“Culture of Poverty” a Poor Explanation for Racial Disparities

moynihanSince the 1965 “Moynihan Report,” conversations about disproportionate inequalities between white and black communities have historically focused on “black culture”—that is, explanations of racial discrepancies as products of different values, social norms, and cultural practices within black communities. The study, formally titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” saw black poverty as the result of non-nuclear family structures and absentee fathers. Now, University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen tells Vox that academics are leaving the argument behind because it simply doesn’t hold up:

The predominant view now is that there is a specific condition of inner-city concentrated poverty especially in black communities, because of racial segregation and racism, and the structural conditions are very damaging to family life, family relationships. People lose jobs and housing because of incarceration, job discrimination, etc., which create real obstacles to family stability, which in turn is a challenging condition for children’s development.

Indeed, as social science has matured and issues of race and racism have come under scrutiny and greater focus, more people are aware that structural issues, rather than personal ones, best explain advantage and privilege by race. Hopefully 1960s-era thought is well on its way to being replaced with more nuanced understandings of the factors behind racial discrepancies.

Unstable Sexual Identities Could Increase Risk of Adolescent Depression

Photo by Davi Ozolin via Flickr.
Photo by Davi Ozolin via Flickr.

 

Despite increasing societal acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender identities, a new study reports that adolescents and young adults with shifting sexual identities are more likely to experience depression. The study, conducted by sociologist Bethany Everett, used the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health to examine sexual identity, relationships, and mental health among 11,727 youth. By comparing gay, lesbian, and bisexual respondents reporting stable sexual identities with those whose sexual identities shifted or changed, Everett found that only those who changed toward same-sex-oriented identities were at increased risk of depression.

Everett explained her findings to The Economic Times, describing how negative stereotypes may weigh heavily on adolescents: “There is a certain amount of stigma attached to sexual fluidity that may impact mental health during this developmental period.” She also noted how social support might ease sexual identity transition, suggesting that, “supporting people during this time-period may be critical for improving their mental health.”

Safety Nets and Success: America’s Culture of Risk-Taking

A climber on El Capitan. Photo by Naotake Murayama via Flickr.
A climber on El Capitan. Photo by Naotake Murayama via Flickr.

 

“You remind us that anything is possible,” President Obama tweeted at Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson after they summited El Captain in Yosemite National Park. The pair “free climbed” the world’s largest block of granite, only using ropes and harnesses in the case of emergency. Many of the world’s best climbers are those who take the biggest risks—and most of them happen to be from the United States.

To kick off the “What It Means to Be American” event “Are Americans Risk-Takers?” TIME featured a roundtable discussion about why risk-taking seems unique to American culture. Zulema Valdez, sociologist and author of The New Entrepreneurs: How Race, Class, and Gender Shape American Enterprise, said that the risk-taking mentality in the United States comes from the common belief that America is the land of opportunity: “where anyone with a good idea, a positive attitude, and a willingness to work hard can own a business and succeed.” Indeed, the U.S. has the highest percentage of entrepreneurship among industrialized nations.

What the achievement ideology leaves out, however, is that the United States is highly stratified, and successful people rarely achieve the American dream through hard work alone. The most successful business owners tend to be white, middle-class men. While they surely worked hard and took risks, most were not risking total failure. Valdez told TIME:

The reality… is that risk-taking, while perhaps a necessary ingredient for entrepreneurship, is not sufficient in the absence of human capital (education and work experience), social capital (business networks), and financial capital (personal savings, wealth, access to credit or loans).

In other words, even if a person takes a risk, the right resources act as a safety net and diminish the consequences of failure. For Caldwell and Jorgeson, free climbing El Captain, back-up plans and high-tech gear lowered the risk of plummeting to their deaths—and enabled them to take more risks to proudly reach the summit. Those aiming to achieve the American Dream need human, social, and financial capital rather than ropes and harnesses.

Sweden Sees Progress in New Pronoun

Image via Camilla Eriksson.
Image via Camilla Eriksson.

 

Swedish nursery school teachers and LGBT groups have banded together over the addition of a gender-neutral pronoun to the official Swedish language. It all started five years ago. These two groups were among the first to use the gender-neutral hen as an alternative to the female pronoun hon and the male han. Now the common, conversational use of hen has led the Swedish Academy to include it in the newest edition of the country’s official.

In the Washington Post, linguist Sofia Malmgård explains that there are two ways to use the new pronoun:

First, if the gender is unknown or not relevant (as in: “If anyone needs to smoke, ‘hen’ may do so outside”). Second, it can be used as a pronoun for inter-gender people (as in: “Kim is neither boy or girl, ‘hen’ is inter-gender”).

In other words, the pronoun provides a way to talk about someone and disregard hen’s gender when it doesn’t matter or doesn’t conform to the traditional masculine/feminine binary.

