Hillary Clinton is currently using a rhetorical device otherwise known as an attempt to be “honest”, and it’s a call for us to be reflective about our own indifference to the racial divide. The problem is, former Secretary of State Clinton reinforces an irrational fear, masked in a logical fallacy, to justify an unsustainable ego defense. She meant well in the context of a larger discussion on race.
But, she could have engaged the same discussion by demonstrating the fear as irrational rather than leveraging the fear to elicit an emotional connection. Let’s apply the Social Work Next perspective to evaluate the rhetorical device. Our central question is one of Politics. How can policy and politics support empathy?
Exploring the Rhetoric
This speech was delivered July 23, 3015 in South Carolina. Some are attempting to use the clip without context to manufacture a Clinton gaffe. Presenting this as a gaffe, it would set up a narrative pitting open-minded Whites against other Whites using Black lives as the key factor in the decision point. Many may fall into that pit, but Social workers cannot.
If you took this position, it argues for Whites to advocate for and acknowledge that Blacks deserve to be treated as equals. Then, the other Whites should join the open-minded Whites and their action in creating a more tolerant United States. What this does is maintain the privilege of Whites as the center of the debate—the decision makers and the one group whose advocacy and opinion matters.
It also limits the debate to an individual level debate, one where each person needs to step up. The danger is to ignore mezzo and macro levels that also need attention. The danger is to miss the opportunity to ask a presidential candidate how he/she will legislate with the empathy necessary to create change. Policy should be the center of this debate leveraged by Justice for all, informed by Appreciation for all.
Clinton states in multiple events over the past month, some version of the following:
“Let’s be honest, for a lot of well-meaning, open-minded white people, the sight of a young black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear. And news reports that poverty, crime, and discrimination evoke sympathy, even empathy, but too rarely do they spur us to action or prompt us to question our own assumptions and privilege” (June 20, 2015 speech to US Conference of Mayors).
It’s still an inappropriate line. It could have been better. It serves to justify fear of Black males even while highlighting privilege.
Breaking down the Conceptual Semantics
The Social Work Next approach to this begins with the awareness of multiple systems levels: micro, mezzo, and macro. The individual or micro level is where much of this rhetoric resides. Rather than justifying the fear as a reminder to reflect with empathy and action, let us explore the fear as irrational.
The individual assessment would ask what biopsychosocial-spiritual-meaning experiences support the fear of Blacks. Only by addressing those fears at their origin, can the individual address the fallacy (most often) or the trauma (less likely) that supports the fear. The point at the individual level is that YOU have a choice regardless of the past or fear of the future. The risk in this moment is equal to the risk is all other moments.
At the mezzo level, we deal with institutions. What institutions support the idea that being Black is somehow threatening or precursor to harm? The solution is to move away from prejudice and determine the content of a person’s character no matter their race or clothing. The number of Blacks has no impact on your level of fear during a board meeting even if they all wore hoodies.
Let’s be clear, alley ways are scary no matter who is standing around in them. Anyone walking into a convenience store with a hoodie pulled over their head is going to raise your fear level. Remove the “being Black” offense from the evaluation of safety in context. Let us promote institutions that utilize the best in social engineering to support collaborative outcomes. You do that by moving away from social control and toward social capital. You know what I mean. “Protect and Serve” community policing versus “Stop and Frisk” raids and harassment.
At the macro level, we discuss environmental practice—the home for our discussion of politics. This is where we get into the depth of empathy. Empathy can begin with guilt. The problem here is that the guilt-to-empathy construct works at the individual level. The task is to expand the construct to the macro level, to collectively reflect, then politically act. What Clinton got wrong is that we don’t make this choice because of our guilt about our privilege or our fear of Blacks. We make the choice to create a politic of justice and appreciation because it serves our ends. The first level of empathy is to see ourselves or our children as the potential victim of unjust policy. The second level is to care that any other person would be subjected to such unjust policy without our ability to successfully navigate the system.
Politics of Change
As citizens, we are counting on our politicians to advance policy solutions. As social workers, we must educate a populous addressing a politic that lacks empathy. Clinton discusses empathy that leads to action, but only after justifying irrational thoughts. Reflection on assumptions and privilege is not enough. Many well-meaning people don’t have the energy and commitment for true empathy–understanding how my history makes my choices reasonable. And, how your insistence on my conformity criminalizes my existence. That is the point of #BlackLivesMatter. Not a redress to your privilege, but the assertion of my right to exist, under my own terms.
Use policy to grant me that right. Structure institutions that promote and bolster that right. Make equitably available the tools to defend myself and navigate the system.
In your speeches, structure your rhetoric to ensure a movement of justice and appreciation leading to empathy. Go beyond the guilt of having more, living outside stop-and-frisk zones, and living within successful school districts. Create, support, and enforce policies that provide equity of opportunity without asking me to become like you or more safe for you. I can’t change my color, but WE can change policy.
Afterward to the Social Worker
If you want to explore rhetoric and semantics further, may I suggest the following article as a starting point.
