Monthly Archives: January 2017

The White Moderate

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, today I wanted to share one of my favorite passages from Dr. King. It’s from a Letter from a Birmingham Jail, as Dr. King reflects upon the motivation for his work. He calls out the ‘white moderate’ – that person who “constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.'”

The white moderate is the greatest stumbling block of justice.

All of us in social justice work are all too familiar with the wide range of views and opinions on what actions are right and what actions are effective. These disagreements are good and healthy and productive. But those of us with positions of relatively more power – us white activists in particular – need to be mindful not to become just another white moderate; to never “paternalistically believe he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

The full passage is below:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

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Demographic bias in social media language analysis

Before the break, I had the opportunity to hear Brendan O’Connor talk about his recent paper with Su Lin Blodgett and Lisa Green: Demographic Dialectal Variation in Social Media: A Case Study of African-American English.

Imagine an algorithm designed to classify sentences. Perhaps it identifies the topic of the sentence or perhaps it classifies the sentiment of the sentence. These algorithms can be really accurate – but they are only as good as the corpus they are trained on.

If you train an algorithm on the New York Times and then try to classify tweets, for example, you may not have the kind of success you might like – the language and writing style of the Times and a typical tweet being so different.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the Blodgett et al. paper, but perhaps most notable to me is their comparison of the quality of existing language identification tools on tweets by race. They find that these tools perform poorly on text associated with African Americans while performing better on text associated with white speakers.

In other words, if you got a big set of Twitter data and filtered out the non-English tweets, that algorithm would disproportionally identify tweets from black authors as not being in English, and those tweets would then be removed from the dataset.

Such an algorithm, trained on white language, has the unintentional effect of literally removing voices of color.

Their paper presents a classifier to eliminate that disparity, but the study is an eye-opening finding – a cautionary tail for anyone undertaking language analysis. If you’re not thoughtful and careful in your approach, even the most validated classifier may bias your data sample.

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The Knowledge Economy and (Ab)use of Symbols

I’m taking a Network Economics class this semester, and we’ve reasonably begun by reading The Use Knowledge in Society – in which Hayek addresses the economic problem of information scarcity.

The economic problem faced by society, Hayek argues, is that “the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form, but solely as dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.” That is, the problem is “how to secure the best use of resources known to any members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know.”

Hayek, of course, sees this problem as one which is best solved by the free market – by decentralization of economic decisions. On its face, his argument makes a lot of sense: “If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them. We can’t expect that this problem will be solved by first communicated all this knowledge to a central board which, after integrating all knowledge, issues its orders. We must solve it by some process of decentralization.”

There is a lot of Hayek’s argument that I agree with. In the civic space, we often talk about the danger of expertise – technical knowledge is valuable and important, but reducing a community problem to a technocratic solution overlooks the expertise of the people themselves. No expert, no matter how well educated, can parachute into a community they know nothing about and successfully solve it’s problems without engaging community solutions.

But I don’t follow Hayek’s jump – just because a purely technocratic solution is clearly bad it does not necessarily follow that a purely populist solution is therefore good.

Hayek praises the pricing system of the open market as a mechanistic marvel – as an emergent behavior which continually tends towards the equilibrium of an instantaneous time and context. In other words, pricing becomes a tool for coordination, a “mechanism for communicating information.” It operates as “a kind of symbol” ensuring that “only the most essential information is passed on and only to those concerned.”

This is a inspiring description of market pricing, but it obscures the problems with such an approach – namely, it is unclear just how much people know and how much of that information is accurate.

Hayek’s invocation of ‘symbols’ immediately makes me think of Lippmann’s work – symbols can be powerful tools for coordination, but they are also props for propaganda and manipulation.

John Dewey describes the positive impact of symbols, writing, “Events cannot be passed from one to another, but meanings may be shared by means of signs. Wants and impulses are then attached to common meanings. They are thereby transformed into desires and purposes, which, since they implicate a common or mutually understood meaning, present new ties, converting a joint activity into a community of interest and endeavor. Thus there is generated what, metaphorically, may be termed a general will and social consciousness: desire and choice on the part of individuals in behalf of activities that, by means of symbols, are communicable and shared by all concerned.”

The problem, as Lippmann points out, is that elites are too easily able to manipulate those signs and symbols – to manufacture a shared experience and expectation which comes, not truly from the knowledge possessed by individuals, but which are myths designed solely to fulfill elite’s goals.

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Power and Social Capital

This semester, I’m taking a class on social networks for which I recently read Sandra Susan Smith’s 2005 article “Don’t put my name on it”: Social Capital Activation and Job Finding Assistance among the Black Urban Poor.

I haven’t read a lot of formal Sociology papers, so I was a little taken aback by the articles lack of overt social justice norms while tackling a deep social justice issue, but the paper as a whole is a really interesting read.

Smith sets up the article by describing a common explanation of persistent joblessness among the black urban poor: social isolation, or, in network terms, ‘deficiencies in access to mainstream ties and institutions.” Her work, though, finds a different explanation: it’s not that poor urban blacks don’t have access to resources for finding jobs, it’s that there are functional deficiencies of their job referral networks.

More specifically, over 80% of the respondents in Smith’s study “expressed concern that job seekers in their networks were too unmotivated to accept assistance, required great expenditures of time and emotional energy, or acted too irresponsibly on the job, thereby jeopardizing contacts’ own reputations in the eyes of employers and negatively affecting their already-tenuous labor market prospects.”

There’s a simple way of reading this article which doesn’t delve deeply into the social justice discrepancy found by the study. Such a reading indicated that there is simply a difference between experiences, that “social capital deficiencies of the black urban poor may have less to do with deficiencies in access…[and] more to do with functional deficiencies – the disinclination of potential job contacts to assist to assist when given the opportunity to do so, not because they lack information or the ability to influence hires, but because they perceive pervasive untrustworthiness among their job-seeking ties and choose not to assist.”

But the root of these functional deficiencies are worth digging into. Why do they exist? Where do the come from? Smith doesn’t go into the detail in this paper, though she does get to an important aspect of it near the end of the paper:

Resembling the the distrusting job contacts described in this study, employers expected from black job seekers, especially males, tardiness and absenteeism, unreliability, and an unwillingness to work when on the job. Furthermore, they believed that probability of theft, cursing, fighting, and disrespecting authority were greatly enhanced with black hires relative to other racial and ethnic groups.

In other words, people declined to provide support to their job-seeking contacts not necessarily directly because they perceived those people to be lazy or too ‘ghetto’ in the words of the paper – but because they thought their employer might perceive the job-seeker as such.

Smith’s whole study is done among the black urban poor – people’s who’s job stability is tenuous and who rely heavily upon their employer’s goodwill. Recommending a bad employee presents a significant risk – a risk which is amplified by an employer’s negative stereotypes.

Smith uses the language of ‘functional deficiencies,’ but what’s missing from this discussion in an analysis of power, of employer’s ability to set the norms and threaten sanctions if those norms are violated.

John Gaventa argues that “power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness. Power relationships, once established, are self-sustaining.”

It is the self-sustaining nature of those power relationships which we see in Smith’s study: if there are functional deficiencies in the social capital of poor urban blacks, it is because power made them so, and power re-enforces them

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