Tag Archives: race

Alice Goffman: Telling the Tale of Extreme Ethnography

Photo by Greger Ravik via Flickr.

Photo by Greger Ravik via Flickr.

Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City shares the stories of young men evading arrest for crimes ranging from unpaid fines to murder. In describing their day-to-day maneuvers under heavy surveillance, she brings to life the impact of the U.S. prison boom on members of a low-income African American neighborhood in Philadelphia. But her work was not without risk. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer,

By the time Goffman left Sixth Street, she was displaying symptoms reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as panicking at sudden noises.

In fact, so compelling is Goffman’s ethnography–and the great lengths she goes to in getting it–that the Inquirer is not alone in its eagerness to share her story. The New York Times writes:

Though written in a sober, scholarly style, “On the Run” contains enough street-level detail to fill a season of “The Wire,” along with plenty of screen-ready moments involving the author herself, who describes, among other ordeals, being thrown to the floor and handcuffed during a police raid, enduring a harrowing precinct house interrogation and watching a man be shot to death after exiting her car.

But the attention lavished on Goffman’s work has been mixed. On the one hand, her extreme ethnography is technically demanding and dangerous. She gives us a sympathetic and sociological glimpse of a world that’s usually off-limits to outsiders. On the other, she is “hardly the first middle-class white observer to venture into black urban America and emerge with a marketable story to tell,” as the New York Times puts it. Given this bipolar public gaze, Goffman may find it every bit as dicey to take a position in the spotlight as in the field.

Goffman acknowledges this awkwardness to the Times: “It just feels morally strange to talk about my own experiences when a whole community is dealing with violence and getting arrested…. I could always just leave.” To the Inquirer, she insists, “For the residents…there’s no ‘post’: ‘It’s just traumatic. This is everyday life: a series of ongoing and acute traumas.’”

It appears she’s already working on her next professional challenge: coaxing the spotlight back onto the the 47,000 fugitives living in fear in Philadelphia in 2009, avoiding hospitals and skipping friends’ funerals to avoid surveillance, worrying about eviction and losing custody of their children.

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According to the Editor’s Desk, ethnography sells. Here’s one example of how it’s used in corporate America: http://thesocietypages.org/editors/2013/05/07/corporate-anthropology/

SociologyLens caught Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh, explaining extreme ethnography: http://thesocietypages.org/sociologylens/tag/sudhir-venkatesh/

“Brown Eggs” and the Hush-Hush Infertility Gap

Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr Creative Commons.

According to the New York Times, research from everyone from the Department of Health and Human Services to the CDCP, National Survey of Family Growth, the Tinina Q. Cade Foundation, and black women themselves shows that, despite centuries’ old stereotypes and even fears that black women are particularly fertile, well, they’re not. In fact, married black women have twice the odds of infertility than white married women, but it’s rarely talked about.

Regina Townsend of thebrokenbrownegg.org tells the Times:

“With women of color, specifically Hispanic and African-American women, the stigma attached to us is that it’s not hard to have kids, and that we have a lot of kids,” she said. “And when you’re the one that can’t, you feel like, ‘I’ve failed.’”

Some of the disparity in seeking treatment for infertility comes from differing health networks (see our recent piece with Brian Southwell for more on that) and some from differing financial positions (see decades upon decades of research on the wealth gap between black and white U.S. citizens). That is, black women seem less likely to talk to other women, their gynecologists, and their faith communities about fertility (or a lack thereof), and they’re less likely to have the resources—financial, medical, and network-wise—to seek infertility treatment.

Part of the problem, said Arthur L. Greil, a sociologist at Alfred University in western New York who has studied infertility and women of color, is that middle-class white women tend to have the confidence and connections to navigate the health care system better than less affluent minority women.

Even further, since fibroids (benign tumors that can significantly affect fertility) are more prevalent among black women and black women take longer to reach out for fertility advice, problems are compounded by time. Fertility drops naturally over the years, of course, but Dr. David B. Seifer said:

…fibroids [are] just one of various “cultural issues, biological issues and social issues” black women face that can affect their fertility. He said black women often waited longer to seek a diagnosis of or treatment for infertility, which “gives all of these other biological factors more time to become more severe.”

