Race Is More Than a Myth: It’s an Institutional Reality

Journalist Jelani Cobb considers the impact of Obama’s presidency on race in America. Did he make good on the promise of change that got him elected?

Jelani Cobb: President Obama’s administration has brought about change. I don’t think that can be debated. There is everything from the symbolic to the substantive levels of what it would mean to have an African American president. And I think at the same time there have been changes that were unanticipated that came as a consequence of his presidency. And so when we talk about the initial moment of his launch into as a national political figure which was in that 2004 speech, convention speech in Boston. He began that by saying there’s not a black America or white America or a Latino America but there’s the United States of America. And that was entirely untrue, you know. They were vastly different realities that very often corresponded to race or were at least significantly correlated with race and ethnicity. Or at least were significantly correlated with race and ethnicity. And so what we’ve seen over the course of his two terms has been a means by which or period in which has been increasingly visible. You know the distinctions that we see as citizens based upon these elements of identity, who we are and where we’re from and what kind of communities we live in and what our racial ethnic background is. Those things have come to the foreground and I don’t think that you could possibly have anticipated the extent to which they have done so.

And so when we look at, you know, Black Lives Matter and how it emerged one it seemed kind of paradoxical that for half a century African Americans had been struggling specifically around the voting rights act to get increased political electoral representation. And at the point at which we’re represented at the pinnacle of American political power it reverberates and there’s kind of a boomerang effect and we wind up with a revitalized grass roots movement of people who don’t necessarily trust political power and people who are outside the establishment and people who were attempting to kind of move the levers of political power to the advantage of disempowered communities. And one would have thought I guess in a kind of naïve perspective on Barack Obama’s presidency you would have thought that those things would not have been necessary. Certainly some of his critics thought that he was going to govern in such a radicle way that it was going to be reparations handed out in the first week for African Americans and he’s been very moderate and centrist and often reluctant to directly engage issues of race. And I think that’s where some of the frustration had come from the younger generation of activists. And they took his moderation as being in some instances inadequate to the task at hand.

I think that there’s a lot that’s missing from the public conversation about race. When we talk about race we most often confront it as an emotional reality or this kind of subject of social anxiety or something in which we go oh, you know, we’re really all the same and it’s a ridiculous idea that we separate ourselves in this way which is true. But it’s also a very facile way of approaching that question because on a more fundamental level race is a mythology but is also a very useful myth. And that’s the only way it’s been able to endure for as long as it has, particularly in the United States. And so what I mean by that is we look at things now when we talk about race we tend to say that there’s a level of, you know, mistrust or there’s stereotypes or misunderstandings and we have these problems and we should all just look at each other as humans. But the fact of the matter is that things like slavery and segregation and economic discrimination, these things happen willfully. They weren’t the result of kind of haphazard mistaken approaches to people who happen to be different from you. And so it means that we don’t simply have to dispel mythology. It means we have to actually grapple with people having concrete interests that may be different than the interests of other communities.

And so it’s not simply implicit bias in policing that has resulted in disproportionate numbers as we saw in Ferguson. It wasn’t simply a matter of implicit bias or stereotypes or good intentioned, well intentioned individuals whom happen to have arrested or pulled over more African Americans than whites. We saw that there was an institutional structural approach to particular communities that were being fleeced by a police department. And so we can find those kind of dynamics again and again and again. And so when we talk about race it’s going to be much more intractable than simply ridding ourselves of maybe some mistaken ideas that have rattled around in our heads for some time. 

As President Obama leaves the White House, the post-mortems on his term and predictions on his legacy are starting to emerge. Particularly, what did Obama do for race politics in America – did he turn out to be the beacon hope liberals saw, or the expensive liability handing out reparations and redistributing power, as some conservatives feared?


Journalist Jelani Cobb notes that, in hindsight, the former was naïve and the latter paranoid. Obama proved to be somewhat moderate and often reluctant to directly engage in issues of race, but the gesture of having an African American in the highest office in the country brought race to the foreground in a way that no one anticipated. Even if he lacked direct action himself, Obama’s presidency reverberated and mobilized grassroots activists; it gave confidence to the black and liberal communities, which had previously been publicly insecure and unsupported. Perhaps Black Lives Matter would have emerged under a white president – it’s impossible to say. But with Obama in office, the movement carried (and still carries) a relevance and received a national platform that made people outside just the affected community take note. Symbolically, if not substantively, Obama’s race legacy is colossal.

The national conversation about race is happening, but there’s a lot missing from it, says Cobb. He notes that when we talk about race it’s in an emotional context, expressed as a cultural mythology or a social anxiety stemming from mistrust between communities, and that it could potentially all be solved by just looking at each other as humans. It would almost be easier if it was just a case of mistaken approaches between individuals; individual viewpoints can change in an instant – with one book, a good teacher, a single interaction. Systemic repairs takes much longer.

The issues at the root of racial tension today are the byproducts of institutionalized racism like slavery, segregation, economic discrimination – all of which happened willfully and intentionally to serve one party’s interests, not by some accident of misunderstanding. Cobb points to the events in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014: "It wasn’t simply a matter of implicit bias or stereotypes or… well-intentioned individuals whom happen to have arrested or pulled over more African Americans than whites. We saw that there was an institutional structural approach to particular communities that were being fleeced by a police department. And so we can find those kind of dynamics again and again and again."

Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His latest book is The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.

Hack your brain for better problem solving

Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
  • Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Tackling the World's Greatest Problems, with Tim Brown, CEO and President, IDEO
  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
  • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

Request a demo today!

How AI learned to paint like Rembrandt

The Rijksmuseum employed an AI to repaint lost parts of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Here's how they did it.

Credit: Rijksmuseum
Culture & Religion
  • In 1715, Amsterdam's Town Hall sliced off all four outer edges of Rembrandt's priceless masterpiece so that it would fit on a wall.
  • Neural networks were used to fill in the missing pieces.
  • An unprecedented collaboration between man and machine is now on display at the Rijksmuseum.
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

Pragmatism: How Americans define truth

If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.

Credit: Gene Gallin via Unsplash
Culture & Religion
  • Pragmatism is an American philosophical movement that originated as a rebuke to abstract European philosophy.
  • The pragmatic theory of truth argues that truth and reality only can be understood in their relation to how things work in the real world.
  • The trouble is that the theory devalues the term "truth," such that it only applies to one particular moment in time. But Charles Sanders Peirce offers a clever way out.
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