Maybe-Us Corpus

Prison Culture: How Biases Trump Evidence and Land People in Jail
The imprisonment of an American couple in Qatar reveals biases in criminal justice, at home and abroad.

Patricia J. Williams April 8, 2014 | This article appeared in the April 28, 2014 edition of The Nation.

There are many ways to tell a story. Here’s one: In 2012, Chinese-Americans Grace and Matthew Huang moved with their three children from Los Angeles to Qatar for a construction project on which Mr. Huang was an engineer. In January 2013, their 8-year-old daughter, Gloria, who had been diagnosed with serious eating disorders, died of cachexia and dehydration. In March, the Huangs were sentenced to three years in a Qatari prison for homicide.

Here’s another way to tell the story: Instead of pursuing anything like a proper forensic and factual investigation, Qatari police simply arrested the Huangs for starving their daughter to death, and for child trafficking with intent to harvest her organs. In fact, there was no evidence to substantiate any abuse or intentional starvation. Gloria’s two brothers are healthy, and neighbors and family friends have gone on the record about conditions in the home. After the California Innocence Project took on the case, an examination performed by an American pathologist indicated that Gloria’s organs were intact, with no sign that an autopsy had even been performed in Qatar.

A third way of telling the story: Gloria and her two brothers, adopted from Ghana and Uganda, were described in the Doha police report as “ugly black children.” One Qatari investigator said, “The adoption process consists of searching for children who are good-looking and well-behaved, and who have hereditary features that are similar to those of the parents. But the children connected to this incident are all from Africa, and most of the families there are indigent.” This was underpinned by the broad Qatari suspicion of all forms of exogamy—traditions against marrying outside one’s kinship circle are so strong that Qatar suffers from one of the world’s highest rates of genetic disorders related to extreme consanguinity. According to the Huangs’ website, the prosecution saw no reason for these adoptions other than that the Huangs took the children into their home “in order to harvest their organs, or perhaps to perform medical experiments on them.”

Media around the world have picked up on the Huangs’ predicament and dissected it through a dizzying array of prisms: race, religion, ethics of adoption, global migration, contested definitions of eating disorders, etc. None of these analyses provide credible grounds for a criminal case against the Huangs, yet these legions of speculative associations are evocative in their own right. Americans do indeed have an unfortunate international image of buying, selling, returning and “re-homing” adopted children like commodities on eBay. And it is true that a Somali child was recently rescued from brokers who had smuggled her into Britain for alleged organ harvesting. Traffickers have made news for stealing children from sub-Saharan Africa for sale as sex slaves and, in Qatar, for use as camel jockeys. And as evangelicals, the Huangs were shadowed by tales about zealous Christian missionaries dispensing harsh beatings as a parenting practice. What’s more, 80 percent of Qatar’s residents are largely Asian migrant laborers and servants, whose rights—including those of the Huangs—are constrained by the employers serving as their “sponsors,” rendering them effectively stateless.

It is easy for us to be appalled by the Huang case and assume that such things can never happen here. But humans have biases. It is the role of our courts and government institutions to sift through those biases and waken us when we are about to be deceived by our illusions. “The norm of public reason,” as Yale law professor Dan Kahan calls it, is a concept that calls for “legislators and ordinary citizens to justify policies on grounds accessible to persons of diverse moral and cultural persuasions instead of in terms that reflect a partisan conception of the good.” Justice here and abroad depends on public systems that do not lock us up based on mere assumptions. Forensic science, critical reasoning and due process can assist us in making decisions that are based on fairness and evidence. Yet these judges’, public defenders’ and prosecutors’ offices are the tools consistently under political assault these days—routinely understaffed and budget-strapped.

Ultimately, the Huangs’ story is one of a family imprisoned—literally and figuratively—by the power of cultural narratives with lives of their own. Many Westerners are shocked by the criminalization of the Huangs, but we should take their plight as a more general object lesson about the power of biases. What will be the fate of Gloria’s two brothers here in the United States? If we imagine shimmering Brangelina rainbow uplift when we think of adopted African children, our treatment of those children, when grown, as inherently criminal and intellectually suspect is no less insidiously burdensome than the stigmas haunting the Huangs in Qatar. I am reminded of the carelessness with which the police investigated Trayvon Martin’s death. The officers in Sanford, Florida—much like their Qatari cousins—displayed so little curiosity beyond their own preconceptions that they didn’t bother to perform routine forensic examinations, like properly preserving Trayvon’s clothes or testing George Zimmerman for drugs and alcohol. If we are shocked by Qatar’s lack of due process, so should we worry about exactly the same lack for minorities and migrant workers in the United States, whom we too often and too carelessly presume are “terrorists” if not organ harvesters, “leeches” if not vampires.


