Oh me oh mi-o

I was nervous about the debate. I almost didn’t watch it. In the end, of course, I’m glad I did: I was surprised and impressed by Kerry’s clarity. Bushie was his usual incoherent, rambling self. Depressingly, while the polls overwhelmingly indicate that people feel Kerry trounced Bush in the debate, the numbers show that Bush is still quite likely to win. God, I never thought I’d look fondly on the two-term presidential limit law. Thank goodness for that, if it comes down to this…

I’ve been working pretty hard recently, and it feels good. One diversion I have is the massive pile of magazines that accumulated over the summer while I was gone. I’m chipping away at it; about two-thirds remain:

So every morning or so I’ll grab a new magazine and read it. It’s put me way behind in my “real” reading schedule, but it’s been fun. And besides I get to read depressing articles about super cute kids like this one:

It’s birthday season again: three birthday occasions this week alone. I haven’t been this busy feting since early spring… of course, there are other reasons for that, I guess. It’s amazing how quickly you can get back into the swing of things when you try.

The concerts continue, too: The Pixies at the Greek and then Richard Shindell and Robbie Schaefer at the Freight. Richard did a cover of the great Paul Simon tune “America”. This is like the fourth time this year that an artist I really like has covered Paul Simon. It makes me feel proud :).

A random thought occurred to me the other day. Some facts: 1. There is a gender difference in pay. 2. There is a height difference in pay; taller people get paid, on average, $800 more per inch per year. 3. Women are, on average, five inches shorter than men.

1+2+3 = Some of the gender difference in pay (erm, about $4000/yr, which is nearly 15% of the $28,000 national average income) may be attributable simply to height differences. That’s not to say, of course, that heightism is any less deplorable than sexism. It’s also not to say that sexism is not a problem in America. In fact, many studies have shown that, all other things equal, women are less likely to be promoted than men. Here are some good links to check out: link 1 | link 2

Okay, rather than exploring that topic further, I’m going to allow myself to go on a mini-rant about -isms in America. It’s human nature to deny or ignore a problem until it becomes your problem. A very white college friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, famously declared one night that “racism isn’t a problem in American anymore”. I admit that I wanted to throttle his cracker ass :).

Aside: I remember quite clearly being called a “camel jockey” and other derogatory terms by some geographically-challenged classmates in early elementary school — and people of my ethnicity haven’t even been subject to WWII detainment camps, lynchings, deportations, guilt-by-association, “separate-but-equal-but-not-really” opportunities, ridiculous immigration laws (well, maybe), near-slavery working on trans-continental railroads, or godawful actual slavery. These insults were just a result of people afraid of my different appearance. Imagine combining that with an actual superiority complex gained by your country’s history of screwing over of any number of minorities…

Anyway, so racism is alive and well, as illustrated by this ingenious study that I’ve mentioned before.

We perform a field experiment to measure racial discrimination in the labor market. We respond with fictitious resumes to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers. To manipulate perception of race, each resume is randomly assigned either a very African American sounding name or a very White sounding name. The results show significant discrimination against African-American names: White names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews.

So here’s my worry: if people are in denial about racism (yeah, I’m only giving one anecdotal example, but who’s going to admit that he’s racist in a poll?), which is still so obviously woven into the fabric of societal interaction in this country that over a quarter of Alabama citizens still oppose interracial marriage, what about more subversive prejudices?

That is, racism is terrible, but at least there is the intuitive argument that differences really are only skin deep. This is something, I think, that people can mull over and come to terms with. Religionism is harder to argue against, and is quite pervasive, as this article illustrates:

A Gallup poll in 1999 asked American voters the following question: “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be an X would you vote for that person?” X took on the following values: Catholic, Jew, Baptist, Mormon, black, homosexual, woman, atheist. Six out of the eight categories secured better than 90 percent approval. But only 59 percent would vote for a homosexual, and just 49 percent would vote for an atheist. Bear in mind that there are 29 million Americans who describe themselves as nonreligious, secular, atheist, or agnostic.

Convincing someone that morality is not determined by religion (even though, of course, Scandinavia is totally secular and apparently moral as well, and absolutely loved by most Americans) requires a much more subtle argument than one against racism.

Even worse is sexism. We grow up joking about and experiencing differences in the sexes: in physical characteristics, in thought and in desire. Biologically and socially, we feel a natural difference (at least when it comes to attempting to reproduce :). Of course, from there it’s just a short step to (incorrectly) assuming that there are differences in other abilities as well. The fact that we know and feel that men and women are different in several ways — ways in which they really are incontrovertibly different — makes us much more susceptible to sexism via extrapolation. To show an equivalent difference requires a lot of bogus science and propaganda for racism and church- (or whatever-) induced fear for religionism. That’s why sexism is so subversive and scary (and widespread): in our society, it’s practically built into us.

