Feb 082017
Ohio KKK member with gun

When Trump unleashed his Muslim ban on Jan. 27, many liberal friends and I re-circulated a 2015 New America Foundation report showing that, since 9/11, alt-right extremists have killed more people on U.S. soil than have radical Muslims. Our point was that Trump is missing the point: A Muslim ban will not keep out the terrorists because the terrorists are already here. But then I worried, did I just post fake news? Could the 2016 Orlando nightclub attack have put the jihadists ahead of the right-wingers?

To get the actual facts, I downloaded the New America Foundation’s publicly available dataset. My analyses indeed revealed that the Orlando attack, which claimed 49 lives, raised the jihadists’ death toll to 94 victims, compared to the 50 victims whom right-wing extremists have murdered.

Yet a closer look at the data confirms that the biggest terrorist threat is still U.S.-born fanatics, not foreign-born zealots. The two most lethal terrorist groups are U.S.-born jihadists (69 victims) and U.S.-born right-wing extremists (50 victims), who have murdered a total of 116 people. Foreign-born jihadists are only the third most lethal group, with a total of 25 victims.

These numbers not only suggest that an immigration ban won’t fix America’s terrorism problem, but also raise a second question: Why do homegrown Americans break bad and join the jihad or the KKK?

To this question, my fellow cultural psychologists Sarah Lyons-Padilla and Michele Gelfand have intriguing answers. Their research shows that what drives Muslims to radicalize is believing their lives don’t matter, a belief that is fed by feeling they don’t really belong anywhere. Discrimination, racist rhetoric, and xenophobic policies only exacerbate these feelings of “cultural homelessness,” as Lyons-Padilla explains in this TEDx Stanford talk.

Enter radical Islamic groups, which target young men who are feeling alone and adrift, and then restore their sense of belonging and meaning.

A similar psychological process seems to drive European Americans to join White supremacist and other right-wing terrorist groups. The slow death of manufacturing, the contraction of American towns and rural areas, and the tanking of working- and middle-class incomes have left a broad swath of Americans feeling unmoored and insignificant. The widespread acceptance of redneck jokes, white trash impressions, and “basket of deplorables” comments only salts these wounds.

Like radical Islamic groups, White supremacist and other right-wing terrorist groups offer their members the sense that they are important and welcome. Same psychological phenomenon, Different culture war. And thus the KKK keeps pace with ISIS.

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Memphis and still have deep ties there. One of my relatives recently posed a question to my diverse friends on Facebook: “[How can we] keep our families, friends, and people that we haven’t meet yet safe [from terrorists]? I’m not asking this to be funny or degrading. I didn’t graduate from college and live in a small town in Mississippi. I’m not trying to debate with scholars.”

I think the timbre of her question holds a large part of the answer. If the grand U.S. experiment in multicultural democracy is ever to work, we must make everyone feel included and respected, even if they have not shown us the same regard.

Photo CC Paul Walsh

Oct 012013

I have a dirty secret: for most of last year, I couldn’t get health insurance because of a pre-existing condition. Lucky for me, an insurance agent tipped me off to a little-known program called the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP, pronounced, unfortunately, “pee-sip”). PCIP is one of the first phases of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

Today, PCIP transitioned to the insurance exchange program you’ve been hearing so much about. Alas, some blowhards in the House, many who enjoy taxpayer-funded health insurance, want to take my insurance away.

Before I shake my tiny fists at the ironies, injustices, and idiocies of the insurance industry in general, and anti-Obamacare factions in particular, let me tell you a little bit about my situation. I am a vegetarian triathlete with a body mass index of 20.4 (that means I’m normal sized), a resting heart rate of 60, blood pressure of 110/70, no surgeries, and no chronic conditions. I completed a postdoctoral certificate in health psychology at UCSF, mentor doctors in the Stanford School of Medicine, and collaborate with a healthcare company to design Web interfaces that inspire healthy behavior changes. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I daresay I am more physically robust, motivated, and knowledgeable about health and healthcare than your average American.

And so when I resigned from my job to write a book and launch a business, I thought I would have no trouble purchasing an individual plan. But I was wrong: the insurance/healthcare company (they were one in the same) that had covered me for seven years through my employer rejected my application to become an individual purchaser.

As veterans of the uninsured life know, after one insurance company denies you, all insurance companies deny you.

So, what was my crime against the insurance establishment? The answer is ridiculously mundane: Two abnormal Pap smears (a test for precancerous cells of the cervix), taken in 2010 and 2011.

You may be thinking, Aha! You had cervical precancer! Of course you couldn’t get insurance, you wenchly drain on our healthcare system!

But let me point out that 25 percent of women have an abnormal Pap smear in their lifetime. Only a handful of these cases would progress to cancer if left untreated, and that would take 10-20 years, on average. But when detected early, cervical cancer is 100 percent curable.

You would think my insurance/healthcare provider would want to keep an eye on my precancerous cervix because doing so would be in everyone’s financial best interest. After all, preventing cancer is a hell of a lot cheaper than treating it. Aside from the business case for insuring me, you might suppose the Hippocratic Oath and other ethical edicts would induce the organization that diagnosed my precancer to want to track and, if needed, treat it–not for free, mind you, but using the premiums and co-pays I regularly fed into their coffers for the better part of a decade.

But that is not what happened. I appealed my insurance/healthcare company’s decision, and lost.

My former insurer suggested I opt for COBRA. But at $850/month, COBRA was impossibly expensive for a social entrepreneur attempting to get her book and business off the ground.

