Can We End Racial Disparity?

Question: What are the underlying issues we need to discuss?

Glenn Loury: we have to look these real objective differences of acquired capacities in the lives of human beings in the face, as between racial groups, and then think about what to do with it.  To me, the first step along that way, the most important step along that way is constructing a social safe.

In my mind, if we're going to look these problems of disparity between racial groups in the United States, disparity of human development and acquired capacity for functioning.  Look these problems directly on, then the solutions that suggest themselves to me are building a system of social supports, of mutual support that includes everyone, and that, therefore, eases the difficult situation of people who are especially disadvantaged, which people will be disproportionately present in the African American population, in a disadvantage racial minority population. 

So we need to fix the schools.  We, actually, I think, need to spend a lot more than we do spend on educating our young people.  I could go down a litany; I'm going to have a whole lot of policy suggestions to throw out and I'm not sure that's -- this is the time or place for it.  But I'm saying healthcare fixes our attention on one particular issue. 

We can talk about education, we can talk about jobs, we can talk about what we do in our cities.  We can talk about how we deal with the homeless and the mentally ill, and such.  And we can talk about the gated community syndrome, the it's not my problem I don't want to pay any tax.  Whatever.  So this will sound pie in the sky; why don't we have a Northern European style welfare state?  Why is the United States 50 years or more behind in the development of the institutions of social cooperation that we see in other societies, like France and Britain, and Germany, and the Netherlands, and Sweden, and so on?  Canada. 

And how can we countenance this two-tier or multi-tier system of education where we know in advance that we're consigning some of our young people to lives of social marginality.  It's a practically predictable consequence of what we do.  And yet our vested interests are such that those of us who are the best off and the most influential have got our kids taken care of, that we're prepared to countenance.  The land of the free -- we've got an army marching around the world under the banner of freedom, and yet, we are the most un-free society, in terms of institutions of the deprivation of liberty, of incarceration.  The incidents of incarceration is higher in the United States than elsewhere in the world.  How can we countenance, and so on and so forth? 

So my sermon, in answer to the question of what is it to do, and my sermon for us Americans, would be to construct the kind of institutions of mutuality and social cooperation that don't leave 15 or 20 percent of our people falling through the cracks.  We can do it.  It's not like we don't know what to do.  It's not like there aren't models there.  It's not like this isn't being done elsewhere.  It's not like we can't afford to do it.  It's a question of political will and it's about our definition as a people.  What kind of community are we?  So, that's where I would start the sermon.  How to translate that into policy?  Well easier said than done.  I'm aware of that, but that's how I see it.

Recorded on: August 18, 2009

Only if we fix the inequities in basic human development, says Glenn Loury, Harvard’s first African American tenured professor in the economics department.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

Keep reading Show less

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.
Surprising Science
  • 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. 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.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
Keep reading Show less