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## School segregation, pt 2: mitigating the effects/what we can do

20 Oct

The hardest post of this series will be part 3, delving into the problems that I ran into when thinking about where to buy a house without perpetuating systemic inequality by focusing on “good” schools, and also the problem of “safe” as a coded word to mean “predominantly white” when describing neighborhoods.  But this is part 2, which are small solutions to the as-yet-undefined problems.

Income disparities and property taxes mean unequal funding for schools.  I can live in a less-desired neighborhood (which I won’t do, because I want my short commute times and walkability and access to grocery stores etc. and I am unwilling to sacrifice those things for my ideals), or I can advocate for mixed-income housing on a local level, and be a YIMBY (yes! In my backyard!)  Especially in Charlotte, where the city has agreed to add 5000 affordable housing units within the next few years- but where?  We were looking at Cherry, a historically black neighborhood (literally where the black servants of the rich white people lived)- the builders there are building some number of subsidized houses along with the expensive fancy houses (as in this program).  What’s nice is that it’s the same builder, so you can’t really tell from outside who has the fancy expensive house and who has the subsidized house across the street (and everyone gets new houses!).  So we can be like the neighbors there and advocate for mixed-income housing, or we can be NIMBYs like in this story and say that affordable houses will “hurt our property values.”  If you find yourself saying “I’m worried that X will hurt my property values,” you may be part of the problem.

PTA “dark money” keeps “good” public schools “good” when state budgets are cut.  Rich people who do opt to send their kids to public school often give lots of money to the PTA- there’s some amazing examples in this Atlantic article (Taylor Swift ticket auction vs. bake sale?!) Of course you aren’t going to stop giving money to your kids’ schools so they can have better playground equipment or science equipment or books etc.  So one thing that we can do is match our PTA donations- for every $1 we spend at our local school, we can send$1 to the PTA of a needier school in the city.  It’s a small, band-aid solution, but when you’re not a policy-maker you do the best you can.

Shouldn’t these problems be addressed at the policy level?  What can I do as an individual?  Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose NYT magazine piece really started my spouse and I on this journey, stated it well in an NPR interview:

“It is important to understand that the inequality we see, school segregation, is both structural, it is systemic, but it’s also upheld by individual choices,” she says. “As long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children … we’re not going to see a change.”

If you’re a podcast listener, Hannah-Jones also appears on this episode of This American Life talking about the same issue.  (She also just won the Macarthur so she is no lightweight).  So do the things I list in this post!

School rankings on real estate sites mostly show you how rich and white a school is. They use Greatschools.org info, which relies on standardized test scores.  So if you’re like my spouse and filter your real estate search by school scores, you’re just filtering for the white neighborhoods.  From this Washington Post article:

As research has found, school factors explain only about 20 percent of achievement scores — about a third of what student and family background characteristics explain. Consequently, test scores often tell us much more about demography than about schools.

Instead of relying only on a number, try visiting the schools and talking to the people there about your own kids’ needs.  My kids are very young, but based on the evidence we have we’ll want a school with some gifted and talented programs, and light on homework, and a lot of emphasis on social learning/getting along with others (I have a shy guy toddler).  So a high-power, worksheet and results focused school is probably not for us.

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.  Corollary: naming a problem can make you feel defensive, like these Seattle white progressive parents .  Try not go be like them.  As I noted in a previous post, people don’t like being called racist- people didn’t even like it when I called myself racist!  Let’s try to quell our knee-jerk reactions to the problem of school segregation and think about what we can do.  To be clear, I am writing from a huge position of privilege.  You know what correlates strongly with kids’ academic achievement?  Their mothers’ education level.  My kids are maxed out on that.  So I can talk about these issues and freely decide what schools to send my kids to, and they’ll be fine pretty much anywhere they go.  Other people don’t have such advantages.  Here’s an anonymous quote that I loved about this topic, to finish off the post:

We have to balance many variables in making our choices. But there are others too–and they concern not only who we want our child to be, but the society we want our child to live in.

