Foreign Affairs: September/October 2020

I’ve got subscriptions to half a dozen different magazines, most of whom I don’t get through.

So I’m trying something new this month: reviews of different magazines, which highlight stories or articles that stuck with me. I’ll also be honest about any sections that I skipped out on, and why.

My hope is that it’ll incentivize me to read them through, and hopefully point you, dear reader, to articles and magazines that you might otherwise miss?

So here we go:

Overview

The theme of the issue is “The World That Trump Made,” but its contents don’t bear that out.

If anything, the articles drive home the fact that Trump has been mostly ineffective or inactive in global affairs. As a result, the world is one that others have made: Japan, China, Russia, Iran, Israel, etc.

And they will continue to do so, as long as the United States abrogates the leadership role it’s played — for good and for ill — over the last eighty years.

Highlights

“A Grand Strategy of Resilience” is a fantastic pulling together of multiple threads, linking social justice movements to the ability of the US to project power abroad. The author rightly points out that an unjust and unequal society is a fragile one, and that great powers cannot weather the storms of global politics if they are not resilient.

I love the concept of resilience, and favor using it as a lens through which to judge policy. It’s the kind of concept that should appeal to both conservatives and liberals: Because who wouldn’t prefer to live in a more flexible, bounce-back kind of country?

“The Tragedy of Vaccine Nationalism” raises a problem I hadn’t even considered: As different countries race to produce a vaccine for Covid-19, what will we do when/if one is found? Once made, how will presumably limited supplies be allocated? And given how global supply chains have gotten, what will we do if one country refuses to manufacture (or drives up prices on) the parts of the vaccine that its companies make?

The author argues that we should be laying the groundwork now for cooperation in sharing and manufacturing any vaccines, so agreements will already be in place by the time one is found. But like so much else, I fear the major powers have no interest in cooperating, and no leaders capable of admitting they might need other countries.

Disappointments

Went into “The Fragile Republic” expecting a good summary of threats both foreign and domestic. Got thrown out of the article just three paragraphs in, though, when the authors reach back to 1798 as their framing device, but name the opposition party as the “Republicans,” instead of the correct “Democratic-Republicans.”

It seems like a small thing, but it incorrectly projects the existence of the Republican Party back an additional sixty years (!). And if they can’t be bothered to get that one detail right (that even this non-specialist knows), how can I trust anything else they say?

“To Protect And Serve” sounds like it’s going to be a wealth of information about police practice in other countries that we can draw from. But the other than “more training,” the one reform the author advocates is a federal takeover of police departments across the US, which would be politically a non-starter and doesn’t help those of us advocating reform of our local police departments.

Skipped Articles

I skipped out on “The End of American Illusion,” an article written by someone who worked in the Trump regime and thinks only he sees the world clearly. I don’t read paeans to strongmen.

Also skipped “Giving Up on God,” because I’m an atheist and the decline of religion worldwide is both not surprising (because it’s been documented since the 1980s) and not worrying (ditto).

Predicting the Next President, by Allan J Lichtman

Hope. It’s a hard thing to come by, for me, when it comes to the federal government.

The election of 2016 was traumatic. My wife and I watched, horrified, as the candidate we thought not even Republicans were crazy enough to pick won first the primary, and then the general election.

Well, “won.” He lost the popular vote by 3 million, and still walked away with the keys to the White House, because of our country’s old, undemocratic way of electing Presidents.

It was so unnerving, when it happened, that we decided not to go home.

We were living in Arkansas at the time, having moved to nurse my wife’s mother back to health after she suffered a cardiovascular incident. It was our first time living in my wife’s home state in seven years, and in that time, the state we remembered as slightly behind the times but neighborly had curdled into a paranoid, xenophobic place.

Bad enough having to live there at all. Living there while their white nationalist leader commanded the federal government? While they crowed about his “achievements” dismantling the legacy of eight years of Obama’s government? While they felt entitled to air out their racism and sexism with impunity, with pride, even, because their man was in the White House?

We couldn’t do it.

So we lived on the East Coast that winter, crashing with friends — amazing friends, to put up with us for so long — and moved back to California, renting an apartment sight unseen. We drove cross-country, stopped in Arkansas just long enough to pack, and then moved on.

Now, after four years of Trump’s chaos, his rage and his incompetence, we’ve another election looming. And that same fear is back, that he’ll win again, and our country, which has never been innocent, but has at times fought against its darker impulses, will instead succumb to them.

So Lichtman’s theory of presidential elections — that the campaign doesn’t matter, that the candidates themselves almost don’t matter, only the past four years of governing do — gives me hope. Because after four years in power, the GOP has lost seven (!) of his thirteen “keys” to the White House, and you only need to lose six to lose the election.

