raceAhead: King and Watson and The Sins of the Present

January 15, 2019, 7:25 PM UTC

Last night, House Republican leaders voted to remove Rep. Steve King of Iowa from his posts on the Judiciary and Agriculture Committees, a direct rebuke for his white supremacist statements. Although some of his colleagues had chided him in the past, it did seem a bit like a sudden pile-on.

Even Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell suggested that King should consider “another line of work.”

Perhaps Mr. King, who barely won his bid for his ninth term last November in a surprisingly tight race against a solid Democratic challenger in a conservative district, had finally worn out his welcome.

But he’s not the only one.

James Watson, a trail-blazing DNA scientist and 1962 Nobel Prize winner, is being stripped of his honorary titles after he made blatantly racist comments (again) in a recent PBS documentary “American Masters: Decoding Watson.”

Watson, 90, is best known for co-discovering the double-helix structure of DNA with Francis Crick (based on the work by chemist Rosalind Franklin.) He should have been equally known for a lifetime of racist and homophobic statements, which he rolled back from time to time with lukewarm apologies.

But it appears that he has long believed that genetics proves that white people are superior to black people, despite clear science to the contrary. So much so, that he once expressed doubt about the prospects for Africa, and despite hoping that all people were equal, he said, “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.”

I wonder if he ever had to deal with black employees.

He’s now lost his honorary titles at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York where he had been the director from 1968 to 1993. “[The laboratory] unequivocally rejects the unsubstantiated and reckless personal opinions Dr. James D. Watson expressed,” they said in a statement.

It’s painful to consider the kind of damage racists can do when they are free to shape policy, science, hiring, and the allocation of resources.

King and Watson appear to believe terrible things, things which their long-time supporters either missed or were prepared (or felt forced) to overlook. I confess I struggle with this.

I think the world would be better off if we came to some sort of reckoning about how to deal with powerful people who believe terrible things, and effectively address the opportunity costs associated with keeping useful bigots around. Until we do, we’ll still be punishing them when it’s too late.

Still, I think this is a moment to be hopeful, and that the sanctions of individuals will send a message that this way of thinking won’t be overlooked anymore.

For more on the theme of accountability, check out this brave new ad from Gillette. It speaks to the impact of toxic masculinity by addressing #MeToo, sexual harassment, bullying, male mental health, and the dismissal of women by men at work. But more poignantly, it captures the way that the culture has long supported these behaviors.

Called “The Best Men Can Be,” it is a deft update on their thirty-year-old slogan,“The Best A Man Can Get.”

It’s not subtle. Over scenes showing harassment, misogyny, and “boys will be boys” posturing, comes the narrator’s voice: “We can’t hide from it. It’s been going on far too long.” The implication is that things have changed. “We believe in the best in men. To say the right thing, to act the right way.”

I expect the message will resonate with Gillette’s other target audience, women. (Women drive 70-80% of all consumer spending, either through cash money or influence, after all.)

But a brief clip of Terry Crews, the actor and now-advocate for sexual assault survivors, is the closer shave. “Men need to hold men accountable,” he says.

It’s what an ally does. Sure, it may be too late for the Tiki torch crowd, but it’s a start.

On Point

The President jokes about the massacre at Wounded Knee in an attack on Elizabeth WarrenPresident Trump critiqued Warren’s announcement for her Presidential bid with this tweeted quip: “If Elizabeth Warren, often referred to by me as Pocahontas, did this commercial from Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen, with her husband dressed in full Indian garb, it would have been a smash!” The backlash was swift. Yesterday, Rodney Bordeaux, chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and NCAI Great Plains Alternate Area Vice President demanded an official apology. “I condemn President Trump’s racist and disrespectful tweet about this brutal incident, in which an estimated 300 unarmed men, women, and children were rounded up and slaughtered… he should apologize immediately to the people of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and other Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota nations for his shameful and ignorant misstatement.”Native News Online

Fast and packaged food companies spend more to target black consumers
Couple things to consider before you click through. First, the President served junk food at a White House reception for champion football athletes, many of whom are black. Next, First Lady Michelle Obama was soundly derided for encouraging kids and kids of color to eat fresh vegetables and move more. And now this: During the five-year period ending in 2017, corporate spending on food advertising trended down for every category except for ads targeting black Americans. This comes from a study from UConn’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity; in 2017 alone, black teens saw twice as many ads for unhealthy foods as their white counterparts. One data point: PepsiCo Inc.’s spending on TV commercials targeting black shoppers rose by 37% that year.

