Saturday, July 4, 2020

A Personal and Not so Personal History of Race in America

 "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana

            I’m a 27 year-old Mexican female with a lighter complexion. Though I didn’t think it at the time, I grew up in poverty, but my parents and their parents grew up in far worse conditions. My parents lived among gangs and gang violence. They had to learn to survive in an environment that was unjust towards them, and they spent years scraping their way out.

            Today, my dad is a small business owner and my mom received her Master’s degree to become a therapist for the homeless community after rising from homelessness herself.

            As a sociology minor in undergrad, I learned that it takes three generations for a family to escape the conditions they were born into. My mom’s mom spent most of her life in poverty, is an immigrant, and today proudly works for Costco. She does not own her home, nor has she received any higher form of education. My dad has owned a home twice – the first time with two of his brothers, and the second with his wife which he lost during the 2008 recession. My mom is currently working on buying her first home. My dad has never received higher education, while my mom accomplished hers later in her life.

            I am lucky and I am privileged because of their struggles.

            I was born a citizen. My mom was not.

            Because I have their support, in many ways that go beyond financial, I have been able to rent my own apartment for the past few years. Whenever I struggle financially, I am able to get their help, whereas my parents spent their lives also supporting their parents.

            I received a Master’s degree and have been to two private schools, even though I have a lot of loan debt now. My parent’s emphasis on education my entire life, while they worked hard to support me, laid down the path for me to achieve higher education degrees. My mom’s mom was trying to survive, so she emphasized work to her children and didn’t understand the benefit of education. My dad’s parents were unable to support him financially, so he had to start working at a young age to survive.

            Now that my mom has been in a better place financially, she bought and fully paid off a brand new car for me four years ago, so I have reliable transportation. She is working on buying her first house and intends to put it in my name, so I will have always property and stability.

            I have never been to jail. Nearly everyone on both sides of my family have been to jail more than once. Both sides of my family grew up in bad neighborhoods. When my parents were able, they made sure I grew up in a good neighborhood.

            I went to a good school. Most of my family members did not, and many among my generation didn't either.

            I have never been stopped by the cops. I owned a beat-up red 2000 Honda Civic for a while, which was then sold to my mom’s mixed Hispanic boyfriend who’s bald. He was stopped multiple times. Then one of my male friends owned the car for a time. He is not bald, but is also mixed Hispanic and has darker skin than me. He was stopped multiple times.

            I have two parents. My mom mostly only had her mom growing up. My dad didn’t really have either of his parents for different reasons.

            Despite these privileges, there also ones I don’t have.

            Though I have two parents, my parents are separated. During critical years of my preteen to teen years, my mom was homeless, and then we moved around constantly. I did not grow up in a single stable home.

            I am one of the first in my family to receive higher education degrees, which means that I lack role models in my family. There is not a path set for me where I can benefit from the successes of others. I’m limited in who I can learn from on how to succeed in life. Only in the past few years have my parents been fulfilling this role.

            This also ties into the limited connections and networks I have. The few I have gained have come from school.

            I have inherited nothing. My parents were at a greater disadvantage, because not only did they not inherit anything, they had to work to support their parents. Since all of my grandparents are immigrants, they didn’t come here owning land, which means my parents had no land or property to inherit, which means neither do I. My mom is currently working on that.

            I don’t see people of my race widely represented in media.

            I aspire to be an author, yet only 7% of American authors are a person of color.

            I don’t often see people of my race in high positions in America.

            I write all this to point out that I am starting at the level playing field three generations after my grandparents came here. All of my cousins benefit from the struggles of our parents and their parents. My parents started behind everyone else, and their parents even further back.

            A system in America has disadvantaged my entire family, thus disadvantaging me.

            I write this to show my own history in America, which is reflective of a greater American history regarding race.

Here’s a timeline of race and inequality in America:

- 1700 & 1800s: Alien Land Laws only allowed whites to own farmland.

- 1790: Naturalization Act allowed only “free white persons,” which included European settlers, to become naturalized citizens. California law eventually comes to classify Mexicans as White, and thus able to be naturalized.

- 1830: The 1830 Indian Removal Act forcibly relocated American Indians to go west of the Mississippi River in order to make room for white settlers.

- 1848: At the end of the Mexican- American War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo annexed 55% of Mexico, parts of present-day Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. Any Mexicans choosing to remain in those territories were given citizenship.

- 1854: In the case of People v. Hall, the California Supreme Court chose to deny Chinese, alongside Native and African Americans, the status to testify in courts against whites.

- 1862: The Homestead Act gave away 270 million acres of what had been Indian Territory to overwhelmingly white settlers.

- 1863: Slavery is abolished, yet many freed slaves went back to work for their previous masters because of lack of opportunities available to them.

- 1865: Lincoln signed an initiative for 40 acres of tillable land to be given to freed slaves. After Lincoln’s murder, Andrew Johnson responds to white backlash, and within a year of thousands of freed slaves receiving land, they were evicted. Ex-slave owners were given $300 compensation for their loss of property (their slaves were their property), the compensation that was supposed to go to freed slaves.

- 1870: The Naturalization Act of 1870 allowed naturalization to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent, but denied naturalization to other non-white groups, particularly Asian.

- 1877: Jim Crow laws were enacted in the South to enforce racial segregation. “Black Codes” were established to fine or arrest Blacks for working in any occupation that wasn’t farming or domestic servitude.

