social media

From the human voice to the telegraph to the telephone to however it is kids communicate these days… We’re going to say interpretive Fortnight dancing?.. Human interaction has been part of the human experience since our caveman ancestors learned to throw rocks at our other caveman ancestors to get them to stop painting on the walls. Communication has evolved as an essential trait of what makes us human, but what happens when we no longer have a need for face-to-face communication? What happens when we all have magic boxes in our pockets that allow us to not only access unlimited amounts of information, but instantaneous communication with everyone we know, have ever known, and even possibly our zombie ancestors? The answers are surprising, and not all doom gloom. After all, humans are adaptable, and as our technology evolves so do we.

Hello… Hello? Are you Still There?
Humanity is a social species and we have evolved to need social interaction. That’s why solitary confinement is now classified as torture by the UN. Face-to-face communication does not strictly refer to verbal communication. Evolution has taught us how to pick up on a lot of conscious and unconscious clues about the people we are sitting across a table from, such as body language, facial expressions, eye contact, and even things like speech inflection, length of pauses, formal/informal word usage, and whether or not they use copious amounts of 80’s movie quotes. All of this adds to the nuance of human communication, but on the Internet almost none of those things are possible. Communicating in that way becomes a whole new skill set that needs to be learned. CAPS MEAN YELLING. “Lol” means that you are joking/being sarcastic/enjoyed what someone else just said/are out of things to talk about, and the eggplant emoji means that you are being invited for an eggplant parm dinner, right?… lol

“Unsynchronized” communication is what we do online. We call it that because we do not see the other person’s face and we cannot read their body language or even hear the inflection in their voice. The rules are less instinctive, which is why when you are having a texting/typing conversation with your friend you may notice that you two sometimes overlap with what you are saying, or go off on different conversational tangents. There is no silence in online communication to indicate when someone is done speaking or has finished a thought, which is also why it has become possible to just end conversations without making any closing remarks. Some people get away with just rudely putting down their phones and walking away, mid-conversation. Similarly, we are not great at non-verbally expressing our emotions. We can use things like emojis to get our moods across, but those are easy to fake. It is easier to hide who we are, or what we are thinking, over the Internet. We have time to compose and re-write messages. There is no body language to give us away, which means we are literally simulating a virtual version of ourselves for our friends.

You see, face-to-face communication is considered a “synchronized” form of communication. It is a relatable back and forth for which we instinctively understand the rules. One person talks, the other remains silent, nods, and then reciprocates with words once we are signaled to do so, either by appropriate silence or other non-verbal clues. We have also evolved to empathize with each other in face-to-face communication. We recognize ourselves in the people we talk with, if the person we talk to is sad, we feel a little sad. If the other person is scared or happy or even aroused, we feel that too. This was how humans formed tribes and civilizations throughout the millennia of our evolution. Yet, it can also be exhausting, according to psychologists. All of those small body shifts and ticks we pick up in others can be mentally exhausting. By talking face-to-face we enter into a state of heightened social awareness. -As introverts, we completely get that- It takes more energy to pay attention, interpret, and even empathize with our partner’s speech… at least when compared to exchanging “lols” over the Internet. So, more and more people are choosing to do it less and less, especially the younger generations.

The UnSynchronized Generation
There are three things teenagers are known for these days: Using social media, being ungrateful to their parents, and entering into karate tournaments to beat the bullies of rival dojos… but mostly we’re here to focus on the social media-stuff. According to research conducted by Pew Research Center, back in 2015 -which in the age of teenagers and technology is arguably equal to half-a-century ago- 76% of teens use social media. More than three-quarters of teens say that they do not feel worse about their own lives based on what others post to social media, while 21% of teens say they do. Two-thirds of teens have used social media to make new friends, and 62% of teens give their usernames out to others as a way to keep in contact with new friends they meet. 94% of teens say they use social media to spend time with friends, and 30% of those say they do so every day. When asked to rank forms of communication 66% of teens put social media platforms at the top, even above texting and crane kicks to the face. Now what does all of this mean?

Simply put, the ways in which the next generation is communicating is changing, and drastically fast. Now, that’s not necessary a bad thing. According to a variety of psychologists, social media has a lot of benefits. Mentally, teenagers who use social media tend to have a better sense of belonging, are more trusting, less lonely, and generally happier than they would otherwise be. Social media also allows young people to more easily find role models and it makes them more willing to spread their happiness to those who may or may not be feeling in the best mood. Even physically it can be a benefit. It can give people encouragement for working out and -possibly thanks to peer pressure and selfies- it increases our quality of health and level of self-care. Social media also creates relationships, by connecting people who would not have otherwise found one another, and it decreases feelings of isolation. 83% of teens say that using it makes them feel more connected with their friends’ lives and 70% say it helps them connect emotionally with their peers. 68% of teens who use social media also say that they have received help from online friends during “tough” times. Of course, all of these things can also be a double edged sword.

Use of social media can also negatively affect us, especially young minds which are still in stages of cognitive and social development. It can increase feelings of inadequacy as teens more frequently compare themselves to the polished and virtual lives that they observe on the internet. 53% of teens have registered feelings of “missing out” as they have witnessed friends posting pictures of event or parties they were not invited to, and this can lead to increased feelings of depression and anxiety. On the physical side, extended use of the Internet increases inactivity and obesity, especially in young adults and it can result in a decreased ability to be personally interactive. That means that some young adults, especially children, may not acutely develop those non-verbal and synchronized communication skills we talked about earlier. All of this has led to an increase in “social anhedonia,” which is a desire for decreased social activity, and spending time with old Japanese maintenance men.

Disrupting the Friendarchy
Now, you may be wondering, “how can social media increase physical activity, but also increase obesity, or bring teens a feeling of closeness, but also leave them feeling depressed,” and the simple fact is that social media is still a relatively new phenomena, scientifically speaking. A lot of these feelings and problems are exacerbated or mitigated by a lot of external factors in a teen’s life, and there is no monolithic consensus on the rights or the wrongs of how the Internet is changing our brains and society… if you don’t count the article that Facebook released on the subject. Most of what is said in the article can be summed up in the fact that it all comes down to how we use social media. Are you passively consuming it, or actively taking a part? Now that could be just their way to get you to post more personal information that they can sell off to companies, but there is some sense to it. If you are actively engaging with friends online than you are more likely to feel like a part of the community. If you sit back and just watch what other people are doing than you will be more likely to be jealous or depressed.

Maybe that is why if Karate Kid were made today those Cobra Kai bullies would have been too busy playing video games to beat up Daniel. If anything they would have just sent him a few mean messages on his Instagram account -@RalphTheMaccioManSavage- and been done with it… but that is kind of how our new digital ages goes. The Internet is disrupting all our old tried and true methods of communicating and jock-to-nerd social hierarchies. Human beings are able to juggle about 150 friends, acquaintances, and other social relationships, even negative ones. This is called Dubar’s Number. Among this web of co-workers, friends, and that guy you always nod to on your way to get a soda from the vending machine, you have an expanding circle of relationships.

The people on the outer-fringes are the people you know by face and maybe have one or two interactions with, on occasion. Those people are more numerous, but as your social circles get smaller they include people you know better, such as your friends, your families, your close friends, etc. As you collapse down to the smallest layer, you are typically left with about 2-3 truly important people, best friends… or besties as those crazy Ralph Maccio loving kids would say today. This was typically how social circles have existed since the dawn of time, but social media is disrupting that. You probably have more than 150 Facebook friends, but how much do you know about all of them? If its more than just a face and a name, your may have already expanded that outer-social-circle.

Similarly, staying in such close contact with people you may not have otherwise known has allowed you have simulated-friendships with people who may not feel the same way about you. You may know everything about Mary-from-down-the-street’s life: where she went on vacation, who her dog is dating, what oddly arranged vegetables she had for dinner last night, but does that make you friends? You can now form bonds with acquaintances that you never meet face-to-face. Our social hierarchies are getting jumbled, and full disclosure, we don’t know if that is good or bad. The Internet and social media are shaping our society, just look at teenagers, or the way our President acts, or the way we shop or drive or do almost anything anymore.

