School Resegregation


How School Choice Reestablishes Segregation in Our Schools, and How the Federal Government is Complicit

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education for the Trump Administration last February, in an interesting way, marked a deviance from the past. It was the first time a Vice President had to submit a tie-breaking vote in a confirmation vote for a cabinet position. Opponents to confirmation of DeVos voiced concerns about her family’s donations to Republican organizations as her way into the Cabinet, her past statements degrading public education, and her financial support for poor-performing charter schools in Detroit. But in one important regard, the DeVos confirmation is a continuation of a decades-long tradition. Since the Reagan administration, including the George W. Bush, Barack Obama administrations, charter schools have been promoted by the federal government. This promotion of school choice, among other things, is a significant reason for a increase of racial isolation and segregation in schools.

Background on School Segregation

Chief Justice Earl Warren, on May 14, 1954, delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court on Brown v. Board of Education stating “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The reaction among segregationists was to resist the desegregation orders that followed Brown.

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The fierce resistance against integration efforts in Little Rock, Arkansas. [Image Source]

The Little Rock Nine is one well-known example of Black students attempting to integrate Central High School, a previously all-White school, but facing fierce resistance. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus used his power to prevent the integration efforts. President Dwight Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to force the integration and protect the Black students.

One year after the Brown ruling, in 1955, Milton Friedman, then an economist at the University of Chicago, proposed a new idea to solve the new “problem” in education in which the parents could not decide which schools their children went to. He developed the voucher system to provide choice to the parents. The voucher idea is simple: rather than all money earmarked for education going directly to (now integrated) public schools, the government should give each family a voucher worth as much as the per-pupil spending in that area. If parents wanted to send their kid to public school, the public school got their voucher money. But if a parent wanted to enroll their child in a private school, then the private school would receive that money instead.

While initially meant for Catholic families hoping to send their kids to Catholic schools, resistors of the Brown desegregation order quickly realized the utility of the voucher system in their fight against racial integration of schools. White Citizens Councils, an organizational arm of the massive White resistance to desegregation, opened private “segregation academies” or “Council schools” to provide alternatives for White students to the racially integrated public schools. In Prince Edward County in Virginia, the White power structure decided to close the public school rather than desegregate them.

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Sign in front of a closed public school in Prince Edward County, Virginia. [Image Source]
Prince Edward County provided vouchers to every family, Black or White (in order to appear race-neutral), which they could use to attend any available school. The only schools available, however, were private all-White schools. Black families were simply out of luck. Under the premise of “providing choice” for students, White Resistors found a way to undercut the Supreme Court’s desegregation orders.

In 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court and a federal district court ruled that closing all public schools was unconstitutional, and ordered the schools to reopen. It took another five years for Prince Edward County to comply. Black students were without opportunities for formal education for years.

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Students protesting the closure of public schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia. [Image Source]
Throughout the 20th century, some of the only opportunities for quality education for Black students (and other students of color) were Freedom Schools. In Mississippi, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) began the Freedom Schools during Freedom Summer of 1964. The schools not only provided the education denied to Black students, but much needed empowerment as well. Through lessons in Black history, art, and culture, students were taught that their lives had value and they had real possibilities to succeed.

The only force pushing for desegregation in public schools seemed to be the progressive rulings of the Supreme Court. But in 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren retired and newly-elected Republican Richard Nixon got the opportunity to replace him. Nixon chose conservative Warren Burger to take the position as Chief Justice. The Supreme Court became stacked with conservative justices and progress toward Black educational equity quickly subsided.

Benefits of Racial Diversity and Integration

I believe that working to achieve racial diversity in schools for its own end is a virtuous endeavor. Schools do not exist outside of society, free from political and social issues that the “adults” work out while the kids attend their academic bubbles and just learn “the facts” of life. What we teach, how we teach it, and how we assess student learning are all inherently political choices that policymakers and education professional make. Schools are thus products of political and social decisions and debates around particular issues. Children learn how to present themselves, how to value themselves, how to work together, what to care about, etc. in school. Children are not blank slates who become instantly knowledgeable of the world around them upon graduation. If our schools are not racially diverse, if they never address race or racism in American society, if they never teach children to embrace differences and cooperate with people different than them, then we are doing them and everyone else a disservice.

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Rucker Johnson. [Image Source]
Racial diversity in schools, beyond the moral arguments, has lasting implications for equality in our society. A 2014 study by Rucker Johnson published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Black students who attended integrated schools were more likely to graduate, go to college, and earn a degree than Black students in a racially isolated school. Those students from integrated schools made more 15% more money five years after graduation than students in racially isolated schools. White students did just as well. Attending racially diverse schools increased the likelihood of White students to later live in integrated neighborhoods and send their own children to racially integrated schools.


Resegregation of Public Schools

Unfortunately, schools today are resegregating, not desegregating. Most White students attend overwhelmingly White schools and Black and Latino students attend overwhelmingly Black and Latino schools. The degree of racial isolation is far worse for Black students in charter schools. 70% of Black students in charter schools attend such schools that are 90-100% non-White. This is twice as many Black students who attend such racially isolated traditional public schools. The traditional public schools are much better though. Over 50% of Black and Latino students attend schools at least 66% Black or Latino, respectively. In 2001, the typical White student attended a schools that was 80% White, even though only 60% of students nationwide were White.

Racial isolation hasn’t been this severe since White Resistance in the 1960s and 70s. Only today, alternatives to public schools aren’t called “segregation academies.” They are called “charter schools.” And rather than pulling White students out of public schools, they push Black students out of public schools (there are many factors pushing Black students out of school, but that is a blog post for another day).

Charter Schools: A Brief Introduction

Charter schools are education institutions that float between the public and private spheres. Like public schools, they receive public taxpayer money to operate, typically money that would have otherwise gone to the local traditional public school. Like private schools, charter schools are not held to the same oversight or accountability of public schools, and are commonly run not by elected school boards, but privately appointed boards.

Originally, charter schools had potential to revolutionize the field of education. By receiving public funds, they would be able to receive reliable funding. By being run by citizens (originally supposed to be teachers or other education professionals), they could have more freedom to experiment with new teaching and learning styles and techniques for students who were not succeeding in the traditional public schools.

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[Image Source]
Today, the vast majority of charter schools are not run by former or current teachers or concerned community members. They are owned and operated by for-profit companies. These companies see charter schools as just another capitalist enterprise. They open the charter schools, enroll students, and gain the public funds that travel with those students. Cashing the government checks per pupil, they spend as little money as possible hiring teachers and buying materials (they have to minimize cost to make a profit, right?) then pocket the rest. Again, these companies are in the business of making money, not educating students.

That’s why a public system of education exists in the first place, because educating children is not a market priority. In fact, it’s a market failure: no one wants to single-handedly pay for everything associated with education. So the government steps in, requires everyone to chip a little in (because everyone benefits from an educated citizenry and workforce) through taxes, then operates the school system. Because the market will not. Any yet “reformers” like Milton Friedman (and currently, Michelle Rhee (former education chancellor of Washington, DC), Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix), Bill Gates, Rahm Emanuel (Mayor of Chicago), and Arne Duncan (former Secretary of Education for the Obama Administration) ) wonder why the field of education has to “suffer” under a government regime.

This “reform” in education has been supported by the last three presidential administrations: Bush, Obama, and Trump. Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education under the Trump administration, is a staunch supporter of student choice and voucher systems (which have largely failed in Michigan, where she’s had done a lot of her work). Arne Duncan and John King, Obama’s Secretaries of Education, and Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first Chief of Staff, supported school closures and teacher turnover and corporate school boards and charter schools, etc. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which pushed schools to show constant improvement toward an impossible goal of 100% reading and math literacy. And schools who could not show improvement faced punishment such as fewer funds, school closure, and state takeover of the school board. Obama’s Race to the Top program largely continued the neoliberal corporate reform efforts of NCLB by forcing states to allow charter schools and school choice programs to exist in their jurisdictions to get much-needed extra funding from the federal government.

Racial Segregation in Charter Schools

There are many ways schools can be racially segregated without explicit rules that dictate racial separation. Many supporters of charter schools believe that school segregation is not actually possible if there are no laws requiring racial separation. The same argument was used by White Citizens Councils in the 1950s and 60s. Today, traditional public schools are highly segregated because of White Flight, discriminatory federal housing policies, racist property-selling practices, and intentional school district boundaries between neighborhoods. Between 2000 and 2014, the percentage of K-12 public schools comprised mostly (that is, 75% or more) of Black or Latino students more than doubled. This segregation is exacerbated by school choice programs. Charter schools, mostly operating in urban areas, are known to be more racially isolated.

RESOURCE SEGREGATION. While school policies may be “race-neutral” on their face, there are multiple factors at play which can increase segregation. If school choice policies do not offer any transportation programs to get students to their school of choice, then the choice is very limited for low-income families. Even if they have a “choice” they still must choose their local traditional public school out of necessity (not another school further away), which may become more segregated as higher-income families and White families pull the few White and higher-income students from the local traditional public school and transport them to other (more White and higher-income) schools. In this way, the local traditional schools become the “schools of last resort,” with little funding to teach students with just as few resources.


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A controversial excerpt from a Pearson American History textbook which characterized slaves as mere “workers” brought over from Africa. Following a social media campaign, Pearson edited the excerpt and offered to replace the textbooks. [Image Source]
Beyond material resources available to families, school resources perpetuate segregation and racial achievement gaps. School curricula have scant coverage of segregation (education, residential, etc.), especially as it occurred in the North. Even if textbooks (which many teachers rely on as the source of their curriculum) vaguely mention that Black citizens “found themselves forced in segregated neighborhoods,” as one textbook read, they rarely mention why that segregation existed and how it has proliferated throughout the decades. Avoidance of accurate and comprehensive racial history in curricular resources in schools means generations of citizens, policymakers, leaders, etc. will be ignorant of the ways racial segregation is reinforced by society and the institutions which form it. It is not surprising, then, that conversations around charter schools and school choice do not center the history of racial segregation in schools. Even Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos exemplified a lack of historical understanding regarding Black education equity when she praised historical Black colleges and universities for providing “choices” to Black students. She obviously failed to recognize that those HBCUs largely exist because of the lack of choice Black students faced in regards to institutions of higher education.


TESTING DISCRIMINATION. Most schools are judged by standardized tests. From these judgments (which many argue are invalid in the first place), schools are ranked as effective or ineffective. These judgments are not just made by inquiring parents, but federal and state programs that decide vital funding opportunities (a là No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, both federal programs that support charter schools). Unfortunately, bilingual and bidialetical children who speak African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) are disadvantaged by standardized tests written in Standardized English and assessed in Standardized English. Part of the testing gap between Black and White students may be caused by this linguistic gap.

In 2009, a New York Times article reported that “Between 2004 and [2008], [standardized test] scores for young minority students increased, but so did those of white students, leaving the achievement gap stubbornly wide.” “Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did [four] decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s,” the article went on to say.

On top of that, most standardized tests are graded by temporary workers who are completely in control of grading, led only by (vague) guidelines set by the testing company such as Pearson, the College Board (for AP exams), or Education Testing Services (for the GRE). If institutional discrimination is the accumulation of many instances of personal discrimination, then there is a clear analogous situation: racial discrimination in testing can be partly attributed to the accumulation of many instances of personal racial discrimination (typically subconscious bias) in temporary graders with no to little formal training in education. Thus the schools that are claimed to be “ineffective” because of poor test scores may be incorrectly labeled as such due to environmental factors beyond the control of the schools (ex. The language/dialect the students speak). And because school choice advocates can claim the “ineffectiveness” of the local traditional public schools, they can persuade powerful funding agencies to invest in their charter schools instead of the traditional public school, despite there being no evidence that the charter schools are any better. This is further evidence that school choice is not getting Black and Latino kids into better schools. School choice, still today, is meant to get the White kids out of the “failing” local schools.

RESIDENTIAL SEGREGATION. Most charter schools operate in urban areas, which may be one reason that they are so segregated. (It is well documented that because of residential segregation, White Flight, and discriminatory federal housing policies, urban areas tend to have a higher proportion of Black residents.)

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Opportunity Charter School in New York City. [Image Source]
Many urban areas are now so geographically isolated from White suburbs that voluntary choice programs, establishing magnet schools, or fiddling with school attendance zones can no longer enable many low-income black children to attend predominantly middle class schools. Suburban communities and school districts have resisted the establishment of charters in their areas. This is called the “suburban veto” of charter schooling, coined by legal scholar James Ryan. The suburbanites fear that their valued public school systems would be drained of resources if charters came in and voucher programs were created. This is ironic, of course, because their fears are based on observations of that exact outcome occurring in urban areas. Of course, it is suburban areas that typically vote for candidates and political parties that support school choice programs, as long as those programs only affect poor, urban areas filled with citizens of color.


The US Government Accountability Office found in 2016 that between the 2000-01 and 2013-14 school years, the percentage of K-12 public schools comprised mostly (that is, 75% or more) of Black or Latino students more than doubled, in addition to K-12 public schools of mostly (75% or more) high-poverty schools. Together, they accounted for 15,089 schools in 2013-14 (up from 7,009 schools in 2000-01). In percentages, that’s an increase of racial or socio-economic isolation from 9% to 16% of all K-12 public schools. The GAO report also finds that public charter schools are less diverse (that is, more segregated) than traditional public schools.

CLASSROOM SEGREGATION. Schools around the country suffer from racial discrimination in their academic programs, typically in the form of “tracking.”

generic tracking and race diagram
A depiction of racial segregation in tracking programs. [Image Source]
Tracking is a practice in schools in which students are sorted by ability and taught in different environments tailored to their perceived abilities. Basically, smarter kids get more challenging curriculum, while less smart kids get a less challenging curriculum. Unfortunately, not only does evidence not support this practice as benefiting lower-performing students, but it more often than not suffers from problem of racial disproportionality. White students typically get sorted into more advanced classrooms at multiple times higher rates than Black or Latino students. According to former Assistant Secretary of Education Catherine Lhamon, who wrote in a letter to school districts across the country: “Schools serving more students of color are less likely to offer advanced courses and gifted and talented programs than schools serving mostly white populations, and students of color are less likely than their white peers to be enrolled in those courses and programs within schools that have those offerings.” In 2011-12, Black and Latino students represented 16% and 21% of all high school students, respectively. But they were only 8% and 12%, respectively, of students taking advanced-level calculus classes.


