There’s been a lot of talk these last few days about Charles Ramsey, the man who is responsible for rescuing the three women who were being held captive in Cleveland (we all know the story at this point). He became an instant Internet superstar, mostly because of this interview he gave to a local TV reporter just after the women were rescued. And predictably there’s now a controversy emerging about just how racist the portrayals of him in the media have been. Now, I’m a good liberal. I usually nod my head in agreement when someone calls out some subtle racist nonsense. But this one I can’t get behind, especially the comparisons to Antoine Dodson. Here’s why:
Ramsey had agency. In fact, I find it really patronizing that all this talk of minstrelsy and stereotyping assumes that Ramsey couldn’t have been in on it himself. As far as I was concerned (and I understand reasonable people can disagree on this interpretation) we were laughing with him rather than at him. The thumbs up, the chuckles, the thing he said about the white girls. Watch that original interview with the local reporter without the sound on and tell me that Ramsey isn’t completely in control of the narrative. Dodson clearly wasn’t trying to be funny.
More important than that, even if white people are laughing at Ramsey and there is some racial animosity below the surface of the jokes (I’m sure not everyone making memes is purehearted) they still have to reckon with the fact that Ramsey is a hero. Dodson wasn’t the hero, he was the man on the street. Through all Ramsey’s performance, he’s telling the story of a ridiculously dramatic rescue that he executed. The guy most people would avoid saved lives, lives of white people! That is sinking in.
In that sense, a more apt comparison might be to Wesley Autrey. Remember him? He’s the black guy who jumped onto the subway tracks in New York—while a train was coming!—to throw his body over that of a young white male seizure victim. Oh yeah, and his daughters were standing on the train platform the whole time. That one still completely blows my mind. (If you have time you should watch the Letterman interview) While he doesn’t challenge our stereotypes the way Ramsey does (Autrey is a family man, a Navy veteran, a construction worker, he gets his hair cut, he has all his teeth, etc.) he still doesn’t fit our image of the hero, especially the hero that saves white people. But that was some Captain America shit he did and it forced people to rethink, even if that wasn’t the dominant narrative.
So, from my seat on the Liberal Committee on How We’re Allowed to Talk About Colored People in the Media (LCHWATACPitM) my vote goes for letting this one just be funny. We don’t have to hand-wring every damn time. First, it’s exhausting. Second, it’s not effective.
It’s a low day for the tech industry: it seems that SendGrid has fired Adria Richards.
For those who don’t know, Adria was at PyCon sitting through a plenary session when some men behind her starting making “dongle” jokes. You get the idea. Adria (who was SendGrid’s developer evangelist), fed up with having to sit through sexist crap at tech conferences all the time, took a picture of the offenders and tweeted it at the conference organizers. She’s documented the exchange with context on her blog though you may or may not be able to see it since last I checked it was under DDoS attack. You can read more at VentureBeat.
There’s an unconfirmed rumor that one of the men Adria took a picture of got fired. That’s when the high-minded defenders of liberty (liberty, apparently, to make sexist jokes in a public and professional environment full of strangers and colleagues) decided this couldn’t stand and started DDoSing both Adria and SendGrid, not to mention threatening her personally.
Before I go further, I’d like to say that we have no way to know the full reason either of these people was fired. This could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back in either case. So there could be many reasons either or both of these individuals is out of a job today (it’s also not confirmed that the man in the picture was actually fired).
But let’s assume for the moment that both of these people, Adria and the man she took a picture of, had perfectly fine employment records and there were no pre-existing reasons that either would have been let go. Assuming that’s the case, it’s a very sad moment for the tech industry when the woman who calls out misogynistic bullshit gets fired and has to deal with death threats and more.
One can imagine a world where SendGrid stood up for Adria. Maybe said something like “the behavior Adria witnessed at PyCon was unacceptable in our industry. We’re proud to have someone on our staff who refuses to remain quiet in the face of such sexist and inappropriate behavior.”
Or at least a world where SendGrid would have been too ashamed to let Adria go based on her speaking out against sexism.
Unfortunately we don’t live in that world yet. The myth of the tech meritocracy is officially dead.
1) Asking random people on the train about their ethnic background isn’t really acceptable small talk. I’m not interested in explaining my family tree to you, dude, I’m just trying to get home.
2) In any situation, if you are going to ask someone about their ethnic background, it’s best not to presume what the answer will be. Just wait for them to tell you. And if they blow you off, don’t fucking be offended. You asked kind of a shitty question.
