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Toward a Unified Theory of Black America
New York Times ^ | March 20. 2005 | Stephen J. Dubner

Posted on 03/20/2005 6:12:18 AM PST by billorites

Roland G. Fryer Jr. is 27 years old and he is an assistant professor of economics at Harvard and he is black. Yes, 27 is young to be any kind of professor anywhere. But after what might charitably be called a slow start in the scholarly life, Fryer has been in a big hurry to catch up. He was in fact only 25 when he went on the job market, gaining offers from -- well, just about everywhere. He abruptly ended his job search by accepting an invitation to join the Society of Fellows at Harvard, one of academia's most prestigious research posts. This meant he wouldn't be teaching anywhere for three years. The Harvard economics department told Fryer to take its offer anyway; he could have an office and defer his teaching obligation until the fellowship was done.

Now that he is halfway through his fellowship, the quality and breadth of Fryer's research have surprised even his champions. ''As a pure technical economic theorist, he's of the first rate,'' says Lawrence Katz, a prominent labor economist at Harvard. ''But what's really incredible is that he's also much more of a broad social theorist -- talking to psychologists, sociologists, behavioral geneticists -- and the ideas he comes up with aren't the 'let's take the standard economic model and push a little harder' ideas. He makes you think of Nathan Glazer or William Julius Wilson, but with economic rigor.'' Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard humanities scholar, says that Fryer is ''destined to be a star. I mean, he's a star already, just a baby star. I think he'll raise the analysis of the African-American experience to new levels of rigor and bring economics into the mainstream area of inquiry within the broader field of African-American studies.''

When he presents a paper, Fryer is earnest and genial and excitable, sometimes carrying on like a Southern preacher. While he denies that his work is united by a grand thesis -- he is a scientist, he explains, devoted to squeezing truths from the data, wherever that may lead -- he does admit to having a mission: ''I basically want to figure out where blacks went wrong. One could rattle off all the statistics about blacks not doing so well. You can look at the black-white differential in out-of-wedlock births or infant mortality or life expectancy. Blacks are the worst-performing ethnic group on SAT's. Blacks earn less than whites. They are still just not doing well, period.''

To Fryer, the language of economics, a field proud of its coldblooded rationalism, is ideally suited for otherwise volatile conversations. ''I want to have an honest discussion about race in a time and a place where I don't think we can,'' he says. ''Blacks and whites are both to blame. As soon as you say something like, 'Well, could the black-white test-score gap be genetics?' everybody gets tensed up. But why shouldn't that be on the table?''

Fryer said this several months ago, which was well before Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard, wondered aloud if genetics might help explain why women are so underrepresented in the sciences. Summers -- who is also an economist and a fan of Fryer's work -- is still being punished for his musings. There is a key difference, of course: Summers is not a woman; Fryer is black.

Fryer well appreciates that he can raise questions that most white scholars wouldn't dare. His collaborators, most of whom are white, appreciate this, too. ''Absolutely, there's an insulation effect,'' says the Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser. ''There's no question that working with Roland is somewhat liberating.''

Glaeser and Fryer, along with David M. Cutler, another Harvard economist, are the authors of a paper that traffics in one form of genetic theorizing. It addresses the six-year disparity in life expectancy for blacks versus whites, arguing that much of the gap is due to a single factor: a higher rate of salt sensitivity among African-Americans, which leads to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, stroke and kidney disease.

Fryer's notion that there might be a genetic predisposition at work was heightened when he came across a period illustration that seemed to show a slave trader in Africa licking the face of a prospective slave. The ocean voyage from Africa to America was so gruesome that as many as 15 percent of the Africans died en route, mainly from illnesses that led to dehydration. A person with a higher capacity for salt retention might also retain more water and thus increase his chance of surviving.

So it may have been that a slave trader would try to select, with a lick to the cheek, the ''saltier'' Africans. Whether selected by the slavers or by nature, the Africans who did manage to survive the voyage -- and who then formed the gene pool of modern African-Americans -- may have been disproportionately marked by hypertension. Cutler, a pre-eminent health economist, admits that he thought Fryer's idea was ''absolutely crazy'' at first. (Although the link between the slave trade and hypertension had been raised in medical literature, even Cutler wasn't aware of it.) But once they started looking at the data, the theory began to seem plausible.

Fryer has published only a handful of papers so far, all of them written with senior colleagues. A bet on Fryer is, at this point, a bet on potential. But his voice is bold enough to have drawn critics already. Some black economists say he is simply too hard on blacks. ''Part of his work tries to dismiss the influence of racism,'' says William Darity Jr., who teaches at Duke and the University of North Carolina. Darity points to ''An Economic Analysis of 'Acting White,''' a paper in which Fryer explores the mechanism by which high-achieving black students may be antagonized, and held back, by their low-achieving peers. ''The inclination to look for an explanation based on some sort of group-based dysfunctionality is an instinct I don't have,'' Darity says.

While most of Fryer's colleagues consider him blazingly smart, he constantly belittles his own intellect. ''I have to think hard when somebody says, 'World War I,' because I don't know what years those were,'' he says. ''But I work hard, harder than anyone. That's what I can control.'' Last summer, he told me he was vexed by the sight of a silver Volkswagen Jetta in the parking lot outside his office. It was there when he showed up every morning, and it was still there when he left at night. Weeks later, he sent me a relieved e-mail message: ''The Jetta was not working harder than me -- rather, they were on vacation.''

He works so hard because his career goal is so audacious. Fryer's heroes are not contemporary economists like Glenn Loury or James Heckman or Gary Becker, even though he admires their work on racial issues and has been mentored by all three of them. Nor are his models the estimable crowd of Afro-American scholars assembled at Harvard by Gates, who happens to be Fryer's next-door neighbor. There is only one forebear whom Fryer aspires to emulate: W.E.B. DuBois, the fiercely interdisciplinary black scholar and writer who helped to pioneer the field of ethnography. ''The problem of the 20th century,'' DuBois said, presciently, in 1900, ''is the problem of the color line.''