As Cariesha Tate Singleton told the article’s author, she knows she’s up against a stereotype that women like her are naturally “baby-producing machines.” Groups like Fertility for Colored Girls are working to change that notion.

Affluenza: A Cute Name for the S.O.S.

Photo by Martin Bowling via Flickr CC

Photo by Martin Bowling via Flickr CC. Click for original.

The latest controversy in criminal justice revolves around the defense of 16-year-old Ethan Couch, who killed four people when he hit them with his car, driving at double the speed limit and double the legal blood alcohol level (as an underage drinker, actually, there is no acceptable limit, but let’s stick with the charges). Couch’s defense argued that he suffered from “affluenza”—a condition under which he had lived such a privileged and entitled life, with so few consequences for bad behavior, that he could not now be held suddenly responsible for his actions. Bizarrely, the judge accepted this defense and sentenced Couch to ten years of probation and a stay in a rehab facility known for its hippotherapy (affectionately, if a bit dismissively, known as “having a therapy pony”). Had affluenza not been accepted as a defense, the usual sentence for Couch’s crimes would have been 10-20 years of prison time.

In an article for Forbes, Dr. Dale Archer reminds us that the lack of consequences that accompanies privilege isn’t anything new:

Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen introduced the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the 19th century to explain the behavior of […] families who spent their accumulated wealth in ostentatious ways to show off their newfound prestige and power.

Archer goes on to stress that the real worry is how common the modern trend of affluenza seems to be. He worries that the Keeping Up With the Kardashians era may be breeding a generation of narcissists, if not sociopaths who not only don’t understand punishment but also balk at the idea that they have anything to be punished for. He cites social psychologist Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan:

Her study of 13,737 college students found that there was a 40% decrease in empathy currently, when compared with 20 or 30 years ago.

In the end, it may be the application of the cute name “affluenza” that proves most offensive: personal responsibility is all the rage when it comes to the poor and people of color, but wealthy whites’ privilege appears to have found yet another way to keep them above the fray.

See more on “Affluenza” at: http://thesocietypages.org/sociologylens/2013/12/20/catching-affluenza-the-role-of-money-in-criminal-justice/

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Little Pink Subprimes

Photo by Kristine Lewis via flickr.com.

Photo by Kristine Lewis via flickr.com.

For many, the “American Dream” means owning a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood, and that idea brings a certain Mellencamp tune to mind.

The song nods to a deeper point: the history of American housing policy from the New Deal and the G.I. Bill onwards was often defined by who couldn’t get a little pink house. In fact, racial biases among policymakers and bureaucrats made it difficult or impossible for minorities to get support for housing in white neighborhoods (For a great account of this history, see Ira Katznelson’s book When Affirmative Action Was White, or his recent blog post over at The Scholars Strategy Network).

Today’s housing policies may be flipping the script on this story, but not necessarily in a good way.

The Atlantic Cities reports new research from NYU Sociologist Jacob Faber on the 2006 housing bubble that preceded the massive economic crash and kickoff to the U.S. “Great Recession” in 2008. It turns out that during this bubble, in addition to denying home loans to racial minority groups, banks were also targeting minority groups for lower quality loans. The article reports:

Black and Hispanic families making more than $200,000 a year were more likely on average to be given a subprime loan than a white family making less than $30,000 a year… blacks were 2.8 times more likely to be denied for a loan, and Latinos were two times more likely. When they were approved, blacks and Latinos were 2.4 times more likely to receive a subprime loan than white applicants.

Faber adds that the trend doesn’t just deny support to these minority groups, it actually ignores their financial successes.

…this data offers another illustration that middle-class blacks have often not been able to leverage their income status for the same benefits as middle-class whites.

Ain’t that America?

The City of Put-Upon Curmudgeons?

1303_Cover_Race-227x300The lead article in the most recent Philadelphia Magazine, “Being White In Philly” by Robert Huber, has—to put it politely—spurred a lot of talk. Huber devotes his article to sharing the “true” voice of white people scared to speak their minds about the many struggles they face living among Philadelphia’s black residents. Since publication, Huber has been told in numerous venues that his piece ignores personal and institutional histories of racism, has an ugly, discriminatory core, and essentially perpetuates bigotry. Is Brotherly Love dead?

