Be the change you want to see in the world.

I caught this article being passed around Facebook. The (major?) gangs in Baltimore have realized that after all this time, blood, tragedy, and outcry, there’s been no changes to the system. And the changes they need to the system may never happen in their lifetime. Rather than waste more energy trying to make a difference, they decided to just come together and make a difference themselves.

“What the fuck is a thug? Everybody wants to call somebody a thug but has anybody gotten on TV and told you what the fuck a thug is yet? Because they don’t know. … Is there a difference between us right now and [the cops] right now? What’s the difference? I don’t see a difference so if I’m a thug, they a thug. Only difference is they got a gun, all I got is hands and feet. They have direct orders if things get out of hang to shoot and kill. I have direct orders just to make it home safe and make sure everybody else get home safe. So I don’t know who’s the thug?

“I just feel like if you don’t understand something you shouldn’t speak on it. You come down here, we gonna show you nothing but love and a whole lotta respect. You talk to us; and if you not ready to talk to us, than don’t judge us.”

Article: “We Ain’t Choosing No Sides; We Just Choosing Our Side”: The gangs of Baltimore believe they can do a better job policing their community than the police.

I’m sad to say this story isn’t all change and hope. Amy Nelson, the writer of the story, has been keeping tabs on the men and women she talked to, and it’s going downhill.

“The gangs feel they are being targeted by police because of their unity. First with the five arrests on Saturday night, then on Monday afternoon when they say one member, Meech, was shot by police. In a briefing on the street Monday afternoon, the Baltimore Police Department denied anyone had been shot or injured. But other gang members told me he was and then they were subsequently maced.”

Continuing updates here:


Nauseating statistics: black infant mortality rates

Now that I’ve picked out some geographically and racially diverse locations for my game’s protagonist–a black male US citizen–to be born, today I did a little research on infant mortality rates to see if there was a substantial difference between white baby deaths and black baby deaths in the US.

I am not a mother and have no plans to ever become one, so this isn’t a topic that I know much about. I really did not know if this would even be a factor that would be statistically significant enough to bother including as a part of the game’s narrative.

I’m sure there are black mothers who just read the paragraph above who are either laughing or crying at my naiveté.

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So black infants are twice as likely to die within their first year than white infants. What in the hell?!

Ok, so this is a huge problem. How do we fix it? Short answer: we have no freaking idea.

Probably because it’s babies dying, and we have great big Love For Babies in our country, scientists have jumped on this problem. They jumped on it 50 years ago, apparently.

“[Negro Americans] must march from the cemeteries where our young and our newborns die three times sooner and our parents die seven years earlier. They must march from there to established health and welfare centers. – National Urban League Director Whitney Young, August 28, 1963

It is hard to believe that after half a century of social, scientific, and medical progress, these words by Whitney Young are as telling today as they were in 1963 when he spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Today, as in the early 1960s, black infants are more than twice as likely as white infants to die within their first year of life.”


So what have researchers been doing for fifty years? Trying to figure out the underlying cause of the problem. Is it genetic? Economic? Political? Social? Environmental? Some heinous combination of all of the above? We still are very, very unsure.

“Many factors are known to affect birth outcomes – these include the mother’s age, education, health status, and behavior during pregnancy. But study after study show that these factors fail to explain large differences by race.

Highly educated white women who wait until their 20s and 30s to have a child have much better birth outcomes than highly educated black women of the same age. In fact, black mothers with college and even advanced degrees have a higher infant mortality rate than white mothers who have not finished high school.

Nor do genetics explain the difference. The birth weights of babies born in the US to African-born mothers are similar to those of babies born to white American mothers – and both are significantly higher than those born to black American women.”


If this all isn’t enough to make you feel queasy yet, keep reading. A recent study looked at twins to “attempt to untangle how genetic and prenatal environmental variation may make different contributions to infant health among white and black populations in the United States.” In the end, they didn’t really get very far, mostly because you can’t untangle genetics and environment from our current cultural idea of race. But in the study they made this Darwinian side observation that is absolutely appalling:

“Integrating the above empirical patterns (e.g., survival paradox) with social stratification perspectives, some authors raise the possibility that black babies’ smaller sizes may reflect a biological and/or genetic adaptation to adverse social and environmental circumstances (i.e., the “robustness hypothesis”) (Mangold & Powell-Griner, 1991; North & MacDonald, 1977). Given adverse conditions, a smaller size may be an advantage. With inadequate environmental resources, giving more energy to organ development, and less to overall body size, is likely to increase survival. In an evolutionary adaptive scenario, genetic mutation and natural selection over generations could have led black babies to have more “thrifty genotypes” that are better suited to environmental deprivation. In an individual-level gene-expression scenario, dispro- portionate exposure to prenatal environmental stressors among black fetuses could lead to a “thrifty adaptive response,” altering how genotypes for growth and development are expressed.”


That’s right. Black babies could have a higher mortality rate because so many black people in our country have lived in deprivation for so many generations that their children evolved to adjust to the condition of not getting enough to sustain their tiny little lives. So that now, even when they do have enough, it doesn’t matter–the evolutionary damage has been done.