And if you think it’s bad in this country, it’s far, far worse in many other parts of the world. And not even just in repressive regimes — my time in International House made it clear that guys from all over the world, from Italy to India, hold some absolutely ridiculous, indefensible views about women. And so openly, too, that I get the feeling that these views are perfectly acceptable in their hometowns.

I have no point in all of this, as usual. It’s just frightening how sneaky prejudices can be. My feeling about sexism is that by its nature, it’s not something that’s just going to go away; it needs to be actively challenged.

My one optimistic thought is that America has historically tended towards greater equality and personal freedom (insane current Presidents aside); it’s already quite good in that respect, and in the future it’s just going to get better.

[Update: Jon Stewart interview on Fresh Air]

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24 Responses to Oh me oh mi-o

  1. snafuuu says:

    ranty mcrant

    I just woke up, and I’m not terribly coherent, but I really feel like sexism in America is perpetuated by stuff as seemingly innoculous as, you know, Tim Allen on Home Improvement, or Ray Romano on Everybody Loves Raymond. Though the two shows have been funny (I think I’ve enjoyed the former more than the latter), they’re completely based on these widespread notions of “men are [insert grunting sound] and women are [insert nagging sound].” I don’t know if I’m hypersensitive or what (heh, maybe it’s because I’m a woman! [gasp]), but I get bothered by any mention of ANYONE saying something like the following:

    “Only a woman would [want to see this chick flick, want to go shopping, etc].” or
    “Only a man would [eat a lot, want to see this action flick, care about cars, etc].”

    Maybe, selfishly, it’s in part because I feel marginalized when these assumptions are made, since I have some typical “male” interests, but at any rate, it’s just stupid to think that so many socialized traits are necessarily the product of biological basis.

    (Die, biological determinists — DIE!)

    • aj says:

      Re: ranty mcrant

      As usual, I think it’s a bit of both, but of course I agree with your main point.

      There are biological differences, and they should be celebrated rather than denigrated — I don’t think it’s just society that makes me find women attractive, for instance — but yeah, it’s foolish to assume that biology accounts for all differences (or even most).

      Home Improvement is exactly the kind of subversive thing I’m talking about: a funny show where people laugh at stereotypes of men vs. women. No wonder by the time kids grow up they’re already brainwashed.

      • ccho says:

        Re: ranty mcrant

        Wow, new LJ feature to actually open a layer underneath the post I want to reply to, and javascript to move wrapping text to a newline! I still wish the textbox were larger, or that they had a second hidden layer with a larger one.

        Back to the topic…

        Do you think that sexism or racism will ever disappear?

        To clarify, achieving equal rights or overcoming biological differences may be possible (well hopefully the latter is to a lesser degree), but I think both will continue to exist at a level that can be easily identified. Even if we are taught to believe otherwise until a certain age, repeated experiences and empirical observations can easily change what we believe. I think that our beliefs are strongly bound to what we can observe, and that we will naturally make generalizations based on a collection of observations.

        A slightly obscure example (where people believe what is only said, without experiencing it first-hand) is faith in a religion. However, most people who share that common faith in a religion are dying to see some tangible results, so they might pray for a certain outcome of an event. Those who stake their faith on observing such results would probably be frustrated when the desired outcome was never realized.

        I think it would be interesting to see the results of a robot (or software agent) sent out to a real environment in order to observe the behavior of people, starting with race-neutral and gender-neutral beliefs. It could be programmed with rules that represent race-neutral and gender-neutral beliefs. It would require the ability to identify a person’s race and gender (though this can be unclear at times, even to a human) and analyze their behavior, including their actions and some of the content of their speech (very complex robot). During this analysis, repeated observation of certain events would cause the creation of new rules. I’m pretty sure that after some amount of time, the new rules would conflict with the original rules, even if it were due to some commonality in a random action.

        Maybe the key lies in our notion of expected behavior. In physics, when we observe certain laws being followed, we deduce that they are true. These laws are the rules and generalizations that we accept as the truth and are formed from mere observation. When one of these rules is broken, the natural reaction is surprise, probably followed by an examination of the experimental process to find some flaw that generated the unexpected result. If the accepted law turns out to be incorrect, though perhaps stubbornly, we change our mind (e.g. Newton’s apple).

        I don’t agree that the media should be held responsible for perpetuating sexism or racism — not that I support shows that seem to do so. It could possibly contribute to the formation of a few stereotypes, but I believe that sexism and racism will be perpetuated by lack of complete knowledge, repeated observations, as well as matters of personal preference.

