Same House, Different Worlds: How Relationships Influence our Medical Choices

This is a repost of my February 16, 2021 article in Psychology Today.

Two people can share the same home but live in different worlds. Family ties and close, reciprocal friendships influence much of our lives, from fashion to career choice to our emotions. Though we grow from children into adults whose sense of normal tends to resemble other members of our community, evidence suggests we can maintain only a limited number of relationships. So while family members have people in common, they often have distinct networks of friends.

Add people and the effect multiplies. Cliques form. People collect friends who don’t know one another. Someone a person considers a friend might not feel the same way. Groups split, accumulating differences until each inhabits its own reality. Individuals find themselves members of an assortment of groups, navigating through disparate voices on a daily basis. So, when researchers learned that 77.8% of nursing home residents but only 37.5% of nursing home staff have been vaccinated against COVID-19, perhaps they shouldn’t have been surprised.

But they were. Most people outside of nursing homes who learn of this result probably are, likely because we expect a higher uptake from medical professionals than from laypeople. So why this result?

One factor often cited as a possible reason why people refuse vaccines is socioeconomic status. The thinking is that people who are higher on the socioeconomic ladder are more likely to vaccinate and that nursing home residents, paying an average of $100,000 per year (in New York) to live in a nursing home, are economically better off than nursing home staff. This explanation is unlikely.

A meta analysis studying connections between socioeconomic status and flu vaccination rates found that while a relationship exists between socioeconomic status and flu vaccination rates, the relationship isn’t clear because the various studies used different definitions of socioeconomic status. Some used income. Others used income and other factors. Unless researchers choose to study the same factors, it is hard to draw precise conclusions from this body of work.

The analysis also found a positive relationship (in countries without universal healthcare) between private insurance coverage and vaccination, with private insurance serving as a possible proxy for being economically well off. However, private insurance companies and Medicare generally don’t cover long term care, and very few people purchase long-term care policies. As a result, more than 70% of nursing home residents in New York, for example, receive Medicaid, which has low income and asset limits. Therefore, socioeconomic status is unlikely to drive this disparity.

Another factor cited as a possible reason for this result is race. The thinking here is that African-Americans are overrepresented in nursing home staff but underrepresented in nursing home residents, and that documented lower rates of vaccination cause the disparity. However, African-Americans comprise about 14% of the U.S. population, about 12% of nursing home residents, and about 30% of long term care workers. There is evidence African-Americans have received the COVID-19 vaccine at lower rates than white Americans (at the time of publication, the author has received the first dose without side effects), but the study in question doesn’t contain enough data to conclude that race is the primary cause of the disparities in nursing homes. There aren’t enough African-American long term care workers to account for the vaccination rate among nursing home staff.

Dividing people into groups to learn who is and isn’t choosing to get the vaccine is useful. If health departments know that certain groups are choosing not to get vaccinated, then they can devote more resources to efforts for those groups. However, this strategy can also lead researchers and reporters to explain the behavior of people who hesitate or refuse to get vaccinated via the fundamental attribution error, assuming members of specific groups refuse for reasons endemic to that group.article continues after advertisement

For example, articles often paint African-American hesitancy as a response to racism. These articles cite cultural memory of the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male conducted by the United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 1932 and 1972 (and other incidents) as the sole reason African-Americans distrust doctors or vaccines.

There are several issues with this reasoning. First, it assumes 44 million people know the same things and think exactly the same way, when African-Americans are as diverse as any group. Second, we humans are notorious for misremembering events soon after they happen. Third, emotional connections help with recall, but research suggests the 600 men in the study had close relationships with 3,000 to 9,000 others. Certainly, people outside this circle learned what happened, had emotional reactions to it, studied it, and use it in their decision making, but the study participants and their families settled with the U.S. government in 1974, nearly two generations ago. (And, anecdotally, the author has never had a conversation about it.) Fear of racism can be a contributing factor, but there is a simpler, more inclusive, and more likely culprit: fear of the vaccine (among other things).

The earliest evidence of vaccination comes from India, China, and Africa. A 10th century Chinese method involved grinding smallpox scabs and blowing them up people’s noses. When knowledge of this common practice first reached the colonies in 1707, in part from an enslaved African man named Onesimus, Bostonian Cotton Mather set out to immunize as many people as possible. In return, someone bombed his houseaccusing him of spreading the disease and defying the will of God.

Today, what’s left out of reports on vaccine hesitancy is what people actually say when they refuse: “I don’t know what’s in that,” or “If I don’t have the disease, why do I need to get the vaccine?” These statements are echoed by people across racial and socioeconomic lines.

However, trust allays fear. Some of us are fortunate; we trade outrageous hot dog references with a friend who researches the virus. Or we watch science videos using mousetraps and ping pong balls to demonstrate how herd immunity works. But, we also trust personal doctors, brands, and close friends. We might balk at first (not everyone is an early adopter), but any of those relationships can help someone to overcome concerns they might get sick by purposely infecting themselves with a weaker form of the virus (in the case of RNA vaccines, not even that). A person’s network also helps. If several members of a network choose to get a vaccine, others will follow.

Where does this leave nursing homes? Other (important) considerations aside, a resident has a doctor-patient relationship with the nursing home. Some portion of the uptake among residents is likely explained by the trust people place in their caregivers. Staff members don’t have the same relationship. The doctors are colleagues or bosses, and despite a close working environment, 68% of employees are either not engaged or actively disengaged from their jobs. Thus, bosses and staff live different worlds, unable to unlock the trust necessary to convince them the vaccine is safe.