If you want to read more about the topic of school segregation, I suggest googling Nikole Hannah-Jones and checking out this great Facebook page (LA-centric), Integrated Schools.

## Personal Update

13 Sep

Hi, blog reader!  Apologies for not writing in months; I wanted to let you know that I’m still around, trying to get my life together- we moved a few weeks ago to Charlotte, NC where I’m living with my in-laws while we’re still trying to sell the house in Austin, TX.  Just fired our realtor and got a new one, so fingers crossed this works (the old one did nothing; the new one has already cleaned our house, brought in a stager, and set up a painter).  The toddler started school recently, so now I have a few hours to “myself” everyday (but those are actually spent with a baby).

I also set up a conference for this next weekend: Carolinas Women in Mathematics Symposium.  I was having difficulties communicating with people I don’t know to make the website look how I wanted, so I ended up hosting it on my own server.  Turned out to be a great decision because I could update it anytime instead of sending the HTML over for each change to some administrator!  This also meant that I sharpened my HTML skillz.

I picked up a side gig as a coach for Testive, just so I could do something besides watch my kids.

I read The Hate U Give in one day and highly recommend it.

One day I will write a real blog post: I’ve got school segregation pts 2 and 3, the job search, how I became a slacktivist, Bakewell tart, my thesis on the list of things I want to write about.

This is my life lately:

## School segregation, pt 1: grappling with our racism

26 Jul

I’ve been trying to get this post out for a month and finally have decided that I’ll break it up into mini-posts in order to publish anything at all.  Yes, I finished my thesis and packed my house, but my mom was here to help with the kids during that time.  Now that thesis is done, mom is back in California, and it’s just me and kids and house-selling.  Mostly the kids part is what takes up my time and energy.  But they’re so cute!  Here’s a pic of me and baby napping on an air mattress during a trip to my brothers’ house.

We went on a house hunting trip to Charlotte, NC, where we’re moving at the end of the summer.  When my spouse was in high school there, Charlotte public schools were still integrated.  But in 2001, mandatory busing was ruled down, and now Charlotte schools are again segregated neighborhood schools (because housing is segregated/there are segregated neighborhoods): here’s the article summing this up.  As we looked at houses, we also looked at what schools they were zoned into, and the makeup of those schools.  I was amazed looking at greatschools.com how very close to 100% black and 100% white schools there are.  Public schooling is really important to us (we both went to public schools, and ideologically we believe in them), but when we consider school zones when choosing a house, are we being racist?  By which I mean, are we perpetuating structural inequalities based on race?  I think so!

We read the NYT Magazine article a few years ago about choosing a school in a segregated city, and the following quote is from a follow-up NPR interview:

“It is important to understand that the inequality we see, school segregation, is both structural, it is systemic, but it’s also upheld by individual choices,” she says. “As long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children … we’re not going to see a change.”

There’s a new, controversial book out called Dream Hoarders, which has as a thesis that the top 20% of Americans by income “hoard” resources etc. for their children and hence hurt the American Dream of upward mobility for anyone.  They also made a cute little game explaining it, here.  And here’s an excerpt from the book if you want more.

An excerpt from the excerpt:

There is clear danger of a vicious cycle developing here. As inequality between the upper middle class and the rest grows, parents will become more determined to ensure their children stay near the top. We will work hard to put a “glass floor” under them, to prevent them from falling down the chutes. Inequality and immobility thus become self-reinforcing.

Downward mobility is not a wildly popular idea, to say the least. But it is a stubborn mathematical fact that, at any given time, the top fifth of the income distribution can accommodate only 20 percent of the population. Relative intergenerational mobility is necessarily a zero-sum game. For one person to move up the ladder, somebody else must move down. Sometimes that will have to be one of our own children. Otherwise the glass floor protecting affluent kids from falling acts also as a glass ceiling, blocking upward mobility for those born on a lower rung of the ladder. The problem we face is not just class separation, but class perpetuation.

