“Sketchfactor,” “Nextdoor.com,” “GhettoTracker.com,” and “Operation GroupMe” are just a few of the digital services available to city dwellers hoping to monitor their neighborhood’s crime rates and connect business owners and community members to law enforcement with greater ease. But are they just a more efficient method of racial profiling and criminalization?
That’s the question that Leslie Hinkson, associate professor of sociology at Georgetown University, grapples with in a recent interview in a Washington Post article that investigates the effect of these surveillance applications in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood:
The group has codified its own language and operating culture. African Americans are referred to as “aa.” Hundreds of images of unaware African Americans circulate in the group.
“We should be honest here,” Hinkson continued:
Crime does occur in Georgetown. And quite often when people describe the perpetrators of those crimes, they’re usually young men of color. But that doesn’t mean every person of color is an automatic suspect.
I was used to thinking about how hip-hop crews were often very identify-focused—I came up during the era of pro-black/political hip-hop after all—and so my assumption was that this would be a major part of their identity as well. It wasn’t, though. Their self-awareness/pride in being Filipino was very individualistic but not reflected in the scene as a whole. If you just look at the names of the crews or the parties, there’s almost never an indication that these were predominantly Filipino American crews. There are any number of ways to possibly explain this: It was their age, it was their generation, it was the overall climate around race/ethnicity and music, it was because, as Filipinos, they’ve historically been treated as invisible. I do think, had this scene taken off in the 1990s, we may have seen a different dynamic because of the influence of hip-hop.
“Microaggressions” are not new, but the term has only recently entered our vocabulary as a means to describe the small, but frequent, indignities often experienced by minorities. If you have seen a white person touch an African-American person’s hair or heard questions like “What are you?” asked of a racially ambiguous person, you have witnessed a microaggression.
Sociologist Bradley Campbell, who has written about microaggressions, recently spoke with Boston’s local NPR news station, 90.9 WBUR, about his findings. He highlights cultural shifts that have produced and shaped microaggressions:
These microaggression complaints—what characterizes them is that they are appeals to third parties. They’re not something like vengeance where people just take direct action against the offender. Secondly, they’re complaints about minor things, which is what the “micro” in microaggression means. And then also that these—the complaints—are about specific kinds of things. It’s not just any minor offense, it’s things that are said to further oppression, and mainly the oppression of minority groups. So we thought about like when do these things occur? So some of the social conditions we mentioned were things like, you know, the presence of authority and also the demise of communal groups. But one of the main things is actually the increase in diversity and equality. So it’s in settings where there’s already a lot of equality and diversity that you get these kinds of complaints.
The New Yorker recently featured several sociologists in a piece about what has happened to residents of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:
David Kirk, who studies neighborhood effects, focused on recidivism, or likelihood of ending up in prison again after release, based on whether individuals stayed in the same neighborhood or moved elsewhere. He found that those who returned to their former neighborhoods in New Orleans had a 60% recidivism rate compared to those who. While, historically African Americans have been more likely to move, often for economic mobility, since 1970 the pattern has flipped, and more African Americans tend to stay put.
Patrick Sharkey says that in recent decades white Americans more frequently engage in “contextual mobility,” or moves significant enough to change opportunities and circumstances. Instead of major moves, African-American families in urban areas tend to make more frequent, minor moves to places similar to their previous living arrangement.
According to Stefanie DeLuca, these moves are not voluntary. Rising rent, eviction, breakups, or changing in housing subsidies spark moves within the same areas—not the better schools or job opportunities that middle-class Americans cite as reasons to relocate.
Following the severe damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, going “home” wasn’t possible for many poor black families. As it turns out, those who had to leave found their new homes offered more opportunity:
Houston, Texas, has become a hot spot of upward mobility for those displaced by Katrina, Corina Graif found: “The fact that they were all of a sudden thrown out of that whirlpool gives them a chance to rethink what they do. It gives them a new option—a new metro area has more neighborhoods in better shape,” she says of the 700 mostly black women she tracked.
Sharkey cautions optimistic readers that relocation could become a game of cat and mouse. If too many poor people move into middle-class areas, the middle-class may move, taking some of the neighborhood’s higher resources and leaving new families in circumstances that mimic a minor move.
Acting out in class? Your race could be an influential factor in whether you’re referred to the school psychologist of the local police force, says a new study featured in Sociology of Education. According to study author David Ramey, disadvantaged school districts—those with low graduation rates, high unemployment, and low incomes—are more likely to punish black students for behavioral issues than they are to seek medical or psychological support services.
Ramey recently explained his findings to The St. Louis American, noting that despite decreases in overall crime rates since the 1990s, the increase in media coverage of crime and the rash of school shootings have increased concerns about school safety. However, some students are being policed significantly more than others:
The bulk of my earlier research looked at how, for the same minor levels of misbehaviors—for example, classroom disruptions, talking back—white kids tend to get viewed as having ADHD, or having some sort of behavioral problems, while black kids are viewed as being unruly and unwilling to learn.
As a result, school districts with higher percentages of black students also have significantly higher rates of expulsions, suspensions, and law enforcement referrals than predominantly white schools.
After flying over the South Carolina state capitol for 54 years, the Confederate flag was lowered on the morning of Friday, July 10. Before it was removed from the statehouse, the flag and products bearing its image were also eliminated from the store shelves and online marketplaces of major retailers, including WalMart, Amazon, Sears, and Ebay. The flag’s sudden withdrawal from publicly visible spaces public and private was sparked by a bevy of activism in the wake of the June 17 massacre of worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, but complaints about the flag are not new. Why was this push to remove it from prominent display venues successful, when so many others had failed?
Sociologist Brayden King told the San Francisco Chronicle that the important of online media to the way companies make decisions today was central. Corporations who pulled Confederate merchandise from sale were more concerned with their brands’ images on Facebook and Twitter and with investors’ impressions of their management than with being politically correct or doing the right thing. Drawing on findings from studies he published in 2007 and 2013, King said that “Business is always responding to consumer demand and what might be reputational issues as well. If a company isn’t able to quickly resolve the turmoil, then investors may start thinking that the management isn’t very good.”
King argues that social media “makes these issues salient by being a megaphone for activists, and it serves as a large public forum for information.” By linking social issues with companies’ online reputations and managerial competencies, online media may be accelerating the attachment of concrete financial ramifications to cultural debates that corporations may have previously wished to stay out of.
That’s likely true for a lot of reasons, but one is just coming to light: For many African-Americans, working for the government has provided a gateway to the middle class. “Compared to the private sector, the public sector has offered black and female workers better pay, job stability and more professional and managerial opportunities,” sociologist Jennifer Laird tells The New York Times. The civil service, delivering mail, teaching, operating public transportation, and processing criminal justice have historically provided steady income and opportunities to climb the economic ladder—often without an expensive college degree.
The recession’s recovery has not brought back employment at the local, state, and federal levels, though, and it’s causing struggle in black communities in particular. Population growth has also meant higher competition for ever scarcer public sector jobs. African-Americans once benefitted most from government employment, so cutbacks and layoffs hit them the hardest. Laird describes black government workers’ situation as a “double-disadvantage”:
They are concentrated in a shrinking sector of the economy, and they are substantially more likely than other public sector workers to be without work.
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.
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.
Since 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 Voxthat 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.
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