Tag Archives: politics

Ferguson, the Morning After

What a night. What a disturbing, terrifying, disconcerting night. A questionable grand jury process. Explanations and pushback. Protests. Police, lots of police. Media everywhere. Some looting and violence. Gas and smoke. Images of burning buildings and cars—fiery images that seem to be on a continuous loop this morning, this difficult morning after. How to make sense of it all? What to say? What to do?

I looked to and start with the President, President Obama, our President. The President’s words last night, in the immediate aftermath of the release of the grand jury decision, were measured, subdued, and multifaceted—begging for peace, pleading for calm and, more importantly, trying to get folks from all different sides with such divergent reactions to better understand each other. I saw our leader trying to explain why, on the one hand, we must respect the rule of law, our law enforcement agents, and the workings of the criminal justice system–as well as why, on the other hand, we need to understand, really understand, why there is so much anger and frustration and resentment from so many. It was very typical Obama—trying, cautiously and stoically, to be that voice of compassion and understanding, that bridge across racial and ideological and political lines, subtlety appealing to our common humanity, our bigger ideals, our better angels.

As a sociologist and a citizen, I found myself deeply sympathetic and aligned. In fact, it is probably the kinds of things I would have said if I had I been in the President’s shoes or on his speech writing team. Although I would have probably developed and further specified the deep and historical sources of anger and frustration—not only with respect to racial disparities and injustices within the criminal justice system at all levels, but also the legacies of segregated housing and lending polices, the realities of poverty, poor education, and unemployment, the persistence of so many stereotypes and racially charged images and rhetoric—I still would have asked for some kind of balance and some larger peace and understanding. In fact, much as Todd Beer in his SocSource/TSP post from earlier in the fall on “Teaching Ferguson,” I still believe that these deeply racialized and even racist historical forces, institutional policies, and contemporary realities—and the very different ways in which they are perceived and understood (or ignored or disavowed)—are crucial to both understanding and explaining both Ferguson the town and Ferguson the cultural firestorm. And this broader historical context and social conditions are all too often missing from media coverage, political discourse, and public understanding with their focus on the specific case in its immediacy and its concreteness. This in mind, I probably also would have also talked about the profound, deeply sociological challenge of confronting obvious, patterned, and systemic inequities of race in both the criminal justice system and the society at large without losing sight of the fact that the specifics of any given incident, event, or case are unique, may not stand in microcosm for the whole, and are probably not the appropriate focus for systemic, institutional change.

But the problem is that all of this, at least as I was watching last night and trying to think it back through this morning, is a little too measured, a little too dispassionate. Part of this is that the whole abstract language of a multi-point, multifaceted analysis and perspective is a little bit too communitarian. That is, it is too heavy on the language of common understanding of our mutual situation when what we are really talking about is the extremely divergent reactions and response of very different and indeed radically polarized communities. There are specific sides and radically different perspectives here, and the stakes require responding to them on their own grounds. Ultimately, however, I think this response–both the President’s and my own—is unsatisfying at the moment, because it is too much about analysis and understanding, and not enough about action, response—what to do and who will lead. Too often the call for calm, clear thinking analysis and understanding—no matter how accurate, no matter how potentially useful—never gets to the next step. Good sociology, in short, does not always make meaningful leadership, much less transformative response and meaningful change.

Ezra Klein’s Vox column this morning (“Why Obama won’t give the Ferguson speech his supporters want”) helped give me a better sense of why Obama gave the speech he did. He is capable of more. Indeed, he did more–much more–on the campaign trail leading up to his historic ascendence to the presidency. But now, as President, he is in a different position. Obama’s challenge is not so much that he needs to try to speak to and represent the nation as a whole. Obama’s challenge right now, according to Klein, is that in our polarized political climate—and no figure is more polarizing than the President, according to the political scientists—anything Obama says on any given issue or cause, any specific position he takes or policy he argues for, tends to be damaging to the cause or any allies he may have. Obama and his advisors have—rightly, it would seem—realized that he is hemmed in and it is better for him to take a middle ground rather than inflame passions yet again. (Immigration, of course, is the exception to this, the arena where Obama and his team have decided to take the hit and fight the good fight, but that is a single and quite exceptional case at this point, as much about political position and institutional power as about rhetoric, understanding, and dialogue).

