Detroit Loved Me: Out of Sight, Never Out of Mind

This morning I had a fond memory of high school, a memory I hadn’t thought about in a long time.  In 1992 Spike Lee’s highly anticipated film, Malcolm X, was released.  In the film Malcolm X was played by Denzel Washington, whose performance was unambiguously more Oscar worthy than his later role in Training Day.  When the movie was released, my high school (Cass Tech in Detroit, MI) reserved the entire theater and dismissed us early so that we could see it.  The movie was phenomenal on its own, but experiencing it with my friends and classmates created a warm and lasting memory.  This led me to think about my experience at Cass Tech and my life in Detroit overall.

I’m originally from Boston, and my mom remarried when I was 14.  For almost all of my life up until that point my core family unit consisted of me, my sister, and my mom.  Certainly, my grandparents and other relatives were a big part of our lives, but my daily family life consisted of the three of us.  So, adding a fourth member was a big, sometimes contentious, proposition.  To top it off, we found out we were going to have to move to Detroit as a result.  I hated that I had to leave my family and friends to move to a place where we didn’t know anyone.  Whenever I would tell anyone we were moving to Detroit, they always said one of three things: “It’s cold as hell in Detroit”, “Be careful, there’s tons of crime there”, or “There’s too many niggas in Detroit”.  I think I had already decided to hate Detroit before I ever left Boston.

After school let out in Boston we drove to Detroit.  I remember we took the route through Canada, so we arrived in Detroit through the tunnel from Windsor.  The first order of business was for me to get enrolled in school for the upcoming fall.  When I was in Boston I attended a prestigious college prep school, The Boston Latin School.  You had to take a test to get in, and it was considered academically rigorous.  Well, my dad had heard of a comparable school in Detroit, Cass Technical High School, and decided to make a visit.  To avoid any confusion, my use of “dad” refers to the man my mom remarried.  Jerome A. Luke has considered me simply his “son” from day one, and I reciprocate in kind.  So, my dad goes to Cass Tech to register me and was disappointed to hear that registration was closed and that there were no more spots available.  My dad was not having it.  He made it clear that he had a family to protect and that he refused to lose another young Black kid to the streets.  He said he wasn’t leaving until I was enrolled.  I guess the principal at the time, Dr. David Snead, heard the commotion, came out of his office, and asked my dad to come talk to him.  Turns out they were frat bothers and both attended HBCU’s.  Dr. Snead assured my dad that they would make room for me.  As I write this, I don’t think I really appreciated that moment for what it was at the time.  A man, a father figure, laying it on the line for me.  He fought for me, and it wouldn’t be the last time.  I didn’t realize how much I needed that then, but I do now.  I definitely do now.

AP Calculus

AP Calculus Class.  Honored to have known these really smart people.

 

That interaction marked the beginning of an amazing transformation in me.  All of the stereotypes that I had about myself and people who looked like me began to melt away.  Detroit, for me, was nothing like everyone said it would be.  Well, it was cold as hell in the winters, but the summers were beautiful.  It was also a place where myriad positive representations of me were readily available, in a way that was almost unheard of in Boston.  A Black mayor, Black judges, Black school superintendent, and Black everything in between.  From museums to the African World Festival, we were everywhere.  At the time, Detroit had one of the highest (maybe the highest) Black homeownership rates in the country.  I don’t know how, but one time the deputy mayor and a few other somewhat high profile people showed up to a Christmas party my parents threw at our house in 1992.  We weren’t even remotely wealthy or connected, but I only bring it up to emphasize how accessible those types of people were in Detroit.  I came from an environment in Boston where my honors algebra teacher told me I should drop the class because I wouldn’t be able to cut it.  At Cass Tech excellence was the minimum expectation for me, and none of my teachers there ever discouraged me from pursuing lofty ideals.  In fact, they often pushed me into endeavors I hadn’t seriously considered before.  As a result, I was in the newspaper twice, won awards in science competitions, landed a coop job with the Electrical Engineering department at the Cadillac Division of General Motors, conducted nuclear physics research at the University of Michigan, and so much more.