In Fryer's view, DuBois alone had the appetite to rigorously round up the facts and concepts and emotions that constitute race and then crack them open one by one. Separated by a century, their missions are identical: to study -- and maybe even help fix -- the condition of being black in America.

I met Fryer just over a year ago through a collaborator we share, the economist Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago. One paper that Fryer and Levitt wrote suggested that the gap in early test scores between black and white schoolchildren is largely caused by the fact that most black children attend worse schools. The second paper, a sort of sequel to Fryer's work on ''acting white,'' explored the rift between black and white cultures, asking in particular whether black parents who give their children a name like DeShawn or Imani hinder their children's career prospects.

In person, Fryer gives the appearance of coming from a middle-class background, some kind of Cosby kid all grown up. But as I spent more time with him, it became obvious that that wasn't remotely the case. He began to tell me stories about his past that -- although I didn't know it then -- he didn't share with people in his ''new life,'' as he called it. It was unclear why he had finally decided to talk, and to me. It may have been that the project that brought Fryer, Levitt and me together was the sort of grisly work -- a research project concerning the inner workings of the Ku Klux Klan -- that tends to produce a bond. It may have been that he was simply weary of holding the two chapters in his life so far apart. Regardless, I soon became as fascinated with Fryer's life as I was impressed with his work.

One morning, as we sat on a bench in Central Park in New York, he talked about his childhood in Daytona Beach, Fla. When he was a boy, he sometimes lived there with his grandmother Farrise, whom the family called Fat. She was a schoolteacher and a disciplinarian. But Fat's sister Ernestine, who lived nearby, ran a looser household, and Fryer preferred to hang out there. His older cousins had gold teeth and gold jewelry and, always, the latest Karl Kani track suits, in maroon or bright red, with matching suede Champion sneakers. On the weekends, Ernestine's husband, Lacey, cooked up a batch of pancakes. Lacey was a retired postal worker and a past president of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter.

At the same time, Lacey and Ernestine and some of their children were running one of the biggest crack gangs in the area. They would drive down to Miami to buy cocaine and then turn it into crack in their kitchen. As a boy, Fryer used to watch. In a frying pan -- the same one Lacey used for pancakes -- they mixed the powdered cocaine with water and baking soda, then cooked off the liquid until all that remained were the little white rocks. The family processed and sold as much as two kilograms of cocaine a week.

One day when Fryer was planning to visit Lacey and Ernestine -- Ernestine told him she would be making pork chops -- he decided to stop by the dog track first. He wasn't old enough to bet, but he loved to watch the greyhounds run. When he got to his aunt's house, it was surrounded by federal agents. Almost everyone in the family was sent to prison. Lacey got a 30-year sentence and died in prison; Ernestine was sentenced to a little more than three years. Fryer's favorite cousin, Wendy, got a long term; his cousin Vaughn got a shorter sentence, but upon his release he went back to selling crack and was murdered.

Fryer loved Vaughn and Wendy. ''They seemed like pretty decent people,'' he said. ''If you had put them in the schools that a lot of these people came up in'' -- here he gestured toward the apartment buildings that border Central Park -- ''they probably would have been fine.''

How many of his close family members, I asked him, had either died young or spent time in prison? He did a quick count: 8 of 10. ''Suppose you can separate people into two camps: geneticists and environmentalists,'' he said. ''Coming up where I came up, it's hard not to be an environmentalist.''


As a graduate student, Fryer was enamored with the most theoretical realm of economics, studying arcane mathematical questions that kept him a safe distance from his past. But he has since crossed over to the empirical side of his science, which emphasizes real-world information. Most of his current projects involve huge troves of data that he is able to dissect with a particularly knowing eye. While this work may play more to his strengths, it also requires him to revisit his background in a manner that is anything but theoretical.

He is writing one paper about mixed-race children (trying to tease out the influence of environment versus genes), another about historically black colleges (he suspects that graduates might pay for their racial loyalty in the form of lower career earnings, but are in general happier) and another tentatively titled ''Bling-Bling'' (which, he says, ''explores the consumption patterns of blacks versus whites''). There are also papers on colorblind affirmative action and the devastating impact of crack cocaine on black Americans. In addition to his economics-department office, he maintains another office at the Society of Fellows and a third at the National Bureau of Economic Research; he keeps at least seven research assistants busy. Claudia Goldin, an economist colleague at Harvard, is among those who marvel at Fryer's creativity and his energy. ''You're running a factory,'' she told him.

His most ambitious project, which grew out of his belief in the power of environment, is an experiment designed to see if incentives can inspire minority students to improve their grades. For all the talk about education reform, Fryer says, he feels that one party is being overlooked: the students themselves. ''I'm troubled by the fact we're treating kids as inanimate objects,'' he says. ''They have behavior, too. They respond to incentives, too.''

Fryer recently ran a pilot experiment with third graders at P.S. 70 in the Bronx. If a child achieved a certain score on her reading test or improved by a certain percentage, she got a small prize. In some classrooms, every student competed for herself; in others, each kid was assigned to a group of five. Fryer is trying to find out whether the individual or group incentives work better. He suspects the latter -- ''because no stigma of being the smartest kid applies.'' But the P.S. 70 data was inconclusive.

At a dinner party held by Larry Summers, Fryer met Joel Klein, the chancellor of New York's public schools, and explained his project to him. Klein asked Fryer if he might be interested in expanding his incentive experiment into 15 or so low-achieving schools. At P.S. 70, the rewards had been pizza parties or field trips. This time around, Fryer planned to give cash -- $10 per good test for third graders and $20 for seventh graders. Now it was time to sell the idea to the principals of those 15 schools.

