Speak to be heard when discussing Palestinian Israeli conflict

On March 21, over 3,000 people applauded after each and every sentence of the “Pro Israel Pro Peace” sentiment delivered at J Street’s 5th national conference in Washington D.C.

The J Street president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, announced that Americans should support a two-state solution because it is good for Israel’s stability, condemn expanding settlements in the West Bank because it is good for Israel’s reputation and think critically of Israel’s government because it is good for Israel’s health.

While I agree that Americans should support two states, condemn expanding settlements and think critically of Israel’s government, I do not think we should do it because we are pro-Israel. I think we should do it because we support the sovereignty of the Palestinian people, because expanding settlements in occupied territory violates the Fourth Geneva Convention and because critical thought is necessary of any government.

I spoke with a lot of people throughout the conference, and many mentioned how hard it is for them to hear “anti-Israel” sentiment. They like J Street because it lets them critique Israel while still feeling “pro-Israel.”

I realized I was not J Street’s intended audience. J Street’s website boasts its “commitment to Jewish and democratic values” and its motto, “Pro Israel Pro Peace.” I am not Jewish, I have never been to Israel and the community I grew up around holds no views towards Palestine or Israel. I wanted to hear stronger language from the speakers, but I recognized that this conference was not catered to people like me.

Shula Ornstein ’16, another conference attendee from Brandeis, grew up with a father who is a rabbi and went to Jewish summer camps from a young age. Ornstein described Israel as being sacred in most contexts in the communities she grew up in, from the time she spent in synagogue to dinner conversations with her family. To her, disagreeing with Israel is disagreeing with her family, friends and religious community, who treat her with nothing but unconditional love.

Ornstein says it is difficult to listen to extreme critique of Israel because it feels like these critiques attack her home, family and value system. She is absolutely right: extreme language can dissuade the very people it attempts to persuade. Ornstein got involved with J Street largely because it uses language accessible to people with similar backgrounds to hers. She can engage in critical discussion without feeling like she is betraying her friends and family by further exploring other viewpoints.

We are all human. We all have topics that espouse irrational defense from us. This is true of both the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine camps. And it takes courage from both sides to discuss such issues. It takes courage from the presenter to soften his language, and it takes courage from the receiver to listen and remain open-minded. It takes true courage from both sides to try to dissect emotion to salvage logic and reason. It takes true courage to reflect. And the fact that J Street’s rhetoric allows Ornstein and others like her to reflect is paramount.

Bassam Aramin, a keynote Palestinian speaker who resides in East Jerusalem, spoke at the opening night of the conference about his life experiences and how they shape his worldview.

Aramin served seven years in prison starting at age 17 for planning an attack on Israeli soldiers. But during his time in prison, he reflected on the dangers of violent protest. In 2005, he founded Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants leading a non-violent protest against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In 2007, Aramin’s ten-year-old daughter was killed by a rubber bullet from an Israeli soldier.

After the two minutes of silence in memory of Aramin’s daughter, I expected him to condemn Israel. I expected him to be fierce, angry and emotional.

Instead, he stepped up to the microphone and spoke with a level voice, keeping his body movements minimal and controlled. He spoke about moving forward. He spoke of loving Israel and the Jewish people like he loves his own family and about how no one deserves the kind of misery he has endured. Aramin did not just say what he felt. He said what would be heard.

It would have been easy for Aramin to demonize Israel for taking his daughter’s life. But he chose to say something that the audience would consider rather than immediately refute.

He chose to say something for which there is no canned response. He did not critique Israel. He critiqued violence. And he was heard.

I spoke with Aramin later in the conference. I asked him if it is difficult to speak to a room of 3,000 people, many of whom support a state responsible for the murder of his ten-year-old daughter. I asked if it is difficult for him to dampen and cater his language for this crowd, even though they often do not do the same for Palestinians.

“I don’t speak to the people who already agree with me,” he responded. “I speak so that the people who don’t will listen.”

Embrace gaming culture

Thirty-two million people tuned in to watch SK Telecom T1 issue the obligatory “good luck have fun” before obliterating Royal Club’s Nexus in the 2013 League of Legends World Championships. More people watched this match of the world famous video game in 2013 than either of the NBA Finals or the MLB World Series of that same year.

Competitive gaming (more commonly known as esports) is becoming incredibly popular, especially among young people. But as esports takes off among students, we have a responsibility to help players the same way we help student athletes.

Many professional gaming teams have mandatory fitness regimens for their players. The Los Angeles division of Team Dignitas mandates that all players go to the gym three times a week. It also hires nutritionists and sports psychologists to maintain health standards, according to a recent post on Western Digital’s tech blog. This should be the norm for school-based and professional gaming teams. But we can do more.

Gamers on school-based teams should have minimum grade point average and class absence requirements to enforce the priority of academics, a limited number of hours of practice per week to help prevent addiction and official school recognition alongside a sanctioned practice space to feel accepted.

