Tag Archives: ethnicity

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.

Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.

During election season, we are treated to story after story about how candidates have made themselves out of nothing. Wisconsin Governer Scott Walker, locked in a tight reelection battle with Mary Burke, his Democratic opponent, has made a career of turning talk about his lack of a college degree into a story about upward mobility rather than academic insufficiency. Much of Joe Biden’s appeal as both a Senator and a Vice President comes from his salt of the earth appeal as the son of father who faced financial ruin, lived with his grandparents, and, through hard work and dedication, made something of his life. Candidates on both sides of the aisle tap into the discourse of upward mobility to demonstrate that they understand the struggles of the people they hope will elect them.

When candidates talk about how they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps on the campaign trail, they’re doing more than lauding their own humble pasts to gain voters’ trust. They’re also tapping into a social narrative that’s been used throughout American history to determine what counts as economic success and who it’s available to. At the same time as it aligns candidates with desired swaths of the electorate, especially middle-class whites who turn out in numbers, it also implies a subtle distance between candidates and social problems. All of us can do this, if only we try hard enough, goes the implied reasoning, and if you can’t do it, that’s on you. Who can’t do it? As usual in American society, that would be the out-groups: non-whites, immigrants, LGBT people, and the disabled. Advocates of the bootstraps school of social mobility like to counter this critique by linking economic success to cultural values. They point out that immigrant Jews have largely succeeded economically, while African Americans still struggle, and attribute this to a set of American cultural values that Jews share, but blacks don’t.

In an excellent longform Slate article on this topic, John Swansburg cites sociologist Stephen Steinberg’s 1981 book The Ethnic Myth, a critique of what Steinberg calls the “Horatio Alger Theory of Ethnic Success,” or the belief that all social outgroups start with the same set of disadvantages. Most early 20th century Jewish immigrants, Steinberg argues, came from urbanized, industrial European cities, where they gathered “years of industrial experience and concrete occupational skills that would serve them well in America’s expanding industrial economy.” Most American blacks, on the other hand, learned farming and field work—skills that benefited them little as they moved to the industrial North after Reconstruction.

When Scott Walker, Joe Biden, or any other candidate for office talks about his or her humble past, he or she is making a subtle implication that the problems of disadvantaged groups in America are  mostly cultural, rather than economic or structural. I know how to work hard and I know you do too, so elect me and I’ll make sure that our kind of work is rewarded. And those others, whose work is never rewarded? Well, they’re just not working hard enough.

For more on how candidates construct narratives to court voters, read (or listen to!) Jeffrey Alexander’s “Heroes, Presidents, and Politics,” now in podcast form.

Canines and Class Conflict

y2.d108 | tug of war.Judging by the popularity of cat and dog videos on the Internet, it seems safe to say that pets have assumed an important role in our society.

However, as Benedict Carey explores in a recent NY Times article, the pet’s position within the family can be a contentious topic.

“The big bone of contention was that my mom and my sister thought that he was too smart to be treated like a dog; they thought he was a person and should be treated as such — well, spoiled,” said Danielle, a Florida woman who asked that her last name not be published to avoid more family pet strife. “The dog remains to this day, 10 years later, a source of contention and anger.”

To understand human pet relationships, Carey turns to the field of sociology. David Blouin, a sociologist at Indiana University, explains that there are three basic categories of belief concerning pets.  “Dominionists” who see pets as a useful, and beloved, but ranked below humans and replaceable. “Humanists,” who cherish their pets and raise them to the same status as a favored child. And, “protectionists,” who base their views on what they think is “best” for the animal.

“These are ideologies, and so protectionists are very critical of humanists, who are very critical of dominionists, and so on,” Dr. Blouin said. “You can see where this can create problems if people in a family have different orientations. Every little decision about the pet is loaded.”

And, whether you believe Fido should be in the yard or snuggling under the down comforter at night may not simply be a matter of personal preference. Rather, as sociologist Elizabeth Terrien helps us understand, views vary by class, ethnicity and geographic location.

One clear trend that has emerged is that people from rural backgrounds tend to see their dogs as guardians to be kept outside, whereas middle-class couples typically treat their hounds as children, often having them sleep in the master bedroom, or a special bed.

Terrien explains, the cultural and class-based differences in understanding how a pet should be treated can lead to groups judging each other negatively.