Legal Dismantling of Desegregation Programs

Unfortunately, school choice is not just championed by the executive branch. One significant reason for the proliferation of school choice systems is the retreat of the Supreme Court’s commitment to the desegregation effort that began in 1954.

FREEMAN V. PITTS (1992).  In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in an unanimous decision that “where resegregation is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications.” In the decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court found that incremental changes targeted at ending de jure segregation was enough to comply with desegregation decrees from district courts. The issue with his ruling is that it differentiates between de jure (by law) and de facto (by fact) segregation, when it fact these two segregations are a false differentiation. De facto segregation exists because of many reasons, including residential discrimination and White Flight and purposeful drawing of school district boundaries to exclude communities of color. Since the Brown decision, White parents with means have voiced their opposition to desegregation “with their feet,” which is to say they moved. They moved to more-White districts or sent their children to private schools.

De facto segregation is a misnomer. There is no segregation that is accidentially, circumstantially, or randomly caused. There is no collection of “private decisions” devoid of “state action” because historic states action has, for centuries, shaped factors that have implications for private decisions.

The differentiation between de jure and de facto washes the hands of the federal government and local and state actors of the responsibility to work against discrimination. The implication of de facto segregation is that nothing can be done. “It’s just how it is. It’s just a fact of life.” In fact, the history segregation manifests itself in many ways, including who lives where. Freeman v. Pitts set up a dangerous precedent of allowing schools to accept segregation, just as long as its a result of “private choices.

PARENTS INVOLVED IN COMMUNITY SCHOOLS V. SEATTLE SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1 (2007). In 2007, in a case commonly called Parents Involved, the Supreme Court ruled that voluntary desegregation efforts were unconstitutional because they focused too much on the racial demographics of the schools. The Seattle School District allowed students to apply for enrollment in any high school in its district. In the case of tiebreakers to decide who went to which schools (in the event that more students applied to a school than seats were available), the school significantly considered the race of the student.

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Ballard High School in Seattle. Parents Involved (2007) began when one student alleged she was denied admittance to this school because she was White. [Image Source]
The intention was to maintain racial diversity in the schools. A group called Parents Involved in Community Schools sued the Seattle School District, claiming this tiebreaker was unconstitutional. In order to be deemed constitutional, the Court must find that the tiebreaker did not violate any student’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the tiebreaker did violate the constitution. Additionally, Seattle School District’s goal of maintaining racial diversity was not a constitutionally valid reason to consider the race of its students when deciding admittance.


Chief Justice John Roberts, the author of the opinion, noted that race can be used to “remedy the effects of past intentional discrimination” (i.e. de jure segregation) But he (and the Court) ruled that Seattle schools were not using race in that manner because Seattle “had never been segregated by law.” Yet, in 1957, the first year the Seattle school board collected demographic data about its students after Brown, they found that only 5% of its students were Black, but 81% of those students were concentrated in just nine of the city’s 112 schools. Six of the city’s ten high schools had only five or fewer Black students each. Seattle had legal residential segregation laws until 1968. It is obvious that Seattle schools suffered from state-sponsored segregation, yet the Court refused to identify it because it would be labeled as “de facto” segregation, which is acceptable according to the Freeman v. Pitts decision.

Perhaps even more insidious than reinforcing the false differentiation between de jure and de facto segregation, Parents Involved codified a colorblind approach to school desegregation attempts. Allowing schools to try to maintain racial diversity through desegregation efforts would “effectively assure that race will always be relevant in American life,” which the Court deemed as harmful. This fear of race being relevant was one reason they rejected the desegregation efforts in Seattle.

Furthermore, here is what Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion in Parents Involved (2007): “For schools that never segregated on the basis of race, such as Seattle… the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Robert’s logic, however, is flawed because in his view, any discrimination must be negative and based in prejudice. Discrimination is this case refers to the pure act of separating into groups, not the colloquial definition of prejudicially separating into groups according to perceived value or superiority. Identifying students according to their race, not with the intention of racially dividing them, but racially integrating the schools, has a positive impact of battling the historical and social effects of segregation.

Sharon Browne, the principal attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, the organization fighting the desegregation program in Seattle for Parents Involved in Community Schools, believes that “teaching our kids that race matters […]  is just plain wrong.”

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Sharon Browne. [Image Source]
After listening to oral arguments today, it seems like it could be a clear message that the Court is going to be sending to school districts: that race discrimination or the use of race in assigning students to public schools will not longer be allowed or even considered by school districts. What it does is it amounts to race discrimination and race discrimination is wrong. [The case] requires the district to eliminate the consideration of individual characteristics. The Equal Protection Clause protects individuals, not groups. 


The Supreme Court agreed with Browne’s colorblind approach. Unfortunately, this approach is just misguided. Theodore Shaw, the President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (the same legal entity which argued Brown and many other school desegregation cases) pointed out being conscious of race is not always racist.  


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Theodore Shaw. [Image Source]
The broader issue [of the case] is whether or not it is going to be legal or constitutional in this country to voluntarily and consciously do anything about racial inequality. And for our adversaries… it is very clear. There is no stopping point on that. They believe that outside of a court order, it should be illegal to do anything that is conscious about race because they equate race consciousness with racism. And that is the only way you can get to the point where you say that efforts to integrate public education are somehow discriminatory and segregated. It is a boldfaced lie at worst. At best, it is steeped in ignorance. And it is a fundamental betrayal of what Brown was about, what the Legal Defense Fund has been about, and what this country says it is about. It is also a betrayal of Martin Luther King’s dream, which [Parents Involved in Community Schools] attempts to hijack in support of their colorblind America, which is really not about colorblindness, it is about blindness to the reality of continued racial inequality.

Shaw succinctly reiterates the flaws of the colorblind approach: that equating race consciousness and racism is a false equivalency. Unfortunately, Chief Justice Roberts and the majority of the Court succumb to this argument. And like Shaw said, that is not what Brown was about. Being blind to race in this country also means being blind to racial oppression: the history of it and its manifestations, subtle and overt, today. The Supreme Court has been moving away the just intentions of Brown for decades. Even voluntary desegregation efforts have been deemed unconstitutional.


In his first State of the Union Address, President Trump declared that school choice was the civil rights issue of this generation. The evidence suggests that, in fact, this is true. But not for the reasons Donald Trump believes. Most researchers, focusing on African American students, say that school choice vouchers have little to no effect on how students are performing in schools. This means that when parents send their children out of the community to go to, for instance, a charter school, not only does the public school in the neighborhood lose money to educate the students who remain, but also that the students who leave aren’t truly getting a better education elsewhere.

The school choice voucher system is founded on a lie: that students will get better education if they could just get out of those “failing” urban schools. In fact we see that charter students do no better academically. But the students in the public schools receive less funding and thus continue to “fail.” If the vouchers didn’t exist and the government gave all schools the same funding, then maybe the school wouldn’t be failing. School choice is resegregating students, reinforcing the achievement gap, and draining communities of vital funding and resources. School choice is in fact the “civil rights issue of our generation.” The fight is not how to grow the school choice system, as President Trump desires, but rather how to destroy it.

Racial integration of schools benefits students of all races. Desegregation has shown an increase academic performance of students; improvement of graduation rates, higher rates of employment, higher earnings in adulthood, avoidance of teen pregnancy, and lower rates of delinquency, homicide, and incarceration.

We cannot continue to regress back to school segregation. Chief Justice Warren wrote more than 50 years ago that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” Whether schools are racially isolated because of segregationist laws or a “collection of private choices,” schools are hindered in their ability to provide effective, high-equality education. School choice programs fail to the isolating effects of colorblind ideologies, and are thus only perpetuating the problem. The federal government has been complicit in the resegregation of schools since the 1980s, no matter which party is in control. Something must be done. Our future is at stake.


Why I Hate the Command: “Do Better”


Arguing Against the Use of the Command “Do Better” by Advocates and Educators


Firstly, I will try to lead from my own perspective, and so I will preface my arguments by sharing some aspects of my life that might have influenced my perspective.


  • I am a white cisgender man and I have been perceived as one my whole life.
  • I have been in leadership positions for most of my academic career.
  • I want to be a high school social studies teacher and study education.
  • I am attending a 4-year university and have a lower-than-average amount of student loan debt because of academic scholarships.
  • I am attending a 4-year university and have tremendous access to education and information which is not available to people not enrolled in a 4-year university.
  • I am middle-class and higher education was not only accessible to me but was an expectation for me.


Secondly, I am not debating whether “call out culture” is good or bad. That is another blog post. Rather, I am specifically focusing on the use of the phrase “do better” in the command tense, primarily used in an engagement between two people.

  • I do not care about when “do better” is used like:
    • “I really need to do better at remembering their pronouns.”
    • “General education teachers need to do better by students with disabilities.”
  • I do care about phrases like:
    • “You’re trash. Do better.”
    • “Stop assuming people’s sexuality. Just do better next time.”


Now, on to the reasons I don’t like “do better”:

It is unnecessary.

Before I begin, let me define “teller” in the following argument as “the person speaking, who would say “do better”, and define “recipient” as “the person listening, who would be told to “do better”.

By itself, the phrase doesn’t accomplish anything because it is so unspecific. Telling someone to “do better” can only confuse the recipient of that phrase, instead of enlighten them of what they did wrong. When it is attached to more explanation of how someone can be more socially just, the phrase “do better” becomes unneeded because the explanation itself is sufficient to accomplish the goal of calling out oppression. Every response we give should have a purpose, and “do better” doesn’t have enough of one, in my opinion. The following engagement: “I think assuming someone’s gender identity based on their voice over the telephone perpetuates gender norms and transphobia. Do better.” is just as effective (or actually less effective in my opinion) as “I think assuming someone’s gender identity based on their voice over the telephone perpetuates gender norms and transphobia.” There is no purpose of the “do better”, it is just two more words uttered from the teller.

This first argument is hinged on the assumption that if you can engage someone using the above statement, you feel safe, confident, and empowered. My assumption is that if you feel threatened or endangered in a situation, not only would you not utter the entire above engagement, you would not even say “do better” as a phrase on its own. My assumption is that you would not engage at all. Thus, when people feel threatened, they don’t say “do better”, and when people don’t feel threatened, they don’t need to say “do better”. So it is unnecessary.

It is egocentric/self-centered.

Now let me define “standard for basic human decency” as “the minimum level of respect you give any person you interact with.” For some, this could just mean acknowledging their existence. For others, it is not assuming sexual orientation or gender identity or pronouns, and acknowledging their own expertise over their experiences and ideas.

The phrase “do better” asks the recipient to evaluate THEIR actions based on YOUR standard of basic human decency. Instead, what we should be doing is trying to raise the recipient’s standard of basic human decency so they hold themselves accountable to be more socially just. Essentially, I think holding everyone else to your own standard is ultimately futile, because everyone will consistently fail to meet your expectations (because no one is actively to meet your own standards but yourselves).

Additionally, it is easy for the recipient to learn the right words to say and words not to say around you, but that doesn’t mean the recipient actually works to be socially just when you are not around. We must engage the recipient in a way that encourages them to integrate social justice into their core belief system, which will in turn raise THEIR standard for basic human decency. And that means they will be socially just even when no one else is around.

I believe using the phrase “do better” makes the teller out to be “superior” or a kind of authority. It forgets that the teller is on their own journey of education, is a work in progress themselves, and used to have an un-elevated standard of basic human decency similar to the recipient’s. I think that the recipient will feel insulted, patronized, and condescended to when someone tells them to “do better”, because they do not view the teller as superior or an authority. This can turn them off of social justice altogether.

“Do better” also perpetuates a social justice groupthink in which there is only one correct way to be and act socially just, which is wrong in my opinion. I believe there are multiple truths in our world and there are multiple ways to be socially just. We do not how far the recipient has come in terms of being socially just. But if we only judge them by OUR standard for basic human decency, then we erase the recipients experiences and progress. The idea of some “perfect” social justice advocate is toxic. It leads to the inability to forgive mistakes, to humanize people, or meet them where they are when trying to educate them.

This is not to say there are not some universal aspects of standards of basic human decency. Everyone should feel safe and should be acknowledged for who they are, what they think/feel, and what they’ve experienced. Everyone should be allowed to self-identify and live their truth.

But we should recognize that people might interpret those universals differently or they might not have been educated on those aspects yet.

It assumes education is (easily) accessible to the recipient.

While I believe education is a right that everyone should have, not everyone has equitable or equal access to their right (especially to education). This lack of access is one manifestation of oppression. So I think telling someone to “do better” could be viewed as a form of pointing out the recipient’s oppression.

“Do better” is in the command tense. To me, it is reminiscent of a wealthy person telling a poor person to “get a job” if they want to escape poverty. Or perhaps a white person telling an African-American or Latino person to “stop antagonizing the police” if they wanted to stop disproportionately high police brutality, disproportionate rates of incarceration, or racial profiling. I think other social justice advocates would identify the problem with those two example phrases I just shared: the privilege of the teller is blinding them of the complexities of the issues and the obstacles faced by the recipients that are not faced by the teller. An educated person telling an uneducated to “do better” minimizes the complexities of becoming educated.

It minimizes the work it takes to be socially just.

It forgets the effort, energy, and courage it takes to tear down previous conceptions of the world and adopt new ones. Asking someone to “do better” minimizes a lot of work, courage, and accomplishments needed to become aware of oppression, inequalities, and systems of privilege and begin to work to fight those.

The journey of education is not easy, there is no map which follows paved roads. It is hard, it can be full of discomfort, anxiety, and embarrassment. But that is what happens when a person is on their “learning edge” as some call it. It takes courage to be willing to reevaluate your beliefs and perceptions as you learn new information and experience new realities. Simplifying one’s progress to becoming a decent human being as a simply act of “doing better” trivializes a lot of emotions, experiences, late-night talks, arguments, reading, etc.


We should always be trying to improve ourselves and be better people. And if you really want to help someone else improve, we should give them specific advice, use “I” statements, try not to insult them, belittle them, or be condescending.