Charles Gallagher, chair of race and ethnic relations at LaSalle University, commented on Fox 29 News that indeed, everybody talks about race, whether privately or publicly. But, Gallagher says, Huber’s article only focuses on the opinions of white residents in a mixed neighborhood. What about people from minority groups? White residents across neighborhoods of varying segregation? Are there no “white voices” that enjoy living in a heterogeneous city? As a sociologist, Gallagher emphasizes that, beyond being offensive, Huber’s piece generalizes where it has no grounds to do so: there is no single voice of white Philadelphians.

Steve Volk, a colleague of Huber’s, crafted his response on one of The Philly Post’s blogs. In it, Volk dismantles the original piece to reach a refreshingly blatant conclusion:

[Huber] seems to miss the obvious here, which is that if white Philadelphians would like to be able to address race without being labeled “racist,” they should avoid saying racist things.

And the Diploma Goes To…

Photo by CollegeDegrees360 via flickr.com

Graphic Sociology’s Laura Norén recently posted an illustration of who is earning degrees in the U.S., highlighting the growing percentage of women earning bachelor’s, master’s, and professional/doctoral degrees since the 1970s. Her engaging graphic also pointed out the percentage of degree earners by race, relative to the proportion of each group in the overall population.

TSP was pleased to see that the graphic and Norén’s analysis, which drew on data from the Department of Education and the Census Bureau, caught the eye of Andrew Sullivan over at The Daily Beast, bringing a sociologist’s take on the collegiate gender gap to an enormous public audience. Click through to see Sullivan’s post.

Missing Prisoners

The United States has a greater share of its population behind bars than any other nation. Yet this captive audience is almost never captured by large national surveys used to study the U.S. population. This might distort what we think we know about black progress in recent decades, the Wall Street Journal reports, because a large enough swath of the young African American male population is incarcerated and unaccounted for by these surveys.

Among the generally accepted ideas about African-American young-male progress over the last three decades that Becky Pettit, a University of Washington sociologist, questions in her book “Invisible Men“: that the high-school dropout rate has dropped precipitously; that employment rates for young high-school dropouts have stopped falling; and that the voter-turnout rate has gone up.

For example, without adjusting for prisoners, the high-school completion gap between white and black men has fallen by more than 50% since 1980, says Prof. Pettit. After adjusting, she says, the gap has barely closed and has been constant since the late 1980s. “Given the data available, I’m very confident that if we include inmates” in more surveys, “the trends are quite different than we would otherwise have known,” she says.

Voter turnout is another example, especially in light of this year’s presidential election.

…commonly accepted numbers show that the turnout rate among black male high-school dropouts age 20 to 34 surged between 1980 and 2008, to the point where about one in three were voting in presidential races. Prof. Pettit says her research indicates that instead the rate was flat, at around one in five, even after the surge in interest in voting among many young black Americans with Barack Obama in the 2008 race.

“I think that’s kind of stunning,” Prof. Pettit said.

Experts debate the feasibility of including prisoners in such surveys, as well as how to make the best use of available data. Even Pettit admits, “These are really, really tricky things.”

 

A Doodle in Context

Google Doodle screenshot via 5tjt

Google Doodle screenshot via 5tjt

The doodle on the Google home page today may have raised a few eyebrows. Featuring a dark-skinned man running over a course of hurdles on a pink track lined with green grass, for some, it conjures up the historically problematic association of African Americans with watermelons. An op-ed in Five Towns Jewish Times contemplates whether the doodle is racist, or if it should be dismissed as an unfortunate coincidence. The piece cites a post by Lisa Wade, sociologist and TSP blogger, to unpack why such images are offensive when placed in historical context:

“African Americans,”  the argument went, “were happy as slaves.  They didn’t need the complicated responsibilities of freedom, they just needed some shade and a cool, delicious treat.”

The pervasive association with watermelons has reinforced the stereotype of African Americans as simple-minded and inferior, thus justifying systems of oppression and inequality. With this problematic history, perhaps Google would do well to reconsider this doodle.