- 1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act, a law set to last ten years, severely limits Chinese immigration to America by excluding specifically Chinese laborers, and prevent any Chinese person from becoming a citizen. It’s a law based on class and race. This is the first time the U.S. restricts immigration.

- 1896: In Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court rules for “separate but equal,” thus further endorsing segregation.  

- 1904: The Extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act continues restricting Chinese Immigration, but this time without an end date.

- 1914: First World War begins

- 1917: In an effort to reduce immigration, the Immigration Act of 1917 barred anyone from the Middle East to Southeast Asia from entering the country. European immigration was allowed for those who could pass a literacy test (which took two decades to make), and who were fleeing persecution. Certain classes of immigrants were still allowed entry.

- 1918: First World War Ends

- 1921: Tulsa, a black affluent neighborhood known as “Black Wallstreet,” is looted and burned to the ground by whites.

- 1924: The Immigration Act of 1924 capped quotas of entry based on the nation’s 1890 census. Only those nationalities who were present in 1890 would be allowed entry, which particularly excluded Chinese immigrants, but also affected Eastern and Southern Europeans.

- 1929: The Undesirable Aliens Act of 1929 criminalized crossing the border outside an official port of entry, and was primarily designed to restrict Mexican immigration.

-1930: 9 % percent of Mexican men, 60% of southern and eastern Europeans, 80% of northern and western Europeans had naturalized.

- 1934: Under the New Deal, the Federal Housing Administration allows mortgage credit, which enables many to become homeowners for the first time. Redlining came into effect, which excluded black and integrated communities, who were considered high risk, and thus ineligible for home loans.
“Between 1934 and 1962, the federal government backed $120 billion of home loans. More than 98% went to whites. Of the 350,000 new homes built with federal support in northern California between 1946 and 1960, fewer than 100 went to African Americans.”

- 1935: 
            The Social Security Act was established and guaranteed millions of workers an income after retirement. However, it specifically excluded agricultural workers and domestic servants, who were predominately African American, Mexican, and Asian.

            The 1935 Wagner Act gave protections to workers by creating unions that allowed them to bargain with their employers and gave them certain rights, thus allowing many to move up into the middle class. Agricultural and domestic service jobs were excluded. This act permitted unions to exclude non-whites and deny them access to better paid jobs, union protections, and benefits such as health care, job security, and pensions.

- 1938: The New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) introduced a 40-hour work week, banned child labor, and established a federal minimum wage and overtime requirements. It excluded domestic, agricultural, and service occupations, primarily held by African Americans and other non-whites.

-1939: Second World War Begins

- 1942: The Bracero Agreement, lasting from 1942-1964, recruited men from Mexico to come work on farms and other war industries.

- 1942: President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized Japanese internment camps for Japanese Americans living within 100 miles of the west coast.

- 1943: The Zoot Suits riots take over Los Angeles, and eventually extend to other cities. Zoot suits were associated with Mexicans, and anyone wearing one was brutally attacked by U.S. servicemen and stripped of their clothing. Blacks and Filipinos, even those not wearing zoot suits, were also attacked.

- 1945: Second World War Ends.

            Japanese internment camps ends.

- 1952: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 eliminated racial exclusions to naturalization.

- 1954: Jim Crow laws ended.

- 1964: Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in the areas of employment, education, voting, and public accommodations.

- 1965: 
            Affirmative Action is initiated to improve opportunities for African American students who had been previously been discriminated against for entry into higher education.

            The Hart-Cellar Act for immigration replaces the highly discriminatory “national origins system” to allow each country to receive the same annual cap for immigrants. The new system implemented prioritizes family reunification (75 %), employment (20 %), and refugee status (5 %), which led to unprecedented numbers of non-European immigration. The system favored highly-educated workers who came seeking employment opportunities, but the law excluded “unskilled” workers seeking employment in agriculture, construction, and domestic service. This has fostered a growing population of illegal immigrants who gain employments in those fields, but lack the legal means to immigrate.

- 1968: The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex, thus making redlining illegal.

- 1971: War on drugs begins, which sets tough-on-crime policies. Communities of color are disproportionately targeted.

- 1978: In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that quotas in colleges may not be used to reserve spots for minorities, but race can still be a decision for college acceptance to produce a diverse student body.

- 1986: Immigration Reform and Control Act provides amnesty for 2.7 million long-term residents to receive legal permanent status.

- 1990: Black and Latino mortgage applicants are 60% more likely than whites to be turned down for a loan, even after controlling for employment, financial, and neighborhood factors.

- 1993: 
            White neighborhoods are the most segregated with 86% of suburban whites living in neighborhoods with a black population of less than 1%.

            College enrollment stats by race:
            22% of Hispanics
            25% of Blacks
            37% of whites

- 1995: 
            Subprime loans for housing, which start cheap but acquire substantial interest, targeted African Americans, who made up 52%, while whites made up 26.1%.

            In Adarand Constructors v. Pena, the Supreme Court ruled that federal affirmative action programs were unconstitutional unless they fulfilled a “compelling governmental interest.”

- 2001: New York City adopts “stop and frisk,” which allowed police to stop and search anyone in public.

- 2003: 
            Affirmative Action did not allow schools to have quotas, so students of certain races were given bonus points to be considered for schools. The Supreme Court says this is no longer allowed.

