Nihil Sub Sole Novum Series: Fat Shaming

Nihil Sub Sole Novum: Fat Shaming

[This is a new blog post series of mine. The idea for this series is partly from Tyler Cowen’s blog where he does informal series such as That was then, this is now or Markets in Everything. The idea is to have an ongoing discussion through blog posts tied together by the Latin phrase Nihil Sub Sole Novum – There is nothing new under the sun. Each day is a new day, but so many of the problems we face have deep roots and historical precedence. We constantly face new challenges and it can feel as if no one has faced what we or society face today, but the reality is that much of what we deal with has been part of humanity for centuries, and this series will explore that long past.]
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In 1901 Frank Andrew Munsey purchased a newspaper in New York called the Daily News. Around that time Munsey was purchasing a lot of newspapers in an effort to compete with Pulitzer and Hearst, two titans of the news industry. Michael Tisserand writes about Munsey’s purchase of the Daily News in his biography of George Herriman titled Krazy because Herriman had recently started at the paper as a cartoon artist and illustrator. Herriman was born in New Orleans to mixed black and Creole parents, but passed as white, giving him a precarious position in a newspaper industry that was brutal toward its employees. To demonstrate this brutality, Tisserand shares a quote about Munsey who purchased the paper which employed Herriman:
Tisserand quotes Allen Churchill in writing, As soon as Munsey purchased a newspaper, he ordered all fat men on the staff fired, for he considered them lazy as a breed. Munsey even demanded that no smoking signs be put up, as he considered smoking a waste of time.”
Tisserand offers this quote to show that Herriman, who would not have been able to get his job if he could not pass as white, was always on edge about his identity and appearance. What I want to focus on, specifically for this article, is the idea of fat shaming in the quote regarding Munsey.
I am a fan of Marvel’s movies, and I admit that I found Fat Thor from the Avengers Endgame movie pretty funny. I am guilty of repeating the line “You look like melted ice cream” which was issued to Thor to criticize his appearance. However I am able to recognize the fat shaming, prejudice, and mockery which takes place in that scene and with Thor’s character through the movie. I recognize how an innocent joke can be quite harmful to individuals who find themselves in a similar situation in real life.
In our world today, we put a lot of emphasis on our weight and appearance. One aspect of Neoliberalism, a term used characterize the general political and philosophical approach of most people in the United States today, is a sense of hyper-responsibility of the individual. The individual is responsible for maintaining good health, for being productive at all times of the day, for paying taxes, walking the dog, playing catch with their son, attending every dance recital, and having an opinion on all current events. Society is not expected to provide anything, the individual is expected to be responsible for all of their affairs. Thor, facing PTSD and survivor’s guilt, couldn’t handle the personal responsibility that his failures placed on his shoulders, and his outward weight gain reflected his inward tragedy, but was played for laughs more than it was used to really explore the pressures he was crumbling beneath. Thor was fat shamed rather than counseled and supported by society.
Fat shaming is receiving more attention today (the name itself is relatively new) but it has existed for a long time. Munsey’s quote shows that fat shaming and the personal responsibility of Neoliberalism were present at the turn of the 20th century. Being fat was taken as a projection of laziness by Munsey. A person was judged from their body shape and weight, without regard for who the person was, what factors contributed to their health, or how hardworking the person actually was. Munsey may not have had anyone around to call his behavior fat shaming, but that is clearly what he was doing by firing the fat people at the newspapers he purchased – nihil sub sole novum.
We will see in future Marvel movies if Thor returns to being the muscular manly-man that he was prior to Endgame, or if he retains a body weight and shape that is not typical of superheroes. Either way, Thor can help teach us that our weight and body shape doesn’t just reflect how worthy we are but is influenced by trauma, by challenging life circumstances, and by complex social factors. Fat shaming is something we should be aware of and something that we should recognize has been a problem for a long time. We can continue to display coarse prejudices against fat people, or we can think about what being healthy really means and requires, what our body shapes say about us, and work to build more healthy communities that integrate healthy spaces for activity, healthy communities to appropriately work through trauma and stress, and healthy systems for eating. These are complex areas, and the struggles around them and resulting fat shaming is nothing new.
The Long Lasting Legacy of American Racism