In neighborhoods with a larger Latino immigrant population, owners were more likely to say “protector,” or even “toy for the children,” she found. “In those neighborhoods you’ll sometimes see kids yanking around a dog on the leash, pushing and playing, the sort of behavior that some middle-class owners would think of as abuse” she said.

Carey’s article provides an important reminder that sometimes even the most personal – for instance, family arguments over whether the dog is included in the will – is linked to larger social forces. Also, Carey confirms yet again that class matters, even for dogs and cats.

 

 

Facebook & Friendships

Facebook

The website that many of you will visit after this one (or may have already visited!) is providing sociologists with new research opportunities.

Andreas Wimmer and Kevin Lewis used facebook to study friendships among college freshman and found that race’s impact on friendships may be overstated.

“Sociologists have long maintained that race is the strongest predictor of whether two Americans will socialize,” says lead author Andreas Wimmer, professor of sociology at UCLA. “But we’ve found that birds of a feather don’t always flock together. Whom you get to know in your everyday life, where you live, and your country of origin or social class can provide stronger grounds for forging friendships than a shared racial background.”

To reach these conclusions, Wimmer and Lewis studied the social networks of college freshmen by examining tagged photos on facebook.

True to past research, the sociologists initially saw same-race friendships develop rapidly: White students befriended each other one-and-a-half times more frequently than would be expected by chance, Latino students befriended each other four-and-a-half times more frequently, and African American students befriended each other eight times more frequently. But when the researchers dug deeper, race appeared to be less important than a number of other factors in forging friendships.

“Much of what at first appeared to be same-race preference, for instance, ultimately proved to be preference for students of the same ethnic background,” Lewis says. “Once we started controlling for the attraction of shared ethnic backgrounds or countries of origin, the magnitude of racial preference was cut almost in half.”

While Wimmer and Lewis stress that racial discrimination is still a problem, they believe past research may have exaggerated the role of race in social relationships.  Instead, social and physical constraints play a bigger role.

To read the entire article, click here.

Dora Explores Cultural Change

Dora Suitcase and Backpack
As Dora the Explorer celebrates 10 years on the air, the LA Times comments on her broader social significance. The children’s show features a young Latina heroine who travels through the jungle with her friends, speaking some Spanish, and solving simple math and word problems.

The idea was to foster pride among Latino children and familiarity with Latino culture among English speakers, but only indirectly as part of an entertainment show.

“It was just about creating a show we thought kids would love,” said Chris Gifford, who created the series along with Valerie Walsh Valdes and Eric Weiner. “We didn’t begin to think how long it might go for.”

Dora, however, has grown much larger than these seemingly modest origins:

Amid these warm-hearted adventures, Dora became a pop-culture superstar, a lucrative franchise and a force that helped shift the globalized juvenile television landscape that has become increasingly multicultural and bilingual. Dora, in some eyes, also became a poster child for immigration and the target of anti-immigrant sentiment.

The animated series is now broadcast in more than 100 countries — it’s the No. 1-rated preschool show in many of them, including France — and dubbed in 30 languages, such as Russian, Mandarin and German, with Dora mostly teaching English (in some cases Spanish).

“What’s been innovative about the show is it wasn’t conceptualized or presented as a Latino-themed show,” said Chon Noriega, director of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center. “It was an educational series for kids that happened to have a Latino girl as the lead character. And it didn’t shy away from having a character that spoke Spanish. That allowed it to do something that was very unique.”

Dora has gone on to enjoy considerable success, culturally and economically (generating more than $11 billion in retail sales alone).

“Dora isn’t just a show; she’s DVDs, clothes, lunchboxes,” said Karen Sternheimer, an associate professor of sociology at USC and author of “It’s Not the Media: The Truth About Pop Culture’s Influence on Children.” “Nickelodeon has been very savvy about getting their characters into kids’ lives through a number of different platforms. They’ve taken branding to another level.”

The main character wasn’t originally going to be Latina, but:

The idea for an ethnic rebirth sprang after Johnson [a Nickelodeon exec responsible for the program] attended an industry conference during which the underrepresentation of Latinos in media was discussed.

