Tag Archives: activism/social movements

#blacklivesmatter and the Optimum Balance of Hope and Despair

There is a whole social science to the optimal balance of victory and defeat in social movements and social change. Consider two political cartoons by Mike Luckovich. This from June 21:

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And this one from June 25:

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Did he really just demand the removal of the Confederate flag and then mock people who would celebrate its removal? Is that how much things change in a week? But in periods of social change, moving the goal posts is what it’s all about. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Charleston massacre was a horrific reminder of how it seems some things never change. But they do change. Dylann Roof was caught and may be put to death, legally. And it turned out that, not only had the Confederate flag only been flying at the South Carolina capitol for a few decades, but it actually could be taken down in response to public outrage. And yet, that’s not the end of racism.

Anthea Butler, a religion and Africana studies professor at Penn, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, was on the On Point radio show. She was talking to host Tom Ashbrook, when she got this:

Tom Ashbrook: If you ask me, I understand that feeling and that vivid response. At the same time, I, and maybe you, Anthea Butler, Dr. Butler, don’t want to lose, or not recognize, or lose the progress that has been made. And this is nowhere near paradise…

Anthea Butler: But what kind of progress? What kind of progress? This is what we keep talking about. And I don’t understand, when you say, “We’ve made progress.” How have we made progress when the president of the United States has been constantly questioned because he is partially a Black man? And so you talk progress — and this is the kind of talk we’re going to hear all week long after this.

TA: But he’s president, madam.

AB: He is president.

TA: Well, that’s a pretty big deal…

AB: That is a big deal, but to some people in this country, like Dylann Roof, that is the end of this country. That’s why you had the kind of phrase that he said, that all your politicians, the right Republican politicians have been saying, “Take our country back.” And so, I want to talk about the rhetoric that’s happened…

Ashbrook has a point about progress, of course, but it’s just the wrong time to say that, days after a racist massacre that seems as timeless as a Black-churches burning. At that moment there could be no progress.

For whatever reason, Ashbrook turned to progress on the interpersonal level:

TA: We did see White people in South Carolina, in Charleston, pour into the churches alongside African Americans over this weekend.

AB: Yes we did. But you need to understand the distinction here. I don’t doubt that there are well-meaning, good White people, good White Christians, who are appalled at this. I understand that. But when you have a structural system that continues to do this kind of racial profiling, the kinds of things that are going on with the police in this country, the kinds of issues that we’ve had. The problem becomes this: you can talk about progress all you want, but reality is another thing altogether.

Again, it’s progress, but focusing on it at that moment is basically #AllLivesMatter. President Obama also tried to keep his eyes on the prize, in his appearance on the WTF podcast:

Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say “nigger” in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.

Outrage ensued about his use of “nigger,” but White House Press Secretary Josh “earnest non-racist white guy” Earnest doubled down:

The President’s use of the word and the reason that he used the word could not be more apparent from the context of his discussion on the podcast.  The President made clear that it’s not possible to judge the nation’s progress on race issues based solely on an evaluation of our country’s manners.  The fact is that we’ve made undeniable progress in this country over the last several decades, and as the President himself has often said, anyone who lived in this country through the ‘50s and the ‘60s and the ‘70s and the ‘80s notes the tremendous progress that we’ve made.  That progress is undeniable. But what’s also undeniable is that there is more work that needs to be done, and there’s more that we can do.  And the fact is everyone in this country should take some inspiration from the progress that was made in the previous generation and use that as a motivation and an inspiration to try to make further progress toward a more perfect union.

Now is no time to talk about progress, some say. With Black church members being gunned down and churches burning, and one appalling, outrageous video after another showing the abuse of Black citizens by police, having a Black president is not a victory. So much so that maybe he’s not really Black at all. Frank Roberts writes of Obama’s “Amazing Grace” moment:

With Obama … blackness has been reduced to a theatrical prop; a shuck-and-jive entertainment device that keeps (black) audiences believing that the President “feels their pain” — at precisely the same time that he fails to provide a substantive policy response to black unemployment, over-incarceration, and/or racialized state violence.

The social scientist in me objects, because the rate of progress is not determined by the victory or tragedy of the moment, or by the blackness of a man. And Obama probably has done more than any other president (at least recently) to address Black unemployment, incarceration, and racialized state violence. That’s not a moral or political statement — and it doesn’t imply “enough” — it’s an empirical one.

