Sunday, November 27, 2016

Otto's Message on Unpredictability

Hurricane Otto devastated Central America in the last couple of days and no one was ready for it. People living in Nicaragua and Costa Rica are used to extreme storms and know how to take precautionary measures against them. But none of them expected a hurricane so late in the year. Had the storm come in April or May, it still would have resulted in the loss of many innocent lives, but at least people would have been ready for it and a catastrophe could have been avoided. Being accustomed to the hurricane season made central americans particularly sensitive to the changes produced by global warming. Now, Otto is breaking all kinds of records by cementing itself as the strongest hurricane in the tropical Atlantic basin to hit so late in the year. 

As we all know, human pollution has had extremely detrimental effects on the environment, and has resulted in multiple calamities throughout the years, most notably in third world countries that lack the proper infrastructure to fight back. This has been felt in Indonesia, Haiti and Chile, among countless others. The effects of man-made natural disasters are amplified even further when you become unable to predict when one might occur. Now, all sense of security is put on jeopardy because mass chaos could strike at any moment and without notice. Central Americans are used to relying on their years of experience dealing with vicious storms, but now they have to be on their toes at all times. 

This severely undermines not only their sense of agency over their own lives, but also other less abstract concepts like their country’s economic advancement. Economies struggle when they have to pay investors high risk premiums, and no investor is gonna want to dump his cash on a country that could be struck by a hurricane at any time, unless he gets a juicy premium for taking such a risk. Third world countries already have to deal with political and social unrest, and adding environmental unpredictability just makes it a lot harder to progress.

Its easy to downplay this as another hurricane out of dozens, but the fact that this came at such an odd time of the year means that people living in those countries have to be constantly fearful of the looming specter of mother nature. Now more than ever is the time to control carbon emissions and expand environmental protection programs, and more thought should be paid to the effect we have on people thousands of miles away, simply trying to get by.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Not-So-Subliminal Islamophobia

I read through this news article once and it seemed cohesive, well-constructed, and overall an exemplary piece of investigative integrity. Except for one sentence that was none of these.

The article talks about the violent attack that took place on Friday ate the Ohio State University campus, in which a student used both his vehicle and a knife as his primary weapons. He was reported to have slashing around and causing mayhem in an uncalculated and erratic manner. The article includes multiple eyewitness reports, most of which corroborate one another thus providing sound evidence that the events took place as described in the news story. But, halfway through the piece is a very odd paragraph that for some reason tries to theorize on the attacker’s potential motives. It reads: “Local police are still leading the investigation, and a motive was far from clear. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda have publicly called for supporters to use vehicles as weapons, as an attacker who killed dozens in Nice over the summer did.” Wait, what?

Where did this come from? How is Al-Qaeda related to any of this? I am just perplexed. At no other point in the article is any of this mentioned. Kathy Lynn Gray, the author of this particular piece, is showing her bias in a laughable attempt to link an incident in Ohio to a terrorist attack in Nic with absolutely no evidence. She doesn’t even have the guts to say that the attacker may be in cahoots with Al-Qaeda or Islamic extremists, she just implies it by throwing it in there “subliminally”. It immediately jumped out at me when reading it, but I’m sure this wasn’t the case for everyone reading the Washington Post. Skimmers doubtlessly read right through it without a second glance, and many might unconsciously attribute the attack to those damn Muslims despite the lack of any connection. This is especially true if you happen to already be biased against Muslims, as biased views tend to augment each other easily. Gray’s complete lack of journalistic integrity may cause the further alienation of minorities in the spread of fear against “others”. In other words, this article is the real act of terror. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Farcebook: A Discussion About Diffusion of Responsibility Through Social Media

        Its surprisingly easy to manipulate people through social media. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter rely on almost incessant exposure to short bursts of news both about your friends’ everyday lives and about the world in general. More often than not, people read a post on Facebook and share it with their friends without a second thought about how accurate the news sources are. These news articles have become so pervasive on Facebook that even those who claim to take them with a grain of salt can’t help but be affected by them subconsciously sometimes. Giving people this degree of influence over others can be very risky, and social media giants like Facebook should be able to keep this power in check to avoid unwanted circumstances. This power can be especially dangerous during important elections, as it can change the tides with news that may or may not be true but that is shared regardless.