4 Books You Should Read for Black History Month

I’ve been a fan of history ever since the first page of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Back when all I knew about Christopher Columbus was that he bumped into the Americas while looking for India, Zinn provides more context his first encounter with the Arawaks in the form of an entry from Columbus’ own log:

They willingly traded everything they owned … . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. … They would make fine servants … . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

That story would’ve kept me awake in history class. 

So much of the history we celebrate amounts to a moment in someone’s life: the first to do x, the speech this person gave, without any of the little details that show historical figures as real people. How can we emulate our heroes if we don’t really know anything about them? To that end, I’d like to share four books that I’ve read and enjoyed that also give much needed depth to our history.  

Levels of the Game by John McPhee

A tennis match. This book is about a tennis match. And I read it in two days. If you saw me in the street and asked me to recommend one book, it would be this one and that’s all I’d say. Because the idea that anyone could make a book about a tennis match interesting is absurd to non-tennis players, but Mr. McPhee did it. That’s because the book is about more than the 1968 match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner in Forest Hills, New York. It’s about race, class, upbringing, competition, and respect. But it’s told in the context of a tennis match. 

Deep Like the Rivers (Education in the Slave Quarter Community 1831-1865) by Thomas L. Webber

What do you know about the people who were held as slaves in the United States? Not about the circumstances, the people. It’s too bad you can’t talk to them and ask them. But, people did. The Federal Writers project created work for out of work writers during the Depression and one of the things these writers did was interview former slaves. Some of those interviews led to this book, which describes, often in their own words, how the black people held as slaves lived and taught their community out of sight of the white slave owners and those who worked for them. Based on what’s commonly known, you might expect it to be a sad book. It’s not. 

Locking up our Own by James Forman, Jr.

A mostly black city. A mostly black police force. A black mayor. A rash of violence thanks to crack. How did they handle it? Hold on to your hat…

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice by Thomas F. Jackson

My favorite pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. are the ones of him sitting on the table with a pool cue behind his back about to take a shot and the one of him and his family in a two-door car that appears to be a pony car. After years of seeing only the I Have a Dream speech, these were surprising. I wouldn’t have thought that the person who gave the speech was some cool guy, but apparently he was both. Likewise, this biography presents a different King than we’re used to – instead of the person whose legacy is remembered as saying we should judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, King’s ideas evolve. Near the end of his life he was coming to realize that economics, not race, was the issue we should be concerned about. This book covers that transition.

I hope you get a chance to read one or more of these. I’m sure they’ll keep you awake, whether you’re in class or on your bed. If you do, let me know what you thought!

A White Man Called Me N******

It’s amazing what you miss when something grabs your attention. Focus, and life fades into the background. Start a conversation in a crowded park and most of what you hear will be your friend’s voice. But listen to a recording of the conversation and you’ll hear 27,000 things in the background that were louder than your friend’s voice.

This phenomenon is called selective attention. We have limited brainpower; selective attention helps us tune in to what’s important while ignoring what’s unimportant. It’s essential for holding conversations in crowded parks or navigating downtown Brooklyn on the way to work, where locals like me run an obstacle course consisting of bikes, buses, and tourists meandering down the sidewalk, savoring the cityscape.

I am carrying a white cup of coffee with green lettering and my name written on it. A block away, I hear reggae playing. I tilt to squeeze between two people. A little girl is dancing with an old lady. They’re in my way. I bear left. A bus passes on my right. My head bobs. I haven’t heard this song in a while. I’m walking on a vent. I feel cold air rush out as I hear, “Stand clear of the closing doors please.” I’m further down the block. The reggae is still loud enough to hear, but fades as I approach the guy selling Christian music. Someone’s cooking cabbage this early in the morning? “I got edibles.” The bus beeps. I am at the corner, preparing to turn. It’s noisy, so I don’t quite hear the word. I hear the man. I hear the scorn in his voice. I hear that scorn directed toward me.

I slow down.

My neck starts to turn.

My eyebrow starts to rise. 

* * * * * * *

I couldn’t tell you when I first learned the word nigger was supposed to upset me when a white person said it. Mom says I never asked. I knew what racist meant by the time I was 11 – I told Mom all about it. But nigger? No idea. People in my neighborhood said it often enough that I certainly learned the word as a child. But I never heard a white person use it during my childhood. Not in person, anyway. And I went to school with white kids from the age of six. 

Maybe I’m too young. After all, during his 1983 stand up routine Delirious, a 22-year old Eddie Murphy observed, “Racism ain’t as bad as it used to be anyway, man. I mean it’s fucked up, but they don’t call niggers niggers no more and shit. White people don’t say it — especially when there’s niggers around, so I guess I wouldn’t know.” But a year before Murphy told this story, further explaining that he went to the deep South “looking for racism” only to be treated well by the white people he met, Chris Rock dropped out of high school after years of being bullied by his white classmates in the working class Brooklyn neighborhood he went to school in. “I was getting called nigger every day, and you get spit on and it’s hard to make friends,” said Rock in a 2005 interview on 60 Minutes. “In elementary school, kids imitated their older brothers and said, ‘My older brother calls black people niggers, so I’ll do it, too.’ But in junior high it starts to get physical — and more physical by high school,” said Rock in a 2005 interview in the New York Post.

