All posts by charlescearl

Data scientist at Automattic.com.

anti-racismAtlantaBlack Lives Matter

The Uprising in Atlanta

The uprising in Atlanta — and cities throughout the United States — continues.

On Monday (June 1), a group of engaged scholars, Dr. Illya Davis (my esteemed Morehouse brother and professor of Philosophy there), Dr Nsenga Burton, professor and co-director of Film and Media Management at Emory University, and Dr Maurice Hobson author of The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta and associate professor of African-American Studies at Georgia State University gave an insightful discussion of the on-going protests in Atlanta.

Please listen here at WABE

Some of my notes from their discussion:

For Black folks, this is an uprising.

Dr Nsenga Burton

The fundamental issues have been undermined by people trying to focus on the destruction of private property. People are emphasizing the material over the human.

Dr Illya Davis

This feels like the point that is fundamental to understanding why the protests persist in all 50 U.S. states and Puerto Rico. Because profit is more important that Black lives in nursing homes and elder care facilities. Because profits are more important than the lives of Black and Brown farm workers and meat packing plant workers in Georgia. Because hospital profits are more important that protecting the lives of the Black and Brown workers that clean the hospitals in Georgia. Because the profits from state and private prisons are worth more than Black lives. Because it is ok to police Black lives to the point of extinction.

There are oft cited myths about Atlanta that seek to hide and erase these deadly inequities. Atlanta has been called the city to busy to hate. The mayor of Atlanta denigrated the violent actions of protestors: This is not the Atlanta way, while realizing that the life of her own son is endangered by the police force she “controls”.

Professor Hobson emphasized the urgent need for us to understand history, preferring to call what was going on in Atlanta a rebellion

A rebellion is the overthrow of a system that has been oppressive.

Dr Maurice Hobson

Dr Hobson spoke to the nuanced history of political action in Atlanta. He reflected in these times that we need constant history lessons. In 1966, Atlanta citizens of the Summerhill community staged an uprising in response to police brutality. One of the organizers of the uprising was Black Panther Party and SNCC leader Kwame Toure. 1967, a rebellion occurred in the Dixie Hill section of Atlanta sparked again by police brutality. It was Mr Toure who in the 1980s my fellow Morehouse students and I to organize, organize, organize. He made impassioned pleas that we realize the urgency of collective struggle. I did not know the full implication of his words then. I hope that you read and act upon them now.

This old clip is still relevant

We still have Angela

Last night, demonstrators were dispersed from Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta with tear gas. Over 50 have been arrested. The military helicopters that I saw overhead yesterday feel like a persistent PSYOP Earlier this week, two brave students Taniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young were freed from jail after having been brutalized by the Atlanta Police.

There are many efforts such as The Atlanta Solidarity Fund that are addressing the on going situation. Please support them.

AtlantaGeorgiaSocial Justice

Why is Atlanta burning?

When they ask you why Atlanta was burning last night, tell them it was an uprising.

If you want a quick answer, you can quote the economist Thomas Piketty

Every human society must justify its inequalities: unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse.

Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty

Tell them that a Black life should be worth more than a pane of glass, or a store, but that nearly a thousand Black lives in Atlanta’s surrounding counties have been lost because a governor refused to take action to protect them from deaths of inequality.

There were fires and police beatings taking place down on DeKalb Avenue not far from where I live. If you know Civil War history, this was where General Sherman began his march to the Sea in 1864.

They will tell you that this 1864 march this caused a path of fire and destruction down from Atlanta to Savannah. Maybe they won’t tell you that the army burned down a system of slavery, torture, rape, and a racialized state built upon terror. They won’t tell you that Solomon Luckie was one of the first people to die in the shelling of Atlanta that year. A Black barber, who I’m damn suredied happy knowing that his people were finally free. Is it a wonder that the governor of this state singled out barbershops to begin operation with the pandemic still raging?

Maybe they should tell you that millions like Solomon were freed from dire oppression. They surely won’t tell you how my great grand parents at that moment were freed from bondage by those fires.

They might also not tell you that in 1906, the year my grandmother was born, Black communities were targeted and destroyed by White mobs in the Atlanta race riots. Along this same stretch of street, my mother’s cousin still recounts how they would shudder at home as Klansmen galloped through the street at night. Or how the Atlanta Black community watched as countless cases were fabricated against Black men and women, some resulting in death penalty convictions meted out in vengeful certitude. At least those were spared lynching.