In Sweden, ranked fourth on the World Economic Forum’s 2014 gender equality report, gender-neutral education is in vogue. Nurseries, kindergartens, and preschools have been at the forefront of the movement to help children grow up without feeling the impact of gender biases. At Egalia, a preschool in Stockholm, traditionally gendered toys and games are placed side-by-side to encourage children to choose by preference rather than convention; students are not referred to as male or female; and gender-neutral books line the shelves.

LGBT groups have also embraced the new pronoun as a way to raise awareness. Experts are cautiously optimistic that officially recognizing the word will encourage more people to use it., Lann Hornscheidt, a professor of Scandinavian languages and gender studies, believes hen really will help fight sexism and gender biases. As he told the Post,

The introduction of a pronoun which challenges binary gender norms has been an important step, following a more thorough debate over the construction of gender within the last 10 years.

Cuban American Political Shifts Could Spell Trouble for GOP

Photo by Alex Dixon via Flickr.
Photo by Alex Dixon via Flickr.

 

With presidential hopefuls gearing up for the 2016 election, shifting views about the relationship between the United States and Cuba could influence electoral outcomes, especially in the swing state of Florida. Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio, both Cuban Americans running on the Republican ticket and hoping to secure the Cuban-American vote, should take note. Sociologist Guillermo Grenier, who has run the Florida International University Cuba Poll for over 20 years, recently told the Washington Post:

Almost half of Cuban Americans are now U.S.-born, and they are reverting to a full spectrum of political perspectives.

The article explains how, in the 1960s and 1970s, the passion to overthrow Fidel Castro drove Cuban-American political ideology. But since then, a newer and younger generation of Cuban Americans has entered the voting booth.

“In South Florida, immigrants who arrived after 1995 now make up a third of the Cuban community, and most are not Republicans.” Grenier added,

My students think of themselves as Republicans, but they keep asking, ‘How can Rubio be against making Cubans’ lives easier by being against investing in the island?’ Republicans can’t just play the Cuba card like they did 20 years ago.

XXX’d Out: What if Legal Porn Disappeared?

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 12.34.39 PM

 

In debates about whether to ban porn, it’s interesting to consider what a world without legal “adult entertainment” would look like. Sociologist Chauntelle Tibbals, author of the forthcoming book Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society and Adult Entertainment, talked to MTV after the show “Guy Code” made a video called “Life Without Porn.” The video, embedded below, mocked the mundane situations that often serve as the opening for pornographic films—a visit to the auto repair shop, a pizza delivery, or a visit from the TV cable provider—where, instead of ending in an erotic encounter, the actors’ teasing dialogue ultimately ends with advice on how to reheat pizza or another item to add to the car repair bill.

Tibbals argues that a world completely devoid of porn is not possible. From cave drawings and carvings to Renaissance paintings to avant-garde photography, humans create images of sex and sexuality:

“Us wanting to visually represent sex has been around since humans have been around, and porn is just another medium to do that. I don’t think it’s possible for there to be no erotic representation,” Tibbals told MTV.

But what if we bracketed erotic representation and just eliminated commercial porn? Tibbals says it’s not so simple. Billions of people watch billions of dollars worth of porn:

…if you limit other people’s capacity to professionally produce and legally produce that content, the demand for it is not going to go away.

Instead of disappearing, she believes a black market would expand, putting people who work in pornographic film creation at higher risk of sexual exploitation:

Right now, when people watch porn legally made, they know that they’re watching consensual sex on a safe set run by professionals. That’s not to say that every set is perfect, but consumers can watch that content and know that the people working on it want to be there.

Parenting: QT Better Than OT

Photo by JD via Flickr. Click for original.
Photo by JD via Flickr. Click for original.

 

Parents often equate good parenting with spending as much time with their children as possible. The idea is that, in those hours, parents will cultivate particular characteristics in their children that will contribute to bright futures. But is helicopter parenting really worth it? Sociologists Melissa Milkie and Kei Nomaguchi share the findings of their recent study with the Washington Post: “I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes. . . . Nada. Zippo,” says Milkie.

It’s not the number of hours, but quality of time spent together that matters. Interactive activities like reading to a child, sharing a meal, and talking one-on-one benefit kids, while just watching TV together may be detrimental, as Amy Hsin found. Still, Milkie and Nomaguchi’s study did find that teenagers who engaged with a parent for six hours per showed lower levels of delinquent behavior and drug use than peers who spent less time with their parents.

The authors dug deeper, finding that when a parent was overly-tired, stressed, cranky, or feeling guilty, spending time with their children could lead to more behavioral problems and lower math scores. Nomaguchi says, “Mothers’ stress, especially when mothers are stressed because of the juggling with work and trying to find time with kids, that may actually be affecting their kids poorly.” This particularly impacts parents from low-income households who often lack access to social resources for improving mental health, but still feel the pressure to be “good” parents by spending time with their children. In fact, Milkie and Nomaguchi found that the biggest indicators of child success were mothers’ income and education levels:

“If we’re really wanting to think about the bigger picture and ask, how would we support kids, our study suggests through social resources that help the parents in terms of supporting their mental health and socio-economic status. The sheer amount of time that we’ve been so focused on them doesn’t do much,” says Milkie.