Anyway, that’s my point of view. Let me know what you think.

-Brian (@iambriam)

Amending the Future-Like-Ours Theory


How the “Future-Like-Ours” Theory of the Immorality of Abortion Marginalizes Women; and How to Improve It

Note before we begin: This post is not supposed to provide the ultimate moral argument for or against abortion rights. This is an examination of one argument that opposes abortion; and how I amend it to expand abortion rights to more people.

Second note: I wrote this as a paper for my Ethics class two years ago. But I thought it was worth revisiting. I don’t pretend that this paper still accurately reflects my views.

But onward with my paper:

Don Marquis, an American philosopher, wrote that abortion was immoral, but not because fetuses were more deserving of life or they had some kind of sanctity only afforded to them. Instead he argued that abortion was immoral for the same reasons any killing of any being would be immoral: it robbed the being of a future of value. As Marquis put it, killing “deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future”. This Future-Like-Ours theory, as Marquis calls it, is an approach to killing that states that aforementioned idea, and his argument is as follows:

  1. Abortion generally deprives the fetus of a future of value.
  2. If an act deprives someone of a future of value, then it is, except in very extraordinary circumstances, wrong.
  3. Therefore, abortion, except in very extraordinary circumstances, is wrong.

don marquis
Don Marquis, American Philosopher [Image Source]
Don Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory was suggested in 1989 as a way to determine the morality of abortion by equalizing the moral statuses of fetuses and human adults. In the argument, however, he includes a small caveat that states that (although most abortions are immoral because they deprive a fetus of a future of value) in some “very extraordinary circumstances” abortions may not be immoral. This caveat is problematic because it does not explain what extraordinary circumstances are. One judges whether a circumstance is extraordinary or not based on the frequency of that circumstance occurring. Judging a circumstance on frequency, however, ultimately marginalizes the suffering and problems of the women seeking abortions whose circumstances are not deemed as “extraordinary” and thus devalues their moral status.

I will argue that Marquis’ theory is not sufficient in explaining the immorality of abortion because it does not give fetuses and adult humans the same moral status as it intended to do, but rather dismisses the futures of value of the adult humans. Below, I will explain Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory, the caveat in question, and why it undermines Marquis’ theory. Then I will present my solution to this problem by simplifying the theory into a single Net-Future-of-Value principle, which does not base the morality of abortion on the frequency of the circumstances, thus solving the problem of marginalization and therefore the problem of unequal moral statuses. Finally, I will address a possible objection that society will fix the problem itself in time by noting that although society and its ideas of what constitutes “common” and “extraordinary” change, the two terms will always exist, and will always cause marginalization.


In Marquis’ “Why Abortion is Immoral”, he explained that the act of aborting a fetus is no worse or better than killing an adult human. That is to say, a fetus and human adult have the same moral status. And therefore since killing an adult human is immoral, killing a fetus is immoral. Marquis explained his ideas about the morality of abortion with his Future-Like-Ours theory, which is again paraphrased below:

  • Abortion generally deprives the fetus of a future of value (that is, a future with all the experiences, projects, feelings, activities, etc. which one would typically bear).
  • If an act deprives someone of a future of value, then it is, except in very extraordinary circumstances, wrong.
  • Therefore, abortion, except in very extraordinary circumstances, is wrong.

The point of Marquis’ argument was to go beyond explaining the moral permissibility or impermissibility of abortion by defining what a human being is or is not, on which he believed (rightly so) that the current abortion debate focused too much. His Future-Like-Ours argument provided a reason why any killing, including abortion, was immoral without needing to define what a human being was. All in all, the argument states that if any creature has the potential to live a life similar to human adults, then it is just as immoral to kill them. It is immoral to kill them because their futures are as valuable as the lives of adult humans.

But surely not all abortions are immoral. What if some radical terrorist organization forced a woman to terminate her pregnancy lest they kill two other people? Perhaps then the abortion would be the moral choice, since saving two lives is better than saving just one. Accounting for situations possibly like the one written above, Marquis avoided absolutism in his theory by adding the simple caveat: “except in very extraordinary circumstances”. And certainly a circumstance in which the only choice was the killing of one innocent fetus or the killing of two innocent people is an extraordinary circumstance.

But that stipulation may be problematic, because it allows the frequency of the circumstances to dictate whether it is permissible or impermissible to deprive someone of a future of value. “Extraordinary” refers to something that is “unusual or very different from normal”, and thus something that is uncommon, infrequent, or rare (according to Merriam-Webster). When discussing human life and their potential for a future, however, no case or instance should ever be regulated to be an afterthought because it occurred within a circumstance which is extraordinary. The Future-Like-Ours theory may give us permission to abort the fetus to save two other citizens now, but only because it is not often that someone must make a choice like that.

But what if that circumstance happened frequently? What if overpopulation was becoming an extreme problem for a state and so a radical state legislature passed a law that for every child born, two other people must die? It would eventually bring down the population to a reasonable number. And of course every woman would have to know that if she wanted to have a child, it would be at the cost of two other lives. Suddenly the choice of either having a child or saving two innocent people’s lives is not so extraordinary. In fact it’s pretty common. It becomes just another part of life and society, maybe so much that people do not even question it. So what happens then? Because the circumstances are no longer extraordinary, the caveat in Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory does not apply. And so even though it would mean the deaths of many citizens, women were morally obligated to carry their child to term in order to not deprive it of a future of value.

[To complicate matters more, Marquis’ theory also says the killing of those two other people would be morally impermissible as well, putting the mother between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.]

These women’s struggles, desires, dreams, feelings, and obligations are being ignored simply because they are pregnant, and the circumstance of the pregnancy is not very rare. But does the frequency of their situation invalidate their feelings, dreams, desires, etc.? It absolutely does not. The women are being marginalized because of the circumstances in which they are pregnant, and Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory is only perpetuating that. And it is certainly immoral to marginalize a human being. Ultimately what this means is that Marquis’ theorized potential future of value for the child is worth more than the actual future of value for the mother. And thus potential humans have some higher moral status simply because they have not yet left the womb of their mother. But this directly contradicts Marquis’ intentions of giving fetuses and adult humans the same moral status. If Marquis does want their moral status to be the same, both the mother and child’s futures of value must be considered. That is to say, one of them cannot be marginalized.

Can the Future-Like-Ours theory fix its error of wrongly marginalizing women? At this point, one might consider an abortion case where the mother’s life is threatened to be an extraordinary circumstance. But what if that was not the case? What if mothers’ lives were commonly threatened by pregnancies? The Future-Like-Ours theory, as written above, would then always consider abortions wrong, even if the mother’s life is in danger. This marginalizes the suffering of the woman carrying the child and wrongly dismisses her right to a future of value just because she is human and human lives are commonly threatened by their pregnancies. This is the same kind of problem as described previously.

In order to address this problem, I propose the following, which will amend the theory into a single principle:

  • An act which deprives someone of a future of value is only morally permissible if the projected net value of the futures affected by the deprivation increases by more than the value of future deprived.

This principle still does not take the side that all abortions are morally permissible. It does, however, weaken the impermissibility of abortions, even more than Marquis’ original “very extraordinary circumstances” caveat. The point of the principle is to not just look at the future of value of the child who might be aborted, but consider the futures of value for all people who would be affected by the abortion (including any possible future children). This reinforces the idea that the fetus and all other adult humans have the same moral status. Thus, if the collective futures of value of all the people affected by the abortion is increased because of the abortion, and increased by more than the value of the future of the aborted child, then that abortion is morally permissible. This principle still does not allow frivolous or unnecessary abortions. And although a woman might not want the child in some cases, if the net collective of futures of values are not increased by more than the value of the future of the aborted child, then that woman is still morally obligated to carry the child to term.

Let me explain the principle with an example. Chelsea is a junior at a public university. She is a member of a small sorority (since she cannot afford the dues of a bigger sorority), and is invited to a big party at a fraternity house. She goes to the party with the intention of drinking alcohol, dancing to music, flirting with fraternity guys, and having sex with one of them. Knowing her intentions, Chelsea brings contraceptive tools with her to the party, and during intercourse, her partner wears a condom. In the next few days, however, Chelsea learned she got pregnant anyway.

If Chelsea receives an abortion, she can go on to finish school and graduate with a marketing degree. She will find a good job with good potential for promotion and a high salary. She will have time to wait to meet a good person to marry and create a loving household. She and her husband have a child, to whom they can give the benefits of a set of loving, caring parents, lack of financial worry, and good educational system found in their suburban neighborhood.

If Chelsea does not receive an abortion, she must drop out of school in order to find a full time job to raise money to take care of the child. Because of her lack of educational degrees, her opportunities for employment, housing, and support are limited. She immediately marries the baby’s father, but does not love him the way she knows other couples love each other. Their child grows up in a poor neighborhood, with minimal education, and lack of attention which Chelsea gives to her own worries, like their desperate financial situation.

Even if Chelsea carries the child to term and puts it up for adoption, that child will still not have a likely future of value. Children who are adopted may have the same IQ as non-adopted children, but lag behind in school performance and language abilities (van IJzendoorn, Juffer, and Poelhuis 2005). If they are left at the orphanage until they are adults, they are just a drain of government resources. Additionally, the child has any stigmatized features (such as any mental health problems or physical issues, being a person of color, or have a mother who used drugs), it will be very difficult for it to be adopted (Hellerstedt et. al. 2008).

In this example, when Chelsea aborts the fetus, the value of her own life, and the value of the life of her next child are increased dramatically. When Chelsea does not abort the fetus, the value of her life and that child’s life are low. In this case, Chelsea’s abortion is morally permissible, because the net value of the futures affected by the deprivation of a future of value are more than the value of the future deprived. Following the original Future-Like-Ours theory, Chelsea would not receive the abortion and both her and her child’s futures would be of little value. What this amendment to the Future-Like-Ours theory does is force each case to be looked at individually, no matter how common (or cliché) they may be.

This solution, however, could come with its own objections. First is the ambiguity with the word “projected”. No one can predict the future with 100% accuracy and no one can assess the value of one’s future objectively. There will always be bias, whether caused by race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, income level, education, etc.  While some might believe Chelsea does have the potential to get a good job and find a loving husband if she received the abortion, they might change their mind if Chelsea’s name had been Chantel or Salwah. Or they would believe Chelsea would not actually have the potential to have a future of high enough value to compensate for the deprivation of the aborted child’s lost future of value unless she was attending a prestigious Ivy League university rather than the state public university.

It is impossible to remove bias from human judgment, however, and no proposed solution to Marquis’ marginalization error will ever find an answer to bias. What philosophers can do, however, is approach this problem like they do with some other problems of bias: use the ideal observer (“Impartiality” 2011). Attempting to be perfectly rational and actively trying to overcome any presumptions based on bias is the best humans can do to combat the problem.

But there is another more pressing objection to my proposed principle. It is the idea that the solution will not be necessary in the future. That is, in a more advanced world, where sexual education is more widespread, contraceptive methods are more available, and thus unwanted pregnancies (read: pregnancies which are desired to be terminated), are rare, even the most common circumstances we see today will become extraordinary in the future, making the Future-Like-Ours theory relevant and perfected in its original form. Take for an example fetal exposure to drugs, such as cocaine, marijuana, and even tobacco. While in the past, drug use was more commonplace among mothers (and the population as a whole), pushes for the discontinuation of drug use among the population (such as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign) made functioning in society safer for both the mothers and fetuses (“Thirty Years” 2014). So while the health afflictions associated with drug use could have caused the mothers to have been marginalized in the 1970s and 80s, these mistakes were corrected in the future. Now drug related pregnancy complications are uncommon (“extraordinary”) circumstances.

Let us look at the case of child birth and overpopulation. Those who posit this future-advancement objection would simply say that the effects of the law would eventually bring down the population of the state, and once they were at a reasonable level, they would repeal the law. Then those circumstances in which giving birth would mean the death of two people would become extraordinary, and Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours theory, with the caveat, would apply, making it relevant as it is. So while common problems today may marginalize women, society will correct itself, making the marginalization of women less common. Marquis’ theory has its problems now, but the advancement of technology, medicine, and society will eventually solve those problems.

But what does it mean to be extraordinary or common? Those are terms of relativity. I will use another example to explain. In a given year in the United States the infant mortality rate (IMR) was 20.0 (which means, on average, 20 infants less than the age of one die per every 1,000 live births) (Singh and van Dyck 2007). Is this common or extraordinary? Well, it depends. This was the IMR in the early 1970s. In 2000, the IMR was only 6.9, meaning those in 2000 would view the death of an infant in the 70s as common. In 1935, the IMR was 55.7. So those in 1935 would view the death of an infant in the 70s as extraordinary.

It is a noble cause to try to minimize the rate of deaths in the United States. But while what is common and what is extraordinary changes, those terms are never eradicated. Let’s imagine some news reports that citizens of the state with the overpopulation law might see on a given day. In the first report, the news anchor reports that while a woman did get pregnant, it marked only the third time it happened that year (making only 3 in 3 months), which is a much lower number than number of pregnancies in other states. Thus their accident is deemed extraordinary, and the women are allowed to receive an abortion. In another possible report, however, the news anchor reports that the pregnancy is part of epidemic, indicating that the incidence of pregnancies is up 50% (from 2 to 3). In the people’s minds, the woman is one of possibly many to get pregnant in the state. And thus their accident is deemed common, and the woman is not allowed to receive an abortion, marginalizing them simply for how their circumstance is viewed.

Marginalization is a problem our society has been battling for a very long time. And when it is suffering and death being marginalized, there is no excuse to let it continue without combating it. The Future-Like-Ours theory must be amended, because it uses frequency to judge the morality of death (specifically abortion). If a woman wants to terminate her pregnancy because she does not want to raise the child in a single parent household, she is told she cannot because a) those following the Future-Like-Ours theory believe her circumstance is not extraordinary (because of their own racial, religious, sexist, or classist bias) even when it is, or b) her circumstance is not extraordinary and it actually is not. In either case, her own feelings, desires, dreams, obligations, etc. are dismissed because she is believed to be merely part of a bigger problem. This is wrong and immoral on its own. The woman is viewed not as a person, but a statistic. And the Future-Like-Ours theory not only allows it to happen, but commands it to happen.