So so far we have two different but very related topics that are affected by my individual choice of where to buy a house and send my kids to school: perpetuating class inequality, and perpetuating racial segregation.  When it comes down to it, of  course we try to choose the “best” fit for our kids, but we need to really explore and come to terms with what we mean by “best.”  Do we mean best test scores?  Because those correlate with family income.  Do we mean best teachers?  How do we put a metric on teachers?  How do we put a metric on schools at all?

In this series I’ll write posts about how we address the two topics (sneak peak: we will do so by trying to mitigate our effects as gentrifiers in the neighborhoods we choose).  And I’ll post pictures of my kids!

## Defended! Also, 29 silly Wonder Woman questions

15 Jun

Last week I defended my thesis at UIC!  Here’s a photo that my adviser took directly after the defense:

This champagne was REALLY GOOD

I’d say aaaah, I get to relax now, but I still have a two month old baby and a house to sell and edits to make on my thesis which I have to submit.  Also I’d like to publish a(nother) paper out of it, just for fun.  Also my toddler got strep the day after defense so our Chicago vacation was mostly hugging a feverish kid and feeding him jello.  And my mom went back home (she’d been living with us since baby was born, which helped me finish up thesis).  But besides all that, aaaaaah, I’m done!

Also I was nervous but the defense was fun!  Committee asked me questions after but didn’t feel like a test, just that they were curious about my work.  We had a big party that night with barbecue I brought from Texas and some of them came!

After my spouse and I watched Wonder Woman (hahaha no movies for us for a while now that my mom is back home), we both couldn’t sleep because we were so riled up and upset.  I’ll say it now: I think it was silly and if you like Zach Snyder films/don’t expect it to be deep or feminist, you’ll enjoy it.  And at least it’s A step in the right direction…I just wish Marvel or Disney had made it and it was feminist and intersectional.  I have some questions (some are serious) and I’d love it if y’all could answer any of them.  SO MANY SPOILERS and also SO MUCH COMPLAINING so feel free to stop reading now.

