Young Black Men And Race

Two stories this week featured young black men and race. In one story, a young black man in his mid thirties who reported that he was often harassed at work for being black killed nine people at his workplace when he was let go. Another story featured a young black high school graduate from a prestigious New York High school whose graduation speech dressed down the school and his classmates for being “the beneficiaries of advantage.”


“And on the 12th of May, 1828, I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be the last and the last should be the first.”

From the text of the actual confession of Nat Turner

I am not here to equate Omar Thornton’s heinous, calculated assault on his defenseless coworkers with Nat Turner’s vengeful killing spree, although there are a few similarities. But since we are living In modern times, without the restrictions Mr. Turner had to deal with regarding his freedom, the first thing that came to my mind was “why didn’t Thornton try to move to an area more hospitable to blacks if the treatment at work bothered him that much?” The idealist in me answered immediately. “Why should he have to move? In 2010, in the country that bills itself as the greatest nation on earth, in the country that wants to play human rights standard bearer for the rest of the world, why are racists still tolerated at all?”       

How do you persuade people who so emphatically believe in this one thing—the inferiority of one race to another—to think differently?

Would the constant application of one of the basics of a good old fundamentalist’s religious beliefs—an eye for an eye—work better than the “turn the other cheek” doctrine that has allowed the racists to thrive even as African Americans move ever closer to the center of Americana?

"Our brain has developed a capacity to create for us a world of our own imagination and making. Very few of us live in the real world. We live in the world of our perceptions, and these perceptions differ dramatically according to our personal experiences. We may perceive danger where there is none. If the distortion is ever enough, we may think we are living among enemies even when we are living among friends."

William Gaylin  The Rage Within

The mental gymnastics required for an individual to suspend their beliefs long enough to hold a job, navigate a relationship, or participate in the political process is staggering, if you really think about it. But we don't.

It was the second story about a young black man and race, one with a similar, but less violently delivered message, that illustrated how far the gap remains between the promise of America and the realities some African Americans continue to endure.

“If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights. And I refuse to accept that.”

Justin Hudson, Hunter College High School commencement speaker

If you step back to look at the big picture, America has not done enough, not by a long shot, to change the nation’s racial calculus. No truly meaningful amount of direct cash transfers have taken place, despite conservative think tank claims to the contrary, although a lot of money has been spent, and a lot of listening has been done.  That we all can see.

The question is, were those efforts consistently performed or delivered at a level that could insure a successful outcome, or were they merely salves to a nation's conscience?

I refuse to hide behind "feel good" platitudes right now. There is a very real reason why the average black person in this country has less stuff and more problems. Looking at the world through colorblind lenses isn't going to help solve these inequities. But our infatuation, as a nation, with the idea of "individual achievement" overlooks the amount of interdependence there is between all of us, and how much we depend on our collective efforts to accomplish anything worthwhile.

The country cannot rise above the level of its lowest common denominator, so long as minority equals "less than." And if this lowest common denominator remains isolated enough, and alienated enough, there are going to continue to be times, unfortunately, when other Omar Thorntons will try fruitlessly to rewrite the “less than“ equation, one death at a time.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.