Tag Archives: discrimination

Sensitive Segments

Sensitive Segments    —by Jinny Batterson

A long time ago, before I became totally technically obsolete, I worked for a number of years in what was then called data processing—now more often labeled “information technology.”  The media and the structure of the data I worked with changed over time. First there were punched card files, later storage on computer tapes, then multi-plattered disk drives, and, still later, all sorts of increasingly dense mass storage devices.  At first, each separate computer application had its own files, so there was a tremendous amount of duplication among the various files, with a high probability for errors and mismatches. Later, someone figured out that it would be possible to create a data hierarchy, with a top level “executive” or “parent” piece that controlled access to all the others. This reduced duplication and mismatch difficulties, but meant that to access any piece of data required understanding a rigid data structure, with its different levels and dependencies. 

During the final decade of my data processing work, I was introduced to what were then called “relational databases.” As the expense of computer hardware continued to decline and the speed of data retrieval continued to increase, any data hierarchy that might be lurking in the background was masked. Given a properly constituted database, it became possible for programmers to compose relatively simple inquiries into multiple data fields, no matter how they were positioned in the overall data structure. To me, this way of viewing data was much more intuitive than trying to remember whether “segment A” was a parent segment to “segment B,” or whether both were same-level children of “segment C” in some artificially constructed hierarchy. The catch, in the somewhat hierarchical organizations where I worked, was that some data was deemed off-limits or unnecessary for some members of the agency or firm. For example, the Personnel Department might need to access personal information that was considered either too sensitive or irrelevant for the Accounting Department or the Education Department, and vice versa. 

So some smart computer software guru introduced the concept of “sensitive segments” for data base access.  All the data was stored somewhere, but if you were in the Personnel Department, you could only retrieve data from those segments to which you were given access. If you were in Accounting or Education, you would be blind to those segments whose data was reserved exclusively for Personnel. They did not relate to your job description. From your perspective, they did not exist. 

In the glut of our current information environment, it may seem as though the concept of “sensitive segments” is obsolete. In theory, any of us can access most of the data stored online anywhere in the world via the “world wide web.” However, precisely because there is so much information available in electronic form, it becomes totally impossible for any single person or group to retrieve it all, let alone make any sort of sense of it. Therefore, the Googles and other search engines of our age have devised ingenious algorithms to bring us just those “sensitive segments” they believe will most interest and/or please us. Our search-engine-mediated levels of sensitivity have only increased.

Amid the cries of horror at the polarization and dysfunction of our political and social systems, relatively few point to this sensitization as a partial cause. Few stop to remember that any topical query will bring back the “most popular” web pages on that topic first. For example, if I do a Google search on the word “bias,” it brings back about 207 million results, one screenful at a time, with several dictionary definitions as the leading entries. Such a ranking system helps to make sense of lots of relatively simple topics, yet it also opens a way for more and more extreme distortions of the more complex aspects of reality. Unless I type in a specific web address, I are going to be shown just the information deemed by the search engine software as a “sensitive segment” first.

Each of us reaches adulthood having certain segment sensitivities, based on our genetic make-up, our upbringing, and our exposure to various life events.  Some of us, for example, are drawn to emphasize the role of individual initiative in fostering success; others are primed to stress the role of luck. Some feel entitled to a large share of the world’s material goods; others remark on patterns of systemic discrimination and oppression that deprive many of even a small share of such goods.

It is very difficult, a whole life’s work and then some, to unlearn layers of bias and discrimination we learned early in life. It’s crucial that we minimize the distortions fomented by our increasing dependence on Internet-mediated “sensitive segments.” We need the balance of maintaining and strengthening interactions with real people with real lives whose opinions and experiences may be quite different from our own.     

The Firebrand and the First Lady

The Firebrand and the First Lady     —by Jinny Batterson

The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship, published early in 2016, was written long after the deaths of its protagonists, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and Anna Pauline Murray. Eleanor Roosevelt was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt and the activist wife of her distant cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She continued in her own right after her husband’s death. Pauli Murray was an activist, organizer, lawyer, writer, and eventually a priest. She dealt with the double whammy of discrimination for being black and female in a time that undervalued both.

