Tag Archives: organizations/institutions

Crime Sprees or Media Themes? Organizing the News

Way back in 1978, Mark Fishman wrote an article titled “Crime Waves as Ideology.”  It referred to the way in which TV news gets organized thematically in ways that make non-trends appear to be trends.  Fishman pointed out that the news directors can unwittingly create media crime waves — sudden increases in the number of stories even as the the actual number of crimes remains unchanged.  Once the theme is established, it’s just a matter of combing the city or the entire country for incidents that fit.  Today we’re so used to it that when we watch the local news at eleven, we barely notice.

Now, thanks to hyperlinks, online news can do the same thematic grouping.  Consider: on a recent Sunday, both New York tabloids put the same story on page one — the stabbing death of a woman and four children in their apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

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Early word from the police was that “it’s looking a domestic violence case.” Apparently the killer knew the victims and may have been a relative.

What caught my attention was the “related” story that the Daily News linked to on its website version of the story.  What kind of story might be related?  A story about the family?  About difficulties faced by Chinese immigrants or conflicts within an immigrant community?  About mental illness and violence?  About ethnic and demographic changes in Sunset Park?   No.  None of the above.  The related story is actually an entirely unrelated story.

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The story the Daily News chose as “related” concerns the “Green Gang goon who was caught on video slugging a female New England Patriots fan in the face after the Jets’ upset victory” a week earlier. It turns out that in a fight twenty years ago, when he was 17, he fatally stabbed another kid.  He served three years.

How are these two stories related? There is no connection between the two killers or their victims. The incidents are separated by two decades.  The motives and circumstances are entirely different.  If the Jets fan had not been caught on camera punching the female Patriots fan, no journalist following the Sunday killing would have dug up information on this crime of twenty years ago in an attempt to elaborate on the Sunset Park killings.  Knowing about that “related” crime gives us no better understanding of Sunday’s stabbing.

Instead, the two stories are related by a common theme — they are both about killing where the weapon is a knife.  The Daily News seems to be taking a page from Amazon’s marketing strategy. “Readers who liked this story also liked . . .”  or Netflix recommendations. Television news often groups stories thematically. A story about a commercial arson in one part of town will be followed by a story about an accidental fire in a house in a distant neighborhood. The circumstances, location, and causes of the two fires are completely different, and if the big fire had not occurred, that house fire might not have been newsworthy.  But that night, it fit with the fire theme.

Here is another example in a screengrab from the Daily News website:

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A stabbing at the University of Indiana. The related stories are a stabbing death of a teacher in Long Beach, California and of a teacher in a Texas high school.

So, students stabbing people at schools — is that a real trend? Probably not, but it is a news theme.

Cross-posted at Montclair Socioblog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

When Jews Dominated Professional Basketball

Kids growing up in dense, urban environments often turn to basketball as their sport of choice.  This is partly because it fits, in a physical sense.  All things being equal, a basketball court takes up a lot less room than a football or soccer field.  For the economically disadvantaged, it’s also relatively cheap to play.  If you have a court available, you only need a pair of shoes and a ball.  For this reason, whatever population finds itself in this type of environment tends to take up basketball.

That’s why the sport was dominated by Jews in the first half of the 1900s.  Just like many African-Americans today, at that time many immigrant Jewish families found themselves isolated in inner cities.  Basketball seemed like a way out.  “It was absolutely a way out of the ghetto,” explained retired ball player Dave Dabrow.  Basketball scholarships were one of the few ways low income urban Jews could afford college.

Jewish basketball team (1921-22):

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Today we refer to stereotypes about Black men to explain why they dominate basketball, but this is an after-the-fact justification.  At the time, very different characteristics — stereotypes associated with Jews — were used to explain why they dominated professional teams. Paul Gallico, sports editor of the NY Daily News in the 1930s, explained that “the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness.”  All stereotypes about Jews.  Moreover, he argued, Jews were rather short and so had “God-given better balance and speed.”  Yep.  There was a time when we thought being short was an advantage in the sport of basketball.

Never underestimate the power of institutions and how much things can change.

New York Knicks (1946-1947):

1946 New York Knicks Team PhotoCross-posted at Pacific Standard.

 

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

“Hard Out Here”: Lily Allen Skewers the Music Industry

If the past few months in the music industry have left you demoralized — what with the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and all — Lily Allen might make you feel better, emphasis on might.  Her single, with the sarcastic refrain “It’s hard out here for a bitch,” satirizes all of it and takes some ugly missteps along the way.  In doing so, she reinvigorates an important conversation about satire, race politics, and feminism.