On a Tuesday afternoon in October, Fryer met the principals in the library of an elementary school in Harlem. All but one of them were black. Fryer usually wears Polo jeans, a button-down shirt and chunky black shoes. Today he was dressed for church, maybe even the pulpit: charcoal Brooks Brothers suit, crisp white shirt, black Cole Haans and a dazzling tie of white and mauve checks. He began by reciting a list of statistics that illuminate the gulf between blacks and whites. ''These facts bother me,'' he said. ''The achievement gap is not only disturbing; it's alarming. I'm here to try to understand and close the achievement gap.''

The principals began to grill him. Even if the kids do respond to the cash incentives, one principal asked, what happens next year, when they aren't getting paid? Won't students in other grades be resentful? What will parents think when their kids start receiving cash in the mail every few weeks?

Fryer addressed each issue as best he could. But one question kept coming back at him: if we start paying students to test well, aren't we sending the message that learning is not its own reward? Although the exchange flustered him, Fryer had by meeting's end persuaded the principals to take part. Afterward, though, he took no joy in his success. He knew there were still plenty of bureaucratic hurdles ahead. What's more, he is not given to bragging. Typically, the first words out of his mouth after any presentation are ''they hated it.''

Long ago, Fryer made a vow that he would always be so hard on himself that it wouldn't hurt when others were hard on him. He told me this one night at his house in Cambridge. He and wife, Lisa, a graduate student in elementary education, were showing me his childhood photo album. It was one of the saddest photo albums you will ever see. A few baby pictures, then a picture from Pee Wee football and then . . . nothing until high-school graduation. Where was Roland Fryer during all those years? Or, really, where were the people who should have been snapping pictures of him?


His full name is Roland Gehrard Fryer Jr. Two years ago, as he was entering the job market, the name suddenly led him to panic. He worried that some university dean might Google it and see that Roland Gerard Fryer was convicted of a 1993 sexual assault in Lewisville, Tex. But that wasn't Roland; that was his father.

The more Fryer told me about himself, the more it became clear that his research is directly, even painfully, inspired by his own past. Here were the bare facts of his early life, as he related them. He was born in Florida. His mother left when he was very young, so he lived with his father, who sold copy machines for Xerox, and when Roland was 4, they moved to Texas. He spent summers in Florida with his grandmother Fat and begged her to let him stay permanently. But always he was returned to his father in Texas.

I was curious to know more. Fryer, who sometimes seemed torn between wanting to explain himself and wanting to obliterate his childhood entirely, agreed to accompany me on a tour of his past. On one level he seemed to be dreading the trip, but on another, I think he was eager to show an outsider the distance he had traveled -- and perhaps to square things off for himself as well.

Roland Fryer Sr., now 54, had recently moved back in with his own mother -- Roland's grandmother Fat -- after being released from prison. So our trip began with a visit to Daytona Beach. The houses in Fat's neighborhood were grim, brick and cement block with ragged yards and bars on the windows. Her living room was dark and cluttered. Roland, Fat and I sat on plastic slipcovers and talked. I asked how on earth Roland had become a Harvard professor.

Fat looked at him before she answered. ''I think I did a little bit,'' she said. ''Did I help you, JuJu?''

That was his nickname here, JuJu. He gave an uneasy smile. Soon his father came in. The two men said hello. Fat went into the kitchen, and Roland Sr. sat down.

He said that he had grown up in this very house. He studied business at Bethune-Cookman, a nearby black college, and then held a series of jobs, none for very long. He met his future wife when she sang backup for Roy Clark, the country musician, at the high school where he taught math.

''You were a math teacher?'' his son asked.

''Mm-hmm. Tenth grade.''

I asked Roland Sr. how he and not his wife wound up with Roland when they split.

''I loved my son so much that I wanted to make sure he lived a certain type of lifestyle,'' he said. ''I didn't want him to be in an environment that was not conducive to be the person he is right now.''

At this, his son turned away.

And what kind of teenager, I asked, was Roland?

''Not a bad kid,'' his father replied. ''Matter of fact, he and I used to be so close when we lived together that we would remind each other when we didn't spend enough time together.''

Now his son stomped out of the room. Roland Sr. talked for a while longer and then said he had to leave. Roland Jr. came back in, looking grim. After dinner, driving toward our hotel, he vacillated between anger and bitter silence. His father's version of their life together, he said, was ''total bull.''

The next morning we flew to Dallas. Twenty minutes north of the airport lay Lewisville, an unremarkable city of about 80,000. Fryer drove us past the home where he had lived with his father, a tidy, tan brick ranch on a wide pleasant street.

When he was in third grade, he said, his father started to deteriorate: he drank heavily and beat a girlfriend so badly, in front of Roland, that she ended up in the hospital. Once, when his father left town and returned to find the house a mess, he beat Roland with a length of garden hose. By the time he was 13, Roland was bigger than his father. Though his father denies it, Roland says that one night they had a brutal fight. ''I told him if he ever touched me again, I'd kill him,'' Roland said.

When Roland was in the ninth grade, his father was fired from Xerox for sexual harassment. He passed his days gambling and drinking. Roland made sure to be asleep by the time his father came home from the bar and to be out of the house before he awoke in the morning. Roland was a star athlete, in football and basketball, which made things a little easier. But he was angry at everybody, all the time, and was essentially left to raise himself.

At 13, he forged his birth certificate to get a job at McDonald's. When he could, he told me, he stole from the cash register. He sold counterfeit Dooney & Burke purses out of the trunk of his car -- a tricked-out 1984 Monte Carlo that he wasn't nearly old enough to drive legally. With a friend, he recounted, he would go into Dallas, buy a pound of marijuana for $700 and sell it back in Lewisville for $1,400. He carried a .357 Magnum and one night, in a fight outside a Citgo station, almost used it on a white man. ''I didn't care if I lived or died,'' he said now as we idled in the parking lot of that same Citgo station. ''I always think I'm supposed to be dead, not alive, much less at Harvard.''