Which means I can ignore the polls. I can tune out — to some extent — the campaign itself. I can focus on voting, on helping others to vote, and preventing election fraud.

And I can hope.

The End of Policing, by Alex S. Vitale

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always been afraid of the police.

Not that I have any negative experience to make me afraid. No, I grew up White and privileged, shielded from the things they did to others.

Yet I was afraid. And I was right to be.

Because if the police can pull you over for a broken taillight, insist on a search of your car, and choke you to death when you resist said illegal search, you never want to be pulled over.

If the police can raid your house on an anonymous tip and kill your dog when it tries to protect you from the armed intruders violating your home, then leave without even an apology when they learn it’s the wrong home, you never want to have them pay you a visit.

And if they have the power to insist that the only way you’re going to get help with your heroin addiction is to plead guilty to a crime that hurt no one but yourself, you never want to ask them for help.

But that’s where we are, in the United States. We’ve expanded the role and powers of police so much, that the often the only hand being held out for those who are homeless, or addicts, or mentally disturbed, is the one holding a gun.

As we re-examine the place of police in our society, Vitale’s book is essential reading. It’s not a screed, and not wishful thinking about how everything would be peaceful if the police went away.

Instead, it takes a hard look at what the police are for, and then dares to ask the question: Are they successful at it?

As it turns out, they’re not. They’re not any good at solving homelessness, or making sex work safe, or getting addicts into recovery, or reducing gang violence, or helping the mentally ill get treatment, or disciplining school children, or even something as mundane as actually preventing crime.

Police, in a word, are a failure. They’re an experiment that we need to end.

Because the problems we’ve asked them to address can be, just by different means.

We can get the homeless into homes, and use that as a foundation to get them standing on their own again.

We can invest in businesses in and around gang-troubled neighborhoods, to give the people who might join those gangs the opportunity to do something better.

We can find other ways to discipline children than having them handcuffed and marched out of school.

The End of Police is both a passionate plea for us to find a better way, and a dispassionate look at how badly our approaches to these problems have gone wrong.

It’s not too late to try something else. We just need to make the choice.

Are Job Degree Requirements Racist?

Since reading Ibram X Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, I’m starting to re-examine certain policies I’ve taken for granted. What I’ve previously thought of as meritocratic or race-neutral might be neither; it might instead be part of the problem.

In that book, he gives a clear criteria for whether a policy or idea is a racist one: Does it establish or reinforce racial inequality?

With that in mind, I thought I’d look at my own house — the tech industry — and at our very real tendency to run companies composed mostly of white males.

There are many reasons why this happens, but I’d like to drill into just one: The university degree requirement.

Most “good jobs” these days require some sort of university degree. Tech goes one step further, and asks for a degree specifically in computer science or another STEM field.

The degree isn’t enough to get the job, of course. Most interview processes still test skill level at some point. But the field of candidates is narrowed, deliberately, via this requirement.

The question is: Does requiring this technical degree bias the selection process towards White people?

Criteria

Before diving into the statistics, let’s back up and talk about the criteria here. How can we tell if the degree requirement biases selection?

In order to do that, we need to know what an unbiased selection process would look like.

And here is where it’s important to note the composition of the general US population (and why the Census being accurate is so very very important). If all things are equal between racial groups, then the composition of Congress, company boards, and job candidates will reflect their percentages in the population.

Anything else is inequality between the races, and can only be explained in one of two ways: either you believe there are fundamental differences between people in different racial groups (which, I will point out, is a racist idea), or there are policies in place which are creating the different outcomes.

With that criteria established, we can examine the possible racial bias of requiring university degrees by looking at two numbers:

  • How many people of each racial group obtain STEM degrees in the United States?
  • How does that compare to their level in the general population?

Who Has a Degree, Anyway?

According to 2018 data from the US Census, approximately 52 million people (out of a total US population of 350 million) have a bachelor’s degree in the US.

Of those 51 million, 40.8 million are White.

Only 4.7 million are Black.

That means White people hold 79% of all the bachelor degrees, while Black people hold only 9%.

Their shares of the general population? 76.3% White, 13.4% Black.

So Whites are overrepresented in the group of people with bachelor degrees, and Blacks are underrepresented.

So by requiring any university degree, at all, we’ve already tilted the scales against Black candidates.

Who is Getting Degrees?

But what about new graduates? Maybe the above numbers are skewed by previous racial biases in university admissions (which definitely happened), and if we look at new grads — those entering the workforce — the percentages are better?

I’m sorry, but nope. If anything, it’s worse.

Let’s drill down to just those getting STEM degrees (since those are the degrees that would qualify you for most tech jobs). In 2015, according to the NSF, 60.5% of STEM degrees were awarded to White people, and only 8.7% of them went to Black people.