Certainly, not everything is positive about Detroit, but enough has been said about those things by almost everyone who ever talks about Detroit.  I choose to focus on the qualities that helped shape me because that’s the Detroit I want everyone else to see.  The Detroit that even native Detroiters maybe take for granted.  Whether it was Coney Island, a #4 from Lou’s Deli, Eastern Market on a Saturday, cruising Belle Isle, getting your skate on, the Auto Show, or any of the many cultural activities, Detroit revealed a part of me to myself I never knew was there.   I moved to Detroit thinking I would hate it, but Detroit welcomed me and loved me so hard that I had no choice but to love it back.  In many ways, loving Detroit is loving me, loving us, and I’m eternally grateful.  Shout out to The D.

 

 

P.S. Much love to all the people who welcomed and embraced me, even when I was a jerk.  Nod to my football teammates, they were the first people my age I met in Detroit.  They also gave me the very original nickname, Boston.  Years later I would run into people who actually never knew my real name.

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Morehouse Musings

Lee Str

No matter how many times I drive it, every time I approach the Lee Street exit on interstate 20, I begin to experience feelings of delightful anticipation and excitement. If my kids are in the car, I’ll probably make some enthusiastic remark like “Kids, this is where it all began” or “So many good memories here”.  Of course, their teenage ears almost never receive those remarks with like enthusiasm.  I usually sigh a little inside, hoping that one day their paths will lead them to 830 Westview Drive and 350 Spelman Lane.  Then we can share a mutual nostalgia, similar to what my Dad and I now enjoy. As I ride down Lee Street these feelings of exhilaration mount, and I’m flooded with memories. Stepping on campus I feel immersed in warmth.  I feel camaraderie.  I feel…home.

No matter how many times I visit, I’m consumed by this ritual of emotions.  Morehouse College is a special place.  Special for an endless list of reasons, some explicit and tangible, others more abstract.  Over the years, I’ve often heard alumni summarize this mystique as “The Black Experience”.  Representatives of the college often espouse this concept as a way to convince prospective students to attend Morehouse.  I’ve also heard detractors counter “I don’t need The Black Experience.  I’m Black.”  In a time where White classmates are calling the police on sleeping Black students at PWI’s, we certainly shouldn’t be underestimating the value of placing a premium on the opportunity to be unapologetically Black.  In a time when Black students at PWI’s are being snatched off the graduation stage for “excessive” celebration, we ought to highlight institutions that recognize the arduous obstacles and near impossible struggles that students have overcome in their relentless pursuit of a better life.  I have a classmate who came to Morehouse by himself because his parents could only afford one plane ticket.  He got to the airport, took the train to West End Station, and walked to campus with his luggage. This student went to class during the day and worked until midnight, after which he would go back to the dorm and study.  He eventually earned a scholarship and graduated with a math degree.  Such a student has every reason to be proud of himself, and a little dancing on stage to culminate his achievements isn’t too much to ask. Places like Morehouse recognize this.  Indeed, the impact of The Black Experience cannot be understated.

There is another aspect of Morehouse that I believe deserves more attention than it is normally afforded. Academic rigor and likelihood for success.  It always baffles me to hear a student or parent dismiss Morehouse (or any HBCU) because they want to have a higher chance of success in life.  Such a perspective is completely at odds with the empirical data.  HBCU graduates account for only 10% of all Black students graduating from college, yet account for 40% of Black professional engineers, 80% of Black judges, and 70% of Black science graduate students at top 10 schools. We can even dig a little deeper.  As a student at Morehouse, I double-majored in Physics and Mathematics, so I conducted a little research relative to Physics and Mathematics degrees conferred at Morehouse and other institutions.  I’ve also compiled statistics nationally.  This year Morehouse awarded degrees to 397 students.  16 of those degrees were in Physics, and 35 were in Mathematics.  So, Physics degrees represented about 4% of all degrees awarded, while Mathematics degrees represented almost 9% of all degrees awarded.  Of course, these figures have no meaning without a benchmark.  If I consider the same statistics nationally, then Physics degrees represent 0.42% of all degrees, and Mathematics degrees represent 1.19%.  This means that Morehouse is producing Physics majors at nearly 10 times the national rate; Math majors at 8 times the national rate.  In fact, not even Harvard and MIT (both top 5 in Physics) are producing Physics and Math graduates at an equivalent rate.

