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.

XXX’d Out: What if Legal Porn Disappeared?

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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.

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.

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.

Orphaned by Incarceration

A screenshot from a Sesame Street clip about parents in prison.
A screenshot from a Sesame Street clip about parents in prison.

If you happen to be watching Sesame Street, you may notice a new Muppet named Alex. The child’s father is in prison. Many viewers may consider Alex’s incarcerated parent an unusual, heavy topic for the program that has taught generations of kids their ABC’s and 123’s. But children across the country, particularly African-American children, are in Alex’s position.

The Nation consulted sociologists Christopher Wildeman, Sara Wakefield, Kristin Turney, and John Hagan about the effects of parental incarceration on children. They found that children with incarcerated parents had significantly higher rates of aggression, mental-health issues, behavioral problems, and risk of homelessness than peers whose parents had never been to prison. However, although they have identified a key link between parent imprisonment and children’s mental health, researchers like Turney are still figuring out how and why this connection exists. “Is it stigma, attachments, income loss, parents breaking up and relationships not surviving? We don’t know,” Turney reports.

More than a decade ago, Hagan stated that effects on children might be “the least understood and most consequential” results of incarceration. According to Wildeman, 1 in 30 white children and 1 in 4 black children born in 1990 experienced a parent going to prison before turning 14. The surge in incarceration rates disproportionately affects African-American children. Even if their fathers have a college degree, these kids are twice as likely as white children with parents who didn’t finish high school to have a parent in prison. And regardless of whether incarceration rates decline in the next few years, the effects of current imprisonment rates will last for several generations. That means that optimism about any decline in mass incarceration “must therefore be set against the backdrop of the children of the prison boom—a lost generation now coming of age,” according to Wildeman and Wakefield.

Could Porn Lead to Sex Trafficking?

Photo via Flickr CC, Slavesalicious. Click for original.
Photo via Flickr CC, Slavesalicious. Click for original.

Early in 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives passed twelve bills aimed at combating sex trafficking. These bills compliment laws signed last year to protect victims of trafficking, particularly children. Thus far, however, legislation has overlooked the causes of trafficking, namely, male perpetrators who engage in sexual violence and abuse and whose patronage makes the crimes profitable.

In a recent Huffington Post article, sociologist Gail Dines offers insight into the “demand side” of sex crimes, citing pornography as an influence:

The biggest sex educator of young men today is pornography, which is increasingly violent and dehumanizing, and it changes the way men view women.

Dines argues that porn teaches men to behave in sexually violent and abusive ways:

We know that trafficking is increasing—which means demand is increasing. This means that men are increasingly willing to have sex with women who are being controlled and abused by pimps and traffickers. There are only two conclusions here: That men are naturally willing to do this to women—biology—or that they are being socialized by the culture to lose all empathy for women. I refuse to accept that men are born rapists, porn users, or johns.

Dine’s controversial topic of study—and its results—casts important questions on a growing, if often “unseen” crime.

Books Behind Bars: College Courses in Prisons

Oregon State University-Oregon State Penitentiary professor Michelle Inderbitzen shares a photo of a book her "inside" students inscribed for her.
Oregon State University-Oregon State Penitentiary professor Michelle Inderbitzen shares a photo of a book her “inside” students inscribed for her.

The American public tends to balk at any prison amenities or “luxuries.” Others, however, challenge the idea that prison is meant to be stark and bleak. Those who look to a rehabilitative view of prison’s role include Dr. Reid Helford, a sociologist from Chicago’s Loyola University who works in areas outside traditional academia, such as prisons. Recently quoted in a Seattle Times article, Helford states that teaching in prison is “the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.” Personal fulfillment aside, why should society spend public efforts, time, and funds on providing college courses and instructors for prison inmates?

Sociology helps us look past the surface morality of this debate and consider the broader contexts in which our prison system operates. Regardless whether one believes prison should offer punishment, rehabilitation, or a hybrid, society clearly benefits from lower rates of recidivism (criminals returning to crime). But what does education have to with recidivism? Helford was quoted:

Education does more than offer inmates a credential… it teaches them how to be the people we want our fellow citizens to be—thoughtful, critically aware of the world around them, disciplined and able to recognize authority.

Thus, Helford and his colleagues believe a college course (or eve degree) can help an inmate succeed in the outside world. The benefits of inmate education also spread into the communities to which they return after finishing their sentences. The Seattle Times cites a 2013 study that “concluded that prisoners who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release, and also found that every dollar spent on inmate education translated to $4 to $5 saved on re-incarceration.” This study considered GED, college, and vocational inmate-education together, and new studies are already in motion. A sociological understanding of those findings will be key to implementing and perfecting inmate-education programs like the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which works to create nation-wide partnerships between universities and state and federal incarceration centers.