Some schools have stepped up. Esports is now a varsity sport at Robert Morris University in Chicago and at the University of Pikeville in Pikeville, Ky. Robert Morris University budgeted $450,000 dollars for 30 annually renewed gaming scholarships, some of which cover half of the price of tuition.

This is an excellent first step, but it is not enough.Many schools resist recognizing esports because they claim it is not popular enough to warrant special attention. But esports is quickly becoming more popular than most sports.

League of Legends is a free-to-play online video game that was released by Riot Games in 2009. As of 2014, it boasts 27 million daily players and 67 million monthly players, making it the most popular PC video game in the world. To put these numbers in perspective, every Call of Duty game combined had 40 million monthly players in 2011, and Candy Crush currently has 46 million monthly users.

Twitch, a live video game streaming site, has more internet traffic than ESPN, Major League Baseball, and the World Wrestling Entertainmen, Inc. combined, according to Qwilt, a videogame delivery and analytics company. The Wall Street Journal reported last February that Twitch was fourth in total US peak traffic, only behind Netflix, Google and Apple. And Fortune reported on Apr. 20 that it anticipates 335 million esports fans by 2017, outstripping the NFL’s 151 million fans.

In July 2013, the United States government officially recognized esports gamers as professional athletes, allowing international players from countries like South Korea, Sweden and Brazil to travel into the United States with athlete visas.

Esports one sweeping the globe. But despite their popularity, many are still skeptical. Critics often claim that gaming leads to addiction and social withdrawal. These are both huge issues.

But gaming is unhealthy because it is unregulated and stigmatized in the United States, not because video games are inherently unhealthy. In South Korea, video games have become a huge part of mainstream culture.

Couples go to video game clubs as frequently as they go to the movies, and fans fill soccer stadiums and beaches to watch live competitions,  according to a New York Times article published on Oct. 19, 2014.

Moreover, gamers in South Korea are not addicted because the South Korean government and schools are able to better regulate gaming. Gaming clubs for people under the age of 18 close at 10 p.m. to prevent people from pulling all-nighters.

Parents will play video games with their children from an early age to teach healthy and balanced practices. Sure, people could still go to their basements and be just as unhealthy, but when gaming is a popular and fun social thing to do, no one wants to.

It is time for the U.S. to step up. We must embrace esports. Without recognition and support, gamers are susceptible to addiction and social isolation. We can easily fix this.

First, we must recognize and accept esports socially as an activity. Without this, gamers do not feel like we accept them the same way we accept basketball players or dancers. We cannot let millions sit ashamed and isolated in dark basements. We must offer gamers an accepted public space, like South Korea’s gaming clubs.

Esports is different from other competitive activities like basketball and chess, but it is not better or worse. It may not train someone to run a marathon, but it builds teamwork and good decision making skills.

Many discussions about esports derail into debates over whether or not it is an actual sport. It does not matter whether or not esports is actually a sport. It does not matter if it engages the mind more than the triceps. All that matters is that way too many people game for us to just ignore them.

It may feel uncomfortable to accept a lifestyle that is so foreign to many of us. But this is the cultural struggle of the digital age. The new culture we must embrace is not in some country whose name we do not know; it is embedded in every country with access to the internet. We use it to scapegoat young people’s attention deficits and academic shortcomings. But young people use it to liberate themselves, allowing for anyone with access to a computer to become world famous.

Esports is not going away anytime soon. We could try to fight it. But to that I say: good luck, have fun.

Stop denying jobs to people with criminal records

Employers must stop discriminating against people with criminal records. According to the National Employment Law Project, 70 million Americans have some sort of criminal record, which is one out of every four American adults. In 36 states, these Americans are required to check a box on written job applications to indicate that they have criminal records. These applicants’ chances of getting a job callback or offer are cut in half, according to the NELP’s report “65 Million ‘Need Not Apply’: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment.” 70 million Americans in 36 states are discriminated against because of a mistake they already paid for.

The “Ban the Box” movement seeks to eradicate the use of this criminal record checkbox to screen applicants before receiving an interview. 14 states have “Banned the Box” for state institutions. Six of those—Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island and New Jersey—have also “Banned the Box” for private institutions, according to the Washington Post.  Each state, however, has different legislation about when employers can inquire about applicants’ criminal records. Some legislate that employers can check anytime after the first written application, others during the interview. Hawaii does not allow employers to check criminal records until after they extend a conditional  offer of employment.

Applicants are often denied jobs for crimes they committed in the distant past or that are unrelated to the job they are applying for. Chicago resident Darrell Langdon struggled with addiction in his youth and was charged with cocaine possession.

Langdon maintained a clean record for over two decades. But when Langdon applied for a job as a boiler room engineer in the Chicago Public Schools, he was denied because of his drug conviction from over 25 years ago. His drug conviction said nothing about the person he was or the experience he had. He was unjustly denied a job opportunity. The Chicago Tribune reported the event. Once Langdon’s case gained enough attention, Chicago Public Schools decided to offer Langdon the job it had formerly denied him. But not everyone is so lucky.

