick. Everyone loves the veterans, in theory. It’s too bad they don’t care as much for the civilians that the veterans were protecting.

Will Bunch: “If This Is the Deal, Philadelphia Schoolteachers Should Strike”

Strike? I know what some of you are saying: What about the kids? Spare me. Aside from the basic — and fairly obvious — fact that the long-term education of Philadelphia’s children would die the death of 1,000 cuts here, there’s something bigger at play. What I would like Philadelphia’s — no, America’s — kids to witness first-hand, more than anything else, is that they can grow up to be adults who will fight for their rights, for their families — and for their human dignity.

And win.

"I reported "her" for spam & blocked "her" ass before I saw those. Not a ..."

Standing by
"Our new friend promised me up to $6154 monthly if I worked for Discovery Communications, ..."

Standing by
"Get pait /per month up to $11446 by working for Conagra Brandsonline"

‘That’s why we are here’
"Get pait /per month up to $11446 by working for Conagra Brandsonline"

Sunday favorites

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Geoffk

    > Did you even SEE the ‘Obama the African witch doctor’ graphic?

    Actually no, I didn’t.  Did the head of the Republican National Comittee (a black man) endorse it?  Did any prominent Republican?  Was it considered to be witty and proper?  Or was it considered a horrible embarassment by almost everyone?

    Extremists don’t make up the majority by definition.  You can always find a few idiots.  The question is how the greater society views their work.

  • AnonymousSam

    And here’s Fox News, the largest news media corporation in the United States, proclaiming that condemning Judge Scalia for scoffing at the whole notion of blacks being able to vote is a liberal double standard.

  • Geoffk

    > Let me summarize it more accurately: “If I’m white, my race is never an
    > negatively affecting my quality of life.” As yours clearly never
    has been.

    I suspect that’s true for me, but I am reluctant to say that it’s been a positive benefit either.  It certainly didn’t help to get me into law school.  And a white candidate who didn’t get into law or med school in favor of a lesser-qualified minority certainly could clam that they have been negatively affected by their race, albeit in an institutionalized way.

  • AnonymousSam

    Our extremists get voted into offices by a not particularly trivial percentage of the population.

  • Geoffk

    I think Fox news was perfectly right to complain about a Supreme Court Justice being characterized as a “troll” by a news commentator.  And I think Scalia was being realistic when he questioned whether blacks are really being actively prevented from voting in Alabama in 2013, and require special treatment to avoid being kept from the polls.

    But, then again, I think requiring an ID to vote (just as one is required to cash a check or board a plane) is not racist either.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Maybe not in Alabama, but didn’t Ohio make a point of extending voting hours in majority-white areas and restricting voting hours in majority-minority areas?

  • AnonymousSam

    So you don’t disagree with the right to vote being a racial entitlement that blacks can do without? You do realize the only reason to repeal the Voting Rights Act is to deny people the right to vote, yes? And that the majority of people denied the right to vote will be black, because the policies enacted to make it harder to obtain and maintain that right disproportionately affect certain groups of people? That the people enacting these policies are aware of this documented fact and are purposefully acting upon it with that in mind?

    Just so we’re clear.

  • Geoffk

    Nobody is proposing to repeal the Voting Rights Act.  What they are proposing is to repeal Section 5, which applies special requirements to a few counties, mostly in the South, which were judged in 1964 to require special scrutiny.  Alabama is arguing that they are no longer the same State that they were 50 years ago, and the same rules that apply to the other 49 states should apply to them.  This does not seem unreasonable to me.

    Situations change, and laws should change to reflect them.  Affirmative Action is a similar situation.  It may or may not have been needed in the 1970’s, but that doesn’t mean that it’s needed or a good idea today or permanantly.

  • AnonymousSam

    Voter Rights Act
    – We
    urge that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 codified and updated in 1973 be repealed
    and not reauthorized.

    – Texas GOP platform, 2012, retrieved from

  • And a white candidate who didn’t get into law or med school in favor of
    a lesser-qualified minority certainly could clam that they have been
    negatively affected by their race, albeit in an institutionalized way.

    Are you seriously recycling that old crap? I mean, seriously. Everybody who criticizes affirmative action always includes “lesser-qualified” without bothering to back up that claim. And I’ve seen that crap as far back as the mid 1990s.