About 44% of Americans use Facebook as their primary source of news. This is pretty alarming when you consider what this means: their friends decide what type of information they receive everyday. This includes their views on political issues, ecological concerns, and even morality and human rights. The way Facebook is set right now, users have a huge influence on how their friends think about current events by contributing to the flood of news stories on their feed, and they rarely consider this when sharing one that seems interesting.

Facebook should really restructure the way information spreads on their platform. The average Facebook user cannot possibly be expected to sift through the millions of news stories out there in order to choose the least biased version, or the one that has the most reliable sources. This may seem excessive, but people usually expect this kind of rigorous behavior by professional news outlets, and frankly Facebook is bigger and reaches a wider audience than any one of them. From a certain point of view, everyone that uses Facebook “works” for the largest newspaper in the world, and should be held up to the standards of integrity that such a position requires.

This, of course, is neither feasible nor enforceable. Its unlikely that anyone will ever be fired, arrested or even fined for sharing a fake news story on Facebook. Users are given an immense power with very little responsibility, and this is a structural problem that is completely Facebook’s fault. Regarding this, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that they’ve “made significant progress, but there is more work to be done”, as they are trying to make it easier for users to report fake news and for computers to identify and take them down automatically. While these efforts are certainly a step in the right direction, Facebook is too influential to be allowed to function while issues remain unfixed. Recently, a fake news story about Hillary Clinton’s emails, in which they were revealed to be a plot to assassinate a police officer, received widespread attention. Its feared that, despite the falsehood of the news, many people who read it either believed it or let it influence their voting preference. A seemingly insignificant prank like this could have been the defining factor of this past election. This is simply ridiculous. Facebook’s stance of news propagation has to be extreme, to the point in which they should consider removing the feature altogether. By diverting responsibility among millions of people, the world could get very messy with no one getting they hands dirty. Social media can be a great thing, but as all great things it has to be respected and cannot be taken lightly.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Know What You’re Fighting For

Most people protesting in the streets the last couple of days have no idea what they actually want. The overall consensus amongst them is that Donald Trump shouldn’t be the 45th president of the United States because he didn’t win the popular vote. But that is not how the POTUS is elected, nor has it been since 1787. The Electoral College System has been in place almost since the country’s inception, and while have been several movements that have tried to repeal it in the past, almost none of the people protesting right now would have a problem with it if Hillary had won. 
Regardless of what you think about Trump or Hillary, there was a clear winner in terms of electoral college votes, and only a negligible difference in the popular vote. Had Hillary lost the popular vote by a small margin but been elected President, the same arguments would be heard today except it would be Trump supporters wanting the popular vote to count. The winning side will never try to convince their opponents that they won by mere chance or due to a faulty system. People don’t care about how broken the system is or isn’t when they win, its only once they’ve lost that the idea of an unfairness is brought up to justify their loss. The real issue being fought for is not reforming the election process, it’s changing the election’s results, and everyone that thinks otherwise is delusional. 
When Donald Trump said the system was rigged a few weeks ago, Democrats immediately jumped on his comment. His implication that he probably wouldn’t accept the results of the electoral college was met with widespread criticism and hatred, especially from those who are out there this very day doing exactly that. The only difference is that most media outlets and news sources seem to be pretty complacent with the protests if they’re on the “right side”. Somehow, Trump implying he’d cause riots is a lot worse than people actually rioting.
Lets imagine for a moment that the protesters get their wish: Trump gets prematurely impeached and Hillary steps into the Oval Office next year. What then? What does that say about democracy, if it is to be put aside when the wrong person wins? Trump getting kicked off the presidency because of nationwide protests would undermine the whole idea of elections. If the person with the rowdiest crowd gets the final say, democracy devolves into anarchy and civil war. Its easy to ignore the implications of getting what you ask for, but its a civic responsibility to be true to the results of an election all citizens agreed to trust.
The truth is, Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States of America. You can’t start thinking about making changes until to come to terms with that. If you legitimately care about reforming the election process, don’t complain about it the same week your candidate loses the presidential election. That’s just called whining. If Trump is so inadequate for the job, his mandate will provide many opportunities to impeach him and will probably make it easier to argue for change in the way the president gets elected. Its not unreasonable to believe that most people would be all for electing their chief executive through popular vote, but its all about timing it right. 