Movements use good news for legitimacy and bad news for urgency.  When something goes well, they need to claim credit and also make sure their supporters know there is more work to be done. When something awful happens they place the troubles in the context of a narrative of struggle, but they don’t want to appear powerless because that saps support and undermines morale.

An extended version of this post is at Family Inequality.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

I am a White Woman. No More Murder in My Name.

Many important things will be said in the next few weeks about the murder of nine people holding a prayer meeting at a predominantly African American church yesterday. Assuming that Dylann Roof is the murderer and that he made the proclamation being quoted in the media, I want to say: “I am a white woman. No more murder in my name.”

Before gunning down a room full of black worshippers, Roof reportedly said:

I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.

For my two cents, I want to suggest that Roof’s alleged act was motivated by racism, first and foremost, but also sexism. In particular, a phenomenon called benevolent sexism.

Sociologists use the term to describe the attribution of positive traits to women that, nonetheless, justify their subordination to men. For example, women may be described as good with people, but this is believed to make them perform poorly in competitive arenas like work, sports, or politics. Better that they leave that to the men. Women are wonderful with children, they say, but this is used to suggest that they should take primary responsibility for unpaid, undervalued domestic work. Better that they let men support them.

And, the one that Roof used to rationalize his racist act was: Women are beautiful, but their grace makes them fragile. Better that they stand back and let men defend them. This argument is hundreds of years old, of course. It’s most clearly articulated in the history of lynching in which black men were routinely violently murdered by white mobs using the excuse that they raped a white woman.

I stand with Jessie Daniel Ames and her “revolt against chivalry” in the 1920s and ’30s. Ames was one of the first white women to speak out against lynching, arguing that its rationale was sexist as well as racist. Roof is the modern equivalent of this white mob. He believes that he and other white men own me and women like me — “you rape our women,” he said possessively — and so he justified gunning down innocent black people on my behalf. You are vulnerable, he’s whispering to me, let me protect you.

All oppression is interconnected. The matrix of domination must come down. I am a white woman. No more murder in my name.

This essay was expanded for The Conversation and cross-posted at the Washington Post.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Whether You Call It “Protest” or “Rioting” May Depend on Your Race

On average, white and black Americans have different ideas as to what’s behind the recent unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll of 508 adults found that nearly two-thirds of African Americans felt that the unrest reflected “long-standing frustrations about police mistreatment of African Americans,” compared to less than one-third of whites.

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In contrast, among whites, 58% believed that African Americans were just looking for an “excuse to engage in looting and violence.” A quarter of black respondents thought the same.

Though they may see it differently, almost everyone expects the uprising to reach more cities over the summer.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Great Moments in Peaceful Protest History

2 (1)By Matt Lubchansky at The Nib. See more comics here or support the comic.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

On Playboy’s New Feminism

I’m going to start this post even though I don’t have an ending.

About a year ago I was asked to start writing for Playboy. The editor said that he was helping to transform the magazine’s website into one that “was a destination for smart writing on sex.” I said that I’d keep the offer in mind but, between you and me, the answer was no.

Around the same time, I heard of some other high-profile feminist writers being invited as well. “Huh,” I thought, “they may actually be serious about this.”

Since then, I’ve ended up on the Playboy website a couple of times, following links by like-minded people who found material they thought was valuable. I’ve been surprised and tentatively impressed. Then, this week there was a flurry of links to a piece by Noah Berlatsky, deftly and smartly analyzing feminist responses to trans woman Laverne Cox’s decision to pose nude for Allure.

The article began with a cropped screenshot of Cox’s photograph featuring her face and de-emphasizing her body and a quote from Cox about the widespread belief that black women and trans women, and especially black trans women, can’t be beautiful.

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Berlatsky then goes on to discuss the challenges intersectionality poses to feminism, conflicts within feminism about whether trans women count as women, debates over cosmetic surgery and the problem with trying to live up to patriarchal standards of beauty, and whether Cox’s decision to pose naked is degrading. You don’t have to agree with all Berlatsky says to notice that he is no stranger to feminist theory.