  • Geoffk

    “Everybody who criticizes affirmative action always includes
    “lesser-qualified” without bothering to back up that claim. And I’ve
    seen that crap as far back as the mid 1990s.”

    Maybe because it’s obviously true?  The whole point of Affirmative Action is to give weight to minorities who otherwise wouldn’t b admitted based entirely on objective measures like grades and test scores.  And, as a consequence, minorities have a much higher failure rate in their first year of college, since their academic qualifications are often out of step with their peers.

    I wasn’t aware that this was a claim requiring proof.  It seemed like the primary intent of the exercise.

  • EllieMurasaki

    That’s it. I am done engaging this one. I am going to finish out my work shift without saying another word to him, and then I am going to go home and ignore my email for a few hours while I write a short story starring a black woman who has had to overcome racism, sexism, and classism to get and hold on to her position as head of a largish company. Much more productive way to spend my evening than arguing with someone who does not even realize that race and household income are factors in educational success at the K-12 level.

    May I recommend the rest of you lot do the same? Not write my Tam Lin reboot, I mean, but. We have engaged in the ritual troll smackdown, the lurkers have been made aware that his views are unacceptable, we can stop feeding the troll now.

  • Geoffk

    “race…is a factor in educational success”.  

    Wow, what a horribly racist thing to say!  Are you seriously suggesting that race predisposes people to be poor students?  I certainly don’t know how else to interpret that…

    Anyway, I can take comfort in the fact that being called a “troll” (for expressing moderate and reasonably intelligent views) puts me in good company with Justice Scalia.

  • arcseconds

    Racism is publicly condemned by the right and the left.

    It sure is fortunate that:

    a) everyone means the same thing by ‘racism’
    b) everyone says the same things in private as they do in public
    c) everyone says exactly what they think
    d) no-one behaves in a manner that’s contrary to the way they think they behave.

    Otherwise, y’know, we might not be too willing to take public discourse as a good guide to how people actually behave!

    (It’s good to know that corruption and sexual abuse aren’t problems anymore, too. )

  • Geoffk

    arcseconds, that’s a fair point.  But you should realize that like corruption and sexual abuse, racism is now considered to be unacceptable behavior, to be done in secret, if at all.  50 years ago, racism was perfectly acceptable in much of the country, and acting on it was expected behavior.

    Even if there is still some gap between what people say and what they do, that’s a major shift in attitude and morality.

  • Or *gasp* could it be that Affirmative Action policies are designed to encourage equally qualified minority candidates to apply and be selected?

    Gosh no shucky darn. That couldn’t be made into a strawman for right-wingers to use to salve the egoes of white people who need someone to blame.

  • arcseconds

    Oh! I see the problem.  You think that by saying racism is still an issue, you think we’re saying that the USA has made no progress whatsoever since the 1950s.

    I’m not quite sure why you’d think that, but let me be the first to point out that everyone agrees that progress has been made (except for the few who think that civil rights legislation and desegregation were bad things).

  • Geoffk

    “Or *gasp* could it be that Affirmative Action policies are designed to encourage equally qualified minority candidates to apply and be selected?”

    Maybe, in a Perfect World, yes.  But here on Planet Earth, it’s designed to give people who wouldn’t otherwise qualify a leg up.  Deny the facts if it makes you feel better.

  • Geoffk

    “Oh! I see the problem.  You think that by saying racism is still an
    issue, you think we’re saying that the USA has made no progress
    whatsoever since the 1950s.”

    No, I’m saying that there has been a major sea change in attitudes.  From “racism is ok” to “racism is a vile crime that dare not speak it’s name”.  That’s more than “progress”, that’s a revolution, which ought to be aknowledged, but isn’t by some.

  • P J Evans

     Gee, I’ll make sure to remember this the next time I hear someone talking about ‘those people’ and ‘entitlements’.

    SRSLY, what cave do you live in? This is crap that is still going on, every fucking day!

  • arcseconds

    Who, exactly, is not acknowledging it? 

    You do understand that ‘significant progress has been made’ is quite compatible with ‘but I’m still finding this thing a problem’, right? I’m sure you do, but I’m kind of wondering whether you’re still somehow reading “being black means I don’t get called back as often, so my employment opportunities are inhibited” as “so the USA is basically apartheid South Africa!”

  • Geoffk

    Um, Te-Nahisi Coates, for one.  Reading his work, I think he feels the US and South Africa are close to identical.