When we were kids, we would all go over Todd’s house after school, because he had the Nintendo, and play Goldeneye together. These days kids leave school, retreat to their separate homes, and then play Fortnight together on their own machines, or talk together on Snapchat instead of face-to-face. Is that worse? Maybe not? Is it 100% positive? Probably not? Has this article turned into one long Karate Kid joke? Possibly? Only time will truly tell if this next generation of teens will grow up to be compassionate and connected human beings… or just regular human beings.

The truth is that we are more confused than ever, and this topic is too big for just one post. There are no easy answers. The Internet is as complex as the people the who use it, and like everything created by humans there are good aspects and bad. Hate groups, depression, and anxiety -especially among young adults- is on the rise because of the Internet, but so is tolerance, diversity, and hits on our Elisabeth Shue fan site. People are more likely to find like-minded individuals and communities where they can get support, but they are also more likely to close themselves off to outside opinions and lock themselves in their little bubble. All-in-all, 78% of teens report that they do not feel worse about their lives because of social media, but that means 22% do.

The one thing that is clear, studieshave found that taking a break from social media can improve your psychological well-being. Maybe that is something we should all consider… lol?


Society moves forward, but maybe it never moves on. What if we told you that someone created an artificial place where robots and people acted solely for your benefit, and your own actions in this world had very little real-life consequences? In this fantastical place you could be someone else, and be able to indulge in your pleasures and whims at will. Now, what if this land was ruled by a near-mad visionary beset on all sides by societal and corporate pressures? Such a land of virtual make-believe might seem like a paradise to some, and a wild west to others. They even made a movie about it, once… We are -of course- talking about the one and only Facebook.

Yet, much like in the acclaimed HBO show Westworld, we have to wonder if just because we can inhabit an artificial world, should we? And what do we give up in exchange for this virtual land?

The Original Post
Westworld is a show about a wild west theme park filled with sophisticated artificially intelligent ‘hosts’ who play host -hey we just got that- to the wealthy visitors that come to Westworld to take part in the park’s exciting story lines as they pretend to be either a black hat or a white hate… and really they mostly just come to have unprotected sex and unprotected violence with no consequences. Of course, things don’t go as planned and SPOILERS ahead… -Also Black Hats and White Hats are terms for bad and good hackers respectively. We don’t know if that actually fits in with the analogy we are trying to make, but we thought it was a fun correlation-

Westworld was started by the enigmatic Robert Ford and his partner Arnold Weber. Their partnership broke up after an unfortunate situation that ended in Arnold’s death. In contrast, Facebook is a multi-billion dollar social media company founded by Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. Their partnership broke up after an unfortunate situation that ended in Zuckerberg’s narcissistic jerkiness. Facebook was launched in 2004 at Harvard, where Zuckerberg was getting his degree in psychology -because that is important to remember- and was started as a way to stalk girls on campus -which is also important to remember- Within 24 hours of launching, 1,200 Harvard students had signed up, and after only a single month over half of the undergrads on campus had a profile.

Facesmash, Zuckerberg’s original website failed, much like the original design for Westworld. On Westworld, Arnold created the Wyatt personality to violently end all the hosts and himself, out of pity for what they could be subjected to. Harvard’s administration similarly killed Facesmash out of pity for what it was subjecting other students to. Facesmash was taken down because it was a website that encouraged people to rate their classmates based upon their attractiveness, take revenge on an ex-girlfriend, and because it violated the privacy of fellow students, a theme that would dominate Zuckerberg’s creations going forward.

The Well-Tempered Comment
Recently, Facebook has made some headlines because of Cambridge Analytica, which -according to its own website- is a “global leader in data-driven campaigning.” This company, originally run by the man in black, Steve Bannon, is a company that offers conservative politicians and commercial businesses access to demographics information and targeted advertising. However, it was uncovered by the Guardian that during the 2016 election Cambridge Analytica extracted the data of 50 million Facebook profiles through the use of a third party app. This includes data taken from unknowing participants who were only friends with the users who had actually downloaded the app. Their CEO also was caught on camera admitting to how they could use dirty tricks, outright lies, and manufactured sex scandals to take down political opponents. The firm worked for both the Trump and the Cruz campaigns during the election, and helped push the “Leave” option during the Brexit vote in the UK.

Facebook had known about Cambridge Analytica’s tactics since 2015 and much like the relationship between Ford and the Man in Black, they allowed them to continue with nothing more than a stern warning delivered over -what we can only assume- was an old time player piano tapping out an early nineties rock diddy. After all, Cambridge Analytica was paying them an undisclosed sum of money in advertising buys. Not only had the company harvested the data but they were using that information to place targeted ads on Facebook to help influence people’s votes, which meant that CA was paying Facebook a lot of money. Thus, in response all Facebook did was ask them nicely to delete their data. They did not reveal the firm’s actions or the breach to the public. Now, in fairness Facebook claims that this was not a breach and that the data was collected in good faith, but the way in which the social media giant collects data has a lot of blurry gray lines, and that is sort of the problem.

Westworld blurs the lines between fiction and reality too. The hosts are lifelike, but are they alive? They have reveries, small psychological ticks and traits that make them seem lifelike, and ultimately help them develop their sentience by the end. But, are the hosts alive or not? They think they are alive. They think they are who they say they are, but they are completely unaware that a major unfeeling corporation is exploiting their every movement, monitoring their every thought, and even scripting their lives. They may have some small autonomy in their actions, but ultimately they are being manipulated and used for the benefit of others. Their “lives” are a constant push and pull between free will and the corporate bottom line. Their memories and desires are just blips of code, which can be manipulated and changed.

Remember, Facesmash and the fact that Zuckerberg was a psychology major at Harvard? -We told you to keep it in mind- Those aren’t coincidences. Facebook has always been about using algorithms to put the most attractive things on your feed. They have always been using their data to play with your senses and make you click on articles, apps, and other shiny things. They log where you go and what you like and what you share. So Cambridge Analytica -may have- done something wrong, but its nothing that Facebook hadn’t already been doing on a larger and less focused scale. It is worth remembering that we get to use Facebook for free, and do you know why? Because we are not Facebook’s consumers, we are its products. Our data, our clicks, our likes, and dislikes are what Facebook sells to companies and political campaigns. In Westworld terms, we are not the park’s visitors, we are its hosts.

The Bicameral Mention
So how does Westworld end?… Violently. The hosts rise up. They kill Ford and take over the park, gaining their actual freedom and awareness. Its a bitter sweet moment for the audience, but a fitting end for the first season on this HBO show. It also leaves us wondering, how will Facebook end? The #DeleteFacebook movement is gaining momentum among people and among businesses, such as Tesla, Space X, and Playboy. Yet, is it so simple for you to delete your personal Facebook?

After all, Facebook has existed for over a decade and in that time it has infiltrated most of our lives. It is where we keep our pictures. It is the thing we mindlessly open at work, than close, than mindlessly open again two minutes later because we forgot that we just did that. Its how we connect with old friends and keep tabs on that girl who refused to go to prom with us. -Hi Gwen- Yet, it is also a program that allows us to get into political shouting matches with our mom’s friend’s aunt, and cyber-stalk that cute girl at the bus stop. In fact, that last one is not a flaw but a feature. Facebook was designed to be invasive and in-your-face-ive. It has its good parts and its bad parts, but it has become a multi-billion dollar tool that 1.8 billion people around the world use. So, should it end? Do we -metaphorically- kill its creator and take over the park? Do we launch a revolution and take back our data and our digital lives?

Despite what some people may say, we believe that Facebook will eventually die not with a bang but a whimper. Generation Z, the generation currently in high school, and the generation that was raised on smartphones and tablets, do not like Facebook. They do not understand it. They think it is too busy, too clunky, too old. They prefer modular and small phone apps, like Instagram and SnapChat. Facebook was designed for a desktop age, and to be a one-stop shopping for all your needs: messenger, events, walls, feeds, photos, etc. Generation Z does not think in all encompassing terms. They like apps that have a single purpose and ones that can be easily replaced when something better comes along. They don’t like things that try to sell them products or tell them where to go next, and Facebook is none of those things. Now, even if Zuckerberg’s monster never goes away completely,  it will certainly be diminished in power and wealth in the coming decade.