3) Despite my annoyance, I’m kind of jazzed that someone thought I was Asian. Never heard that one before so I can add it to the list. And, since this guy was Asian, it further goes to prove my point that this is mostly about people trying to project themselves onto you so they can figure out how to deal with your ambiguousness. This is my whole theory behind the Obama presidency, by the way, but that’s a whole ‘nother post. Or even a book. Maybe I’ll write it someday.
Stranger: Where are you from?
Me: Ummm, I live in Cambridge?
Stranger: No, I mean, originally.
Me: Well, I grew up in Michigan
Stranger: But where are your parents from?
Me: My dad’s from Chicago and my mom’s from upstate New York
[another awkward pause]
Stranger: yes, but what is your nationality?
Me: Uhh, I’m American
At this point, depending on my mood, I’ll either break the news that my mom’s white and my dad’s black (which always disappoints the inquisitor, who’s expecting something much more interesting), or I’ll ask them where they think I’m from (I’ve heard everything from India to Sicily), or I’ll just let the awkward silence hang.
If only I had a dollar for every time I had this conversation. Or for every time an immigrant spoke Spanish to me conspiratorially when we were alone together in an elevator. Or when a white woman told me what a nice tan I had. Or when a black playmate wanted to run her fingers through my hair.
I was bi-racial before it was cool. Middle school was especially hard, with indifferent white kids and openly hostile blacks. Neither one of my parents’ families was accepting of their marriage, and so we grew up without really close ties to our extended family. I’ve only just recently begun to feel like I fit. And yet, despite not knowing how to articulate why, I’ve always felt deeply American. My roots here run deep, going back generations before the civil war. My family’s story has been personally and viscerally intertwined with just about every defining moment of this country’s history—slavery, the black migration north, the labor movement in industrial northern cities, World War II, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, Vietnam.
The Obama candidacy, and the white populist backlash against it, has had a big impact on me. I remember telling my extremely skeptical brother and sister, in July 2007, that Barack Obama was going to be the next president. They thought I’d been living in Massachusetts for too long. I thought they’d been too crippled by their experience in the South. As per usual, I was right. But their warnings about the deeply entrenched racial animosity that’s alive and well were also justified. Recently, Pat Buchanan (one of my all-time favorite bigots) tried to articulate the sense of why “traditional” Americans—working-class whites—felt like they were losing “their” country, as if people like me have no claim to the idea of America. Andrew Sullivan’s response to Buchanan [this is a dead link now] said it better than I could, as he describes his immigrant experience here:
It struck me almost at once, if only in the music I heard all around me – and then in so many other linguistic, cultural, rhetorical, spiritual ways: white Americans do not realize how black they are. Even their whiteness is partly scavenged from the fear of – and attraction to – its opposite. Even something as stereotypically white as American Catholicism, I discovered to my amazement, was also black from the very start. (Yes, those Maryland slaves. If you’ve never been to a Gospel Mass in an ancient black Catholic parish, try it some time.)
From the beginning, in its very marrow, this country was forged out of that racial and cultural interaction. It fought a brutalizing, bloody, defining civil war over that interaction. Any European student of Tocqueville swiftly opens his eyes at the three races that defined America in the classic text. Has Buchanan read Tocqueville? And that’s why it seems so odd to me that the election of the son of a white mother and a black father is seen as somehow a threat to American identity for some, when, in fact, Obama is the final iteration of the American identity – the oldest one and the deepest one. This newness is, in fact, ancient – or as ancient as America can be. The very names – Ann Dunham and Barack Obama. Is not their union in some ways a faint echo of the union that actually made this country what it is?
That’s what’s so offensive about Buchanan’s position. Not that he recognizes the loss of influence of some white Americans, but that he deems irrelevant the contributions and American-ness of people like me.
I was always hard-pressed to articulate my patriotism in a way that didn’t sound like I was channeling Sarah Palin. It’s definitely not cool to admit that you get teary-eyed on the Fourth of July or that you have a crush on Alexander Hamilton. But Sullivan’s characterization puts a finger on what I had yet to figure out—my identity is tied to this country’s history. I am here because of it, and my family has both benefited from its opportunity, thriving as a result, and been savagely oppressed by its demons.
