February 8th, 2018



I'm currently reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The book, as you can probably tell from the title, makes the argument that the systems of mass incarceration in the U.S. are systems of racial control. Because these systems have been framed as tough on crime rather than tough on ni**ers, they have been able to claim they are colorblind despite their hugely disparate impact on people of color.

That Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey and others climbed up out of poor neighborhoods only makes it easier for the systems to argue that black men who are in prison have only themselves to blame. And, it makes it harder for otherwise anti-racist white people to see the systems as race-based controls.

Last year, the only woman to have ever won the Fields Medal (the highest prize in mathematics) died. When she first won the Fields Medal, I posted a link to one of the newspaper articles about it with my own comment: I look forward to a day when the sex of a mathematician isn't worth calling out. After reading The New Jim Crow, I worry about my comment. Is it just a libertarian/meritocracy (pronounced: /white boy/) dream-world?

On the one hand, I certainly do look forward to a day when the math world is so integrated (no pun intended) that it is unremarkable for a woman to receive an award. On the other hand, The New Jim Crow definitely has a point that it might be easy to declare STEM-equality won long before it really is. Will the systems just adapt to look like equal opportunity yet select for what it has always been?

It has been for U.S. employers to discriminate based on race since 1964. Yet, studies show that the blackness or whiteness (or the maleness or femaleness) of the name at the top of an otherwise identical job application dramatically changes the number of interviews the applicant lands or the salary they are offered.

Have we done the same in other areas of life? The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Doesn't it? But, it's still completely legal to have a requirement like be able to carry 45lbs for a job. It is still common for able-bodied hiring managers to think a disabled person unqualified to perform basic job duties because the able-bodied person can't imagine how the disabled get those things done.

Who is not you? Who is Other? Are we congratulating ourselves on how little difference there is nominally in that difference? Or, are we recognizing the myriad underlying ways that difference is actually huge?