        I’m not saying feminists are wasting their time, just mostly wasting their time. People fighting for racial equality will probably only have luck in countries in which their race represents at least a sizeable minority.

        On a side note, the last couple of hobbies I’ve picked up have a noticeable lack of females, and not due to any sort of clear biological reason.

        • aj says:

          Re: ranty mcrant

          I don’t object to empirical observations, and yeah, absolutely, we’re built to make generalizations. (Occasionally erroneously, of course; our pattern-searching nature makes us sometimes stretch too far for correlations that don’t exist. Studies consistently show that people believe they have greater control over their surroundings than they actually do, for instance.)

          Anyway, so that’s not what I’m worried about. I’m worried about those generalization that are not supported by evidence, but instead are simply spread by repetition; there’s no independent validation of these beliefs since they eventually just come to be taken as common knowledge.

          An interesting thought experiment is to think of all the stereotypes you know and figure out which ones are based on your personal experience and which ones are ones you’ve just heard and are otherwise unsubstantiated. (This is hard to do, I admit.) The latter we can do something about, I think.

          There is a lot to be said about not having to learn everything “the hard way” via actual experience, and so one might argue that stereotypes passed along are just a shorthand way of conveying actual useful information.

          No doubt this is true in some cases, but given the history of unjustified prejudice (via color, ethnicity, sexual preference, gender, etc.), as well as the human tendency to overgeneralize on occasion, it seems to me that we need to take a more critical view. Here I think entertainment outlets (and I’d rather not use the term “media” since I think that connotes more of a “news” role) can do a better job.

          Btw, nice subject by Snafuuu. Daily Show reference?

  2. awu says:


    I actually wish that I were shorter nowadays… I wonder if I have actually gotten shorter, or if I were never that tall to begin with :)

    The last time I tried to measure myself, inaccurately, I was 5’10″ish.

    • aj says:

      Re: height

      Why do you wish you were shorter?

      Anecdotally, it’s ridiculous (and funny) how often guys inflate their heights. I remember one story in particular: I was talking to a guy about how tall we were, and he said he was 5’10”. The funny thing is, he’s shorter than me. So I told him, “You can’t be because I’m only 5’9″”, to which he replied, “No way! You must be taller than that!”

      • cychan says:

        Re: height

        shows like home improvement and everybody loves raymond get away with playing off stereotypes because the majority of americans find that material funny. have you guys seen chris rock’s stand up routines? they’re friggin hilarious, but they’re built solidly of stereotypes of men, women, black people, and white people.

        when the A&F t-shirts first came out that said “two wongs make it white”, i was sort of offended, but after a while i thought it wasn’t that big of a deal. i thought, “sure, it’s stereotypical, but as long as people acknowledge that it’s stereotypical, it’s okay to laugh along.” i found the school of rock to be a little offensive because they get the black kids to sing “black music” like amazing grace and the gay guy to say “fabulous” all the time, but then i figured it was all in good fun.

        i guess it’s very hard stop using stereotypes as comic material because they appeal to a broad demographic. if people complain, they are accused of being uptight. the problem is then that the material that (perhaps innocently) leverages existing stereotypes ends up perpetuating them.

        • cychan says:

          Re: height

          my previous comment was a little misplaced… just to chime in on this actual thread of comments, i don’t mind at all being shorter than average. i don’t have to worry about banging my head on stuff as often. i can duck under barriers more easily. my legs don’t get as cramped on planes, trains, and automobiles. i don’t play basketball. it doesn’t hurt as much if i fall down. my heart will last a little longer. i can sleep on a full size bed without my feet hanging off the end. really, being short makes lots of little things in life better.

          • aj says:

            Re: height

            You’re right. Especially since you’re already engaged :). And luckily in research, you don’t have to include your height along with your paper submission!

        • aj says:

          Re: height

          Stereotypes sell, there’s no question. I think 80% of the standard hack comic’s repertoire is stereotype-based. (And yeah, I’m enjoying the irony of generalizing about comedians :). I personally find them funny, too — just ask Grant about the number of race-based (and, I think, funny) jokes we make all the time. Luckily, having been inured to this for a long time, it takes a lot to offend me in this area.

          Some of the things I wrote in response to ccho’s post also apply here, I think. I don’t think all generalizations are bad — sometimes they’re just a good shorthand way of accurately conveying a body of aggregated information, and in those cases it doesn’t make sense to require that everyone independently formulate the same generalizations over and over.

          I think there are two dangerous tendencies about stereotypes. One you mentioned: the perpetuation of incorrect or insufficiently justified ones.