We stopped to eat lunch at a dimly lighted sports bar called the Point After North. ''Right over there, against that wall,'' Fryer told me, ''is where my father's rape case began.'' Roland Fryer Sr. was 43 at the time. After a night of drinking, he went home with two women who were sisters. One of them would later say that she went to sleep and woke up to find Fryer having sex with her. Roland Jr. was horrified and ashamed when the arrest made the local newspaper. He had to bail his own father out of jail.

He was 15 years old and couldn't see how his life could get much worse. Then one day while driving his Monte Carlo, he was pulled over by the police. They drew their guns and made him lie on the pavement. He was less humiliated than petrified; he wasn't half the thug he had imagined himself. The one thought he could muster was this: what will my grandmother think if I'm thrown in jail? The police, all of whom were white, questioned him for a few hours -- they thought he was a crack dealer -- and then sent him home. Later that day, some friends called. They had planned a burglary for that night, and told Fryer they were on their way to pick him up. He begged off. His friends did the burglary anyway and wound up in jail.

Fryer points to that day as his road-to-Damascus moment. He can't quite explain what provoked the change -- the fear of jail, perhaps, or of death or of his grandmother's wrath. Or it may be that everyone, at some point, has to choose the kind of person he hopes to be. But after that terrible day of two near-misses, Fryer stopped doing the bad things he had been doing.

At 18, he entered the University of Texas at Arlington on an athletic scholarship. For the first time in his life, Fryer started to study. He liked it; more important, he discovered he had a good brain and a God-given capacity to outwork his peers. He once tried to share his enthusiasm with his father, but he didn't get the response he was looking for. ''I don't care how much education you get or how successful you become, because you'll always be a nigger,'' he says his father replied.

While carrying a full course load at Arlington, Fryer held down a job (he owed his father's bail bondsman) and took extra credits at a local community college. He also managed to meet Lisa during this period. He was efficiency incarnate, earning an economics degree in two and a half years.

He entered graduate school at Penn State University, and it was there, early on, that he realized the power of economics to study race. ''We learned all these powerful math tools that were very deep, very insightful, and were being used to solve -- you know, silly problems, frankly,'' he says. ''At the same time, you'd look on TV and see people literally yelling at each other about affirmative action, bringing up anecdotal stories of one white guy who lost his house and his wife and his kids. The whole debate could be turned by bringing in some horrible travesty. And I thought, here's the exact way that these tools should be used.''

He attended a conference at which Glenn Loury, the prominent black economist, presented a paper on antidiscrimination laws. ''He came up afterwards and said: 'Gee, that's an interesting idea. I'd like to work with you on that,''' Loury recalls. ''I said: 'A lot of people would like to work with me. Who are you?' But it was enough to make me want to get to know this kid.''

Fryer had acquired his first big-time mentor. In similar fashion, he soon found a second, James Heckman, who invited Fryer to the University of Chicago to continue his graduate research. Heckman is a Nobel laureate whose research suggests that if disadvantaged kids don't acquire life skills at an early age, it is quite difficult for them to catch up. In Fryer, he had found a glaring anomaly. After barely three years in graduate school, Fryer completed his dissertation, ''Mathematical Models of Discrimination and Inequality.'' And so it was that at 25 he was fielding calls from Larry Summers and Skip Gates, imploring him to choose Harvard.


The final stop on our tour of Fryer's past was Tulsa, Okla. His mother, Rita, lives there with her second husband, Harold, in a black working-class neighborhood.

During his first year of college, Fryer had a brief but intense fling with religiosity. It was then that he first tracked down his mother. He had been working on forgiveness, and he wanted to forgive his mother for abandoning him. But he couldn't get past the old hurt. ''I kept asking, 'Why didn't you come find me?''' he said. ''And then it just turned to complete anger on my part. I said: 'Do you understand what I went through? I went through all this [expletive], and you didn't come rescue me.'''

On this day, however, Roland's mother explained that things weren't as simple as Roland had assumed. She didn't ''abandon'' him, she said. In fact, when she and Roland Sr. split, she moved back to Tulsa with her son -- Fryer looked confused; he never knew he had lived in Tulsa -- but then, Rita said, Roland Sr. came and, against her wishes, took the boy. ''We searched and searched, spent money and spent money, but we finally gave up.''

Fryer seemed to believe his mother, at least partly. As she spoke, his manner shifted; he let down the wall that generally restrains his emotions; the conversation turned tender. When he mentioned that he used to play the saxophone, his mother brightened. ''My whole family was musical, you know,'' she said. Her mother, it turned out, attended Juilliard and played eight instruments. An uncle was a saxophonist with Duke Ellington. Her family, she said, had been a real force in Tulsa, running restaurants and a variety of other businesses.

''They really were the Talented Tenth,'' Harold said.

Fryer smiled. The concept of the Talented Tenth was promoted by none other than W.E.B. DuBois. It referred to the need for an educated black elite -- the top 10 percent -- that would serve as example and inspiration to their brethren.

Later that night, over Scotch and soda at an airport hotel in Tulsa, Fryer sifted through the discoveries of his trip. He hadn't known that his father was a math teacher. He hadn't known that so much accomplishment ran in his mother's family. ''I used to consider myself a genetic aberration or maybe an impostor,'' he said. ''But I actually have some pretty good genes.''

He had come up with one more factor, however slight, to plug into the increasingly complicated calculus whose answer is Roland G. Fryer Jr.

Fryer has never wanted to be white or to even act it. He loves black culture, high and low, and says that the worst thing about Cambridge is that it offers no psychic connection to his roots.