MorehouseStats

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Given the aforementioned statistics, Morehouse graduates (and HBCU graduates in general) are statistically overrepresented in almost every profession, graduate school, and professional school. So, if we’re talking “likelihood”, then a student’s probability of success is increased by choosing to attend Morehouse.  The reasons for this are multifaceted, but overall it’s because the institution as a whole is dedicated to your success, from the cafeteria staff to the professors.  I remember being in Set Theory class with Dr. Gore.  Among his many talents, Dr. Gore possessed the ability to remember all of the students in his classes.  On one occasion I remember him realizing a certain student was not in class.  He asked if any class members knew why the student was absent, and some said he was asleep in his room.  Dr. Gore instructed one of the students in the class to go back to the dorm and bring our classmate to class.  On another occasion Dr. Gore happened to look out of the window and saw a student walking past with a young lady.  He shouted down to the student, “Mr. ______, you were not in class today.  Did you have more important things to do?”  Dr. Gore was also a proud graduate of Morehouse College.  A professor’s desire to see students succeed at Morehouse is often very personal, and it shows.  Of course, you learn quickly not to mistake their love of students for facility of coursework.  They will love you and fail you if necessary.  I had one Differential Equations professor, Dr. Martin, who was notorious for failing students.  There was even a rumor that he failed his wife when she took his class.  On the first day of class, he addressed this rumor saying, “There’s this nasty little rumor going around that I’m so heartless that I failed my own wife.  I never did any such thing.  I NEVER failed my wife.  I failed her brother.”  If you could navigate this type of rigor, you could do so anywhere.

I recently celebrated 20 years since my graduation from Morehouse College, and I attended many of the associated events.  People who came to college as idealistic, sometimes frightened, students were now Teachers, Medical doctors, Ph.D.’s, attorneys, engineers, entrepreneurs, politicians, activists, corporate executives, authors, and everything in between.  It was in the AUC that they were equipped with the skills, confidence, and training to be the best in every endeavor.  I’m so proud of them, and when all my empirical data and research needs a personal anecdotal touch, theirs are the examples I point to.

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Atlanta Students Bring Mars to Earth

by Mark A. Sequeira

 

As part of a group called Aspiration Creation, students from the Dunwoody/Sandy Springs area participated in a project with the European Space Agency (European equivalent to NASA) to take real live images of Mars.  Students were required to submit a proposal to the ESA, identifying the feature they wished to image, as well as detailing how they planned to use the images.  Proposals were accepted from Europe, The United States, Argentina, and Australia.  Theirs was among 25 proposals selected internationally.  Their work culminated in a PowerPoint presentation which was published on the European Space Agency’s website under the subheading “Aspiration Creation”.  Click on the “Project PPT in Website” link under the subheading to view the entire presentation.

 

Animation

Students created this gif by viewing several images sequentially

Background

So how did all of this come about? The European Space Agency has a satellite called Mars Express in orbit around the red planet. The satellite is equipped with a bevy of scientific instruments used to study the Martian surface and atmosphere. Among these instruments is a camera called the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC). In May the European Space Agency announced that Mars Express would be entering solar conjunction, a period where Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun. This phenomenon makes it impossible for Mars Express to communicate with Earth, so engineers typically preprogram maintenance and diagnostic routines for the satellite to execute until communication can be reestablished. Additionally, ESA announced that they wanted to utilize this time to make the VMC available for educational purposes. So, they released a Request For Proposals. Groups whose proposals were selected would be allowed to point the satellite at the Martian feature of their choice and image it. In their proposals, students had to identify the feature they wanted to image, support their reasoning, and state how they would use the images for educational purposes. The trick was that there was only a 3 day window for the satellite to take images, so not all features would be visible to the satellite or adequately illuminated by the Sun. To address this issue, the students had to download, learn, and use a solar system simulation software (Celestia) to figure out which features would be good candidates for imaging during the 3 day window. After viewing several possibilities, the group agreed to image the Martian South Pole. Groups from 19 different countries submitted proposals.

 

Celestia

 

Project

Upon having their proposal selected, the group used Google Hangouts to meet with flight control engineers at the ESA to ask questions and discuss the specifics of the imaging process. Mars Express took images for three days and sent the students 750 raw images of the Martian South Pole. Due to low light levels in space, the raw images actually appear black & white. Special image processing techniques must be applied to reveal the true colors. Students watched image processing tutorials offered by the Planetary Society to learn what they needed to know. They downloaded free image processing software (GIMP) and used it to import and process the images. Students learned to view logarithmic histograms of the images to determine the brightness/contrast adjustments, as well as how to apply various digital filters to increase sharpness and improve color levels. Once the images were satisfactory, students researched the south poles of Earth and Mars and created a comparison contrast in the form of a Venn Diagram.  The students have been recognized by the Fulton County Superintendent and the Dekalb County Board of Education.