I suggest that the theory be amended to be a principle which is as follows:

  • An act which deprives someone of a future of value is only morally permissible if the projected net value of the futures affected by the deprivation increases by more than the value of future deprived.

It fixes the problem of marginalization of women presented by Marquis’ original Future-Like-Ours theory and its “very extraordinary circumstances” stipulation. It is immoral to not treat the women as humans, but merely statistics. And the end of marginalization of women gives adult humans and fetuses the same moral status, which achieves one of the original goals of Marquis’ theory. The new principle still forbids the frivolous and unnecessary abortions which ultimately decrease the net future of value for those involved, achieving the other original goal. And in the end, the new principle allows each woman’s circumstance to be viewed individually, as it should be.

  • Hellerstedt, Wendy L., Nikki J. Madsen, Megan R. Gunnar, Harold D. Grotevant, Richard M. Lee, and Dana E. Johnson. “The International Adoption Project: Population-based Surveillance of Minnesota Parents Who Adopted Children Internationally.” Maternal and Child Health Journal 12, no. 2 (2008): 162-171.
  • “Impartiality.” Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Updated 20 March 2011.
  • Marquis, Don. “Why Abortion is Immoral.” Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989): 183-202.
  • Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Extraordinary,” Accessed 10 May 2014,
  • “Thirty Years of America’s Drug War.” Frontline. Public Broadcasting Service. 2014.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Health Resources and Services Administration. Infant Mortality in the United States, 1935-2007 by Singh, Gopal K. and Peter C. van Dyck. Washington DC: GPO, 2007.
  • van IJzendoorn, Marinus H., Femmie Juffer, and Caroline W. Klein Poelhuis. “Adoption and Cognitive Development: A Meta-Analytic Comparison of Adopted and Nonadopted Children’s IQ and School Performance.” Psychological Bulletin 131, no. 2 (2005): 301-316.

Our Elections Are Threatening Our Democracy, Part II

A Survey of Electoral Reforms to Increase Voter Turnout

A few months ago, I wrote a post about changing our voting system from First-Past-the-Post to Range Voting, in order to improve our democracy. The basic idea was that in order to increase the integrity of the votes and the elections in which those votes were cast, the voters needed more than just a ballot on which they could only mark ‘yes’ or ‘no’. That is, of course, not the only improvement we can make for our elections. If the goal is to improve the strength and health of our democracy in the United States, we must recognize that it is a multi-faceted issue.

And changing the process of selecting winners based on votes presupposes that people are voting. But Americans don’t vote as much as we’d like.

Each election cycle is peppered with “Get Out the Vote” campaigns and voter registration drives. Voter turnout for presidential elections in the United States has been generally remained stagnant around 50-60% since World War II, according to the Election Project. The turnout in 2008 (61.1%) to election Barack Obama, it’s worth noting, had been the highest since 1968 (when Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey with a turnout rate of 62.5%).

Midterm elections have even fewer voters show up to cast a ballot. Since 1912, the turnout rate has been under 50%. The 2012 midterm election had the lowest rate (35.9%) since 1942, as the Washington Post pointed out.

Why is that?

There are a number of reasons why people don’t vote. For example,

  1. There is not a polling place nearby or in a convenient location.
  2. They cannot find the time in their busy schedule.
  3. They do not think it’s worth voting because they do not think their vote will matter.
  4. They are not registered to vote.
  5. They are not particularly fond of any of their choices in candidates.
  6. They simply do not care.

I think there are a number of ways to tackle these problems. I think there is more than one right answer to the question “how do we increase voter turnout?”. I don’t think there is a single miracle solution or that we could motivate everyone to vote. There is no winning them all, as the old adage goes. But we can set ourselves up for a healthier turnout in our elections. And honestly, I think we’d be in a better place giving people more opportunities to vote even if our turnout does begin to skyrocket after reforms are enacted.

Here are a few reforms I think are necessary:

Reform Alternative Voting Methods

There are three ways to vote in the United States besides the traditional method of voting in person at a polling place: 1) early voting, 2) absentee voting, and 3) mail voting.

alternative voting methods by state
A map depicting each state’s policies regarding alternative voting methods, from the National Conference of State Legislatures. [Image Source]
Early Voting

Early Voting is a policy in which voters may submit a ballot before the designated Election Day in person to the state’s election offices or other official location. 37 states allow for voting during a period prior to the official Election Day. Among those 37 states, the average length of the early voting period is about 30 days, some ending the week before the election, some ending the Monday right before the election.

Early Voting is a tricky problem. The intuition regarding early voting is misleading. Proponents of reforming early voting suggest that it will make voting easier, and thus increase voter turnout. Early voting is supposed to provide greater access to polls, improve polling performance, and result in shorter lines. Wouldn’t this lead to more people voting? The evidence does not say so. Early voting does make voting easier, in fact, but only regular voters take advantage of the reform. It does not pull in new voters or non-voting citizens. It appears that you can lead a citizen to a polling place, but you can’t make them vote.

I think it’s still worth noting that in 2012, 31% of all votes were cast before Election Day.  It’s certainly a policy to maintain and expand so that all regular voters can find easier access to the polls. Perhaps if another reform can get people to vote, early voting can keep them coming back each election.

Absentee Voting

Absentee Voting is the process of sending a ballot by mail to the state’s election office prior to the Election Day. A few states allow citizens to complete their absentee ballot online, but most require the citizen to notify the election office that they’d like an absentee ballot, then wait for one to be sent by mail, and then require the absentee ballot be sent back by mail (usually stipulating that the ballot be postmarked before the Election Day).

27 states allow citizens to request an absentee ballot whenever they’d like. Other states, like my home state of Missouri, only distribute absentee ballots to citizens with an approved excuse.

missouri absentee ballot with excuse list.png
List of acceptable excuses for requesting an absentee ballot in Missouri [Image Source]
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, six states and the District of Columbia allow citizens to opt-in to a permanent absentee list excuse-free, while nine more offer the same pending an approved excuse.

Susan Davis (D-CA 53rd Congressional District) wrote a piece in 2013 for the San Diego Union-Tribune advocating for the protection of absentee voting across the country. She wrote:

In recent years, voters across the country have faced severe barriers to voting, including strict voter ID requirements, shortened early voting periods, and limited polling hours.

Absentee voting allows voters to sidestep many of these hurdles. It can eliminate the long lines and waits exacerbated by limited polling hours, easing pressure on both poll workers and voters. In fact, in states with “no excuse” absentee voting, the 2012 Election Day wait time was 20 percent shorter than in states without. Absentee voting increases turnout among language minorities, who may need extra time to read over a ballot, and allows all voters to take their time when considering complex ballot initiatives.

Absentee voting was first introduced during the Civil War so that soldiers could cast their votes, but our society has changed, and service members are no longer the only Americans who need flexibility in voting. Commuters, students living away from home, the sick and the elderly, parents of young children, those who work long hours, nurses and emergency responders who cannot take time off of work — all can benefit from absentee voting.


Unfortunately, much of the available evidence (examples: [1], [2], [3], [4]) shows that the convenience of absentee voting only affects those voters who were already highly motivated to vote anyway. Again, voting was made easier, but that has not translated in higher voter turnout. Absentee voting, like early voting, may prove more useful when paired with other reforms, though that is not to discount its usefulness now.

Mail Voting

Washington, Oregon, and Colorado actually run their elections entirely through mail. All eligible citizens are mailed a ballot prior to Election Day (usually 2 weeks), and voters can just send their ballot back through the mail or still choose to vote in-person at a polling place.

CO ballot box for mail voting 2014.png
An official ballot drop box in El Paso County, Colorado after all-mail voting was instituted. [Image Source]
17 states have policies that allow for some elections to be run entirely by mail, but not all. The idea that all elections be run by mail was first instituted in Oregon in 1998, making this reform relatively new. Washington and Colorado didn’t enact this policy until 2011 and 2013, respectively.

There is substantial evidence (examples: [1], [2], [3], [4]) that mail voting actually increases voter turnout. According to the United States Elections Project, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado all have had higher than average voting rates.

Mail Voting is not a miracle solution, however. The New York Times used Minnesota’s 2008 election data to illustrate that point. 1 in 30 ballots received by the state election office were invalid and not counted. There were a variety of reasons why:

  • 1 in 80 had a missing or invalid signature
  • 1 in 230 did not have a witness’s signature
  • 1 in 300 missed the mailing deadline
  • 1 in 900 were missing an address
  • Interestingly, 1 in 3000 were rejected because the voter tried to vote again

It is easy to notice that many of those problems above could be solved if the voting had occurred in person at a polling place. But it appears that the increase in valid votes overshadows the increase in invalid votes.

Mail Voting seems like a very interesting and appealing reform going forward.

Make Registration Easier

Registration laws in the United States are presenting many problems to voters and election officials. As Heather Gerken wrote in Democracy, a Journal of Ideas:

A recent Pew study reveals that at least 24 percent of the eligible voting population isn’t registered. One in eight registrations in the United States is either invalid or contains significant inaccuracies. Nearly two million dead people are on the rolls, 2.75 million people are registered in more than one state, and 12 million voter records contain incorrect addresses.

All of these problems generate headaches on Election Day. An MIT study estimated that 2.2 million voters weren’t able to cast a ballot that counted in 2008 due to registration problems. In addition, 5.7 million voters had a registration problem that had to be resolved before they could cast a ballot.


Each state has its own laws regarding registration, which all vary widely. North Dakota does not even require registration. But there are a couple ways to make registering citizens easier, and thus giving them more opportunities to vote.

Motor Voter Laws

Gov Jerry Brown
California Governor Jerry Brown [Image Source]
California Governor Jerry Brown (D) made headlines in late 2015 when California became the 2nd state (after Oregon) to automatically register citizens as voters when they get or renew a state identification card (like a driver’s license). Citizens are still welcome to opt-out or cancel their registration at a later time.

But because the law is still so new, the policy will not go into effect until the statewide database in completed this summer. This also means we won’t have any idea of how it’ll affect voting turnout until November.

Many are skeptical of these laws in Oregon and California, believing that automatic registration still will not increase voter turnout. As the evidence showed for early and absentee voting, many critiques worry that making voting easier does not encourage people to vote more. In November 2015, New Jersey Governor (and presidential candidate) Chris Christie (R) vetoed a bill that would automatically register voters in New Jersey.

And speaking of Presidential candidates, the Brenner Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law had this to say about the two remaining Democratic candidates:

In a campaign speech in June, Hillary Rodham Clinton embraced automatic, universal voter registration for eligible citizens once they turn 18, and more recently Senator Bernie Sanders introduced an automatic registration bill in Congress. Senator Sanders’ bill was the second automatic registration bill introduced in Congress this year; in June, Rep. David Cicilline and 45 cosponsors introduced legislation requiring automatic registration for federal elections at all DMVs.


This reform is still very new and there has not been a lot of research or data collection exploring how effective this new system is.

Same-day Registration

11 states and the District of Columbia offer voters the opportunity to register to vote at the polling place on the same day they vote. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as long as the potential voter brings a proof of residency and a valid state ID, they can register and vote. Most states do not offer same-day registration for fear of voter fraud. Lawmakers fear that voters will sign up with different aliases and identities at multiple polling places, hoping that their votes will be counted and the election decided before the states becomes any the wiser.

States that offer same-day registration do take some precautions to combat voter fraud. In Montana, for example, potential voters can only register at the offices of the county election officials, not just any polling place. Other states use electronic ballots that have access to the statewide database of voters, and can verify in real time whether a voter is legitimate or not.

same day registration turnout
[Image Source]
We saw the how big new voters can affect elections in Iowa last week. 44% of Democratic caucus-goers were attending their first caucus. According to the Des Moines Register, in precinct 59 “more than 200 of the 521 caucus-goers registered on-site. Amid the rush of new voters, organizers ran out of registration forms and had to count twice to determine who won more delegates.” It is believed that many people do not make up their minds to vote until just days before the election, when interest is piqued. But because of registration deadlines weeks before the election, many cannot vote even if they wanted to. The chart on the right from Demos shows that states that allow for same-day registration have increased voter turnout. Other studies (examples: [1]. [2]) have found increased rates of turnout because of election-day registration.

Move Election Day to the Weekend

Right now, Election Day always falls on the first Tuesday after the First Monday in November. Why Tuesday? It goes back to the days when the election laws were first being drafted. Back in 1845, the lawmakers couldn’t choose Sunday because that was a day of rest and worship for a majority of the population. And when polling places were far away from people (especially those living off on farmsteads many miles away from population centers), there needed to be a whole day set aside just to allow people to arrive to their polling place on time. Additionally, the travelling voters could take the opportunity to sell their wares at market in the middle of the week while they were in town. So lawmakers set aside Monday as the day to travel and Tuesday as the day to vote.

Bingham County Election
Voting ain’t what it used to be. You can’t even be given a cup of whiskey in exchange for your vote outside the polling place anymore. [Image Source]
And why November? November was the time right after the harvest when there wasn’t much to do.

Of course, the era of the yeomen farmer is long gone. Polling places are usually around the corner at the local community center, public school, or house of worship. And even if the polling place is physically far away, modern transportation system can get people there pretty quickly, not necessitating a day to be set aside for travel. Although the public transportation systems in many cities are another problem to tackle for another day.

Back in April 2013, Representatives Steve Israel (D-NY) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY) proposed legislation to change Election Day from the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November to the first full weekend. Rep. Slaughter said that:

Having Election Day on a Tuesday is an outdated requirement that simply does not comport with the schedules of modern Americans. Instituting weekend voting would make it easier and more convenient for Americans to exercise their right to vote, and would help reduce lines at the polls and increase voter turnout.


Their specific plan would mean that polls would be open from 10am (ET) on Saturday until 6pm (ET) Sunday. Officials would be allowed to close polls overnight if they wanted. It would allow more people access to polls because instead of just being open for 12 hours on a day in the middle of the work week, the polls could potentially be open for 32 hours. Their plan is not unfounded. One study finds that European countries increase their voter turnout by having their elections on weekends.

Other plans could provide the traditional 7am to 7pm schedule but require polling to stay open for a second day from 7am to 7pm as well.