The Long-Lasting Legacy of American Racism

If you are white and don’t make an effort to study the history of racism in the United States it can be hard to imagine just how serious the country’s racist past is. In an age where a black man has been president, where black sports stars have multimillion dollar contracts, and when clear outward displays of racism are (almost) universally condemned, it is easy to believe that racism is a problem of the past. In our country we place a lot of weight on the idea that the individual is responsible for their own success. Whether it is their financial success, their physical shape and weight, or their intelligence, we put the determination and responsibility of the individual at the center of how we understand people, and that doesn’t leave room for racism. We look at successful black people and argue that racism can’t be a problem now, because clearly some black people have become successful. Racism, our current ideology says, can’t be holding people back anymore. The only thing that can be holding them back is a failure to take responsibility for their own actions. Racism is simply an excuse in this view.
However, if you are not white or if you make any effort to study racism in the United States, you see the long lasting legacy of American racism and how it continues to shape the lives of people today. Exclusionary housing policies of the past, policing policies, and education policies are areas where racism deliberately impacted the lived experiences of black people in the United States, clearly limiting opportunity and less clearly limiting the potential to pass on wealth and knowledge to future generations. The results of this discrimination never truly left us.
In his biography of 20th century cartoonist George Herriman, Michael Tisserand explores how the long lasting legacy of American racism can be seen in the life and work of George Herriman. Writing about New Orleans around the Civil War, a time when Herriman’s grandfather and father lived in the city, Tisserand writes, “From 1879 to 1917, there were no city-run public high schools available for blacks. Robert Mills Lusher, the state superintendent of education, infamously declared that the purpose of education was for white students to be properly prepared to maintain the supremacy of the white race.”
Herriman’s family left New Orleans for Los Angeles when he was 10, but throughout his life he hid the fact that he was of black and Creole descent. His light skin color allowed him to pass as white, and opened the door to a career in newspapers and comics. Without having light skin, and without having a family that could move him away from New Orleans, Herriman certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunities he did in California, and racism would have been the limiting factor.
Without studying American racism, it would be easy to look back at a time when there were no city-run public schools for blacks about a hundred years ago and dismiss that fact as irrelevant for the world today. If it had simply been an omission to teach black children, then the situation could have been rectified relatively easy, and black education could have gotten underway to prepare black children for the future. However, the quote shows that benign neglect was not there reason why there were not any schools for black children. It was deliberate racism, in full force from the highest levels of education in the state, that limited the educational opportunities for black people. This malignant attitude created the lack of schools, and it was not simply a matter of establishing schools to facilitate black education.
Opening schools would have been step one, but this would have been done 100 years ago in a climate that was actively hostile toward black students. It is not hard to imagine that high quality materials, resources, and educational opportunities, the things we would all want in our own children’s education, would have been rare among any black schools opened in this type of climate. Once you see the type of animosity that American racism fostered, by influential individuals like Robert Mills Lusher (who there is still a school named after), it is not hard to understand the long lasting legacy of such racism. Deliberate efforts to hold people down and create a system of supremacy for white people is not easily overturned, even 100 years later. The deliberate delays of educating black people has long-term consequences, as it takes time for educational opportunities to come along and for the people who receive good education to grow, accumulate wealth and power, and further invest in their communities. White people had this opportunity starting well over 100 years ago, but black people did not. Black people could not pass on their knowledge, could not connect their children with people to help advance their careers, and could not take on jobs that would help them build wealth that would support their families for generations to come. Instead they were constantly put down, blamed for their own failure, and never give the public support that while people developed for themselves and over time restricted under the premise of conservatism.
Bias Versus Discrimination - Joe Abittan

Bias Versus Discrimination

In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes about a distinction between bias and discrimination from Peter Bickel, a statistician  from UC Berkeley. Regarding sex bias and discrimination in the workplace, Bickel carefully distinguished between bias and discrimination in a way that I find interesting. Describing his distinction Pearl writes the following:
“He [Bickel] carefully distinguishes between two terms, that in common English, are often taken as synonyms: bias and discrimination. He defines bias as a pattern of association between a particular decision and a particular sex of applicant. Note the words pattern and association. They tell us that bias is a phenomenon on rung one of the Ladder of Causation.”
Bias, Pearl explains using Bickel’s quote, is simply an observation. There is no causal mechanism at play when dealing with bias and that is why he states that it is on rung one of the Ladder of Causation. It is simply recognizing that there is a disparity, a trend, or some sort of pattern or association between two things.
Pearl continues, “on the other hand, he defines discrimination as the exercise of decision influenced by the sex of the applicant when that is immaterial to the qualification for entry. Words like exercise of decision, or influence and immaterial are redolent of causation, even if Bickel could not bring himself to utter that word in 1975. Discrimination, unlike bias, belongs on rung two or three of the Ladder of Causation.”
Discrimination is an intentional act. There is a clear causal pathway that we can posit between the outcome we observe and the actions or behaviors of individuals. In the case that Bickel used, sex disparities in work can be directly attributed to discrimination if it can be proven that immaterial considerations were the basis for not hiring women (or maybe men) for specific work. Discrimination does not happen all on its own, it happens because of something else. Bias can exist on its own. It can be caused by discrimination, but it could be caused by larger structural factors that themselves are not actively making decisions to create a situation. Biases are results, patterns, and associations we can observe. Discrimination is deliberate behavior that generates, sustains, and reinforces biases.
Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests

Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests

In my last post I wrote about nationwide trends toward Marijuana legalization. I live in Nevada, and marijuana has been legal for the last few years. My last post linked to a biennial financial report prepared by the Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau’s Fiscal Division. The money states can make is a big driver of the legalization trend, but it is  certainly not the only. A another serious factor, and one I would like to see us talk about more, is fairness and equality under the law – meaning the opportunity to eliminate racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

 

John Hudak, in his book Marijuana: A short History, writes, “According to a comprehensive 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, Black arrest rates for marijuana possession far outpace white arrest rates, even though marijuana use is about the same between both groups.” Whether intentional or not, this highlights a reality that we are not enforcing laws equally depending on who is committing the crime. Hudak continues, “Despite being 15 percent of the national population, blacks accounted for 58 percent of marijuana arrests in 2010.”

 

I wrote about this after reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow (here and here). The reality is that black people are more likely to be in positions where we can enforce certain drug policies, and even thought they are not any more likely to commit violent crimes or use marijuana than white people, they are perceived as more dangerous and are more likely to be arrested for low level drug possession. This creates inequalities and barriers that black people in America have a hard time overcoming, and which are largely invisible for white people.

 

Civil liberty groups, people who have read Michelle Alexander’s book, and even conservative/libertarian activists who want to reduce state spending have begun to advocate for marijuana legalization to begin to reduce these disparities and save state fiscal resources. The push toward legalization is partly an effort to eliminate arrests that are unfair and are now perceived as unnecessary. Many people hope that reducing disparities in drug sentencing laws and legalizing marijuana will help begin to reduce racial inequality in our country. It is a rare issue where we can stop spending so much money on arresting people, so some Republicans are on board with the proposal, while also helping reduce racial disparities, a key driver for many Democrats.

Colorblind

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander is critical of our criminal justice system and the ways in which mass incarceration has impacted the lives of people of color throughout our country. Alexander argues that racial discrimination never truly faded away in our country after the end of the Civil War and after Jim Crow segregation. She points to disparities between white people and black people in regards to outcomes such as wealth accumulation, incarceration rates, and employment rates, arguing that institutions and systematic thought in our country have created a new form of racial discrimination that is as damaging as a racial caste system. However, this new racial caste system as described by Alexander is largely unnoticed in our country since outwardly racist displays of white superiority are scorned and an idea of colorblindness is emphasized. In her book she writes,

 

“The popular narrative that emphasizes the death of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, is dangerously misguided. The colorblind public consensus that prevails in America today – i.e., the widespread belief that race no longer matters — has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system.”

 

Our colorblind society is unable to see the dangers of racial disparities and inequities today. We see successful black people in entertainment, sports, and increasingly in politics and assume that racial barriers have been overcome and that we no longer live in a country defined by race and exploitation, but when we take a step back and look at the actual outcomes that people of color are likely to experience relative to white people, we can see that race still plays an important role in determining how society relates to individuals and how individuals experience their society. Because we all claim to be colorblind, and because we equate racism with individuals and their beliefs and actions, black people today cannot discuss racial resentment or discrimination. Their complaints against an unequal system fall on deaf ears, because no individual sees themselves as being guilty of racial bias, even if they operate within and support a system that was originally designed or unintentionally functions as a way to suppress minority populations and people of color.

 

Ultimately colorblindness leaves us in a position where we tell everyone that all people are equal on the surface, but then criticize some groups for not achieving the same level of success despite not having the same advantages and opportunities. We look at President Obama and see a black man who rose to the presidency by overcoming obstacles and assume that racial parity exists. When black people try to raise objections to the way that they are treated and when they try to point out the challenges that black people in this country have faced since our founding, their arguments are discredited by the same group that claims to be colorblind.

 

More than being neutral and meritorious, being colorblind means that we choose not to see the advantages white people have relative to black people. It means that we choose not to acknowledge the ways in which recent history limited the opportunities and possibilities for minority populations. Colorblindness also means that we ignore the realities that black people face in terms of systematic discrimination that dates back to times when discrimination was legal. Ultimately, it is a way to discredit claims of racial discrimination and the existence of disparate impacts from our policies and systems.