Ultimately, however, I find myself thinking not about Obama’s political challenges but about the limits and indeed pathologies of a dispassionate if accurate sociological response in a moment of such historical crisis and upheaval. Focusing on the roots and conditions as well as on the need for shared, overarching understanding just doesn’t seem like quite enough. Necessary, but not enough.

Friday Roundup: Awards Edition!

RU122013Before we get to the heart of the matter, let’s just put it out there: SocImages’ annual Christmas Roundup is ready and ripe for the readin’! Get it!

Now, rather than our usual Roundup, it’s time to announce this year’s fully unscientific, but fully entertaining TSP Awards! Hopefully these excellent pieces from our original content, our blogs, and beyond will keep you in reading material in the days of travel and food comas ahead. We wish you a wonderful New Year full of health, productivity, and ridiculousness, because every good year is a little ridiculous. (more…)

Friday Roundup: Nov. 15, 2013

RU111513The Care and Feeding of Co-Authors:

As Chris Uggen pointed out on the Twitters, it’s easy to disappoint your coworkers. Whether it’s producing actual Swedish Fish when a candy-mergency arises in a late-night writing session or dropping the ball when it’s your turn to write the lit review, there are just so many opportunities to co-write badly. Here’s my very quick editorial advice should you decide to undertake a co-authored project: (more…)

Friday Roundup: Nov. 8, 2013

RU110813Missing the Point

I was so struck last night to hear a little piece about the sociologist Clifford Nass on NPR (in a fun side note, I’d like to point out that Nass was also a computer scientist and professional magician… which is pertinent to the next sentence). Yes, he was known for his warning that multitasking was dangerous to real thought and real learning, but what caught my ear was how his colleagues spoke of his relationship with expanding technologies. Nass didn’t seem to have any antipathy for the tech—he saw its utility, of course—but he realized that all those blinky things were going to be attention sucks. Multiple distractions tend to be bad when you aren’t a good multitasker (to be fair, he didn’t think anyone was a good multitasker), but worse, he seemed to believe, the divided attention meant that his students paid attention to too much noise. Over time, he felt his students were getting worse and worse at understanding an argument and repeating it clearly. They weren’t good at finding the point or pulling out a specific nugget of information from a whole article. They had trained themselves (or been trained by their technologies) to see the forest, not the trees. I’m not wholly convinced, but I am intrigued—and I’m sad that the world has lost another great sociologist in the meantime. (more…)

Friday Roundup: Oct. 18, 2013

RU101713A Digression on Writerly Fitness:

I’ve been reading and writing a bit about fitness lately, and I’ve noticed two trends come up again and again: High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and “body confusion.” What does this have to do with TSP and writing you ask? Excellent question.  (more…)

Politics as a Vocation

Hodges

Star-Tribune photo

I’ve long believed a graduate degree in the social sciences provides excellent preparation for elective office. We learn to critically analyze data, to abstract from individual cases to broader social processes, and to understand how both powerful institutions and grass-roots movements shape the social world. Though few U.S. sociologists have entered the fray since Pat Moynihan left the Senate, our training and experience should prepare us well for many  aspects of the political arena.

Consider today’s Star-Tribune  profile of Betsy Hodges, who is making a strong run to become mayor of Minneapolis. Ms. Hodges, who did her graduate work in sociology at Wisconsin, is characterized in the following terms:

  • “numbers-oriented and careful with her words”
  • “adept at untangling complicated financial matters”
  • “a theme of activism around social justice”
  • a concern with “people being separated from one another by things that don’t matter”
  • showing “leadership above and beyond her own stated personal views and keeping people together”

Ms. Hodges certainly possessed many of these skills and orientations before entering graduate school (though I believe that Wisconsin implanted a “numbers-oriented and careful with words” chip in all graduate students throughout the 1990s). So why don’t more of us pursue politics as a vocation? I got a glimpse of the answer when I chided a legislator for not “demonstrating courage”  on a crime policy. He said, “its a helluva lot easier to be courageous when you’re not running for reelection. Give me your university tenure and I’d demonstrate courage up the [wazoo].”  Good point, that — and all the more reason to appreciate courageous sociologist-politicians like Betsy Hodges.

