Monday, February 19, 2018

How Our Government Segregated America

The above title is the subtitle of Richard Rothstein’s recent book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liveright: 2017). It is a book that both fascinated and infuriated me. That is because the myth that most Americans have been fed, especially by the Supreme Court in its school-desegregation rulings, is that most segregation in America is de facto—that is, the result of established housing patterns that were the unintentional  product of economic or cultural choices—and therefore legitimate. Opposed to this is de jure segregation—that carried out purposely by government policies, and therefore, illegal. What Richard Rothstein sets out to demonstrate in stunning detail, is the fact that segregation in American housing was, in fact, “a nationwide project of the federal government in the twentieth century” (xii). Basically, de jure from top to bottom. That is to say, federal, state and local governments all unconstitutionally denied to African Americans the right and the means to live in integrated neighborhoods, thus creating the racist system of unequal schools, neighborhoods, suburbs and central cities that we see in the United States to this day. What is perhaps most astonishing is that it was not just the former Confederate states that have been responsible for this, but the most liberal governments of the last century like the Roosevelt administration.
            Consider one of the chief culprits in this story, the FHA or Federal Housing Administration created by Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1934 to help solve the housing and banking crisis of that time. What the FHA did was to insure bank mortgages covering 80% of a home’s purchase price, thus removing much of the risk of default from shaky banks. Grand idea. But the FHA required the appraisal of any property it insured, and its “standards included a whites-only requirement” (64), allegedly because it judged that properties in racially-mixed neighborhoods would be too risky to insure. Rothstein cites from the FHA’s Underwriters Manual:
“If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in values” (65).

The same government manual warned appraisers against the “infiltration of inharmonious racial or nationality groups” and against areas where children are “compelled” to attend schools with pupils from “lower level(s) of society,” code for African Americans. Now it should be said that Franklin Roosevelt was under severe constraints to get his New Deal legislation passed, most specifically from southern Democrats who were determined, the Civil War notwithstanding, to maintain segregation in America; so he was forced to tailor New Deal legislation so that it would pass this congressional roadblock. But it is nonetheless stunning to realize that, in spite of the Fourteenth Amendment and several Supreme Court decisions against both public and private laws or covenants imposing racial segregation, the U.S. government created both the FHA and the earlier HOLC (Home Owner’s Loan Corporation) that, in effect, either maintained or created new segregation in the United States. The HOLC, for instance, formed in 1933 to take over existing mortgages subject to foreclosure (as many were in the Depression), and issue new mortgages to save homeowners and banks from ruin, started the practice of assessing “risk” in neighborhoods where it intervened. It used real estate agents to assess these risks, and since these agents had to abide by their ‘national ethics code to maintain segregation,’ the HOLC ended up considering the racial composition of all neighborhoods, and thereby created the “color-coded maps of every metropolitan area in the nation,” with “safe” neighborhoods colored green, and “risky” neighborhoods colored red. Again, “risky” and “red” are clear codes for “Black,” leading directly to the practice of “redlining” that has persisted to this day.
            Rothstein provides endless examples of how this government-sponsored segregation worked in practice. To begin with, it should be noted that in the post-war years, both the FHA and the VA (Veteran’s Administration) were insuring fully “half of all new mortgages nationwide,” so their influence was huge. Consider a 1958 case, in my former Berkeley neighborhood, the Elmwood, where a teacher named Gerald Cohn purchased a house with an FHA-guaranteed mortgage; but since he wasn’t quite ready to move in, he rented it to a fellow teacher, Alfred Simmons, who was black. This so alarmed the chief of police, that he inquired “how Mr. Simmons had managed to get into this all-white community” (66) and notified the FBI. Though the FBI and the US Attorney refused to prosecute (perhaps because they understood the Constitution), the FHA was not so kind; it blacklisted Mr. Cohn, informing him that “he would be denied the benefits of participation in the FHA insurance program” ever again. For this was clear FHA policy: no mortgage guarantees to African Americans or even to whites who tried to rent or sell to African Americans. When we consider another case, involving the iconic suburban development called Levittown on Long Island, we can see what this meant. Vince Mereday was a U.S. Navy veteran of WWII, honorably discharged. Working after the war for his uncle Robert who had a contract to deliver building materials to Levittown but couldn’t buy there, Vince decided, as a Black veteran with a solid job, to try his luck in buying a Levittown home. Veterans who bought in this way could buy a three-bedroom home for $8,000, with no money down, thanks to the low-interest VA and FHA-guaranteed loans. But there were racist restrictions in these government programs: no insured mortgages for developments that included any African Americans. Indeed, developers could not even get loans to begin developments until they assured banks that their new suburbs would be racially segregated. Unsurprisingly, Vince Mereday was turned down, and had to settle for an alternative: a home in nearby Lakeview, an all-black suburb near Levittown. It cost him, like all African Americans deprived of FHA loans; for he had to make a large down payment, get an uninsured mortgage from a bank, and that meant a far higher interest rate and monthly payment. This became a pattern nationwide, not least in the suburban subdivisions that, after the war, completely changed the American landscape. Entire suburbs throughout the nation, thanks to FHA requirements, became racially-exclusive white enclaves. Indeed, Rothstein shows how “the growth of California and the West in the decades following World War II was financed on a racially-restricted basis by the federal government” (73). Developments in Milpitas CA, Westlake south of San Francisco, Lakewood south of Los Angeles and Panorama City in the San Fernando Valley were all FHA-guaranteed whites-only projects. And where, as outside of St. Louis, a developer did create a subdivision for African Americans, he could not get FHA financing. The result was that
the construction was shoddier and the house design skimpier than in St. Ann (the developer’s previous all-white project guaranteed by FHA). Because potential buyers were denied FHA or VA mortgages, many homes were rented (73-4).