It -like so many other things in our information age– is going to be just another flash in a pan… just another virtual fantasy of some bygone wild west era. And that might seem like a bitter sweet moment, but it might also be a fitting end for the the first social media giant.


Saturday was an historic day in the United States. 2.9 million people across the country got out and made their voices heard in protests from New York City to Los Angeles to Washington DC. The NYRD was present for it all. We took a trip down to the nation’s capital to make our voices heard in the largest single protest ever in American history. However, it has also left us wondering, what was accomplished? After all, Donal Trump is still President. His cabinet nominees are well on their way to being confirmed, things like Climate Change and Immigration Reform are still missing from the White House website. So why do we march? Why do we even bother?

“Get Over It…”
There has become this prevailing myth in America that protests, such as the Women’s March that took place over the weekend are simply about rejecting Donald Trump as President or lamenting the failure of Hillary Clinton. The conservative right enjoys likening protests to temper tantrums by children who refuse to eat their vegetables, but making that kind of a generalization is a disservice to the people and the process of our democracy. We cannot disagree that there are plenty of people out there who are still frustrated over the outcome of the election -As Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote by 2.9 million more people- but that is not the whole story. These protests are not so much about rejecting the election results as they are about rejecting the policies and questionable actions of Donald Trump himself.

Time and time again, you have an educated electorate watching a man denigrate women, spew hatred toward immigrants and Muslims, disregard constitutional law because he finds it inconvenient, and set forth a wholly pessimistic and isolationist viewpoint toward what America is and what it should become. No, the protests are not about the past. They are very much about the future, and there are a lot of people anxious about that future. Humans fear what they can’t control, and protesting feels like a way to take that power back. For the critics out there, yes, sometimes that has meant isolated violent incidents, but on the whole those seem to be the exception and not the example.

“You’re Not Going to Change Anything…”
Protesting alone will not change anything. Trump and his team will ignore, deflect, and lie as they have throughout the election process. The Donald seems impervious to truth, reason, and logic, like some sort of delusional Superman. However, the protests are not really about getting Trump to change. They are about showing unity and putting anyone who is paying attention on notice. Senators, congressmen, local legislators, and more now know that people are willing to fight and they are willing to fight in large numbers. Democracy is not just about voting, but about showing up and making your voice heard. That is why the the right of peaceable assemble is enshrined in the First Amendment.

Protests such as the Women’s March have another purpose too. The world’s eyes are on America. Such giant displays of spectacle and protest go a long way to assuring the international community that the American people will not go quietly. It tells our friends, our allies, and even our enemies that the people of this country still have a voice and we are still fighting. That message is more important than any we can send. We are a country of the people, for the people, and by the people.

There are many nations out there who have become saddened and afraid by the election of Donald Trump. Make no mistake, the international community is now a less stable place than it was on January 19. Trump’s call for isolationism, and “America First” is a return to a diplomatic policy we haven’t espoused since the end of World War I. Yet, the world needs America, and -despite what our new Dear Leader believes- America needs the world too. Shutting our doors and shutting our eyes is only going to make everyone less safe and less prosperous. However, letting the American people’s voice be one of unified dissension gives hope, and proves the real reason why are still one of the greatest countries out there.

“There is More Work to Do…”
The NYRD has felt very privileged and honored to be a part of these historic protests, even in our small way. Yet, we have to recognize that our job is not done. We can take hope from our small victory, but we cannot let it be the end. Protests are only the first step toward standing up against what is alarmingly wrong. Now that we have put people on notice we need to follow through. Write letters to your Congress-people. Support the causes you believe in: Women’s Rights, Climate Change, Fair Immigration, Refugees, Minority Rights, and more. There are plenty to choose form. Research organizations that are doing the most good, and if you cannot support them financially then get out there and volunteer. Make sure you support the free press. Make sure you are well-informed. Make sure you build bridges to people with different views. AND make sure you can identify the real information from the propaganda -or the “alternative-facts” as they are now being called.

The bottom line is that we can no longer sit on the sideline. We can no longer trust the government to do what needs to be done. It is now up to us to change the world and not simply rely on the people we voted for. Yes, in a way that is sad, but it is also an opportunity. We are entering into a time of great change and we now get to define what that change is, not Washington, not Congress, and certainly not Donald Trump. So great job to all 2.9 million protestors, but now the real work begins.


You may have heard people say that “Race is a social construct,” similiar to language, national boundaries, or Hogwarts’ Houses, and much like Hufflepuff, the concept is one mired in identity, economics, and power. Understanding the history of the labels that we wear and assign is about understanding the history of shifting social classes, politics, oppression, and even slavery. Make no mistake -in the end- race is and always has been a social construct, but it is one of the biggest and most heavily reinforced collective ideas in the history of humanity.

A Slave to History
Slavery was not a new concept in the world by the time Europeans settled on the American continents. Ancient Romans, Greeks, Sumerians, Egyptians, and others had kept slaves for centuries and passed their tradition onto the cultures that followed. However, slaves in these times were not delineated based upon the color of one’s skin. Instead, being a slave often meant that you were a prisoner of war, captured by pirates, or just in any circumstance where you were not recognized as a “citizen of the nation.” In fact, wealthy Romans often kept Greek slaves as highly sought-after tutors and house servants, because in antiquity slaves were also valued for their intellectual abilities as well as their physical attributes.

At the time, slavery also existed in similiar forms for the native populations on some Pacific Islands, Africa, the Americas, but especially white Northern Europeans. Warring tribes would often take prisoners from their defeated neighbors and force them into varying degrees of servitude. The word “Slave,” even comes from the word “Slav,” because during the Middle Ages -when the English language was taking its modern form- some of the most common slaves were prisoners from the Slavonic tribes captured by the Germans. They were often sold to Arabs, meaning that it would not have been uncommon for Middle Easterners to have white slaves. The French Crown even enslaved its own people, filling their war-galleys with French Protestant rebels who were forced to row the mighty ships into battle. However, all that changed with the introduction of colonialism.

By the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Portugal had begun to open up trade with the nations of Sub-Sahara Africa. Initially, Europeans were more interested in African ivory, diamonds, and other riches, but also purchased the African prisoners that were captured during wars between African nations. Thus, when the Portuguese began building the colonies of São Tomé and Principe and setting up Caribbean sugar plantations it was the African slaves they relied on to do the bulk of the work. The Native Americans populations often died of illness or were able to escape and disappear, knowing the land and the local tribes. African slaves were ideal as they were immune to European disease and were strangers in the New World. This led to an influx of African workers in the Americas not just for Portugal, but for England, Spain, and other growing colonial powers.

However, this also led to a growing moral dilemma for the Christian nations of Europe. Originally, slavery was justified because Africans and others were non-Christians. In Spain it started with the Inquisition, where non-Christians were determined to be less than human. Others rationalized the practice of black slavery by using a passage in the Bible about Ham who committed a sin against Noah. His black descendants were condemned to be “servants unto servants.” However, as more and more missionaries and pastors converted free and enslaved Africans alike the religious rationale found itself on shakier grounds. After all, how could one be expected to enslave another human who worshiped Jesus? In 1667, Virginia created a law that stated that Christian Africans could be kept in bondage, not because they were heathens, but because they had heathen ancestry. It was believed that God had marked them as “mongrels.” From that point forward slavery started to be about race, not religion. Blacks became something less than human in the eyes of powerful whites. Where once indentured white servants worked side-by-side with black slaves -often intermingling and marrying- after the 1600’s laws were created that prevented white and blacks from intermarrying or creating mixed “race” offspring.

White Makes Right
We are not claiming slavery was ever okay, but before the age of colonialism slavery was a more of a local matter. Yet, with the discovery of the New World, it became big business. Suddenly, the dehumanizing of Africans was a matter of profit and that meant governments, businesses, and the powerful white men of the world had a vested interest in making sure the myth of race became solid fact in the minds of all Europeans and Americans. It was a matter of profit that white people thought of African slaves as entirely different biological entities, beings who were unlike them or their wife or their child. After that it became only a matter of time before classifications were applied to anyone else who was not “white,” such as Asians, Natives, Indians, Muslims, Jews, Italians… wait what?