    And I’m still not convinced that being black inhibits anyones’s employment opportunities in and of itself in2013.  Asserting that as a given isn’t the same as proving it, especially when evry major company has “minority outreach” programs and minority employment HR staff.


    Reading his work, I think [TNC] feels the US and South Africa are close to identical.

    Can you cite any work in particular that inspires these feelings in you?

    I’m still not convinced that being black inhibits anyones’s employment opportunities in and of itself in 2013

    When, on your view, was it last true that being black inhibited someone’s employment opportunities in and of itself?

  • arcseconds

    You accept that they were in 2001.  

    Do you have any proof that things have changed since then?

    After all, asserting that they have isn’t the same as proving it.

  • Geoffk

    TNC’s entire zetgeist is that the US a a seething hotbed of barely veiled racism which is holding the black community down.  He’s entitled to his views, but it’s hard to believe them, especially coming from a senior editor of a major publication.

    Explicit discrimination has been against the law since 1964 and has been more and more reviled every year since.  As I said before, I can’t say “this stopped in year XXX”, but I certainly think it isn’t a major problem today.

  • Geoffk

    I accepted that in 2001 a study showed that applications from blacks in poor neighborhoods got fewer callbacks.  I suggested that employers might have a rational basis for being suspicious of the capabilities of those applicants.  Black applicants in good neighborhoods, who employers might expect to have better skills, received more callbacks, suggesting that employers were more confident of their abilities.

    Unfortunately, for cultural and political reasons, many blacks have poor skills, which makes them difficult to employ.  But I don’t believe that a black engineer or MBA would be disadvantaged by their race.

  • > > Can you cite any work in particular that inspires these feelings in you?
    >TNC’s entire zetgeist …

    So… no?

    > > When, on your view, was it last true that being black inhibited someone’s employment opportunities in and of itself?
    > Explicit discrimination has been against the law since 1964 and […] isn’t a major problem today.

    On your view, is “explicit discrimination” the same thing as “inhibiting employment opportunities”? Or are you choosing to answer a different question than the one I asked for some reason?

  • Geoffk

    I think TNC’s body of work speaks for itself.  Read it again, if you have the stomach for it.

    I don’t believe that blacks with appropriate qualifications have any particular disadvantage in seeking work.  In many cases, their race may actually be an advantage.  Interpret that as you will.

  • I read TNC’s work regularly, and am happy to let it speak for itself.
    And thanks for the clarification.

  • arcseconds

     Well, this study is pretty interesting.

    They send two high quality and two low quality resumés to each employer, and assign within each pair of resumés a black-sounding and a white-sounding name.

    They find that white-sounding-named ‘applicants’ get one callback per 10 applications, and black sounding ones get one callback per 15 applications.

    Also, more experience on the resumé helps white candidates more than blacks.

    So, no, the study doesn’t allow for your explanation.

  •  So a 10% chance versus a 6.7% chance, to the same sig. figs. Are those numbers statistically significant from one another?

  • Maybe because it’s obviously true?

    It requires proof because

    The whole point of Affirmative
    Action is to give weight to minorities who otherwise wouldn’t b admitted
    based entirely on objective measures like grades and test scores.

    This part is patently false. It’s not the intention, it’s not the implementation. No qualified white kid was ever denied admission in favor of a less qualified black kid in order to comply with this law (It is entirely possible that some more qualified white kids were denied admission in favor of some less qualified black kids due to shoddy work by admissions departments attempting to comply with this law incorrectly, but I’d want to see actual proof).

    The intention and the implementation of the law could at “worst” only result in a white kid being denied admission in favor of equally academically qualified african american.

  •  Also, rape is no longer a problem because even rapists agree that rape is bad and something they’d never do, nope, never (What that? That wasn’t rape rape.)

  •  So… You don’t need to provide any evidence of affirmative action favoring unqualified black kids over qualified white kids because it’s “obvious”, and you don’t need to cite any examples to show that TNC believes the US is “the same as South Africa” because “it speaks for itself”.

    Is there any actual evidence you care to present for your claim that racism isn’t a big deal in the US any more?

    Because it sounds like you are saying “I got nothing and am talking out my ass, but racism isn’t a problem because I, all-seeing White Man, just kinda feel like it’s not a big problem.”