I wish to thank my student Katri Stanley, who brought this case to my attention in a very fine seminar paper about adoption laws.

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I, Too…

‘I, Too, Am Harvard’ Rocks the Ivory Tower

Patricia J. Williams | March 12, 2014

More than forty years ago, during my first days at college, I was made instantly and acutely aware that a lot of people seemed never to have met a black person. For the most part they were not intentionally belligerent, but they were excruciatingly, unself-consciously, dopily innocent. (“Leontyne Price actually studied opera? I thought she was just naturally musical…”)

Plus ça change, I suppose, but it is a disheartening testament to the intractability of America’s housing and educational segregation that, so many decades after the civil rights movement, many white students still seem never to have truly engaged with a black person till they get to college. More discouraging still, they then seem to turn interrogation of that void upon their black classmates’ right to be there, rather than upon the constrained and blinkered circumstances of their own upbringing.

The toll of that social gap is the subject of a new play, I, Too, Am Harvard, written by sophomore Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence with a broad coalition of classmates, which premiered on March 7. The play is presented in two acts, the first of which looks at the wide diversity of Harvard’s black students: descendants of American slaves, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, students who could (and are told they should!) pass for white, recent immigrants, mathematicians, musicians, poets, linguists, engineering students, children of all sorts of “mixed” marriages, poor kids and the children of Ivy League grads.

The second act looks at what those varied individuals have in common: this batch of young people is indisputably brilliant, thoughtful, humane and funny. A more pressing commonality, however, is that they are all routinely greeted as… otherwise.

They are treated with open disdain, the champagne flutes snatched from their hands at cocktail parties as they are mistaken for waiters. They are figured as criminals when they walk across campus. Their sexual prowess is interrogated, their beauty denigrated. They hesitate before asking questions in class—for a dumb question from a white person isn’t heard as a reflection on all white people, but any question from a black person tends to be scrutinized for inherent inferiority, “proof” that the student’s lonely little voice is the evil marker of where a “more qualified white person” ought to be sitting.

Only about 10 percent of the students at Harvard are black: yet that small, diverse population is hyper-visible. One young man described sitting down for dinner in the cafeteria, joined by four black friends. Later that evening, he was accused, by some white dorm mates, of “self-segregating.” Yet every other table in the cafeteria was all-white. He wondered aloud if his dorm mates even realized that their world is much more segregated than his. They didn’t seem to see that “they’re living all the time in a white world” and that most other people on the planet “live in multiple worlds.”

As another young man put it: “We are always so concerned about making everyone comfortable with our presence when we are made uncomfortable every single day.”

In addition to the play, these students put together a gallery of photographs of themselves on Tumblr (#ITooAmHarvard [1]), holding signs with actual comments made by friends and classmates (“You’re really articulate for a black girl”; “Are you all so fast because you spend so much time running from the cops?”), as well as responses to those comments (“No, I will not teach you how to ‘twerk’”; “Please don’t pet my hair, I am not an animal”). They’re evocative images, filled with gravity and grace, humor and sadness.

This project lends voice to unusually gifted, hard-working young people—by any human standard—who nevertheless spend much of their lives hidden behind the projections of others. Along with the eloquent students at Northwestern University who are unionizing to press their case against financial exploitation of poor and often minority “amateur” athletes by the NCAA, #ITooAmHarvard is part of an emerging nationwide student movement led by—but not exclusive to—students of color of all sorts. Oh, and joined by feminists, poor whites, those identified as gay/lesbian/transgender, and anyone else who has a clue of what it’s like to be bullied. Together, they have begun a new kind of dialogue about belonging and worth. And they are turning a mirror on the very bad manners, shall we call it, of a society that buries them beneath the history-deprived in-your-face-ness of tone-deaf provocateurs who, much like Paula Deen, never really mean to hurt your feelings—and yet who feel “crucified” when someone points out that they have.