It is obvious to say this plan would increase the costs of the election. But that is just if elections are moved to a full weekend. If the elections were just moved to Saturday or just Sunday, then increased election costs would be minimized.

All American workers have a right to vote without being penalized by their employer, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to miss work. Many who do not have personal transportation cannot make it to a polling place on a weekday. The United States has one of the lowest rates of turnout, especially compared to nations which have their elections on weekends. Back in 1845, Congress made elections on Tuesdays because that worked best with workers’ schedules. Perhaps it is time for Congress to update the date of Election Day to continue keeping elections convenient with workers’ schedules.

Make Election Day a Federal Holiday

Bernie Sanders was one of many advocates of making Election Day into a national holiday, thus allowing people to get off work and have more time, consequently, to go out and vote. Making a holiday out of Election Day would mean more opportunities to vote. And it would not be the first time Congress has established a weekday to be a federal holiday. Back in 1968, according to Steve Israel and Norman J. Ornstein, writing an opinion for the New York Times, “Congress passed the Monday Holiday law, which moved Memorial Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day and Washington’s Birthday from their original dates to Mondays.”

Puerto Rico does not vote in Presidential elections, yet the island territory enjoys very high voter turnout (around 70-80%) because of policies including making election day a holiday.

The “culture of the vote,” as many Puerto Rican analysts call it, is so expansive that on the island election day is a national holiday, when everyone takes off from work. “It’s like a big holiday, and voting is just the culmination of that, just like the 25th is the culmination of Christmas,” says Cámara [professor at the Universidad de Puerto Rico at San Juan]. “There’s a lot of social incentive to vote.”


Other states like Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia make election day a civic holiday. It would be beneficial to increase the amount of states making election day a holiday so that more citizens have an opportunity to be voters.

Senator Sander’s proposal for a Democracy Day, the name of the federal election day holiday, is not original. Back in 2012, Martin Wattenberg proposed election day be combined with Veterans’ Day, which sends a obviously strong message.


There are plenty of reforms we can make to ensure that more people can vote. This post is of course not an exhaustive list, but these are some more salient ideas floating around political circles. We can increase early voting and absentee voting; institute more mail voting to bring the ballots to the voters; expand registration efforts by automatically registering voters or at least allowing them to register up until the day of the election; we can move the elections to the weekend to increase the chances for voter participation, and make Election Day a holiday as well. I think if we want to strengthen our democracy, it is an imperative that actions be taken to do so.

-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)


The Great Primary Race

Primary Reform

Our primary elections are a relatively new innovation to bring more democracy to our presidential elections. Before them, the state party bosses chose who their state’s delegates would support. In 1912, incumbent William Howard Taft faced challenges from Theodore Roosevelt (previous president) and Robert La Follette (beloved Senator and former governor from Wisconsin, would later run again as a Progressive in 1924) in the Republican nomination race. Roosevelt was more popular among the party base, but because Taft controlled the convention (he was the Chief of the Republican Party as the President, after all), he ensured that the party nominated him, not Roosevelt or La Follette.

The call for reform amplified after 1968 when the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey secured the nomination despite not having won any primary. The Democratic and Republican Parties both required that to prevent candidates without popular support from winning the nomination just because of established connections (Humphrey was the Vice President in 1968), the delegates who voted for the nominees (on behalf of the people) would have vote for whoever the people they represented liked the best. In other words, the primary elections would not be just for fun anymore, they would actually choose the nominee. It was the people, not the party elites, who were supposed to choose.

Primary dates were important decision for state party leaders. When a state’s primary was on the calendar could alter how important a state was in the election. The later the primary, the less likely that state could influence the trajectory of a rising or falling candidate. And it also meant that few candidates were interested in that state, because they had to win the early states first. So many states moved their primary dates from the summer season to the late-winter, early spring season. They wanted to maintain their importance or perhaps become more influential. What reason do people love talking about the Iowa caucus other than because it’s the first election of the season?

But the current primary system has candidates crisscrossing all across America, campaigning over a calendar dotted randomly with primary dates for different states. A map depicting the dates of the primaries for each state party is depicted below, the Democratic Party’s primaries are on the left, and the Republican Party’s primaries are the right:

And the shortening of the primary season because all the states are clamoring to be earlier and earlier (even despite penalties from the Parties) is causing each individual state to be less and less important. With so many states have primaries so near to each other, candidates must act strategically and only visit the more prioritized locations. There has to be a better way to run our primaries.

One National Primary

What if we had all the primaries on one day? It would eliminate the confusion caused by a random calendar of dates, and it would eliminate any biases of first states.

But it would also mean campaigning would become incredibly difficult. Especially for lesser known candidates, candidates with less money, or new candidates. At least the state-by-state system allowed these candidates to get their foot in the door through grass-roots organizing. Additionally, it would force candidates to really prioritize their time, meaning that smaller states could go ignored throughout the entire process as the candidates focus on the larger states with more delegates.

Overall, a national primary might end up being worse than the state-by-state.

Rotating Regional Primary

Perhaps as a compromise between state-by-state and one national primary, we could split the nation into a few regions. Each region has its primary a month or so after the other. Each election year, the sequence of regions would rotate; so the region that went first in 2008 would last in 2012, third in 2016, second in 2020, and first again in 2024. The National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of Lieutenant Governors suggested this method, though part of their plan was to keep Iowa and New Hampshire as the first two states to have elections, then the regions would come after.

rotating regional plan
[Image Source]
It would help clear up the clunky election calendar we have now. Also it would alleviate some of the state-hopping that candidates have to go through (Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina to Nevada, etc.). After New Hampshire, candidates can efficiently travel around the same region of the country campaigning along the way. This could help smaller candidates who may not be able to afford as much travel as other candidates. And campaign ads could be shown more efficiently. Now ads bought in small states like Connecticut, which often are broadcast into neighboring states, could still be useful in those states too.

This system shares some disadvantages with the national primary, even if at a smaller scale. The candidates, because they have a whole region of the country to campaign in all at the same time, there may be less face-to-face time in a single area. Or if there is, it’s much more likely to be in bigger, more populated states. Additionally, the advantage is still with the wealthier candidates who have more name recognition. Grass-roots organization is still more difficult than in a state-by-state system.

Additionally, which state goes first could give a huge strategic advantage to certain candidates. Right now, Bernie Sanders has a huge advantage in New Hampshire because his home state of Vermont is geographically close and similar. In a rotating regional system, Sanders could see the same benefit magnified if the Northeastern Region went first in the primary season. Similarly, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio could have advantages if the Southeastern Region went first, Ted Cruz if the Southern Region went first, etc.

There could be a liberal advantage, however, because the regions are not ideologically balanced. While the Midwest region is fairly moderate, the West and Northeast could be assumed to vote liberal pretty consistently, while the entire conservative base would be in the South region. Some have suggested that instead of grouping the states solely based on geography, the voting records of those states should be considered so that the regions are somewhat more balanced.

balanced rotating regional primary
One proposal for a more balanced organization of the regions [Image Source]
Finally, the last primary could become irrelevant if a candidate pulls ahead beyond any of their competitors before the last primary even takes place. This problem could be solved by combining the last two primaries into one larger one. But that would sacrifice some smaller states’ chances of being visited or courted by candidates.

The Delaware Plan

In order to ensure all states are visited and everyone has a chance to meet the candidates, the Delaware Plan organizes the states based on population, putting the less populated states earlier on the primary calendar, and the larger states later. This would mean the candidates running for office would have to add the smaller states to their travel plans in order to stay viable.

delaware plan primary
[Image Source]
This could allow lesser known candidates a chance to begin a grass-roots campaign in smaller states, get more name recognition, and have better organization for later in the campaign in the bigger states. But because the states are not grouped geographically, the less-funded candidates could have problems getting to all those states. And because the larger states go last, the majority of the delegates for choosing a candidate would not be selected until way later in the primary season.

The smaller, less populated states tend to be more rural and more white, and less representative of the United States as whole, which could be a continuing problem if we decided to switch to this plan. While Republicans supported this plan in 2000, the Democratic Party rejected it, claiming that the majority of the states in the first few rounds were conservative states, putting the Democrats at a disadvantage.

The Graduated Random Presidential Primary (aka the American Plan)

NPR described the American Plan like this:

So here goes: There would be 10 caucus periods, each lasting two weeks. States with fewer congressional districts would go first, followed by states with a few more in the next period and so on.

This would be according to a particular formula: States with a total of eight districts would go first, with the states being randomly selected. So, for example, Kansas and Mississippi, which each have four districts, might be in the first round. The next round, the number of districts would total 16. The next, 24.

But after that, the numbers get less straightforward. To keep the biggest states like New York and California from always going nearly last, the plan allows for some bigger district totals to go earlier. The order for all 10 caucus rounds would be eight, 16, 24, 56, 32, 64, 40, 72, 48 and then 80 districts.

This plan wouldn’t save much money on travel or ad costs, but it would allow smaller states to be more relevant without forcing the larger states to go last. It does make the primary season longer, which to some means more time to organize and spread information, and to others means only the well-funded candidates could survive that long.

Interregional Primary Plan

This plan would divide the nation into six geographically-based regions (the Northeast, the Midwest, the Southwest, etc.). And then the states would be further sub-divided into 6 groups within each region. There would be 6 regions (labeled 1-6) with 6 groups (labeled A-F) in each for a total of 36 groups total. All ‘A’ Groups would hold a primary on one day, then all ‘B’ Groups would hold the next primary date, then all ‘C’ groups, etc. And then in four 4 years for the next Presidential election, the group order would cycle.

Because each group is divided randomly, some states could still be overshadowed. For example, it could come to the ‘C’ primary, but the states include California and Texas with Rhode Island, Maryland, Iowa, and Georgia, which could mean those latter 4 states could receive way less attention than if they weren’t randomly assigned to the ‘D’ group.

And because of the design of the plan, the travel costs for candidates would not be minimized. But the primary season would be lengthened, and no one region/state would have an advantage by being first.


Is there a better way to run the primaries? Each plan has its ups and downs, and makes its own sacrifices of some aspects in order to prioritize others. Some value geographical contiguity, some value the voices of smaller states, some value balanced ideological groupings. It depends on what people like. Ultimately, though, the Parties are in control of their own primaries. So to tackle primary reform, it might require reforming the power structure of the Parties.

-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)

The Danger of ‘Survival of the Fittest’ in Society

Social Darwinism: A Misappropriation of Natural Law onto Human Society

I recently had a conversation with a co-worker about the nature of human society. Was it progressing or regressing? Was it working just fine or was it broken beyond repair? Where are we headed? He had more pessimistic predictions than I did. To make a point during the discussion, he brought up the movie Idiocracy, a 2006 movie about a man who was frozen in a hibernation experiment, and as the Wikipedia article on it summarizes, “only to awaken 500 years later in a dystopian society where advertising, commercialism, and cultural anti-intellectualism have run rampant and that is devoid of intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, and coherent notions of justice and human rights.” Is that where we are headed, as he argued?

My coworker also brought up Social Darwinism to explain his point of view. Humans have stopped living competitively, to our own detriment. No longer do just the fittest survive, but the the weak as well. And the societal welfare system (social security, food stamps, medicaid/medicare, etc.) was ensuring the weak survived and reproduced, hurting our society as a whole.

After thinking about the conversation for a bit, I couldn’t get one question out of my head. Can we stop pretending that human society is guided by the same principles as Darwin’s finches?

Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection were developed after researching and observing wild animals out in nature. It was not intended to be a sociological exploration of humans in a complex society. And while some principles in our society may have drawn inspiration from Darwin’s theories, the reverse is not true.

You may have heard some of these phrases before:

  • Survival of the fittest.
  • Greed is good.
  • Eat or be eaten.
  • Nice guys finish last.
  • Sink or swim.
  • It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

They are common phrases, which all allude to some grand competition we are all supposed in, in which the stakes are pretty high. But those stakes are merely illusions. That competition for survival does not actually exist. We have been working, as a species, to protect ourselves from that competition since… forever. Out in nature, weakness could mean death. In human society, things get a bit less extreme. Not just the weakest survive, as my co-worker pointed out. But that’s not a death sentence for humanity.

“Survival of the fittest” is a belief that has led to the abandonment, maltreatment, or even destruction of many people’s lives, all in the name of ‘bettering’ the species. Eugenics programs in Nazi Germany and in the United States were founded on this ideal. Racism finds some of its roots today in Social Darwinism. American imperialism abroad and expansion in North America were justified with Social Darwinism. Even the institution of slavery in the United States was explained and justified with Social Darwinism.

We are not animals out in nature, bending to the will of nature. We are not bound to natural selection. Darwin himself chose not to expand his theory to human society because he knew his theory of evolution only applied to animals. Humans have worked for millennia to develop new technologies and methods to make existence easier; to ensure more people lived, for longer, and free of disease, to provide more and better food for more people, to protect people from the harsh environment and each other, etc.

J. Wes Ulm, a physician-researcher at Harvard Medical School, wrote a piece for Democracy, a “journal of ideas” in Spring 2010. In this piece about the destructive nature of Social Darwinism, he wrote 5 negative consequences it causes. In this post I want to further explore 4 of these effects of Social Darwinism. I will look further into social welfare in another post. But on with the consequences of Social Darwinism.

1. It rewards unscrupulous behaviors.

Ulm points out that profit-maximization can come at the expense of societal improvement, but Social Darwinism always prefers the path that leads to greater profits. Here is one recent example: in September 2015, former hedge-fund manager Martin Shkreli and his start-up company Turing Pharmaceuticals acquired a drug called Daraprim. The drug, “known generically as pyrimethamine, is used mainly to treat toxoplasmosis, a parasite infection that can cause serious or even life-threatening problems for babies born to women who become infected during pregnancy, and also for people with compromised immune systems, like AIDS patients and certain cancer patients”, according to the New York Times. Shkreli and Turing Pharmaceuticals promptly raised the price of a tablet from $13.50 to $750. It is noted further in the same article that this price increase was not the first of its kind:

Cycloserine, a drug used to treat dangerous multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, was just increased in price to $10,800 for 30 pills from $500 after its acquisition by Rodelis Therapeutics. Scott Spencer, general manager of Rodelis, said the company needed to invest to make sure the supply of the drug remained reliable. He said the company provided the drug free to certain needy patients.