There is another theory that is gaining traction because it half-sidesteps the quagmire of genetic and socioeconomic factors, and is something that is relatively easy to track. It won’t make you feel any better.

The theory is that black women, regardless of socioeconomic status, are simply exposed to more psychosocial stress. Stress produces hormones that are believed to play an important role in triggering labor in pregnant women. And in black women, the elevated buildup of stress hormones may trigger early labor and other pregnancy problems.

“That’s the theory,” Parker Dominguez said, adding that studies that have controlled for poverty and other socioeconomic factors appear to back it up.

For poorer black women, elevated stress may come from dealing with poverty and unstable families. For middle-class women, from having to work harder to prove themselves at work and having to battle preconceived notions about their abilities. And across income levels, black women experience stress due to real or perceived racism. The theory goes that over time, elevated stress from all of these social factors has a “weathering” effect that takes a toll on black women’s bodies.”


That’s….godawful. The effects of endemic racism in the US is not just psychologically, but physiologically wearing away at the health and well-being of our citizens and their children (in more ways than one).

Needless to say, these statistics will be in the game narrative. Players will have a 1.14% chance of not making it past their first year of life. And if they choose to have children, there will be a 1.14% chance the infant will die. It will actually be less clearcut than that; this site breaks the statistics out by state, and I’ll use those for each location.

OMG, maybe this project isn’t crazy!

While I have no right to assume anything I do will have the reach of the Harry Potter series, this is a pretty amazing study that proves that kids who read Harry Potter have more empathy for the disadvantaged.

Things like this make me proud to be a Humanities major and artist. It’s funny, my first thought about this project was to write some story of science fiction/fantasy story to help illustrate this new “form” of racism. Maybe moving statistics and real-life narratives into fantastical fiction stories will be the next step.

For those who prefer their sources to be primary, here is a link to the study.

we are statistically significant!

I meant to add this yesterday. In poking around at the Census data, I found that I have my own subcategory!

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I feel all properly raced, now that I have a category. Look at us! A decade ago our numbers were so low that they (statistically) rounded to 0. But now we are 0.1%!! Statistically significant! Congrats everybody!

When I was growing up, I didn’t have a nifty multiracial category. I’d have to pick one race. How do you pick one–especially with the social consequences that (still) loom over the choice? When I did pick one, I was often told I picked incorrectly. As ridiculous as it sounds, other people had different rationales as to which race I should pick. The one time I lived in Florida, the woman at the DMV offered to register me to vote as I was acquiring my Florida license. I agreed, and she told me I’d get my new voter card in the mail. When it arrived I found out I was white and Republican. Fascinating!

(I do pass for white. My category makes for a genetic cornucopia of skin tones, hair types, and eye colors, as my similarly-raced cousins can attest. Some of us pass for white, some don’t.)

On that note, my biggest “pick a race” time was when I went off to college. Stanford had clubs for minorities, and I was encouraged to join them. I did join SAIO–the Stanford American Indian Organization. At the time I was literally a card-carrying Narragansett Indian, so that felt like a reasonable choice (yes, “at the time” implies “but not now”–my tribe revoked my membership when they culled the tribal rolls so they wouldn’t have to split the nonexistent casino profits more ways). Even with documentation and the kindness of the SAIO community, I still felt uncomfortable, because I do look white. I have the choice to disclose my multiracial status–or not.

That is the reason that I never sought out the Black Community organizations at Stanford. While it’s likely the community members would have been kind–people generally are when you get to know them as individuals–I felt like I would have been an interloper. I still do. I won’t ever have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be Black in America. I can ask my dad and his side of our family, of course. And I will, and I want to. It’s my heritage, but because race in America is defined as “other,” it’s not my culture. I am not other.

But I’m not really the same, either. I have a couple of white friends who, when learning that I am considerably less white than I seem (I’m more or less half), have confided in me that they are scared of Black people. I never treat these confessions lightly. There is an undercurrent of shame and relief that is not being directly communicated during these conversations but I can feel both buzzing in the air. Of course I don’t know exactly what to say–my dad looks black and my mom looks white and I love them both. If I’m scared of someone, it’s because I feel threatened by their actions or words, not their skin color. Perhaps they think that I am wiser than I truly am, that because I come from many heritages that I somehow instinctively understand the nuances of all of them. The truth is that I don’t feel like I belong to any racial culture. The best I can do is take each individual for who they are and accept them for that.

In any case, I am feeling like now is the time for me to start exploring the Black side of my heritage.  If I can make a difference in the effed up conversation about race, even for just a few people, then it will have been worth it.

Where to Begin?

I put in a good chunk of time floundering around the U.S. Census website today. Today’s goal was to gather some ideas about where our black baby boy’s story could begin.

I decided that I want the game to randomly pick a place from a few choices. It’ll be interesting to see if one place has advantages over another. And, no one gets to pick where they are born.