I asked a few friends I went to grade school with, just to be sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. Seven said they never heard a white person say it. Four said rarely. Four said sometimes. But while I was growing up, I definitely heard stories. From people 20 years older than Murphy. Though in retrospect, I heard them from a small portion of people I knew, who oft repeated the same one or two incidents many times over several years.

They might also be too young. U.S. newspapers printed the word 115,047 times between 1810 and today. Australian newspapers printed it twice as often. In the U.S., the word barely appears from 1820-1849, appearing four times from 1820 to 1829, 187 times from 1830 to 1839, and 896 times from 1840 to 1849. Then the word went viral. 6,921 appearances from 1850-1859. 20,588 appearances from 1860-1869. And there it stayed, being printed between 10,000 and 20,000 times a decade until 1919. But then, as viral phenomena are wont to do, it faded, never appearing more than 1,200 times in a decade after 1939. 

If I had been born when it was common to see the word in the newspaper, perhaps I’d have also heard a white person say it in public and would have learned I was supposed to be upset from direct experience. Alternatively, if I had been born after the internet became widely available, perhaps I’d have learned its meaning from one of 38.5 million search results. Or, I could’ve opened a book published in 1863, 1938, or 1969, years when the word peaked in that medium. As it stands, I learned from hearsay. Therefore, It’s impossible to pinpoint the moment I learned nigger was a “bad word.” My best guess is that I learned it from a combination of those stories and a “very special episode” of some TV show.

None of this matters in the first moment after the word was spoken. I’m not even aware that I’ve heard anything, or that I’m reacting to it. My reactions in these first milliseconds are automatic. What matters in this moment is that I perceived a threat. Though I’m not conscious of my actions, I’m preparing to face that threat. If he had instead used the Cantonese phrase boon chon doi, I wouldn’t have reacted. His tone might have told me it was an insult, but I don’t speak Cantonese. I wouldn’t have had enough information to know how to react. Likewise, if I were a native English speaker raised outside the United States (except, perhaps, Australia), I probably wouldn’t have the same reaction. I would have just looked at him, confused.

* * * * * * *

Words come into existence to serve a need. They evolve. Acquire and lose meanings. Jump between languages. Become fashionable for a time and fade into obscurity.

Nigger started life as the Latin words nigrum and niger. These meant black, sable, dark, or dusky, and were used to describe a variety of things, including the complexion of dark-skinned Aethiops (Ethiopians) or Afer (Africans). Sometimes, Latin speakers skipped description, opting to use nigrum and niger in place of Aethiops or Afer.

The Roman Republic, via war, brought Latin to much of Europe and Northern Africa starting in the third century BCE. Eventually, civil wars would give birth to the Roman Empire. The empire died in 476 AD, but the language lived on. With time and isolation, Latin evolved from one language into many, today called the Romance Languages. In the branch that became Spanish, niger and nigrum evolved into negro (roughly pronounced “ney-gro”). In the branch that became French, they evolved into nègre. Form and pronunciation had changed, but meaning did not. The words still referred both to the color black and to Africans.

By the 1500s, people speaking Germanic languages were borrowing negro from people speaking Romance languages. But these languages already had words for the color. In German, it’s schwarz. Swedish – svart. Icelandic – svartur. English dictionaries still have an entry for swart, but somewhere between 400 and 1000 AD, Old English speakers started using blæc instead. Blæc evolved into black and blacke. Without a need for an extra word to describe the color, the English word negro (later Negro) came to refer only to Africans and their descendants.

The English negro probably sounded a lot like its Spanish parent. This is because English used to be pronounced differently. The Great Vowel Shift occurred from 1350 to 1700, affecting the pronunciation of most English words. High, for example, used to be pronounced “hee.” Like sounded closer to “lake.” Shakespeare’s works contain rhymes and puns that disappear when spoken with the English accent known as BBC English or Received Pronunciation.

The Shift happened around the same time English spelling was being standardized, and is thus responsible for most of English’s weird spelling issues. For example, Reason uses the newer pronunciation of the ea combination, but bear and swear maintained their original pronunciation. Likewise, the shift likely changed ney-gro to nee-gro. Meanwhile, people who spoke Dutch, Scottish, and Northern English dialects transformed negro and nègre into neger and negar. Neger appears to have been a neutral term until nigger makes its first written appearance in the 1770s or 1780s. Nigger was always used as an insult.

Except when it wasn’t.

* * * * * * *

Nigger is the 20,120th most used word in the English language. If that doesn’t sound impressive, consider this: there are 171,476 English words currently in use. This places nigger in the top 12% of all words used in the English language. The top 20% of all English words make up 80% of all English words used. Nigger is used more often than mussels (20,211th), pea (21,669th), thug (28,787th), lubricate (55,625th), yolks (28,935th), and raindrops (31,923rd). If all the words we used each day were evenly distributed among all English speakers, each of us would hear it a little more than once a day. But the distribution is skewed. Some people never hear it. Some hear it several times a day. When I was fourteen, I probably said it several times an hour, often in front of my mother. When I asked Mom how she felt about my use of the word, she said, “I hated it.” 

Of course, I wasn’t using the racial epithet nigger, I was saying nigga. As in person, friend, companion, or acquaintance. I told Mom it was new. We’re taking the word for ourselves. All the hip-hop artists are saying it. All my friends are saying it.

“If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you do that, too?”