In DuBois's book ''The Souls of Black Folk,'' there is a heartbreaking passage in which he describes how white men look at him and ask, with their eyes only, ''How does it feel to be a problem?'' In the rarefied world that Fryer inhabits, he sometimes feels a similar question land upon him, a question that is subtler but even more troubling: how does it feel to be an exception?

Last summer in Cambridge, he was driving across town to present a paper. One of his research assistants, Alex, rode along; 50 Cent was on the stereo. The paper -- about the slave trade/salt-sensitivity theory -- was potentially controversial, and Fryer now mentioned that one of his co-authors, Ed Glaeser, would be sitting up front while Fryer presented.

''It'll be good to have an ally,'' Alex said casually.

Fryer glowered. ''You doubt me? You doubt me? What are you trying to say? You're saying I'm only here because of affirmative action?''

Alex, who is white, looked stricken. Then Fryer broke out in a big boom of a laugh. Alex looked at least partly relieved.

A few days earlier, I asked Fryer how it felt to be one of a very, very few blacks in his field. It stinks, he said. ''I'd rather be on an absolute standard, where being black doesn't matter.'' He is convinced that Harvard did not hire him because of affirmative action -- and if he found out otherwise, he said, he would quit tomorrow. He is neither opposed nor in favor of affirmative action in the absolute; to him, the more relevant factors are the timing and degree of its implementation. But like DuBois, he can always feel an accusation hovering.

That may be why he has talked so little about his past. Most people I spoke to about Fryer had only a shadowy sense of his upbringing. He never wanted to score any sympathy points, nor did he want to give his colleagues the opportunity to dismiss him as a freak accident, an exception to the standard rules of academic success -- which might imply that Harvard is not a normative goal for a young black man in the first place. There is also the fact that Fryer's particular science places a high premium on avoiding the personal, the anecdotal. The data are what matter in economics, and the more ruthlessness that an economist can summon to make sense of the data, the more useful his findings will be.

Fryer seems to have successfully internalized this creed. He once told me, without a hint of irony or self-pity, that his upbringing, while generally awful, actually provides an advantage. I asked why.

''My father screwed me over so bad that he made my emotions like a lever,'' he said. ''I learned how to turn them off and on. And that's what's needed when you study race.''

So here is Fryer's final anomaly: he is a man who revels in his blackness and yet also says he believes, as DuBois believed, that black underachievement cannot entirely be laid at the feet of discrimination. Fryer has a huge appetite for advocacy but a far larger appetite for science, and as a scientist he won't exclude any possibilities, including black behaviors, from the menu of factors that contribute to the black condition. His school-incentive project in New York would call upon this entire menu: it seeks to provide an empirical means to measure the theoretical effect of ''acting white''; it engages the economist's belief in the power of incentives to change an environment; and it allows for the overlooked abilities of any given child to flourish. The project might do the most good for the kind of child Fryer himself once was: a kid who belongs to the Talented Tenth but just doesn't know it yet.

The very issue of black-white inequality has, in recent years, been practically driven from public view. But according to the data that Fryer lives with, the inequality itself hasn't gone away. There have been countless distractions -- wars, economic gyrations, political turmoil -- and, perhaps just as significantly, fatigue. The proven voices and standard ideologies have lost much of their power. So there is an opportunity, and probably a need, for a new set of voices, and Roland Fryer, though he would never say it aloud, wants desperately for his to be among them.

Stephen J. Dubner is the author, with Steven D. Levitt, of the forthcoming ''Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.''


TOPICS: Culture/Society; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: blackamerica; blacks; harvard; turass
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1 posted on 03/20/2005 6:12:18 AM PST by billorites
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To: billorites

Black America.. White America... what's with all the separation? There's no more a unified anything about black people than there is about white people. I guess no one in academics wants to be a plain American.


2 posted on 03/20/2005 6:15:16 AM PST by cyborg (Sudanese refugee,"Mr.Schiavo I disagree with your opinion about not feeling pain when you starve.")
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To: mhking

ping


3 posted on 03/20/2005 6:18:24 AM PST by cyborg (Sudanese refugee,"Mr.Schiavo I disagree with your opinion about not feeling pain when you starve.")
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To: billorites
Fryer has a huge appetite for advocacy but a far larger appetite for science, and as a scientist he won't exclude any possibilities, including black behaviors, from the menu of factors that contribute to the black condition

The politics & sensitivities are so imbedded into this debate that white researchers steer away. This guy may bring some much needed science into the issue.

4 posted on 03/20/2005 6:26:34 AM PST by mark502inf
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To: billorites

bookmark to read later


5 posted on 03/20/2005 6:37:33 AM PST by Talking_Mouse (Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just... Thomas Jefferson)
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To: billorites

I must be inhaling that Stupid Gas the pulp mill here puts out ( inside joke betwixt me & wifey... ) because if this writer has a point, or theme, I can't find it anywhere.


6 posted on 03/20/2005 6:42:33 AM PST by backhoe (-30-)
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To: cyborg

What's up with "black America", anyhow? I thought this was "African-American America". I am soooo confoosed.


7 posted on 03/20/2005 6:42:43 AM PST by RedBloodedAmerican
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To: billorites

What a moving story. This young man's splendid mind, his great capacity for work, and his background are combining to do a lot of good. His work is fascinating. May God bless him (as He has already done). I hope that as he gets older he'll return to faith.


8 posted on 03/20/2005 6:51:18 AM PST by Capriole (I don't have any problems that couldn't be solved by more chocolate or more ammunition)
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To: billorites

Interesting Read, Thank You!


9 posted on 03/20/2005 6:52:29 AM PST by alice_in_bubbaland (We will always remember.We will always be proud.We will always be prepared, so we may always be free)
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To: billorites
What is a pure technical economic theorist? Are these the guys who believe that economics is a pure science and try to prove their theories through calculus?