And, as Rothstein explains elsewhere, having to scramble to make rent or mortgage payments, many African Americans resorted to renting out rooms or crowding more family members into homes, thus creating conditions that led to deterioration—for which they were and still are, routinely blamed. In summary, the federal government’s programs designed to help Americans become homeowners, specifically applied only to whites, and this, in turn, “spurred the suburbanization of every metropolitan area by guaranteeing bank loans to mass-production builders who would create all-white subdivisions that came to ring American cities” (75), leaving inner city neighborhoods to deteriorate. In response, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights came to this conclusion:
the “housing industry, aided and abetted by Government, must bear the primary responsibility for the legacy of segregated housing…Government and private industry came together to create a system of racial segregation” (75).

            Unfortunately, and infuriatingly, this was only the beginning of a continuing, and still-existing system of racial segregation in the United States of America. Rothstein’s book is full of more details—zoning laws that forced industries, often polluting industries, to settle in African American neighborhoods, literally creating unhealthy slums; routing interstate highways to create racial boundaries or condemn African American neighborhoods altogether; turning a blind eye to racist mobs rioting in response to attempts by African Americans to buy into segregated neighborhoods (in one instance in a Louisville KY suburb, there were cross burnings and bombings but no indictments of the rioters until a grand jury indicted the sellers, Carl and Ann Braden, for “conspiring to stir up racial conflict by selling the house to African Americans” and sentenced Mr. Braden to fifteen years in prison for his “crime,” until he won release on appeal), and using the tax code to add to the already-overwhelming burden African Americans had to face in trying to own a home. It is a story that casts in an entirely new light upon the constant criticisms of deteriorating and high-crime neighborhoods (recall the racist remarks candidate Donald Trump made about inner-city slums), because what it demonstrates is that these “deplorable conditions” were essentially created by government fiat and business policies (such as private covenants that excluded sales to African Americans). When one adds the concerted legal maneuvering to deprive African Americans of anything approaching the job opportunities available to whites (the minimum wage laws were deliberately created [again, at the behest of southern Democrats] to exclude jobs in agriculture and domestic service-- jobs typically held by African Americans), one begins to wonder how any person of color ever manages to survive at all.
            Let me cite one more case from Rothstein’s book, this one involving the Techwood Homes in Atlanta, opened in 1935. This was a project of the Public Works Administration (PWA), which, despite its good intentions, “segregated projects even where there was no previous pattern of segregation” (21). Amazingly, the head of the new PWA was Harold Ickes, a former president of the Chicago branch of the NAACP. Nonetheless, though he ensured that the PWA did build publicly-financed homes for African Americans, he maintained segregation as the PWA's dominant mode (of 47 projects, 17 were for African Americans, while 21 were for whites only). In Atlanta, this meant that the Techwood Homes, built on “land that was cleared by demolishing the Flats, a low-income integrated neighborhood adjacent to downtown that had included 1600 families, nearly one-third of whom were African American” (22), became a project with 604 units for white families only. This was bad enough. But what the PWA project did was to force low-income African American families out of the formerly-integrated Flats into the only places they were allowed: overcrowded “neighborhoods where African American were already living.” This meant doubling up with relatives or renting rooms made available by other African Americans subdividing their houses. Rothstein summarizes the effect of this program ostensibly meant to alleviate inadequate housing for lower and middle-income families:
A result of the government program, therefore, was the increased population density that turned the African American neighborhoods into slums (22).

