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.

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.

“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.

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.

Unsurprising Stats: Hollywood Lacks Diversity

The 2015 Oscar nominees are announced. Photo by RedCarpetReport via flickr cc. https://flic.kr/p/qwEuL7
The 2015 Oscar nominees are announced. Photo by RedCarpetReport via flickr cc.

 

Following the whitest Academy Awards in nearly 20 years, UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies released its 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report. Sociologist and center Director Darnell Hunt described the findings to The Hollywood Reporter: “Hollywood is not progressing at the same rate as America is diversifying.”

The study, which surveyed the top 200 worldwide box office films and 1,105 television series in 2012 and 2013, found that racial minorities and women were substantially underrepresented in both acting and directing roles. Those films with at least 30% diversity, however, did best in the worldwide box office tallies.

Study co-author Ana-Christina Ramon believes these numbers show that, “audiences, regardless of their race, are clamoring for more diverse content.” So what’s the holdup?

“It’s a high-risk industry,” says Hunt. “People want to surround themselves with collaborators they’re comfortable with, which tends to mean people they’ve networked with—and nine times out of 10, they’ll look similar. It reproduced the same opportunities for the same kind of people: You’re surrounding yourself with a bunch of white men to feel comfortable.”

Hunt suggests that emerging digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon could create more opportunities for on-screen diversity. Still, he is hesitant to make grand claims about progress: “It’s getting better, but it’s not getting better fast enough. And it’s still a big problem.”

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.

Self-Segregation in San Francisco Schools

Photo by WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr.com.
Photo by WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr.com.

School segregation has been the topic of social science research and public debate for decades. Still, the average person may think than in the post-Civil Rights era, when the law explicitly forbids racial discrimination, school segregation is an issue of the past. In fact, sociologists of education point to changes in demographics, living arrangements, and school funding that have lead to unforeseen issues increases in school segregation. One city in particular, San Francisco, is seeing a resurgence; the number of schools considered “racially isolated,” or over-representative of one race, has climbed there in the last few years.

A recent article in the San Francisco Public Press describes new practices that determine where students get placed and how such mechanisms can undermine diversity. Parents can apply for placement across San Francisco’s public schools, meaning that many students don’t go to school in the area they live. This enrollment fluidity may seem helpful for increasing diversity, but the ability to make informed and effective choices within school system application is nuanced and heavily influenced by who you know, what you know, and what matters to you. Parent choices, especially within particular racial or ethnic groups, can exacerbate school segregation.

The article quotes Prudence Carter, a Stanford sociologist who studies inequality and education and was involved in creating the San Francisco school-choice system (implemented in 2010). Carter uses Asian families as a case in point: “there’s a lot of pride in the Chinese community in having created educational enclaves.” For example, a Chinese family is more likely to send their children to a school with a certain reputation; replicated across a community, it can lead to a school with a disproportionate number of Chinese students. Similarly, disproportionate concentration of students from certain income backgrounds can lead to a racially segregated student body.

If parents want to be part of segregation solution, Carter advises, “You have to think grander, and beyond your own self-interest… So long as we live in an individualistic and self-interested country, we’re going to probably continue to have this problem.” In her view, policy makers will have to adapt legislation to account for the sociology of parent choice when trying to increase diversity in education.

NFL’s Domestic Abuse Prevention Team Drafts Sociologist Beth Richie

Photo of Marcel Love by Greg Keene via Flickr.
Go Love!  Photo of Marcel Love by Greg Keene via Flickr.

In response to the disturbing number of domestic violence arrests of its players, the NFL recently created a panel for implementing domestic abuse education and prevention strategies within the league. Beth Ritchie, the University of Illinois at Chicago’s director of the Institute of Research on Race and Public Policy, was named as one of its five senior advisors.

In an interview with Jia Tolentino for Jezebel, Richie explains that “Race and gender and class justice can’t be separated.” Because about two-thirds of the NFL’s players are African American, it’s important to understand how these factors are connected in designing an effective domestic abuse education program. She explains:

…African-American people perceive and therefore use (or don’t use) police differently. The police aren’t necessarily seen as a protective force; there’s a different loyalty to one’s own people in disclosing, there’s a protectiveness built up from the way the media skews the actions of black men. Consequently, black sexual assault survivors have to walk through a maze before they can acknowledge the abuse or are willing to come forward. There’s a different willingness to turn our men over to the state. And I don’t want to say that turning in an abuser is easy for any woman, but it’s meaningfully different for black women.

Because of this dynamic, Richie plans to work with the wives and partners of NFL players as well, to better understand the challenges of preventing domestic violence. Mindful of the complexity of the problem, she’s excited about the NFL’s initiative:

The NFL taking this up so aggressively is very important, but there’s a real need to be careful; the NFL is an employer, not law enforcement, not family. I think they are trying to be respectful of women’s desires to make their own decisions about whom they’re with, while still holding men accountable.