When I travel to foreign countries, I always expect to be able to blend in. After all, everywhere I go in the US I’m mistaken for whatever ethnic fetish happens to strike someone’s fancy. But for some reason, before I even open my mouth, people tend to know I’m American. Maybe it’s just my American eyes and wide smile, but I tend to think it’s more than that, that I embody the character of this country, all of its good and bad, promise and shortcomings. And the last time someone told me I had a nice tan, I put on my American smile, looked them in the eye, and said thank you.
I imagine everyone in my orbit is reading this article from the Sunday Times Magazine today (if they haven’t already). I was skeptical going in because I thought it was going to be yet another attempt to give credit for Obama’s victory to technology. But pretty quickly it’s clear that the writer is using technology as a metaphor for what’s really wrong with the GOP: their ideas suck. David Plouffe, unsurprisingly, drops knowledge:
Pouncing, he replied: “Let me tell you something. The Hispanic voters in Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico don’t give a damn about Marco Rubio, the Tea Party Cuban-American from Florida. You know what? We won the Cuban vote! And it’s because younger Cubans are behaving differently than their parents. It’s probably my favorite stat of the whole campaign. So this notion that Marco Rubio is going to heal their problems — it’s not even sophomoric; it’s juvenile! And by the way: the bigger problem they’ve got with Latinos isn’t immigration. It’s their economic policies and health care. The group that supported the president’s health care bill the most? Latinos.”
Plouffe readily conceded that he and his generation held no iron grip on political wisdom, but then he flashed a grin when I brought up the R.N.C.’s Growth and Opportunity Project, composed of party stalwarts. “If there’s a review board the Democrats put together in 2032, or even 2020, and I’m on it,” he said, “we’re screwed.”
I often get the sense that Republicans (at least the ones in power) don’t actually know anybody who’s different from them. And so while it’s self-evident to David Plouffe that Hispanics might care about things other than immigration, Republicans trot out poor Marco Rubio as the answer to all their problems. Just recycle the same tired ideas but do it in Spanish—you’ll be fine!! It’s really no surprise to me that the Republicans who are trying to bring their party back from the brink all live in cities where they have to interact with other human beings and at least consider developing some sort of empathy. I really hope they succeed because our country is much better off with a Republican party that comes back to the middle than one that goes off the cliff.
I’m going to say something controversial: I do not want to write code. I’m eager to learn the basic concepts of computer science, if only for my own curiosity and to understand the how and why of software, but I don’t have any burning desire to build software myself. However, over the the last couple years I’ve become increasingly insecure with my lack of coding skills, to the point where I sometimes feel unqualified to work in this space without learning.
A lot of that insecurity is personal, but I think another big part of it is the rising trend of elevating the engineer. Let’s call it the Cult of Engineering (CofE) for shorthand. In the Bay Area at least, we can’t turn a corner without people telling us how important engineers are. There is more and more talk about universal coding literacy. And the rise of the brogrammer and shows like Bravo’s Start-Ups: Silicon Valley can only be a function of the Cult of Engineering.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I feel strongly that we need more people getting into the engineering game (especially women and minorities!). And I love my engineering friends and colleagues and think it’s imperative that we expand engineering thinking into more sectors (hence my work at Code for America). But I worry that the CofE is having unintended consequences, like:
1) Subjugating non-engineers/programmers to second-class status, devaluing skills like relationship-building and communication. Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, human networks are still vastly more important than technical ones. And the most important new technologies are simply platforms to make it easier for humans to do what they do: talk to each other. Communicating, building consensus, and organizing are all non-negotiable elements of any world-changing undertaking including technology endeavors. We should be fostering and elevating these skills as much as we foster and elevate engineering.
2) Making it more intimidating for women and minorities to come into the tech space. If the ability to code—or the deep desire to learn—becomes a de facto prerequisite to being a part of the community, are we making the barrier to entry too high? And are we discouraging groups that are already disproportionately susceptible to self-doubt?
When tossing this around with some friends, I got really great feedback. Here’s what resonated with me:
So, to that end, we started to put together a list of resources for people who don’t necessarily want to learn how to code but want to know enough to have some credibility. Here are a few I’m digging into:
Once I feel like I have the landscape down I may start digging into a language. But I’ll never be an engineer. I’ll probably never build any piece of software that anyone else uses. I’m (getting better at being) ok with that.