Moreover, he seems to look upon Cox’s photograph with a delicate and sensitive gaze, describing what he sees like this:

Cox is not fashion-model-thin. She’s not fashion-model-petite or willowy, either. She has very large hands, which are not hidden, boldly displayed. In the photo, Cox lies on a blanket; her body taut rather than relaxed, her head in one big, strong hand, eyes closed, a slight smile on her face — like she’s a little embarrassed and amused at being embarrassed. She’s voluptuous and awkward and sweet all at once. In her simultaneous enjoyment of and discomfort before the camera, she seems, in the frankly staged pose, startlingly natural — and beautiful.

As I reached the end of the article, I was considering sharing a post from Playboy for the very first time. Then, this happened:

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That’s a screenshot of a pop-up that arrived on my screen when I reached the end of Berlatsky’s thoughtful, feminist essay. It says: “Enter your email to see a 45-year-old with an amazing booty.” In other words, “Click right now to see a woman still fuckable after 40!” (And here I’m going to just go with the idea that this is sexist, but not engage with the extensive feminist theorizing about pornography.)

This is where I’m at a loss.

Is this what change looks like? Is this what change looks like, specifically, when it comes from inside of an organization? A slow, stuttering shift from misogyny to feminism, replete with missteps and contradictions?

Who’s in charge over there? What is their strategic plan? Are they trying to appropriate feminism? It’s not like they haven’t done it before. What role do they see this feminist discourse playing in a space that’s still so misogynist?

Or is the right hand just not paying attention to what the left hand is doing? Maybe Berlatsky was as surprised by the pop-up as I was, thinking “Come on, guys!” Or do they not think that their pop-up was sexist at all?

And, from a feminist perspective, does this do anyone any good? I don’t mean this rhetorically. I honestly don’t know how to answer that question. And, on the flipside, could this hurt feminist activism?

What say you?

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Only 6% of College Presidents Think that Sexual Crime is Prevalent on Their Campus

The White House has made preventing sexual assaults on college campuses a priority, The Hunting Ground documents extensive institutional denial and malfeasance, the Department of Justice finds that one in five college women are assaulted, research shows that 1 in 25 college men is a serial rapist, and students at almost 100 campuses have filed federal complaints against their schools.

Yet, according to a study of 647 college presidents, only a third (32%) believe that sexual assault is prevalent on college campuses in general and only a tiny minority (6%) think it’s prevalent on their own campus.

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This is stunning. Never before in history has the problem of sexual assault on campus been better documented. The media has never covered the issue so thoroughly, frequently, and sympathetically. We are in a moment of national reflection. Under these circumstances, a quarter of college presidents claim that sexual assault isn’t prevalent anywhere and 78% deny that it’s prevalent on their own campus.

These were confidential surveys, so impression management can’t explain these numbers. Those 94% of college presidents who don’t think that sexual crimes are prevalent at their schools either think the numbers are wrong, think their own institutions are exceptions, or think that one in five isn’t fairly described as “prevalent.” Or maybe some combination of the above.

No wonder faculty are frustrated and students around the country have felt forced to turn to the federal government for help. It’s clear. College presidents are either recklessly ignorant or willfully in denial — that, or they simply don’t believe women or don’t care about them.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Anita Sarkeesian and the Workings of Power

Sociologists are interested in the workings of power. How is inequality produced and sustained? What discursive and institutional forces uphold it? How are obvious injustices made invisible or legitimized? Why is it so hard to change hearts, minds, and societies?

How does all this work?

Earlier this month, a sliver of insight was posted. It’s a clip of a speech by Anita Sarkeesian in which she reveals what it’s like for one person to be the target of sustained, online harassment.

In 2009, Sarkeesian launched Feminist Frequency, a series of web logs in which she made feminist arguments about representation of women in pop culture. In 2012, she launched a kickstarter to fund an ambitious plan to analyze the representation of women in video games. This drew the attention of gamers who opposed her project on principle and thus began an onslaught of abuse: daily insults and threats of rape and murder, photoshop harassment, bomb threats, and a video game in which her face can be beaten bloody, just to mention a few examples. Last fall she canceled a speech at Utah State University because someone threatened to commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if she went on. It’s been brutal and it’s never stopped.

So, is this power at work? Has she been silenced? And has her larger project – awareness of sexism and misogyny in video games – been harmed?