Cities make money on the back of the poor
It’s hard to be poor in a rich world, to find work, stay clean, take care of kids, get healthy, find love, find hope. It is the hallmark of all the “other side of the tracks” stories, that there, by the grace of God, go any of us. It’s what makes the continuing practice of punitive fines for minor offenses so terrible; moments of grace deferred. But it's systemic, and these laws continue to ensnare people who already have so little outside of strained relationships and despair. Such begins the tragic tale of Jamie Tillman, a young white woman who was arrested after dozing off at a public library and who sat in jail because she couldn’t afford a $100 fine. "Because we’re poor, because we’re of a lower class, we aren’t allowed real freedom,” she told The New York Times. “And it was the worst feeling in the world.”
New York Times

The next Silicon Valley billionaire who is promising to change the world
It’s Masayoshi Son, the chairman of SoftBank, not the other Silicon Valley billionaires you know, who is poised to shape the future, argues Fast Company’s Katrina Brooker. This is her look at his Vision Fund, his $100 billion “bet on the future of, well, everything.” The vision is an AI-fueled world, the singularity brought to life on time and under budget. Investments include a hospitality company in India, a Brazilian delivery start-up, and lots of real estate “disrupters.” Oh, and they’re set to raise $45 billion more from their primary backer, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Oh! The future sounds, well, complicated.
Fast Company


The Woke Leader

Looking ahead to 2020: Voters need to ask candidates to put diversity front and center
Bernard C. Coleman is Uber’s Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, but before that, he had a trail-blazing life in politics as the first-ever chief diversity and human resources officer for any presidential campaign (Hillary’s, if you’re curious). He makes the case for diversity being the country’s strength, then asks us to look for candidates who will demonstrably make diversity a core pillar of their campaigns. “The emphasis on diversity enabled our campaign to hire senior staff representative of all backgrounds—age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, geography, etc,” he begins. The campaign ensured pay equity for their staff, 55% of whom were woman and 40% of whom were people of color. “[W]e implemented cutting edge diversity workshops, ushered in diverse suppliers and most importantly, were able to offer more innovative ideas that enhanced the understanding of the diverse tapestry that is America.”

The rise of the queer comic
Here’s the thing about being a queer comic in a traditional comedy shop, a place where you can still hear the word “faggot” being worked into a joke, says Ira Madison III. “It means that when you decide to step on a stage and bare yourself to a crowd, you’re aware that the audience is historically used to you being the punchline.” It’s a balancing act of authenticity and truth, where placating mainstream audiences is both pointless and demeaning. Click through to meet Patti Harrison, a trans comedian and writer, Dylan Marron, writer and brilliant host of popular podcast Conversations with People Who Hate Me, and Bowen Yang, a comic and podcast host, who just joined SNL’s writing staff (A show that’s never had a full-time Asian cast member, by the by). Their work is not about assimilation, it’s about sharing the world through a queer lens. “I know what it’s like to not be seen as human. I want to use that knowledge to build a bridge to people I could easily choose to dehumanize myself,” says Marron.

If you don’t feel like celebrating on Martin Luther King’s birthday
Author Ijeoma Oluo was asked to give a speech to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and she explained that celebrating would be hard for her, given the terrible facts associated with race and life in America. “No—as a country, as a county—as a society—I do not think we get to celebrate yet. I do not think Dr. King would want to celebrate either.” Instead, she used his words as the basis of a call to do better. “There are so many ways to live and work in the love that Dr. King spoke of. There are so many ways in which you must. Because we cannot give back childhoods lost. We cannot put families back together. We cannot bring back lives lost. Love is an action. And you must act.” Her entire speech is below.


The view that the US negro is inherently less intelligent than the US white came from my concern for the welfare of humanity. My initial concern was not with the racial aspects, as these dysgenic effects occur for whites as well as blacks. If this is going on, it will harm both. I would like to stress that the failure of the intellectual community to deal with these matters is one of the cruelest irresponsibilities to a minority group that has ever occurred. If, in the US, our nobly-intended welfare programs are indeed encouraging the least effective elements of the blacks to have the most children, then a destiny of genetic enslavement for the next generation of blacks may well ensue…[I] am currently the intellectual in America most likely to reduce Negro agony in the next generation.
William Shockley, 1956 Nobel Prize winner, physics

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