Protesting now dilutes the message of “I want the system to change” with “I want Trump out”. Its hard to tell one from the other at times, because most people say they want both, but they only really want the former to achieve the latter. That’s why you don’t see any Trump supporters out there asking for popular vote to be implemented. This is an issue both sides probably want (the electoral college system is about as democratic as drawing a name out of a hat, and provides about the same sense of agency), but now they are pitted against each other because Trump is the only thing on everyone’s minds. Wanting the people’s votes to count is a noble endeavor, but this cannot be about Trump. He is short-term, this is long-term. We’re not talking about how the 45th is to be elected, but about everyone that is to follow.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

A Sign of Things to Come

         Austyn Crites walked into a Republican rally in Reno this Saturday under the delusion that he had the right to express his own opinion. He is one of those poor souls who believe in the ideals and values of the Republican party, just not in the man who sits at its head. According to Crites, he had no intention of causing a commotion when he held up the outrageously offensive sign reading “Republicans Against Trump”. How dare he! How dare he trust his fellow Republicans not to gang up on him and beat him up for voicing a different opinion? Some of the people in Crites’ vicinity later said they thought he had a gun, others claimed he had started the brawl in the first place. There was, of course, no such gun. And, right, he tried to single-handedly take on a mob of angry Republicans. 

The only sensible thing to do in this situation is obviously to help this poor defenseless mob, which is exactly what 45 year old professional bystander Michael Newton did. “I thought I had to do something. I put my knee on what I think was his head, so I’m not really sure. There were five guys on him and he was moving. I tried to help them immobilize him.” I guess the bystander effect only works when the person yelling for help has the right political stance, otherwise the “I’m in an environment of hate and distrust” effect kicks in and all your senses tell you to attack the person being attacked. 

Getting kneed in the head hurts, but getting burned on social media can hurt even more. As is to be expected, Crites’ devious cohorts got him placed among the likes of John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. He was instantly labeled a “Clinton Thug” and a “Trump Killer” and many more much less cool-sounding names with a little more profanity added for good measure. He tried to explain that all he did has hold up a sign, but his post received so much hate and threats that he had to delete his Facebook account. Another win for free speech!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Bad Harambes

Bad Harambes

Trump’s commentary on bad hombres crossing the border was heard round the world. It was talked about by any and all respectable news sources that call themselves so. The internet had a field day with it, going on endlessly about how offensive those words actually are or aren’t. But it hardly seems like the worst thing Trump has said. In fact, I believe it is the ambiguous tameness of the phrase that actually makes it more controversial. Had he been spouting racial slurs left and right with the intent to offend as many minorities as possible, it would have still made  headlines (obviously), but it wouldn’t have been so hotly debated. “Bad hombres” is harmful enough to be deemed offensive by a vast portion of the population, but not harmful enough that the rest of them wont strike back and defend their candidate.

Watching the post-debate discussions taking place in various news shows, it was hard not to notice that the room was always split between Trump’s supporters and his detractors, regardless of what they were talking about. When they reached his bad hombres quip, they were unsurprisingly vehemently attacking his word choice or casually saying it really wasn’t offensive (“It’s not like he said the n-word” one of his supporters said to his awestruck African American co-host). Downplaying Trump’s every offense seems to be the go-to strategy of the average Trump supporter, as was evidenced in the post-post-debate discussion my friends and I had later that night. 