I’m not sure.

As an individual, Sarkeesian has continued to speak out about the issue, but how she does so and with what frequency has been aggressively curtailed by the harassment. In the four-and-a-half minute clip, with the theme “What I Couldn’t Say,” she talks about how the harassment has changed how she engages with the public. I offer some tidbits below, but here’s the full clip:

She explains:

I rarely feel comfortable speaking spontaneously in public spaces, I’m intentional and careful about the  media interviews I do, I decline  most invitations to be on podcasts or web shows, I carefully consider the wording of every tweet to make sure it is clear and can’t be misconstrued. Over the last several years, I’ve become hypervigilant. My life, my words, and my actions are placed under a magnifying glass. Every day I see my words scrutinized, twisted, and distorted by thousands of men hell bent on destroying and silencing me.

How she gets her message across has been affected as well:

[I cant’ say] anything funny… I almost never make jokes anymore on YouTube… I don’t do it because viewers often interpret humor and sarcasm as ignorance… You would not believe how often jokes are taken as proof that I don’t know what I’m talking about… even when those jokes rely on a deep knowledge of the source material.

And she feels that, above all, she’s not allowed to talk about the harm that her harassers are doing:

I don’t’ get to publicly express sadness, or rage, or exhaustion, or anxiety, or depression… I don’t get to express feelings of fear or how tiring it is to be constantly vigilant of my physical and digital surroundings… In our society, women are not allowed to express feelings without being characterized as hysterical, erratic bitchy, highly emotional, or overly sensitive. Our experiences of insecurity, doubt, anger, or sadness are all policed and often used against us.

A youtube search for the video reveals a slew of anti-Sarkeesian responses were published within days.

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Sarkeesian’s revelations put an inspiring human face on the sacrifice individuals make to fight-the-good-fight, but also reveal that, in some ways, her harassers are winning.

That said, their grotesque display of misogyny has raised Sarkeesian’s profile and drawn attention to and legitimized her project and her message. That original kickstarter? The original call was for $6,000. Her supporters donated almost $159,000. The feminist backlash to the misogynist backlash was swift and monied.

Ever since, the abuse she’s suffered as an individual has made the issue of both sexism in video games and online harassment more visible. Her pain may have been good for the visibility of the movement. I wonder, though, what message it sends to other women and men who want to pursue similar social justice initiatives. It is a cautionary tale that may dampen others’ willingness to fight.

The battle is real. The gamers who oppose Sarkeesian and what she stands for have succeeded in quieting, if not silencing her and have probably discouraged others from entering the fray. But Sarkeesian’s cause and the problem of gamer misogyny is more visible than ever. The fight goes on.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Who Kills Themselves Binge Drinking? It’s Not Who You Think

At Everyday Sociology, sociologist Karen Sternheimer made a nice observation about the problem of teen drinking. It’s not our biggest alcohol problem.

According to the CDC, the age group most likely to die from binge drinking is people 35-64 years old. In fact, three out of every four alcohol poisoning deaths are in this age group — 4.5 out of a total of 6 a day — and 76% of them are men, especially ones who earn over $70,000 a year.777

So why all the PSAs aimed at teens?

Sternheimer argues that the focus on teens has to do with who what groups are identified as problematic populations. In the 1800s and early 1900s, she points out, laws were passed in several states making it illegal for African Americans and Native Americans to drink alcohol. Immigrants were also targeted.

Young people weren’t targeted until the student rebellions of the 1960s and ’70s. Like the “protest psychosis” attributed to black Civil Rights activists, the anti-establishment activism of young people was partly blamed on drug and alcohol use.

Today, she observes, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism focuses its attention on young people, minorities, women, and people with HIV.

It’s about power. She writes:

White, middle-class men over thirty typically have more social power than the groups commonly targeted as problems. They also vote, and no sane politician is going to campaign warning of the danger some of these men cause and how we can control them.

Not to mention, she says, how the alcohol industry would feel about the government telling their richest customers to curb their drinking. They much prefer that PSAs focus on young people. “This industry can well afford the much-touted ‘We Card’ programs,” says Sternheimer, “because teens usually don’t have the money for the expensive stuff that their parents can buy.”

The industry’s marketing to wealthy, white men, then, goes unchecked.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.