Annette Gordon-Reed on Racism Then and Now
Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School and a professor of history at Rutgers. She earned a place in history with her first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which had an acclaimed but stormy reception when published in 1997, and which The New Yorker described as “brilliant.” She is recognized as one of our country’s most distinguished presidential scholars.Gordon-Reed spent her early career as an associate at Cahill Gordon & Reindel, and as Counsel to the New York City Board of Corrections. She speaks or moderates at numerous conferences across the country on history and law-related topics. Gordon-Reed is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, where she was a member of the Law Review. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and son.
Question: Was Jefferson a racist?
Gordon-Reed: Well, for one thing she was mixed race. He also says in the note on the [IB] white blood improves black people. So, right away she’s not in the category of an African. The other thing too is I know white people who are married to black people who don’t want their children to play with other black kids. They want their kids to identify with white. Now, that, there must be something there. I mean, they’re married to a black person but they have children who are half-black but they don’t want them to be in the black world. They prefer them to be in a white world. So, you know, the nature of relations between couples, between men and men or women and women or men and women is very, very strange territory. I mean, a lot can be reconfigured to make people, to put people in situations where on the outside it doesn’t look like it made sense, but to these two people, to the person it make sense. So, I think it’s possible to be racist and like individual black people, I know black people who don’t care for white people in general, but like individual white people because everybody, every human being recognizes that there are exceptions. So even if you have a general view about a group of people, there are always [what room] to fit, you know, Betty or Bob in here because they’re not really like those other people, you know, and it’s, and you seat back and you look at it and you go, wow, that’s… don’t you understand the sort of practical affect of what you’re doing how illogical that is. But, you know, I don’t think that being a racist means that either a black racist or white racist doesn’t mean that you can’t see a person in another race and form some kind of connection to them.
Question: How far have we come since the 1780’s?
Gordon-Reed: We’ve come a long way but we haven’t come this far as we like to think that we have come. If you’re looking at the newspaper these days on that question of race and people’s attitudes about blacks, I think, I view it as and this may be my rationalization, Jefferson is born in1743 and his understanding of race and lots of things was primitive. I mean, it really was, I mean, I can be astounded by how he felt in the kind of the things that he expressed and I talked about him and John Quincy Adams and other people who, you know, said these incredibly racist things, but I much more… my mind boggles more at people today who after all that we’ve learned, I mean, there is this wonderfully expressive statement about Jefferson that someone made when some sort of commemoration of his death, maybe 10 years afterwards and it may have been more than 10 years ‘cause the person said, you know, he was the man who never saw a train and you get a sense of what you’re dealing with here. You’re dealing with someone, they don’t know what causes yellow fever. I mean there all kind of things that they just don’t know. And so, I can put him in perspective on race given the state of knowledge about things at that time. There were some people who were racially enlightened but there were, you know, we can pick out the 6 or 7 people that you can find to do that, but I’m worried about, I mean you think about people in the 21st century who have the same kind of attitude no matter, I mean, despite all that we’ve learned between Jefferson’s time and our. So, I don’t, I mean, I don’t know that we’re in that much of a position to really look down on him on that point because we haven’t overcome this yet and we’ve had far more opportunities than he had in order to do that.
Question: Does racism follow geography?
Gordon-Reed: It’s interesting, I mean, I grew up in the South. When I take my kids down to Texas, East Texas, which is very much of the South. They’re New Yorkers and so they have a whole set of preconceptions about this and they’re nervous and so forth. I don’t think it’s geographic. I don’t think it’s… I think it can exist anywhere, I mean, their problems with race anytime that apparently if the problem tends to be the numbers of blacks that if the numbers of blacks get to a point where people feel threatened or whites feel threatened, it can be a problem. I think that’s more geographic where there’s North or South it’s really demographics. How many blacks are on a given place? I mean, you noticed that with the election when their, during the primaries when Obama did very, very well in states where there were almost no black people, he did well in states where there were lots of black people who could deliver black voting. He did the poorest when there was a good number of black people but not enough to black vote to affect the outcome. So, it’s really not North or South, it’s whether how many black people are in a particular area do you see if there’s likely to be racial tension and likely big problems.
Annette Gordon-Reed unpacks 18th century and contemporary racism.
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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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- 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. 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.
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