 

Friday Roundup (Monday Edition): Oct. 14, 2013

Ru101413What Does the Letta Say?

EEP! There was no Friday Roundup. Guess who’s fault that is? Mine-oh-mine. But to make it up to you, here’s some fresh Monday morning reading!

In Case You Missed It:

The Fascination and Frustration with Native American Mascots,” by Jennifer Guiliano. A look at the history and fight over mascots, as the Redskins go 1-4 in the NFC East.

Editors’ Desk:

Sketch #4: TSP @ White House,” by Chris Uggen. Dr. Uggen goes to Washington. (more…)

Sketch #4: TSP @ White House

hagan_foster13I was surprised to receive an invitation to speak at the White House this August, as part of a parental incarceration workshop sponsored by the American Bar Foundation and National Science Foundation. Though I’d written a bit on the subject and had followed the research closely for a decade, I could not claim any great expertise. Fortunately, they didn’t need me for that. They’d already assembled an impressive roster of experts to speak on topics such as demography and family dynamics, behavioral and health problems, education and exclusion, justice policy, and caring for children. My job, according to the draft agenda, was to offer “concluding comments” in the final half-hour session. Or, as John Hagan put it, “Just do what you do.”

Riiiiight. Do what I do.

Well, I couldn’t just come out and ask what I do, so I decided to do TSP. (more…)

Friday Roundup: July 12, 2013

RU071213Double Your Fun

Time to play catch-up!

In Case You Missed It:

Thinking About Trayvon: Privileged Response and Media Discourse,” by Stephen Suh. A roundtable discussion from just months after Trayvon Martin’s death, this piece looks at media framing and public responses.

The Editors’ Desk:

The Home Stretch (Or: Introducing Our Third Book),” by Doug Hartmann. In which Doug details some of the coming content for Color Lines and Racial Angles, TSP’s third reader from W.W. Norton (the first two volumes are due out by the end of the year). 

Citings & Sightings:

Economics, Sentimentality, and the Safe Baby,” by Letta Page. An economist walks into a baby expo… and calls on some classic social science.

The People’s Art,” by Letta Page. If a society is enriched by its art, is it impoverished by keeping that art in museums?

A Gender Gap and the German Model,” by John Ziegler. An emerging education gap shows women outstripping men in the race for diplomas in the U.S. Does Germany offer a solution?

‘Spiritual’ Scofflaws,” by Evan Stewart. What happens when there’s neither an angel nor a devil on your shoulder.

A New South Africa?” by Erin Hoekstra. In post-Apartheid South Africa, Somali refugees are everyone’s target.

A Few from the Community Pages:

Scholars Strategy Network:

Why Immigration Reform with a Path to Citizenship Faces an Uphill Climb in Congress,” by Tom K. Wong.

What Happens if [Now that] the Supreme Court Weakens [Has Weakened] Voting Rights?” by Gary May.

How Conservative Women’s Organizations Challenge Feminists in U.S. Politics,” by Renee Schreiber.

Race: 50 Years Ago, Today

Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy, Jr. in 1963.

Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy, Jr. in 1963.

In this morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer, sociologist Chip Gallagher reminds us that two formative events in the history of American race relations unfolded just hours apart, fifty years ago today: JFK’s ground-breaking speech demanding that the federal government address institutional racism against African Americans and the murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers. Gallagher uses the anniversary to reflect on the “undeniable… progress that has been made” and how much more remains to be done to “level the playing field.” Gallagher writes, “Social scientists are fond of pointing out that when individuals, typically white individuals, discuss racism, they use the past tense,” but wonders, “How much has changed in 50 years? Is our democracy self-correcting, with our moral arc consistently bending toward justice…?” He concludes with a open challenge: “What we should be asking ourselves is, Where are the speeches like Kennedy’s that appeal to the citizenry’s better angels to right a social wrong? Where are the pleas to Americans on moral and ethical grounds by those who can use the bully pulpit to raise public awareness of the social inequalities that continue to plague our nation?”

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