And still today, despite decades of Black mayors, Atlanta suffers among the highest levels of income inequality in the United States — and hence the Western world. You could read The Legend of the Black Mecca to understand the nuances of why these inequalities persist. To understand why the Black laborers — the sanitation workers, the delivery drivers, the gig economy workers, the patient nurses at assisted living facilities — are vulnerable to afflictions like COVID and have few bad options in terms of health, education and food. Their families locked out of access to mobility because of structural inequities that preclude access to healthy food, healthcare, safe and affordable housing and the other factors that contribute to a stable and fulfilled life.

Fulton county in which Atlanta exists, has the highest COVID death toll in the state. That the toll is highest among African Americans should come as no mystery given the work that puts us at more risk and the factors that make access to healthcare so precarious,

They might tell you they can just vote. But I’m going to remind that racialized gerrymandering in Georgia is a thing, I’m going to remind that racist voter suppression in Georgia probably impacted the governor’s election (and will probably impact the 2020 election). I’m going to recount how I spent half a day last week tracking down an absentee voter application that I sent in that was “lost”. So tell them that our democracy is in shambles.

They’ll tell you that the oppressed should be non-violent. Perhaps with organization and time. Tell them the origins of the violence are still not clear. Remind them that there were fires in Hong Kong too. Remind them that the fires pale in comparison to the perpetual state sponsored violence ravaging Black, LatinX, Indigenous, and Asian communities throughout the United States.

You ask why is Atlanta burning. I’ll try to tell you how it feels. That it feels like the U. S. has been in a perpetual state of war on the Black and Indigenous populations since its founding. So it should not surprise you that the military is sending forces and predator drones to Minnesota.

What is it called when a country wages war on its most vulnerable civilian population? When it is ok with seeing its marginalized people die preventable deaths? Was it ok with you that there was an uprising in Lodz? Do you want us to get to that point?

When we know from all the data available that our lives are of no value to you, that our votes do not count, that the education of our children is of no importance, then perhaps the right question is why it took so long for the fires to start? This is why we say Black Lives Matter. Is in an affirmation of our existence in the face of your insistence that we just lay down and die.

If you understand the gilets jaunes in Paris, then you don’t need to ask me why Atlanta or Minneapolis is burning. If you understand the Hong Kong protests, then you have the capacity to understand and be in solidarity with Black people in Atlanta.

This is an uprising. This is democracy breaking through.

Healthcare InequalityInequalitySocial Justice

A review of Capital and Ideology

Thomas Piketty is a French economist famous for documenting the egregious thirty year rise in inequality. When his new book Capital and Ideology came out a few months ago, I started writing up notes — mostly based upon his presentation slides for the book and his course notes for a class based on the book. With each passing day, the inequalities he discussed took on increasingly fatal dimensions. Tens of thousands across the globe, in the U.S., and hundreds in my home state of Georgia have now died thanks to ideologies that uphold inequality.

As the U.S. in particular continues to unravel thanks to its attachment to an “ideology of inequality” I have four takeaways from the book:

  • It’s a decent read if you have the time and patience. You could probably get what you need from the presentation and course slides.
  • Piketty makes the point that if society can’t sell its citizens on going along with a given kind of inequality, then that society is going to collapse. We’re seeing now the early stages of what that collapse looks like.
  • The U.S, Brazil, U.K., and India in particular are trapped in fatal ideologies handed down from the slavery and colonialism.
  • The only bright spot I see for people on the dying end of the inequality is solidarity. We can learn from each other successes — we don’t have to accept this, we have the power to struggle against this. We have the power to say “no more”.

So who is Piketty?

He’s an economist that documents disparity. A succinct example is his famous “elephant graph” of income inequality in the U.S. from his 2014 book Capital in the 21st century.

The top 10% has regained 50% of the wealth.

Since the 1980’s income inequality has exploded in the U.S. and across the world.