Think about it: the federal government’s program not only turned what had been an integrated neighborhood into a whites-only project, but, as a direct result of its efforts, made existing African American neighborhoods worse, turning them into slums.
Such is the legacy of racism and segregation in the United States of America. It is a tale that, despite making one ashamed of being American, should be studied by everyone, not least the allegedly well-informed members of our Supreme Court, our Congress, our White House, and certainly, the children in all of our schools.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, February 1, 2018


We sleep so much of our life—fully one-third of our time is spent sleeping—that you would think any human knows all there is to know about it. But the truth is that until very recently, we had no real idea of why sleep was so ubiquitous across all species, or so necessary (deprive any human of sleep for a substantial period of days or weeks and that human will first hallucinate and eventually die). To many, it seemed to be this bothersome waste of time: why sleep when one could be doing so many interesting or profitable things? Indeed, that attitude, especially in advanced industrial nations, is one of the reasons Matthew Walker wrote his recent book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (Scribners: 2017). Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, considers the lack of sleep in modern society a virtual epidemic that has enormous consequences to our national and global well-being. His book is therefore full of fascinating details and studies informing us why sleep is so necessary, and which kind of sleep is necessary for which functions.
            Begin with what almost everyone now knows: there are two different kinds of sleep for humans—deep or NREM sleep, and REM or rapid-eye-movement sleep. This discovery (by Aserinsky and Kleitman) came in 1952, but what the explosion of neuroscience since then has now revealed is why each type of sleep is necessary, when it usually occurs during the night, and why missing it has the damaging effects it does. First the basics: there are five cycles in the average person’s night of sleep, each lasting about 90 minutes. In each cycle, we go from being awake to REM sleep to four ever-deeper levels of NREM sleep, and then start over, with the average cycles lasting from 11PM to 12:30, 12:30 to 2, 2 to 3:30, 3:30 to 5:15 and 5:15 to 7AM. These 90-minute cycles change in composition through the night, with most of the early cycles consumed by deep NREM sleep and very little REM sleep, but then changing to REM sleep domination later, especially in the last cycle just before we wake for the day. What’s explained here is how the functions of the two types of sleep differ. NREM sleep—marked by slow, synchronous brain waves—does the work of “weeding out and removing unnecessary neural connections” (45). That is, our brains are filled with outside input during the day, and could be overwhelmed if they retained all that information. NREM sleep seems to do what Walker calls the “excavatory” work of ridding the brain of what’s not necessary and storing the parts that are, and it does it early in the night. Then, in the later part of the night, the REM sleep in which we dream plays a role in integrating the new connections that are left. Walker calls this the “etching hand of REM sleep,” which “blends, interconnects, and adds details…to auto-update our memory networks based on the events of the day” (45). REM sleep, in short, is the active time of sleep, with parts of the dreaming brain 30 % more active than when we are awake (though it should be pointed out that the brain is quite active during NREM sleep too). This activity is also the reason that a key part of REM sleep is body paralysis: you can’t move while dreaming because if you could, you might act out your dream and that could prove dangerous, as it sometimes is for sleepwalkers. Walker summarizes the various brain states as follows:

When it comes to information processing, think of the wake state as reception (experiencing and constantly learning the world around you), NREM sleep as reflection (storing and strengthening those raw ingredients of new facts and skills), and REM sleep as integration (interconnecting those raw ingredients with each other, with all past experiences, and, in doing so, building an ever more accurate model of how the world works.) (53).