If he is, I had one of these #&*(!%@# in grad school. All he proved was that he could do calculus and other math calculations on the board (applause) and that he was very imaginative.

10 posted on 03/20/2005 6:55:55 AM PST by Gatún(CraigIsaMangoTreeLawyer)
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Comment #11 Removed by Moderator

To: mark502inf
Not just white researchers. Other black researchers don't want to touch the issue because they might get answers they don't want to see.

''The inclination to look for an explanation based on some sort of group-based dysfunctionality is an instinct I don't have,'' Darity says.

It's not a matter of looking for an explanation based totally on group dysfunctionality, but this guy sounds like he refuses to even consider it as a contributing factor. Fryer has ruffled some feathers by his willingness to consider all possibilities.

12 posted on 03/20/2005 7:09:51 AM PST by GATOR NAVY (Back at sea on my sixth gator)
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Comment #13 Removed by Moderator

To: billorites

Excellent article!


14 posted on 03/20/2005 7:10:48 AM PST by jaime1959
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Comment #15 Removed by Moderator

Comment #16 Removed by Moderator

To: backhoe
I must be inhaling that Stupid Gas the pulp mill here puts out ( inside joke betwixt me & wifey... ) because if this writer has a point, or theme, I can't find it anywhere.

I think that Stupid Gas bottle is being passed around via the Internet. The point of the article is seemingly beyond my limited comprehension.

17 posted on 03/20/2005 7:14:19 AM PST by Popman (The American Left: Goose Stepping into the Future)
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To: Popman
I think that Stupid Gas bottle is being passed around via the Internet. The point of the article is seemingly beyond my limited comprehension.

Thanks, I wasn't sure if I was stupid, or the writer was. Still puzzling over the article's meaning.

18 posted on 03/20/2005 7:16:35 AM PST by backhoe (-30-)
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To: billorites
Good article. The guy seems to be willing to address the obvious fact of black-white inequality. It has long been irritating to me that this subject can't be discussed.

In a free society, and in conservative circles in specific, people are evaluated and treated as individuals. (Unlike the practice of liberals.) It is entirely possible that the best mathematician who will ever live will be black, even if blacks in general are inferior to whites and orientals in that field. Conservatives will nurture, respect, and honor such an individual for his achievement, liberals will malign him for acting white. The whole point is that in a just society, individuals will be treated as individuals, not as members of a group. Thus, it makes no difference what the general ability level of their group is.

Bill Walton, during the 45 seconds that he was healthy, was arguably the best and most dominating basketball player of all time in spite of the fact that blacks in general achieve greater success than whites in that sport. Meritocracy should be the rule in all of society, not just sports.

Racial and sexual groups will never be equal. The sooner that we accept that fact and file it as unimportant, the better.
19 posted on 03/20/2005 7:17:35 AM PST by tickmeister
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Comment #20 Removed by Moderator

Comment #21 Removed by Moderator

To: billorites

If only those chartreuse people would realize that each and every one of them is NOT unique - they belong to the same collective as every other chartreuse human being. There is NO individuality, there can be NO independent thought! /sarcasm


22 posted on 03/20/2005 7:23:28 AM PST by MortMan (Man who run behind car get exhausted.)
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Comment #23 Removed by Moderator

To: Peevish Prophet
"You can look at the black-white differential in out-of-wedlock births or infant mortality or life expectancy. Blacks are the worst-performing ethnic group on SAT's. Blacks earn less than whites. They are still just not doing well, period.''

This guy is not so smart. He left off the number one problem with the black community right now and that is the very high crime rate and resulting very high incarceration rate. It black crime rates could be made to be the same as white crime rates tomorrow, most of the problems of the black community would be solved.

Boy, you ARE peevish. The article's writer chooses to quote a perfectly correct statement by Fryer, and you are all over FRYER for not following it with your (partly reasonable) suggested solution!

24 posted on 03/20/2005 7:25:57 AM PST by BohDaThone
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To: RedBloodedAmerican

>>I am soooo confoosed.

That's the whole point with changing acceptable terms. Once you understand that, just stick with one you like, and tell the PC fools to kiss off.


25 posted on 03/20/2005 7:26:48 AM PST by FreedomPoster (Official Ruling Class Oligarch Oppressor)
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To: Peevish Prophet
"As soon as you say something like, 'Well, could the black-white test-score gap be genetics?' everybody gets tensed up. But why shouldn't that be on the table?''"

Again not very smart, since the answer as to why liberals and blacks get all worked up over the possibility that black-white test-score gap (in reality, the difference in average intelligence) is due to genetics is because if the cause is genetic, then it cannot be blamed on white Americans and therefore, white Americans cannot be expected to be pay for the elimination of the gap.

Again awfully peevish. The writer quotes another reasonable statment, out of who knows home many hours of talk, and you're on his case for not being quoted with your (quite reasonable) solution. If you want HIS take on deep subjects, look at his papers.

26 posted on 03/20/2005 7:29:37 AM PST by BohDaThone
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To: Popman
The point of the article is largely human interest - here is an interesting guy. Second point is that author is an academic collaborator, and seems to want to say "Here's a good guy, watch what he has to say." It succeeds at that -- I want to read some of his stuff, in his own words, not an NYT summary.

Maybe he's good, maybe he's not -- but the article made me want to find out.

27 posted on 03/20/2005 7:32:52 AM PST by BohDaThone
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To: RedBloodedAmerican
What's up with "black America", anyhow?
I thought this was "African-American America". I am soooo confoosed.

Maybe because African-Americans have little or no concern with the sorry state of their homeland?

28 posted on 03/20/2005 7:33:42 AM PST by TexasCajun
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To: backhoe
"I must be inhaling that Stupid Gas the pulp mill here puts out ( inside joke betwixt me & wifey... ) because if this writer has a point, or theme, I can't find it anywhere."