The 2000 census showed that Latino communities were the nation’s fastest growing — and the biggest five-year Latino age group is infants to preschoolers. Yet data have long shown that Latinos are underrepresented in prime-time TV: UCLA research found that 4% of prime-time’s regular characters in 2004 were Latino, while Latinos make up about 15% of the U.S. population.

For years, the main source for children’s multicultural TV was PBS’ “Sesame Street.” …Dora’s “success really reflects a change in the media environment for children over the years,” Sternheimer said. “It’s a great reflection of the shifting multicultural nature of our society.”

Since “Dora,” the children’s TV landscape has embraced diversity. PBS Kids revamped “Dragon Tales” in 2005 to include Enrique, who is Colombian. “Jay Jay the Jet Plane” has added a bilingual plane named Lina. “Dora” also launched a spinoff, “Go Diego Go,” starring Dora’s 8-year-old cousin, in 2005.

Sociologists are among the experts who consult for the show:

Schoolteachers, sociologists and historians are all brought in to advise on “Dora” episodes. More than 20 cultural consultants have worked on the show to make Dora’s world reflect a pan-Latino culture that’s not just tortillas and mariachi music, Johnson said. “It was important for us that Dora represented the idea that being multicultural was super cool,” she said.

Cortés, who’s serves as a cultural consultant on the show, said not giving Dora a specific heritage made that idea a reality. “Not knowing where she was from allowed her to be a source of pride for anyone of Latino background,” he said. “She’s more relatable if you don’t peg her down.”

So, is it all a rosy animated multicultural picture? A sociologist, per usual, complicates the story:

“The show definitely homogenizes the many different origin groups that are comprised within the Latino ethnicity,” said Jody Vallejo, an assistant professor of sociology at USC. “So Latino children are getting a very broad view of who they are. At the same time, it does allow people from those different origins to make her their own character, to take ownership. For non-Latinos who watch the show, it makes Latinos more relatable. It demonstrates that bilingualism is not that bad. But it makes it seem like Latinos come from a monolithic culture.”

blurring the black-white binary

IMG_0204ImmokaleeBillRichardsonLOWScienceBlog recently reported on a new study that finds that darker-skin Latinos earn less money on average than light-skin Latinos.  While some wish to be accepted as “white,” many experience  discrimination based on skin color:

The results suggest that the rapid influx of Latino immigrants will shift the boundaries of race in the United States, but will not end skin-color-based discrimination.

“It is likely we will see change in our racial categories, but there will not be one uniform racial boundary around all Latinos,” said Reanne Frank, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

“Some Latinos will be successful in the bid to be accepted as ‘white’ — usually those with lighter skin. But for those with darker skin and those who are more integrated into U.S. society, we believe there will be a new Latino racial boundary forming around them.”

In filling out surveys, separate questions about race and ethnicity have become increasingly challenging for Latinos to answer:

Under the current census form, Hispanics and Latinos have been set apart as an ethnic group and are instructed to choose the race that best fits them. The 2000 Census had six categories, and the 2010 Census has 15 categories, but “Latino or Hispanic” is not one of the options.

“We are hearing stories from Census takers that many Latinos say the race question does not fit them. They are confused by why they can’t label their race as ‘Hispanic or Latino,’” Frank said.

In the 2000 Census, about 50 percent of those who marked “Hispanic or Latino” as their ethnicity chose “some other race” as their racial category. That has been interpreted by many researchers as them attempting to assert an alternative Latino racial identity, she said.

Thus, Frank suggests the emergence of Latino as a new racial classification in the U.S. as opposed to an ethnic identity:

“We believe the more-integrated immigrants have faced discrimination in the country, and realize that ‘white’ is not an identity that is open to them. They may be trying to develop a new alternative Latino racial category,” Frank said.

“It appears that some with lighter skin will be able to pass as white, but others with darker skin will not and will continue to face discrimination.”

Frank said it is not possible at this time to tell what proportion of Latino immigrants will be accepted as white, and how many will be forced into a new racial category.

interracial marriage at record highs

Love is (color) blind.The New York Times reports that a new Pew Research Study finds that interracial marriage has reached record highs in the U.S.

Intermarriage among Asian, black, Hispanic and white people now accounts for a record 1 in 6 new marriages in the United States. Tellingly, blacks and whites remain the least-common variety of interracial pairing. Still, black-white unions make up 1 in 60 new marriages today, compared with fewer than 1 in 1,000 back when Barack Obama’s parents wed a half-century ago.