 

Aspiration Creation

Aspiration Creation began organically as a group of parents who wanted to ensure that their children were maintaining excellence academically. Corporate learning centers like Kumond and Huntington Learning Center are often prohibitively expensive, and private tutors are often more so. Educational investment is highly indicative of future success, so corporate learning centers and private tutors are essentially a means by which parents can buy their children’s success. With so much riding on education, parents believed it should not depend on financial resources. So, they decided to use the resources already at their disposal to offer tutorials for free. The priority is to ensure that students are mastering the material being taught in school, but they are also immersed in mathematics, science, reading, and history via introduction to advanced concepts, critical thinking, comprehension, and art.  There is no charge for participation.  The only requirement is an open mind and a desire to learn.

Scales of Scalia: A Pragmatic Assessment of Judicial Bias

Mark A. Sequeira

During oral arguments for a Supreme Court affirmative action case, Justice Antonin Scalia remarked that schools like The University of Texas were too advanced for African Americans.  Justice Scalia further noted that African Americans would be better served by going to “lesser” schools where they aren’t challenged or pushed as hard.  The Justice’s remarks were predicated on an amicus brief which claimed that preferences in admissions adversely impacted the beneficiaries.  Let’s consider these remarks in context.

 

It seems appropriate to begin with the document which served as the catalyst for Justice Scalia’s remarks.  This document is known as amicus curiae, Latin for “friend of the court”.  Court cases are generally limited to presentation of factual record or evidence by the litigants, and attorneys tend to present arguments favorable to their clients.  Amicus Curiae is intended to provide objective, neutral third party insight into a case, particularly when the impacts of a judgement could be significant.  The authors of an amicus brief are supposed to offer such insight of their own accord, and not at the request of either party.  So who were the authors of the amicus brief to which Justice Scalia was referring?  The document was authored by UCLA Law Professor, Richard Sander, as a representative of Project SEAPHE (Scale and Effects of Preferences in Higher Education).  Project SEAPHE’s mission is as follows:

 

“Project SEAPHE is a community of scholars committed to the empirical study of admissions preferences in higher education. We seek to ground the public’s understanding of affirmative action in rigorous, data-driven studies. Members of the project cover a range of disciplines, from economics and statistics to sociology and law.”

 

The mission less than subtly hints at objectivity; rigorous, data-driven research by a collection of intellectuals with a broad range of expertise.  The mission suggests an earnest, noble undertaking, but minimal probing reveals that their project is completely funded by the Searle Freedom Trust.  The Searle Freedom Trust is a $100 million trust that contributes to various causes.  Some of their grants provided funding for campaigns to advocate cutting government worker pay and reduce public sector services in education.  The Searle Freedom Trust has also been the most frequent supporter of all-expense paid seminars for federal judges.  This is also the same organization covering the legal expenses of Abigail Fisher, plaintiff in the case where Justice Scalia made his remarks.  The amicus curiae filed with the court is far from objective.  In fact, it is shamefully biased.  In short, Justice Scalia’s remarks are based on a document written by an organization fully funded by a wealthy trust which also happens to be covering the legal expenses of the plaintiff.  Oh and said trust also funds the all-expense paid seminars which he attends.

 