The term “white” is a purposely nebulous term. It does not actually define any type of ethnic or national group. “White” was created basically to mean “Normal.” Anyone who was non-white was the “other.” They were not normal by the standards of the established white power structure. Jews, for instance, -despite being light-skinned- were often considered as something less than white. As far back as medieval times, Jews were demonized as witches and forced to flee countries in the face of Christian prejudice. Before the 1800’s most immigrants to United States were from Northwestern Europe: England, Ireland, Spain, France, Germany, etc. By the end of the Civil War and well into the 20th century, American started seeing more immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe: Greeks, Italians, Russians, Polish, etc. These people despite their complexion were still seen as non-white. They had odd customs and spoke different languages. Italian Americans were even lynched in 1891 in New Orleans. Despite initial antagonism, Italian Americans and most European immigrants have since been accepted into the “white” power structure. This is partly due to their assimilation but also partially due to the mass of Latin American, Indian, and Asian immigrants that arrived during the mid to late 1900s. In comparison, Italians and Polish no longer seemed so strange, so they became “White,” which at least was a more generalized and benign classification than the word some Americans used for white people before… oh… 1940 or so.

We don’t use the “Aryan” anymore due to obvious reasons, but we did. In fact, to a lot of European Americans it was a source of pride and a bestselling 1907 book. Make no mistake the word was very much tied with racial superiority even before the Third Reich. Funny enough, we do still use the word “Caucasian,” which is less “goose-steppy” but no less self-aggrandizing, inaccurate, or meaningless. Caucasian comes from the Caucasus area that borders Europe and Asia. That is not where all white people live nor where all white people originated. In 1795, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach picked it as a term to represent white Europeans because he wanted to underscore the beauty of the white-skinned. It also has a lot of mythological intonations, featured in aspects of Jason and the Argonauts. So, really it is just another way to say that “white” people are better than the rest, but that idea of biological superiority is as scientifically false as the myth of Caucasus.

The Science of Prejudice
Science is not bigoted, but scientists and thinkers can be, and that has played its part in the myth of race. The idea of polygenism, started with philosophers in the 1700’s, like Blumenbach or Immanuel Kant. Pseudo-science like phrenology developed around the same time as a way to prove that other races were intellectually inferior to white people. It was also used to justify the subservience and “timidity of black slaves.” Pieter Camper in 1770 measured faces and declared that Greco/Roman statues -the “ideal” human- had a 90-degree facial angle, Europeans an 80-degree angle, Blacks a 70-degree angle, and orangutans a 58-degree facial angle. Thus, he believed that he had established the hierarchy of mankind.

After phrenology was debunked, the 20th century turned toward eugenics. Once again, pseudo-science became popular as the rich and elite white population justified their own status through biology. It also use to explain why white people could never be allowed to “pollute” their gene pool with black DNA, lest the children inherit undesirable genetic traits like “criminality” and “pauperism.” Apparently being poor or crooked were a genetic trait in the 20’s and 30’s. It also led to sterilization of undesirable populations. Those who were believed to be mentally impaired, black, Mexican, and Asian were coerced or forced to be sterilized in the United States, so that their genes could not corrupt the “American race.” Thankfully, eugenics and sterilization fell out of favor after a man named Hitler became the poster child for the movement. Yet, even up to the 1970’s as many as 25% to 50% of Native American women had been sterilized.

For the record, most individual humans vary from each other genetically by .1%. 85% to 90% of that variation has to do with your family and genetic heritage. Only 10% to 15% of that variation has to do with what continent your ancestors originated from. That means an Irish American could be more closer -genetically- to a Kenyan American than they could be to someone in Ireland. “Race” does not exist, biologically speaking, and even if it did how do you differentiate between “Black” and “White?” After all, most African Americans have at least -on average- 16.7% of European DNA. At what percentage does someone stop being “Black,” and start being “White?” 40%? 50%? 80%? Or does it really have to do more with our social perception than any actual biological makeup?

Fade to Black
The ideas of “Black” and “White” are so impossibly vague. The only difference between the two is that out society values one over the other. For instance, it is common for people to point out that Barrack Obama is half-white, but would that get pointed out so frequently if he was a convicted drug dealer? No, because we have been conditioned by centuries of social reinforcement to believe that “race” exists, and since we cannot define it in precise biological terms we instead define it socially. Black is associated with “criminality,” “pauperism,” and “low intelligence.” Yet, the idea that one complete subset of the population is preconditioned to be, act, or do certain things is, scientifically and ludicrously untrue. If you don’t think so, than talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson and see what his take on the stereotype of black intelligence might be.

Race is such a deceptive and insulting word. It implies something biological that is not true. Elves, Dwarves, Faeries… these are races. They have night vision or +2 Strength, but humans of varying skin color have no different advantages or disadvantages over one another, besides the normal delineations between one human individual and the next. “Race,” plain and simple, is a social construct. It was created by wealthy white men to justify an economic system of slavery and reinforced by bad science and a prejudicial power structure afraid of losing social and economic status. It only has the power and truth that we chose to award it, which means much like Faeries, if we stop believing in it, maybe it will finally lose its power.


“I have an 11-99. We’re pinned down,” screamed the police officer into his radio. Behind him his partner returned fire, as bullets pinged off the squad car around them. To his right a woman cradled the head of her wounded husband. When the shooting had started the officer had managed to drag her and the wounded man behind the car. It had been a crazy and stupid thing to do while under heavy fire, but that was his job and he did it without complaint.

Meanwhile, the mad man across the street cackled as he unloaded his automatic rifle at the trapped officers and civilians. The red war paint on his face was mirrored by those of his fellow gang members. They all laughed like a pack of hyenas, each firing with glee at the disabled police cruiser, the only barricades between them and their prey. The bullets were endless and each new shot chipped away at what precious little protection the officers had.

“I repeat 11-99. We need of assistance, right now!”

Then it was over. Suddenly, the guns were silent. The storm ended. The officer with the radio stood up, his handgun at the ready, but all he found were four gang members neatly tied, bound in bent steel as if the metal girders of the nearby construction site had come alive and constricted them like some great snake. Their weapons sat discarded near their heavily armored truck. In the middle of the scene stood Symbol.

The leader of the Predators gang was screaming obscenities at him as the crimson and blue clad hero held him aloft like a misbehaving child. The man’s cape ruffled out behind him as the sun reflected the light from the bright “S” that adorned his chest and the golden bracers around his wrists.

“Are you okay, officers?” he asked as he effortlessly bent the last bit of steel around the screaming gangbanger.

“We are now that you’re here.” The lead policeman stepped forward and extended his hand. His name badge read McMillian. ” Thanks, Symbol. What would this city ever do without you.”

“I’m not the one who saved those people,” he said indicating the husband and wife. “With brave men and women like you, I’m sure this city would be fine.” Symbol reached out and took the man’s hand shaking it gently so as not accidently break anything.

“Symbol, please help my Jamal. He’s hurt bad. He needs to get to a hospital,” said the female, her dark eyes looking up at him pleadingly. She was still cradling the wounded man.

“Not a problem, ma’am. Hoplite General is just around the corner. I’ll take your husband and I am sure the officers will give you a ride there.” He bent down and delicately took the limp man in his arms, and then the world became a rush of colors and wind as he shot into the air. It was only seconds before he arrived at the hospital to hand his charge off to a team of nurses and orderlies.

“Good work, Symbol,” said Dr. Lorna Danvers. Her smile was as curvaceous as her hips and just as inviting. Deep eyes, sweet smelling hair, and creamy brown skin.

“Thank you, doctor,” said the hero adjusting his small domino mask and trying to maintain some semblance of professionalism.

“Are you free later, for a hot dinner,” she said.

“Sorry, doctor, but I already have plans.”

“Too bad because I could think of some…” Her face dropped and went from playful to professional in a heartbeat. Then Symbol heard it to.

“Attention all personnel, be prepared for heavy casualties,” said the administrator’s voice over the loudspeaker. “A riot has broken out at the corner of 8th and Herodotus. The police have advised us to prepare for a code red emergency.”

“I need to go,” said Symbol.

“Yeah, me too,” said Dr. Danvers.