“Mom, you just don’t understand. It isn’t like when you were a kid. We’re doing something new. Something different.

We weren’t.

Nigga dates back to at least 1925, representing a Southern pronunciation of the word. Self-referential usage can be found even earlier. In the book Remembering Slavery, former slave Rachel Cruze talked about boys trying to get a date with the girls from a neighboring farm:

Gainan he watched his girls closely — used to sit on a chair between his two houses where he could see everything — and if a skinny reedy-sort of nigger made his appearance among the young people Gainan would call him over and say, “Whose nigger are you?” The boy would tell him. Gainan would look him over and say, “Well, that’s all right, but I don’t want you comin’ over to see my gals. You ain’t good stock.” And it would be too bad for that nigger if Gainan caught him there again.

Elsewhere, in The Music of Black Americans: A History, Eileen Southern said, “During a woodcutting song hundreds of slaves, paired off in twos in front of the trees, marked ‘the blows by the song’:”

A cold frosty morning, The niggers feeling good, Take your ax upon your shoulder, Nigger, talk to the wood.

Self-referential usage of this sort is normal. Words coined by one social group often transfer to another. Indeed, no one cared when nigger or its cousins were seen as merely descriptive (though I’m certain some Latin-speaking kids also used it as an insult from the beginning). But when a word is used as an insult, disempowered groups tend to take it for their own use. For these groups, the would-be insult is converted into an expression of affiliation. A term of empowerment. A way of saying, “this is who I am, no matter what kind of box you try to put me in.”

Mom wasn’t impressed with that explanation either.

* * * * * * *

Two-thirds of a heartbeat has passed.

My forward motion has stopped.

My body is starting to turn.

My consciousness is coming into play. My brain is sorting through a lifetime of information. It’s quick. Jumbled. Something isn’t quite right, but I don’t yet know what it is.

* * * * * * *

The only thing remarkable about the appearance of nigger in Australian newspapers is how unremarkable it is. Advertisements offering nigger brown as one of several colors of pantyhose. A play titled The Nigger, where the white Governor of a U.S. State learns he’s part black. Another titled Ten Little Nigger Boys. A report noting that Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12, formerly known at the Nigger Quartet, was inspired by Negro folk songs (now called Spirituals). Articles about events in the United States. Racehorses and missing dogs named Nigger. Fish (ludericks) nicknamed nigger. Nigger Boy steel wool pads.

Limiting the search terms to nigger leaves you with only a hint of the relationship between the 400+ distinct peoples now collectively known as Aborigines and the descendants of the British colonists. A 1951 article talks about extending voting rights to the Aborigines. A 1979 report concerning Carnavon, West Australia noted, among other things, that Aboriginal children “were asked scathingly if they ate grubs by white schoolmates.” A 1923 article titled Election Workers Entertained reports that Billy Hughes, the seventh Prime Minister of Australia, hosted his supporters at an event. Mr. Hughes didn’t want to discuss the political matters of the day. But he didn’t want his guests to get the wrong idea, so “Mr. Hughes told a story which he thought was not inappropriate.” In the story, one man unsuccessfully tries to get another to speak, getting angrier with each subsequent attempt. It wasn’t funny. But the audience laughed.   

Britain established its first colony in Australia in 1788 after losing the American Revolutionary War in 1783 to the colonies it ruled for nearly 200 years. A year earlier, the United States were writing compromises to protect slavery into their new Constitution. Five years later, Britain was taking its first steps toward ending slavery. The Aboriginals may not have been slaves, but, as noted by Loretta de Plevitz and Larry Croft, in “the era of colonial and post-colonial government, . . . [if you] had a ‘strain’ of Aboriginal blood you were forced to live on Reserves or Missions, work for rations, given minimal education, and needed governmental approval to marry, visit relatives or use electrical appliances.” These limitations on Aboriginal life help to explain the casual, nonchalant use of nigger in Australian newspapers.

Casual and nonchalant are not words one would use to describe the American use. Nigger was considered an insult in both Australia and the United States, but in the United States and the colonies that preceded them, nigger developed a personality. “Monkies, if da no had a tail, be nigger’s kin-folks” (1835). “The fiendish nigger” (1832). “‘Snowball’ is a curious thing to gather vegetables – but we suppose this is another name for ‘free nigger’” (1835). “There lay his murderer, a soulless nigger, grinning in death, the hideous grin of triumph over his fallen master!” (1835). During the Civil War, numerous editorials were written about the nigger question. In 1868, a few years after the war, there are stories about nigger radicals, nigger rights, nigger outrages, and the Virginia nigger mob convention. By the 1890s, the Southern States invented convict leasing, using spurious criminal charges and harsh sentencing to force ex-slaves to once again work for free. This system was possible thanks to a longstanding rule, incorporated into the Thirteenth Amendment, allowing for slavery as punishment for a crime. By 1900, 30% of the U.S. prison population was black. Nigger became lazy and an assumed criminal.

Again, limiting the search leaves you with only a hint of a complex relationship. In the documentary Slavery by Another Name, historian David Levering Lewis said, “If you were to ask most Southerners, white Southerners what they thought of African-Americans in the 1850s, the 1860s, even into the 1870s, one profile would’ve been of people who are loyal, dutiful, trustworthy.” Newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves tend to agree. A slave named Celeste was described by her master as “very smart & Capable … & was a very competent servant.” Letty Brown was described as “a steady, clever, hard working woman & a good washer & ironer.” Isaac was “very intelligent, can read very well, and I [his owner] believe write.” Sam was “extremely proud, smokes segars, and walks with a considerable air – he is a good cook, an excellent waiter in the house, and carriage driver.” However, Lewis said, “Those same people in the 1880s and by the 1890s have been demonized. They are no longer trustworthy. They no longer have the capacity for citizenship.”