Of course, if you’re Black (like I am), or Brown, or Indigenous and living in the U.S., this is nothing new. You probably have years of lived “receipts” from your life and those of friends and loved ones to validate the enormous disparities in wealth, healthcare, and justice. You want academics to “tell you something you didn’t know”, or at least offer some new thoughts on how to re-envision and bring about a more equitable world. Piketty doesn’t have many answers — for those there are hundreds if not thousands of local organizations like The Black Women’s Health Imperative, The Poor People’s Campaign, The Black Mamas Bail Out, Southerners on New Ground consisting of real people making real progress to address the myriad dimensions of inequality that are literally killing us. What Piketty (in the slides) does offer are nice graphs that can help place the struggle in an international and historical perspective. Maybe it’s supplemental information to your lived experience or the brilliant work of Angela Davis or Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

Things probably can’t go on like this for much longer

Every human society must justify its inequalities: unless reasons for
them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in
danger of collapse.

Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology

As of today, some would argue that this society has collapsed. In April, the unemployment rate was believed to be 14% for White Americans, 16.7% for Black people, and 19% for LantinX people. That rate is expected to be much higher in May. This system of inequality has left 15% of its children without adequate food.

As of today, racial inequality in health care means that 70% of the COVID-19 deaths in Detroit are in the under-served African American community, who are just 30% of the city’s population. The COVID Tracking Project’s Racial Data Dashboard is showing how the human rights tragedies in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia are unfolding. In the age of coronavirus, the U.S. does not have an answer for the fact that 80% of the African American residents of an assisted living facility in the neighborhood I used to live in are infected with the virus; or why the city of Albany, GA, whose population is 73% Black has had critical medical infrastructure de-funded over the years, suffered the first deaths due to coronavirus in the Georgia, and has been dealing with one of the world’s highest infection rates.

The farcical “reasons for” inequality play out in the rates of infection and death of the undocumented, in Indigenous communities, among the incarcerated, in LatinX communities, unsheltered communities, low income communities, and among Black communities cities like Albany, Detroit, Milwaukee, and New Orleans, and too many other cities. Deaths attributed to racist systems of healthcare access that were too long unquestioned. For this, I think Ibram X. Kendi said it best in an Atlantic article

Why do racial disparities exist?
Why are black people generally being infected and dying at higher rates than other racial groups? This is the question of the hour. And too many Americans are answering this new question in the old, familiar way. They are blaming poverty, but refusing to recognize how racism distinguishes black poverty from white poverty, and makes black poverty more vulnerable to a lethal contagion.

And Americans are blaming black people.
To explain the disparities in the mortality rate, too many politicians
and commentators are noting that black people have more underlying
medical conditions but, crucially, not explaining why. Or they blame the choices made by black people, or poverty, or obesity—but not racism.

Ibram Kendi, from Stop Blaming Black People for Dying of the Coronavirus

Of course, if you’re Black (like I am), or Brown, or Indigenous and living in the U.S., this is nothing new, you have a lifetime of receipts that have shown with clarity America’s commitment to inequality.

unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse.

The recent murder of Breonna Taylor tragically brings to mind the assassination of Fred Hampton, and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery follows the familiar pattern of state sanctioned lynching.

If you are old enough to remember the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, you know what societal collapse in the U.S. looks like, and this is it — you’re on the edge of dread waiting for the eventual spark that leads to the 2020 version of Watts, or Detroit or Ferguson.

The same patterns of inequality happen across the globe

It won’t come as a surprise that the kinds of ideology that enable these patterns of inequity happen across the globe.

Surprise, Brown and Black people see their interests protected by the Left
White supremacy and inequality cleave society in France
The racial, class, and caste divides are global
The disparities in the U.S. that you knew.
The divides mirrored in Britain

That the same race based inequalities play out in Brazil, France, and the U.K. on the one hand is not encouraging. That Black Britons are also more at risk of COVID death like their U.S. counterparts is tragically believable. That the persistent divides in caste in India mirror the U.S. inequalities is tragic. Piketty’s analysis of caste inequality is probably not nuanced enough to give a complete picture, but maybe Nitin Bharti’s dissertation is one of many starting points You don’t wish these hardships on anyone.

I struggle to come to answer the “Now, what is to be done?” question.

The paths forward

As I’ve thought through the book — or rather just the ways in which inequality and ideology intersect — a few things stood out.

Talk to your children.