Last summer, as my brother and I were driving a UHaul with all my stuff from Austin to Chicago, an Illinois state trooper pulled us over. I was moving from Austin, where I was in grad school, to Chicago to start my job on the Obama campaign. We had just pulled out of our hotel outside Bloomington, it was first thing in the morning. I wanted to make it to Chicago by lunchtime. The state trooper was parked in the highway median a mile or two after we got on the road. I didn’t think much of it since I didn’t think we could possibly be speeding (the speed limit was 65 and anyone who’s driven a fully-packed UHaul knows it’s hard to go faster than about 70, especially when you’ve just gotten going). The trooper pulled out into traffic and was behind us a for a few minutes. I still didn’t think anything of it. Then he did something strange—he pulled up in the left lane right next to the truck, peered in to look at my brother, who was driving, and then pulled back into traffic behind us. About two minutes later, he turned his lights on and pulled us over.
He wouldn’t tell us why he pulled us over, but he asked my brother to come back to the patrol car with him. My brother went, and I was scared. I took a picture of the cop car and posted it to Twitter just in case I needed my social media army to come to the rescue. About ten minutes later, the trooper came up to my window and, after asking for my ID and a bunch of other documents, said “I thought I smelled marijuana in the truck, am I wrong?”
He let us go, after I informed him he was very wrong about the marijuana. My brother downplayed it but I was furious. Clearly he had looked in to see who was driving the truck and decided us bi-racial kids were the type who fit the drug-smuggler profile. According to my brother, this had happened to him many times before. I didn’t know that. He’d never mentioned it.
I was reminded of this story in the aftermath of Aaron Swartz’s death (which I wrote about here). Much of the immediate reaction has focused on how unfair Aaron’s prosecution was. I agree. But the calls for action have focused on reforming cybercrime law. Which is great and noble, but I can’t help but wonder why people recognize the unfairness of Aaron’s prosecution not as a flaw in cybercrime legislation but as a flaw in the justice system as a whole? Prosecutors treat people unfairly every day, by the thousands. Proposed sentences are ridiculously out of line with alleged crimes. People who can’t afford bail rot in jail for months awaiting trial, and often get shitty legal representation. Prosecutors are gleeful about ruining people’s lives. And that doesn’t even touch on corruption and abuse during the arrest and questioning process, or police harassment like my brother and I endured.
Bryan Stevenson, the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, gave a searing TED talk last year. He received the longest standing ovation of the conference and raised over a million dollars from the TED community in the days after the talk. At the time, TED committed to making criminal justice reform part of its TEDxCity2.0 program. It’s not clear from the website that that action happened.
Bryan Stevenson’s subtle challenge to the TED audience, to have empathy for those who are the victims of injustice in our legal system, resonates now as we think about how to take action in the wake of Aaron’s death. Aaron’s prosecution was not really about unfair cybercrime laws, it was about an unfair justice system. One that ruins lives constantly. From what I know of Aaron’s work he was a geek with overwhelming empathy. He recognized the need to spread the benefits of democratizing technology beyond members of the tech elite. Might it be a more fitting tribute if Aaron’s Law addressed broken sentencing rules for all crimes, not just cybercrime? Do we, in the tech community, have the ability to make our advocacy not just about issues specific to the platform but about making the platform available to address issues of inequality and injustice for everyone affected by it?
I’m not really sure I’ve got any place to be writing this. I didn’t know Aaron very well at all—we’d met a couple times at the Berkman Center way back, and at Personal Democracy Forum last summer—so who am I to try and write some sort of remembrance?
So I’ll just say why his work inspires me: he was a participant. He’s most well-known for being a “hacker” whatever that means these days, but he wasn’t cynical like some on the techno-left are. He didn’t heckle from the sidelines, he put his money where his mouth was. And that didn’t just mean downloading content and making it freely available online. It also meant wanting to work for the Obama campaign even while he was under investigation by the Justice Department; to him, the system wasn’t beyond repair. It meant using his tech credentials and skills to raise awareness about issues beyond those that directly affected him. He’s exactly the opposite of the self-absorbed Silicon Valley technologists I described in a post a few weeks ago. As the kids would say, he was legit. He lived his beliefs and he was always trying to leave the world better than he found it.
In truth, I found Aaron difficult. I am probably one of those people who made him feel like banging his head against the wall when we talked. But his work is the most honest, and earnest, work anyone in this civic tech world ever did. When I heard the charges against him for breaking into that storage closet at MIT and downloading those journal articles, I rolled my eyes. Turns out it wasn’t a stunt, he was living his beliefs. So as people who know Aaron much better than I did reflect on his life, his passing has made me think about what it means to actually be who you say you want to be and have your life’s work reflect that. I hope I’ll be a little more honest in my work because of him.