1. Why does Hippolyta say “the stronger she gets, the sooner he’ll find her” and “the more she knows, the sooner he’ll find her”?  Like she definitely just finds him when she is not that strong and doesn’t know that much…
2. Why does Hippolyta snap at Diana “you’re not an Amazon!”
3. What are the Amazons training for all the time, if they aren’t planning on heading back out into the world?
4. Maybe I’m not good at reading facial expressions.  What’s going on when Diana unleashes her god power on Antiope?  Antiope is like no go away (why?) and all the Amazons stare at Diana (some kind of message is in this scene but I don’t know what it is).
5. Does Diana realize anything about her god power when she does that wristlet thing?  What’s going on in her head?
6. Why does Hippolyta tell Diana that she can never come back?  Steve and those German dudes all seemed to find Themyscira just fine.
7. Not a question I just loved the dialogue in the boat about sleeping together.  That’s got the O.C./Sex and the City/Grey’s Anatomy written all over it.   Let’s have this person write all the dialogue.
8. Where does Wonder Woman’s outfit come from (versus the simple leather thing she had on the island, and the suit she buys with Etta)?  [I’m totally okay with this magical outfit appearing I’m just including it for completeness.]
9. Why would Diana give her sword and shield (2 of 3 most valuable Amazon treasures) to Etta whom she just met?
10. Why doesn’t Steve let her go hang out with the baby?  Babies!  Why am I asking if a man “lets” Wonder Woman do anything?
11. Why does Diana follow Steve around London when the baddies are following them?  Her physical obedience to him in general is confusing given how often she verbally questions him.
12. Clearly Diana is winning the fight with the baddies, so why give the slow motion effect to a wimpy Steve punch?
13. Another not question: I love the line “there’s a woman in here” and everyone shuts up.  Quite funny.
14. WHY DOES STEVE RIP THE BOOK OUT OF DIANA’S HAND THAT SHE IS TRANSLATING???? WHY DOESN’T SHE FINISH TRANSLATING IT????? She’s the only person who can, it has vital enemy information, and zero percent does anyone care??????????  This drives me nuts.  Knowledge is powerful too, not just rushing off and fighting.
15. In the bar Samir makes a joke about an island full of women who look like Diana.  But wouldn’t you be terrified of going to a mysterious island full of one gender which is not yours?  Like 95% sure you would die.
16. Why doesn’t Diana help the horse?  It would take her 5 seconds but they tell her that she has to keep moving?
17. Why does Dr. Poison not talk?  She’s supposed to be a big baddie right?  What’s her story?  And what’s up with the mask?  She has a scar on her face, so what?  I was hoping she’d look like Two-Face from Batman but instead she’s just a beautiful person with a scar.
18. More on Dr. Poison- is the idea that Steve is flirting with her and then she gets real jealous when he looks at Diana?  That seems… dumb.  Women don’t just exist relative to men, but maybe the (all-male) writing team doesn’t know that.
19. What’s the deal with the strength gas?  It makes a mortal as strong as a god?   Dr. Poison should be selling that!  Or at least giving it to the troops.  Or herself.
20. Why is Charlie in the party?  I’m confused by his whole character, a sharpshooter who can’t shoot.  I think he’s there to show some aspect of Diana’s character development, but what aspect I cannot say- she already looked at the soldiers coming back from the front with sad eyes.
21. Speaking of the party, quibble, why no women?  There were definitely women in WWI and also this is a fictional universe…
22. What are the rules to Diana’s jumping?  Why do the dudes need to hold up a piece of metal for her to jump off of?
23. What does Diana see in Steve?  I see a guy who interrupts her all the time and refuses to explain anything to her or answer her questions.  Not sexy.  That said, sex is fun so I’m totally down with her being like oh let’s try a fun thing!  Actual dialogue in my house: “Would you like to have sex?” “You could be more subtle, honey” “No, no I cannot.  Subtlety is not some magical thing that women are born with.”  She gives him the “bedroom eyes” but why would she know about those [I’m saying they are cultural rather than innate].
24. Okay so I’m down with the sex, but why does she “love” this dude?  Enough to realize her god-powers.
25. Why doesn’t D kill L at High Command?  See 11 and 20.
26. Also what are the rules for god powers?  Ares killed all the gods, Diana is the god-killer, they have a big old fight but I’m not sure what’s possible and what’s not so the fight is nonsensical.
27. Why is killing Dr. Poison a test?  Diana has definitely killed dozens of soldiers during this movie.  Are their lives worth less than the mastermind?
28. What’s the symbolism/message of Dr. Poison’s mask falling off?  Are “ugly” people sad and pathetic or whatever Ares says in that monologue?
29. Why no women writers?  I like the woman director but the script… I watched this movie two weeks ago and am only now not irked (writing this list-rant  has been very therapeutic thanks blog!)

## T-minus 9 Days

30 May

Not for the baby; I had her exactly two months ago.  Here are my kids looking at each other:

Sorry to have been gone for a bit longer than I meant, reader.  Baby #2 has been excellent and wonderful, but she is still a baby and so takes a fair amount of work.  But the thing that has been taking a lot of my time is this other thing I’ve been working on/gestating for a few years rather than just nine months:

I am excited and nervous and mostly exhausted, if you couldn’t tell by my half-assed abstract that I wrote in thirty seconds.  I still have to write the talk, and I’m sending my committee the final draft of my thesis today.  Since it’s been a long time since I’ve given a math talk, I’m doing a practice version next Monday here at UT/clean out my office, then next Wednesday we’re packing up the whole family and flying to Chicago for the big event.  That same day, the photographers are coming to photograph our house, and we’re listing it the next day and having an open house while we’re out of town.  That means that for the past month or so whenever I had a free moment I packed a box of stuff and put it in the attic (or napped).  So… it’s been busy.

i’m not too good at doing anything when baby is nursing (as she is now, just started) but i wanted to update y’all and tell you i’m fine, just busy with life things.  after june 8 hopefully house will be sold and they’ll let me graduate so i’ll have more time (but still have a baby).   after spending a week at IAS two weeks ago TAing a class while nursing a baby, i have some more thoughts on self-doubt and ambition.  but that’ll wait.  also a series of posts on my thesis forthcoming!