          One such example — contradicted only by my personal experience of course, but then again there seem to be no studies in this area :) — is that Asian women are bad drivers. Don’t know if you’ve heard this one before but it seems to be pretty widespread (mostly by white middle-aged guys :). I’ve noticed no such tendency among the Asian women I know, which makes me wonder whether I’ve just been very lucky or, more likely, the stereotype is unfounded. The fact that it’s so commonly “known” is bad news.

          The other danger is that people misapply generalizations: they apply broad heuristics, only valid in aggregate, to specific people. This is obviously wrong, but it happens so often that sometimes it seems that generalizations are (in some domains, most specifically in personal and social interaction) more trouble than they’re worth.

          • awu says:

            Re: height

            I haven’t noticed it on average, but I do believe I have read stats that say that Azn women in the States are statistically, the worst class of drivers. Too lazy to verify that tidbit too.

      • awu says:

        Re: height

        Hmm, I’ll tell you about it some day :)

        Funny how it says 5’9″ on my driver’s license. I was still growing when I gave that height, but I think I was probably 5’6″ or 5’7″ at the time. Anyway, maybe I’ll be 5’9″ in a few years, hmm…

  3. awu says:

    An aside, did you know how race interacts with gender discrimination?

    Feeling lazy right now, so I haven’t looked through your links to see if one of them mentions it, but the gender gap is much closer among Asian-Americans in the States.

    IIRC, Asian-American women made something like 80 or 85 cents for the “average male” dollar, whereas the average woman made something closer to 70 cents.

    Too lazy to look up stats too now :)

    • aj says:

      Maybe it’s because Asians are thought to be smart :). Seriously, that’s interesting. But I’d need to know more about the stats. Do they compare Asian women to average males in their fields, or the overall average, or what? etc.

  4. cychan says:

    that jon stewart interview was awesome. for anyone without the patience to listen to the whole thing, please, please just jump to about 10 minutes into it. the host and stewart talk about how spin doctors (mostly conservative ones) play the media to perpetuate misinformation with impunity. i think this is a massive failing in our media. we need more people like jon stewart to ask the tough questions that no one else seems to be asking. as always, AJ, great post.

  5. jwscoleman says:


    Study = fascinating
    I totally agree that the explanation for it is racism, but I have one devil’s-advocatish sort of question.

    So let’s say that there was no racism in the US. (Obviously there is.) But let’s assume there’s not. If there was true equality of opportunity, then wouldn’t affirmative action mean that a person of a race that benefited by affirmative action would be less likely to be qualified than a person with the same credentials of another race? Then wouldn’t it be a rational to prefer applicants who wouldn’t have benefited from affirmative action?

    I totally may be missing something here. Please correct me.

    Anyway, if that is a weakness of the study of course it doesn’t mean that there is not pervasive racism. But it does mean that the study is of limited usefulness, right? Because, let’s say that racism is gradually becoming less severe. Well as racism fades, the explanation above will kick in more and more. (Assuming static affirmative action policies.) So you may get the similar results regardless of the level of racism, right?

    Anyway, as I said it’s a fascinating study. Thoughts?

    PS. I have to say that I am constantly shocked by level of racism still out there. (Stat about AL, for example.) As a kid I always assumed that there were just a few nutjobs out there with these beliefs. Wrong-o.

    • aj says:

      Re: Yeah

      That’s a great point. There’s a good explanation, but first some more basic ones:

      I think there are two reasonable arguments for AA: 1. to right past wrongs and give minorities a chance in a nepotistic, white-dominated business environment 2. to give kids with few opportunities the chance to compete with kids of the same potential who have had many opportunities and thus look better.

      In reality, it’s a bit of both, I think. (Economic AA would be a cleaner solution if we wanted just (2), but given the high correlation between poverty and ethnicity, race-based AA effectively does much the same thing.)

      Now, if companies were acting in their best self interested, and didn’t give a damn about righting past wrongs or anything, and (1) was the only thing race-based AA did, then you’re right — they should disfavor those applicants.

      But there is (2), and I think it’s a big factor (e.g. do you think there’s any correlation between family wealth and GPA at Harvard? If anything, I bet it’s negative).

      Anyway, there’s a more overwhelming explanation that’s related: when you apply to a job, you provide in your resume a list of your accomplishments, the most notable of which are probably high school GPA and (more importantly) college GPA. AA affects where you get into college, perhaps, but definitely not how well you do in school. And the study made those GPAs equal. Then there’s work experience, computer skills, etc. — these are measurable things. Then at what point could we say that the minority person is less qualified, in an objective sense, than the white one?