            Data for stop and frisk based on risk began being recorded. 160,851 NYPD stops were recorded:
            140,442 were innocent (87 %)
            77,704 were Black (54 %)
            44,581 were Latinx (31 %)
            17,623 were white (12 %)
            83,499 were aged 14-24 (55 %)

- 2008: During the 2008 recession and the housing collapse, spurred on by giving out subprime loans that acquired higher interest over time, Blacks lost 53 % of their wealth as opposed to whites who lost 16 %.

- 2011: At the height of stop and frisk, 685,724 NYPD stops were recorded:
            605,328 were innocent (88 %)
            350,743 were Black (53 %)
            223,740 were Latinx (34 %)
            61,805 were white (9 %)
            341,581 were aged 14-24 (51 %)

- 2014: College enrollment rates for ages 18-24:
            35% of Hispanics
            33% of Blacks
            42% of whites
            64% of Asians

            Stats by race for those who hold a Bachelor’s degree:
            15% of Hispanics
            22% of Blacks
            41% of whites
            63% of Asians

- 2015: The effects of the War on Drugs are still felt strongly.

            Blacks are four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana charges.

            Blacks make up nearly 30% of all drug-related arrests, despite accounting for only 12.5% of all substance users.

            Blacks are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses than whites, despite equal substance usage rates.

            Almost 80% percent of people serving time for a federal drug offense are Black or Latino. In state prisons, people of color make up 60% of those serving time for drug charges.

            In the federal system, the average black defendant convicted of a drug offense will serve nearly the same amount of time (58.7 months) as a white defendant would for a violent crime (61.7 months).

- 2016: Median White household wealth ($171,00). Median Black household wealth ($17,600)

- 2017: A study finds that since 1989, when applying for jobs, whites receive on average 36% more callbacks than Blacks, and 24% more callbacks than Latinos. The percentage of callbacks has not changed for Blacks, but it has risen for Latinos.

- 2018: 
            Though redlining has been banned for 50 years, the effects are still felt today. Nearly two-thirds of neighborhoods deemed “hazardous” in the 1930s are still inhabited by mostly Blacks and Latinos. These neighborhoods have greater economic inequality. In contrast, 91% of neighborhoods that were classified as “best” remain middle to upper class, and 85% of those residents are white.

            A study from 2011-2018 found that police commit more traffic stops against Blacks than whites. There was less discrepancy between races at night when the identity of the driver is obscured, giving evidence to the fact that racial bias in traffic stops exists.

            Black poverty rate is 20.7 %, versus white poverty rate at 8.1%. Median household income for whites is $70.6K, versus for Blacks it’s $41.7K

            Denial rates of homeownership loans by race:
            18% Blacks
            14% Hispanic
            10% Asian
            8% White

- 2019: A 2019 study looked at the CEOs of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies and found only 8.7% of the 675 companies in the study had CEOs of color. Of that 8.7%, Middle Easterns and Asians made the majority, then Hispanics, and lastly Blacks.

- 2020: Today,
            Unemployment still remains higher for Blacks than whites, with Covid still showing those disparities at 16.8 % for Blacks and 12.4 % for whites.

            Only four Fortune 500 companies have Black CEOs.

            The 116th Congress, which came into session after the 2018 midterm elections, is the most diverse ever with only 57 Blacks of the current 535 voting members.

            Stats of children who earned a college degree whose parents only finished high school:
            9.2% American Indian/ Alaska Native
            15% Black
            18.2% Hispanic
            24.5% White
            48.9% Asian

            Homeownership by race:
            44% Black
            48.9% Hispanic
            56% Other
            73.7% White

            Fatal police shootings of race in proportion to racial population:
            30 deaths per million Blacks
            22 deaths per million Hispanics
            12 deaths per million Whites
            4 deaths per million Other

            Of the 352 instances where police fatally shot unarmed people:
            145 of those people were white
            123 were Black
            63 were Hispanic
            21 were designated "other" or "unknown."
            — that's a rate of 10.7 white deaths per 10 million, and 30.1 Black deaths per 10 million.

This is not nearly a comprehensive outline of every racial event, law, or study that has happened in America. It's a broad outline that shows where we've been and how we came to where we are today.

For the best resource on understanding where we are today, I recommend the first link in my sources below.

25 simple charts to show friends and family who aren't convinced racism is still a problem in America
Zoot Suit Riots
Meta-analysis of field experiments shows no change in racial discrimination in hiring over time
Redlining was banned 50 years ago. It’s still hurting minorities today.
5 Facts About Latinos and Education
Affirmative Action
Fair Housing Act
Wagner Act
What Are Civil Rights
Naturalization Act of 1870
Jim Crow Law
RACE - The Power of an Illusion
Police: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Systematic Inequality and Economic Opportunity
Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers
Annual Stop-And-Frisk Numbers
How A Theory Of Crime And Policing Was Born, And Went Terribly Wrong
America's Long Overdue Awakening to Systemic Racism
If you don’t believe systemic racism is real, explain these statistics
A large-scale analysis of racial disparities in police stops across the United States
Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring outside Ethnic Lines, 1925
Beyond “White by Law”: Explaining the Gulf in Citizenship Acquisition between Mexican and European Immigrants, 1930
Tulsa Race Massacre: Was 1921 the first aerial assault on U.S. soil?
Tulsa's 'Black Wall Street' Flourished as a Self-Contained Hub in Early 1900s
Explained: Racial Wealth Gap
How racial bias works - and how to disrupt it
What We Get Wrong About Affirmative Action
Immigration Laws and Enforcements
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

Monday, May 11, 2020

How Will You Adapt to This New World?