Almost everyone agreed that his comment wasn’t politically correct and could have been worded more appropriately, but some argued that it really didn’t make a difference and that it was being blown up for no reason. While the accentuation of “otherness” is hardly something I’d consider unimportant, it was hard to argue that his view on Mexican immigrants alienated any large voter demographic. Trump supporters had no problem defending him and those that were already against him probably weren’t on the fence about switching sides. In fact, Trump is so polarizing that it’s hard to imagine what people on the fence are like, or if there is a “fence” to be on at all. That’s what makes his ambiguously controversial comments so widely discussed, its easy to be on either side and hard to be neither. They further the gap between the two groups and provide the perfect starting point for the conversation on any given political subject. For the next couple of weeks, it’ll be hard to discuss immigration in the United States without referencing Trump’s Bad Hombres (thereby perpetuating the stereotype of the mustache-twirling villainous Mexicans, either in a positive or negative light). Trump has placed himself firmly in the centerpiece of political conversations, as per usual, and this influence means more each passing day as November draws nearer.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Systematic Self-Segregation Syndrome

The Systematic Self-Segregation Syndrome

If one was to look at a timeline of racism and segregation throughout American history, it’d be pretty reasonable to assume that the trend is that racism is slowly but surely being eradicated. Sure, there are instances of racism on the news, but a lot of people think it doesn’t really play a role in their day to day lives. However, this is not because people are no longer racist, but because racism has become more subtle. It has learned to hide in plain sight, to blend into the masses unrecognized under a new guise: modern racism. While it is infinitely better than the Jim-Crow-type racism prevalent in previous decades, this new form of racism is a lot harder to identify. It shows its face whenever a job applicant’s skin color lowers their chances of landing a job, whenever a working man’s poverty is dismissed as a result of his race’s innate lack of skill, or whenever someone stereotypes all members of an ethnic group as being the same caricature of a person. But most of all, it is the limitations people impose on themselves based on their racial or cultural background that defines modern racism. Self-segregation in particular is an increasingly complicated issue that still affects millions of college students every year, and while some argue that it is being addressed by college campuses around the United States, there’s strong evidence to suggest that self-segregation is actually systemically facilitated by universities.

Self-segregation starts shaping college students even before they sit down for their first class. It is not unusual for universities to schedule different orientation days for minority students under the assumption that since many of them may be the first generation of college students in their families, they’ll have a harder time to adjust to life in college. For many students, orientation is their first opportunity to meet new people and establish relationships in an environment that’s entirely foreign to them. While there is a definite correlation between a person’s race and their education level, grouping minority kids on the first day can have a huge influence on the type of people they will associate with throughout their college career. This can severely limit their desire to expand their social groups to include people with cultural backgrounds vastly different than their own.

North Carolina State University is one such school where orientation days are scheduled based on race. Dr. Rupert W. Nacoste, the Vice Provost for Diversity and African American Affairs at North Carolina State University, claims he has frequently heard complaints from minority students saying they find it hard to relate to people of other races because they don’t have any experience doing so. Many students come from very homogenous backgrounds, and they base their knowledge of other races on stereotypes. This is obviously not helpful when trying to build lasting relationships. Dr. Nacoste goes on to say that college is a crucial formative period in these young adults’ lives, and that they should be exposed to multi-cultural interactions as early as possible.

Grouping all minority students in orientation can also give them a false perception of what class demographics are actually like in their respective colleges. For instance, an African American student of Dr. Nacoste's relates how the shock of being in a predominantly caucasian university was amplified following her all-black orientation, as she knew none of her non-black classmates on her first day of school. She naturally distanced herself from her white peers, opting instead to meet up and hang out with the African Americans she had already been acquainted to previously. Dr. Nacoste blames this on her lack of interaction with a diverse group of people on orientation, and he states in his book “ “ that if he had unlimited institutional power, he would avoid having separate orientation days and simply require first generation college students to take an “Adjustment to College” course their freshman year. 

Dr. Nacoste is not alone in his emphasis on the importance of orientation week. In his dissertation, Professor James Michael Davis wrote about the impacts of a strong orientation program in student retention rates, their GPA and their overall engagement with fellow students. He concluded that “to enhance student integration within the campus community, institutions must demonstrate authentic interest in student success and thereby create a campus culture that values each student and their personal achievement” (Davis, 2013). Likewise, there is strong evidence that students usually develop their independence, study habits, and most important social networks during the first few weeks of freshman year (Gardner and Siegel 2001). Orientation and other institutionalized student activities that promote student inclusion and engagement also have been shown to have substantially positive impacts on student achievement throughout their college careers. 

