The Persistence of White Supremacy

The battles of the past are not yet in the past. Photo by Paul Walsh, 1987.
The battles of the past are not yet in the past. Photo by Paul Walsh, 1987.

 

In February, PBS’s Independent Lens series aired “American Denial,” a documentary examining the powerful unconscious biases around race and class that still shape racial dynamics in the United States. The film largely focuses on Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 book An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, comparing his findings about race relations in the Deep South during Jim Crow with more recent studies of racism and structural inequalities. Myrdal found that racism was not a “Negro Problem,” as his funders at the Carnegie Corporation of New York had told him, but a problem among whites perpetuating irrational fear of African Americans.

Among the many prominent scholars interviewed in the documentary is sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, whose best-selling book Gang Leader for a Day took an in-depth look at racial inequality and poverty within Chicago’s most notorious housing projects. In the film, Venkatesh says of racism:

“It’s anything but a ‘Negro Problem.’ It’s a condition produced fundamentally by exclusion, racism, discrimination, and the unequal distribution of resources. I think it’s really hard to say we’re not actually doing much better on a lot of these questions about race, because the narrative is ‘America gets better every day.’ Well, what if it doesn’t?”

The film also recognizes earlier scholars of race including Frederick Douglass and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, noting that Myrdal’s work was given more recognition that Douglass and Du Bois’ because it came from a white European and was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The documentary can be watched in its entirety here.

Sociology that Savors: Food and Collective Memory

Most people have favorite food memories—maybe a favorite holiday dish or fresh local fruit at its peak. Sociologist Jennifer Jordan talks to The Lake Effect about her new book Edible Memory, all about how food shapes culture, culture shapes food, and collective memory forms around what we grow, cook, and eat.

Jordan says that collective memories come from pieces of the material world, and that food memories are both personal and social. A personal memory about kitchens, food, and gardens often speaks to broader patterns of those things at a particular point in history or regional/local space because food is so often communal. Large groups may share similar food memories, revealing how food brings people together (and sometimes divides).

Tastes in foods change over time, too. Jordan says just as the broccoli florets people tried to feed to the dog as children become adulthood favorites, a similar phenomenon occurs on a much grander scale. The tomato, for instance, is technically a “new world” food from South America. When it reached Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, people feared the fruit was toxic. Only recently has it become an essential part of the identity of food cultures including Italian and Spanish fare.

Meanwhile, in United States and elsewhere, we see the standardization of foods and genetic strains of produce. Instead of highly local heirloom tomato, a more mass-produced “beefsteak” variety better lends itself to feeding whole populations because of its hardiness during transport. Food, thus, becomes more homogenous on a national level, while, on the regional and local level there remains a more vibrant array of products: individual families and small-scale farmers preserve older genetic strains of plants and older family recipes that use regional produce. Consider okra in the American South, rhubarb in the upper Midwest, springtime fiddlehead ferns in the Northeast, or fresh avocados right off a Southern California tree—can’t you just taste them now?

Sociologists Begin to Talk Baltimore

Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Minneapolis, MN, April 29, 2015. Click for original.
Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Minneapolis, MN, April 29, 2015. Click for original.

 

As the nation’s gaze is set on Baltimore, sociologists have begun to talk to the press about the massive peaceful protests, outbreaks of rioting and violence, and media depictions of the city as it mourns the death of Freddie Gray (as of today, Friday, May 1, ruled a homicide and under investigation). Much of the emerging public criticism is aimed at media sources and public officials depicting protests as nothing but violent, unfounded riots led by “thugs.” Stefanie DeLuca sees these language choices as important, telling the Washington Post,

I thought the governor calling Baltimore a “state of emergency” was a colossal fail. These framings don’t help us—they take away from the humanity of the people here who have grievances. It takes away from the incredible potential of a city that has been struggling and fighting for everything it has.

Paul Bagguley, whose work focuses on race and social movements, also spoke to the Washington Post, contributing to a piece on looting during riots. He focused specifically on how small outbreaks of crime can happen once large-scale, otherwise civil protests become riots:

During riots, the normal rules of behavior are suspended—participants often describe a sense of freedom—so that normal respect for private property is suspended. In addition, contemporary societies are consumer societies where one’s status and participation in society is defined by consumer goods, hence those excluded from consumption—the poor—are during riot conditions able to obtain valued items.

Other sociologists spoke more broadly to the systemic inequalities that have long divided Baltimore and put men like Freddie Gray in increasingly subjugated, vulnerable positions. In a recent article at Mother Jones, Peter J. Cookson explained how it’s not just physical segregation that creates and reifies inequalities in health, wealth, education, and incarceration, but also disparities in housing safety, extracurricular activities, and educational programs in schools.