“It is not a failure to readjust my sails to fit the waters I find myself in.”― Mackenzi Lee, The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

            A little over a week ago I got news about the job that I was supposed to start mid-March. The start date, which had been moved for the third time to May 18, was being moved to possibly July, but they couldn’t guarantee anything. Considering that I became depressed for a time because of my joblessness, this news was yet again depressing, but I was determined to be proactive.

            I outlined the plan for my life, scheduling writing time and siestas, as well as setting aside time to look for a new job. This was just another adjustment brought on by the coronavirus, but this time I planned to be prepared.

            Nearly a week went by as I accepted my new way of life when I got another call. I will in fact start May 18. Though incredibly grateful, my instant reaction was “I just figured out my life! Now I have to refigure it out!” I, like many people affected by this crisis, have been jobless for two months. Though it’s had its rough patches, I have for the most part flourished without a job. Now I must prepare to go to back to work.

            This rollercoaster of a week, along with seeing how adjusted my little sister is now, as well as others around me, got me to thinking how incredibly adaptive people are. Proof of our ability to adapt is the fact that a Dutch restaurant now serves customers in a glass cabin big enough for three people. Also, clubs have moved to online with live videos and people are able to join in. It’s amazing to me that though the world has seemed to come to a stop, we still find a way to keep living.

            Though humans find ways to be adaptive and resilient, our brains are hardwired to resist change. Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, explains that when we’re born, “We’re figuring out positive and negative behaviors, what is good for survival and avoiding consequences that would cause even short-term pain.” Nicole Spector simplifies in her article, “How to train your brain to accept change, according to neuroscience,” that, “Essentially our brains learn what works and what doesn’t early on… the brain gets used to doing certain things in a certain way so that over time, introducing new behavioral modes becomes challenging.”

            Our brains crave routine, mostly because it conserves energy that way. In “This is Your Brain OnChange,” Jordan Rickard says, “To help conserve energy, the brain has learned to hardwire repeated behaviors so they become automatic, rather than making the brain “work” to complete them, which would use up precious energy.” This is why learning new skills is a great brain workout, but is also very exhausting. Interesting enough, when we experience something new, the brain tries to assess if it is threat or not. To dissuade us from trying a new behavior, it releases noxious neurochemicals.

            To our brains, routine and what we already know is good and safe. Unpredictability and the unknown are bad and scary. I think that when this pandemic started, there was a lot more fear going around because we didn’t know how deadly it would be in our own communities, to ourselves, and how people would react to it. I remember when my dad heard about rioting and looting who knows where, he gave me a back-up plan to stay at my uncle’s for protection.

            Now that the dust has been settling, and we are slowly trying to get society moving again, people have been learning to adapt. Some better than others. In “Why 1in 3 People Adapt to Change More Successfully,” Nick Tasler gives an account of a twelve year study starting in the 1970’s that revolves around a dismantled phone company. The study followed hundreds of employees from before and after the dismantling. When the phone company split into several companies, half of the people the study followed was laid off while the other half stayed on.

            The study followed both groups for the next six years. They found, “The majority of people—whether they kept their jobs or lost their jobs—were brought to their knees by the change. There were divorces, strokes, cancers, suicides, kidney failures, heart attacks, alcoholism, drug addictions, and compulsive gambling.” However a third of the participants thrived.  Tasler says, “Those who stayed on at Illinois Bell became high-ranking leaders in the changed organization. Those who were laid off became shooting stars at their new companies.”

            The third of participants who thrived were no different than everyone else, except for this: “While everyone else tried to bounce back, the adaptive third took a step forward.” The ones who didn’t thrive felt lost and wanted to back track to the “good ‘ole days” when things made more sense to them. Tasler says, “When the researchers asked the employees about their plans for the future… their image of the future looked eerily similar to the past. They wanted to “bounce back” to a place that no longer existed.”

            When things have gone wrong, looking to the past is a very common experience. Roxane Cohen Silver “discovered that two out of three grieving widows, bereaved parents, and victims of terrorism, child abuse, and natural disasters, will instinctively look for meaning in the past. They try to find some explanation for their suffering.” However, multiple studies led her to discover that, “one out of three trauma victims will not search for a reason to explain why they are experiencing misfortune. And it is this one third who turn out to be the most well-adjusted—weeks, months, and years later.” In other words, the ones who look to the future instead of the past are the ones who thrive.

            With the study that followed the phone company employees, researchers learned that the one third who adapted well to the change also asked themselves what the change meant. The difference is that, “rather than trying to make sense of what they had done to deserve this experience, they tried to make sense of what they could do now that it had occurred.” Tasler says, “That might be the single greatest lesson of adaptation. Instead of asking why bad things happen to good people, adaptive people turn that timeless riddle on its head and ask what can good people do when bad things happen?”

            So then the next question becomes can you learn to adapt better to this new experience? But I think the question to answer first is how adaptable are you right now? The Center for Creative Leadership asks, “How do you respond when facing change? Do you:”
           Accept the change as positive?
           See the change as an opportunity?
           Adapt plans as necessary?
           Take into account other people’s concerns?
           Sort out your strengths and weaknesses fairly accurately?
           Admit personal mistakes, learn from them, and move on?
           Remain optimistic?