In August, two members of Congress investigating generic drug price increases wrote to Valeant Pharmaceuticals after that company acquired two heart drugs, Isuprel and Nitropress, from Marathon Pharmaceuticals and promptly raised their prices by 525 percent and 212 percent respectively. Marathon had acquired the drugs from another company in 2013 and had quintupled their prices, according to the lawmakers, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, and Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland.

Doxycycline, an antibiotic, went from $20 a bottle in October 2013 to $1,849 by April 2014, according to the two lawmakers. [All links original to the article][Emphasis added]


What was told to those people who relied on those drugs to stay alive and healthy? “Sorry, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.” “Survival of the fittest, you know? I guess you aren’t fit enough to survive anymore. Don’t worry though, it’s for the best of everyone else.”

I find these increases in prices to be incredibly inhumane and counterproductive to the betterment of human society. And while it may have certainly been beneficial to a few wallets and company paychecks, it came at a high price for many, many people.

Another illustration of profit-maximization at the expense of human society is the classic example of pollution. I think that beyond a few outlying examples of some companies actively working to reduce pollution levels, most companies will try to produce as much pollution (as a result of making profit) as legally allowed. But that practice is not helping our society. Let’s take air pollution as an example. In an article from Nature (Sept 2015), it is explained that outdoor air pollution led to the premature deaths of over 3 million people worldwide. An article from Epidemiology (the study of the incidence and control of diseases) (Jan 2013) found that reducing air pollution improves life expectancy. According to a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (2015), air pollution can lead to health problems of the heart and lungs for people who exercise outside. Finally, in an article in Environmental Health Perspectives (a sub-sub-group of the National Institutes of Health) (Nov 2012) found that persistent exposure of chemical pollutants led to fewer actual births. It is apparent then that the societal goal of minimizing pollution to zero is different from the commercial goal of maximizing pollution as long as it maximizes profit.

When operating under the philosophy of Social Darwinism (“Greed is good”; “Sink or swim”; “Eat or be eaten”), it is not hard to make a decision regarding profit-maximization. If it increases profit for you: do it. Yet Social Darwinism incentivizes selfishness to a detriment to society. It encourages people to act nefariously. It rewards unscrupulous behavior.

2. It equates profitability to a company’s utility.

In one article from 2012, Business Insider noted that “by focusing their entire effort on the bottom line, many American companies have reduced their value to the other constituencies that truly great companies serve, namely customers, employees, and society. One result of the profit obsession, for example, is that big American companies are now paying the lowest wages as a percent of the economy in history,” shown in the left chart below, even though corporate profits, as a percentage of the economy, have hit an all-time high, as shown in the right chart below.

The article went on to talk about how profit-maximization may be beneficial to the shareholders, but to increase the value of the company, those profits must be shared by everyone, including the employees.

Walmart employs 1.4 million Americans, approximately 1% of the entire American workforce. The average full-time Walmart associate makes $12 an hour–$480 a week and $25,000 a year. That’s just above the poverty line. These 1.4 million Americans who are dedicating their lives to making Walmart successful, in other words, are paid so little that they’re nearly poor. Walmart itself made $27 billion of operating profit last year. If Walmart were to give each of its US associates a $5,000 raise, it would cost the company $7 billion a year. This would reduce Walmart’s operating profit to a still-extremely-healthy $20 billion. It would also give 1.4 million hard-working Americans another $100 a week to spend. [Emphasis added]

An insurance company can make billions of dollars by not paying out to customers or doing anything of value for society, Ulm points out in his original article. Companies take their profits and spend them on buying their own stock in the stock market, driving up the price of each share, allowing the stockholders to cash in big. It’s no wonder nice guys finish last.

social darwinism pol cartoon
[Image Source]
Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and celebrated capitalist theorist, noted that “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable” [Source]. Yet it is capitalists who are spreading the gospel of Social Darwinism. They are ones who once advocated for child labor, unlivable wages, dangerous and lethal working conditions, the weakening of the social safety net, the deregulation of corporate capitalism, and other policies and practices which keeps the majority of society poor.

How do we judge when a company is doing well? When it contributes to human progress and achievement? When it improve the lives of its customers? Or when it merely turns a profit?

It is hard to equate an ability to produce things and make money with an ability to improve our society. As Robert F. Kennedy said of our Gross National Product in March 1968 in a speech at the University of Kansas:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. [Emphasis added]


 3. It makes human beings into commodities.

Humans are valued for their output (labor) rather than for their innate value as people. Herbert Spencer, commonly attributed to as the father of Social Darwinism (who published his ideas 3 years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species) believed strongly that most “unfit” in society, the poor, disabled, and elderly, should not be aided by public or private charity. He wrote in 1873 that:

Other evils, no less serious, are entailed by legislative actions and by actions of individuals, single and combined, which overlook or disregard a kindred biological truth. Beside an habitual neglect of the fact that the quality of a society is physically lowered by the artificial preservation of its feeblest members, there is an habitual neglect of the fact that the quality of a society is lowered morally and intellectually, by the artificial preservation of those who are least able to take care of themselves.


Is the quality of our society lowered, physically, morally, and intellectually, by the “artificial preservation” of people who cannot function in the same capacity as the average factory worker, service employee, or other citizen? Have they no other redeeming quality that makes them beneficial to have around? Do they provide no joy, no comfort, no entertainment, no wisdom, no experience, no insight, or no gift that makes them just as valuable as anyone else?

During the early 20th century, the scientific community was enthralled with the pseudoscience of Eugenics. Eugenics was believed to be the study and science of selective breeding of humanity for its own improvement. It is an idea which stems directly from Social Darwinism. In Europe, Eugenics made a horrifying climax during the reign of Nazi Germany, in which the Nazis committed genocide of Jews, Roma Gypsies, homosexual men, and other “inadequate” people. Because they were viewed as “inferior” to the Aryan race, they had to be exterminated in order to allow humanity to progress more efficiently. Adolf Hitler further talked about these themes in the first volume of Mein Kampf. “He essentially saw the world as one gigantic struggle among the races”, according to an io9 article, “a struggle that would ultimately be won by the strongest.” It went on to explain that:

The acceptance of Social Darwinism by the Nazis goes a long way in explaining the intense brutality meted out during the Second World War. It not only motivated them to unite the Teutonic peoples, but to decimate races altogether, and to claim other lands as the conquerors of more primitive races — including the Slavs who Hitler described as being subhuman, a race suitable for both colonization and, eventually, annihilation (Hitler’s Hunger Plan, which was never put into practice on account of stubborn Soviet resistance, called for the deliberate starvation of tens of millions of Slavs in preparation for the colonization of Ukraine and parts of Russia).

The United States was no innocent bystander when it came to Eugenics. Jim Crow laws forcing racial segregation, the illegality of interracial marriage, and the forced sterilization of criminals were all products of Eugenics. (Side note: It is important to recognize that Eugenics was not the only cause of those things). A study from the 1970s of Puerto Rican residents found that about one-third of all Puerto Rican mothers, ages 20-49, were forcibly sterilized [Source]. Kathryn Krase of Our Bodies Ourselves wrote that as early as 1907,

Policies listed the insane, the “feeble-minded,” the “dependent,” and the “diseased” as incapable of regulating their own reproductive abilities, therefore justifying government-forced sterilizations. Legitimizing sterilization for certain groups led to further exploitation, as group divisions were made along race and class lines.

Some states, notably including North Carolina, set up Eugenics Boards in the early 20th century. These boards reviewed petitions from government and private agencies to impose sterilization on poor, unwed, and/or mentally disabled women, children and men. North Carolina alone sterilized over 7,600 individuals between the 1930 and 1970s.


Even in Sweden, thousands of social deviants were sterilized to “make a socially responsible breed of human being” up until the 1960s [Source]. Just in 2013, according to Policy Mic, a “report from the Center for Investigative Studies has shed light on the practice of female sterilization in a California prison during a period of four years (2006-2010). According to pundit Shanzeh Khurram, ‘at least 148 women at the California Institution for Women in Corona and Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla received tubal ligation, a surgical procedure for permanent sterilization in which a woman’s fallopian tubes are closed'” [Source].

Are humans nothing more than just machine designed to output labor? Designed to birth another generation? Do we contribute nothing more to the world? Are we judged by only our physical capabilities? Humans are indeed more than just commodities. Not just the fittest should be allowed to survive, because there is not objective way to determine who is fittest. It is a dog-eat-dog world out there because we say it is, but if we chose to live our lives not as a grand competition against each other but a competition against nature’s tendency to kill us all, then our world might be better for everyone.

4. It promotes short-term visions over long-term visions.

It creates an obsession with easily quantifiable, immediate metrics for success.

Ulm had this to say about what he called “short-termism”:

The ravages of short-termism were illustrated with sobering clarity in a late 2009 Harvard Business Review forum titled “Is the U.S. Killing Its Innovation Machine?” Featuring nearly two dozen accomplished panelists, the forum noted that U.S. high-tech companies—driven by unflinching demands for cost cutting—have outsourced even high-end processes, so much so that entire sectors of engineering and computer science effectively lack home-grown expertise. Maintaining leadership in technology and manufacturing requires precisely the sort of long-term investments—in basic R&D and in trained professionals—that cannot be quantified on a balance sheet.


Companies are thinking so hard about their immediate future and abstract predictions and strategies that they forget the common humanity that still works for them and lives around them. And forgetting their employees and customers and other citizens their company impacts can harm them in that short-term plan. Which I want to argue hurts their long-term plan. Henry Blodget, the author of the Business Review article I linked earlier, makes a point about increasing wages for employees using similar logic:

If companies pay their employees more, they’ll increase loyalty, reduce turnover, and get better employees. Over the long term, this should reduce training and hiring costs. By increasing customer satisfaction, it should also increase revenue. By paying their employees more, companies will also put more money in the hands of American consumers, who will then turn around and use it to buy products and services from American companies. So the companies will help accelerate the growth of the economy as a whole. And as the economy grows, so will the companies. This, in turn, will help create more long-term shareholder value. [Original emphasis]


Thinking about the employees (their health, training, knowledge, well-being, and security) can benefit companies. The struggle for profit-making and success in the short-term can blind people to the long-term goals and processes. Our society is millennia in the making and will hopefully be around much longer. To ensure that it survives, we must stop shooting ourselves in the foot over little things that won’t affect us very much or for very long.


Ulm ended his article talking about the effects of Social Darwinism in our political sphere:

Our system’s zero-sum adversarialism has reached a disastrous endpoint: suffocated by ideological polarization, fruitless partisan bickering, stifling parliamentary obstacles, and the iron grip of moneyed interests.

The result, whichever party grasps the reins, is a fractious, dysfunctional U.S. institutional paralysis, incapable of tackling the fine-grained nuances of 21st-century public policy without collapsing into ham-fisted ideological quarrels.

Subsidized university tuition and high-quality public schools, universal child and health care, job-creating public works projects and infrastructure spending, government-sponsored research and conservation efforts, carefully managed unemployment and social safety nets—all of these are misleadingly cast as crude liberal-conservative battlegrounds, with the outcome interpreted to be benefiting one coalition or another.

In reality, such policies foster the cohesion and resilience that enable a country to weather economic storms, free up its citizens’ talents for creative and entrepreneurial endeavors, and emerge as a more competitive and self-reliant entity.


Our society requires a huge number of minds to come together and hash out the plans for the future. What will we do? What are our goals? Where will we go? We cannot approach these ideological discussions in a competitive mindset. There is no defined finish line to cross, no single medal to receive, no prize money to be earned. We are not just destined to either sink or swim. We can do more than eat or be eaten. Greed is good and bad and a lot of other things.

Social Darwinism tries to simplify our complex and multi-faceted society in simple principles misappropriated from a theory about wild animals in nature.

And unfortunately, if this simplification came to fruition, we wouldn’t have a society anymore. We’d just be wild animals in nature. Let us not forget our humanity and the innate value we all have for being alive. Let us all strive to improve ourselves and along with that, improve our community for all.

Some believe that without Social Darwinism, our society would become “devoid of intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, and coherent notions of justice and human rights.” I think that the opposite is true. Unless we free ourselves from the rigid shackles of Social Darwinist thought, that future may not be so far-fetched.

-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)

“All Lives Matter Act” Founded on Hypocrisy

On 11 December 2015, Representative Mike Moon (R- Ash Grove) pre-filed a bill which would establish the “All Lives Matter Act”, defining that human life begins at conception, opening up the path for harsher and more restrictive anti-choice legislation from the Missouri Legislature.

hb 1794 1.png
Page 1
hb 1794 2.png
Page 2 [Source]

The legislature heard the first and second readings of this bill on 6 and 7 January 2016, respectively. This is not the first time I’ve seen the Black Lives Matter concept twisted and spun to support anti-choice action.

Back in December 2015, the Genocide Awareness Project came to the University of Missouri’s campus in Columbia to display a rolling billboard trying to explain how Black Lives Matter should be against abortion. I would suggest NOT looking up the images of that billboard up because they are very graphic in their depiction of violence against Black people and aborted fetuses and fetal tissue.

From what I could gather on the display, the GAP tries to co-opt the momentum and messages of progressive movements and tries to twist them to support conservative values. Here is one example: “(All) Black Lives Matter: Born and Unborn!”. The Republican congresspeople who are introducing anti-choice bills in the Missouri Legislature are trying to do the same thing.

I can already see the sly smile on someone’s face. Finally the liberal hypocrisy is revealed! How will they be able to reconcile that? he thinks to himself. (I purposefully chose to use he/him pronouns.)

Here is the thing about that: It is not hypocritical to support Black Lives Matter (and the removal of the oppression of Black People and People of Color in general) and to be Pro-Choice. In fact, the Genocide Awareness Project is hypocritical to support Black Lives Matter and be anti-abortion. And the Missouri legislators who are introducing anti-choice legislation under the guise of fairness and justice are just as hypocritical.

Black Lives Matter is a movement/organization dedicated to removing the systemic racism that constantly oppresses non-white people, specifically removing anti-Black racism and oppression.