So I signed up for PCIP, which requires its applicants to forgo health insurance for six months. After half a year of driving in the slow lane, not riding my bike (to the detriment of my mental and physical health), and worrying that maybe I was indeed incubating tumors in my reproductive apparatus, I received my PCIP acceptance letter. The premium of $275/month was not cheap, but when you think you might have cancer, expensive insurance beats the heck out of no insurance.

Later that week, I visited my new OB/GYN for a Pap smear and a test for all high-risk strains of human papillomavirus (HPV), the germ that causes 99 percent of cervical cancers. The results of both tests were normal, and have remained normal over the past year. As is the case for the vast majority of women, my immune system has repaired my cells, and my cervix has returned to its usual healthy and happy state.

I’m not in the habit of writing about my lady bits, and I’m not terribly comfortable with disclosing this chapter in my health history. When your insurance/healthcare company rejects you, it’s hard not to feel dirty and diseased. I would have just as soon kept this shame to myself.

Yet I feel compelled to visit the Land of TMI because I don’t think opponents of Obamacare understand whose lives they’re screwing with. My sense is that, to them, the uninsured masses are the unwashed masses–obese, lazy, dumb, poor, and probably brown or black.* I’m here to tell you, though, that Dr. Middle-Class White Triathlete was also among the uninsured and, until recently, uninsurable. If politicians want to keep their citizens healthy and innovative, they need to stop blocking affordable healthcare.

*I also happen to think it is our shared responsibility to take good care of all members of our society, regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, intelligence, size, or even motivation. But I realize this idea seems loony-pants to many of our “leaders.”


Oct 282012

Of late I’ve been thinking a lot about kindergarten. My kindergarten, that is. I’m thinking about a practice we had during lunch time: We did not get to choose with whom to dine. Instead, after purchasing our lunch or fetching our lunch boxes (mine was a metal Holly Hobby number with matching thermos, the combo always reeking of American cheese and citrus, which, come to think of it, probably explains why my favorite color is orange), we had to take the next available seat in a long column of desks, two wide.

My kindergarten was at a predominantly African-American public school in Memphis, Tennessee. If you do the math, you will figure out that my single White mama sent my honky ass to kindergarten in 1979, during the era of a) wide ties and wider afros, b) White flight from chocolafying city centers to allegedly safe suburbs, and c) the launch of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall. Which is all a long way of saying that the majority of my 5-year-old lunch dates were Black kids who were not going to put up with any racist bullshit from me, however honestly I might have come by it.

Instead, my African-American classmates–most of them, like me, hailing from single-parent homes and qualifying for (though often not accepting) free lunches–bridged our cultural differences by trading lunchbox items. In the first two weeks of my academic career (which would ultimately consume a full 24 years of my life), I learned that half my cheese-and-mustard-on-whole-wheat sandwich could fetch half a bag of barbecue pork rinds–a steal, by my lights. Half my navel orange was worth three Now-N-Later candies, whose sweetness and tang stuck to my baby teeth far longer. And if I played my cards right, I could convince some naif with a Dukes of Hazzard lunch box that my thermos of orange juice (my mom was into Vitamin C) was well worth his shrink-wrapped jumbo dill pickle (pronounced “pruckle”).

(Save the transactional pruckle jokes for my 40th birthday party, please.)

I was a child who liked to eat, born to a mother whose response to stress was not to eat. The divorce had been stressful. Raising two spastic little kids all alone was stressful. My Vietnam War-scarred father’s failure to pay child support was stressful. The night school classes to become a CPA were stressful. By the end of kindergarten, my 5’8.5”mother had shrunk to about 110 lbs.

But with the help of my lunch mates, I was maintaining my appetite and my fighting weight. I was also developing, it turned out, an enduring interest in race, class, and culture.

Just as important, I was gaining an early understanding of the limits of personal preference. Had I been left to my own devices, I would have always lunched with Susan of the ribboned chestnut ringlets and pastrami sandwiches, or with Connie of the white-blonde bangs and culturally okay Doritos, or Jennifer of the Little House on the Prairie braids and egg-salad everything.

Instead, I discovered new comfort foods with Roderick and Terrell, Reginald and Zuhara, Terrence and Zonna. I also mastered a new list of light conversation topics: Who do you stay with? (that is, which relative are you living with right now?) Which kind of Baptist is best? (options included foot-washin’, dunkin’, and clappin’) and, precociously, What things can White and Black people do together? (hold hands on the playground? yes; swim in the same pool? maybe; get married? maybe not).

Does this make me a better person? Probably not. It probably does give me an edge as a cultural psychologist, because I grew up alongside a culture (namely, urban, Southern, working-class African-American culture of the late 1970s) that some of my colleagues work for years to understand.

But my public education definitely made me a sucky consumer, at least in the eyes of Silicon Valley. I seldom listen to my iPod in my house, and never in my car. (My lowly ride does not even have a tape player.) Instead, I leave it to chance that the radio will serve up the acoustic equivalence of barbecue pork rinds or watermelon Now-N-Laters. I don’t insist on ordering shrink-wrapped pickles from the Interwebs, but instead will demur to almost anyone’s fermented foods, be they kimchi or natto or kefir. And though I insist on iron-fisted control in some domains (cf. my kitchen sponge rotation schedule and my color-coded project plans), when it comes to other people’s artifacts, I let go of the reins and try to take it all in.

And if I had a kid, I’d like to think–I’d dream to hope–that I would not overly curate his or her or his/her world to my narrow notions of how the accoutrements of daily life should be seasoned or arranged. I hope that I would give random a chance, as my mother did, as did all the struggling families in our community. Because from that randomness–and, in particular, the randomness of a public education–came experimentation, and creativity, and open-mindedness. From that randomness came the ability to appeal to the good side of each other. Maybe now, a return to faith in that randomness would lead us to talk, and trade, and trust our way to a little more peace.