            Walker underlines the importance of REM sleep to human evolution by theorizing that when primates moved from tree sleeping to ground sleeping, they could do more REM sleep without fear of falling. This meant that the increased dream time fostered both human cognitive intelligence and our ability to navigate socially complex groupings. That is, REM-sleep dreaming increases our ability to “successfully navigate the kaleidoscope of socioemotional signals” characteristic of human culture, and thus “forge(s) the types of cooperative alliances that are necessary to establish large social groups and societies” (74). REM sleep is also the key to human creativity, according to Walker, as the ability of dreams to combine all sorts of irrational elements seems to prove. Finally, for Walker, dreams have a much more specific function than that theorized by Freud. Nurturing to our emotional and mental health, dreams allow us to process emotional themes and concerns too fraught for the daytime brain. That is partly because during REM sleep, the stress-related chemical noradrenaline (or noepinephrine) is shut off. That means the brain can deal with an upsetting memory more calmly, in what Walker calls a “safe dreaming environment.” He even theorizes, based on the work of colleagues, that REM-sleep dreaming accomplishes two goals:

first, to remember the details of those valuable, salient experiences, integrating them with existing knowledge and putting them into autobiographical perspective; and second, to forget, or dissolve, the visceral, painful emotional charge that had previously been wrapped around those memories (208).

If this is true, thought Walker, then these ideas might be extended to PTSD, as his communication with Dr. Murray Raskind, of Seattle Veteran’s Hospital, suggested. Raskind found out by chance that a drug called prazosin he was using to treat patients with high blood pressure had an unexpected side effect: it suppressed noradrenaline in the brain, and thereby “alleviated reoccurring flashback nightmares” (213). This confirmed Walker’s intuition that REM sleep allows the dreaming brain to detoxify painful experiences by reliving them in a more stress-free setting than when awake.
            One other revelation, among many, is worth mentioning. Sleep turns out to be a great space for learning, from specific facts to motor skills. The key neuroscientific fact here is that learning during sleep seems mainly to be fostered by “sleep spindles.” These are pulses that repeat every 100 to 200 milliseconds, moving back and forth between the hippocampus (where short-term memory is stored) and the longer-term memory sites in the cortex. Here is how Walker describes this key discovery:
In that moment, we had just become privy to an electrical transaction occurring in the quiet secrecy of sleep: one that was shifting fact-based memories from the temporary storage depot (hippocampus) to a long-term secure vault (the cortex). In doing so, sleep had cleared out the hippocampus, replenishing this short-term information repository with plentiful free space…the learning of new facts could begin again, anew, the following day (111).

Moreover, learning during sleep aids more than the mental compiling of facts. The “offline learning” of sleep also aids motor memory, such as that required by athletes or musicians. A musician Walker met told him of his experiences in this regard, which happened routinely:

As a pianist, I have an experience that seems far too frequent to be chance. I will be practicing a particular piece, even late into the evening, and I cannot seem to master it…I go to bed frustrated.  But when I wake up the next morning and sit back down at the piano, I can just play, perfectly” (124).

