Tag Archives: history

James Baldwin on the Idea that He Should Trust the Hearts of White People

In the clip below, James Baldwin powerfully explains why he, as a black man, has no reason to assume that white people care about him and his people.

Responding to Dick Cavett, he says, “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.”

He goes on to present a devastating list of ways in which American institutions are segregated and biased.  He concludes:

Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith — risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children — on some idealization which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.

It was 1968, four years after the Civil Rights Act.  This year marks its 50th anniversary. How much have things changed?

Hat tip to Tim Wise. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

Bathing Suit Fashion and the Project of Gender

I came across this ad for bathing suits from the 1920s and was struck by how similar the men’s and women’s suits were designed.  Hers might have some extra coverage up top and feature a tight skirt over shorts instead of just shorts but, compared to what you see on beaches today, they are essentially the same bathing suit.

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So, why are the designs for men’s and women’s bathing suits so different today? Honestly, either one could be gender-neutral. Male swimmers already wear Speedos; the fact that the man in the ad above is covering his chest is evidence that there is a possible world in which men do so. I can see men in bikinis. Likewise, women go topless on some beaches and in some countries and it can’t be any more ridiculous for them to swim in baggy knee-length shorts than it is for men to do so.

But, that’s not how it is.  Efforts to differentiate men and women through fashion have varied over time.  It can be a response to a collective desire to emphasize or minimize difference, like these unisex pants marketed in the 1960s and 70s.  It can also be, however, a backlash to those same impulses.  When differences between men and women in education, leisure, and work start to disappear – as they are right now – some might cling even tighter to the few arenas in which men and women can be made to seem very different.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

Saturday Stat: The Invention of the “Illegal Immigrant”

Citing the immigration scholar, Francesca Pizzutelli, Fabio Rojas explains that the phrase “illegal immigrant” wasn’t a part of the English language before the 1930s.  More often, people used the phrase “irregular immigrant.”   Instead of an evaluative term, it was a descriptive one referring to people who moved around and often crossed borders for work.

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Rojas points out that the language began to change after anti-immigration laws were passed by Congress in the 1920s.  The graph above also reveals a steep climb in both “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” beginning in the ’70s.

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.

What Does It Mean to be Authentically Cajun?

Flashback Friday.

The term “Cajun” refers to a group of people who settled in Southern Louisiana after being exiled from Acadia (now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island) in the mid 1700s.  For a very long time, being Cajun meant living, humbly, off the land and bayou (small-scale agriculture, hunting, fishing, and trapping).  Unique cuisine and music developed among these communities.

In Blue Collar Bayou, Jaques Henry and Carl Bankston III explain that today more than 70% live in urban areas and most work in blue collar jobs in service industries, factories, or the oil industry. “Like other working-class and middle-class Americans,’ they write, “the Southwestern Louisianan of today is much more likely to buy dinner at the Super Kmart than to trap it in the bayou” (p. 188).

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But they don’t argue that young Cajuns who live urban lifestyles and work in factories are no longer authentically Cajun.  Instead, they suggest that the whole notion of ethnic authenticity is dependent on economic change.

When our economy was a production economy (that is, who you are is what you make), it made sense that Cajun-ness was linked to how one made a living.  But, today, in a consumption economy (when our identities are tied up with what we buy), it makes sense that Cajun-ness involves consumption of products like food and music.

Of course, commodifying Cajun-ness (making it something that you can buy) means that, now, anyone can purchase and consume it.  Henry and Bankston see this more as a paradox than a problem, arguing that the objectification and marketing of “Cajun” certainly makes it sellable to non-Cajuns, but does not take away from its meaningfulness to Cajuns themselves.  Tourism, they argue, “encourages Cajuns to act out their culture both for commercial gain and cultural preservation” (p. 187).

Photos borrowed from GQ, EW, and My New Orleans.  Originally posted in 2009.

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.

Caveman Courtship and its Mythology

Flashback Friday.

Somewhere we got the idea that “caveman” courtship involved a man clubbing a woman over the head and dragging her by the hair to his cave where he would, presumably, copulate with an unconscious or otherwise unwilling woman.  This idea, as these two products show, is generally considered good for a chuckle.

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(glasses sent in by Cole S.H.)

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(tray for sale at the Rose Bowl Flea Market, photo by me)

Of course, we have little to no knowledge of the social lives of early humans.  First, long buried bodies and archeological dig sites simply can’t tell us much about how men and women interacted.  Second, to speculate about early humans based on humans today is to project the present onto the past.  To speculate about early humans based on today’s apes is (at least) as equally suspect.  Ape behavior varies tremendously anyway, even among our closest cousins. Which type do we choose?  The violent and hierarchical chimp or the peace-loving Bonobos who solve all social strife with sex?

In other words, the caveman-club-’er-over-the-head-and-drag-her-by-the-hair narrative is pure mythology. The mythology, nonetheless, affirms the idea that men are naturally coercive and violent by suggesting that our most natural and socially-uncorrupted male selves will engage in this sort of behavior.  Rape, that is.

The idea also affirms the teleological idea that society is constantly improving and, therefore, getting closer and closer to ideals like gender equality.  If it’s true that “we’re getting better all the time,” then we assume that, whatever things are like now, they must have been worse before.  And however things were then, they must have been even worse before that.  And so on and so forth until we get all the way back to the clubbing caveman.

Thinking like this may encourage us to stop working to make society better because we assume it will get better anyway (and certainly won’t get worse).  Instead of thinking about what things like gender equality and subordination might look like, then, we just assume that equality is, well, what-we-have-now and subordination is what-they-had-then.  This makes it less possible to fight against the subordination that exists now by making it difficult to recognize.