Complex speeches aren’t better speeches. In fact, they’re worse.
The most memorable lines in modern rhetoric—”Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”; “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; —are remembered precisely because they’re simple enough to understand, memorize, and talk about. Practically every modern sage of language—George Orwell, Steven Pinker, William Safire, Strunk & White—advises non-fiction writers to express themselves with simple language. Even if you like purple prose in your long-form narrative non-fiction, you’ll agree that it’s pleasing to hear complex policy points in clear sentences and parallelisms. (It’s hard to rule out that the dense language of the 19th century was pleasing and cogent in its own time.)
If you would like to explore the implications and the next steps for social work thought, keep reading this site, or you can do both.
Study Shows Immune Cells Against Covid-19 Stay High in Number Six Months After Vaccination
A recent study by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers provides evidence that CD4+ T lymphocytes — immune system cells also known as helper T cells — produced by people who received either of the two available messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for COVID-19 persist six months after vaccination at only slightly reduced levels from two weeks after vaccination and are at significantly higher levels than for those who are unvaccinated.
The researchers also found that the T cells they studied recognize and help protect against the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the delta variant — currently the predominant strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States — causes more infections and spreads faster than earlier forms of the virus.
“Previous research has suggested that humoral immune response — where the immune system circulates virus-neutralizing antibodies — can drop off at six months after vaccination, whereas our study indicates that cellular immunity — where the immune system directly attacks infected cells — remains strong,” says study senior author Joel Blankson, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The persistence of these vaccine-elicited T cells, along with the fact that they’re active against the delta variant, has important implications for guiding COVID vaccine development and determining the need for COVID boosters in the future.”
To reach these findings, Blankson and his colleagues obtained blood from 15 study participants (10 men and five women) at three times: prior to vaccination, between seven and14 days after their second Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine dose, and six months after vaccination. The median age of the participants was 41 and none had evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection.
CD4+ T lymphocytes get their nickname of helper T cells because they assist another type of immune system cell, the B lymphocyte (B cell), to respond to surface proteins — antigens — on viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Activated by the CD4+ T cells, immature B cells become either plasma cells that produce antibodies to mark infected cells for disposal from the body or memory cells that “remember” the antigen’s biochemical structure for a faster response to future infections. Therefore, a CD4+ T cell response can serve as a measure of how well the immune system responds to a vaccine and yields humoral immunity.
In their study, Blankson and colleagues found that the number of helper T cells recognizing SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins was extremely low prior to vaccination — with a median of 2.7 spot-forming units (SFUs, the level of which is a measure of T cell frequency) per million peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs, identified as any blood cell with a round nucleus, including lymphocytes). Between 7 and 14 days after vaccination, the T cell frequency rose to a median of 237 SFUs per million PBMCs. At six months after vaccination, the level dropped slightly to a median of 122 SFUs per million PBMCs — a T cell frequency still significantly higher than before vaccination.
The researchers also looked six months after vaccination at the ability of CD4+ T cells to recognize spike proteins atop the SARS-CoV-2 delta variant. They discovered the number of T cells recognizing the delta variant spike protein was not significantly different from that of T cells attuned to the original virus strain’s protein.
Although the study was limited because of the small number of participants, Blankson feels it pinpoints areas that merit further research.
“The robust expansion of T cells in response to stimulation with spike proteins is certainly indicated, supporting the need for more study to show booster shots do successfully increase the frequency of SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells circulating in the blood,” says Blankson. “The added bonus is finding that this response also is likely strong for the delta variant.”
Along with Blankson, the members of the study team from Johns Hopkins Medicine are study lead author Bezawit Woldemeskel and Caroline Garliss.
This study was supported by the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Vaccine-related Research Fund.
The authors do not have financial or conflict of interest disclosures.
Poverty, Racism and the Public Health Crisis in America
Although extreme poverty in the United States is low by global standards, the U.S. has the worst index of health and social problems as a function of income inequality. In a newly published article, Bettina Beech, clinical professor of population health in the Department of Health Systems and Population Health Sciences at the University of Houston College of Medicine and chief population health officer at UH, examines poverty and racism as factors influencing health.
“A common narrative for the relatively high prevalence of poverty among marginalized minority communities is predicated on racist notions of racial inferiority and frequent denial of the structural forms of racism and classism that have contributed to public health crises in the United States and across the globe,” Beech reports in Frontiers in Public Health. “Racism contributes to and perpetuates the economic and financial inequality that diminishes prospects for population health improvement among marginalized racial and ethnic groups. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of poverty in the developed world, but despite its collective wealth, the burden falls disproportionately on communities of color.” The goal of population health is to achieve health equity, so that every person can reach their full potential.
Though overall wealth has risen in recent years, growth in economic and financial resources has not been equally distributed. Black families in the U.S. have about one-twentieth the wealth of their white peers on average. For every dollar of wealth in white families, the corresponding wealth in Black households is five cents.