Racial Discrimination Today

“We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it,” Michelle Alexander writes in her book The New Jim Crow. Alexander focuses on our nation’s criminal justice system, its shortfalls, and how racial disparities exist within a system that is supposed to be colorblind. Early on in the book she writes about discrimination against criminals and compares todays discrimination against criminals to historical discrimination against black people. She writes,

“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices e supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.”

Alexander’s quote shows the challenges we face today in a time with less explicit racism and fewer individually racist people. People themselves may make racist jokes in the company of friends, but outward displays of racism are rare. This gives us all the sense that racism is no longer a major factor in our lives and it allows us to feel that we have overcome a great challenge in treating people more equally in this country. What we miss when we focus only on explicit racism and individual level actions are the factors that comprise larger parts of our institutions and norms.

Our criminal justice system disproportionally impacts the lives of hispanic and black people. We arrest minorities at a far greater level than we arrest white people, even though levels of drug use and crime are similar among white, black, and latino people. The result of disproportionate arresting is that white people are allowed to move beyond their mistakes and crimes and can build wealth, while people of color are haunted by their crimes and face discrimination in areas like employment, housing, and financial investing. Pretending that the system is equal because we don’t outwardly express racism hides the fact that our system is entrenched in racism and hides the structural and institutional ways in which racism has shaped our society and created disparate outcomes for people based on race. Because these issues go beyond individuals, we must work to change entire systems and policies to move beyond the current outputs of the system. Changing who we arrest is one step, but we must also shift housing and development policies, and changing housing and development requires that we take a new look at those we label as criminals. Ultimately, it requires that we look at those around us as human beings first, and look at criminal history in a new light. Moving to a point where outward displays of racism are not acceptable is good start, but we need to move forward to a point where we acknowledge the disparate impacts our society has accepted.

Remembering the Decisions That Made Our World

Throughout his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at the current situation of minority groups in the US relative to white people and honestly assesses the history that lead to our current moment. Our country focuses on personal responsibility, hard work, and overcoming obstacles, but we fail to recognize we as a society have created many of the obstacles that people from certain minority groups face. Not only do we forget the obstacles that we created, we seem to be unable to understand how limiting, painful, and exclusionary our past decisions were for so many Americans. Coats calls the world we live in when we forget about our past decisions and assume than anyone can be industrious and achieve the same level of success The Dream.

In his book Coats writes, “The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of The Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down her in the world.”

When we do not acknowledge the true cost of slavery, of discriminatory segregation, or the true cost of our stereotyping we fail to see the impact that our choices and decisions have on the lives of so many black people. At the founding of our nation white people reached success and economic prosperity through the forced labor of human beings and creating excuses for their Dream by labeling black people as inferior savages. A war was fought to end the practice of owning another human being, but coming out of that war was the idea that black people were still below white people. Stereotypes grew to suggest that biological differences explained a white superiority and black inferiority across the country, limiting the opportunities for black people to participate in society and build financial bases for themselves and their families. Economic segregation was also at play when restrictive housing policies limited where black people could live, creating ghettos and only allowing black people to settle in isolated areas. At the same time, white people moved outward, buying expensive land and building expensive homes that would become valuable assets appreciating in price overtime. The black people who were economically segregated could not purchase such valuable land and were denied a chance to build wealth through home equity.

Coats calls the world of white people The Dream because this history is lost for so many. It is easy to look at poor black people today and assume that is their personal choices that lead to their current lifestyles and their challenges in building wealth and achieving legal and social parity with white people. When we begin to look at how the situation of today was shaped by the decisions of yesterday, the Dream begins to crumble. We see that restrictive housing practices forced black people into communities built in less valuable and more vulnerable land, making natural disasters like hurricanes more costly to black people than white people who live in houses and communities built for them years ago on more valuable land in higher and safer areas. Looking at our decisions helps us to also see the way that wealth has persisted among white families through smart financial decisions, but decisions and opportunities that were afforded to them at the exclusion of black people.

To have a better understanding of our racial tensions today we must understand the decisions that created and supported two different worlds for white and black people. White people were able to create a safe and comfortable world for themselves, while the world of black people was held back and limited. We cannot honestly discuss the challenges of implicit bias, of unintentional discrimination, or of cultural differences between white and black people if we cannot understand the choices of those who came before us and how they shaped their futures. When we honestly assess the ways in which we legally or culturally advantaged whites and white wealth building while excluding black people, we can begin to discuss what can and should be done to reduce discrimination and racial tension today.