In an Op-Ed for The Tennessean, Tony Brown suggests paying closer attention to the evidence of ongoing racism in everyday American life:

We must document the significance of race and racism before we can address it. Make it routine to collect evidence that allows us to address it. Otherwise, we are bound to run in circles debating whether a problem exists, while things get worse.

Of Microbrews and Methodists

There was a time when Coors was the contraband. Nowadays, Bandit'll be hauling some Surly Furious.
There was a time when Coors was the contraband. Nowadays, Bandit and the Snowman probably haul Surly Furious.

 

Here in Minneapolis, the frozen but lively home of the University of Minnesota and TSP, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a microbrewery. That’s true for most of the northern U.S., but as discussed in the Atlantic, “the nine states with the fewest breweries are all in the South.” What’s the difference? One sociologist says it’s religion.

Across the country, big beer companies contribute to candidates who aren’t likely to support policies that enable local breweries to get a foothold. That investment helps curtail competition. In the South, Baptists form an important voting bloc with strong cohesion around social and moral issues, as do Methodists. Together, says Boston University sociologist Nancy Ammerman, “they account for a very large proportion of the population in the South.” Since alcohol is one of the hot-button issues, candidates who keep small breweries from operating gain an extra boost at the ballot box.

Interestingly, Ammerman points out that, in old Methodists and Baptists communities, payment in whiskey was fairly common. This might explain why independent whiskey distilleries are not as frowned upon as small breweries (and large whiskey companies are less invested in preventing boutique distilleries). Either way, if you’re hoping for a microbrew in Mississippi, you’ll want to road-trip it (humming “Eastbound and Down” along the way).

Sociologists Becoming “The Marrying Type”?

Image by Ginny Washburne via FLickr CC
Image by Ginny Washburne via FLickr CC

 

Most people think of sociology as marriage-neutral, or even anti-marriage because the institution has been linked to patriarchy, heteronormativity, domestic abuse, and a general suppression of women’s rights; however, the field has seen a shift toward a pro-marriage point of view (see, for instance, scholars like Andrew Cherlin). In the Boston Globe, Philip Cohen from University of Maryland College Park says, “Criticism of marriage as a social institution comes from the universal and basically compulsory system of marriage in the 1950s.” Since ‘50s-style marriage is no longer necessarily true, it makes sense to see an evolving scholarly outlook on the issue.

Those who say matrimony matters point to its advantages for low-income children. According to Sarah McLanahan, children with unmarried parents spend less time with their fathers and receive less financial support. Cherlin, for his part, says marriage, more so than cohabitation, contributes to family stability that leads to better child outcomes.

The evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that marriage causes the “good things” attributed to it, either. Yes, unmarried mothers tend to make less money than their married counterparts, but marriage thrives among the more educated. Those with college degrees wait longer to marry and have more resources to give their children. This means the specific people who marry make it look like married people have better outcomes, when usually they were privileged before exchanging vows. Putting a ring on it will not automatically make people healthier, wealthier, or wiser.

This disparity in findings and even recommendations about marriage points to an issue bigger than family values: “This class divide in marriage and family life is both cause and consequence of the growing inequality in American life,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project. Kristi Williams elaborates that economic circumstances can influence marriage, so trying to change marriage without fixing economic disparities is wrong-headed. Philip Cohen agrees, saying, “The idea that the culture is going downhill and we need a cultural revival happens to be very closely related to the idea that we should not address poor peoples’ problems by raising taxes and giving poor people money,” he said. “So there’s a political element” in marriage promotion efforts.

The Social Norms of Facial Hair

 

Photo by Juan Luis via Flickr.
Photo by Juan Luis via Flickr.

 

Chin-Strap, Fu Man Chu, Burt Reynolds, or Full Marx. National competitions honor it. Hockey players grow it. Dress codes may moderate it, and now finally, sociologists weigh in on it. We’re talking beards.

In early April, a men’s fashion article in The Guardian explored the historical significance of beards, describing, for example, how early Egyptian pharaohs wore fake beards as a symbol of power. Since then, facial hair’s place in men’s fashion has waxed and waned, at times symbolizing political power while at other times representing radical lifestyles and rejections of social norms. French sociologist Stéphane Héas explained the political and social connotations of beards.

“Being hairless and clean-shaven, or not, is far from neutral,” Héas said. “Social norms determine how far a beard should be allowed to grow, when it should be trimmed or shaved off.”

He goes on to explain how facial hair has reinforced gendered power in modern western cultures:

The patriarchal, male-dominant nature of western society in the 19th and 20th century almost certainly explains the appeal of sophisticated beards and moustaches. Policymakers made their presence felt through their discourse and facial hair.

Yet despite the power and authority associated with having facial hair, Héas notes that, “being completely hairless has become almost mandatory for western women and is spreading to men.” The beloved beard may be on its way out yet again.

“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.