      Actually, I just looked at the study again and it goes further:
      “Perhaps the skills of American Americans are discounted because affirmative action makes it easier for African Americans to get these skills. While this is plausible for credentials such as an employee of the month honor, it is less clear why this would apply to more verifiable and harder skills. It is equally unclear why work experience would be less rewarded since our study suggests that getting a job is prone to discrimination rather than reverse discrimination.”

      • jwscoleman says:

        Me and guy-o

        The second part of their quote is circular right? “It is equally unclear why work experience would be less rewarded since our study suggests that getting a job is prone to discrimination rather than reverse discrimination.”

        As to the better objection, which is that there are less affirmative-action-susceptible criteria like GPA, etc:
        This of course is very true, and employers no doubt should look at GPAs in their screening process which would eliminate these race-based effects. But what if even a few don’t? Wouldn’t that be enough for a correlation?

        To take a slightly different example: What if next to every school you attended you had to write whether you were a legacy at that school. Now an employer probably should still look at your school and GPA, rather than your school and legacy status, but given that people have to make quick approximations they might choose the latter right? (You could of course disagree about whether that’s efficient or not but that’s not the point.)

        As far as your two justifications go, as long as there’s any 1, it can still be a rational position right? (Given the incorrect assumptions of my hypo.)

        • aj says:

          Re: Me and guy-o

          Hmm, I’m having trouble finding the circularity. They seem to be saying:
          1. We have found that statistically blacks are selected for jobs less than they should be.
          2. A possible reason for this is that employers think that blacks get selected for jobs more than they should be, and so value their prior job experience less.
          3. This is strange because, again, statistically, they get selected less.

          It seems that if there is circularity, it is on the part of the employers, since if they are uniformly acting in this way, clearly they are violating their own assumption. Maybe I’m missing something.

          “What if even a few don’t? Wouldn’t that be enough for a correlation?” No doubt a few aren’t, sure…. and that’s the racism the article appears to be highlighting.

          As for your other example, I don’t think so. I agree that if there is any “1”, the position is rational, but this study controls for “1” — it eliminates the possibility that a student got into school just by race. (… if we assume that equal performance in school, work, skills, etc. is a sign of equal ability, which I think is reasonable.) Had they not controlled for this, then I think yes, that would be a possible explanation. But since they did, the very decision by the employers to decide on race, all other things equal, constitutes a bias (to me).

          I mean: racism seems to be a discrimination (judgement) made on the basis of race alone. What you are describing is exactly that. In the legacy case, the employers are practicing “legacy-ism”, since they don’t consider the possibility that some legacies didn’t need their legacy status to get into school — even though the employers have in front of them evidence to the contrary. That’s a bias, and it’s just as applicable when you substitute “race” in for “legacy”.

          E.g. if you are going to make a shortcut in evaluating applicants, it is inappropriate to choose one that does not speak directly to a candidate’s ability especially when there are ones that definitely do.

  6. Anonymous says:


    So, I was listening to that Gillian Welch CD you gave me (Soul Journey), and the first lyrics are “Oh me oh mi-o,” and I had this very vague recollection of reading those words somewhere. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where it was though, until I by chance saw the title of this blog post again. You’re messing with my subconscious, dude :)


    • aj says:

      Re: damn

      Heh, glad I could be of service :).

      A little-known and unimportant tidbit: I usually throw a song reference or two into every posting — not to be smarmy, but just because that’s what’s running through my head when I’m writing. They’re usually so obscure as to be unrecognizable…. nice job.

  7. Anonymous says:

    hi AJ…. once again after many months of absence, I found myself searching through your journal and felt a need to comment about your idea of ‘racism in america’
    I am a 33 year old white female…I am disabled from a car accident… so, female and disabled are 2 of the minorities in this country! but wait… throw in also I am muslimah! 3 reasons to be discriminated against and earn a lower pay than the average male hahaha
    you say very little in your entires, about religion, I wonder what are your views? Religion being a very controversial topic, like politics of course…I somehow think you could offer a deeper insite on the subject of religions like, Islam, hinduism, etc in the usa…what do you think of a muslim girl wearing hijab in usa? or permission to take breaks during classes for prayers? I find it ironic that in this country- of my birth btw- that GOD is everywhere! in the money, in the consitution, etc… but yet the government is trying and succeeding in removing the word GOD from things that are most important. This country does claim ‘freedom of religion’… yet a muslim girl was suspended in Texas for refusing to remove her hijab in school…again, a very contraversial topic, sorry…just I am interested in knowing what you think of this. great journal as always:) will continue checking it as always..
    your secret friend hahaha