## Am I racist?

22 Mar

The first answer to the title question is yes, of course I have benefited from institutional structures designed to benefit people who live in certain areas (aka people who can get loans/aren’t pushed into or away from those neighborhoods)- I got a decent education at public schools, I could walk safely to school, I even got a free bus (thanks Minnesota!) for my gifted math program which was primarily white/Asian, I’ve never interacted with a police officer or any authority figure because my race etc. etc. etc.  I’ve also, you know, not had the luxury of having people of my ethnic background reflected in almost any of the media I consumed as a kid/teenager/even adult (I happened to be the right age for the Yellow Ranger to be Vietnamese though!), and get to read articles like this all the time.

Tangent: I know it’s a trope that Asian-Americans hate being asked “where are you really from?” but either a) that hasn’t happened to me much or, more likely, b) I don’t personally feel other-ed by the question and I like telling people I’m from Minnesota and my parents were from Vietnam, because the conversation generally leads to me raving about Minnesota and/or Vietnam (I am sometimes a forceful conversationalist) or bemoaning the pity that many white people don’t get to have that strong ancestry connection (I am subtle).  That said I did go to a 45% Asian high school and we all knew everyone’s ethnic backgrounds; I can definitely imagine being more sensitive about this issue if I hadn’t had that experience of it not being weird to be not-white (like, if I’d stayed in MN for high school).

Anyways, this post is inspired by an experience I had the other night with my spouse, when we went to a Duke alumni event to watch the Duke-South Carolina game, and I commented that one player looked like a kid to me.  I’m going to refer to these 18-20 year olds as “kids/children” throughout the post for reasons that will become clear, though they are adults.

“Kid” in question, Grayson Allen from the Duke website

Spouse agreed that this 21-year-old player has a very young looking face.  As the game went on, I unhappily noticed that I kept thinking the white players on the team look like kids to me, while the black players do not.  On the way home I asked spouse if he thought I’m being racist, and his immediate reaction was to recoil (people really hate being called racist!) and defend me against myself, and we went through the Duke roster and decided that all the players photos (except Sean Obi) look pretty young when they have their big goofy smiles on (Sean Obi doesn’t show teeth in his picture, which immediately cuts down on potential goofiness).  Then I told spouse about the 2014 study (I thought everyone knew about this) which showed that white male police officers and white female undergraduates overestimate the ages of black boys and view them as less innocent; here’s an excerpt from The Atlantic summary on the study:

The general population respondents overestimated the boys’ ages in felony situations by 4.53 years, meaning that “boys would be misperceived as legal adults at roughly the age of 13 and a half.” The police had a slightly wider spread: 4.59 years. The college students were also less likely to judge black boys innocent in the presented scenarios once they were 10 years of age of older. At every age level after 10, black boys were considered less innocent than either white or unspecified children.

Of course this played out the next year with the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and so this study and that murder were on my mind as I was watching the basketball game and afterwards.  I think the study also says that police underestimate white boys’ ages by about a year, which echoed again in the stupid 32-year old man Ryan Lochte shenanigan at the Olympics:

Let’s give these kids a break. They made a mistake. It’s part of life. Life goes on.

Anyways, after some discussion (I’m still convinced that I’ve internalized some of the ‘black boys look older’ crap), we decided there were a bunch of factors at play in my assessment of the kids looking like kids or adults: 1) facial hair (the one white guy with facial hair doesn’t look like a kid to me; many of the black teammates have facial hair), 2) # of active players (more black than white), 3) some people just look the same for twenty years, starting when they’re 20, 4) it’s hard to look at a 7 foot tall person and think of them as a kid, 5) I don’t know what young black men look like.  So 1-4 are pretty self-explanatory, and for 5 I met two black kids before I was 14 (I think they were both adopted), knew a handful in high school, and did a crap job having diverse friends in college (I still do a crap job of this in my segregated city) and graduate school (I’ve met literally three black male grad students in math in my seven years of grad school; I know more black women thanks to EDGE, many of whom were featured in Mathematically Gifted and Black).