“Wealth inequality is not a function of work ethic or work hour difference between groups. Rather, the widening gap between the affluent and the poor can be linked to unjust policies and practices that favor the wealthy,” said Beech. “The impact of this form of inequality on health has come into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic as the economically disadvantaged were more likely to get infected with SARS CoV-2 and die.”
A Very Old Problem
In the mid-1800’s, Dr. James McCune Smith wrote one of the earliest descriptions of racism as the cause of health inequities and ultimately health disparities in America. He explained the health of a person “was not primarily a consequence of their innate constitution, but instead reflected their intrinsic membership in groups created by a race structured society.”
Over 100 years later, the Heckler Report, the first government-sanctioned assessment of racial health disparities, was published. It noted mortality inequity was linked to six leading causes of preventable excess deaths for the Black compared to the white population (cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, infant mortality, chemical dependency and homicide/unintentional injury).
It and other reports led to a more robust focus on population health over the last few decades that has included a renewed interest in the impact of racism and social factors, such as poverty, on clinical outcomes.
The Myth of Meritocracy
Beech contends that structural racism harms marginalized populations at the expense of affording greater resources, opportunities and other privileges to the dominant white society.
“Public discourse has been largely shaped by a narrative of meritocracy which is laced with ideals of opportunity without any consideration of the realities of racism and race-based inequities in structures and systems that have locked individuals, families and communities into poverty-stricken lives for generations,” she said. “Coupled with a lack of a national health program this condemns oppressed populations such as Black and Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and disproportionately non-English speaking immigrants and refugees to remain in poverty and suffer from suboptimal health.”
Keys to Improvement
The World Health Organization identified three keys to improving health at a global level that each reinforces the impact of socioeconomic factors: (1) improve the conditions of daily life; (2) tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money and resources; and (3) develop a workforce trained in and public awareness of the social determinants of health.
The report’s findings highlight the need to implement health policies to increase access to care for lower-income individuals and highlight the need to ensure such policies and associated programs are reaching those in need.
“Health care providers can directly address many of the factors crucial for closing the health disparities gap by recognizing and trying to mitigate the race-based implicit biases many physicians carry, as well as leveraging their privilege to address the elements of institutionalized racism entrenched within the fabric of our society, starting with social injustice and human indifference,” said Beech.
When Giving Thanks, Don’t Forget Yourself
As we give thanks at the holidays, it’s easy to overlook someone important: your past self.
While it’s well documented that gratitude toward others can improve wellbeing, two University of Florida scientists find that gratitude toward your past self also has benefits.
Does thanking yourself seem a bit…selfish? The researchers, UF psychology professor Matt Baldwin, Ph.D., and undergraduate student Samantha Zaw, think not.
“Despite the fact that past gratitude is self-focused, it reminds people that they’re part of a bigger story and that they have the power to grow,” Baldwin said. “It’s possible this promotes a pay-it-forward type of mentality.”
Gratitude is what psychologists call a self-transcendent emotion, one that lifts us out of the everyday and expands our perspective, which can help us get along with each other better. In a recent experiment, Baldwin and Zaw asked participants to write brief gratitude letters. The first group thanked someone else, the second thanked themselves, while a third, the control condition, wrote about a positive experience they’d had. Zaw and Baldwin then surveyed the participants about their self-perception after writing the letter. Although the results are not yet published, early analysis shows that the exercise gave the other- and self-focused gratitude groups a sense of redemption and helped them feel they were morally good people. However, the group that wrote to themselves scored higher on both measures.
The past-self group also saw a benefit the others didn’t: an increase in the self-awareness measures of clarity, authenticity and connectedness.
“Unlike gratitude toward others, being appreciative of ourselves carries an added benefit of truly understanding who we are and feeling connected to ourselves,” said Zaw, a McNair Scholar who has been working with Baldwin since her freshman year as part of UF’s Emerging Scholars Program.
Zaw and Baldwin’s research — the first known data gathered on past-self gratitude — was inspired by a Reese’s cup. When Baldwin’s co-worker, boredom researcher Erin Westgate, returned to the office after pandemic lockdown, she was delighted to discover a peanut butter cup she had squirreled away in her desk.
“She texted me like, ‘Oh my gosh, my past self left my future self a Reese’s,’” Baldwin recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait a second. You’re expressing gratitude towards something your past self had done. We have to study this.’”
As Zaw and Baldwin dug into previous studies, they found plenty on gratitude toward others and a few on self-compassion, but nothing on past-self gratitude. They designed the letter-writing experiment to test its effects, presenting their findings at the Society of Southeastern Social Psychologists in October and at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in February.
If you’re curious about the benefits of self-gratitude, Zaw offered a way to try the experiment at home, maybe as a new Thanksgiving tradition. Take a few minutes to write a thank you message to someone else, and another to yourself for something you did in the past. Sharing what you wrote could foster connections between loved ones, she said, but the exercise can also pay dividends if you try it on your own.
“At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we focus on other people, but self-care is really needed too, especially if we want to feel more clear about ourselves,” she said. “Maybe it can even lead to a better vision for ourselves for the next year.”
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