This mix of insult and innocence is what some social psychologists call “microaggression”—the small, often unintentional expressions of ignorance and offense. It is a blindness that is as much the product of segregation as disparate stop-and-frisk policies. It’s not always as deadly as George Zimmerman’s constructed fears. But it represents a significant part of the unexpressed and unaccounted-for tensions within our polity.

An actor’s clear young voice lingers long after the performance: “Blackness to me is faith…having faith in what you don’t see. We as a people often don’t see validation. So for me, it’s having faith that I am significant, valid, valuable, even though everything else is telling me I’m not.”

Most conversations about race in American higher education focus on the endless, unwinnable effort to defensively prove “merit.” With gentility, restraint and admirable integrity, #ITooAmHarvard shifts the frame of this contentious landscape and asks instead: What institutional Weltanschauung is it that indulges such brutal, breezy presumptions regarding those about whom we are basically so miserably ill-informed? Whence does the entitlement come that allows such profoundly ignorant encounters within any community, never mind Harvard’s? Harvard! That ultimate self-promoting paragon of what the “civilized” world exalts as our best and brightest hope for peaceful human co-existence—yet here so persistently revealed as… otherwise.

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Womb Wars

Published on The Nation (
Worlds, and Wombs, Collide in Kansas Bill Criminalizing Surrogate Pregnancy Contracts

Patricia J. Williams | February 5, 2014

In late January, Kansas State Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook introduced a bill that would have criminalized the use of surrogate contracts in pregnancy and imposed a $10,000 fine and up to a year in jail for anyone participating in such a transaction. The effort was quickly abandoned amid a storm that included pro-lifers battling pro-lifers, invocations of God having hired the Virgin Mary as a surrogate, sonograms performed live in a senate committee and a host of other risible posturings.

If the bill hadn’t been body-slammed into the dust by some of the sillier statements of its chief proponent (Pilcher-Cook asserted, for example, that surrogacy creates children who are “not going to have either a biological mother, biological father or both”), the discussion might have garnered more attention. The laws regarding surrogacy are a jumble of inconsistent public policies, free-market contracts, civil interventions and criminal sanctions. However incoherent the Kansas attempt, there’s a serious question as to whether individually drafted private contracts are sufficient to settle questions of intended parenthood, or if the “best interests of the child” standards governing custody, adoption and other realms of family law should have greater sway.

Some states have long found surrogate contracts not in the public interest, and a few already criminalize them. Many laws were passed in the early days of ovum transplantation and have not been adequately reviewed in the decades since. Hence, what laws are in place have not nearly kept up with the explosive technological revolution in assisted reproduction. Even in states that purport to regulate, it is largely doctors and IVF technicians who call the shots as to what’s acceptable in the realm of surrogacy and reproductive techniques.

There is deep conceptual confusion, as well as outright conflict, about what is at stake in surrogacy. Employing a woman—often a poor or minority woman in strapped circumstances—to bear one’s child is generally extolled in the language of gift, donation, altruism, joy, hope, sharing and religiously inflected fruitfulness. But it is, in actual practice, a mostly commercial transaction involving issues of pregnancy as labor, childbirth as priced, equality of bargaining power, exploitation of bodies and fairness of terms.

The fact that surrogacy is dominantly framed by the market also vexes the question of how we figure the reproductive freedom of women who simultaneously obligate themselves as so-called “containers.” Can a woman be contractually bound—forced, in other words—to have an abortion if developmental abnormalities are detected? And what happens if she enters a contract that fails to address the risk of complications that threaten her health but not that of the fetus? Would she be forced to carry the pregnancy to term?

We’ve recently seen the emotionally wrenching legal mess that ensued when the State of Texas attempted to forcibly keep Marlise Muñoz, a woman who was indisputably brain-dead, on life support so as to sustain her 14-week-old embryo for six more months. What if Muñoz had been a surrogate? If the language of contract imagines her body to be a mere container, would there have been more or less suasion in the attempt to hook up her hired-out body, already imagined without a brain, to pumps and bellows like a fetal factory? Ultimately, the court allowed Muñoz to be taken off life support, but the battle highlights implicit issues of dignity, bodily integrity and public health in surrogacy arrangements exceeding the sphere of private contract.