It's a BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH--the only point of which is to describe the life of the person under discussion, which I think was well done. And surprisingly, for an article from the grossly liberal NYT, it has done so without any liberal spin. It appears to be exactly what journalism "ought" to be----an exposition of the facts. Would that more reportage was this well done.

That you "look for a theme" I think illustrates just how badly the MSM IS biased---you automatically "look for the spin" that the reporter or editor usually puts on "the story".

29 posted on 03/20/2005 7:34:47 AM PST by Wonder Warthog (The Hog of Steel)
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To: billorites

i read this this morning while i was sitting on the toilet.

disappointing read.

i thought his ideas would reach some fruition, and i awaited anxiously, completing the article, ... not.


30 posted on 03/20/2005 7:36:26 AM PST by ken21 ( if you didn't see it on tv, then it didn't happen. (/s))
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To: Wonder Warthog

Thanks- that does clarify it better. Still feel stupid... going outside to look towards the "pup mill..."


31 posted on 03/20/2005 7:38:50 AM PST by backhoe (-30-)
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To: BohDaThone
Toward a Unified Theory of Black America

That title certainly caught my eye.

I thought, silly me, it might be a article on substance rather than a fluff piece.

32 posted on 03/20/2005 7:38:54 AM PST by Popman (The American Left: Goose Stepping into the Future)
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Comment #33 Removed by Moderator

To: Peevish Prophet
In any event, this guy did not die young or go to prison, so his success shows that one can overcome either one's genetics or one's environment.

It seems that the article attributed Fryer's lack of prison time on luck. He was supposed to be at the family residence, but was absent, when the bust was made. Then, he would have been a part of the 9/10 family members that had done time.

Hmmm... That could lead one to speculate that genetics, culture of family, and dumb luck contribute to one's life experiences.. I now have the blueprint for my doctoral thesis - can I get a Fellowship at Harvard?

34 posted on 03/20/2005 7:48:36 AM PST by Thommas (The snout of the camel is in the tent...)
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To: Peevish Prophet
"The Harvard economics department told Fryer to take its offer anyway; he could have an office and defer his teaching obligation until the fellowship was done."

Affirmative action in action.

sorry, missed this peevish one on my first read. The Society of Fellows is THE premier academic grad honor at Harvard. It is for youngish scholars, who get to do pretty much anything they want to. I've known a couple, and the quality is amazingly high. I have no idea if he should have been chosen as a Fellow or not. BUT -- having been chosen, there is NOTHING at all out of the ordinary in the departments being willing to cut you any kind of favorable deal to have you around.

35 posted on 03/20/2005 7:49:55 AM PST by BohDaThone
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To: billorites

The article promotes tokenism and racial favoritism in a shameless way. It is obvious from the text that all of his perks are because he is black. What is painful is that he seems unaware of this.
He may be a great scientist just like Einstein but it will take a while to find out.


36 posted on 03/20/2005 8:02:08 AM PST by Shisan (Jalisco no te rajes.)
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To: billorites
As soon as you say something like, 'Well, could the black-white test-score gap be genetics?' everybody gets tensed up. But why shouldn't that be on the table?''

This is the only quibble I have with an otherwise excellent article. When hasn't this been on the table? It wasn't like back before the Civil War people were saying, "Look at those intelligent and hardworking slaves, who are every bit my intellectual equals!"

A certain part of white America is secretely hoping to establish that the problems of black America are genetic simply because then the problem of race and racial inequity goes away. But this simply a false dichotomy - a failure of imagination on how to deal with race, i.e. racial problems are either genetic or expansive affirmative actions programs are needed. I think Fryer is to be commended for attempting to find a "third way" on issues of race.

37 posted on 03/20/2005 8:04:27 AM PST by garbanzo (Free people will set the course of history)
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To: Gatún(CraigIsaMangoTreeLawyer)
What is a pure technical economic theorist? Are these the guys who believe that economics is a pure science and try to prove their theories through calculus?

At a Communist symposium thirty years ago (when dialectical materialism was still vibrant), the keynote speaker told a joke to begin his speech. He said, "A doctor and an economist were arguing about which science was the first to be created by God.

"The doctor asserted, 'God first created medicine, because he surgically removed a rib from Adam to make Eve.'

"The economist said, 'But economics existed long before that, because, if you recall...before God made anything, there was Chaos!'"

Naturally, the opening joke led to the point that through central control and with application of principles of dialectical materialism, chaos can be removed from economic systems. We now know, through the miracle of applied truth, that Communism was all doo-doo and that economics is not, as you stated, empirical.

All theoretical science loses exactness in application, due mainly, I think, to uncompensated variables. Social sciences are the worst, probably because they involve pesky, hypervariable humans. Yet this man seems willing to question the wisdom of the domain of ragingly fashionable black studies, and that is certainly a good thing.

38 posted on 03/20/2005 8:04:58 AM PST by TheGeezer
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To: Peevish Prophet
"One paper that Fryer and Levitt wrote suggested that the gap in early test scores between black and white schoolchildren is largely caused by the fact that most black children attend worse schools."

I found a blog reference to apparently this paper, which contradicts what the article says is its message:

"Economists Roland Fryer and Steven Levitt have made some interesting findings about the black-white test score gap:

This paper describes basic facts regarding the black-white test score gap over the first four years of school. Black children enter school substantially behind their white counterparts in reading and math, but including a small number of covariates erases the gap. Over the first four years of school, however, blacks lose substantial ground relative to other races; averaging .10 standard deviations per school year. By the end of third grade there is a large Black-White test score gap that cannot be explained by observable characteristics. Blacks are falling behind in virtually all categories of skills tested, except the most basic. None of the explanations we examine, including systematic differences in school quality across races, convincingly explain the divergent academic trajectory of Black students.