            F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W. explains in her article “How Well Adapted Are You?”, “Adaptability in its most basic form is “the ability to adjust to different conditions.”” She says the trick to adaptability is not to be fluid and ever changing to every new person and situation. “Adaptability does not mean giving up all that you hold dear. In fact, sometimes being overly flexible can create problems,” says Barth.

            Instead, the most important component of adaptability is, “the ability to change, when it would be useful, and to maintain a sense of stability about yourself at the same time.” I think that in today’s world, this is like a person who is into fitness finding creative ways to workout at home. Fitness is part of who they are, so an adaptable fit person wouldn’t let the closure of gyms keep them from their lifestyle. However, a person who is not good at adapting will either revolt against gym closures (seeking the old way of life), or stop working out.

            Barth says, “Adaptability, then, is not a matter of ignoring your own feelings, needs, beliefs, or thoughts and pushing through no matter what. It’s a process of interacting with changes – in your life, in the world around you, and even in yourself – with a mixture of compassion, understanding, and curiosity.”

            For my own situation, that start date for my new job has been moving around for two months. It’s definitely kept me on my toes, because at first, I didn’t expect to be out of work for so long. When the start date initially got pushed back two weeks, I thought I would have a leisurely three week vacation with plenty of time for writing. When it got pushed back a second time, I wondered what I would do with my life for a month. By the third time and fourth time, I despaired and struggled with depression. And now that I’m supposed to start work in a week, I’m worried and confused for entirely new reasons.

            This is not something I had any control over. All I could do was file for unemployment, and look for a new job in this dire job market. I couldn’t just push through to make everything work my way. I had to have understanding and compassion that the company I’m about to work for is facing its own challenges. Everyone is affected by what’s happening. So, I’ve been trying to adapt. And when I finally start this job, I’ll have to learn to adapt again. It’s been an interesting two months.

            Which now leads me to how does one learn to adapt? The Center for Creative Leadership says “If you want to improve your responses to change in the future… you need to practice the 3 components of adaptability: cognitive flexibility, emotional flexibility and dispositional flexibility.”
  • Cognitive flexibility: the ability to think divergently, learn from experience, and recognize when something is not working; learn how to approach a situation differently
  • Emotional flexibility: the ability to vary how to deal with your own or other people’s emotions; comfortable with the process of transition; doesn’t shut down or dismiss your own or other’s emotions
  • Dispositional flexibility: “the ability to remain optimistic and, at the same time, realistic;” acknowledges the bad while envisioning what can be better; “see change as an opportunity rather than as a threat or danger”

            What does this look like in practicality? There’s a lot of advice on the subject, but I’ll share my favorite ones:
  • Be curious – keep learning
  • Be open
  • Be resourceful – utilize what is already around you
  • Experiment
  • Be aware of your emotions, and of those around you
  • Look for opportunity in the midst of failure and chaos
  • Set multiple, achievable goals – small ones and big ones

            Staying at home without a job for two months has definitely been a bumpy ride. During this time some are thriving, and some aren’t. What’s most uplifting about adaptability is that you can choose to do it. It is a choice.

            Every time my start date got pushed back and I was faced with unknown weeks with nothing to do, I made the choice to focus on self-improvement. I’ve experimented with home remedies for random small ailments. I’ve kept my brain stimulated by practicing Spanish, reading, and writing. I’ve added healthy new habits that I hope to keep when I start working, like working out regularly and drinking green tea every day when I wake up. Above all, I’ve taken this as an opportunity to focus on my writing life.

            People have been calling this our “new normal.” There are many who want to get back to our old normal, but there are others who see the good changes that have been made, such as in pollution reduction. I even read recently that dating has changed and forced people to slow down and get to know each other before moving on to physical intimacy. Many advocates are calling for permanent changes to our healthcare system. Here in California, we see that as an opportunity to reform our jail systems and homeless situation.

            We can fight to go back to what was normal, but is that the best thing moving forward? I think about those men in that phone company that instead of looking to the past decided to look to the future. They decided to take this drastic change to their lives and turn it into a great opportunity. What will you do with this change?

Dutch restaurant trials glass booths for dining amid coronavirus
Adapting to Change Requires Flexibility
14 Signs of an Adaptable Person
How Well Adapted Are You?
Why 1 in 3 Adapt to Change More Successfully
5 Habits That Let Emotionally Intelligent People Adapt to Anything
How to Train Your Brain to Accept Change
This is Your Brain on Change
5 Ways to Adapt to Change in Life

Monday, May 4, 2020

What Sheeple Fear

"If man were not a gregarious animal, the world might have achieved, by this time, some real progress towards civilisation. Segregate him, and he is no fool. But let him loose among his fellows, and he is lost—he becomes just an unit in unreason.”― Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson

            During a leadership camp in high school, we had a director who liked to perform psychological tricks on us for either entertainment, but more often to teach us a lesson. One time when we sat in a large room filled with rows of seats, he sat upfront in the middle of the room. He told everyone to turn around and greet the person behind you on the count of three.

            I remember thinking to myself, “This is dumb. If we all turn around at the same time, then no one is going to be able to greet anyone.” Yet, by the time he counted to three, there I was turning around and greeting someone’s back.