While the biased underpinnings of Justice Scalia’s remarks are easily revealed, such an exposition actually does not address the veracity of his claims or the research upon which they are based.  It is possible that, despite the biased intent, the research actually substantiates the claims.  Richard Sander, who authored the amicus curiae, claims his research demonstrates that preferences (particularly racial) in admissions yield what the literature calls “mismatch effects”.  The idea is that overusing or misusing preferences actually impacts the beneficiaries adversely.  The research cites three types of mismatch: Learning Mismatch, Competition Mismatch, and Social Mismatch.  Learning Mismatch refers to the scenario where preferences put students in an environment that is too rigorous.  As a result, they don’t have a comprehensive grasp of the material taught in the class and eventually graduate without having adequately mastered the content.  This would yield poorer job opportunities and overall career achievement that is subpar relative to their professional peers.  Competition Mismatch is a scenario where preferences allow the admission of students who are not academically prepared for the rigorous curricula of top tier institutions.  Such lack of academic preparation causes students to perform poorly, compelling them to change majors (such as is the case in STEM majors) or flunk out altogether.  Social Mismatch posits that students tend to interact more closely with those of similar academic preparation.  In this case, if preferences are allowing admission of students with less academic preparation, then they will be marginalized.  Sander and other researchers have amassed a substantial collection of literature in support of mismatch effects.  The amicus curiae brief even alludes to their research establishing a causal link.  Nothing would delight me more than to dissect their research by scrutinizing their data mining techniques, critically assessing their choice of statistical modeling, or expounding on the misrepresentation of correlation as causation. Such a critique would not only be beyond the scope of this discourse, but also completely unnecessary since all of their research is based on a false assumption.  Their assumption is that racial preferences (Affirmative Action) seek to grant admission to unqualified Black students (also women and other underrepresented minorities), at the expense of qualified White students.  This is false.  Prior to Affirmative Action, secondary institutions universally and unapologetically excluded qualified African Americans from attending, based solely on skin color.  There were no grades high enough, test scores solid enough, or extracurricular activities noble enough to secure their admission, even amongst much less qualified Whites.  No remotely rational person would deny that this practice was unfair.  Whites were so opposed admitting even one Black person that they opted to start entire schools whose sole purpose it was to educate African Americans.  The extent of this sentiment is evident in that almost 150 such colleges and universities were created in the south alone.  Over 100 of these schools still exist and are generally referred to as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s).  While there are some who compare these schools to all White institutions in an attempt to support the myth of reverse racism, nothing could be further from the truth.  No HBCU ever had a policy or practice to exclude applicants of other races or ethnicities.  Given the historical context of the schools’ creation, there simply were no Whites who would ever opt to attend an HBCU if they could attend even the lowest caliber non-Black institution.  Affirmative action was born out of this dynamic.  The intent of Affirmative Action was (is) to compel institutions to fairly assess qualified applicants from historically disadvantaged groups, of which Black people were a part.  It is important to note that this description also includes White women.  It simply is not the case that colleges and universities are admitting severely underqualified Black students at the expense of top caliber White students.  In the case currently being disputed, Abigail Fisher actually did not meet the qualifications for admissions to The University of Texas.  The University of Texas admits any Texas resident who graduates in the top 10% of their class.  85% of their student body graduated in the top 10% of their class.  The other 15% are admitted as exceptions, based on legacy (parents attended), proficiency in music, athletic prowess, and sometimes gender or race.  Abigail Fisher did not graduate in the top 10% of her class and would have been considered on an exception basis.  Abigail Fisher wasn’t even waitlisted, she was rejected.  While she may be a capable individual, she simply did not meet the academic qualifications to be admitted to The University of Texas.

 

As a culminating point, let’s consider another aspect of Justice Scalia’s remarks.  While Affirmative Action was certainly the target of his disposition, also evident was his disdain and lack of respect for the institutions which he urged African Americans to attend as an alternative.  He referred to them as “lesser schools”.  What exactly are these less rigorous, less advanced institutions?  Well, Justice Scalia is arguing that African Americans should not attend institutions where preferences are considered.  Only predominantly White institutions have a need for such preferences.  The only institutions where such preferences are not considered are Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  Justice Scalia asserts that, at such institutions, the curricula are less rigorous, thereby allowing African Americans to excel and ultimately graduate.  This is a flawed assertion.  It is true that graduates from HBCU’s excel in many areas and are statistically overrepresented in almost every profession and graduate school.  HBCU graduates account for only 10% of all Black students graduating from college, yet account for 40% of Black professional engineers, 80% of Black judges, and 70% of Black science graduate students at top 10 schools.  As a Morehouse College graduate, these are statistics I proudly reference to potential students, as well as in defense against those who attach such institutions.  The overwhelming success of graduates from these institutions is, however, not predicated upon the facility of the coursework.  Such an assertion is actually quite absurd.  How is it possible that students who matriculate through allegedly less rigorous curricula are able to graduate and suddenly be universally competitive among their peers, domestically and internationally?  Again, the assertion is flawed.  Students at these institutions don’t excel because the coursework is less challenging.  Many graduates of HBCU’s, who subsequently attended institutions like The University of Texas (or Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc.), can attest that the rigor of the coursework and expectations of the professors at HBCU’s often far exceeded those at even the Ivy League institutions where they earned their graduate and professional degrees.  Students excel at HBCU’s because the entire institution is genuinely invested in their success, from the janitors and cafeteria staff to the professors and administration.  Many of the professors and administrators are themselves graduates and would gladly fail you rather than allow you to pass, graduate, and enter the world sullying the reputation of the school they proudly attended.  Students are also personally invested in the success of other students.  Students don’t refuse to study with you or invite you to study sessions where no one else shows up.  Instead, there is a sense of comradery built among students intent on success, the sentiment being “no man left behind”.  This sentiment often also exists among White students at predominantly White institutions, to the exclusion of Black students (and other minorities).  It is this exclusion that often results in underperformance of these students, not pseudo-scholarly fabricated concepts like “mismatch effects”.  Richard Sander and other researchers should instead conduct “rigorous, data driven studies” to assess the components of an HBCU education that cause (not correlate) students to be successful.  The “more advanced” institutions could then utilize the findings to create an academic environment capable of replicating the success of HBCU’s.  Such a strategy is certainly beneficial to the Black students who attend such institutions, but it also benefits other students and the university in general.  There is even the additional benefit to the many HBCU graduates who often attend these institutions to earn graduate and professional degrees.