Nigger blossomed in the United States while black people were in a state of perpetual mutiny. They escaped, tried to escape, revolted, engaged in work slowdowns, maintained a sophisticated communication network, stole food and clothes, had parties, held private religious services, and killed others and themselves in their fight for self-determination. Slave owners responded by separating the interests of poor white and black people, ending indentured servitude (which mostly affected Europeans), inventing lifetime and intergenerational slavery (which mostly affected Africans), limiting education and access to weapons, separating families, inflicting physical punishment, and arming themselves. They also spread propaganda, seeding ideas in the general population to further their own agenda. Some of these ideas stuck.  

* * * * * * *

“There’s like a civil war going on with black people, and there’s two sides: black people, and there’s niggas,” said Chris Rock in his 1996 routine Niggas vs. Black People. In the routine, nigga is a person quite similar to the nigger of a hundred years earlier – definitely lazy, possibly criminal, and purposely ignorant. But instead of referring to black people generally, nigga referred to people whose behavior ruined the image and daily life of black people.

Rock’s routine was considered controversial for the same reason Richard Pryor’s use of the word and George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television were considered controversial – because at some point nigger had become taboo and an abusive swear word. According to psychologist Steven Pinker, taboo words activate areas of the brain associated with negative emotion. Our brains process these words involuntarily, and they register automatically, with meaning and negative emotion intact. When one engages in abusive swearing, they are calling on the negative emotion automatically evoked by the word to intimidate or humiliate someone. For those of us who don’t embrace neutral or descriptive definitions of taboo words, just hearing abusive swears can be an unpleasant experience.   

When the New York Times Magazine asked Rock in 1997 why he used such a “heavy-duty” word in his routine, he said, “It’s not that heavy-duty. The thing with ‘nigger’ is just that white people are ticked-off because there’s something they can’t do. That’s all it is.” In 1974, Pryor would have agreed with him. When he was asked about his use of profanity, including nigger, in his shows, he responded, “I think that people should say what they feel…. I like to be accepted, you know, but usually in order to be accepted by white people, you have to compromise so much from your hello…. And when I say white, man, I don’t mean everybody. You know who you are.”

But white people weren’t the only ones complaining. Many black people feel that no one should use it because of its history as a racial slur. But, according to the Washington Post, “As Pryor saw it, ‘nigger’ meant ‘black like me and millions of others, who’ll never get on this stage….’” Rock, Murphy, Carlin, and Pryor would have also argued that this is how people talk in real life. Real life includes a heavy dose of taboo words. (Their observation is correct. English speakers use words like shit and fuck as often as we use words like us and we.)  

Real life is the reason why I eventually stopped using the word. Fourteen year old me wanted to be like his friends. Eighteen year old me wanted to express himself more precisely. Nigger faded as I started to use a larger vocabulary in my everyday speech. It’s nearly vanished now that I spend most of my time around people who never use the word. But it hasn’t disappeared completely – I still listen to hip-hop and only censor myself when certain people are in the room. Mom is grateful.

Elsewhere, Rock eventually retired the routine, saying that racists were beginning to think it was okay to use the word. Pryor stopped using the word after a trip to Africa, saying, “When I was in Africa, this voice came to me and said, ‘Richard, what do you see?’ I said, ‘I see all types of people.’ The voice said, ‘But do you see any niggers?’ I said, ‘No.’ It said, ‘Do you know why? ‘Cause there aren’t any.’” Pryor continued, “I’d been there three weeks and hadn’t said it. And it started making me cry, man. All that crap. All the acts I’ve been doing. As an artist and comedian. Speaking and trying to say something. And I’d been saying that. That’s a devastating word. That had nothing to do with us. We are from a place where they first started people. I left regretting ever having uttered the word on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn’t get what I was talking about. And so I vowed never to say ‘nigger’ again.”

But nigger isn’t going away any time soon. The more popular a word is, the more likely people are to use it. For example, researchers estimate that it will take 700 years for the past tense of stink (19,191st) to have a 50% chance of transforming from stank (29,866th) to stinked. So, for now, that leaves the question of whether to use nigger a matter of personal preference. The arguments over whether it should be said, and if so who can say it, will continue. In the meantime, the word will continue to evolve.

* * * * * * *

Nigger is supposed to be the ultimate insult. It isn’t. The Serbian phrase yebem ti mrutvo dete u ladno dupe (eбем ти мъртво дете у ладно дупе) is. Nigger’s power comes from the reaction of its intended target, not from an agreed-upon meaning. Its meaning depends on the era, location, and who’s saying it. Ask people to define it. The definition will vary from person to person, if they’re able to define it at all. The best the Merriam-Webster could do was, “Offensive; used as an insulting and contemptuous term for a black person.”

And as I become fully aware of what I just heard, it clicks. The meaninglessness of the word irks me. His tone is wrong; I expected contempt. And who would say that with all these black people around? I get it – this mother fucker is trolling me.