Being anti-choice means supporting the sexist and patriarchal system that currently exists and oppresses women and other people with vaginas.

And this is important to note too: those two systems are the same.

It is the same society that we all live in that is founded in both racist and sexist principles. Let me bring in the idea of Intersectionality: the idea that all our identities co-exist at the same time and influence each other. For example, my whiteness is affected by and affects my manhood; both my whiteness and manhood affect and are affected by role as a student, and a student of higher education at that. My experiences are not the same as other men because I have other different identities which affect my being a man. My experiences are not the same as other white people because I have other different identities which affect my being white.

Basically, what I want you to understand is that our different identities cannot be thought of in a vacuum; in other words, by themselves. They are all connected.

So there is no “getting rid of the racist parts of the system” while “keeping the anti-choice parts of the system”. The two are interconnected; so locked together that getting rid of one means getting rid of the other, and keeping one means keeping the other.

That is why it is hypocritical to be pro-Black Lives Matter and anti-choice. If you support Black Lives Matter, you support overthrowing the system because it is racist. If you are anti-choice, you support maintaining the system which is sexist and patriarchal. And you cannot have both, because in the same breath you are advocating for the removal and maintenance of the same system.

Allison Dreith, interim director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, wrote in the St. Louis American an op-ed in which she revealed the hypocrisy of Representative Moon’s using “All Lives Matter” in the title of his bill:

Rep. Moon also cosponsored legislation for 2016 requiring all public restrooms, other than single-occupancy restrooms, to be gender-divided – an attack on transgender persons. So, trans lives do not matter to him. Moon also called for a special legislative session on the Syrian Refugee crisis to halt “the potential Islamization of Missouri.” So, Muslim and refugee lives also do not matter to him. And those examples are just from the past month.

Finally, black women have had very little reproductive choice, historically. During slavery, they wereforced into childbirth. Then, they were forced into methods for sterilization. Since then, black women have had to bear the burden of the“welfare mom” stereotype. This bill continues the trend in Missouri, that women should not make their own decisions. Again, the lives of women – and especially black women – do not matter to this legislator.


It is clear that HB 1794 is a bill targeted to end abortion services. And now what is clear is that the use of “All Lives Matter” to defend these services not only mocks the Black Lives Matter movement, but is hypocritical in its own right.

This bill should meet the same end as HB 1743, the bill which would have revoked scholarships to athletes who participated in social activism that caused them to refuse to play their sport. I wrote about HB 1743 here. That bill was withdrawn after a huge uproar from the community. The “All Lives Matter Act” deserves that same fate.

-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)

Respectability Does Not Earn You Justice

A Misguided Appeal to Propriety


I think most people raised in nations founded in Enlightenment ideals (ex. the United States) are taught that rights are not something to mess with. They are not bestowed upon us by our governments, but rather they are innately owed to us as part of our humanity. In fact, we are told all the time that we should be constantly watching out for when the government tries to take away our rights. The rhetoric can be seen on any political blog or newspaper, no matter the ideology.


sue govt 1sue govt 2sue govt 3sue govt 4

[Image 1] | [Image 2] | [Image 3] | [Image 4]

We all agree that rights are precious and worth protecting.

But often, we are not in agreement about who has which rights. Some people might believe we all have equal access to our rights. They might argue that the _________ (insert: 19th Amendment, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) decision, etc.) finally made everyone equal after a long struggle with inequality since the inception of the first British colony on North America. Unfortunately, that idea that we are all equal is not true. Not everyone has equal access to their rights.

That’s where rights activism comes into play. People in this nation are tired of being denied access to what they are entitled for being human. They want to fight the system which has denied them their rights, maybe even overthrow that system and institute a new one in which they actually get access to rights.

Yet, there are still people who are born in this world with full access for whatever reason (perhaps because they are part of the dominant culture), who want to tell disadvantaged people how to get their rights. As if those advantaged people have ever had to fight for them.

Here is one example of this happening:

8 August 2015 | Seattle, Washington. Bernie Sanders was delivering a speech at a rally when Black Lives Matter protesters took the stage from Sanders and used the platform to share their message. Many people were uncomfortable with protesters’ actions, upset that they interrupted Sanders’ speech. The critics of this move have said things like: “I can’t support a movement that manhandles its way on stage and interrupts people who just want to help them”, “Maybe if they weren’t so rude, people might want to listen to them”, “There is a right way to protest, and that is not it”, and “Their tactics are making the situation worse rather than better”.

Photos from the Rally: Black Lives Matter Activists take to the stage during a speech by Bernie Sanders

Essentially, they were engaged in behavior that made many people feel uneasy and upset. And people believed that their uneasiness was evidence that the Black Lives Matter activists’ actions were wrong. So they criticized the actions, saying that they were not be respectable, that what they were doing did not make them worthy of their accomplishing their goals. In many circles, what I am describing is called Respectability Politics.

respectability politics meme.jpg
Have you seen this image on your social media? This image plays right into respectability politics. The ones on the bottom right may still have better access to their rights than the man in the top left, no matter how well/poorly each dresses. [Image Source]
Respectability Politics is all about using the code-words “respectability” or “respectable” (and similar words) as a guise to shut down activists’ work before it even begins. It’s that idea that if you want your activism to be successful, you should make appealing to those in power (after all, aren’t they the ones who are going to graciously bestow the rights to disadvantaged groups?). It is the practice of holding hostage marginalized people’s access to rights until they conform to the demands of the people with systematic power, until they are deemed “respectable” enough to have access to rights.

You have probably seen examples of Respectability Politics on social media or in conversations with colleagues. Things like:

  • If they didn’t want to get stopped by police, why did they choose to look like criminals?
  • No wonder she doesn’t have a job, did you hear the way she talks? I can’t understand her slang!
  • I don’t mind gay people, just as long as they don’t act flamboyantly or are all in my face about it.
  • He is not poor because he is Black, he is poor because he won’t pull up his pants and go out and find a real job!
  • I wouldn’t date her, she has had sex with everyone!
If you use or have heard anyone else use any of these or related phrases, I will explain below why these phrases not only don't help anyone, but blame people for their socially-inflicted troubles.


First off, here is one problem with Respectability Politics: Activists aren’t asking anyone to give them rights. They’re demanding the rights they are entitled to. They don’t want to hear any criteria or stipulations from the advantaged people for gaining access to rights. They will not pander to the system that denies them rights and necessitates their activism in the first place.

It doesn’t matter if their activism work makes you smile and feel all warm inside or if it makes so mad you’re red in the face. They are demanding their rights (which again, all humans are entitled to). And if you are part of the system that is denying them rights, you are the problem, not them.

Secondly, activists should not have to make their work “respectable” to find success. They are not asking you for second helping of dinner, so to speak. They are asking for a seat at the table in the first place. They do not have time to be dealing with people who want to debate about how to make them more comfy with all this activism business. To continue with the dinner metaphor, they don’t have to time to sit down and educate people about how they are in fact not getting a second helping, but rather, they are getting a chair placed at the table for them. And because of the fact that they don’t even have a seat at the dinner table, they don’t get food at all. And it’s hard to find the time or energy to debate every single person about your eating habits when you are in fact starving. (That’s the end of the dinner metaphor.)

Mattachine Protest in Washington DC. 17 April 1965 | During the first protest for gay and lesbian rights, the demonstrators were required to dress, act, and speak respectably. But it didn’t help much. The LGBTQ rights movement didn’t really kick off until a riot in NYC four years later.

But here is the ultimately fundamental problem with Respectability Politics: it never really works. No one is given access to rights because they were nice or polite. As the image I started this post with quotes from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s 2007 book of the same phrase, “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History”. The same principle applies to all disadvantaged people. Because when the powerful see the powerless being “respectable”, they think “Awesome, nothing is wrong. Look how complacent everyone is, they must love the current state of affairs. I don’t have to do anything“. But when the powerful see the powerless not being “respectable”, they think “Wow, those people are so mean, rude, and uncouth; I’m not doing anything for them until they get better.” And thus what is always the result of Respectability Politics? Nothing. Nothing gets done; the advantaged are kept at an advantage and the disadvantaged are kept an a disadvantage.

Additionally, disruption and loudness and other “non-respectable” behavior accomplishes many of the goals of activism: it gets people aware of the issues and makes them talk about it.

[Image 1] | [Image 2] | [Image 3] | [Image 4] | [Image 5]

What would have happened if the Black Lives Matters activists respectfully asked for stage time at the Bernie Sanders rally? They would have been told “no”, and then would their message have been spread? Or even if they were given time after Senator Sander’s speech was done, would they have been able to as effectively spread their message to a dwindling crowd? Would people have started having those hard conversations about race? Or conversations about why Black Lives Matter exists in the first place?

Returning to those critiques of those actions by the Black Lives Matter activists, we must deconstruct them and expose the hidden Respectability Politics behind them.

    Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was still assassinated even if he was wearing a suit and tie. [Image Source]
    “I can’t support a movement that manhandles its way on stage and interrupts people who just want to help them”:  You need to think critically about how successful the movement would be if it operated differently. Have other methods been tried? How successful were those methods at spreading their message? If you can’t think of many times polite movements were successful, maybe it’s because being “respectable” doesn’t get you very far. 
    freedom summer violence
    Young adults riding a Greyhound Bus to Alabama during the Freedom Summer (1964) campaign faced nearly lethal violence for attempting to register Southern Black citizens to vote. Was it their nice clothing or maybe the way they looked out the window that prompted the violence against them? Or was it that people were upset they were trying to uproot the racism that plagued the South’s electoral system, government, and culture? [Image Source]
  • “Maybe if they weren’t so rude, people might want to listen to them”: People weren’t listening to them when they were being “polite”. Why would the movement switch back when being “rude” accomplishes their goals? Additionally, we must seriously consider if some groups get more scrutiny for behaving “rudely” than others. Do some groups of people get away with same behavior that some other group would get chastised for?
  • “There is a right way to protest, and that is not it”: Is there a right way to protest? If so, would it not be the way that best completes the goal of the protest? Who decides the right way to protest? This alludes back to the subtitle of this post, a misguided appeal to propriety. People like to police other people’s behavior using some idea of what’s “proper” or “correct” as justification. But we should not tell other people how to live their lives because we are not those people; we don’t know their histories, their experiences, or their intentions.
  • “Their tactics are making the situation worse rather than better”: Their tactics are making people think and talk about issues around race and racism in the United States. And that is way better than no one talking about it while the powerless suffer in silence.

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Various "What They Say"/"What We Hear" examples revealing the respectability politics behind various generic comments about protesting. [Image Source]


Respectability Politics does not just apply to race. People who talk about LGBQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer) people “just wanting to get married like everyone else” are appealing to Respectability Politics. Because LGBQ folks do not just want to get married, they want to get rid of the whole system that denied them marriage in the first place. And then get married without straight people telling them the “correct” way to be married (ex. one stay-at-home spouse and one breadwinner). LGBQ people are every bit as diverse and complex as heterosexual people, but they don’t want inclusion into a homophobic institution; they want a new institution that welcomes them, appreciates them, and acknowledges their existence.

Transgender folks face constant pressure to look as much as possible like male/female stereotypes of cisgender people. The way they act, speak, dress, style their hair, make gestures, etc. are all policed by everyone to ensure they still fit into the very gender binary that denies their existence. Even other transgender people, like Caitlyn Jenner, police transgender folk’s bodies. In a TIME Magazine interview, she said:

caitlyn jenner“I think it’s much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role. So what I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease. If you’re out there and, to be honest with you, if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.

So the first thing I can do is try to present myself well. I want to dress well. I want to look good. When I go out, as Kim says, you’ve got to rock it because the paparazzi will be there.”


Should everyone else’s level of comfort dictate how you should present yourself, as Jenner alludes? Caitlyn Jenner points out that “it’s much easier for a trans [person] who authentically kind of looks and plays the role”, noting that trans people who pass for cisgender may escape some discrimination. But that doesn’t save them from discrimination on their legal documents and driver’s licenses which show the wrong sex/gender, embarrassment and harassment in the workplace where they have to dress for a gender they don’t identify with, and violence and harassment in bathrooms when trans people who just want to relieve themselves are verbally and/or physically abused. Their “authentically” playing the “role” will not save them from that.

Here is the respectability politics: Jenner is telling trans folks that they need to look “presentable” (aka cisgender) so that they don’t make other people uncomfortable, and thus, will be more willing to tolerate trans people. And to me, that is like telling trans people to pretend they aren’t trans people so that cisgender people will not feel compelled to discriminate against them. Which of course puts the onus on trans folks to stop their own oppression. And that doesn’t make sense.

Additionally, do trans people not deserve protection from employment discrimination, housing discrimination, and lethal violence on the streets unless they look enough like a cisgender person? If they do look like a “man in a dress” do they deserve to be killed in the street? Do young black boys deserve to be shot by the police because they were wearing hoodies and sagging their pants? Do women deserve to be raped because they were wearing revealing clothing?

No. Of course they deserve protection from discrimination and violence because they are human and entitled to those protections, they have rights to those protections, no matter how they choose to express themselves or live their lives. Your comfortability be damned.


Again, as humans we are guaranteed certain rights. But many people are still denied access to those rights. And when they fight and demand access, they are told that they are not being respectable, and thus are undeserving of that access. That is unacceptable.

We may be uncomfortable with some of the tactics of some movements and the work of some activists. But we must examine that uncomfortability. Is it because we are taught never to disrupt the system? Is it because we are taught that some people simply don’t deserve rights? Is it because we were socialized to behave a certain way and deviance from that makes us feel uneasy?

Because even if we are taught those things, we must now take the opportunity to re-teach ourselves in our adulthood. Instead of asking “how can rights activists accomplish their goals most effectively while minimizing disruption?” the question should just be “how can they accomplish their goals most effectively?”.

Instead of asking “how can they minimize their differences from me so that I feel more comfortable with them?” the question should be “how can I handle these uncomfortable feelings like an adult and learn to appreciate differences and diversity rather than try to suppress them?“.


I want to end with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. I think it is important to recognize how long the struggle with respectability politics has been going on. King succinctly characterizes the same dialogues that we hear even today, especially concerning the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Negro’s greatest stumbling block in the drive toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another mans freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro the wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.