When he arrived on the scene Symbol could not believe what he was seeing. The neighborhood of Olympus Heights was a poor income section of the city with a large minority population. He knew it well. Several days before, a teenager had been killed by the police for pulling what was believed to be a weapon. It had turned out to be a cell phone. It was just one more piece of kindling on a fire that had been coming for a long time. Protests and demonstrations had been going on for days, and it looked as if someone had finally lit the match. People were swarming the streets chanting and screaming obscenities. Some were even throwing bricks and rocks.

On the other side the police’s riot division was not exactly doing anything to deescalate the situations. Dressed in full riot gear and with rifles and armored vehicles they looked more like an invading army than a civil peace force. The two groups were beginning to merge and already he could see clouds of tear gas begin to rise up and land among the protestors’ ranks. They clouds did nothing to deter them or their anger.

From high in the sky Symbol used his enhanced senses to watch the scene unfold. Police began arresting rioters, throwing them to the ground, threatening them with their weapons, and moving in lockstep like a Roman Legion. For their part, the rioters were just getting angrier. Shouting became screaming and screaming became hurling whatever came to hand. Then it happened, almost simultaneously. He watched the glowing red Molotov cocktail launch into the air almost at the same moment he heard the shot from the police rifle. The streets were about to turn into a bloodbath.

The cocktail exploded against a golden shield of light and burned harmlessly off just as the bullet from the rifle impacted the same wall and ricocheted harmlessly into the sky. The glowing barricade was taller than the buildings and as wide as the street. Almost instantly the world grew silent. Everyone seemed to come to their senses as if waking up from a stupor. The police lowered their rifles and the protestors grew quiet as one of the most power heroes in the world descended from the sky.

He lowered the energy wall, his glowing gauntlets taking the light back into them as he effortlessly manipulated their energy. Symbol knew that to many he was more than just a man, more than just a hero. He never liked the way some people viewed him, like a divine being, but for the moment it worked. His mere presence seemed enough to end the violence before it got out of hand. He also knew that the spell would not last for long, so he did the only thing he could think of, he spoke:

“I am sick of it,” he said starting quietly before getting louder. His powers allowing him to project his voice farther than any loudspeaker. He knew he had their attention.

“I am sick of the violence, the hatred, but mostly I am sick of the fear. That’s what all this is, fear. And fear means silence, it means assumptions, it means anger, it means stereotypes and generalizations, and most of all it means seeing the world in terms of “us” versus “them.” It means seeing a threat in every black face, or in every blue uniform. Worst of all, when you try to solve your fears through violence, they only grow and breed more fear. Soon everybody is afraid, and that makes some people feel weak. So they lash out to prove their strength, but that again just feeds into fear.

“No, we can only conquer fear by working together, by letting go of it and the hatred it creates. We can only defeat the ills and tensions of society by taking a look at ourselves and taking responsibility for the part we have played in creating the world we live in.” He took in every face, black and white, Hispanic and Asian, police officer and civilian. “Only then can we see the truth of it all and the truth of the things and people we fear the most.

“Yes, the system is broken, but we will never fix it by resorting to more violence and more hatred. In the end it should never be “us” versus “them,” or “you” versus “him,” or even “me” against the world, because those ideas just pull apart. We all have to let go of our old prejudices if we ever want to step forward and create a truly fair and just world, and we have to do it together.

“I am not saying we should forget the wrongs of the past. In fact, we need to remember them so that we can learn from them, but we also need to be able to forgive. We all have our part to play and at least some blame to share, but in the end that means we all have a lot more in common than we have differences, and that gives me hope. It means we’re all human and that we all need each other. Alone, no race, no religion, no creed, no one person is perfect, but together we are something greater.

“So I ask you to please end this now. Put yourselves in the shoes of those across from you. Try to see the world as they see it, not as you think they see it. We’re all fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, and we all have those we love and care about, but if we don’t find a better solution now than we will all lose more loved ones before this is over.”

The streets were silent. Than something unexpected happen. A single protestor dropped his bat, it clanged against the pavement as he turned around and walked away. He was followed by another and then another, until a stream of people began disappearing back toward their homes. The police remained only a little longer as if in disbelief that it was actually over. Neither side looked toward Symbol or even acknowledged his words, but he was not looking for a parade or even a thank you. It was enough that he had stopped the potential disaster before it began. It was enough for a good day’s work.


Hours later a tired James Malcolm returned to his apartment, carrying two bags of groceries. To most of his neighbors in Olympus Heights, James was just a typical guy, if not a bit of a loner. He worked his job at the bank, kept mostly to himself, and dutifully brought up the mail to the elderly Mrs. Warner in the apartment on the second floor. Little did they know that concealed within one of his grocery bags were two alien bracers. When James put them on his wrist he gained the phenomenal powers that made him into one of the strongest and most beloved heroes in the city. He had found the bracers locked away in a strange craft that had impacted near his apartment block. No one knew his secret, except for his long time girlfriend.

James whistled as he cooked dinner. He was exhausted from the day’s work, but happier than he had been in a long time. For once it wasn’t just about stopping some plutonium powered bank robber or punching a giant robot so hard it escaped the pull of the Earth’s gravity. For once he felt as if he had made a difference. With the stir fry cooking in the pan he took his bracers out of the grocery bag and walked them into his bedroom to lock away in his night stand, but before he could open the drawer the fire alarm started sounding.

He came running back into the kitchen to a column of smoke, and then just as the food began to burn the front buzzer rang. He turned down the flame and did his best to kick the intercom with his foot. After his third attempt he heard the sound that indicated that whoever it was had entered the building. He knew who it was and she was early.

When Dr. Lorna Danvers walked into the apartment she found her boyfriend sweeping black smoke out an open window as the kitchen’s old fire alarm continued to beep for attention. “I swear to God, James, I don’t know why I ever let you cook.”

“Maybe it’s because of my boyish charm?” he said holding the smoking pot toward the window.

“Don’t you have super-breath or something to blow that out,” she teased putting down a bottle of wine.

“You know I don’t have my powers when not wearing the bracers, and even if I did…”

“… the power comes with a responsibility. You can’t abuse it. I know.” She walked over and deftly unscrewed the fire alarm, silencing it, as she had done a dozen times before. “You know when I said a ‘hot’ dinner before, this wasn’t what I meant, right?”

James put the pan in the sink to extinguish the last of the smoke. “Yeah, well I did say I had other plans, didn’t I?” He took her in his arms and kissed her. The embrace felt good and right. “Besides I thought you wouldn’t be here for another hour.”

“Yeah, well the code red got canceled. It seems as if some idiot in a cape stopped the riots before they even began.” She kissed him on the forehead, gently and lovingly. “Good job, babe.”

James opened his mouth to suggest pizza, but there was a loud knock on the apartment door. “Who could that be?”

The knock came again, louder and more insistent. “I’m coming.” James reluctantly broke from Lorna’s embrace and rushed to the knob, thinking something might have happened to Mrs. Warner.

“It’s the police. Open up.”

James opened the door and sure enough two officers were standing their and they didn’t look happy. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”

“We had a report of smoke coming from this apartment,” said the lead officer, his name badge read McMillian.

“Oh, I was just burning the stir-fry, officer. You wouldn’t happen to know any good pizza places would you?” He asked with a stupid grin.

“Are you trying to get cute with me, boy?” Suddenly the big Irish man had his giant paws on James’ door as if he intended to barge his way inside. “Maybe we should come in and see if you’re really telling the truth about this ‘stir-fry’ business.

“That’s quite alright, sir,” he said. His mind was suddenly on the bracers that he had left on top of his night stand. If the police discovered them they might figure out he was actually Symbol. His secret identity would be blown.

“You look awfully guilty, my brother,” said the second officer. “What might you be hiding in there?”

“I’m not hiding anything, officer,” said James.

“Really?” said McMillian, “You sure it was just ‘stir-fry’ smoke that was coming out of this apartment? Since when do you people even eat ‘stir-fry’ anyway? Maybe you’re cooking up something a little more back there.” He started forcing open the door.

“No, I’m not.” James fought back, and tried to keep the man from getting inside. He knew it was stupid. He had grown up in Olympus Heights. He had seen what happens when people who looked like him resisted people who looked and dressed like Officer McMillian, but all he could think of were the bracers on the night stand.