I only have a few milliseconds left to figure out whether I’m going to respond, and if so, how. Except that I’ve completely turned to face him. I could’ve ignored him but I’m already annoyed at this lazy comedy designed for an audience of one. I can do better than that. I’m going to see if he can. I bet he doesn’t have much else in his arsenal.

I look down to see precisely what kind of idiot I’m dealing with.

“What did you say?” I ask.

“Niggard,” he replies. “From Old Norse. It means ‘stingy.’ Goes back to the 1300s.”

My gaze falls on a set of amused eyes. While the tourists were watching the skies and I was watching traffic, he was watching people as they passed him by. He’s a lay anthropologist, with a Ph.D. in observing the world. He saw the little girl when she started bobbing up and down in front of the old lady, and heard the old lady ask her new friend, “Do you want to dance?” He saw the bus driver exit the bus to buy a CD from the guy selling the reggae, who turned to music down to make the sale. He saw the garbage truck as it rumbled past, smelling like old food. And he saw me rushing to work, and predicted my most probable reaction.

He shifts his attention. I follow the direction of his gaze from me, past his dowdy beard, down a ragged sleeve, to the stained, wrinkled, blue paper cup in his hand.

Three heartbeats pass.

The left side of my mouth arches slightly upward as I nod my head and shrug my shoulders. I reach in my pocket. I give him a dollar and continue walking to work.

“What did you think I said?”

Presentation: “Channeling the River: Using Social and Cognitive Science to Steer Inclusion Efforts”

As of April, 900 people have listened to my presentation, Channeling the River: Using Social and Cognitive Science to Steer Inclusion EffortsHere’s a brief description:

In 2012, I was running Brooklyn Law School’s student newspaper when the school’s New York Bar Exam pass rate dropped for the third year in a row. No one knew why. I investigated; the answers led to questions about the success and failure of minority students, a master’s degree, and the realization that scientific research could enhance diversity efforts from the LSAT to the partner’s chair. Channeling the River explores psychology, sociology, and other disciplines to learn how we can best channel the river of untapped potential. Here’s a clip:

Channeling the River is available on demand at the Practising Law Institute for $129 until November. There’s various educational credits available for taking the course, including NYS CLE Diversity/Elimination of Bias credit.

Starbucks, Us, and Them

I didn’t know you could trespass in Starbucks. People bring their laptops there. People hold meetings there. One of my friends spent two months studying for the bar exam there. “Sit and stay awhile” embodies Starbucks’ business model. Even those of us who don’t drink tall half-caff soy lattes at 120 degrees know that Starbucks is a place where people come and stay. The idea of overstaying your welcome at Starbucks is absurd. At least McDonald’s warns you that you have 20 minutes to eat.

But then two Black men walked into a Starbucks. The manager said they needed to be paying customers to use the bathroom (a problem I’ve never encountered). They thought nothing of it and sat down to wait for the third member of their party. As they waited, the manager called police to complain that they were trespassing. Someone recorded the incident. Members of the public threatened to protest. In response to the bad press, Starbucks closed 8,000 stores for one day to train its employees about unconscious biases, losing about $12 million in the process. That was a brilliant public relations move.

But a one-day training will lose to millions of years of evolution.

Blink your eyes. That’s about how long it takes for your brain to categorize someone by social status, gender, or race. Even with few clues, we easily group people into “Us” and “Them.” This process starts early – infants learn to recognize faces that are the same race as their guardians (including different-race adoptive parents) easier than faces of other races. By age four, kids group people by race and gender. As long as the categories seem important, our brains can group people according to the weakest of connections, turning meaningless attributes into meaningful differences.

Dividing people into Us and Them is not a conscious process. It is emotional and automatic. When we meet a new person for the first time, we experience intuition and emotions. Then, we devise justifications for our feelings, convincing ourselves that we rationally thought out why we feel the way we do toward an individual or group. In the meantime, whether we classify someone as “Us” or “Them” influences how we act toward that person.

How do you know when someone is one of “Us?” Is the chicken and rice dish common to your group tastier than other kinds of chicken and rice dishes? Would you and others you know acoustic guitar, piano, horns, or a’cappella vocals to lead your favorite version of Yesterday? Do the pundits you watch on television have the best solutions for social problems? If you answer yes to any of these, then you’ll likely consider others who agree with you an “Us.” If you answer no, then you’ve probably grouped others who disagree with you as “Them.” Of course, there are multiple groups we can pull “Uses” from – home, school, work, religious group, Yankee fans, soccer moms – and while some overlap, others have nothing to do with each other.

Simply put, we think better of “Uses” than we do of “Thems.” We treat “Uses” better, too. Members of our group are honest and trustworthy. Members of their group are threatening and angry. We are loyal to members of our group, playing favorites with them and expecting the same in return. We empathize with our group members, treating members of our group as individuals rather than as part of a simple, homogenous mass of people. Indeed, elites in Ancient Rome, Imperial China, Medieval England, and the antebellum South all viewed slaves as “simple, childlike, and incapable of independence.”

It is worth noting again that our brains divide people into “Us” and “Them” automatically, before we are aware that it’s happening, and in absence of bad intent. A one-day training isn’t going to stop this process. But perhaps it doesn’t have to.