Just after the title page, author Patricia Bell-Scott introduces the two women through quotations taken from their extensive writings and correspondence. The first listed entry, from Pauli Murray, was published over 20 years after Mrs. Roosevelt’s death in the journal of Murray’s university, The Hunter Magazine:

“For me, becoming friends with Mrs. Roosevelt was a slow, painful process, marked by sharp exchanges of correspondence, often anger on my side and exasperation on her side, and a gradual development of mutual admiration and respect.” 

Mrs. Roosevelt’s initial quotation came from an article, “Some of My Best Friends are Negro,” published in the magazine Ebony in 1953:

“One of my finest young friends is a charming woman lawyer—Pauli Murray, who has been quite a firebrand at times but of whom I am very fond.”

Over three hundred well-researched pages chronicle their developing friendship during the years when the two women’s lives intersected, and then the years after Mrs. R.’s death when Murray continued to write, speak, work for social justice, and honor Mrs. R.’s legacy.   

The two were born a generation apart—Roosevelt in 1884, Murray in 1910–to economic and social circumstances that could hardly have been more different. However, the emotional traumas of their early lives were similar. Both lost parents at a tender age. Both were shunted among relatives and schools throughout their teens.

Mrs. Roosevelt first encountered Pauli Murray on a visit to an upstate New York camp for unemployed single women in 1934 or 1935.  Murray had gone there during the depths of the Great Depression to help regain her strength after a couple of years of intermittent employment in New York City. Mrs. Roosevelt had helped finance the camp. She had insisted that it be racially integrated. During the first lady’s visit, Murray hung back and said nothing, later getting scolded by the camp director for her lack of manners.

The two women next interacted when Murray copied “Mrs. R.” on an impassioned 1938 letter to FDR criticizing his spotty civil rights record, especially his recent speech praising “liberal” University of North Carolina, which repeatedly rejected Murray’s graduate student application on racial grounds.

By the early days of 1940, Murray was executive director of a non-profit highlighting the problems of sharecroppers. She and several colleagues had a chance to meet with Mrs. Roosevelt in Mrs. R.’s Manhattan apartment. From then on, the two women carried on an irregular but spirited correspondence for the rest of their mutual lives. Mrs. R. helped when she could with some of Murray’s causes, but cautioned restraint, occasionally even upbraiding Murray’s brashness.

When Murray graduated from Howard Law School in June, 1944, ER sent a congratulatory note and a bouquet. When FDR died in April, 1945, Murray sent Mrs. R. a lengthy condolence: “…There is not one I’ve seen who has not expressed a physical illness over the disaster which has befallen each individual American today. …I pray for your strength and fortitude, because we all need you more than ever now.”   

ER went on to chair a U.N. commission that developed and got General Assembly approval for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. She worked at the U.N. for several more years, then continued writing, speaking, and humanitarian work until her death in 1962.

Murray offered this public tribute at a 1982 conference celebrating Mrs. Roosevelt’s life:

“I learned by watching her in action over a period of three decades that each of us is culture-bound by the era in which we live, and that the greatest challenge to the individual is to try to move to the very boundaries of our historical limitations and to project ourselves toward future centuries. Mrs. Roosevelt … did just that.”

Murray attended a 1984 conference celebrating the centennial of ER’s birth, but was hospitalized soon afterward with serious health problems.  She died in 1985.

If the delay in publishing The Firebrand and the First Lady partly resides in the meticulous scholarship to track down sources and verify quotations, it seems to me that the timing of the book’s release is providential. It comes as this year’s U.S. Presidential campaign intensifies. One of the chief actors is a former first lady with extensive qualifications of her own. It comes at a time when LGBT communities, of which Murray was a closeted member, are becoming more insistent on full citizenship. It comes as we approach this year’s celebration of Mother’s Day, when we acknowledge both our physical mothers and those who have nurtured and challenged us, in the best tradition of Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and Anna Pauline Murray.