The NELP argues in “65 Million ‘Need Not Apply’: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment” that “major companies as well as smaller employers routinely deny people with criminal records any opportunity to establish their job qualifications.” Some notable companies are Bank of America, Aramark, Lowe’s, Domino’s Pizza, RadioShack and Omni Hotels. The NELP also notes that “imposing a background check that denies any type of employment for people with criminal records is not only unreasonable, but it can also be illegal under civil rights laws.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, gender, national origin and other protected categories. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stated, “an absolute bar to employment based on the mere fact that an individual has a conviction record is unlawful under Title VII” in its “Policy Statement on the Issue of Conviction Records” from 1987. Background checks that solely rely on a criminal record are, therefore, in direct violation of Title VII.

We cannot continue to scrutinize one out of every four American adults. Every single person who has served time for a crime has already faced the repercussions of their actions. We label them criminals, convicts and offenders. But they are human. They are capable of reflecting on past mistakes and changing. If they are willing to work, they should be considered for jobs based on their merits. It is better for them. It is better for society. It is better for us. We need to reintegrate our struggling citizens back into society, not cast them out permanently. We need every state to “Ban the Box,” in both public and private institutions.

Unemployment directly increases the likelihood of future crime. The National Institute of Justice noted in 2013 that “[b]eing employed substantially reduced the risk of all recidivism outcomes.” If employment helps formerly incarcerated persons stay out of prison, then we should help formerly incarcerated persons find jobs, not impede their progress.

Maintaining a cycle of unemployment and incarceration hurts the economy. The average prisoner costs $31,286 annually in taxpayer dollars, according to a study in 2012 from the Vera Institute of Justice. The United States has the highest prison population and second highest incarceration rate in the world. We are spending a lot of money to provide for people who could instead be providing for themselves, their families and their communities.

Anyone who committed a crime made a mistake, but not every mistake should determine the life of whoever made it. People with criminal records have already faced the criminal justice system and have already served their punishment.

Even crimes related to the job position should not disqualify candidates from being given an interview. For example, if someone robbed a convenience store and served a full sentence, he should be still able to apply to work as a cashier. Double penalizing in the job market is inhumane and illegal under Title VII. We are all human, and we all make mistakes.

College students, for instance, make mistakes at alarming rates. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found in 2007 that “49% (3.8 million) of full time college students binge drink and/or abuse prescription and illegal drugs.” But we do not hesitate to hire clean record college graduates. Why? Because they worked harder or are more qualified?

Convicted applicants are half as likely to even be given a job interview to demonstrate their qualifications, according to NELP. Both a clean-record college graduate and person with a substance conviction have likely abused substances. The only difference is that we forgive the college student and stigmatize the “criminal.”

We cannot uphold this double standard. We cannot discriminate against those of us unfortunate enough to make a mistake and get caught, while others walk away just as guilty. We must give everyone a second chance, as we give ourselves second chances. We all make mistakes and learn from them. We can reflect, adapt and continue to contribute. But right now we are telling 70 million Americans in 36 states that they “need not apply.”

Defend freedom of expression from local and national threats

Freedom of expression is currently under attack and needs to be preserved at all costs. We saw freedom of expression targeted when cyber terrorists hacked Sony Pictures on Nov. 24 and when terrorists slaughtered 12 satirists from the French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7.

These attacks were tragic. But it is worth noting that they have not had the highest impact or death toll in recent times. Just several days before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Boko Haram militants massacred over 2,000 in Baga, Nigeria. But this tragedy is not being widely covered and has certainly not inspired international outrage. Many of us had not even heard of Charlie Hebdo before Jan. 7 and would not have thought twice about missing The Interview. But these attacks got the most press in the West because they threatened Western ideals.

But Western ideals are not only threatened by extremist terrorist organizations. To find censorship, we need not look further than our own borders. The United States government actually has quite the history of censoring information. Remember that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Grapes of Wrath, two of the greatest works of American literature, have been two of the most censored and banned in the U.S.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has frequently been banned because of its use of racial slurs and purported underlying racism. Many, however, argue that the book’s satire is actually a strong criticism of racism. American author Ernest Hemingway famously stated, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” The book engages in controversial subject matter to spur critical thought, not to perpetuate racism. And critical thought is exactly what our schools should be teaching.

Censoring critical thought, however, still occurs regularly in the U.S. today. Tucson, Ariz.’s “controversial” public school curriculum that teaches Mexican-American history, culture and literature is currently under attack for its alleged underlying resentment toward other races.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction and former Arizona state senator John Huppenthal issued a letter condemning the curriculum as his final act in office.

Huppenthal reasons that the curriculum “promote[s] the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote[s] resentment towards a race or class of people,” or advocates “ethnic solidarity.” These restrictions are part of House Bill 2281, legislation that Huppenthal helped pass while serving as state senator. As evidence of the school’s violation, he cites Rage Against the Machine and KRS-One lyrics being taught in class. Huppenthal additionally references a U.S. History class syllabus which states that it “includes substantial Mexican history” and “is intended to get students to become critically conscious about the society we live in.” The Arizona state government has threatened to cut school funding if the school does not revise its curriculum.