Starbucks undertook the training on the idea that our unconscious preferences dictate our conscious actions. Scientists aren’t quite sure this is the case. Our brains take action not only in the short time it takes to register a preference, but after a few hundred more milliseconds (note – we still haven’t reached one second yet) other parts of the brain that dampen our threat response start to activate. This continuing development is part of the reason six-year olds will openly state their preferences about who they like to spend time with, but ten-year olds are more careful about what feelings they share. People are more likely express unconscious racial prejudices if they have poor frontal executive control (executive functions are processes that help us control behavior) or if they have just spent their executive resources.

Indeed, the question of whether one can predict behavior based on unconscious racial preferences has been the subject of a 12-year debate between scientists. At issue is Harvard’s Implicit Association Test. This tool tests one’s reaction times between pairs of words. People generally have shorter reaction times between words they associate with one another (like ice cream and yummy) and longer reaction times between words they don’t associate with one another (like tires and yummy). Over many iterations, the test is said to show one’s unconscious preferences. For many people, the test has become an easy way to determine how racist they are on the inside, and by extension how racist our society is. Applied to Starbucks, this means that the manager was implicitly biased against the two gentlemen, and acting on that bias, proceeded to call the police. Since the problem is simple and straightforward, so is the solution – just train people out of it and there will be fewer incidents.

But science is hard. Scientists (except those implicitly biased in favor of their own research) consider ideas to be true only if different people can repeat the same test under similar conditions and get the same results. In the case of the IAT, much of this work does not live up to scientific standards that would allow most scientists to say that this tool accurately predicts human behavior. As a result, we know that people treat others they consider part of an out-group worse than members of an in-group, but we don’t have a way to measure it. Additionally, as far as I can tell, there’s no evidence that we know how to do what’s being proposed in the media and by Starbucks – determine whether someone held an unconscious preference because of their actions.

Besides, simply telling people that they have unconscious biases against people of other races and that they are likely to act in a racist manner because of it robs a person of agency. After all, if this is something I can’t change, why would I try? Perhaps Starbucks could create a more robust training, in coordination with police and psychologists, to help its employees determine which customers are potential threats. This way, a future manager might not consider that two people sitting at a table are trespassing. Or, Starbucks could stop letting people hang out in its shops…

Works Referenced

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On Difficult Conversations

Of all the definitions of “friend,” I prefer the one that says friends are people we share our secrets with. The idea is that we grant greater access to closer friends. Sure, we break this rule, trusting a new love interest too soon or crying in McDonald’s, rambling to a stranger while barely touching our burger. But generally, we divulge our secrets as experience suggests someone will not betray our confidences.

Familiarity breeds friendship. We bond over shared backgrounds, current passions, and private definitions. There is comfort in not having to explain what you mean. Ease when someone else “gets it.” This is why I don’t play spades with rookies – you lose games you should win because they have yet to learn the language. With someone who knows the game, however, gone is the partner who needlessly plays cards higher than yours. In their place is someone who communicates the strength of their hand with a glance. You work together more easily than you do with a novice because you both understand how the game works.

Conversations between Black and White Americans often endure a lack of familiarity. All things considered, this is predictable. White Americans outnumber Black Americans 7 to 1. Thus, it is easier for Black Americans to be acquainted with White Americans than the reverse.

Psychological research shows that people divide into groups easily. The basis of these divisions can be intentional, random (think coin flips) or arbitrary (think eye color). In the United States, all of these factors contributed to our conception of race. In 1705, the American colonies wrote the first laws dividing African slaves, European indentured servants, and free laborers to prevent revolts by what was then one large group of poor people dissatisfied with how they were treated by rich employers and slave owners. The 1790 Census divided the population using the first ancestry-based classifications (European, African, and untaxed Native American) and the first official classifications (free, slave, taxed, and untaxed) to help fulfill its mandate. [1] A series of state and federal court decisions, including U.S. Supreme Court decisions rendered as late as 1923, determined who we now classify as “white,” usually to exclude groups from receiving governmental benefits. [2]

Research also shows that we favor in-group members over out-group members. Whether the out-group is the kids from the next block or the sports team in another city, we tend to think the best of our group and the worst of others. This can cause us to treat people who are not members of our group worse than people who are members of our group. In the United States, states and localities enacted segregation laws from 1876 – 1965 to reprise pre-Civil War social divisions. [3] In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration subsidized suburban housing loans on the condition that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans. Marketers sold entire cities to White Americans, appealing to a need for security by claiming they had no Black residents, falsely implying the cities were crime-free.

People also self-segregate, choosing to live and associate with like-minded others. Additionally we watch television shows and visit websites that agree with our pre-existing beliefs. Today, we can go weeks without encountering a contrary viewpoint.

Consequently, Americans tend to have friends who belong mostly to the same race. These factors result in a gulf of understanding, even where people share more similarities than differences.

Schools could abate this knowledge gap via student investigations of historical subjects, graded on detail and nuance. Instead, history classes omit loads of information. Decades can pass before someone grasps the scope of the acts committed by and against our ancestors. [4] Even then, our general understanding is “White people do a lot of bad things to Black people.” Daily news coverage reinforces this narrative, encouraging debate about the sensational rather than solely informing us about the significant but mundane.

It’s usually after one of these stories sparks a national conversation that someone asks me what do you think of [insert current event here]?


Wait for it…

My brain starts its analysis. Who’s asking? Do I know them? If so, what’s their usual M.O.? If not, what does their inflection tell me? Are they asking my opinion, my opinion “as a black man,” “as a lawyer,” or someone else?

