Category: Social Justice

inclusionPoliticsSocial JusticeTravel

Cuba as a prayer to inclusion

As the current administration of the U.S. continues to place restrictions on travel to Cuba, my heart aches, and my mind goes to back to amazing days that we spent in Havana and Trinidad last summer.

A year later, impressions remain with me. Walking the streets of Habana and Trinidad, one is left optimistic on what inclusion could be. As we traveled across half the island, and from one end of Habana to the other, I was struct by the absence of the “Black ghettos” — the all too familiar racial segregation that is imprinted on each and every U.S. city that I have ever visited.

I was struct by the fact that the resources, though humble, were shared by all across gender and color. People of different hues and ages did Tai Chi in the park. Occasional people on the street made sarcastic comments on the Castros or Trump, the bureaucratic inefficiencies, the resources constrained by the embargo.

But the generosities were unparalleled. The warmth is still in my heart.

Along the roads, I was struct by the absence of police. Or rather it was the absence of omnipresent force — of the signals that lethal violence is around the corner, trained on Black bodies. The occasional officer, there to mitigate traffic issues, no military grade automatic weapons, that’s what I needed for a vacation.

Seeing people with access to a basic burial, children able to attend a dance class without their parents having to defer due to money, people with access to a simple loaf of bread regardless of the meager cash on hand.

We saw families coming together to say their goodbyes.

I cannot unsee inclusion, I cannot unsee the basic respect for basic human dignity. I cannot unsee humanity in practice.

I hope that you visit soon.

HistorySocial Justice

Do we need prisons?

Should we end prisons? I have been thinking through this question since reading a recent New York Times article on Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s efforts to dismantle, if not slow the role of, the prison industrial complex. Her focus has been the California prison system and has a book you should check out called The Golden Gulag.

Whatever your views on the criminal justice system, you owe it to yourself and your community to read the article. Angela Davis has been talking about this for decades.

My current thinking is that the prison abolition movement is really about getting a dialog going to question our assumptions about prison. Even getting the prison population down to 1980 levels would be a positive step.

For example, the definition of what constitutes a crime itself is constantly in flux. A good deal of Nobel Prize winners were imprisoned, from Martin Luther King to Andrei Sakharov. People in Georgia serve prison sentences for selling marijuana, in Colorado and California marijuana sellers get venture capital. Missouri wants to imprison doctors for performing safe abortions. So even in the “nation of laws”, the laws are arbitrary, are not equally applied across race, gender, and class, and can change in an election. But the sentences are still extreme and rip apart families and communities.

I struggle with the issue of violent crime. I don’t think the people who stole my bike or car radio need to have their voting rights suspended or their families jacked up. I don’t feel that serial murderers need to be on the street. But most of the countries with low murder rates don’t lock up murderers indefinitely. Those countries seem to take rehabilitation seriously.

Let’s put it this way. Somehow, Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, South Africa, and Liberia found a way to reintegrate people who’d committed unspeakable crimes. Surely if broken child soldiers can be put back together in poor countries, then there has to be a way to put back together the people that we now lock up and put away indefinitely in the “nation of laws”.

A dialog needs to happen.

As usual I’m on the hunt for data, particularly in Georgia.

What do you think?

AIAlgorithmsSocial Justice

San Francisco passes facial recognition ordinance

San Francisco recently passed an ordinance controlling the use of facial recognition in the city. The ordinance was in large part thanks to the pioneering research of Joy Buolamwini.

The argument against the technology is twofold: first, the technology is highly invasive in public spaces and may constitute a direct threat to basic (US) constitutional rights of freedom of assembly; secondly the feature extraction and training set construction methodologies (for newer deep learning based models) have been shown to have racial and gender biases “baked in”. For example, the systems analyzed in Buolamwini’s work are less accurate for Black people and women — either because the data sets used for training include mostly white male faces, or the image processing algorithms focus on image components and make assumptions more common to European faces.

Consider uses in policing, where an inaccurate system mis-identifies a Black or LatinX person as a felon. Especially when there is no transparency into the use or internals of such systems, the chances for abuse and injustice are in incredible. Despite these concerns, Amazon shareholders think it is ok to release the technology on the public.

Do you know if such a system is deployed in your city? If so, are there measures to control its use, or make audits available to your community? If not, have you considered contacting your elected representatives to support or discuss appropriate safeguards?

Data ScienceHistorySocial Justice

Remembering Bill Jenkins

As Chelsea Manning is again sent to jail for refusing to abandon basic press freedoms, I am reminded of Bill Jenkins.

Mr Jenkins passed away recently. He was an epidemiologist (and Morehouse graduate ) who bravely exposed the horrific Tuskegee experiments, as Ms Manning exposed egregious human rights violations that occurred during US military operations.

If you are not aware of the Tuskegee experiment, the US Health Service allowed Black men to be untreated for sexually transmitted diseases for three decades. It was a controlled experiment to determine the effects of untreated syphilis. The participants were all poor Black sharecroppers — men recruited through Tuskegee University, believing that they were getting free healthcare in exchange for helping to develop a drug to fight “bad blood”. None of those who had syphilis were given access to penicillin, even after the study supposedly ended. Many perished or suffered irreversible harm.

One outcome was the establishment of informed consent, and other ethical practices we take for granted when we walk into a doctor’s office, or signup for a clinical trial. Jenkins learned of the study, and started asking questions, despite being told to ignore it, or just “look the other way”. In the current climate, Mr Jenkins might have well faced prison. Some principles are worth suffering for, some causes are just that important.

Thank you Bill Jenkins, thank you Chelsea, and thank you to the others doing the right thing.

HistorySocial Justice

Let her lead!

The movement to criminalize women’s control of their bodies is front and center in Alabama and Georgia.

Notre Dame’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw recently took a stand for women’s equality in sports, and was man-splained for her candor and bravery.

The cover photo was taken in Sheroes cafe in Agra, India a place dedicated to supporting survivors of gender violence, providing a space “to come and discuss feminism and equal right“. It is indeed time for the she-roes to step up. There is a multitude.

True leadership is evidenced by the security of letting new spirits and flowers flourish.

Could all the male presidential candidates of all US political parties take a knee for the next four years? Really, is there any perspective or point that is not better articulated by one of the women running?

Since that seems the case, what if we all just agreed not to vote for a male candidate for a year or two or three? A “boycott”.

Alyssa Milano after all, has called for a sex strike.

Surely we would not lose too much after 250 years of male presidents?

GeorgiaHistorySocial JusticeUncategorizedVoting

Who’s worse Brian Kemp or Lester Maddox?

Feeling some despair headed back to Georgia, and the U.S. generally after a month in India.

It’s about this question: Will Brian Kemp govern Georgia like Lester Maddox?

Lester Maddox became the governor of Georgia during my childhood. He was openly racist, was famous for selling axe handles with which to beat down civil rights activists, and actively fought a state memorial immediately after Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Until Brian Kemp, I don’t remember any Georgia governor who so actively and openly embraced race based voter suppression and racist immigration messages.

Yet Maddox apparently went on the most aggressive hiring of African Americans in the state’s history.

I’m finding solace knowing that people of color in Georgia nonviolently sacrificed their livelihoods and their lives to end the Maddox mode of governance.

Those sacrifices opened the door for people like Stacey Abrams, Andrew Young, and Jimmy Carter.

Our grandmothers and uncles and neighbors did this with an inner soul power (to quote Dr King) that could not be suppressed by axe handles or tear gas. I find strength knowing that we can call on that soul power to do the same again.