That said, Senator Pilcher-Cook’s proposal was motivated by a more familiar conceptual divide: that of when the biological processes set in motion by the fertilization of a human egg will be conferred legal standing as a “person.” Pilcher-Cook is among those who believe that full personhood is sparked from the moment of conception in any and all pluripotent cells. She assigns agency and a weirdly disembodied vitality even to embryos stashed in laboratory freezers because the “value of a human being doesn’t depend on their location.” While one wishes to respect such a comprehensive notion of humanity, to reinforce such a belief with criminalizing consequence seems unduly inhumane.

Frequently passed over in the debate about surrogacy is the ever-expanding litter of parties implicated as potential parents: egg donor, sperm donor, “intended” (or purchasing) parent or parents, gestational carrier and IVF inseminator (usually a medic or technician). In the emerging science of ooplasmic transplantation, moreover—where ova are manipulated to alter mitochondrial lines—children may be born with the genetic ingredients of two mothers and one father. This is deservedly controversial among bioethicists, because it directly tinkers with the human germ line, something that violates conventions of medical and social science practice. As this implies, whatever’s the matter with Kansas is most emphatically no longer a local question. Indeed, the ethics of cloning, of eugenic racial/cultural/aesthetic superiority and of desire for self-immortalization hovers at the edge of many of these discussions.

But bottom line, to try to criminalize surrogacy is a bit like trying to criminalize contraception or abortion, in that it comes too close to criminalizing sexuality, libido, intimacy. There is a complex of contentious, theologically bewildering dilemmas we are never going to solve with bright-lined legalisms. In a moment as unprecedentedly besieged by biological and technological revolution as ours, we should resist that first gesture toward criminalizing all who do not adhere to the way things have always been. By the same token, this very expensive technology should not blind us to the multiple ways we might otherwise make family, particularly if we relinquish the conceit that all our children must “look like us.” There are, after all, well over a million homeless children in the United States; at least 650,000 passed through foster care in 2012, and at least 120,000 are waiting for adoption. That much is truly criminal.


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Published on The Nation (


It’s Time to End ‘Broken Windows’ Policing

Patricia J. Williams | January 8, 2014

One of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first acts after being elected this past November was to reappoint William Bratton as commissioner of New York City’s police department. Bratton’s reputation rests on his work, in New York and Los Angeles, as a proponent of so-called “broken windows” policing. He asserts that aggressively going after very minor offenses—not merely misdemeanors but infractions like littering, sitting on stoops and carrying open beer cans—will bring the overall rate of violent crime down as well. It is this program that has led to the stopping, frisking and general harassing of millions of New Yorkers, the overwhelming majority without probable cause.

There were 4.4 million stops by the NYPD between 2004 and 2012. Ten percent of those stops were of whites, 84 percent were of blacks and Latinos. Of those 4.4 million stops, only 6 percent led to an arrest, 6 percent to a summons. The remaining 88 percent resulted in no other action—in other words, they involved unequivocally innocent people.

One of the most tireless and insightful interrogators of broken windows policing is Harry Levine of the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, who describes it as a practice of focusing “police resources on making many stop and frisks, writing many summonses for minor offenses, and making many arrests for minor misdemeanors.” Evidence of its effectiveness in reducing violent crime is thin (better evidence suggests that lowered crime rates have more to do with the subsidence of the crack epidemic). Yet the practice is widespread in the United States. Says Levine, ”Minor-offense-focused policing gives police commanders something to do with their troops.” Plus, he adds, “it’s an effective solution to the manpower problems created by the national and international decline in reported serious and violent crime.”

Levine is the author, with civil rights attorney Loren Siegel, of a new study, forthcoming next month, on the disproportionate numbers and rates of criminal summonses for riding bicycles on the sidewalk. “Take just three neighborhoods in Brooklyn,” says Levine. “From 2008 through 2011, Park Slope (Precinct 78) averaged eight bike-on-sidewalk summonses a year, Ocean Hill–Brownsville (Precinct 73) averaged 1,062 and Bedford–Stuyvesant (Precinct 79) averaged 2,050.” As one might guess, Park Slope is a mostly white neighborhood; Ocean Hill–Brownsville is 90 percent black and Latino; Bedford–Stuyvesant is 80 percent black and Latino.

This zero tolerance of minor offenses is enforced only some communities. We’ve all heard stories about children suspended from school for having nail clippers or ibuprofin in their backpacks. Living in New York can be exactly like that—but only if you’re black or Latino. No matter how many times you slowly pedal your bike on an empty sidewalk, you probably never dream you could be criminally cited, if you happen to live in a predominantly white neighborhood.