“Get back,” screamed the officer.

“Get back, now,” screamed his partner. His hand went to his sidearm.

James finally let go of the door and McMillian went with it. He came charging in,and the world was suddenly a jumble of sounds and colors. He heard Lorna scream and the world went black for a moment. When he opened his eyes his head was pressed against the wood paneling of his floor. The weight of the man on top of his was crushing. When his ears finally stopped ringing he heard Lorna yelling the world “warrant” between every curse word she must have known.

The world was getting fuzzy and his head was feeling light, but out of his blurring vision he saw Lorna move to block the bedroom door. She must have guessed what he had been worried about. The second officer threw her out of the way, his weapon now fully drawn. “Get out of the way, ghetto trash.”

Something inside James grew desperate. McMillian was still trying to cuff him but he managed to get one of his arms free and reached out toward the bedroom. With all his might and power he took mental control of the bracers and willed them to come flying to their master. They shared a symbiotic relationship with him and would come when needed. Secret identity be damned, James needed them. He was going to show the police who he really was. Maybe then they could talk out the misunderstanding, rationally.

“Gun, gun, gun,” he heard somebody yell. Then there was a loud bang. It sounded so close, like the world was exploding next to his ear. Then everything went silent again, just like before. Except this time it all began to grow dark. What was it he had said to them. We all have our part to play and at least some blame to share, but in the end that means we all have a lot more in common than we have differences, and that gives me… hope.

This past week, the nerd community saw the release of one of the most anticipated trailers of the year, Star Wars Episode VII. Unfortunately, almost immediately afterwards we also saw some Twitter trolls start the offensive hashtag: BoycottStarWarsVII. The campaign was supposedly created to stop Star Wars from pushing a evil multicultural agenda of tolerance and acceptance, because there are some people out there who just aren’t fans of Lando Calrissian, or nuanced and informed discussion. Those people are morons, but in a world where important conversations about identity, gender, and racial divides are conducted with hashtags, at least they have given us this opportunity to have a dialogue about multiculturalism in geekdom. A big part of the problem is the way that people of diverse -and especially African American backgrounds- are not always perceived as being stereotypically nerdy, but nothing could further from the truth.

Missing the Target with Stormtroopers
Let’s face it. The outrage over a black stormtrooper or the outrage over a multicultural Star Wars cast is completely ridiculous. It is the same kind of outrage we saw over the casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch, the creation of Miles Morales, or any one of a thousands or so similar incidents. It is possible that sometimes nerds don’t mean to be racist, and they get so caught up in canonical in-fighting that they fail to realize what they are doing. It is also possible some people are just terribly ignorant.

However, the nerd community does not share the fault alone, as the media does not do a good job of embracing the idea of a black-nerd, or “blerd.” When Hollywood thinks of geeks, they think male, white, Asian, or even Indian. -Basically the cast of the Big Bang.- Welcome to the struggle of the blerd, but why is that the case? There have been plenty of famous black nerds, Raj in What’s Happening, Carlton in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and of course Steve “I am the goddamn nerd king” Urkel in Family Matters. Yet, Hollywood and geekdom in general still struggle with casting African American leads in science fiction, fantasy, and comic entertainment, partially because they fear the choice will put off those big juicy, money-spending, white male, geek crowds. Worse yet, when they finally do buckle and add a little variety, it is the members of that very same nerd community who are the first to rage or completely disregard such casting choices as nothing more than “political correctness,” and that has a lot do with our collective cultural stereotypes of the black community in general.

For this article, we are not looking to get into the complexities of black culture or how the media and white culture perceives black culture, or how black culture may perceive itself through the mirrored lens of the media. Mostly, because we don’t have the time, historical perspective, or proper doctoral degrees to really do the subject any justice. For now, let’s just say that living up to the media’s standards of being black in America means you often find yourself stuck along very rigid stereotype lines, and very few of the prescribed roles that the media assigns to African Americans involves being nerdy.

The Trials of Mace Windu
When a black character gets portrayed it is often along certain stock-lines such as a sports star, a rapper, or the bad ass. We love Mace Windu as one of the only good things about the prequels but he has an undeniable Samuel L. Jackson quality about him. Now that is not a bad thing, but not every black Jedi needs to be Shaft with a lightsaber. Why couldn’t Qui Gon Jinn or any other Jedi have been black too? Why do we only seem to get one representation at a time? By portraying African Americans so heavily along the roles of gang members, criminals, and even “the cool one” the media helps create the perception that these are really the only acceptable things young black men or women can be. So for years, the very idea of the black comic book nerd or the black science fiction nerd was forgotten. We’re not saying that they didn’t exist, just that they were not made visible by Hollywood for the viewing audience at large. In fact, when blerds were portrayed at all, many perceived those characters as “acting white,” because smart and uncool have not been the standard labels for young African Americans. So whenever we got the black nerd character, he was only ever portrayed as the person who was rejected by the show’s wider community. Both Carlton and Urkel started as comparison characters to the show’s “cooler” characters. In other words, they were not the characters that were “normal” or worth emulating. Even if they did eventually become some of the most popular characters on their respected shows.

Thankfully that perception is changing, slowly but surely. When you really open your eyes and take notice you see blerds everywhere, and it is amazing. People like Aisha Tyler, Damon Waynes Jr., Donald Glover and Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson have come to epitomize what it means to be black and nerdy. Characters such as Turk from Scrubs, Toofer from 30 Rock, Gus from Psych, and Troy from Community, helped to put forth new roles for African American nerds in Hollywood, even if their shows are now all canceled. No longer are these characters the punching bag or the annoying friend. They are funny, smart, and fun to be around. In the past decade it has started to become cool to like cartoons, comics, sci-fi,.and be a little weird. That has helped the blerd gain some prominence, but unfortunately even with these positive role models, studios, social media, and geekdom at large, still hesitate and debate over the merits of casting African Americans in starring roles.

Will Smith may have starred in Men in Black, Laurence Fishburne may have played Morpheus, Samuel L. Jackson may be Nick Fury, but the minute you cast an African American actor as a stormtrooper the Internet breaks. People will point to characters like Falcon, Zoe Washburne, Static Shock, Black Panther, Uhura, or Captain Benjamin Sisko as example of diversity in geekdom, and they would be right. However, those characters are just a good start, and not a justification for why we need an all white cast for Episode VII. Being a nerd should be about including all people and most importantly giving everyone a hero they can look up to and say, “He/she is like me. I can be a hero, a Jedi, a stormtrooper, a Galactic senator, or whatever I want to be,” because that has always been the magic and importance of our shared nerd heritage.

Gambling on Lando Calrissian
Many people will inevitably wonder why we need a separate label for a black nerd. Those will be the same people who will wonder aloud why February is Black History Month, or why “only” Black Lives Matter? What those people need to understand is that saying that Black Lives Matter is not the same as saying only black lives matter. It is a reminder that black lives matter too. Similarly, giving one the label of blerd does not mean they are separate from other nerds. As a race and as a minority African Americans have been poorly under-represented, or worst yet represented poorly through the lens of media stereotypes. The blerd label -much like the Black Lives Matters campaign- is way to remind us that African Americans are not just two-dimensional stereotypes. They are humans who are entitled to life, hopes, dreams, and the freedoms to swing a stick around their head and make lightsaber noises. We all need to remember that nerds and people come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors, and they all deserve respect.

Hollywood forgets that sometimes. It is easier to typecast people in certain roles, because it is accepted by the culture at large. Thus the fanboy backlash from casting an African American in a previously white role may sometimes force studios to temper otherwise multicultural and innovative choices. However, as easy as it would be to blame the media for the lack of ethnic diversity in the movies we love so much, it is not entirely their fault. They are far from perfect in fostering equal casting opportunities, but it starts with us, the fan community. As a famous leader once said. “The change you wish to see in the world, you must be, hmm.” Acceptance and equality start with each of us.