            We all got a good laugh at it. His point turned out to be to think logically. He said we should always listen to those above us, except for when we think what they’re commanding is unethical or harmful. He told us to not turn off our brains.

           However, we turn off our brains and agency under three conditions: fear, authority, and conformity. In times of a pandemic, fear is high and we are all frantically looking for an authority to turn to, while still trying to feel connected to others.


             When I started coaching middle school students when I was 18, I learned very quickly how impressionable they were, even though I was only a few years older than them. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I would hear my off-handed remarks replicated by their mouths later. That’s when I learned I had to be very careful with what I said around them and that I couldn’t talk freely. I was their coach. I was an authority figure to them. What I said had an effect on them.

            Needless to say, adults are not as impressionable as children, but they don’t lose their inherent ability to listen to authority. In the famous Milgram Shock experiment, psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to test how obedient Americans were compared to Nazis, who often pleaded obedience as to why they committed so many atrocious crimes.

            In the experiment, a group of volunteers thought they were participating in a learning experiment. They were paired with another participant, who was secretly an actor, and then would draw straws (which was rigged) so one would be the “teacher” and the other the “learner.” The voluntary participant would always be the teacher.

            The teacher was required to administer shocks to the learner for every question he got wrong, and were to gradually increase the voltage. The learner would pretend to get shocked and exclaim things like, “Let me out of here!” “My heart’s bothering me,” “You have no right to keep me here,” and screaming. Listening to the clips, the learner definitely sounds very distressed whenever he gets shocked.

            Whenever the teacher didn’t want to continue, the experimenter in the room, dressed in a grey lab coat and also an actor, would gently prod phrases such as, “Please continue. The experiment requires you to continue. It is absolutely essential that you continue. You have no other choice but to continue.”

            The results were: “65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e., teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.” 450 volts would’ve killed the learner. Milgram concluded: “Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up. People tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and/or legally based.”

            Milgram explained his results through his agency theory. In social situations, we are either in an autonomous state, directing and taking responsibility of our own actions, or an agentic state, in which others direct our actions and thus they have responsibility for the consequences of those actions.

            For someone to enter the agentic state, Milgram says two conditions must be met:
  1. The person giving the orders is perceived as being qualified to direct other people’s behavior. That is, they are seen as legitimate.
  2. The person being ordered about is able to believe that the authority will accept responsibility for what happens.
            This is shown most clearly in Milgram’s variation of this experiment – “For example, when participants were reminded that they had responsibility for their own actions, almost none of them were prepared to obey. In contrast, many participants who were refusing to go on did so if the experimenter said that he would take responsibility.”

            In the variations, obedience dropped under conditions such as an “ordinary member of the public” dressed in casual clothing prodding the teacher instead of the experimenter in the lab coat. Obedience also dropped when they couldn’t see the experimenter, and when the location was moved from the prestigious Yale offices to run down ones.     

            This shows we are more obedient to those who look like there are in authority and are in a trusted place of authority. We are often obedient to authority figures who tell us to do something, even if it goes against our ethical values or logic.

            Which is why Maryland received hundreds of calls “from residents asking about the effectiveness of ingesting disinfectants to treat coronavirus after President Donald Trump dangerously suggested that it could be a possible treatment for the deadly virus.” Similarly, Illinois and Michigan also saw an increase in calls to poison control about the president’s remarks.

            Listening to authority can be good or bad depending on who we’re listening to. Many people have chosen to listen to doctors and experts about the coronavirus and how we should be handling it. However, when two doctors from Bakersfield went viral after “debunking” the coronavirus, many listened to them to.

            I think that during times of fear, we are especially vulnerable to wanting to listen to anyone who we think has credible information or has our best interests in mind. We may not always do this logically, but as mentioned, listening to authority is no time to turn off your brain. We should be questioning and evaluating everything we hear and not basing decisions off of fear, especially since there is so much misinformation out there.

            In Ed Yong’s article in the Atlantic, “Why is the Coronavirus So Confusing,” he says, “We hunger for information, but lack the know-how to evaluate it or the sources that provide it.” He goes on to quote Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, “This is the epistemological crisis of the moment: There’s a lot of expertise around, but fewer tools than ever to distinguish it from everything else.”

            We want to listen to experts, but we are simply overwhelmed by information that seems to contradict itself and even change day by day. I think the best explanation Yong provided is that in academia, when new information is found, it is debated and reviewed by peers. There is often an oscillation of information as peers decide if the tools they used to come to those conclusions were sound and accurate, and if their data and results fits into the bigger picture. This is normal. The debates and information is usually only seen by the academic community.

            However, now the world is taking in all this oscillating information as well without knowing how the process works. We are ready to believe every new piece of information not understanding it needs to be evaluated by others first. Yong’s point is, “that individual pieces of research are extremely unlikely to single-handedly upend what we know about COVID-19.”

            Not understanding the process of academia puts everyone in a dangerous position of grasping what every “expert” or even self-proclaimed experts seem to say. If we are programmed to listen to authority, and two doctors come out saying the coronavirus is just like the flu, then I understand why so many people would want to believe it, especially since it’s also what they want to believe. However, this information doesn’t fall in line what most other experts are saying and thousands of doctors are experiencing.