  • arcseconds

    Well, they give the p-value in Table 1 to show how it does against the null hypothesis, i.e. that there is no difference between the call back rate of black-named applicants versus white-named applicants.  

    (The p-value is the probabilty of getting the same result if the null hypothesis is true. )

    The p values for most of their figures are very low.   For the figures you mention, it is ‘0’ (they give it to 4dp, so less than 1/10000).

  • EllieMurasaki

    Could you rephrase that for those of us who didn’t take statistics?

  •  > Are those numbers statistically significant from one another?

    I haven’t read the study, and that question is unanswerable without reference to the study itself; although .1 is 15% higher than .67, that might not be a statistically significant difference. That said, the abstract reads “The
    results show significant discrimination against African-American names:
    White names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews” which suggests statistical significance.

  •  Something like “Given the way the data is distributed and the number of data points we have, it’s incredibly unlikely that the difference is just down to dumb luck”

  • arcseconds


    Let’s say you and I are tossing coins, and I keep calling heads and tend to win an awful lot.  You start to wonder whether it’s a fair coin.

    Now, a fair coin might produce any number of heads.  But the chances of it producing more heads than tails decreases the more tosses there are.

    So you can’t actually tell absolutely for sure that the coin is weighted using statistics alone, but the more you test and the more heads comes out more, the more sure you can be that it is.

    If we toss the coin 10 times and get 7 heads and 3 tails, then the p-value (for the null hypothesis that the coin is fair) is the probability of getting 7 or better  with a fair coin, which is 0.17 (i.e. 17%) (I used this binomial calculator to get that result

    Now, that might sound like it’s not all that likely, but remember that the chances of rolling a 6 on a fair die is also close to 17%.  Concluding that the coin is unfair at this point would be as silly as presuming that rolling a singe 6 on a dice proves the dice is unfair.

    So what we want is to know whether the outcome is in the ‘normal’ behaviour for a fair coin, and this is usually taken to be the kinds of outcomes you’d expect with a 0.95 probability, so the p-value should be less than 0.05, or a 0.99 probability, in which case the p-value should be less than 0.01.

    If we toss the coin 100 times and get 73 heads and 27 tails, the p-value is 2.3 × 10^-6, or 2 in a million.  That’s a lot less than 1%, so we can conclude that the coin is probably biased.

    Does that make sense?

    I’d have to confess that statistics is not really my strong point, so there is a distinct possibility I have made a mistake here, but that’s the basic idea.

  • OK so bottom line – lower p-values mean that the discrepancy with respect to calculations of results arising purely by chance is larger?

    (I did some stats, but not p-value stuff)

  • EllieMurasaki

    Gotcha. I kind of figured that from the abstract, but it’s good to know.

  • EllieMurasaki

    That makes sense, thank you.

  • P J Evans

     Or the case of my friend who was playing backgammon against an Atari 2600, and the computer was rolling doubles a lot more often than he was. As in suspiciously often: the computer seemed to be cheating.

  • arcseconds

     er… yes? I think?  Not quite sure I’ve parsed your sentence correctly.

    the p-value in this case is the chance of getting this result or a result with even greater discrepancy if black names and white names really have an equal chance of being called back.  The lower it is, the less chance there is that they really are on a equal playing field.

  • Lori


    For Ta-Nahesi (seriously, what do his friends call him?)  

    I imagine they call him by his name. Why would they not? The fact that some racist dolt on the internet apparently can’t manage it doesn’t mean that other people can’t.

  • Ok, then I understood it right. (^_^)b

  • arcseconds


    I’m not sure how much it is worth trying to discuss this further with you.   However, there’s a couple of other things I like you to consider.

    Some stage setting. I once had a view that’s not dissimilar from your own.  While perhaps I always had some sympathy for historical injustices and I never believed there was no racism, I thought that the problems were largely solved now and that a minority of people were conducting silly identity politics because it made them seem more important. 

    There’s a big temptation to think that society is basically fair, particularly if you’re doing well out of the deal.  To think otherwise can be distressing for many reasons.  One is that it’s suddenly much harder to be proud of your society.  Another is the realisation that one might be required to do something about it.  Basically, it’s a much less comfortable position to hold.