Numerous experiments, both in Walker’s laboratory and elsewhere, have now proven this capacity of sleep to be correct. In one test of learning odd number sequences, for example, one group was given time off from practicing during the day, with no sleep; the other half was given the same amount of time off, but at night when they could sleep. The group that was given a daytime break without sleep showed no improvement after twelve hours. But the group that had slept overnight “showed a striking 20 percent jump in performance speed and a near 35 percent improvement in accuracy” (125). This same result has been duplicated many times, and most people would probably confirm something like it in their own experience. This essentially means that the old admonition of “sleep on it” has now been confirmed scientifically: it is not practice alone that makes perfect, but that old standby, sleep.
            There is lots more in this invaluable book, but this should give you the idea. Walker is a missionary in our world whose message concerns both the damnation that comes from sleep deprivation (for teenagers, drivers, doctors, workers of all kinds), and the salvation that derives from what should be the simplest of our activities: a good night’s sleep.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Will or Grace?

No, this is not a blog about the TV sitcom, Will and Grace. Rather, it’s about the difference between two modes of getting something done—via the exercise of conscious will, or by allowing grace or intuition or something-very-hard-to-name do its work. I’ll try to illustrate the area I mean by citing an example from my own experience. Thirty or so years ago, after ‘sitting’ or doing zazen meditation on my own for several years, I finally got the chance to sign up for an zen intensive or ‘sesshin.’ This involves five (or seven) long days of 25- to 40-minute periods of meditation, normally sitting in lotus or modified lotus position, with rest periods at meals, and a solid period of work in the afternoon. The biggest hurdle for beginning western students tends to be knee pain. After a day or two of constant sitting crosslegged, the knees of even experienced sitters begin to protest, especially in long afternoons when heat and exhaustion tend to set in. On about the third day, in spite of my pride at being able to sit morning periods without much strain, I was in this exhausted condition. By the end of each afternoon period, my knees were not only sore, but on fire. The whole exercise began to seem stupid if not masochistic. What was the point? What was possibly being accomplished by this self-torture? This kind of thinking means the mind is on fire too. And there seems no solution to the dilemma. Either one moves to a less stressful position and wastes the periods already accomplished, exposing oneself as a wimp, or one persists in lotus and pushes the painful knees harder. And the pain continues to get worse—to the point that one begins to worry about doing serious damage. I was worrying about precisely that, my mind on fire trying to figure out what I could do to ease the pain, how I might subtly move to put less pressure on my knee joints and tendons but still maintain my commitment.
            Then, at some point, I simply decided to stop: stop worrying, stop trying to make things better, stop imagining my tendons snapping, and give up. There was nothing I could do to ease the pain, nothing I could do to salvage my pride, nothing I could do to prevent my total collapse. And so I yielded to what appeared to be my unavoidable condition of pain—pain in the knees and pain in the mind. If my knees snapped, I told myself, so be it. And that’s when it happened. Something shifted. Something eased. And, in what seemed like seconds, the pain had vanished. And I was floating on some sort of relaxed cloud, fully alert to everything around me, and feeling as if I could go on forever.
            I actually wrote about this, researching the then-scientific information about pain and its causes and sources in the muscles and brain (something called ‘gate theory’ was the reigning favorite), trying to figure out what the hell had happened. Because to me, this seemed like a miracle. One minute I feared for my physical (mainly) and mental health; the next minute I was in a kind of bliss with no pain whatever and nothing done on my part to cause it. I should also say that this condition lasted for most of the afternoon after that. No pain. Able to sit in lotus for whole periods without moving or desiring to move, and then easily able to get up for the periods of kinhin (walking meditation) that usually came as a relief, but now felt just the same: easeful, concentrated, totally under control. And along with this, of course, my confidence that I had finally figured this zen thing out, and that I could maintain this mastery the whole two days left in the sesshin. Of course, I was wrong. Though my knee pain didn’t return with the same intensity, it definitely returned. And here is where will comes in—for in spite of my earlier experience, I was simply unable to will my mind and body to return to that earlier state. I kept trying to remember what I had done, how it had happened, and kept trying to duplicate that yielding that I had read enough about to know was somehow the key. But I simply could not do it, could not will it to happen. In fact, it turns out that this attempt on the part of practitioners to duplicate some “state” that they have experienced is very common, and one of the key mistakes in the practice. Such insights cannot be duplicated. Ever. They never occur the same way twice. And it is one of the hardest lessons of all to learn because we want to get back, we want to duplicate what worked before, it’s one of the things that humans pride ourselves on, learning from experience: ‘I’ve learned that one, so now I know how it works and won’t ever have to suffer in the same way again.’ NOT.