The same report notes that the percentage of degrees awarded to Black people (~9%) has been constant for the last twenty years.

So universities, far from leveling the racial playing field, actually reinforce inequality.

Conclusion

Simply by asking for a university degree, then, we’re narrowing our field of candidates, and skewing the talent pool we draw from so that White people are overrepresented.

Thus, we’re more likely to select a White candidate, simply because more White people are able to apply.

That reinforces racial inequality, and makes requiring a university degree for a job — any job — a racist policy.

What can we do instead? To be honest, if your current interview process can’t tell candidates who have the right skills from candidates who don’t, then requiring a college degree won’t fix it.

If your interview process leans heavily on discovering a candidate’s background, instead of their skills, re-balance it. Come up with ways to measure the skills of a candidate that do not require disclosure of their background.

In programming, we have all sorts of possible skill-measuring techniques: Asking for code samples, having candidates think through a problem solution during the interview, inviting essay answers to questions that are open-ended but can only be completed by someone with engineering chops.

By asking for a demonstration of skill, rather than personal history, we’d both make our interviews better — because we’d be filtering for candidates who have shown they can do the job — and less biased.

And if we’re serious about increasing diversity in our workplaces, we’ll drop the degree requirement.

How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X Kendi

Powerfully written.

Kendi lays out a set of definitions for racism, racist, and antiracist, then shows how those rules apply across different areas: culture, sexuality, gender, class, etc.

Along the way, he tells stories from his own life, using his personal growth to illustrate how following the principles of antiracism leads to also being a feminist, an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community, and an anticapitalist.

Because Kendi is so willing to be vulnerable here, to admit to his previous homophobia, his sexism, his snobbery towards other Black people, his hatred of White people, he takes us along the journey with him. And he makes it okay if you’re still only part way along the journey, because he gives you a path forward.

What could easily have been a sermon, then, becomes a conversation. A directed conversation, to be sure, one with a purpose, but one where both parties admit they’ve made and will make mistakes. It made me want to be better, to think more clearly, than simply laying out his current perspective would.

And his anchoring of racism vs antiracism in power, and the way power is distributed among (invented) racial groups, is empowering. By targeting power’s self-interest, we can push for lasting changes, not just momentary victories.

We don’t wait for racism to fade away. We don’t wait for my family to become less afraid of Black people. We first remove the laws and policies keeping the races unequal, then people’s fears will go away.

It’s a serious responsibility, but it gives me hope. Because it makes the work more concrete: Not asking people to hold hands and sing together, but winding down the police state. Investing more in schools, and less in prisons. Breaking up monopolies and pushing power and money into communities that have neither.

So I recommend this book to anyone, of any race or caste. It offers clarity and hope in equal measure, because we have to see how racist power works — and how pervasive racist ideas are, in all groups — if we are to dismantle it.

Juneteenth

Growing up in Texas, we didn’t talk about Juneteenth in school.

We talked about the Civil War, of course. Of the “brave” and “fearsome” soldiers that Texas sent to fight for the Confederacy. But not about slavery, other than it being a “bad thing” that “was over now.”

We talked about Texas’ War of Independence from Mexico. That war was also motivated by slavery, by the desire for white Texans to have and import slaves. But we didn’t talk about that either. Only the Alamo, and Santa Anna, and again, the “brave” soldiers who fell.

But we never mentioned the brave slaves who ran away from home, in a desperate flight to freedom. Knowing they would be beaten if caught, and possibly killed.

We never talked about the black soldiers that served in the Union army, knowing the whites in that army still thought of them as “lesser men,” and that if captured by the Confederates they’d be made into slaves, even if they’d been raised free.

We didn’t talk about that kind of bravery.

So we didn’t talk about Juneteenth, and how its origins were Texan. How white Texans were so desperate to hold onto their human property that it took a Union Army arriving on the Gulf shore to force them to give them up.

Because our history was written and taught by white Southerners, who, being racist themselves, can’t see anything but shame in such a holiday. They identify too strongly with the losing side.

But having learned about the holiday as an adult — too late, true, but better than never — I can see pride in it, mixed in with the shame.

Not white pride, mind you, but American pride. Pride that the Civil War was fought and won by the side of justice. Pride that the slaves were freed, that we set off on a path to give all Americans the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The path is long and stony, and we’ve still a long way to go. But we can celebrate the progress we’ve made, even while pushing forward into the future.

I’m spending this Juneteenth catching up on more of the history that I missed in school. And thinking on how I can do my part to move us further down the path to becoming a truly free country.

Justice for Breonna’s killers.

Defund the Police.

Black Lives Matter.