In long breakfast conversations, my partner, Gayatri Sethi, and I talked to the 15 and 13 year old how Capitalism and it’s ideologies play out in the mess we’re in. My partner gave the unedited version of her sparring with various nobel laureates as a University of Chicago economics undergrad, only now having the words to express the depth of the racism inherit in their view of the world. She explained the meaning of the Tswana saying “a person is a person among people”, that humanity cannot be reduced to a profit motive, that you can only exist fully in a society when you acknowledge the humanity of others. We talked through Piketty’s The Economics of Inequality with the 15 year old — he understood it and wrote a successful book report!

Maybe building a generation that knows that things are wrong, and they don’t have to be this way, and what alternatives are is a good start.

Seek solidarity

My daughter at a solidarity protest

There are so many people around the globe, and down the block making moves to change things. Angela Davis mentioned the amazing work of Brazillian activist and councilwoman Marielle Franco, that continues despite her assassination. The protest movement in Hong Kong was largely responsible for the successful grass-roots response to the coronavirus, thus providing a path for effective action in the face of a pandemic. The same same activists are protesting today. The Indian state of Kerala has demonstrated how to effectively confront coronavirus with limited resources. With inequality so perversely compromising the lives of so many, there is actually a wealth of human ingenuity and experience that can lead us out of this mess.

Organize

In the U.S. an election is also looming. Again, it is worth noting the Hong Kong movement created the infrastructure that zeroed out COVID-19 in spite of an anemic government response. It’s worth remembering that movements like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Sit Ins, and the heroic Voter Registration Efforts of the the 1960s created changes that democratized the United States without the support of and in spite of the U.S. political parties. Freedom Riders did not need Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Libertarians, or Marxists to validate the legitimacy of their collective action. We don’t need politicians to approve our struggle for freedom or to save us from tyranny. The inequality graphs point to significant coalitions of every day people that could be organized around tangible change across divides of race, class, caste, and privilege.

I guess to close, I see room for optimism, hope and justice, because I know that human beings have shown an astounding inventiveness in transcending that which divides them in order to build that which saves them.

AtlantaGeorgiaHealthcare Inequality

Restarting Georgia’s economy from coronavirus the right way

There are serious concerns about the decision of Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp to reopen businesses as of Friday, April 24th.

Georgia’s governor wants to open businesses. Where’s the science?

Here are some among the many concerns:

  • What are the protections for workers at barbershops, gyms, nail salons? Will PPE be mandatory, will they be provided by the state?
  • Will workers and customers at such establishments be able to get free testing?
  • Will the state expand medicare to pay for healthcare costs incurred by people who catch the virus?
  • Will the state provide secure mechanisms for contact tracing?
  • Will the state provide expanded minimum wage guarantees to employees putting themselves at risk?
  • Will the state provide for a moratorium on evictions and actions against those businesses who choose not to reopen?
  • Will mayors choose morals above profits to protect their citizenry?

By now, there have been a lot of analyses of appropriate ways to reopen economies. For example, Austria is investigating a rollback in it’s lockdown but provides more social support and has reported 1/3 the deaths as the state of Georgia. Masks are required in public spaces. Georgia has also not shown the sustained downward trajectory of cases. Most alarmingly, Georgia, as many other areas, has tremendous inequality in healthcare access according to recent figures from the Georgia Department of Health, more than 50% of the deaths occur amongst African Americans. Black people account for just over 30% of the residents of the state.

I started a petition to ask for more accountability. If you’re a resident of the state, please ask questions via the governor’s constituent services site. If you live in Atlanta or Decatur, or Albany, you can express support for your elected officials to enact morally responsible policies. GoFundMe campaigns or other mutual aid might be effective in keeping your favorite local business afloat while safe practices are enacted.

Please stay safe.

Historyhuman rightsSocial Justice

Martin Luther King was assassinated 52 years ago today

The post from Dr Bernice King is a sobering reminder of her father’s assassination 52 years ago in Memphis Tennessee

There are three things that run through my head as I sit with that.

He died in solidarity with sanitation workers

The Memphis sanitation workers were on strike to protest inhumane working conditions — two fellow workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker had been crushed to death inside of a garbage truck.

Sanitation workers in your city are putting themselves at extraordinary risk providing key services while a pandemic is going on. Healthcare workers too. What are the conditions under which they work where you live? Do they have the right to strike for adequate pay and healthcare? Are they afforded the protections that they need to stay alive and well?