A Nation at Face Value

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker shares a quote from former FBI director James Comey, “Perhaps the reason we struggle as a nation is because we’ve come to see only what we represent, at face value, instead of who we are. We simply must see the people we serve.”

This quote came at the end of a longer segment of a speech from Director Comey that Booker included in United. In the Segment, Comey discussed the difficulties of policing and enforcing laws with equity when we as humans must deal with implicit biases. Comey specifically looked at racial dynamics within policing and implicit biases and in the quote above is meant to encourage our nation’s law enforcement to become more self-aware in its role.

Comey suggests that our nation’s values of equality and liberty exist in many ways as just a facade. Rather than truly showing that equality and liberty are important in justice, we simply say they are and act as if that is enough. We have come up with a great slogan and we say that we aspire to live in a nation that is directed by equality and liberty, but the way we treat each other and react to those who are different from us shows that these words simply exist on a banner to make us feel good about ourselves. Our belief that all men are created equal does not materialize in our actions and policies.

If we stop and reflect on what a society would look like if justice was truly equitable, we would recognize that many aspects of our actual society and criminal justice system would not fit into our ideal vision. However, instead of truly reflecting and looking deeply into who we are and how we perceive other racial groups, we look around and assume that since there is relatively little explicit racism in our country (no one demonstrating in white sheets) that racism no longer exists as a barrier to minority populations.

Comey’s speech looked at this tendency to view our country as post racial and looked at our implicit biases that negatively shape our reactions and interactions with black people and hispanics. He was honest about the problem admitting that law enforcement must understand when instincts are influenced by tribal nature which pushes them to look at outsiders in a negative light. His speech put the responsibility for implicit racism on the law enforcement officers and on society, rather than placing responsibility for implicit racism on the individual who is facing discrimination.

Hidden Backstories

Last summer I read extensively on race relations in the United States, and Senator Cory Booker’s United was my starting place. One of the things I was struck by in his book is how recently many actively discriminatory policies were in place, and the lingering effect of those policies. I had never experienced or seen outright discrimination or racism in my own life (I am a white male in my 20s, so it is questionable whether I would have recognized it if I had seen it), and I did not think that discrimination still acted as a major force in people’s lives today. Booker’s book along with several others, helped me understand how racial discrimination has persisted in various forms and helped me see how discriminatory practices from the past still impact the lives of people today.

Regarding housing policy in the United States, Booker demonstrates the lingering effect of racial discrimination with the following, “As Kenneth Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, ‘The result, if not the intent, of the public housing program of the United States was to segregate the races, to concentrate the disadvantaged in inner cities, and to reinforce the image of suburbia as a place of refuge [from] the problems of race, crime, and poverty.’”

In the United States today many large cities are gentrifying, meaning that more wealthy individuals are moving back into the cities, increasing diversity, bringing economic and cultural revival to inner cities, and also driving up the housing costs and cost of living in the cities. This is an opposite trend from what Booker explains by quoting Kenneth Jackson, and if we are not careful it could have the same effect of marginalizing poor groups of society which often tend to be majority racial minorities. In the not too distant past housing policies greatly advantaged white people and disadvantaged black and minority people. White families were shown different neighborhoods when looking for homes and received different treatment in suburban neighborhoods. The result was that it was difficult for black people and minorities in our country to move into newer homes in suburban areas, limiting their ability to build wealth through home investments, creating areas of concentrated poverty, and potentially restricting minority populations to environmentally more hazardous areas. Some of these policies were explicit and some implicit, but many still impact the lives of people today.

Restrictive housing in New Orleans as the city grew and developed in the 1900s created a segregated city with white home owners living and moving into neighborhoods on one side of the city which was higher in terms of altitude altitude, while black people and minorities were restricted to another side of the city with lower lying neighborhoods. When Hurricane Katrina decimated the city, the force of the storm tore up both the higher and lower elevation areas of the city, but the flooding was more pronounced and longer lasting in the lower elevation levels where black people had lived for generations. White people whose families for years had lived in the higher elevation part of the city still needed to rebuild, but with less flooding and quicker drainage, did not have to start over from square one. The housing policies of the not too distant past haunted the city in the early 2000s.

For our society today we must recognize these lingering effects and remember the harm that segregation caused whether intentional or not as we decide how we want to live today. I do not have a clear answer to the problems, but we should recognize when our housing policy as a society and living decisions as individuals lead to greater inequity among racial or economic groups. The gentrification today is not based on overt racial discrimination like the housing policies of the 1950s an 60s, but the economic segregation driving the engine of gentrification could still have the same effects of segregating minority populations into substandard housing and disadvantaging them with greater commute times, and restricted access to services and opportunities.