 

I suppose there is nothing new about Justice Scalia’s remarks.  He and many others have unabashedly espoused such sentiments for decades.  It is, however, important that we begin to expose such rhetoric, particularly when it is disguised as intellectual discourse or scholarly research.  This type of bigotry is actually more harmful than its more blatant counterparts because it is supported by potent and impactful government, educational, and financial institutions.  Today, on intellectual grounds, I reject Justice Scalia’s remarks, the research that supported such remarks, and the trust that is financing it all.  Your wealth will no longer be enough to maintain the socioeconomic infrastructure of the past.

Homecoming Beneath the Surface

Mark A. Sequeira

Growing up, my Dad always told us that Morehouse made him the man that he was.  I thought about that when it was time for me to choose a college/university.  If Morehouse made men like my Dad, then there was really only one place for me to go.  It was a no-brainer really.  If you were to ask around, you’d likely find that many alumni decided to attend based on their exposure to or interaction with a Morehouse graduate.  A teacher, mentor, neighbor, church member, etc.  One of Morehouse’s most potent recruiting strategies is the shining example of its graduates.  Actually being the man that young boys want to become.  The phenomenology of this can’t be overstated.  There are alumni who didn’t even consider college an option, until a singular Morehouse graduate urged them to at least submit an application.  Morehouse is the kind of place that changes lives, quite literally.

Morehouse2015

Morehouse will challenge ideas you thought you held firm, redefine misconceptions you accepted as universal, and compel you to pursue the best version of yourself.  This isn’t merely conjecture or exaggerated academic propaganda.  Ask the parents of any alumnus or current student, and they will often proudly exclaim that they could literally see a difference in their son when he came home for Christmas break.  A comprehensive assessment of the academic, pedagogical, ideological, socio-economic impacts of Morehouse (and HBCU’s in general) is beyond the scope of this modest piece.  Several books can (should) be written about this. Now consider this writing to be the introduction paragraph to the preface of just one of those books, and imagine all that such a book would entail.  Individual struggles, perseverance, enlightenment, within the context of an environment conducive to being unapologetically Black.  Homecoming is the annual celebratory manifestation of all these things.  It’s so much more than just a football game.  Quite honestly, the actual football game is a secondary event (sorry football team).  So, the next time you hear someone expressing excitement about Homecoming, don’t roll your eyes.  When you see people posting pictures ad nauseum on social media, don’t say to yourself “What’s the big deal anyway?”  Instead, consider things from our perspective.  At Morehouse we were redefined, renewed, and reborn.  In that sense, Morehouse is every bit of home, and returning home should always be met with superlative celebrations.    Homecoming.

Pops2015

My Dad.  Trying to be like him.