He died calling for an end to poverty

During 1967, Dr. King had focused attention on an idea called The Poor People’s Campaign. Among it’s objectives were to provide everyone with the right to a basic guaranteed income. The idea being that in crises, no one should be forced into poverty. No one should have to live in poverty. The idea being that a country in which inequality has become so extreme is simply unjust.

Why can’t the US still come to account for these disparities after 52 years?

He knew that the power really lay with the people

Martin Luther King and the thousands of others who struggled with him marched, took blows, and sometimes died for causes that the mainstream politicians of both US political parties disparaged. He was despised and the subject of contempt and harassment by leaders in both parties. This didn’t stop him.

There is more to the struggle for human dignity that presidential elections. He and others demonstrated the power of collective action, of non-violence, of persistent action in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

It is indeed a dark time. Right now the devastation in a fragile healthcare and social system expose the persistent inequalities that Dr King died fighting. As his daughter remarks, “The evils he opposed then still exist now”.

That he and others like him were able to make incredible strides gives me hope.

What is stopping us?

ProductivityRemote Work

Reflections on working remotely while Black

By now, you’ve probably seen a lot of posts and tweets about how to effectively work from home. Especially if you’re among the thousands of folk whose workplace or school has moved to work from home in response to the coronavirus crisis.

I can’t add much to what’s already been said about how to set up your home office, or which headphones or app to use, or how to sanely put together your day. I have worked at a distributed company (everyone works away from the office) for the last four years. My colleague Lori McLeese offers a lot of helpful advice on remote working, Automattic’s CEO Matt Mullenweg has insights, and a good friend and fellow data scientist Boris Gorelik offers lots of sage advice.

I’ll speak from my perspective. I am Black and living in the U.S. I have worked in some capacity in machine learning, data science, big data, artificial intelligence — whatever the buzzword you choose — for twenty plus years. I have worked remotely in some capacity for at least ten.

In those years I’ve encountered micro- macro- and off-the-chain aggressions courtesy of the standard work-in-the-office culture. Here’s a sampling…

Hey, I think you’re in the wrong place…

2000’s

If I’m sitting in a cubicle in the R&D group wing, why wouldn’t you think I’m in the R&D group? I’m sitting in a chair, writing a paper, with a stack of machine learning papers on my desk?

We should get all the <N_WORDS> out of here

Late 1980’s

I was silent for a few days…

We should send all the Africans back…Ebola is too dangerous to tolerate those…

2014-ish

Whew…deep breaths and a long walk.

These comments and ensuing actions are from years of work, but I keep hearing the same things from students and other folk much younger than I who’ve had to put their minds back together from this shtuff. The point is that there’s a deep psychological, psychic impact that broken and persistent workplace cultures have on employees that come from the margins. Black folk, like LatinX people, women, transgender folk, people who are autistic. The exceptional and everyday people that make companies and institutions work. The office can be so hostile, violent, and spirt murdering (to quote Dr Bettina Love) that any benefits to in-person interaction are lost, nullified.

For me, and many others, working remotely has allowed the ability, the autonomy to carve out a truly safe and sane working environment. The autonomy to work on our own terms and in places where we are cherished, supported, nurtured.

One critique of remote work is that “it stifles creativity”. But the ability to go on walks without fear, to connect with colleagues from around the world, to think deeply while looking out the window, to talk out loud a problem to my daughter (quizzically looks are ok), to have a Black young man in a coffee shop just stroll up an ask about linear algebra — all these spur creativity and a self worth that is incalculable.

Does Automattic (or any other remote workplace) have room for growth — of course! There are issues around the assumptions of resource privilege that go along with even applying — does everyone have access to the computing, network, and other resources to successfully make an application? To the social networks needed to know about such positions? There are racial disparities in the ability to work remotely. These issues and questions have to be thought through deeply — inclusion and equity have new implications.

But the benefit of the kind of listening and reflection that comes in various modes of communication that foster thought and respect is undeniable. And that may provide enough space for us to work through some things.

The research on remote work and impact is still getting started. You might read The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown About Telecommuting: Meta-Analysis of Psychological Mediators and Individual Consequences or https://open.buffer.com/remote-work-loneliness/. These links were suggested by Kristen Thomas, a graduate student at University of Texas Austin who is studying remote work.

And, if you’re a data engineer or data scientist interested in making the move to remote work, please consider applying to Automattic!