The most ludicrous example cited by Huppenthal, however, is the poem that students in the curriculum were told to recite during the beginnings of class. It reads as follows:

“Tú eres mi otro yo. / You are my other me. /Si te hago daño a ti, / If I do harm to you, / Me hago daño a mi mismo. / I do harm to myself. / Si te amo y respeto, / If I love and respect you, / Me amo y respeto yo. / I love and respect myself.”

Huppenthal’s arguments are absurd, if not racist. The Oxford English Dictionary defines racist as “prejudiced against people of other nationalities.” Is this not a direct prejudice against people of other nationalities? His argument against multiculturalism is also hilariously McCarthyist in its inherent paranoia and lack of factual integrity. And frankly the whole “hip-hop is ruining our youth” argument is just a bit outdated. But he is entitled to his opinions, no matter how distasteful I find them.

The schools, however, are also entitled to their own opinions. If Huppenthal can attempt to ban the schools’ expression, then the schools might as well attempt to ban Huppenthal’s letter for promoting “resentment towards a race or class of people” or maybe ,just for inciting idiocracy. Why should we let Huppenthal’s freedom of expression take precedence over the school’s? Either deny him the right to censor others or subject him to the same censorship.

The website Voices in Urban Education responded to Huppenthal. The website calls the ban a “historic ignorance and blindness” and adds that “[h]uman history in this hemisphere does not begin in 1492 C.E. but rather in 3113 B.C.E. with the creation of the Mayan calendar, if not before with the Ancients in Peru.”

We demanded national response when Seth Rogen and James Franco’s comedic depiction of the assassination of the North Korean supreme leader did not go over well with North Korea.

We demanded international response when Charlie Hebdo was attacked for publishing images of the Prophet Muhammad on the cover of their magazine.

But where is our outrage when the Arizona state government suppresses critical thinking in schools?

We must be consistent. If we claim to care about expression, we should be outraged when an entire U.S. state bans teaching important history, culture and critical thinking. We cannot pick and choose. We must defend all freedom of expression if we are going to defend any of it.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s right to protest in Washington D.C., in 1963 allowed him to deliver one of the greatest speeches in modern history. His right is the same as the Neo-Nazis’ right to march in Skokie, Ill. in 1978.

Our freedom to speech is not the same as an obligation to accept the ideas we hear.

We are afforded the ability to disagree, to contest and to challenge. We are afforded the ability to think, and we had better let our schools exercise it.

Restructure the Electoral College to better represent minorities

The Electoral College could be a lot better than it is.

Many, notably Steven Hill in Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner-Take-All Politics, have critiqued it, especially in light of elections where the electoral vote disagreed with the popular vote (which has happened four times: 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000). And many have suggested getting rid of it all together, but few have suggested a feasible revision to it. I would like to propose a painfully simple but effective revision. But first, let’s examine why its current state is an issue.

Each state has the same amount of electoral votes as they have representatives in Congress, with a minimum amount of three (one House representative and two senators). But each state’s electoral votes are not weighted proportionally with that state’s popular vote. Currently, the entire electoral power of a state is determined by the majority popular vote.

Now, let’s break that down. If California were split 51 percent Democrat and 49 percent Republican, currently all of the electoral vote would go to the Democratic party.

Consider that 49 percent of California can also be thought of as approximately 27 electoral votes. The eight smallest states in the United States (including the District of Columbia) only have 24 electoral votes combined. Suppressing half of California’s vote in a given election is worse than not representing the eight smallest states of the United States.

How does that make sense? We knew enough math after 1000 B.C. to handle fractions better than by rounding up. This majority-rule electoral system guarantees that the minority opinion of each and every state is entirely ignored and unrepresented in the presidential election.

The founding fathers created the Electoral College as a democratic compromise between having votes cast by Congress and a pure popular vote to determine the president, but it also had the well-known side effect of giving more of a say to states with lower populations.

Given that majority-rule systems like the current apportioning of all electoral votes to the majority candidate often suppress the wills of minorities (by definition), this seems pretty reasonable.

The solution to the problem is actually remarkably simple and similar to how English parliamentary governments hold elections. Each state should still have the same amount of electoral votes to ensure more even representation from less populated states. But the proportions of the popular vote should decide the electoral votes for each state.

In other words, if California’s popular vote was 51 percent Democrat and 49 percent Republican, then 51 percent of the electoral vote should go Democrat and 49 percent should go Republican. Yes, this means we have to use fractions. No, they’re not scary.

Now that we have our electoral votes directly represented by the popular vote, there’s no need to actually have any physical people who vote in the Electoral College. That notion, too, is antiquated in this day in age. This can be a purely mathematical calculation. Give each side (of our haphazardly dichotomous party representation) the direct proportion of the popular vote it had in electoral votes. Simple.