I decided to go with a mix of places based on area of the country and the percentage of blacks in the city’s population. When I started poking into the statistics for individual cities, the website came up. They have already picked out most of the data I need from the 2010 census (and certain census projections) and formatted it in an easy-to-read way. I think I’m already in love.

As an initial stab at this, I’ve picked the following places as starting points:

  • New York
  • Chicago
  • Los Angeles
  • Atlanta
  • Jackson, MS
  • Detroit
  • New Orleans

I’m pretty excited–I didn’t think I’d be able to find reliable information so easily and be ready to start building a piece of the game so soon. This might be more do-able than I thought.

Baltimore, and other unease.

People are saying a lot about what happened in Baltimore on Monday. Here’s some of what people are saying.

Glenn Beck:

“I hate to say this, but last night as I was writing before I went to bed, I wrote in my journal Martin Luther King is truly dead. If nothing changes, our country will suffer the same fate. Amidst the bullets, the rocks, the shattered glass, the fire, remains a glaring vacuum of leadership. As Baltimore burns, where are the voices crying out for peace, for common sense? As angry protests ferment chaos, powerful voices remain painfully silent.”


Breanna Champion:

“I have hope that justice can come non-violently, but it also comes through violence. That’s the reality of America.”


Larry Hogan

“Today’s looting and acts of violence in Baltimore will not be tolerated. In response, I have put the Maryland National Guard on alert so they can be in position to deploy rapidly as needed. I strongly condemn the actions of the offenders who are engaged in direct attacks against innocent civilians, businesses and law enforcement officers. There is a significant difference between protesting and violence and those committing these acts will be prosecuted under the fullest extent of the law.”


I pulled these quotes because they match a theme that I’ve noticed in the comments made by many of my peers on Facebook. The conversation around what happened Monday is completely fixated on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the behaviors of the protesters. Responses range from anger to bafflement to disappointment to defense of those protesters who committed acts of violence. Some people feel compelled to point out that the majority of the protesters were peaceful, that they were caring and gracious, and that they were on the side of the riot-geared police.

Why are we not talking about race? Why are we not talking about the systemic discrimination that keeps black citizens from the equal opportunities for prosperity and happiness that they deserve?

There seems to be this pervasive idea that because 50 years have passed since the Civil Rights Movement, things must have progressively gotten better and better.

“Racial prejudice has increased slightly since 2008 whether those feelings were measured using questions that explicitly asked respondents about racist attitudes, or through an experimental test that measured implicit views toward race without asking questions about that topic directly.

In all, 51% of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48% in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56%, up from 49% during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.”


Life for blacks in America got better after the 1960s. But ‘better’ isn’t ‘equal’ or even ‘good.’ So what’s going on? How do we fix it?

What’s going on seems to be a complete breakdown of conversation around the topic.

Whites think they are a better judge of racism than blacks, particularly since blacks tend to imagine racism when it is not there.

The truth is blacks imagine little. Discrimination in hiring, housing and education has been well documented. The government should take forceful action to end it as it goes against the American value of equal opportunity for all regardless of race.

Yet almost no white person talks like that. Instead they use the frames to avoid saying anything like that. At best they will admit to discrimination but then discount its effects. Or they will say they believe in equality of opportunity but then find reasons to oppose any policy with the teeth to achieve it.”


This new, insidious racism makes me furious. As a multiracial child in the late 70s / early 80s, I knew racism was very clear and easy to identify. Now, we apparently acknowledge racism as a problem that is tragic but not bad enough to warrant fixing. As a country we have built up a perception around race that is impervious to all assaults of fact.

“Median income among black Americans is roughly half that of white Americans. But a narrow majority of whites believe blacks earn as much money as whites, and just 37% believe that there’s a disparity between the two groups. Likewise, while 56% of blacks believe black Americans face significant discrimination, only 16% of whites agree,” he writes.

“Many whites — including many millennials — believe discrimination against whites is more prevalent than discrimination against blacks.”

But as Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out in The New York Times, the U.S. has a greater wealth gap between whites and blacks than South Africa had during apartheid.


We don’t have the language to talk out systemic discrimination. Inherent racial bias keeps us from seeing the truth. So we talk about the merits and demerits of violent protest. It’s the only common ground we have left to discuss.

I realized that I wanted to do something to help. For the past day and a half, I’ve been trying to think of a way to artistically present this new, post-millennial form of racism. So that maybe everybody can get a better handle on what’s going on. Charts and graphs and statistics and studies are clearly not swaying opinions.

So I decided that I am going to make a video game. Specifically, a piece of interactive fiction. The protagonist will be a black male, and you will get to experience his story by choosing his actions. The outcome of your choices will be calculated based on the data gathered in all these studies. You will have a black man’s odds of getting into college. Of being stopped by the police. Of getting hired for a job. What decisions will you make for this character, when you climb into his skin?

This blog is going to be a record of my progress. I expect that this is going to take a while and require a large amount of research and interviews to get done. I want to be transparent about the process, and document the resources I will use.

I am excited, and terrified, and determined. I don’t know if this will make a huge difference. Or any difference. But I need to try.