“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.

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.

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.

An Eye-“Clopening” Workforce Trend

Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr Creative Commons.

In years following the 2008 recession, many Americans are still scrambling to find enough work hours to make ends meet. One emerging trend is “clopening,” when an employee works the closing shift, then opens the same business a few hours later. Piled on top of commuting, trying to get some sleep, and attending to family duties, the few remaining precious hours between shifts are overbooked. That can have negative consequences on health. Sociologist Gerhard Bosch tells the New York Times about the European Union’s required 11-hour rest period between shifts: ““If a retail shop closes at midnight, the night-shift employees are not allowed to start before 11 o’clock the next morning.”

Even though some unions in the United States have negotiated similar required “between shifts” time, there is not yet a national labor law. However, several states have taken steps toward Right to Work laws some hope will alleviate the long, inconsistent hours many employees face.

Some business owners claim that some employees prefer “clopening” to working 9 to 5, pointing, for example, to students with busy daytime class schedules. However, one student worker told the Times that working on the clopening schedule meant quitting his pursuit of a master’s degree—he’d lost focus and developed chronic exhaustion.

Subsidizing the Suburban Commute

Looks like a long walk. Photo by Krystian Olzszanski Flickr CC.
Looks like a long walk. Photo by Krystian Olzszanski Flickr CC.

Those who have fallen on hard times or don’t have many resources can turn to public programs for essentials like food and housing assistance, but what about transportation? As people living in poverty are forced to the suburbs by rising costs and gentrification, they are now further away from the places and services they need to reach, like work and clinics. Enter Alexandra Murphy, a University of Michigan sociologist recently quoted in the Pacific Standard: “Transportation has been outside of what we define as a human service… even though it’s widely acknowledged that transportation creates opportunity and hardship.”

King’s County in Seattle is offering a new subsidized bus program that is garnering national attention. As described in the Pacific Standard, “[the program] will now allow low-income residents to ride buses, trains, and ferries for $1.50, when standard fares can be more than $3.” Programs like this, however, come with liability risks. What happens if a government-subsidized vehicle gets into an accident? The stickiness of these situations can be a deterrent for those hoping to start public transportation programs; as Murphy explains, “it’s the perception that it’s a quagmire that people don’t even want to walk into.” With time, it is hoped that King’s County may offer a way forward for other communities facing a mismatch between where the housing is plentiful and where the jobs are on offer.

Happily Never After? The Challenges of “Marrying Up”

Image via alicexc.deviantart.com
Image via alicexc.deviantart.com

 

Princess Jasmine fell for Aladdin, even after his Prince Ali façade failed. Lady Sybil Crawley married the family chauffeur Tom Branson, despite his socialist views and Irish, working-class origins. Richard Gere scaled a fire escape to retrieve his “Pretty Woman.” Typically, sociologists say, marrying across class differences happens much less frequently in real life than in popular culture. Jessi Streib, however, wrote a whole book about these uncommon couples. She tells New York Magazine’s Science of Us the findings in her The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages.

Streib’s interviews revealed benefits and challenges to class difference in marriage. Partners may recognize in each other qualities they felt lacking in their own class background. Thus, working-class individuals may value the confidence and sense of stability of middle-class individuals, while middle-class partners may gravitate toward the intimacy and expressiveness they perceive in working-class families. Middle-class individuals often communicate in a “managerial” style, which, according to Streib, means “They manage their emotions, so before you want to express something, you think about it first, you figure out what you really feel, you think about how to express it in a way that will make the other person most comfortable, and then you kind of quietly and very calmly state how you feel and make sure there’s a good rationale behind it.” Working-class individuals, on the other hand, have a more laissez-faire way of expressing emotions. They are more likely to state their honest feelings directly, even if they’re not particularly nice or polite.

While differences in communication styles provide opportunities for understanding, they also pose challenges. Trying to change the other person, Streib says, is not going to make a partnership work.

The couples who it went really well for were the ones who appreciated each other’s differences. So they would say things like, “You know, it’s not how I do it, but I can understand why that other way makes total sense,” or could actually use their partner’s differences to help them solve a problem at times. So keeping in perspective that difference isn’t necessarily bad, and that they love their partner despite or because of all these differences, could help a lot.

As in any relationship, cooperation and communication are keys to success. Cross-class marriages may not be incredibly common, but at least one sociologist is convinced Tom and Sybil could have made a life of it—save a few plot twists.

Workplaces May Create Inequalities at Home

Image by Photophilde via Flickr CC
Image by Photophilde via Flickr CC

A new study finds that men and women increasingly desire egalitarian relationships, yet household labor often remains gendered and imbalanced. So what’s the holdup? Study co-author, sociologist Sarah Thébaud, explains to USA Today that workplace policies surrounding paid leave, flexible scheduling, and child care are making it harder for couples to balance household work:

“There is a lot of research showing that, in today’s economy, it is tremendously challenging for couples to strike an egalitarian division between work and family responsibilities. … Women who ‘opt out’ of full-time careers often report doing so not because it was their ideal preference, but because the inflexibility of their work hours or the high costs of childcare left them with few options. This limited set of options ends up reinforcing gender inequality, despite the fact that people are increasingly endorsing more gender-egalitarian attitudes and beliefs.”

Co-author David Pedulla adds that women, especially, need supportive workplace policies:

“[If] supportive policies are in place, women are much more likely to prefer egalitarian relationships and much less likely to prefer neo-traditional relationships.”

The study is based on a 2012 survey of a representative group of 18 to 32-year-old unmarried, childless men and women in the United States.