College is a formative period for young men and women in their road towards becoming a fully fledged adult, and thus they are very malleable individuals when starting their freshman year. Throughout this first year, students develop many of the characteristics that will come to define their adult selves, for instance their general desirability to extend their social circles, A study conducted by Koen and Durrheim shows that levels of segregation in college classrooms tend to heighten as the first semester progresses, which indicates that as people become increasingly comfortable with their “in-group”, they are less inclined to seek friendships in “out-groups” (Koen and Durrheim, 2010). Most incoming students have expectations about trying out all kinds of new experiences in college, but by the end of their first year many seem to come to terms with who they are and who their friends are. This is obviously not the case for everyone, but its hard to see how widespread this trend can be. By defining their social circles early on, students become less likely to befriend many people of different races if their circles are already mostly homogenous.

However, systematic self-segregation is not an issue that only affects incoming freshmen. Upperclassmen often come face to face with it when determining their living situation. It’s not uncommon for universities to have differently priced residential halls for students to choose from. It’s simple economics: there is a demand for lavish residence halls and students willing to pay for them, while there is also a demand for cheap run-down halls because some students can’t afford anything else. The real issue is that this unavoidably leads to the poor residence halls being populated mostly by minorities, while expensive ones are overwhelmingly caucasian. 

This is the case in Rutgers University, where one of its five residential campuses, Livingston, is commonly referred to as “the black campus” by students. Imani Hayes, a Rutgers student, claims that “nobody really chose to live in Livingston”, and that the old, unappealing dorms are inhabited solely by black students. Seeing as a nice luxurious dorm at Rutgers costs an additional $250 a month, its easy to see how it wouldn’t really be an affordable option for students from lower-income backgrounds who are already struggling to pay tuition. Rutgers has been consistently adding new pricey apartments full of amenities with the hopes of attracting more out-of-state high income students, which has only furthered the preconceived gap between minorities and white students. It is unlikely that many African American students would have many opportunities to form close ties with their white colleagues if they live on opposite sides of campus and if they are not given the opportunity to interact with students outside on their racial group on a daily basis. It also implicitly tells the people living in dorms that are falling apart that they’re not worth as much as those living with ACs, swimming pools and private gyms. As Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab puts it “These campuses tout how they’re the bastions of diversity. No. You may be on the same campus, but you’re having the same segregated experience as you would in the rest of the world.” 

Some times students are forced to segregate themselves due to economic reasons, but other times they isolate themselves from other races by choice. What should a university’s response be if students demand to have racially segregated dorms? The African Student Union at UCLA claims that “Black students lack spaces where they feel safe and comfortable” and that an African Diaspora floor would provide such a place. This demand has been replicated by minority students at NYU, UC Berkeley, and many others. However, as the dean of the University of Lewis and Clark, Professor James Huffman, points out, this wouldn’t be the case if universities didn’t make “race and racial differences central to almost everything they do” (Huffman, 2015). He argues that by treating minority students differently through benign discrimination (for instance, by providing a separate and more rigorous orientation to African American students to facilitate their college adaptation), universities actually make them feel even more alienated from their community. Self-segregation is encouraged by design, and the problem is not that students are demanding to be segregated, its that the universities unknowingly help students reach that level of racial isolation. 

There are some who argue that the student’s voices speak for themselves, and that if they want to form closed communities based on race, its really not that big of a deal. Others, like Smith Jackson, the vice president for student life at Elon University, vouch for the importance of being provided a diverse environment in college. He says that “living with people who are different from you can be one of the most powerful learning experiences there is”, and that it helps students prepare for post-college life in the most diverse country in the world. 