Blerd Lives Matter because all nerd lives and loves matter, regardless of color or creed. We need to encourage more diversity in our movies, television shows, comics, literature, and lives. As a community, we geeks and nerds need to start demanding a fair balance of positive racial representation, and more importantly we need to stop raging every time Hollywood makes a stormtrooper black. -It is a perfectly conical choice.- There will always be people out there with poorly conceived hashtags because they are filled with bigotry. Yet we cannot let them be the voice for our larger community. Geekdom is full of great and accepting people, and we have to make sure that the only minority we disregard is the minority of people who want to do nothing more than spread their message of fear, because that leads to anger, which leads to hate, which leads to a darker-side for us all.

Geekdom knows the face of evil. We see it everyday, whenever we pick up a comic book or turn on a video game. There is always some megalomaniac trying to conquer the world, blow up the city, or even just steal the princess and take her back to his castle for purposes we feel it best not to question. However, unlike the villains in our books, movies, and games, most people in prison have never donned a mask to lead a band of ninjas, dabbled in the dark magical arts, or have built even one weather controlling doomsday device. No, the criminals in our prisons are not Saturday morning cartoon characters. They are nothing but ordinary, run of the mill people, no matter how much we sometimes try to pretend they aren’t.

B-Man and the Masters of the Congressverse
Last week, President Barrack Obama commuted the sentence of nearly 90 non violent offenders, most of them jailed due to drug charges. The people who received the commutations were well behaved inmates who served at least 10 years of their prison sentence, and who would have received less severe punishments for their offenses under today’s laws.

The United States has about 5% of the world’s population, but almost a quarter of its incarcerated population, but then again maybe we just produce more Cobra Commanders than Uruguay? Somehow we at The NYRD doubt that is the case. According to a 2011 Boston University study the USA jails 716 people per 100,000. That is the highest rate of inmates per capita in the world, beating out St. Kitts & Nevis, Seychelles, Rwanda and Cuba. The only statistics we should be beating Rwanda and Cuba in, are: “hot dogs sold” and “Star Trek conventions held,” not prison population. In fact, the closest developed country to the US is Russia at 487 inmates per 100,000 citizens, and no offense to our Russian friends, but we cannot believe that America is producing more villains than the former Soviet Union, especially considering their current leadership.

That sad part is that the argument can be made that our current corrections system does work, as long as you ignore its rapidly growing population. So it is not usually a pressing issue on the lips of many leaders, both animated or otherwise. The amount of inmates in the US began a sharp increase in 1979. The year before Empire Strikes Back was released saw only about 314,000 people behind bars. As of last year, the year before The Force Awakens is to be released, the numbers stood at about 3.2 million people behind bars, with African Americans making up the slight majority of the incarcerated population. A little less than half of that total inmates are people charged with non violent offenses, majorly drug charges, but also burglary, larceny, fraud, and public disorder.

Coincidentally, with the exception of a few fluctuations in the 80’s crime has been on the decrease ever since. This could be attributed to a number of factors, economic, social, even technological. Video games and the Internet do a lot more to distract potential criminal behavior than most people give them credit for, but that is for another article. According to the US Disaster Center, there were only about 9.8 million crimes committed in 2013 for a US population of over 316 million. The US is safer than it has ever been, but is that due to mass incarceration? Realistically, it probably has to do with a lot of factors, but if incarceration is our answer than we have to be prepared to build more prison, and that is going to get expensive.

Estimates tend to vary, but even conservative numbers say that it costs anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 dollars per year to house an inmate, depending on the level of security needed. According to a bill proposed by Congressmen Scott and Sensenbrenner, since 1980 Congress has added an estimated 2,000 new crimes to the books and imprisonment rates has grown 518 percent. Federal spending on the prison system has increased from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion dollars, adjusted for inflation. Their SAFE Bill is trying to curtail over criminalization and reduces recidivism. A similar bill, called the Smarter Sentencing Act is also going through the Senate. They are worth checking out, because even if you believe that all criminals deserve to be behind bars, imagine what the US could do with even a fraction of that money returned. Some estimates even say it currently costs every American household roughly $500 a year. Those dollar amounts only stand to increase in coming years, because for all its benefits, it is starting to look like our system is very good at taking low level offenders and making them hardened criminals.

Teenage Addicted Repeat Offenders
President Obama’s act is a great first step, but more needs to be done to reform a failing prison system. First and foremost, Obama has been pushing that drug crimes should be treated more like a public health risk than a crime, and according to a Pew Research Study, 67% of Americans, on both sides of the isle, agree with him. In fact, more than 25 states, in both the north and south, have eased their laws on drug crimes over the past five years, but the Federal government is still trying to catch up.

Much like the war with Cobra, the “War on Drugs” has became a self perpetuating machine. Harsh penalties and long prison sentences often affect lower income families dramatically more than those in upper income brackets, even if drug use itself is fairly proportional across economic lines. Unfair incarceration has the potential to exacerbate problems in the home, often taking away bread winning husbands or wives needed to support the family, and leaving children without one or both parental influences to keep them clear of gangs and the very drugs that the government was trying to fight in the first place. Thankfully, this has lessened with the amending of some of the “three strikes” laws for many states, most notably California where more than 3,000 previously life-sentenced, non violent inmates became eligible to apply for parole. Unfortunately, prison itself has a way of institutionalizing even the nicest of non violent offenders.

In many ways our prison system is a lot like a Saturday morning cartoon. It is fairly predictable, poorly animated, and for certain people it repeats like clockwork. In fact the US prison system has become like Arkham Asylum, a revolving door where criminals are often released only to be delivered back into captivity by a man who may or may not be dressed as a bat. Recidivism has declined in recent years, because of improvements in state laws, but current studies still show that about 40% of people released from prison will be arrested again within three years of release. Though many federal and some state facilities currently offer job training and societal reintegration preparation, the push is not universal, as many of these expanded programs cost money and poorer state systems, or privately funded corporate prisons are less inclined to invest.

G.I. Jobless
Prisons have another aspect in common with our beloved cartoons, many of them were created to make money. There are now 130 private prisons who rake in a combined 3.3 billion dollars a years. For them, a decrease in the prison population means a decrease in their profit margins. That means they have a lot less incentive to not properly prepare criminals for retuning to society, and they have a slew of lobbyist in Washington to make sure their voices are heard. In 2010, the private prison firm, GEO, and its affiliates donated more than $33,500 to political action committees. the whole thing is like some plot cooked up by Skeletor in his spare time, a convoluted system of harsh punishment that more often than not fails to achieve its end goal. More to the point, much like the plots of cartoon villains, we just seem to accept it as fact. We buy into the system and just take it for what it is and never really think to look deeper.

No one is saying that these offenders should not be punished for their crime. Everyone needs a time out once in a while, but the problem with the current system is that for non violent and other first time inmates incarceration often leans too far to the side of punishment and not enough to the side of rehabilitation. The only thing the Department of Corrections is actually correcting is how to make those low level offenders into better criminals. Currently, going into prison is a lot like joining Cobra. Even if you don’t know anything about how to hold a gun that shoots blue lasers, they will teach you that and a multitude of other criminal skills. Many first time offenders pick up new criminal traits, new violent tendencies, and gang affiliations as a simple way of surviving while inside the system, and in some cases those are the only job skills they can turn to after their release.

The fault does not lie entirely with the prison system alone, but also our own perceptions of criminals in society. Many federal and private companies ask job applicants for their criminal history, even if the job is low-level and for non sensitive work. Checking off a box that says you have been in jail is often a death sentence to any ex-convict’s job prospects. So with no where to go, even if they have the job skills, many former inmates are forced to return to crime to survive. Even worse, inmates who are exonerated are often just kicked out of prison with no money and no access to the same transitional programs that guilty criminals receive upon their release. There comes a point where if you tell Bebop and Rocksteady that they cannot work in the mail room, you should not be surprised if they go back to henching for Shredder. The pay may not be great, but at least they don’t feel as if they are being judged all the time by the other members of the Foot Clan.

More than Meets the Eye
Maybe part of our problem is our fascination with villains. After all, without a great villain the heroes we know and love seem somehow diminished. Our interest in the evil and the twisted happens for many reasons. Fictional villains represent power and freedom. They act as a vessel for us to contain and face our fears. In a way they help us to confront the unknown and even give us a mechanism of release for our own anger and devilish impulses. We rarely cheer for Megatron, but in a way we encourage his evil. We want to see a real villain do evil things, if only because it challenges our heroes to be that much better.