1.  Surrounding herself with twerking black women, she makes a reference to Miley Cyrus’ use of women of color as props in her VMA appearance:

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2.  She points to the extreme standards of beauty for pop stars, singing the lyrics “You should probably lose some weight/’Cause we can’t see your bones” and beginning the video in surgery alongside a discussion about her “terrifying” post-baby body:

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3.  She refers to the “rape-y” lyrics of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, singing:

Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you?
Have you thought about your butt?
Who’s gonna tear it in two?

This is a retort to Thicke’s line, “I’ll give you something to tear your ass in two.”

4.  She refers to the Sinead O’Connor/Amanda Palmer debate about whether women in the music industry have agency.  Breaking the fourth wall, the video features a middle-aged, white male executive in a suit telling her to treat a banana like a penis and showing her and her dancers how to twerk.

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5.  Finally, she goes after materialism and product placement:

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Her final lines:

Inequality promises that it’s here to stay
Always trust injustice/in justice ’cause it’s not goin’ away

Interestingly, I’m not sure if the lyric is “injustice” or “in justice.” Or both!

What to Make of It All?

Not everyone is loving this video.  Some are arguing that she is using her race and class privilege to take advantage of the debate; her use of women of color as props, for example, is no different than Cyrus’.  Even if the frame is satire, the visual is the same.

Some of her lyrics mock rap and hip hop generally, making it a racialized scapegoat for everything that’s wrong in the world, which happens.  She sings, “I won’t be bragging about my cars/Or talking about my chains.”  In one scene she washes rims surrounded by champagne, in another she mocks the car culture associated with hip hop.

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Screenshot_5Even if her satire were straight on, there’s always the risk that people won’t get it, despite the fact that she refers to it directly.  This is a serious risk as indicated by the fact that a significant proportion of politically conservative viewers of The Colbert Report don’ t know he’s kidding.

I’ll be interested to see the conversation about the song and video as it plays out.  In the meantime, I’m pleased for the reminder that the music industry isn’t monolithic.

First, there are people in the industry that object to racism, sexism, and materialism: Lily Allen, I think, but also likely many of the people who worked with her to make this song and video happen.

Second, there’s money in fighting back.  This highly produced single and video would not be here if executives didn’t think it would be profitable.  They think  there are people out there who are sick of exploitation in the music industry… and they’re right.

Alternatively, this is just a modified version of the same exploitation that Cyrus is guilty of: a feminism that serves white women well, but continues to marginalize women of color.

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

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

U.S. Corporations are Hoarding Wealth at Highest Rate Since 1971

The dominant firms in the U.S. and other major capitalist counties are happily making profits, but they aren’t interested in investing them in new plants and equipment that increase productivity and create jobs.  Rather they prefer to use their earnings to acquire other firms, reward their managers and shareholders, or increase their holdings of cash and other financial assets.

The chart below, taken from a Michael Burke post in the Irish Left Review, shows trends in both U.S profits and investment .

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As you can see the increase in profits (in orange) has swamped the increase in investment (in blue) over the relevant time period; in fact, investment in current dollars has actually been falling.

Looking at the ratio between these two variables helps us see even more clearly the growth in firm reluctance to channel profits into investment.  The investment ratio (investment/profits) was 62% in 1971, peaked at 69% in 1979, fell to 61% in 2000 and 56% in 2008, and dropped to an even lower 46% in 2012.

According to Burke,  if U.S. firms were simply to invest at the level they did in 1979, not even the peak, the increase in investment in the American economy would exceed $1.5 trillion, close to 10% of GDP.

The same dynamic is observable in the other main capitalist economies:

In 1995 the investment ratio in the Euro Area was 51.7% and by 2008 it was 53.2%. It fell to 47.1% in 2012. In Britain the investment ratio peaked at 76% in 1975 but by 2008 had fallen to 53%. In 2012 it was just 42.9% (OECD data).

So what are firms doing with their money? As Burke explains:

The uninvested portion of firms’ surplus essentially has only two destinations, either as a return to the holders of capital (both bondholders and shareholders), or is hoarded in the form of financial assets. In the case of the U.S. and other leading capitalist economies both phenomena have been observed. The nominal returns to capital have risen (even while the investment ratio has fallen) and financial assets including cash balances have also risen.