Being thrust into the real world without being in close proximity with a diverse college environment can define the kind of person you’ll end up being, and most of all the type of people you’re likely to be friends with. A poll conducted by Reuters in 2013 shows that a staggering “40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of non-white Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race” (Reuters, 2013). This can be largely attributed to a lack of interactions with people of different races early in life. Many people in the United States assist to racially homogenous high schools due to the socioeconomic status of their neighborhood or city. College is supposed to be the complete opposite, a pinnacle of diversity in which students meet people from all over the world and form bonds based on unifying interests. 

Sadly, many universities seem to have lost sight of this by complying with students’ demands of racially segregated living areas. Not only is this action morally reprehensible, it is also punishable by law. Earlier this year, Michel Meyers, President of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, sent a letter to California State University Los Angeles expressing his disgust regarding the existence of its Halisi Scholars Black Living-Learning Community. This residence hall claims to be a safe space exclusively for black students, and according to Meyers it seems unlikely that this could be accomplished without the university’s direct involvement. He goes on to say that this violates Proposition 209 of the California Constitution, which prohibits public officials from differently treating, segregating, discriminating on the basis of race, and from designating or restricting spaces on a public campus to or for the persons on the basis of skin color. CSULA has been under heavy criticism over the past couple of months, and if the officials of the institution’s involvement in this affair is confirmed, they could be facing serious legal repercussions.

Instances such as these are not extremely common and only affect a handful of colleges, but the existence of subtler forms of segregation on minority students is a worldwide problem. Any interaction between students or faculty that could make any minority group feel different from the community at large simply promotes their adherence to racially segregated groups. A study conducted by Koen and Durrheim shows most colleges are consistently experiencing high levels of racial aggregation (Koen and Durrheim, 2010). This largely goes unnoticed because the increased number of minority students in college campuses gives an impression of persistent desegregation.

Another noteworthy result from their experiment was that larger classrooms naturally facilitate racially segregated seating patterns, as they provide an opportunity for students to form crowds of people they are comfortable with while also establishing a spatial barrier from people they are less comfortable with (Koen and Durrheim, 2010). Universities that house large lecture auditoriums for most of their classes inadvertently make it easier for minorities to group together, which can cause them to feel even more isolated. While this can’t be avoided for certain classes and many universities lack the funds to provide small classrooms for all of their students, this should at least be a concern for the university officials. The impact of classroom size on student segregation should have some effect on a university’s budgetary discussions, as the problem could be alleviated if funds are relocated to the proper channels.

Why is this problem constantly being ignored by colleges nationwide? It may be related to the remarkably strong tendency of white Americans to underplay the role of discrimination and segregation in modern America. This tendency was exemplified in the responses given to a Pew Research Center poll conducted shortly after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. According to the poll, 80 percent of black Americans agreed that the incident raises important issues about race that need to be discussed, while nearly half of white Americans disagreed by saying that the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves. This failure to realize the overarching effects of race and racial discrimination show a detachment from the very real adversities faced by many African Americans. It’s easy to see how this difference in opinions regarding the importance of racial barriers can be applied to college students as well. If white students are less likely to acknowledge racial discrimination as a serious problem that persists today, it is likely that they will overlook the existence of racially motivated self-segregation in their campuses. High-ranking college officials, most of which are white as well, are also at risk of downplaying the importance of having a multi-cultural environment in which all their students are encouraged to look beyond the experiences they’re already comfortable with. 

All of this goes to show that there definitely hurdles in place that make it difficult for students to actively seek out friendships outside of their racial “boundaries”. These hurdles are often provided by the universities themselves, whether it be through wide price differences between student residential areas, orientation days being different for different racial groups, or by having low overall classroom densities. College officials should be more aware of the effects of their institutions on self-segregation, as it can hinder their students’ development as racially-unbiased individuals that feel comfortable with culturally and ethnically diverse groups. Modern racism still afflicts countless students around the world every single day, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Sure, many students may come to college having primarily homogenous relationships and backgrounds, but universities should strive to prevent this lack of diversity opportunities to persist throughout their college careers. By helping students reach outside their comfort zone, minorities will feel less isolated, communities will start being more inclusive, and colleges will feel like the haven of integration they’re supposed to be.


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