The idea of caveman courtship, in other words, seems silly and innocuous.  But it actually helps to naturalize men’s aggressive pursuit of sex with women.  And that naturalization is part of why it is so difficult to disrupt rape myths and stop rape.

Originally posted in 2008 and cross-posted at Ms. magazine.

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.

Saturday Stat: Median Household Wealth Fell by 1/3 since 2003

According to a June 2014 Russell Sage Foundation report, the average U.S. household experienced a real wealth decline of more than one-third over the 10 years ending in 2013.

Table 1 shows that the net worth of the median household fell from $87,992 in 2003 to $56,335 in 2013, for a decline of 36%.  In fact, the last ten years were hard on the overwhelming majority of American households.  Only the top 2 groups enjoyed wealth gains over the period.  Also noteworthy is the tiny net worth of households below the median.

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Figure 1 provides a longer term perspective on wealth movements.  We can see that most households enjoyed growing wealth from 1984 to the 2007 crisis, with wealth falling across the board since.  However, the median household is now significantly poorer than it was in 1984.  Only the richer households managed to maintain most of their earlier gains in wealth.

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These trends highlight the fact that we have a growing inequality of wealth, as well as of income, and they are not likely to reverse on their own.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Modern Politics, the Slave Economy, and Geological Time

Flashback Friday.

I have borrowed the information and images below from Jeff Fecke at Alas A Blog.  His discussion, if you’re interested, is more in depth.

There is a winding line of counties stretching from Louisiana to South Carolina, a set of states that largely voted for McCain in 2008, that went for Obama.  The map below shows how counties voted in blue and red and you can clearly see this interesting pattern.

 

These counties went overwhelmingly for Obama in part because there is large black population.  Often called the “Black Belt,” these counties more so than the surrounding ones were at one time home to cotton plantations and, after slavery was ended, many of the freed slaves stayed.  This image nicely demonstrates the relationship between the blue counties and cotton production in 1860:

 

But why was there cotton production there and not elsewhere?  The answer to this question is a geological one and it takes us all the way back to 65 million years ago when the seas were higher and much of the southern United States was under water.  This image illustrates the shape of the land mass during that time:

I’ll let Jeff take it from here:

Along the ancient coastline, life thrived, as usually does. It especially thrived in the delta region, the Bay of Tennessee, if you will. Here life reproduced, ate, excreted, lived, and died. On the shallow ocean floor, organic debris settled, slowly building a rich layer of nutritious debris. Eventually, the debris would rise as the sea departed, becoming a thick, rich layer of soil that ran from Louisiana to South Carolina.

65 million years later, European settlers in America would discover this soil, which was perfect for growing cotton.

So there you have it: the relationship between today’s political map, the economy, and 65 million years ago.

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.

One Hundred Years of the Fridge

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Since their invention in 1913, and since this Kelvinator ad first ran in 1955, refrigerators became bigger, better, and went from a luxury to a necessity. It’s nearly impossible to imagine life today without having somewhere to store your vegetables and a place to keep your leftovers: in the one hundred years it’s been around, the fridge altered our grocery shopping habits and our attitudes towards food.

Appliance companies and advertisers worked hard to transform refrigerators from “a brand new concept in luxurious living” to an everyday household object. They succeeded in the 1960s, after years of fine-tuning its features to appeal to the middle-class housewife, writes historian Shelley Nickles. Besides ensuring the fridges were spacious, easy to clean, and had adjustable shelving, designers even took care of minutiae such as including warmer compartments – so that the butter kept in them would be easier to spread. Having attracted the housewives’ attention and become affordable with ideas such as government-sponsored fridges floating around, the appliances made their way into middle-class homes.

Buying too many perishable items suddenly became a minor concern. Buy one, get one free! Get more value for your money – purchase a bigger container! As the number of fridge compartments increased, so did the number of refrigeration-dependent foods and “supersize” deals offered in stores (or the other way around). Ultimately, grocery shoppers – mainly women – returned home with more food than they otherwise would have. Fridges enabled families to stock up, and the major weekend grocery haul was born. Now we have this:

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But while having a fridge to store all the groceries made it possible to save more on “deals” at the supermarket, it also enabled us to waste more later on. That is because the fridge operates much like a time machine, but not without its limits. Sociologists Elizabeth Shove and Dale Southerton describe freezers as appliances that allow us to manage time: in addition to no longer having to shop multiple times per week, we can now prepare our meals in advance. The same holds for refrigerators.

Food has its own rhythm, however, and a fridge can only delay the inevitable for so long. Leftovers simultaneously get pushed down in the hierarchy of what we’d like to eat, and pushed back on refrigerator shelf, only to be forgotten and perhaps rediscovered when it’s already too late. An exotic fruit rots in the produce compartment after its exciting novelty wore off, and we were no longer sure what to do with it. And so they all end up in the trash. Domestic food waste only represents part of all the food thrown away in the U.S. today – about a third of all that is produced – but the way fridges altered out food purchasing and consumption habits is partly to blame.

Not all is bad, however. Fridges not only allow us to eat a greater variety of foods and be more efficient in our everyday lives, we use them as centers of communication and managing household life. And as they become smarter, more energy-efficient, and with some individuals refusing to use them altogether, these cultural objects will doubtless have more stories to tell in the next hundred years.

Teja Pristavec is a graduate student in the sociology department, and an IHHCPAR Excellence Fellow,  at Rutgers University. She blogs at A Serving of Sociology, where this post originally appeared.