The Liberation of Bliss

Mark A. Sequeira

There has been no shortage of tragedies over the past few years.  Some, like Sandy Hook, make national headlines, while others, such as the Georgia military veteran who killed her 4 children and then herself, dominated local and regional news.  The most recent tragedy involves the shooting of Roanoke news station’s Alison Parker and Adam Ward by former co-worker Vester Flanagan.  As usual there are some who attempt to hijack such a somber event with politics, polemics, and personal agendas.  From blaming the President to anthropogenic climate change, the string-of-beads logic inevitably finds its way into the discourse.  I’ll admit that I sometimes envy the unbridled freedom that such “logic” avails its indifferent interlocutors.  Their arguments almost always seem to conform to a similar mold, a series of false dichotomies from which they draw a usually ambiguous, but almost always wrong, conclusion.  Even worse is when such arguments and conclusions are presented arrogantly and authoritatively, so as to disparage all of their ideological opponents who must surely be divinely relegated to stupidity.  Oh, if only logic had no internally consistent rules to hinder me from espousing rank fecal opinions, then maybe I, too, could engage in intellectual lethargy and experience the proverbial bliss that seems eternally bound to ignorance.  But, alas, logic won’t let me be great.  Or will it?  Maybe bliss isn’t infinitely bound to ignorance.  Perhaps, like most bound states, it only requires the appropriate energy to escape.  Maybe bliss can be liberated via LASER-like logic, tuned appropriately of course.  A philosophical photoelectric effect, of sorts.

The most recent representation of the ignorance-bliss problem revealed itself in a comments section.  It’s true that comments sections are akin to ideological black holes.  So why even address such ideologies?  In keeping with the black hole analogy, much of the information that ends up in a black hole originated somewhere else, and so represents some non-trivial manifestation.  In other words, all those comments represent some non-trivial population of people in our society.  In relation to the recent Texas pool party incident, a Florida principal and a Texas elementary school teacher were fired for their online comments about the incident.  Principals and teachers are far from isolated, socially inept fringe elements of American society.  Even if you take the position that their views were marginal, and therefore insignificant, their positions, and subsequently their influences, in society are not marginal.  I posit that the comment I read is merely representative of a larger segment of society.  The nature of the sentiment posted was: “Where are all the ‘Black Lives Matter’ people when two White people are killed?  Where is the outrage?”  Although I encountered this sentiment in a comments section, it can easily be found in social media, television media, print media, and every day conversation.  Such sentiments are often expressed confidently, with overtones of sarcasm and mockery.  Almost as if that sentiment represents the elusive “gotcha” moment they’ve been tirelessly seeking.  They believe this sentiment is clever.  Let’s see why it is not.

In a country where 78% of the population is White, examples of tragic White deaths abound.  So, let’s consider some of the more recognizable ones.  JonBenet Ramsey, the Oklahoma bombing, Ted Kaczynski (Unibomber), Columbine shooting, 9/11 attacks, Sandy Hook shooting, Boston Marathon bombings, Chattanooga military shootings, etc.  All of these, and more, represented senseless acts of violence committed without remorse.  The victims were overwhelmingly, sometimes exclusively, White.  Black people collectively mourned these unspeakable tragedies, along with the rest of the country.  What Black people did not collectively do is blame the victims for their own deaths.  Black people did not collectively rationalize the actions of the perpetrators in order to justify the brutal nature of their crimes.  Black people did not collectively accuse anyone of overreacting.  Black people did not collectively seek out past misdeeds or mistakes to vilify the victims.  Black people did not collectively set up defense funds to help the perpetrator.  Collectively, Black people mourned, because that is the humane response that a tragedy deserves.  The fundamental reason for this is that, collectively, Black people inherently understand that All Lives Matter.  However, when large segments of the American population refuse to reciprocate compassion for Black lives lost, it compels us to emphasize for the detractors that “All Lives” includes “Black Lives”, hence the phrase “Black Lives Matter”.  The two concepts are not in opposition to each other.  One is a subset of the other, a fact that apparently still requires reiteration.  Fly away, Bliss, you are free.

Appreciating the Symbolic

The recent attack on Emanuel AME Church, wherein 9 parishioners were killed, has prompted discussion on many aspects of American society.  America has been compelled to confront its history of white supremacy and the oppressive violence that it necessitates.  Conversations and debates about the Confederate flag (N.B. any subsequent reference to the Confederate Flag includes the Battle Flag, Navy Jack, any of the three official flags of the Confederacy, and any such variations) naturally emerge from such discussions, as many directly associate that flag with the social, economic, and political institutions created and maintained by racist ideology.  This association aligns with the social and anthropological definition of a symbol, which any flag certainly is.  Just as the Confederate flag is a tangible, material symbol, the very act of flying (or removing) the flag is also symbolic.  Participants in the flag debate can generally be classified in three ways: proponents, opponents, and those who are apathetic.  The views of the proponents and opponents have been thoroughly and passionately presented in the public discourse, but the views of those apathetic to the discourse have not been as comprehensively advanced, due either to the size of their contingency or due to their namesake.  While the reasons for apathy may be many, one will be discussed here, particularly that which dismisses the removal of the flag as a useless gesture of symbolism.  Their argument is that removal of the flag in no way diminishes the actual attitudes and behaviors of those who cleave to the racist ideology of white supremacy.  In other words, it doesn’t matter if you remove the flag because racism will persist unabated in the flag’s absence.  They further proffer that removing the flag is conciliatory at best, disingenuous and deceptive at worst.  I will attempt to address these arguments by introducing the concept of symbolism, as well as by discussing the tangible impacts of symbolism in society.