            At the end of the day, listening to authority is best useful when we are still using our own logic. When authorities say washing your hands and social distancing will help slow the spread of the virus, and this message is being repeated by many authorities all around the world and proven to be effective, then we know it’s information we can trust. If we’ve gone our entire lives knowing that ingesting disinfectant and bleach is deadly, then it’s safe to believe that it is still deadly despite the offhanded remarks of a single person in charge of an entire country.

            Because this is a pandemic that has become about so much more than health, Yong has some advice:

            “But pandemics demand both depth and breadth of expertise. To work out if widespread testing is crucial for controlling the pandemic, listen to public-health experts; to work out if widespread testing is possible, listen to supply-chain experts. To determine if antibody tests can tell people if they’re immune to the coronavirus, listen to immunologists; to determine if such testing is actually a good idea, listen to ethicists, anthropologists, and historians of science. No one knows it all, and those who claim to should not be trusted.”


            Not only do we listen to authority, but we also listen to groups. That’s why I like to call the vast majority of people – sheeple (a term I did not make up, but is very fun to use).       

            In the article, “Herd Mentality Explained,” Rick Nauert, PhD says that research has shown the vast majority of us make decisions based off the actions of others. In a series of experiments, groups of people were asked to walk around a large hall. A select few were given a direction to walk, and it didn’t take long for everyone else to follow them even though there were no verbal cues and physical gestures to guide them.

            They conducted this experiment with different sized groups and varied the amount of informed individuals, and found that, “it takes a minority of just five percent to influence a crowd’s direction — and that the other 95 percent follow without realizing it.”

            In “TheFear and Pain of Going Against the Crowd,” David Zuckerman states another study that exemplifies how people conform. Neuroscientists conducted an experiment in which participants took a test in different settings, individually and in a group. In the first setting, participants took the test by themselves and correctly answered 90% of the questions. “When participants could see the answers given by other people in the group, however, only 59 percent of questions were answered correctly — a rate that it is statistically equivalent to flipping a coin to make the decision.”

            Brains scans performed on participants during the test found that once the group had chosen an answer, “there was a decrease in activity in the parts of the brain that are associated with logical thinking.” They literally stopped thinking, or at least significantly thought less about the right answer.

            When following the spread of information on social media platforms, this has proven to be incredibly dangerous. Yong points out, “On Twitter, false information spreads further than true information, and at six times the speed.” RenĂ©e DiResta of Stanford, who studies how narratives spread online, says, “this is not just a problem of the internet… For a lot of people, what is true is what the people I’ve chosen to trust in my community say is true.” This means that liberal and conservative Americans see this pandemic differently.

            Interestingly enough, in a 2014 study conducted by Chapman University, even the fears of Democrats and Republicans differed – “Democrats were most likely to be worried about personal safety, pollution, and man-made disasters. Republicans, meanwhile, had the highest levels of fear about the government, immigrants, and “today’s youth.”” I think we still seeing these leanings during this pandemic.

            DiResta says that in a disaster people share information “to be useful to their community.” So, the intention isn’t to spread misinformation and fear, but it’s definitely a consequence. Yong says, “Since the pandemic began, scientists have published more than 7,500 papers on COVID-19.” Everyone has been frantically trying to find and share information that they think will be the most useful to the community and world.

            Despite all these publications and findings, Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist and a sociologist of science at the University of Washington, says there have not be “a lot of huge plot twists” in what we know and have been learning about Covid-19. Consider that. So much information is shared that it seems we’re learning something new every day, when in reality, we’ve only solidly learned a few small things.

            So every time you hear a new piece of information about this virus, consider the process of academia and how information must be weighed and debated. Consider that just because one group of people says one thing, and that group aligns with what you believe or want, it may not be the most accurate information.

            We have leanings to want to believe some information versus others. But whether Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, following this news network or another, business owner or healthcare worker, working or unemployed, student or parent, we are all affected by this pandemic. We all want the best solutions and it will take a lot of creative expert minds to find what’s best for everyone.

            And if you are inclined to believe that you have your own independent mind and are not just a follower, or part of the sheeple, statistically, that just isn’t probable. With that being said, during times of crisis, the sheeple mentality can be used for good or bad, but this, I believe, is directed by our fear.


            One of the prominent feelings going around is that many of us are afraid and for different reasons. We are fearful for our health and the health of our loved ones. We are fearful about job instability and financial hardship. There are even those fearful about the government and liberty restrictions. Collectively, I believe most people in America, if not the world, are afraid of something right now.

            Nadya Dich, Ph.D., addresses fear during a pandemic in her article, “What Fear and Anxiety Can and Cannot Do for (and With) You.” She explains fear and anxiety are part of a stress response meant to keep us safe. She says, “It mobilizes our energy, both mental and physical, so we can either escape from the threat or cope with it. We think and react faster, are more alert and awake, and engage in behaviors that will keep us safe.”

            So, fear is useful, until it’s not. Past a point, “the surge of stress hormones that accompanies intense anxiety and fear diminishes our access to higher-level cognitive processes. When the brain is on stress hormones, seeing perspective, out-of-the-box thinking, and creativity may be temporarily unavailable to us, impairing our abilities to solve problems and make decisions.”

            I find it interesting that the same emotion that activates brain activity also diminishes it when we have too much of it. It’s safe to say that during a prolonged pandemic with increasing and new fears arising, we have too much fear.