Of all 3.8 million adults who married in 2008, 31 percent of Asians, 26 percent of Hispanic people, 16 percent of blacks and 9 percent of whites married a person whose race or ethnicity was different from their own. Those were all record highs.

Such trends may be detrimental to the marriage prospects of black women:

More and more black men are marrying women of other races. In fact, more than 1 in 5 black men who wed (22 percent) married a nonblack woman in 2008. This compares with about 9 percent of black women, and represents a significant increase for black men — from 15.7 percent in 2000 and 7.9 percent in 1980.

Sociologists said the rate of black men marrying women of other races further reduces the already-shrunken pool of potential partners for black women seeking a black husband.

“When you add in the prison population,” said Prof. Steven Ruggles, director of the Minnesota Population Center, “it pretty well explains the extraordinarily low marriage rates of black women.”

“The continuing imbalance in the rates for black men and black women could be making it even harder for black women to find a husband,” said Prof. Andrew J. Cherlin, director of the population center at Johns Hopkins University.

What do these trends mean for the children?

How children of the expanding share of mixed marriages identify themselves — and how they are identified by the rest of society — could blur a benchmark that the nation will approach within a few decades when American Indian, Asian, black and Hispanic Americans and people of mixed race become a majority of the population.

Still, the “blending” of America could be overstated, especially given the relatively low rate of black-white intermarriage compared with other groups, and continuing racial perceptions and divisions, according to some sociologists.

“Children of white-Asian and white-Hispanic parents will have no problems calling themselves white, if that’s their choice,” said Andrew Hacker, a political scientist at Queens College of the City University of New York and the author of a book about race.

“But offspring of black and another ethnic parent won’t have that option,” Professor Hacker said. “They’ll be black because that’s the way they’re seen. Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, Halle Berry, have all known that. Will that change? Don’t hold your breath.”

unintended consequences of immigration

Video of the International Workers Day march in MinneapolisThe San Bernadino Sun recently reported on Louisiana State University sociologist Edward Shihadeh’s recently published research on the effect of Latino immigration on black labor market participation:

boxed in?

President Obama (Tim)According to USA Today, the 2010 Census will

remind Americans that racial classifications remain an integral part of the country’s social and legal fabric while, at the same time, recognizing that racial lines are blurring for a growing number of people…The government will give the nation’s more than 308 million people the opportunity to define their racial makeup as one race or more.

Some suggest that Obama’s presidency may affect how individuals report their race this time around. But how Obama himself will record his race remains a mystery.

Obama, born to a black father and a white mother, is not only the first black president but the first biracial president.

During his successful campaign in 2008, Obama referred to himself as black but also referred to his roots in Hawaii, where he was raised by his white mother. When the Obamas’ Census form arrives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., will he identify himself as black or as black and white? The White House declines to say.

A sociologist weighs in:

“The issue of perception is central,” says Ann Morning, a sociology professor at New York University. In an article titled “Who is Multiracial?” she estimated that about one-third of the U.S. population has some mixed-racial ancestry going back several generations. She predicts young generations will be more embracing of their multiracial heritage.

Morning is African American. But she also has English, Chinese and American Indian ancestry. Since 2000, she has checked off black, white, Asian and American Indian.

“The bigger thing is how I will mark my daughters,” Morning says. Their dad is Italian and she believes most people will look at her daughters as white. For now, she’ll check all the boxes for them, too.

Some question whether counting race is a good idea at all.

Roderick Harrison, a demographer at Howard University and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. “But for a lot of others, it’s like, ‘OK, are you going to turn your back on the rest of us?’ … A lot of the racial and ethnic politics of the Census are that we want the biggest numbers possible for our groups.”

The Census has a long-lasting effect on politics and money. Population counts every 10 years decide the number of seats every state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives and determine how more than $400 billion a year in federal aid is allocated.

“I know it’s valuable information if you’re doing economic development or dispense certain amount of money to areas that need it,” says Stewart Cockburn, 39, who lost his job in textile sales in September. “My point about race in general in this country is that we’re just never going to get past it if we keep asking about it.”

Cockburn, of Greensboro, N.C., says he’s Scottish and Irish and has a great-grandmother who was Cherokee.