To try to dejargonize...black and white students with similar characteristics enter school at the same level, but by the end of third grade, the black kids have fallen behind. No characteristics that the researchers can observe, including school quality, can explain this trend."

The "money quote" in the middle is direct from the Abstract. The surrounding material is from

http://aconstrainedvision.blogspot.com/2005_01_01_aconstrainedvision_archive.html

An interesting political-economic blog, of a conservative bent (The title is from Sowell's work).

39 posted on 03/20/2005 8:10:13 AM PST by BohDaThone
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To: Shisan
The article promotes tokenism and racial favoritism in a shameless way. It is obvious from the text that all of his perks are because he is black. What is painful is that he seems unaware of this.

What a crock! The article shows that he has some intereting ideas and, other than an unconventional path (UT-Arlington-Penn State-Harvard rather than Harvard-Harvard-Harvard) it shows nothing about any favoritism. James Buchanan, the Nobel Prize winning conservative economist, started out in Tennessee schools -- so what!

The Society of Fellows takes only 5-10 folks a year -- I am sure there are plenty of wanna-be affirmative actioopn applicants, and they (by my observation) usually have 0-1 blacks in any year. So, there is no basis for saying affirmative action had anything to do with it and, at worst, he beat out a lot of others. A quick poke aorund the web looking at his work looks quite interesting. If you've read Thomas Sowell's biography, it has certain similarities -- and what Sowell has achieved is certainly not due to AA. Let's watch this guy's stuff and judge him on that.

40 posted on 03/20/2005 8:17:05 AM PST by BohDaThone
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To: billorites

He admits stealing money from McDonald's cash register "when he could" - pretty much sums up where black America went wrong.


41 posted on 03/20/2005 8:21:18 AM PST by sandydipper (Less government is best government!)
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To: billorites
The purpose of scholarship is to add knowledge to the total, not necessarily to 'make discoveries' or land on the moon.
If this guy can add any significant knowledge to the matter of race relations then more power to him.
If he can do that AND be heard and listened to then he has served himself and others well.

What I'd like to see him examine is just what happened to that "Talented Tenth" that at one time existed within and may have allowed a vibrant and often successful parallel black community but today seems lost, misdirected, or possibly exiled from, that community.

Fryer appears to have some link with that part of the past and I'm glad he makes use of it.

He could also go to the core of that 'salty slave' theory by looking at Jamacan immigrant families, African immigrant families, and ancestors of American slaves; I think he'd find a great difference in the hypertension scores based simply on where people believe their ancestors came from.

42 posted on 03/20/2005 8:22:58 AM PST by norton (build a wall and post the rules at the gate)
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To: billorites
There is only one forebear whom Fryer aspires to emulate: W.E.B. DuBois, the fiercely interdisciplinary black scholar and writer ...

Let's not be too hasty about enthusiastically praising Fryer here. DuBois was a socialist.

43 posted on 03/20/2005 8:50:39 AM PST by Bryan
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To: TheGeezer

Thank your for your reply.


44 posted on 03/20/2005 9:09:17 AM PST by Gatún(CraigIsaMangoTreeLawyer)
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To: BohDaThone

I should have been more specific and said that the tokenism is on Harvard's part. This is a puff piece written by liberals about how good they are to the minorities. The clues? He doesn't have to teach, he has research assistants, a salary (for what if he isn't teaching), an office and probably other perks such as health insurance.
The article is particularly gooey as to Fryer's history. We all have sad stories and most of us have risen above them.
One more thing, Economics is not a field of "coldblooded rationalism". Adam Smith was a professor of Moral Philosophy and he did all right.


45 posted on 03/20/2005 9:12:19 AM PST by Shisan (Jalisco no te rajes.)
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To: norton

All I can say is that there was a day when Harvard would not have touched a man from a family of convicted criminals who did not know the date of WWI. He should have already produced significant research in a doctoral dissertation, but I don't see any important new contribution documented. Best wishes to him, though, being a token is a hard way to go.


46 posted on 03/20/2005 9:21:34 AM PST by ClaireSolt (.)
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To: sandydipper
He admits stealing money from McDonald's cash register "when he could" - pretty much sums up where black America went wrong.

______________________________

Yep, nothing but a bunch of opportunistic thieves. It's so clear now, thanks. What's your wisdom about those pesky joos who run Hollywood and Wall Street?

47 posted on 03/20/2005 9:31:03 AM PST by wtc911 ("I would like at least to know his name.")
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To: billorites
There is a key difference, of course: Summers is not a woman; Fryer is black.

I stopped reading after this quote. IF IDEAS can only be discussed by one race or gender in order to be legitimate, well then the inmates have taken over the asylum.

48 posted on 03/20/2005 9:35:55 AM PST by PISANO (We will not tire......We will not falter.......We will NOT FAIL!!! .........GW Bush [Oct 2001])
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To: Shisan

You missed the point of my previous post. The whole point of the Society of Fellows is that you get all kinds of goodies to hang around and be brilliant. I had a classmate who was chosen, and that's the deal. From what I can gather, admittedly anecdotally from the web and elsewhere, this guy could be a legitimate contender. I don't know. but the deal shows nothing about favoratism to him. I haven't (and probably couldn't) read his PH D Dissertation and judge it, but it'a a big leap to pick apart an article written by someone else and low-rate him becasue of it.


49 posted on 03/20/2005 9:51:58 AM PST by BohDaThone
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To: Bryan
As to DuBois, in his dotage, he was in fact an outright communist -- that doesn't detract from his early work of trying to synthesize the entire black experience. His early sociology, especially "The Philadelphia Negro" is recognized as classic.

Incidentally, DuBois wrote, IMHO, the best refutation of multi-cultural nonsense, as follows:

"I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I will summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil."

From : The Souls of Black Folk

50 posted on 03/20/2005 9:56:19 AM PST by BohDaThone
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