Now, a viable counter to this approach is that we lose the impression of a presidential candidate “winning a state.” It would no longer be the case that Democrat X had Massachusetts and that Republican Y had Texas. Some might argue that elections where the difference was in fractions of an electoral vote might slow progress because the losing side would not be willing to submit with such close results.

But if Democrat X didn’t have 100 percent of the vote in Massachusetts anyway, Democrat X never had MA to begin with. Democrat X had 70 percent of MA while Republican Y had 30 percent, and that should be represented in the election.

The obvious implication of this is that it destructs the idea of “swing states.” It would no longer be the case that only eight states (in the case of the 2012 election) are important. Each and every state would now matter, and minorities in each given state would feel more adequately represented. Cheers to Republicans in Massachusetts and Democrats in Texas.

It’s worth noting that shifting the focus away from swing states does not at all imply caring less about small states. In 2012, the combined populations of the eight swing states totaled to 18 percent of the U.S. population. The actual eight smallest states sum up to a mere 1.9 percent. The swing states occupy more population than the average and exponentially more than the actual eight smallest states. Therefore, the swing states did not adequately represent smaller populations before, and removing them would not hurt smaller populations.

The Electoral College was developed in order to help smaller states. This idea of swing states actually hurts smaller states, since many smaller states are not swing states. Implementing electoral votes based on proportion would better represent the minority votes of each given state.

Smaller states actually require less campaigning per electoral vote. For instance, in 2013 Wyoming had about 194,000 popular votes per electoral vote whereas California and Texas both had about 690,000 popular votes per electoral vote. This means that presidential candidates have an even stronger incentive to campaign in small states.

Also, as it turns out, the current winner-takes-all system of distributing electoral votes was not even specified in the constitution; it was decided by states, mostly throughout the 19th century. Over two dozen states enforce laws to ensure that electors stay true to the majority popular vote, with some states like North Carolina fining such dissenting “faithless electors” $10,000. This means that no constitutional amendment is necessary for states to veer away from winner-takes-all mechanics—only well-supported state legislature.

The only two states that do not participate in winner-takes-all are Maine and Nebraska, though Maine has never split its electoral vote, and Nebraska only did for the first time in the 2008 election. And neither has split the vote based on the proportion of the popular vote.

There is no reason to suppress the opinion of the minority, either through a pure majority vote or through a broken Electoral College. The solution isn’t some intangible insoluble theory; it’s simple.

It just involves some fractions and a step away from tradition, one (or both) of which have apparently scared off progress for this long.

Recognize and evaluate hidden dangers of structural racism

This past summer my three-year-old nephew told me, “I don’t want to become any darker, I just want to stay white.” His father is white and his mother is black, so his skin was very light when he was born and has only recently started to get darker.

I love my nephew, but when he said this, I couldn’t help but feel shocked, angry, and sad. I didn’t actually know how to respond. I knew that what he was saying was so horrifyingly wrong, and it was a prime example of racial prejudice.

But I also couldn’t blame him. As a three-year-old, he’s incredibly impressionable and has only really had enough time in the world to absorb the thoughts and ideas of people around him.

That goes to say that he had to have absorbed these ideas from somewhere else.

He lives with his mom and his older sister, both of whom are black and neither of whom would ever promote the superiority of any race over another. He visits my siblings, my parents and me often, all of whom (including myself) are white. But we too would never promote the superiority of any race over another.

If his feelings don’t come from his family, the most influential group of people for any child, then they must come from his general experiences and interactions with society. Yes, I know, this sounds remarkably like the over-attacked and vague “society” that we all seek to salvage, deconstruct or write BuzzFeed quizzes about, but specific examples may help to clarify what I mean.

Let’s start local to my nephew’s life. His favorite TV shows, like Bob the Builder, only have white protagonists. His favorite picture books, often about trucks and trains, only feature white train conductors, mechanics or engineers. His favorite superheroes and their respective action figures, like Superman, Batman, the Flash and Spider-Man, are also all white.

Now, I’m not saying that every TV show star, literary protagonist and superhero is white. But the majority and the most popular ones are, which is incredibly alarming. Some might argue that even if that were all true and my nephew’s fictional role models were all white, it still would not be enough to induce a racial prejudice.

To address that claim, we’ll shift our lens from local to macro.

Last year I did some research on racially color-blind attitudes (i.e. how post-racial we think we are) and how they correlate with discrimination. I published a piece in The Justice that reflected much of this research, but I’ll quickly summarize for clarity.

The popular television channel MTV generated a nationally representative sample of people ages 14 to 24 (millennials) and found that a majority believes that we are post-racial as a society, with 67% believing that Obama being president is proof.

Research conducted by Brandescha M. Tynes, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found a strong correlation between racially color blind attitudes and discrimination on social media by examining participants’ reactions to racially obscene pictures (like white actors wearing “blackface”) on sites like Facebook. In other words, she found that there was a correlation between how post-racial we think we are and how willing we are to discriminate.