Don’t let the system tell you how you should tear down the system. Because it’ll ensure you never succeed.

-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)

Our Elections Are Threatening Our Democracy

Finding an Alternative to the First-Past-the-Post Electoral System

The dominant electoral structure in the United States is the Simple Plurality system, or commonly called First-Past-the-Post (FPTP). Its advantages are in its simplicity: whoever gets the most votes wins the election. (A plurality just means the biggest slice of the pie, so to speak. A majority (50%+1) is a type of plurality.) FPTP is easy to understand and selecting winners is easy as well.

But essentially, that’s where the benefits of the Simple Plurality system end. There are a lot of problems with the system that harm the fairness and integrity of elections all around the world.

  • The winner doesn’t have to get over 50% to win. Hell, they could win with 10% of the vote, as long as each of their opponents got 9.9% or less. In 2015 for instance, the Conservative Party of the UK won a majority of seats in Parliament with only 36.7% of the votes [Source]. In November 2015, the Canadian Liberal Party won a majority of seats in Parliament with just nearly 40% of the vote [Source].
  • But what is more problematic is that there is no opportunity for the voting blocs to compromise or appeal to moderation, because centrist candidates were bumped off long ago in the primary elections and only extreme candidates remained (which is why no candidate gets over 50% in big elections until there’s only 2 left in the race; they never have wide appeal).
  • Many people feel that their votes are insignificant or wasted in FPTP elections, because many votes in these elections do not change the election results (ex. if Candidate A already won a majority of the votes, any additional votes would be “wasted” basically they won’t make Candidate A win any more than they already have).
  • The system is highly vulnerable to tactical voting: meaning people will change their vote depending on the (perceived or actual) votes of others. Not only does this make the election insincere, but it leads to the strong showing of candidates that no one is really happy with, and a weak showing of candidates people might
    actually really like.
  • perot 1992 prez button
    1992 Ross Perot Presidential Button [Image Source]
    Tactical voting also allows for what is called the Spoiler Effect. It’s the idea that if a voting bloc is split between two similar candidates, they will spoil each other’s chances of victory, because a dissimilar candidate (supported by a unified voting bloc) will win. Even if more people voted against that candidate than for them. It’s what happened in 1992 with Ross Perot; he and the Reform Party stole votes away from George H. W. Bush and the Republicans, letting Bill Clinton and the Democrats take the victory.
  • Finally, FPTP inevitably leads to a two-party system. In political science, this is called Duverger’s Law. Because of the tactical voting, people will forego voting for their preferred candidates for one who has a stronger chance of winning and keeping a hated candidate out of office. This leads to a us-versus-them mentality of voting, which leads to a “us” Party and a “them” Party. All other parties are pushed out for being considered “too weak” to win, or they fuse with another party to achieve a better chance of spreading their agenda within a stronger party structure.

two party system xkcd
Me and my friends while I was researching for this post [Image Source]
There are many other voting systems other FPTP which may be more fair or advantageous, depending on what you are trying to accomplish with your election. Are we looking for a system that makes the top vote-getter the winner no matter what? Do we what a system that elects a compromise or consensus candidate over a candidate that is loved by some and hated by others? Do we want to ensure that tactical voting doesn’t lead to a Spoiler Effect?

For the purposes of this post, I want to just focus on a new election structure for general elections, for example, district elections for Congress or mayoral elections. I’ll save tackling the Presidential Election (and the Electoral College), voting structure within Congress, and Primary elections for another post.

Voting and Election theorists have developed a number of new voting systems to accomplish different goals throughout history. So if I am looking for a new system to replace FPTP, first I have to identify what kind of elections and elections results I desire in order to narrow down my selection.

approval ballot.png
Example of Approval Voting Ballot [Image Source]
Firstly, I blame a lot of the problems with FPTP on the fact that I can only vote once. It’s why people feel compelled to vote tactically, it leads to wasted votes, and it creates the opportunity for the Spoiler Effect to influence an election result. So my first criterion for an alternative system to FPTP is that you must be able to vote for more than one candidate. If I can vote for multiple people (shown on the right), it would eliminate the penalty for voting for a minor Party (because I could just vote for a minor candidate I love and a major candidate I wouldn’t mind winning). Additionally, it could lead to more moderate candidates having better chances of victory, because again, people could vote for an extreme candidate they might favor and a moderate candidate they wouldn’t mind winning. Voting for multiple candidates at once weakens the power of the two-party system, because it gives minor parties more chances for success, which is important to me, personally.

Example of Range Voting Ballot [Image Source]
Secondly, multiple voting could be more expressive of my preferences if I could rank my choices. I think this attribute is necessary in electoral structures that allow for multiple votes, because voters don’t view all candidates as equal nor do they care equally who wins. So it follows that there must be a mechanism that allows voters to show their level of agreement with candidates. So my second criterion: there is some kind of ranking system to better express preferences. There are lots of different ways to rank choices: A-F scale, 0-10 scale (similar to example shown above), Agree-Disagree scale, Excellent-Poor scale, etc. Or maybe just number the candidates in the order I would most like to see them win; thus the scale is dependent on how many candidates there are. I particularly like the ballot pictured above because it puts all candidates on the same scale. But I would change 0 from “worst” to “no preference”, and make 1 the “worst” ranking. That way we do not have to force voters to rank every single candidate; candidates not ranked can just be considered to be a 0: “no preference”.

schluze computation
The complicated computation of the Schulze Method, created by Marcus Schulze (1997) [Image Source]
Thirdly, I actually want to go back to one of the advantages of FPTP: its simplicity. I think that one of biggest reasons the United States doesn’t switch to another system is that a lot of the available alternatives are too complicated for the average citizen’s taste. They like the clarity and seeming transparency of FPTP; no one can mess with the system without being easily caught. Additionally, it is easily to count votes in FPTP, and thus, follow and predict elections as they are being counted. I don’t think that is one characteristic of American election season that should have to be sacrificed. Finally, if I am trying to sell to the American people a new electoral structure, I want it to be simple. So that’s my third criterion.

Now I have three criteria for an alternative primary:

  1. Voters must be able to select more than one candidate.
  2. Voters must be allowed to rank their selections based on preference of those candidates.
  3. The system must be simple.

I want to a take a minute to say that of all the voting systems I have looked at which satisfy my first two criteria, I think a Range Voting system (which I’ll explain below) would work the best as an alternative to FPTP in the United States (honorable mentions include Borda Count (originally developed in 1770), Schulze/ Pathwise Method (1997), and Ranked Pairs (1987)). In theory, I think I prefer Schulze Method the most, but its process of selecting the winner is very complicated (shown above) and thus fails the third criterion.

So that is what I am advocating for: in general elections around the country, we should switch from First-Past-the-Post to Range Voting.

Now, we need to talk about the Plurality Principle. This is the idea that the person who gets the most votes must be the winner. It’s the foundation of FPTP. On the surface that seems like a good idea: who would want a unpopular candidate to win? But I think we must rethink the validity of this principle. (I define validity as the ability to do what is intended to be done.) As I noted earlier, the person who gets the most votes in FPTP may not necessarily be the popular candidate: they might have just run against several similar candidates who split the votes of the majority of the people (the Spoiler Effect). The goal of the Plurality Principle is that the most popular or supported candidates should win, but dictating that the top vote-getter win does not always satisfy that goal. Range Voting does not satisfy the Plurality Principle on a technicality: it provides the opportunity for the top vote-getter to win, but that does not necessarily always happen. But that’s because Range Voting takes into account the second and third preferences of voters, meaning that a consensus candidate could win instead. This means that Range Voting eliminates the Spoiler Effect, and also that Range Voting might be closer to complying with the spirit of the Plurality Principle than FPTP.

Let’s look closer into how Range Voting might look in a hypothetical election.

Example of (Simple) Election Results Using Range Voting:

% of Vote Candidate A Candidate B Candidate C
45% 10 6 1
25% 3 7 2
30% 1 5 8
Explanation: 45% of the voting electorate ranked Candidate A with a 10, meaning they would love if they won; Candidate B with a 6, meaning they wouldn't mind if they won; and Candidate C with a 1, meaning they really do not want them to win. 25% of the electorate gave A a 3, B a 7, and C a 2. And 30% of the electorate gave A a 1, B a 5, and C an 8.

In FPTP, Candidate A would have won, even though the majority of the electorate really didn’t like them (55% of the electorate gave Candidate A a 3 or less). I make this assertion assuming that each voting bloc would use their single vote in FPTP to vote for the candidate they ranked the highest (A gets 45%, B gets 25%, and C gets 30%).

But in Range Voting, Candidate B, who has high-to-moderate support throughout the whole electorate would have won.

Points for Candidate A Points for Candidate B Points for Candidate C
450 (45 x 10) 270 (45 x 6) 45 (45 x 1)
75 (25 x 3) 175 (25 x 7) 50 (25 x 2)
30 (30 x 1) 150 (30 x 5) 240 (30 x 8)
555 Total 595 Total 335 Total

Because of Range Voting, everyone is pleased with the election results, instead of a minority being overjoyed at the expense of everyone else’s disappointment. I will assert that this outcome is better than the outcome from the FPTP election.

If this system looks vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s already used in other situations. The Olympics use range voting for figure skating, for example. Each judge rates each performance with a score, instead of watching all the performances and selecting just one to win the whole competition. Internet sites like IMDb use range voting to rank movies, allowing visitors to share their preference for a particular movie on a scale from 1 to 10.

Of course, Range Voting is not some miracle solution. It does have disadvantages. But I want to note that it was fewer disadvantages than FPTP.

  • Range Voting is vulnerable to a different form of tactical voting called Bullet Voting. Bullet Voting is when voters only rank one candidate, because they don’t want to give points to other candidates. This effectively turns Range Voting into just Approval Voting.
  • Range Voting also fails the the Later-No-Harm Principle, meaning that giving a positive ranking to a less preferred candidate might lead to a more preferred candidate losing. This is directly related to Bullet Voting.
  • Range Voting does not work well when it’s supposed to provide more than one winner in an election (ex. a City Council or School Board election if all candidates run in the same election).
  • The validity of Range Voting, like many other voting systems including FPTP, is threatened by uninformed voters and low voter turnout.
  • Multiple voters, who share identical opinions of the candidates, might rank those candidates differently on the ballot, since each voter interprets the scale differently.

I believe Range Voting is more capable than FPTP at accomplishing the goals of democracy: ensuring the will of the people is supreme. Range Voting gives consensus and moderate candidates better chances of winning, it breaks the power of the two-party system, it protects against the Spoiler Effect, and it is simple and understandable to the general public.

There unfortunately have been few times Range Voting has been studied in real governmental elections. I fear that it’s because Range Voting doesn’t satisfy the Plurality Principle, which many people are uncomfortable with giving up. But the United States has never been a nation afraid of innovation or experimentation.

I say it’s time to try it out.

-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)

More than Just Bodies on the Field

State Representative Rick Brattin (R-Harrsionville) pre-filed House Bill 1743 (co-sponsored by Kurt Bahr (R-O’Fallon)) on Friday, December 11th. The bill will revoke any scholarship offered to student-athletes who refuse to play a game for any reason other than health reasons. The bill is pictured below.

hb 1743

The crux of the bill is between lines 2 and 3:

Any college athlete who calls, incites, supports, or participates in any strike or concerted refusal to play a scheduled game shall have his or her scholarship revoked.

There are several reasons this bill should never make it to the Floor of the House.

1. It is just an overreaction to the realization of student-athletes that they actually have some power. Co-sponsor Bahr said the bill is “obviously in reaction to the athletes who were saying they weren’t going to play to what they considered to be social issues on campus.” As Representative Brandon Ellington (D-Kansas City) said in a statement, the bill seeks to “further solidify and legalize institutional racism” and reduce players to the status of “subjugated livestock”.

2. It reinforces the idea that student-athletes are nothing more than bodies on the field, whose sole purpose is to entertain. It forgets that “student” part of “student-athlete”. As Ian Simon, a senior captain for the football team, told the Columbia Missourian, “I’m more than just a football player… Our sport is just a small part of who we are”. He went on to say that “I don’t just wear a helmet on Saturdays and disappear the other six days of the week”.

3. The MU athletic department self-funds, so it doesn’t receive public funds. The athletic scholarships come from ticket and merchandising sales. The MU Student-Athlete Handbook notes “The University of Missouri does not receive state appropriated funds to operate its intercollegiate athletics programs, thus, similar to private business, the Mizzou Athletics Department must operate solely from what revenue it generates.”

4. The MU Student-Athlete Handbook also says that “any renewal, reduction, or cancellation of an athletics scholarship is made at the discretion of the coach and the Director of Athletics”, not the State Legislature.

5. If the State Legislature wants to assume they have power in the running of a public university like Mizzou, they should first fund it like a public university. Funding for higher education from the state has been stagnant over the past 8 years. Missouri ranks 44th in higher education appropriations per $1,000 of personal income and 47th in higher education appropriations per capita.

6. Even the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) called the law “deplorable” and that they “stand against it”. Member of the NFLPA’s Executive Comittee, Benjamin Watson (Tight End-New Orleans Saints) said in a statement that the “proposed legislation is clearly an attempt to silence student athletes by threatening to take away their education”.

I believe this bill fails to recognize the fact that student-athletes are not simply given their scholarships, they earn them. And it should take significant explanation to justify taking them away.

Will Representative Brattin pre-file another bill that mandates all students who skip class to be stripped of their academic scholarships? Will student-athletes have their scholarships revoked if they don’t play to a certain standard? What other stipulations will be a violation of a contract? Will elected officials be sanctioned for proposing legislation in which the State has no jurisdiction? What punishment will the government face when it stops representing the voice and will of the people and protecting their rights, thus breaking the 300 year-old Social Contract?

There is no precedent for HB 1743. There is just a desire to punish students for standing up to the system which dehumanized them.

UPDATE: 16 December 2015

Representative Brattin withdrew HB 1743 without comment.

hb 1743 updated.png
“Last Action: 12/16/15 – Withdrawn”

Co-sponsor Bahr commented to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “Unfortunately, it’s going to be seen as a coup by those who opposed the bill.”

-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)