The problem is twofold. First, broken windows policing, begun under Giuliani, was powered up under Bloomberg. Poor minority neighborhoods were flooded with officers, their productivity measured by quotas for stops, criminal summonses and arrests. The second problem is that criminal summonses are pink slips that look very much like the ticket one might get for an expired parking meter. Many people mistake them for precisely that; but they require an appearance in court, not sending in a fine. If you fail to show, an arrest warrant is issued. There are approximately a million outstanding arrest warrants for nontraffic summonses in New York. As the Daily Newsreported in February 2013, if all of them were acted on, one in eight residents would be subject to immediate arrest and jail.

So here are some suggestions for Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton:

1. End “productivity measures” for minor offenses. No doubt a strong police presence by itself may deter and control crime. But it is questionable whether summoning half a million people a year for minor infractions—then dismissing more than half of them—is remotely justifiable. If this level of disruption is truly necessary, then eliminate the disproportionate burden on targeted communities. Start ticketing and arresting in all precincts, not just poor minority neighborhoods.

2. Take seriously the research on a range of policing policies and their numerous effects, and make public much more data so policing strategies can be publicly reviewed and debated. Yes, there are many around City Hall who remain convinced that broken windows policing is causal rather than incidentally correlative, but good policy can’t be based on superstition. US crime rates have declined, including in cities without such tactics. The resistance to facts about crime reduction is as blindly irrational as climate change denial.

3. Judges are crucially positioned to curb the unfairness of such disparities. Brooklyn Judge Noach Dear is a model in this regard. He took a stand after years of seeing open-container violations brought exclusively against black and Latino men. “As hard as I try, I cannot recall ever arraigning a white defendant for such a violation,” he said, and then declared that the NYPD can no longer rely on a “sniff test” as evidence; it must prove, with lab results, that those they cite are drinking not just alcohol, but alcohol that contains more than the legally allowed .05 percent by volume.

4. Similarly, prosecutors, defense attorneys and other officers of the court must stop treating summonses and warrants as though they are of no consequence. The mere fact of an arrest—even without a conviction—can affect one’s immigration status as well as one’s ability to stay in public housing, school or in a job.

New Yorkers have lived in the shadow of broken windows policing for two decades, during which time the policy has intimidated, dispossessed and humiliated millions of innocent people. It not only divides New York; it creates two Americas.


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January 23, 2014 · 1:08 am

Patricia Williams: On Mandela and Obama– Nation in the News on December 11, 2013 – 3:24 PM ET

Columbia University professor and Nation columnist Patricia Williams joined Tom Brokaw and Ari Melber on MSNBC to remember the late Nelson Mandela. Williams said one of Mandela’s defining legacies was signing South Africa’s constitution, “one of the most progressive in the world.” She also compared and contrasted the South African leader toBarack Obama, saying the American president invokes some of the hope and inspiration of Mandela, but “the question of Guantánamo and certain foreign policies makes his situation a more complex one.” —Steven Hsieh

To view segment, follow this link:


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There’s Nothing Postracial About Richie Incognito or Craig Cobb

Published on The Nation (

Patricia J. Williams | November 26, 2013

They’re curiously phrased, those expressions of sympathy by Miami Dolphins players who have lined up to defend left guard Richie Incognito’s violent behavior toward his teammate, offensive lineman Jonathan Martin. Incognito achieved particular notoriety recently for directing a hefty wet stream of racialized epithets at Martin. (“Hey, wassup, you half-[n-word] piece of [expletive]…[I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face…. I’ll kill you!”) This bullying was so relentless that Martin decided to resign from the NFL.

Despite Incognito’s extensive history of brutality (he was elected “dirtiest player” in the league), a significant number of black and white teammates have rallied around him as an “honorary” black man, incapable of racism. Incognito, it has been proffered, had merely “messed” with Martin as one would a “little brother.” Martin, by contrast, the genteel, sweater-vested Stanford classics major, has been depicted as “not really black” because he’s somehow too “soft” to stand up to a bit of friendly hazing. Most intriguing, he’s been painted as a reverse racist for even complaining.