Toking While Black?

This 2013 Denver rally attendee probably still needs that note from his mom. Photo by Cannabis Destiny, Flickr.
This 2013 Denver rally attendee probably still needs that note from his mom. Photo by Cannabis Destiny, Flickr.

 

“Spark it up!” Sure, next time you’re in Colorado, you might want to stock up on Cheetos and take advantage of the state’s legalized marijuana. That is, if your skin’s the right color.

According to a new report by the Drug Policy Alliance, a pro-legalization collective, it’s already apparent that there are still racial disparities in the enforcement of the new drug laws in CO. As explained in an Associated Press article, laws that penalize carrying amounts in excess of 1oz of marijuana and the public use of the substance have disproportionately affected blacks compared to whites. Total marijuana arrests have dropped by nearly 95% since legalization, but blacks are twice as likely as whites to face sanctions under laws that criminalize illegal cultivation, public use, and excess possession. In Washington, the same phenomenon can be seen at work, the report states. In Seattle in 2014, one-third of the marijuana citations were issued to blacks, who only make up 8% of the city’s population.

According to University of Wisconsin sociologist Pamela E. Oliver, this discrepancy is indicative of African Americans’ overall treatment under the law, even after policy shifts: “Black communities, and black people in predominantly white communities, tend to be generally under higher levels of surveillance than whites and white communities… this is probably why these disparities are arising.” This discrepancy shows up in nearly all crime policing, from homicide to drug laws to robbery. In Colorado, it’s really killing the buzz.

For Gay Black Men, Negative Stereotypes May Have One Positive Consequence

Purple Sherbet Photography via Creative Commons
Purple Sherbet Photography via Creative Commons

 

Sociologists are quite familiar with the combination of marginalized identities that can lead to oppression, inequalities, and “double disadvantages.” But can negative stereotypes actually have positive consequences?

Financial Juneteenth recently highlighted a study showing that gay black men may have better odds of landing a job and higher salaries than their straight, black, male colleagues. Led by sociologist David Pedulla, the study sent resumes and a job description to 231 white employers nationwide, asking them to suggest starting salaries for the position. Resumes included typically raced names (“Brad Miller” for white applicants and “Darnell Jackson”) and listed participation in “Gay Student Advisory Council” to imply the applicant’s sexuality. Pedulla found that gay Black men were more likely to receive the same starting salaries as straight white men, whereas gay white men and straight black men were offered lowered salaries.

Pedulla’s findings have sparked a conversation among scholars and journalists about the complexity of stereotypes surrounding black masculinities and sexualities. Organizational behavior researcher and Huffington Post contributor Jon Fitzgerald Gates also weighed in on the findings, arguing that the effeminate stereotypes of homosexuality may be counteracting the traditional stereotypes of a dangerous and threatening black heterosexual masculinity.

Read Pedulla’s entire study, published in Social Psychology Quarterly, here: The Positive Consequences of Negative Stereotypes: Race, Sexual Orientation, and the Job Application Process.

Spitting and Suspicion: Racialization of Low-level Crimes

Photo by Sharon Mollerus via Flickr CC.
Minneapolis photo by Sharon Mollerus via Flickr CC.

 

Sociologist Nancy Heitzeg collaborated with community consultant William W. Smith IV for a piece in the Star Tribune about the racial policing of low-level crimes in Minneapolis. African Americans, they write, have experienced disproportionately high arrests for minor offenses such as loitering, spitting, lurking, depositing tobacco, congregating on the street or sidewalk, and violating juvenile curfews. A black person in Minneapolis is 7.54 times more likely to be arrested for vagrancy than a white person, and black youth are 16.39 times more likely than their white peers to be arrested for loitering or breaking curfew. It’s unlikely that African Americans commit more of these crimes, Heitzeg and Smith write; instead, racial profiling and the policing specific neighborhoods are bigger drivers of the disparity.

Some question whether more arrests for low-level offenses actually matter in the grand scheme of things. Community organizations including Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, the Coalition for Critical Change, and Community Justice Projects have initiated petitions charging that many of these ordinances are vague and unconstitutional. Additionally, according to Heitzeg and Smith “The overpolicing of our communities of color contributes to unequitable outcomes in multiple social arenas, including education and employment.” Even having been arrested for a minor violation can negatively affect college admissions or getting a job.

Heitzeg and Smith highlight the history of racialized policing and the withholding of civil rights in the detainment of African Americans. They connect low-level offenses to the post-abolition Slave Codes transformation into Black Codes that circumscribed the lives of African Americans in the Jim Crow era. As the authors put it, “Low-level and ‘livability’ crimes were central features of the old Jim Crow era, and remain today—in the New Jim Crow era—as pretextual police tools in racial profiling.”

To listen to a TSP Office Hours interview with the author of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, click here. Our book Crime and the Punished includes an excerpt from the interview.