No meaningful exposition on symbolic gestures is possible without first establishing the definition of “symbol”.  The simplest and most nondescript explanation of a symbol is that it is any object (material or otherwise) that represents something else.  More specifically, a symbol usually represents a complex range of abstract ideas, and it may vary in meaning to different individuals and groups.  How a symbol is interpreted depends on the accumulated knowledge, behaviors, and rituals associated with the symbol. As such, a symbol is dynamic and evolves with the culture of those interpreting it.  In fact, symbols are one of the 5 key components said to comprise culture, the others being language, values, beliefs, and norms.  The field of symbolic anthropology even regards culture as the complex encoding of symbolic creation, interpretation, and behavior.  Preeminent symbolic anthropologist Victor Turner posited that symbols are the mechanisms of social maintenance.  Turner further argued that social cohesion requires continual reinforcement and that symbols play a vital role in such.  In short, the culture of a society creates symbols and establishes their meaning and significance.  Symbols in turn inspire actions, behaviors, institutions, and social dynamics, leading to a reinforcement or reinterpretation of the symbols themselves.

The importance of symbols isn’t merely an academic abstraction.  Historically, when one nation conquered another, it was commonplace to destroy all of the monuments of the vanquished and replace them with tributes to the victor.  This was a symbolic gesture whose purpose was to demoralize the conquered and exact loyalty and obedience through the imposition of power.  The result was often a psychological and behavioral paralysis that deterred dissent.  Another example of tangible symbolism is evident in the doll experiments conducted by psychologists Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark in the 1940’s.  The experiments involved children being shown a white doll and a black doll and then being asked a series of questions about their perceptions of each.  Overwhelmingly, Black children described the White doll as pretty and virtuous, while describing the black doll as ugly and lacking positive character attributes.  Dolls are unambiguous symbols of beauty and desirability, and the doll experiments exposed the quantifiable psychological effects of such symbolism on African Americans. The results of these experiments were so convincing that they were included as testimony in the Brown versus Education case.

Citing examples of symbolism and its impacts can be done indefinitely, but at best it represents an indirect way of addressing the apathetic argument discounting the removal of the flag.  It addresses the argument by analogy.  Let’s address the argument more directly by examining what would happen if the flag were removed from public sites.  Consider that generations of White children in the south have been taught, at home and in their communities, that the flag represents heritage, virtuous qualities, and noble sensibilities.  When they venture out into the world and see the Confederate Flag flying on state grounds, at schools, parks, and memorials, all that they have learned at home is validated.  With such broad validation they have no reason to question any of what they have been taught.  If their family, community, and state all confirm the same teachings, what other confirmation is needed?  Removing the flag wouldn’t change what children in this generation were taught at home, but it would eliminate the state validation of such teachings.  So, for the first time, children might be compelled to question why the state decisively acted in opposition to their home teachings.  Such interrogation might lead them to the truth.

There is another way to interpret the symbolic gesture of removing the flag.  Consider that the decision to fly the Confederate Flag in the first place was made by those who support it, without consideration of or consent from opponents.  In other words, Whites decided to fly the flag, and Black people had no say in the matter.  That was the social dynamic that existed.  Removal of the flag demonstrates that there is a portion of whites who now think differently about the matter and that Black disapproval of the flag must be earnestly considered.  In the past, a Black woman climbing a flagpole on southern state grounds and removing the Confederate Flag would have been met with violent (probably fatal) results.  This represents a changing social dynamic, and while removing the flag in no way removes racist ideology, it is a start.  The same could be said of emancipation, the 15th Amendment, or any other act instituted to advance the standing of African Americans in American society.  There is no moral mandate to choose between removing the flag and dismantling racism.  There is social, economic, political, intellectual, and moral capacity to accomplish both.