If a majority of us believe we are post-racial, and if thinking we are post-racial means we’re more likely to discriminate based on race, then a majority of us discriminate based on race in some capacity. Even still, some might argue that there are exceptions to the rule.

In fact, I’ve heard many argue that we at Brandeis are this exception, because we’re in the liberal Northeast on a liberal college campus or because we go to a “diverse” school (according to fall 2013 enrollment: 5.1% African American, 12.4% Asian, 6.5% Hispanic, 50.0% white, 14% nonresident alien, and 11.0% multi ethnic or race, ethnicity unknown).

I ran my own study at Brandeis to see how we compared. I took 64 students’ Color Blind Racial Attitudes Scale (CoBRAS) scores and then had the same students give three-word responses to several videos from Vine that I had selected for their notoriety of being racist. I analyzed the three-word responses using methods described in a study by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke professor of sociology. The study is titled “The Linguistics of Color Blind Racism: How to Talk Nasty about Blacks without Sounding ‘Racist.’” I found exactly the same correlation that Tynes’ study found: that people’s CoBRAS scores correlated strongly with their demonstrated racial prejudice, as determined by Bonilla-Silva’s study.

Regarding “diverse” schools, I examined this same phenomenon at my high school, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a school with a staggering amount of diversity.

The demographic breakdown by race during the 2013/2014 school year was 33.2% African American (compared to 8.7% in the state), 11.7% Asian (compared to 6.1% in the state), 14% hispanic (compared to 17% in the state), and 37.5% white (compared to 64.9% in the state).

You would expect such a statistically diverse school to model the perfectly post-racial society.But it only struck me during my senior year of high school, when we could finally choose most of the classes we were taking, just how segregated the school was. Classes like AP Physics, AP Chemistry, and AP Calculus were over 90% white, which, given that only 37.5% of the student body is white, indicates a serious racial achievement gap. On the first day of my psychology class, which was exactly 50% white and 50% black, we were told we could sit wherever we wanted in the two rows of available seats.

It took me a moment to realize that after everyone had sat down, the entire front row of the classroom was white and the entire back row was black and that no one else had noticed.

Many of us feel personally exempted from the idea that we harbor racial prejudice. We’ll often point out that we have black friends or that we know that George Washington had slaves to prove our innocence. We misunderstand structural racism. It’s not nearly as obvious or simple as supporting slavery or not.

Structural racism is often much more insidious and pervasive, manifesting as subconscious judgements, opinions and thoughts. It’s easy to excuse ourselves from the more conscious and obvious racism, but it’s a lot harder to examine ourselves for those subtleties that are most often ignored.

I do not believe in feeling guilty for things that are out of our control.

We were all born into this society, and we didn’t create it. But we do need to be cognizant of the problem. It may not be our faults that we harbor racial prejudices, but it is our responsibility to try to destruct them. Doing so doesn’t have to change our lives drastically. We can simply question ourselves and reflect. Was the joke I just made racist? Is it weird that I hang out with mostly people from the same racial background as me?

We’re responsible for more than just ourselves. We’re responsible for everyone with whom who we live and everyone who will soon be living with us. We’re responsible for my nephew and for yours.

Maintain Civil Discussion on Israel/Palestine

Last week, I was asked by the Justice to write a piece on the Palestine-Israel conflict. I said no. I was asked because the Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee was already due to submit a piece on the conflict, specifically focused on the war in Gaza this past summer, and the Justice wanted to showcase a “point/counter-point” section. Seems like a great idea, showcasing an important and complicated conflict, and allowing the reader to decide for themselves with whom they most agree. But still, I said no.

I don’t try to hide my beliefs; I fully support Palestine. I share plenty of op-eds from other news outlets on Facebook and am fully willing to discuss the issue with anyone who asks me. Still, I did not want to write the article.

My discomfort is housed, maybe, in the polarization and distortion of the issue on campus. It is polarized because the same people who are generally open-minded and compassionate vehemently oppose any Palestine-Israel viewpoint that is not exactly the same as their own. It is distorted because the issues of the conflict have been muddled with issues of prejudice and discrimination. I have been told verbatim, “Most people who support Palestine are actually anti-Semetic” and “If you don’t support Israel you hate Jews.”

To hear people accuse me of hating much of my family was maybe laughable at first, but by now is nothing short of sickening. I love the Jewish people as I love the Christian people, the Muslim people and all other peoples. But I take issue with the State of Israel. Israel and Judaism are not the same thing; one is a religion, philosophy and way of life, while the other is a political entity. The two should not be confused.

Though I’ve been more personally affected by it, the extreme pro-Israel camp is not the only one to grossly oversimplify. The extreme pro-Palestinian camp will often allege that the entire pro-Israel camp is Islamaphobic and tyrannical, which is, of course, not true.