Most often I’m aware of the event, but haven’t read beyond the headlines. I ask for more information. I receive facts, opinions, value statements, and speculation (not necessarily in that order). Zero point six eight seconds later my indifference disappoints my companion.

But aren’t you angry?

I was. Twenty years ago.

But you’re Black!

I weigh my options. Do I feel like having this conversation? How long is this going to take? Is this person likely to update their beliefs based on what I say? When’s lunch?

I engage and explain: Africans and their American descendants are more than victims of history. Including their responses to events that happened around them and incidents that happened to them reveals a push and pull that is absent from the history we teach. Consider segregation again: The United States outlawed slavery. The former slaves ran for political office, including Congress, and won. [5] In response, Southern legislatures enacted forced segregation and other laws intended to strip African-Americans of their ability to participate in the leadership of their states. African-American lawyers answered with a years-long strategy that ended segregation.

Even in isolation, the history we haven’t learned refines perceptions. History classes often teach that Europeans kidnapped Africans from beaches. Based on this, we infer that millions of people were simply scooped off the beach and dropped into boats. Instead, the truth is that Africans controlled the sale of slaves to Europeans during most of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Africans valued labor and tended to have a lot of slaves. African slave traders were happy to sell, getting rich in the process. While Europeans definitely tricked some Africans onto boats, it was far easier (though more expensive) to purchase a slave from Africans. That is, until improvements in firearms shifted the balance of power from the African slave traders to the Europeans.

When we consider the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, we usually focus on horrific events that produce strong emotional anchors: fear, anger, guilt, pity. But the innumerable unknown acts of our ancestors comfort me. Most never lost their drive for self-determination. Knowledge of these acts pulled me away from asking “why do they keep doing this to us?” long ago. Thus, when someone asks me to connect the past to a current event, I can’t get angry. Instead, I respond with pride.

* * *


I watch my companion process this information. It’s interesting, but doesn’t feel like it answers the question. I didn’t provide the emotional echo my companion expected. The moment lingers, unfinished…

But what about [insert heart-wrenching moment here]?

I ask for a second. A few Google searches later, I’m back. Usually, I learn that the event which led to this discussion, while tragic, doesn’t happen often. But deep down, I know statistics can’t compete with the amygdala. The possibility that something bad might happen once outweighs the certainty that it won’t happen 999,999 times. I try anyway and fail.

I regroup. I point out that I answered the original question 10 minutes ago, but what started as an inquiry has become a debate. For my companion. Who is now committed to “winning.” In the meantime, I’m trying to decide whether to walk away. A wise old lady once told me that you can only fight facts, never opinions, and I recognize that the question of how angry I should be about a current event is a matter of opinion.

Then again, I’m having fun. And I have a few more facts. And I might make a breakthrough. And my companion has just said something along the lines of but I bet the [poor Black citizens of the United States] don’t think that.

This is why I don’t play spades with rookies.

Unbeknownst to my companion, I’ve been holding a trump card the entire conversation – I grew up in the projects. I would have preferred to divulge this fact through the normal friend-building process. I even dropped a hint that my past was relevant to what we were talking about, but it’s too late. The statement warrants correction.

I glance.

I stop everything to clear up a few things: There isn’t a Black lens any of us can view the world through. Talk to enough people and you realize you’re looking through a kaleidoscope, watching temporary shifting patterns of opinion arising from the light of life and the colors of experience. You can’t see these patterns by talking to one person. After all, we divide over more than just race. Nevertheless, I represent my neighbors to help my companion handle the truth that there is often distance between what my neighbors think is important and what others believe is important for them.

With that conversation finished, I finally ask what I’ve learned to ask at the beginning of these encounters: “why do you ask?” My companion’s reason is typically tangential to the original question and race is not the dominant factor they think it is. At best, their reasons are specific. In these cases, I relish the opportunity to shift my companion’s thinking so they can effectively achieve their goal. At worst, the reasons are vague, amorphous, and I find myself speaking to someone unwilling or unable to see past the blinders created by their preconceived notions about African-Americans. I’ve learned to let them be.

And rarely, someone truly is intellectually curious, and wants to discuss these topics with me.

Not the lawyer.

Not the Black guy.

Just me.


I repose.

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[1] Under the Articles of Confederation, each state had one representative and one vote in Congress. Congress chose the President. The amended, “more perfect union” created by the Constitution added in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. The total free population and 3/5ths of the slave population residing in the state determined its representation in both entities. The questions of why this change happened, and how it affected the country is a story for another post.

[2] The 1923 U.S. Supreme Court, in U.S. v Thind, separated the scientific and popular definitions of the terms Aryan and Caucasian, deciding that Indians from the extreme northwestern part of the country were not white, despite being both Aryan and Caucasian.

[3] After the Civil War, the former slaves were granted the rights to vote and profit from their own labor. African-Americans were the majority population in Mississippi (and a significant minority in several other states), and thus voted the first African-Americans into Congress and other positions of power. To combat these developments, Southern legislatures passed laws that effectively stripped African-Americans of their right to vote (i.e. poll taxes, literacy tests, and currently existing laws that strip one’s right to vote for life if convicted of a felony). Law enforcement officials unevenly also enforced laws, imprisoning a disproportionate number of African-Americans, where their labor was once again sold at little or no cost. For more information, see The Strange Career of Jim Crow (link provided above) and Slavery by Another Name.

[4] I say this as an African-American and the descendant of Africans and Europeans.

[5] Not everyone reads footnotes.