A Fading Taboo?

Creek Close Up

In 1986, only 1/3 of Americans viewed interracial marriage as acceptable.  However, a report by the Pew Research Center found that today’s public is more accepting of the rise of interracial marriage. The New York Times reported:

The more positive attitude toward intermarriage represents a sharp break from the recent past and parallels behavioral change: about 15 percent of new marriages across the country in 2010 were between spouses of different races or ethnicities, more than double the share in 1980.

As the Executive Vice President of the Pew Research Center noted, interracial marriage has gone from being illegal, to being a taboo, to being unusual to, now, being less unusual.  The article also hints at some other interesting facts found by the study.  For example, intermarried couples are more likely to live in the West (largely due to the  concentration of immigrant minority groups there).

Parting Ways on “Coming Apart”

Working Class HeroIf you’re familiar with his previous books, Losing Ground and The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, you won’t be surprised to learn that Charles Murray’s new book is ruffling more than a few scholarly feathers. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week outlines the ruckus and a few sociologists weigh in.

The Chronicle summarizes the book:

Mr. Murray’s newest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum), makes a pretense of making nice. It bills itself as an attempt to alleviate divisiveness in American society by calling attention to a growing cultural gap between the wealthy and the working class.

Focused on white people in order to set aside considerations of race and ethnicity, it discusses trends, like the growing geographic concentration of the rich and steadily declining churchgoing rates among the poor, that social scientists of all ideological leanings have documented for decades. It espouses the virtues of apple-pie values like commitment to work and family.

But Mr. Murray, a Harvard and MIT-educated political scientist, seems wired like a South Boston bar brawler in his inability to resist the urge to provoke. In the midst of all of his talk about togetherness, he puts out there his belief that the economic problems of America’s working class are largely its own fault, stemming from factors like the presence of a lot of lazy men and morally loose women who have kids out of wedlock. Moreover, he argues, because of Americans’ growing tendency to pair up with the similarly educated, working-class children are increasingly genetically predisposed to be on the dim side.

(This is the point where heads turn, fists clench, and a hush is broken by the sound of liberal commenters muttering, “Oh no he didn’t.”)

Even Murray seems to know that his conclusions and brand of social scientific analysis and commentary may not sit well in academic circles:

“I am sure there are still sociology departments where people would cross themselves if I came into the room,” he said in an interview last week.

While some sociologists, such as Claude S. Fischer, think that Murray’s book will likely not get much play in scholarly circles, Dalton Conley notes that Murray is:

“probably the most influential social-policy thinker in America” thanks to his engaging writing style and his ability to make complex ideas accessible to wide audiences. “He is like the Carl Sagan of social policy,” Mr. Conley said, “but with an ideological slant.”

A flashpoint for many social scientists has long been Murray’s use of social scientific research, methods, and rhetoric. Conley explains how Murray’s use of social science may mislead readers on both theoretical and methodological grounds:

Although his descriptions of societal problems echo a lot of research performed by other scholars, he takes leaps in naming the causes or proposing solutions. Mr. Conley …said the idea that certain values, such as religiosity, lead to financial success “is a big, big assumption that outpaces the evidence,” because social scientists cannot conclusively prove such causal relationships without conducting randomized experiments on humans.

It is entirely possible, he said, that religiosity and financial success go hand in hand not because the former causes the latter, but because the latter causes the former, or both are the product of some other force not being considered.

Katherine Newman also adds:

Most social scientists continue to argue that it is economic hardship that leads to deterioration of working-class social conditions, not the other way around. “I don’t think there is any question that Americans in the working class, and those below the poverty line, have been hammered by the economic transformations that have robbed them of stable employment, and privileged those who are really well educated, giving them access to the only good jobs we have…”

In light of this disconnect, The Chronicle argues:

At the end of the day, the cultural and economic divide most illuminated by Coming Apart might be one found in scholarly publishing. On one side are authors and publishers who produce nuanced books that offer only conclusions stemming from research, and tend to be too esoteric for wide readership. On the other side are authors and publishers who cash in by producing best-selling polemics, in which research is used to buttress foregone conclusions.

Here at TSP, we’re trying to do something to bridge this very divide!