A good friend of mine who supports Israel has told me he feels that extremely uncomfortable in more liberal circles. When they blame Israel entirely for the numerous deaths in Gaza, he does not feel comfortable voicing his opinion that it may be more complicated than that, fearing he will be judged personally and stereotyped as “a Jew doing his duty” for his opinions on the issue. 

I asked him about it while writing this article and he said, “I think of myself as pretty moderate…but a lot of people feel very strongly that anyone who shows any sympathy toward Israel is intentionally marginalizing an oppressed people.”

Imagine if instead of questioning character, discussions were composed of constructive Palestine-Israel peace plans or historical discussions of the Palestinian and Israeli people. Imagine if both parties were willing to compromise.

But instead, the over-simplified pro-Palestine argument assumes that any who are pro-Israel hate peace, oppressed people and Islam. And the over-simplified pro-Israel argument assumes that any who are pro-Palestine hate peace, oppressed people, and Judaism.

This is all completely ludicrous. Both sides want the same thing: peace. But the discussions veer far from civil because of deep emotional attachment to the issue. This sort of attachment often results in conversations fueled by emotion and not reason. We see the other side as an enemy, not as a person.

In fact, this lack of etiquette is not just localized to Brandeis. Last July, television host Sean Hannity invited Yousef Munayyer—a Palestinian American who is the executive director of the Jurusalem Fund, a nonprofit working to raise funds in aid of the Palestinian people—onto Fox News for an interview. But “interview” is a generous description of what occurred. Hannity bombarded Munayyer with screams throughout the entire interview—“Is Hamas a terrorist organization? What part of this can’t you get through your thick head?” The interview speaks for itself and I strongly recommend looking it up.

But even if the rest of the world is being intolerant and ridiculous, why are we? We’re a community that values “social justice” and “truth unto its innermost parts.” We have such powerful and constructive discussions about sensitive topics that much of the rest of the world still struggles with—sexual assault, gender discrimination and racism. Why can we not have such discussions about the Palestine-Israel conflict?

This is not about my opinions on the issue; this is about people not feeling comfortable enough to voice their opinions. This is about students and professors alike being lauded as inhumane and racist for speaking up. This is about a discussion housed in intimidation, assumption of character and dehumanization. And it’s time for that to change.

Sailing is for Gods

When I was 15, I bought a sailboat. I had saved money all summer from working at a summer camp to be able afford it, and it seemed like the best use of the money.

Now, to clarify, this sailboat looks a lot more like a surfboard with a sail than the image that “sailboat” normally conjures. It’s small, suited for one, maybe two, people, and has clear signs of wear from the previous owner. But it’s mine, and I love it more than this post will do justice.

But alright, a 15-year-old with one summer’s earnings, why a sail boat?

Nothing is more incredible than tapping into natural energies to move. I know this sounds like a latent environmentalist message, but it’s not.

It’s just that when you harness the power of the wind, you totally feel like a Norse god.

When you go out in a kayak or canoe, you have to exert your own energy, when you go out in a motorboat, you have to exert some long-dead and fossilized animal or plant’s energy, but when you go out in a sailboat, you use nothing but the wind.

Sailing is also all about calculation–angles, weight distribution, and rotational velocity for tacks and jibes.

It’s absolutely exhilarating to sail in high winds and have the boat on it’s side, forming a 60 degree angle with the water, and knowing that you leaning all the way off is the only thing keeping you from flipping over.

It’s also a lot of fun to plot out your course from point A to point B if the wind is blowing directly from B towards A. You can’t just sail directly up wind, so (via tacking) you figure out the most efficient way to zigzag over.

One aspect of sailing I didn’t observe until I was becalmed for several hours is that you don’t have control over everything. Part of what makes it beautiful is that for your voyage, you submit to the natural tendencies to the world. If it’s windy, you go fast, if it’s not, you don’t.

I also totally resonate with the idea that people have been sailing for ages. Leif Erikson, too, was in a sailboat 1000 years ago. And he sailed across the entire Atlantic Ocean.

I’d understand if all the talk about calculation didn’t make sailing seem alluring. But if feeling like Leif Erikson doesn’t get you excited, I’m not sure what will.

What is Computer Science?

When I’m asked what I study, I often say “computers”. When I’m asked where I work, I say “at some computer place”. But those description are far from accurate.

Inspired by a recent blog post from a friend and colleague about why he’s passionate about math (see What is Math?), I decided to write a post about what I do and what Computer Science (CS) is to me.

I actually wrote a similar post about CS last fall. While many of my views have since evolved, many haven’t, and it details some cool real-world analogies for binary search and recursion, two popular CS topics (see Common misconceptions about CS).

Full disclaimer, my experience in CS is by no means extensive, so I will try my best to not extrapolate unduly.

During the school year I’m an undergraduate student and teaching assistant in CS at Brandeis University, and currently I’m a software-engineering intern at a big data analytics company called HP Vertica.

I guess I should start with the bits that confuse people the most.