    At every point in history, lots of people have been inclined to defend the status quo as either being just dandy thanks, or at any rate the best that can be done in an imperfect world.  They’re now widely understood to be completely wrong about this.  Virtually no-one, for example, thinks it’s best for a black person to be a slave because they need the guidance of a white person in modern life.

    Saying that society has no room for improvement always involves refusing to listen to people who are telling you otherwise.

    On the face of it, the best and richest source of information about problems someone faces in life is the person themselves.  After all, they experience those problems directly.   If you were trying to work out what problems someone in a wheelchair experienced, the easiest way would be to ask them.  That will even uncover things that you can’t uncover by watching every move they make ­— pain and discomfort don’t necessarily show too well on video, for example.

    (yes, they might lie or exaggerate.  But what would give us warrant for thinking that? We’d need better information than their testimony, and we can’t get that from armchair speculation.)

    Those considerations should make us quite hesitant to conclude everything’s fine when someone tells us otherwise. 

  • arcseconds

     Two more things,

    I’m not sure whether you know this, but often when black folk and white folk talk about racism, they mean different things.  White people often think it means quite explicitly hating non-white people and deliberately seeing about their downfall, or something like that — basically being a KKK member.  You’d have to be fairly delusional to not know that about yourself, so when they say “I’m not racist”, they’re probably telling the truth.

    and when they say ‘society isn’t racist any more’ they mean something like ‘society isn’t filled with people who explicitly hate and loathe non-whites’.

    However, when black people (and bleeding-heart liberals) say ‘society is racist’, what they often mean is ‘society is in such a way that results in unfair outcomes for black people’.  A moment’s reflection will show that that’s entirely possible without anyone hating blacks or doing this deliberately.

    It’s entirely possible, for example, that this call-back study has nothing to do with attitudes about black people per se.   Perhaps it’s all about people feeling more comfortable hiring people with ‘normal’ names, and we’d find exactly the same result if  we sent in applications for Xavier D’Alembert and Gabi von Schmerzenberg.  (I even think that it is likely there’s a bit of this going on, but I doubt it’s the only factor).

     But if employers tend to ignore candidates except for Chuck Harris and Sam Stevens, and black people often have ‘odd’ names, then society still works out poorly for black people — they don’t get hired as often.  And that will have flow-on effects.

  • arcseconds

     The final thing is to remind you of the terrible statistics surrounding blacks and the justice system.  In 2009 the US DoJ estimated there were 2.1 million people in prison in the US, 840,000 of which are black.  That’s 40%.  Blacks are around 12% of the population, so it’s 3 times what it ‘should’ be.  In 1999, it was calculated that a black male has a 28% chance of going to prison during his lifetime.  I remember seeing a figure suggesting that at a point in time 30% of black males are under some sort of judicial oversight, either in prison, on parole, doing community service, etc.

    (and note that this will have huge flow-on effects.  having a criminal record and gaps in your employment history hurts getting jobs.  being in prison means you’re not earning money over that time and your children have a parent in prison.  The high probabilities involved mean that your children are likely to know several people who have gone to prison, making it seem much more normal to them than to non-black children)

    These figures can’t be explained by appeal to income alone.  Most people in prison had income under 24k$/yr when imprisoned. here we find that in 2010, 22% of white households had under $25,000, and 40% of black households.  So they’re twice as likely to be in this bracket than whites, but we have to explain a 3-fold increase in their incarceration!

    So what can one say about this?

    It seems to me that there’s three explanatory ‘poles’ we could head for:

    a) social factors such as upbringing, schooling, culture, employment,  etc. mean that black people end up being more inclined towards crime than other people (but the justice system is fair and there’s nothing about black genetics that predisposes them to crime)

    b) the justice system is unfair to blacks (but society otherwise treats blacks OK, and there’s no genetics at play)

    c) there’s something genetic about being a black person that inclines one towards crime. (but there’s nothing wrong with their upbringing, schooling, etc, and the justice system is fair).

    (note that they can’t really be independent.  If (c) is even a little bit true, then there will be more criminals raising children or otherwise present in children’s lives, so (a) will be somewhat true, too, and the greater number of criminals will mean that people are more likely to expect black people to be criminals, which may make (b) true, too. )

    Of course, you can combine these to produce your own explanatory cocktail.  

    But the more you think society is not racist, the more you’re forced into accepting (c).

    So the choice ends up being a somewhat stark one.

    Either society is racist, or you are racist.