A short film via Temple University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program:

2014: When Social Media Changed Sports Culture

Much of 2014’s sporting news happened off the court or outside the stadium. As described by Dave Zirin in The Nation’s “Why 2014 Will Be Remembered as the Year the Sports World Turned Upside Down,” incidents involving sports figures’ off-the-field conduct created a new era of public accountability and showed social media’s ability to effect change. The article quotes Dr. Harry Edwards, a UC Berkeley sports sociologist:

I’m not sure that institutionally, this nineteenth-century institution of sport is really organized to handle, in this modern age of real-time communication, the kinds of concerns that are going to come up. I just don’t think that they’re organized or developed to absorb and handle the situations we’re going to be confronted with.

As, say, fans saw NFL player Ray Rice punching his partner (now wife) in an elevator and heard NBA owner Donald Sterling hurling racist epithets at his girlfriend, the news spread like wildfire online. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice after security footage went viral, despite the fact the NFL leadership, including Goodell, had turned a blind eye to domestic abuse in its ranks many times before. Similarly, Sterling, a billionaire with a long history of racist comments in his 30 years of basketball ownership, was this time disgraced, forced into selling his team as pressure mounted via social media mobilization.

As Edwards told Zirin, “[W]e’re moving into utterly uncharted waters and again, I’m not sure that these nineteenth-century institutions can function within a twenty-first-century cultural and technological context, without utterly changing their structure, management and, in some instances, even their goals.” Sport may look quite different in the coming years—and sports sociologists will have definitely have to keep their eyes on the ball.

Trial Hype: The Different Allures of the Tsarnaev and Hernandez Cases

Photo by Christopher Pacquette via Flickr CC.
Photo by Christopher Pacquette via Flickr CC.

From OJ Simpson to Casey Anthony, America has no shortage of highly anticipated and hotly discussed trials. At the moment, Boston is a hive of judicial, legal, and media activity surrounding the trials of two infamous, if unrelated defendants: Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and New England Patriots tight-end and homicide suspect Aaron Hernandez. An article from ABCNews by Denise Lavoe uses sociology to explain why some trials can gain so much attention and how that affects the ideal of trial by a jury of peers. In each of the Boston cases, jury pools reached well over 1,100 people until a group of potential jurors who hadn’t already reached a conclusion about the case could be found.

Quoted in the article, Northeastern University sociologist Jack Levin explains that each trial attracts interest and media attention in a specific way. People are interested in the Tsarnaev case because of “a widespread feeling that people have that they are vulnerable.” The fear of terrorism drives public interest rather than the fame of the defendant. The Hernandez case is different, as Levin explains, because the trial of a popular sports figure attracts its own kind of attention. Society, he says, places “tremendous value on athletes, and when one of them commits a serious crime like homicide, it shocks the public.” The trial of a disgraced, once-popular player draws public attention partially because the narrative seems to run so counter to prevailing perceptions of sport and athletes, as well as the gloss of fame. Tsarnaev is felt keenly as a physical threat to everyone, while Hernandez represents a more abstract threat to assumptions and values. Both cases will likely remain front-page news well into the future, but different social processes lay beneath their infamy.

A Sociology of Celebrity Sanctions

Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr CC
Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr CC

Bill Cosby is a household name, once associated with a long and illustrious career, now with an infamous string of sexual assault allegations dating as far back as 1965. After new rape charges arose in late 2014 and became the subject of pop-culture discussion, TVLand dropped The Cosby Show from its rerun schedule and Netflix postponed a Cosby comedy special. A sitcom he had in development was canned. Notably, Cosby had weathered such accusations for decades without losing the support of networks and business partners. This time has been different.

University of Texas-Austin sociology professor Ari Adut lends his thoughts in a New York Times article. When public knowledge about a scandal is limited rather than widespread, entertainment businesses are less likely to take action. Once an allegation leveled against a public figure and becomes common knowledge, though, businesses are compelled to respond: “[w]hen everyone knows that everyone else knows about the claim (and so on), society can judge people and groups that do not act on that knowledge.” So, though rape and assault accusations had followed Cosby for nearly a half-century, the latest set of allegations have been hotly discussed in the media, and groups like Netflix moved to distance themselves from the performer so as to avoid public perceptions of Inaction.

This sociological explanation for how businesses assess public opinion regarding scandals and act accordingly helps us understand many other occurrences in the entertainment industry. For example, after actor Charlie Sheen had a run-in with the NYPD regarding drugs in 2010, CBS soon dropped the star from Two and a Half Men, despite the fact that Sheen had notoriously faced drug issues before. Once Sheen’s 2010 crime became public knowledge, the axe fell swiftly. For the famous, what the public doesn’t know—or mobilize around—needn’t be a worry. When it hits the front pages, though, anything from “dirty laundry” to felony assault is likely to tarnish a even a star’s brand image (and paychecks).