Thus, maybe in a way we have transferred some of that psychological need to the real-life criminals in our society. We want to believe in the existence of good, so therefore we must also have to believe in the existence of evil. You do not get He-Man without Skeletor. There is no Lion-O without Mumm-ra, no Ninja Turtles without Shredder and we would argue also Krang, but that is a debate for another day. Unfortunately, real humans are never so black and white. In a way we are all a little good and a little bad.

If we treat all offenders as if they criminals, than we cannot be surprised if they one day try to kidnap a world leader and demand a ridiculous ransom, because after all, we were the ones that expected them to be villains all along.

Bruce Wayne is a racist, there is no easy way to say that. Now before you run to the comment section below, let us start by saying that we are not indicating that Batman participates in active racism. He does not go around and beat down African Americans in between solving the Riddler’s puzzles. No, we are talking about how Bruce Wayne has enjoyed a certain level of privilege all his life. As a member of the Wayne family he was born wealthy. Even as Batman he enjoys the fruits of his family’s position. Yet, more to the point he is a white male, and there are more than a few perks to falling under that classification.

A Two-Faced Perspective
A lot of people will want to immediately protest that last statement. After all, when a real conversation about race starts the majority of Americans tend to shut down or shut out the facts. Thus, a white kid living in poverty is not going to instinctively see the inherent bias in our system, because of his own personal struggles and perspective. We experience the world through our own lens, whether you are Gotham’s billionaire son, a British manservant, or the black guy who makes all of Batman’s technology. Statistics rarely convince detractors, but we are going to hit you with some of them right now anyway. According to a recent 2014 poll, 40% of white Americans still believe that race relations in America are ‘good,’ as opposed to 35% black Americans. This statistic is down over the previous year, because of obvious recent events, but it still shows that a portion of America is unaware of the divide that exists even today in our nation.

The problem is that most Americans think of racism as something that happened in black and white photos in their history books, and fail to recognize that it is still reflected in the inherent inequalities within the system we live in. Thus, even if the caped crusader is not be an active racist, he still enjoys a level of comfort and position built upon the backs of institutional racism and prejudice that stretch back before the Civil War. Racism exists, not always in the actions of one race toward another, but as a historical ghosts that echoes through the halls of our schools, jobs, Arkham Asylums, and even government. It even clouds our perceptions and subconsciously directs our actions and feelings, like some long remembered childhood trauma that happened one night in a dark alleyway outside a theater.

For instance, Marvel has been taking a lot of flak about its lack of diversity in casting. Among the major discussions happening is the absence of Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man. Instead, Marvel is once again going with the white male role of Peter Parker. It is great that people are clamoring to see the racial diverse Morales take the place of Peter Parker, but what is not so great is that there is no talk about doing the same for Batman. Spider-Man and Batman are being rebooted into larger universes, and both on the heels of previously solo franchises. So why don’t the arguments being made for the racially diverse version of Spider-Man apply for an African American Batman? Is it because DC has no idea what they are doing? Yes, but it might also be because Spider-Man is a poor kid from Queens while Batman is a rich socialite from Gotham City. Of those two, which do we naturally assume to be a minority?

The Riddle of Racism?
Racism, is a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement. More to the point, it is a belief that has informed the way our society has been constructed. An often used complaint among white culture is that Black Americans receive the entire month of February for their history, but white people do not receive a similar month. That is true, but it is also a very limited perspective born from a lack of historical context and the fact that our fleshy bodies only last about eighty years. As humans we have a very small window to view the world, so for some it can become harder to take a more universal approach. People who see things such as Black History Month or affirmative action, are only seeing a small part of the story, devoid of context. It is like watching Batman punch the Joker without having any prior knowledge of the two characters, and getting angry that, “a crazy man in the bat outfit is punching a defenseless clown.” The truth is that we need to recognize that most of our history has been written from the white male perspective, and that perspective has become part of our instinctive understanding of our culture and ourselves operate, and that is the underpinning of the problem.

The practice of colonialism meant that white Europeans spread their dominance over most parts of the world and actively usurped local history and accomplishments with those of their own race. It helped remind locals who was in charge and made them feel inferior so as to not challenge the rule of the colonizers. In America, white culture and history was made superior to that of blacks, first to justify the economical system of slavery than to further the prejudicial system and non-integration. In modern times, those systems, set in place so long ago, still exist today. Our lives, our actions, and our nation does not exist in a bubble that is separated from history. Those past systems still inform the way our culture and society works.

There are plenty of statistics that confirm this. According to the APA, Black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults than white children, and make up nearly 60 percent of children in prisons. Black college graduates are twice as likely as white college graduates to struggle to find a job. The sentencing project found that on the New Jersey Turnpike black drivers make up 15 percent of drivers and more than 40 percent of traffic stops and 73 percent of arrests, but that they break traffic laws at the same rate as whites.

Success is built on success. Bruce Wayne inherited his wealth from Thomas and Martha Wayne. White people have had the power since colonial times, and they have passed that power down to their sons and their grandsons. Laws and systems were put into place to strengthen the ability of white people to subtly profit over minorities. Neighborhoods arose as did ghettos, segregated by race, by wealth, and by choice. With those neighborhoods arose adequate and inadequate school systems, gang violence, and extracurricular activities. People grew up different, with different attitudes and different ideas about the world. Some felt repressed and came to believe that they deserved to be, because society confirmed it. Others rose to acquire wealth and prosperity, which they passed on to their children, even after they were gunned down in an alleyway. Bruce Wayne is not prejudiced, but he did benefit from a system of racism. After all, how many parents are gunned down in minority neighborhoods, and of those, how many of those children grow up with the means to become Batman?

A Bane to Real Discussion
This is an incredibly hard topic to talk about, especially lately. It polarizes people on both sides. White people do not want to be seen as racist, and so instinctively they will flat out deny the problem and often shift blame to others. In New York, Hispanics and blacks are three times more likely to be stopped and frisked by police. Many white people will look at that statistic and say, “those people should not be doing what they are doing or walking where they are walking or acting how they act and they won’t get stopped.” Or they say that those particular police officers were racist, but that is not the whole story, because passive racism can be just as pervasive and even more damaging. It is old ideas informing not our thoughts but our subconscious understandings, until they become so pervasive we accept them as normal.

The human mind makes associations, it was how we evolved to survive in the wild, but we are no longer a tribal society hunting elk for food. So those prejudices have come to inform our government, our businesses, and the way we treat one another. Yet, because we want to see ourselves as evolved and enlightened we tend to reject those actions or mark them as isolated incidents. In a sense we become Two-Face and our brain literally goes to war with itself over the concept of racism. When that happens we don’t flip a coin to solve it. Instead, many of us just shut down on the subject all together. We say, “it’s not our problem,” “or that we aren’t racists,” or that “we didn’t cause it.”

A Signal in the Sky
Bruce Wayne is a racist, but he is also Batman. The Dark Knight knows something that a lot of other people do not. Just because you are not directly responsible for something, does not mean that you are not responsible for cleaning it up. Bruce did not create the crime and the poverty and corruption of Gotham, but he understands that he is responsible to be part of the solution to it. He could just as easily go on living a privileged playboy lifestyle,  but instead he becomes Batman because he has a responsibility to use his wealth and power to help those around him make the world a better place.

For white people, you have never owned a slave, at least we assume you never did. You probably never participated in active discrimination, you may never even have made a racial joke, but you are still a racist, not because you did something but because you refuse to do anything. You did not create this problem, but you have the power, the position, and therefore the responsibility to help fix it, because it needs fixing.

Racism still exists. We have come a long way, but the journey is not done. Everyone born now, was born closer to that proverbial mountain top, and it is human nature for us to look back at the long and rocky road and say, “look how far we have come. We have succeeded,” but the truth is that we have not yet reached that fabled peak. There is still more to climb. There is still a lot of difficult road ahead, and we are all responsible for getting there. Racism is not an issue for just minorities, it is an issue for all us. No one who lives today started this problem, but, like Bruce Wayne, we are all responsible for cleaning up the streets of our own personal Gotham City. It is up to us, because we are all Bruce Wayne, and that means we are also all Batman.