There are those who swear that all this has nothing to do with race. Says a sports-obsessed friend: “It’s a club. Like the Thin Blue Line. Omertà…. The difference is, [Incognito] used the n-word. The others are coming to his rescue because they know that that’s the only thing that distinguishes his bad behavior from theirs.” Yet whatever the dynamic, the main actors have deployed the signifying power of the language of race. They have done so, moreover, in a way that would seem to scramble the borders of identity—white is black, black is white, we are all n-words now, kumbaya! Some have found in this a weirdly soothing promise of a “postracial” society. But I worry that what is actually happening is a not so subtle reinforcement of racism’s slippery power to reinscribe social hierarchy, even while denying its very existence.

Racism is malleable; it is always changing its clothing. If we do not speak of it in exactly the same way we did thirty or forty years ago, it helps to remind ourselves that it has always been a mash-up of multiple forms of intolerance—i.e., racism, class bias, insider-outsider. The precise proportions may shift over time, but the alignments of Incognito’s pseudo-blackness with threatening behavior and Martin’s pseudo-whiteness with being threatened is a persistently re-emerging metric.

The logic that underwrites this bizarre algebra is not simple. It is surely true that our entire culture is marked by a shift toward more warlike role models—whether the steroidally invincible robo-thug, the tatted-up cage fighter or the bullying cop. But I fear there is a racialized difference in who gets to wear those identities as heroic masculinity. My suspicion is that if Incognito really were black, Fox News would no doubt be gleefully pluralizing him, lamenting the imagined pathologies of “his ilk” and “those people.” And if Martin really were white, he’d be hailed as the Wheaties-boxed torchbearer of a lost age of sport as fair play, a Gipperesque icon of clean, leather-balled rectitude.

Another example of the peculiar play between intolerance and racism’s multiple, malleable designations: the bizarre encounter of neo-Nazi Craig Cobb and black British chat show host Trisha Goddard. In pursuit of his dream of racial homogeneity, Cobb has attempted to establish a whites-only colony by buying up all the property in Leith, North Dakota—and trying to drive out its one black resident, a black man married to a white woman. Cobb was recently arrested after terrorizing residents and brandishing guns in the pursuit of this endeavor; he is also a fugitive from Estonia and Canada for general promulgation of hatred.

For reasons that remain a mystery for another day, Cobb agreed to submit to a DNA test and then receive the results on Goddard’s program. The breathlessly delivered reveal purported to show that Cobb is “14 percent sub-Saharan African.” In a now-viral meme, Goddard leapt from her chair and tried to fist-bump him: “Bro!” she cried out in mock rapture. Following up, commentators exulted at Cobb’s shock in finding out who he “really” is. Typical of the coverage was a broadcast on HuffPost Live with commentary from Marc Lamont Hill, an affable young pundit who found the whole thing “hilarious” and “awesome.” He was tickled because the DNA test purportedly shows that Cobb is not only “of African ancestry, he’s 14 percent sub-Saharan African. That’s like he’s super-black.”

While Cobb and Goddard’s encounter was endlessly exploited for its we-are-all-brothers irony, the truth is, there is no genetic marker for race. In fact, the real irony of this story is its reinforcement of the notion that race is detectable in our genes and that there are “pure” racial stocks, whose essences can be titrated into mixtures measured by percentages. When we describe our biology as “part this” race or “part that,” we rely on the fallacy that race is biological, and that there is a “whole” this race or that. I’ve written before about the misleading nature of carelessly regulated commercial genetic tests that purport to show race rather than ancestry. It bears repeating: it is sloppy, dangerous pseudoscience to imply that any human being could be “100 percent” of any “race” other than human.

At the core of these seemingly inconsistent racial connotations is a shape-shifting collective tradition of prejudice that violently pushes some of us outside the civic or even human cohort and ultimately blocks all of us from full engagement with the American dream. And so the eponymous Incognito barrels his way across a cultural field that marbles black and white into a camouflage pattern of “wigger”-ish, “playfully” insensitive gladiatorial brutality. The self-composed integrity of a Jonathan Martin is devalued as the angry, fractionated whimperings of the “half”-bred and half-hearted. And an internationally terrifying white-rights activist like Craig Cobb is lightly—and darkly—passed over as “hilarious,” “awesome” and “super-black.” There is nothing postracial about this.


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Writing as Woman’s Work

The devaluation of “content” is bad for readers and for democracy.


Dr. Danielle Lee is a blogger for Scientific American and a zoologist at the University of Oklahoma who studies animals like the prairie vole and the giant pouched rat. Early in October, she received an invitation from “Ofek,” the pseudonymous blog editor at “I encountered your blog ‘Urban Scientist’ and am wondering if you would be interested in joining us as a guest blogger…. You could serve as ‘educator’ and guide for your world of science.”