“I don’t understand why everyone makes such a big deal about race,” he says. “Maybe one day we will no longer care about race, ethnicity or the color of another person’s skin.”

Donna Edwards, of Santa Monica, Calif., says it’s important that the federal government allows people to identify more than one race. “It’s about time, isn’t it?” says Edwards, who is half Japanese and half German/Scottish/Welsh and spent years frustrated by forms that boxed her into one or the other.

sociological evidence overturns felon voting ban

Can't VoteAccording to the Seattle Times, evidence gathered by University of Washington sociologists Katherine Beckett and Robert Crutchfield overturned the state of Washington’s law banning incarcerated felons from voting.  The case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, was decided on January 5, 2010:

The surprising ruling, by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, said the law violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising minority voters.  The decision is the first in the country’s federal appeals courts to equate a prohibition against voting by incarcerated felons with practices outlawed under the federal Voting Rights Act, such as poll taxes or literacy tests.

The two-judge majority apparently was persuaded by the plaintiffs’ argument that reams of social-science data filed in the case showed minorities in Washington are stopped, arrested and convicted in such disproportionate rates that the ban on voting by incarcerated felons is inherently discriminatory.

The article details the sociological research in question:

[The case] was built on research by University of Washington sociologists who found that blacks are 70 percent more likely — and Latinos and Native Americans 50 percent more likely — than whites to be searched in traffic stops.

The research also showed that blacks are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, despite the fact that the ratio of arrests for violent crime among blacks and whites is less than four-to-one. One result of that: 25 percent of black men in Washington are disenfranchised from voting.

The decision, written by Judge A. Wallace Tashima, said the studies “speak to a durable, sustained indifference in treatment faced by minorities in Washington’s criminal justice system — systemic disparities which cannot be explained by ‘factors independent of race.’ “

The state of Washington is appealing this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.  To read a somewhat sociological editorial on this decision, you may also want to check out an editorial by Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large.

Voter Disenfranchisement Statistics:

voter-disenfranchisement

the importance of the immigrant middle class

The Los Angeles Times reports on the importance of the middle class for the city’s future, with special emphasis on middle class Latinos:

With this year’s census likely to show a Latino majority in both the city and county of Los Angeles, it’s obvious that our collective future is linked to the social health of that group of people. And if you think of Latinos only in the dysfunctional terms described in so many media reports, then a Third World L.A. seems like an inevitability.

While the experiences of poor and working-class Latino immigrants are often the focus of scholars and the media, other immigrants may go unnoticed:

You might not think about L.A.’s Latino middle class much. But USC sociologist Jody Agius Vallejo has eschewed more exotic topics to investigate its middling peculiarities.

Agius Vallejo’s research looks at the “pathways to success” that allow even people of humble immigrant origins to reach middle-class status. Her work rebuts the widespread perception that Mexican immigrants and their offspring are following what she calls a “trajectory of downward mobility into a permanent underclass.”

More on Agius Vallejo’s research:

Agius Vallejo interviewed 80 subjects who possessed at least three of these four characteristics: college educations, higher than average income, white-collar jobs and home ownership. Seventy percent of the people in her sample grew up in “disadvantaged” communities. Their parents had, on average, a sixth-grade education.

The members of this arriviste Mexican middle class might look like their white counterparts on paper, Agius Vallejo said. But in other ways they are different. Among other things, they have stronger social ties to poorer relatives.

Another of Agius Vallejo’s subjects is a lawyer who has recently visited jail (to bail out a cousin) and the social-security office (to help an uncle). Relatives turn to the lawyer in times of need because “she’s the one in the family with knowledge,” Agius Vallejo said. “She’s the one who’s made it to the middle class.”

Each person who achieves social mobility improves the overall well-being of the community. Social climbers show others behind them the way forward. “The future of the city really hinges on the mobility of immigrants,” Agius Vallejo told me.

The importance of the immigrant middle class extends beyond the city of Los Angeles, though:

A healthy middle class with Latin American roots is critical to the entire country’s future too. That’s what another USC professor, Dowell Myers, argues in his book “Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America.”

Myers, a demographer, says our aging country needs to invest in its younger, immigrant communities as an act of self-preservation. Immigrants’ incomes and rates of homeownership rise the longer they stay in this country, he writes, and provide potential members of the taxpaying middle class that will fund the retirement of the boomer generation.