            In “The Psychology of Irrational Fear,” written during the time of Ebola, Olga Khazan says we fear the unexpected or unknown, when it’s “too close to home” or affects us personally, and even are more afraid of outside occurrences when we feel physically vulnerable. Fear can lead us to avoid people and places simply because others are avoiding them. However, the feeling of loss of control is likely to bring out our worst phobias.

            Madhukar Trivedi, chair of the University of Texas-Southwestern’s Mental Health Department, says, “people are more afraid of flying than of driving cars because “in a car, at least I know when to brake. In a plane, I have no control.”” During times like these, I think fear of loss of control is what drives us predominately.

            We fear spreading the virus and infecting others, so many of us have chosen to adhere to stay at home orders and stay home, which I believe is a good thing. Fear is, afterall, meant for our survival.

            On the other hand, having places of business close down is outside a business owner’s control, as well as customer participation and the overall economy. With the closing of businesses, finances are much less in their control, which means security and stability, and not knowing how to feed their families is not in their control. This is when panic sets in.

            In Karen Thomspon Walker’s Ted Talk, “What Fear Can Teach Us,” she explains what role the imagination plays in fear. She tells the story of a real life event in 1819 about 20 American sailors who were shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean 3,000 miles off the coast of Chile. They found themselves with three options.

            With limited food and navigational equipment on their lifeboats, they could go to the nearest island 1,000 miles away, which was rumored to have cannibals. Another option was Hawaii, but the crew feared the storms that happened during that season. Their last option was to sail 1,500 miles south in hopes of reaching winds that would push them to the coast. That journey would be the longest and their food supple was sure not to last.

            They eventually decided on the longest journey, and when the crew was finally found by another ship, half the crew had died, the rest were starving, and some members had resorted to cannibalism.

            Walker explains logically, going to the closest island would’ve led to the highest chance of survival, but instead they chose the most illogical choice. She explains, “Of all the narratives their fears wrote, they responded only to the most lurid, the most vivid, the one that was easiest for their imaginations to picture.”

            Whatever is most visceral to us is easiest to fear most. In this way, fear is very illogical. It’s why most people fear shark attacks more than car crashes, even though the latter is far more likely. Just as that 1819 crew could most vividly picture being eaten by cannibals more than starvation.

            What we can imagine vividly and see right in front of us seems like a more real threat that something possibly far away or invisible. This is similar to how during this pandemic, there are those who believe it’s a hoax, or that lockdowns have been overexaggerated. Tufekci says, “There are two lessons one can learn from an averted disaster. One is: That was exaggerated. The other is: That was close.”

            Yong says, “Last month, a team at Imperial College London released a model that said the coronavirus pandemic could kill 2.2 million Americans if left unchecked. So it was checked… The death toll is still climbing, but seems unlikely to hit the worst-case 2.2 million ceiling. That was close. Or, as some pundits are already claiming, that was exaggerated.”

            However accurate the models are or not, the point still lies that much death has been averted. Yong goes on to say, “I can still read accounts of people less lucky—those who have lost, and those who have been lost. But I cannot read about the losses that never occurred, because they were averted. Prevention may be better than cure, but it is also less visceral.”

            Prevention and averted death is not something we can tangibly see. What’s right in front us is massive unemployment, financial insecurity, and many other problems caused by the lockdown. Thus, these fears have been looming bigger to many people.

            I strongly believe that had we done nothing, and our healthcare systems got overwhelmed and hundreds of thousands died, there would instead be protests for the government to step in and do something.

            There has also been the other argument of who the virus primarily affects, and for those who don’t fall into the category, they think they have less to fear. For those people, fear of the economy failing is much greater than fear of the virus.

            Combine these fears from all ends of the spectrum with the fact that heightened fear impairs our thinking, then it completely makes sense why protestors would huddle in groups without wearing masks. Protesting is a liberty granted to us. Protesting without the measures that have been provided to us is just plain stupid.

            To combat fear, Walker says we need the coolness of judgment of a scientist. The fact is that this pandemic has affected all of us, but not all of us in the same way. A suffering business owner has to weigh the risks of his own livelihood, as well as his employees, with the health of all those who his business comes into contact with. A nurse must weigh the danger of infecting his/her family by not coming home. Teachers and parents must weigh the education of students.

            There is no one size fits all solution. Everyone is scared of something and acting from that fear. If a struggling business owner talked to someone who has lost a loved one to the virus, I wonder what kind of insights would be gained.


            When we listen to authority, we turn off our agency and critical thinking skills. When we conform to the herd, we let others decide for us. When fear dominates our life, logic goes out the window. These reactions are justified and normal, but this is not a time to turn off your brain.

            I still often think back to that leadership camp in high school. A room filled with at least 50 students and every single of one of them turned around to greet someone’s back. It’s silly really. Especially since I had thought it was dumb and followed anyway. Not only was I being given an order, but everyone else was turning around too. 

            I’m not a high school student anymore, and I doubt anyone who reads this is. What would have happened if I had stopped, questioned a little longer, and followed my own logic? What would happen if the world did that?

Maryland Receives "Hundreds" of Calls
Calls to Poison Control Spike
The Fear and Pain of Going Against the Crowd
The Milgram Shock Experiment
What Fear and Anxiety Can (And Cannot) Do For You
The Psychology of Irrational Fear
Why the Coronavirus is So Confusing
Herd Mentality Explained
What Fear Can Teach Us