Lee was interested: “Please tell me more about this…. What are your payment rates for guest bloggers?” Ofek informed her that “we don’t pay” but suggested that writing for his site might “have a direct effect on the traffic and rank of your blog, and that in turn has a direct effect on advertising revenue.”

“Thank you very much,” replied Lee. “But I will have to decline your offer. Have a great day.” To which Ofek responded: “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”

This much raises eyebrows, but there is more. Lee used her blog to decry the insult in a video posting. She not only challenged Ofek to treat others with more professionalism but also exhorted scholars to think about the value of their work and not to assume that “exposure” is the same thing as remuneration. “For far too long, the presumption has been that if you’re a woman, a person of color, or of a lower socioeconomic status…they can get you, your talent, your expertise and your energies for free.”

Within an hour, Lee’s response was removed by Scientific American as “not appropriate.” The blowback was immediate, and Scientific American was persuaded to reinstate the post. The incident, however, prompted another writer, Monica Byrne, to recount instances of sexual harassment from Scientific American’s chief blog editor, Bora Zivkovic. A forum on “brogrammer” culture ensued as other women came forward to complain about Zivkovic’s behavior. Zivkovic soon resigned. Afterward, a Twitter hashtag (#ripplesofdoubt) emerged that quickly exploded with firsthand accounts of misogyny, racism and intolerance in publishing, academia, business and the arts.

This incident began as an example of the shabby treatment of women in science, but Dr. Lee’s framing enlarges the question to include the fate of those—male or female—who laborin disciplines that have been feminized, deprofessionalized and undervalued in the digital economy. In a recent New York Times op-ed, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” Tim Kreider mused: “I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing.” Noting that today he’s paid less for full articles in prestigious news outlets than he was for his first published bit in a local alternative weekly back in 1989, Kreider mourns that the information economy seems to have rendered “‘paying for things’…a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom.”

Robert McChesney’s recent book Digital Disconnect provides excellent insight into how the FCC’s kowtowing to platform monopolists has brought us to this point. He also describes how companies like Journatic, which supplies supposedly “local” news coverage, have outsourced stories to nonlocal freelancers across the United States, as well as in the Philippines, where writers are given “American-sounding bylines” and asked to “commit to 250 pieces/week minimum” at 35 to 40 cents a piece. Or Automated Insights, which “uses algorithms to turn numerical data into narrative articles for its 418 sports websites.” There are those who equate this development with the joys of a free market. But when the medium is, quite literally, the message, it is not only the craft of writing that is emptied of value but the power to be heard, the ability to dissent, and the possibility of civic engagement.

Times media critic David Carr recently delivered a glowing endorsement of the degree to which tech companies are taking over the media. He rejoiced at the millions invested by Silicon Valley executives, epitomized by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ recent purchase of TheWashington Post. Carr hailed the “hacker’s ethos” that will supposedly infuse publishing. “One of the secrets of Amazon (and Netflix) is that it never offered one site, but millions of customized sites. It is not hard to envision a carefully measured invitation at the bottom of a highly trafficked news article: ‘People who read this story are also reading…’”

I am not one who shares Carr’s unvarnished optimism. The singular skill set of this particular cohort of technology magnates is marketing and selling. Social media, where many young people get their news, arrange information by metrics that foreground personal preferences. This is a significant departure from the civic republican notion of the Fourth Estate as a watchdog on government. It also speaks to the disinvestment in anything but the lowest common denominator of what “most people” are doing—or “hitting.” This produces a culture in which casual stereotypes and an ethic of self-defined fun will top the list of most “feeds.” It is a world where “content” is no longer the informative glue of democracy but raw material to be milled by digital platforms into advertising gold. And we are all infantilized, feminized and disenfranchised when situated as the subjects of social experiments designed not only to predict our behaviors but control them.

Dr. Lee enjoins us to demand our economic worth in these new forums, to insist on being treated like professionals. But what happens when professing is no longer associated with a profession? I think of it as a relentlessly forward-moving but regressively old-style economics in which certain categories of labor are deemed “emotional” or “women’s work” or “housework” or to be done simply “for the love of it.” That’s the only logic to the otherwise absurd equation that it is “whorish” to demand to be paid for your work.


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