Out of the five computer science classes I’ve had so far, only one allowed me to use a laptop, tablet, or any sort of electronic device in class. At my job, I spend just as much time writing documentation or drawing out figures on a whiteboard as I do writing code.

A prominent computer scientist and winner of the 1972 Turing Award (the Noble Prize of Computer Science), Edsger W. Dijkstra, is famous for saying “Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes”.

But how can that be? The study of computers isn’t about computers?

Well, it turns out that CS is not the study of computers. It is instead the study of computation–the study of modeling, interacting with, and abstracting over information. The computer turns out to be a great tool for this.

I know as little about why your iphone’s screen looks kind of yellow as you do. I do not know how to unlock a locked Macbook without a password. And I certainly do not know how to “hack” into a “mainframe”, or whatever.

That being said, I can give you some examples of the kind of work I have done.

For a personal project in high school, I wrote a program that analyzed any given text file (like Moby Dick, the Bible, etc.) and generated psuedo-random text that mimicked the style of the source text. The goal (and result) was that the generated text looked like it was excerpted from the source text.

At my current job, I’ve optimized various SQL queries to run faster–in one extreme case, a 100x performance boost was measured.

The “real-world application” is that million-customer companies can ask “what’s the average distance that my customers live from the store that is nearest to them” and see results in seconds or minutes, rather than in hours or days.

My high school project took about 4 hours of planning out and about 2,000 lines of code. The project at my job took over 100 hours of planning out and only about 750 lines of code.

“Planning out” at my job included background research, inventing the optimizations, proving their validity and effectiveness, documenting them, designing my implementations for them, putting them through review of a panel of engineers, filing patent paperwork, etc.

The point is that my time is not spent fiddling with phones, tablets, or computers. Instead, it’s spent using the computer as a tool to do some pretty cool things with information.

But since I find it pretentious to say I study “modeling, interacting with, and abstracting over information”, if you ask me what I study, I’ll probably still say “computers”.

Possible to combat oppression without risking imperialism?

women_relativism

I can’t think of a better way to highlight moral relativism–the idea that right and wrong are individually or societally determined.

Within five seconds, the cartoon dismantled my ideas of the “oppressive Middle Eastern society” and replaced them with “the Middle Eastern society”.

It’s quite easy to view the world in terms of absolute rights and wrongs, independent of any individual or societal circumstances. Such a worldview is called moral objectivism.

For instance, I could say that, as an objective right, women should feel liberated to wear whatever they want, therefore any culture or religion that imposes dress restrictions on women is wrong (i.e. Muslim women and the hijab).

While well-intentioned, the obvious problem with this train of thought is that it leads to imperialist thought, or imposing our ideas upon other groups of people. The big, powerful, and “enlightened” western nations then go out to help the poor, “unenlightened” non-western nations.

Interestingly, one of largest contributors to moral objectivism is religion, where rights and wrongs are conveyed as absolute in the eyes of a higher power. It then follows that as religion wanes out of favor in western culture, so does moral objectivism.

But I do believe in one case of an absolute wrong, a moral objective. I believe that it is always wrong to withhold or censor information. No society perfectly upholds this moral imperative, and the U.S. has particularly been under heat about this (re: NSA scandal).

I actually wrote an article a couple of months ago that argued that the NSA’s impact on our daily lives is insignificant enough that I don’t really care about the infringement on our privacy.

However, irrespective of my opinions, I entirely support that we should have known about the NSA so that we could properly come to our own conclusions about it.

I firmly believe that the most important (and only) thing that should be spread cross-culturally is information. Notably, by “spread of information”, I do not mean forcing agreement, nor forcing adherence to any practices, nor condemnation of any differing ideologies. Just information.

Sharing our beliefs with other cultures and (more importantly) learning the beliefs of those those same cultures is the only way to combat oppression (yes, even within our own utopia) without risking imperialism.

Spreading anything more than information has traditionally caused more trouble than good (re: East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East).

But doing nothing is no better. It allows for gross, preventable atrocities (re: Rwandan Genocide). It also allows for oppressive regimes that exploit their people.

Take, for example, the Taliban in Afghanistan. Under Taliban rule, women were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight (before which only consisted of reading the Quran).

However, the key difference between Taliban oppression of women and the classic mistake that the cartoon illustrates is that the Taliban acted against the wills of its people (one particularly moving case is the story of Aesha Mohammadzai, who had her nose and ears cut off for alleged adultery).

The old “your freedom to swing your fist stops at the next person’s face” holds. No person or group should be able to determine the freedoms of any other educated and mature person or group.

It’s one thing for a mother to restrict her son’s freedom to dance in the middle of traffic. It’s another for a government to systematically deny access to education for half of its population.

Anyone with a full-range of information and full intellectual maturity (i.e. an educated adult) should be able to make any decision he so chooses–even if it’s one we disagree with.

But in the case of information being withheld or misreported, in the case of cultist and systematic brainwashing, in the case of dogmatism, we have a duty to intervene by offering any alternative knowledge, while keeping in mind that the actual decisions are not ours to make.