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?
William Jelani Cobb writes about the enormous complexity of race in America. In 2015, he received the Sidney Hillman Prize for Opinion & Analysis Journalism for his New Yorker columns, in which he combined "the strengths of an on-the-scene reporter, a public intellectual, a teacher, a vivid writer, a subtle moralist, and an accomplished professional historian."
His articles include "The Anger in Ferguson," "Murders in Charleston," and "What We Talk About When We Talk About Reparations." In awarding him the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, the jury wrote, "No one has done a better job of placing [the events in Ferugson, MO]—and similar happenings in other places like Sanford, Florida, Cleveland, Ohio and Staten Island, New York—in their broader context than Jelani Cobb." Further: "Cobb met the challenge of describing the turmoil in Ferguson in a way that cut through the frantic chaos of 'breaking news' and deepened readers’ understanding of what they were seeing, hearing, and feeling. Ferguson was not an aberration, he showed, but a microcosm of race relations in the United States—organically connected to the complicated legacy of segregation and the unpaid debts of slavery itself. "
Cobb was formerly associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut, where he was director of the Africana Studies Institute. He has received Fellowships from the Fulbright and Ford Foundations. He is the author of Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic, and The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays. His forthcoming book is Antidote to Revolution: African American Anticommunism and the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1931.
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.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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