            And this is the point of inquiry here. Why can’t we duplicate that which has worked in the past? Why can’t we assert our conscious will, based in memory, and make the same solution happen again? Get to the same level of bliss again? Or expertise. Or insight in any domain. Why can’t we write another book, play another concert, win another ballgame using the same techniques? Why can’t we find that same level of inspiration once we’ve found it the first time?
            We don’t know. Somehow, inspiration cannot be forced. We know what it is. We know how good it feels. We know roughly how we got there the first time. But we are unable to get it to return, to force it to come again. This applies in so many areas that it seems useless to cite them all. What a great gathering that was, what a great New Year’s Eve, or birthday, or homecoming, or lovemaking. Let’s try it again. And it never quite works. Though we think we’ve put together the same elements, and mustered the same mental and physical state, the repeat always falls more or less short. The second novel, or the sequel to the hit movie, is commonly a letdown, often a failure. Why is that? We don’t know. So we use words like ‘inspiration’ or ‘grace’ or ‘yielding to life’ or ‘accepting’ or ‘insight’ or ‘intuition’ to try to characterize it and thereby capture it. But these are only words. They don’t get to the essence of what we’re after even as well as the way earlier cultures like the ancient Greeks tried to image this kind of experience. They imagined the influx of some sort of divinity: Athena, goddess of wisdom, descends and infiltrates the soul of Odysseus so that, thus ‘inspired,’ he is able to find a solution to whatever difficulties he is facing. And that way of imagining things still has power today. Even our word, inspiration, suggests an influx of some sort of potent breath, divine breath or grace entering from we know not where to give us the idea or strength or insight without which we could not have performed what was necessary, found what we were seeking. Every writer, every creator of any kind of art knows what this means. ‘The poem came to me fully formed.’ ‘The answer came to me in a dream.’ One of the most famous of these moments is recorded as a dream or vision by the chemist, Friedrich August Kekule, of a snake eating its own tail, which revealed, he said, the shape of the benzene ring he was looking for.  Apocryphal or not, the idea is clear: very often we cannot solve the problem by using our will alone; at some point, we must relax and let inspiration do it for us. Whatever inspiration is.
            To be sure, preparation is necessary. Perspiration is necessary. In my case, I couldn’t just give up, in the sense of uncrossing my knees, getting to my feet and leaving the zendo with a good riddance. No, all the previous work was necessary, the determination and exhaustion vital. The same would be true of Kekule or anyone trying to discover something. Willpower up to a point; and then making way for inspiration. The thing is, we never know what the perfect combination or the right timing will be. We never know. And that’s what makes this fascinating. We never know quite how to combine persistence and yielding in such a way that it will work. Which, in itself, is a kind of sabotaging of the effort. Because if we’re still looking for that optimum combination, trying to ‘trick’ or ‘sneak up on’ inspiration, we can’t do it. We can’t fool ourselves. We’re always aware of our devious minds, though that doesn’t stop us. We try all kinds of tricks to fool ourselves into success, or wisdom. But wisdom can’t be fooled.
            And in that sense, it may be well to end with the idea in a central zen text, the Heart Sutra. The Sutra ends with this puzzling idea: “wisdom beyond wisdom.” The Sanskrit words are “gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi svaha.” Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond gone…And that is often what we are trying to do: go beyond. Go beyond what appear to be our normal capacities.  Our normal limits. Our human, our rational, or physical endowment to something beyond, something we know cannot logically exist, and yet somehow does. So we call it inspiration. Intuition. Grace. Wisdom beyond wisdom, wisdom beyond sense, beyond reason, beyond normal brain function, bodily function, physical function. And though it is in some senses the most unusual, miraculous of experiences, it is at the same time as ordinary as dirt. As heartbeats. As breathing. Which, in the true scheme of things—dirt, heartbeats, breathing—are not ordinary at all.

Lawrence DiStasi