An irony of this whole incident is that we were watching with a bunch of class of 2016 black women who DEFINITELY looked like kids to me.  So when I first told spouse about my concern re: racism and over-estimating black ages, he incredulously thought I was referring to those young women (it’s taking some effort for me not to write “girls” here; thanks advisor!).

So what’s my conclusion?  As usual, I will leave you unsatisfied and say I don’t have one- the issue is nuanced; I don’t make good sound bites; I’m a little racist and I’m working on it (you probably are too and you should also work on it).

Oh!  I almost forgot that I wanted to tell you that I’m 39 weeks pregnant today!  Here’s a picture of me:

It’s been awhile since a math post… so maybe when I’m nursing my newborn I’ll try to write a post about my thesis (oooh exciting!)  See you then!

## On eponyms

7 Mar

I recently listened to two episodes of a podcast which were entirely dedicated to eponyms.  That first episode of the Allusionist was cute and fun, referring to how British people call pens “Bics” or “Biros”, while this second episode is a bit darker and has to do with medical terminology.  For instance, by this point “Downs syndrome” has entered popular culture and so even as the medical community starts calling it Trisomy 21 (fun fact my first prenatal test with this pregnancy came back with a high risk of Trisomy 21 so I took a second genetic test which cleared me), it’s unclear if it’ll ever change in our minds.  But why should medical conditions be named after generally egotistical men who “discovered” them?  I think it’s ridiculous that Braxton-Hicks contractions are named after this English dude who “discovered” them in 1872, while women have been having false or practice contractions LITERALLY FOREVER.

This comes up a fair bit in math, as we like to name things after people but then later change the name to make more sense OR vice versa.  For instance, “Outer Space” is actually written as $CV_n(X)$ which stands for Culler-Vogtmann space even though everyone says “outer space” aloud.  Funnily in that article I just linked Vogtmann writes it as $\mathcal{O}_n$ but I haven’t seen anyone else write it that way.  Another funny one is right angled Artin groups, which were originally called “graph groups” but now everyone says “raags”.  Incidentally this is a great introduction to RAAGS (sometimes written raAgs).

Some spaces don’t have any alternative names and should.  The one I’m thinking of now is Teichmüller space– every day dozens of mathematicians and physicists refer to this space and the accompanying theory, which feels like we’re honoring Teichmüller.  This is not a person whom I particularly want to honor every day, but like the Downs syndrome problem I doubt we’ll be able to change the name to “complex structure space” or “marked surfaces space”.  I didn’t know any of this stuff about Teichmuller until reading a wonderful interview of Autumn Kent by Evelyn Lamb.  Here’s a pull quote; most of it is Autumn and the Note is by Evelyn.

There is a dangerous amount of tolerance of intolerable people in academia based on the principle that we are all dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and beauty and that a person’s academic work makes them a person worthy of mutual respect. This principle is wrong.

Bers famously quoted Plutarch in defense of his admiration for Teichmueller’s work: “It does not of necessity follow that, if the work delights you with its grace, the one who wrought it is worthy of your esteem.” This is of course true, but Teichmueller was still a piece of sh*t and if he were alive today I would not be his friend on Facebook. [Note: Oswald Teichmueller (1913-1943) was a German mathematician and literally a card-carrying Nazi. As a student, he organized a boycott of Edmund Landau, a Jewish math professor at the University of Göttingen. He was killed fighting for the Third Reich in World War II.] I would not invite him to an academic conference. The pursuit of knowledge and beauty is admirable, but it should not be undertaken at the expense of the bodies and souls of marginalized people. If my work would result in violence I would abandon it.

There are a LOT of goodies in that interview and I highly, highly recommend it.  In fact I wrote this entire post just to share this interview with you, but I snuck it in via eponyms (and also I’ve been having a lot of practice contractions lately and wanted you to know.  Due date is March 29!)