So, with firms seeing no privately profitable outlet for their funds, despite great societal needs, their owners appear content to reward themselves and sock away the rest in the financial system.  In many ways this turns out to be a self-reinforcing dynamic.  No wonder things are so bad for so many.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

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

The Revenge Fantasy: Django Unchained vs. 12 Years a Slave

Many critics are praising 12 Years a Slave for its uncompromising honesty about slavery. It offers not one breath of romanticism about the ante-bellum South.  No Southern gentlemen getting all noble about honor and no Southern belles and their mammies affectionately reminiscing or any of that other Gone With the Wind crap, just an inhuman system. 12 Years depicts the sadism not only as personal (though the film does have its individual sadists) but as inherent in the system – essential, inescapable, and constant.

Now, Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic points out something else about 12 Years as a movie, something most critics missed – its refusal to follow the usual feel-good cliche plot convention of American film:

If we were working with the logic of Glory or Django, Northup would have to regain his manhood by standing up to his attackers and besting them in combat.

Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy. In the typical version, our peaceful hero is just minding his own business when the bad guy or guys deliberately commit some terrible insult or offense, which then justifies the hero unleashing violence – often at cataclysmic levels – upon the baddies. One glance at the poster for Django, and you can pretty much guess most of the story.

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It’s the comic-book adolescent fantasy – the nebbish that the other kids insult when they’re not just ignoring him but who then ducks into a phone booth or says his magic word and transforms himself into the avenging superhero to put the bad guys in their place.

This scenario sometimes seems to be the basis of U.S. foreign policy. An insult or slight, real or imaginary, becomes the justification for “retaliation” in the form of destroying a government or an entire country along with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of its people. It seems pretty easy to sell that idea to us Americans – maybe because the revenge-fantasy scenario is woven deeply into American culture –  and it’s only in retrospect that we wonder how Iraq or Vietnam ever happened.

Django Unchained and the rest are a special example of a more general story line much cherished in American movies: the notion that all problems – psychological, interpersonal, political, moral – can be resolved by a final competition, whether it’s a quick-draw shootout or a dance contest.  (I’ve sung this song before in this blog, most recently here after I saw Silver Linings Playbook.)

Berlatsky’s piece on 12 Years points out something else I hadn’t noticed but that the Charles Atlas ad makes obvious: it’s all about masculinity. Revenge is a dish served almost exclusively at the Y-chromosome table.  The women in the story play a peripheral role as observers of the main event – an audience the hero is aware of – or as prizes to be won or, infrequently, as the hero’s chief source of encouragement, though that role usually goes to a male buddy or coach.

But when a story jettisons the manly revenge theme, women can enter more freely and fully.

12 Years a Slave though, doesn’t present masculinity as a solution to slavery, and as a result it’s able to think about and care about women as people rather than as accessories or MacGuffins.

Scrapping the revenge theme can also broaden the story’s perspective from the personal to the political (i.e., the sociological):

 12 Years a Slave doesn’t see slavery as a trial that men must overcome on their way to being men, but as a systemic evil that leaves those in its grasp with no good choices.

From that perspective, the solution lies not merely in avenging evil acts and people but in changing the system and the assumptions underlying it, a much lengthier and more difficult task. After all, revenge is just as much an aspect of that system as are the insults and injustices it is meant to punish. When men start talking about their manhood or their honor, there’s going to be blood, death, and destruction – sometimes a little, more likely lots of it.

One other difference between the revenge fantasy and political reality: in real life results of revenge are often short-lived. Killing off an evildoer or two doesn’t do much to end the evil. In the movies, we don’t have to worry about that. After the climactic revenge scene and peaceful coda, the credits roll, and the house lights come up. The End. In real life though, we rarely see a such clear endings, and we should know better than to believe a sign that declares “Mission Accomplished.”

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

150 Years of Racism: Attitudes in the American South

The partial U.S. map below shows the proportion of the population that was identified as enslaved in the 1860 census.  County by county, it reveals where the economy was most dominated by slavery.

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A new paper by Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen has discovered that the proportion of enslaved residents in 1860 — 153 years ago — predicts race-related beliefs today.   As the percent of the population in a county accounted for by the enslaved increases, there is a decreased likelihood that contemporary white residents will identify as a Democrat and support affirmative action, and an increased chance that they will express negative beliefs about black people.

Avidit and colleagues don’t stop there.  They try to figure out why.  They consider a range of possibilities, including contemporary demographics and the possibility of “racial threat” (the idea that high numbers of black people make whites uneasy), urban-rural differences, the destruction and disintegration caused by the Civil War, and more.  Controlling for all these things, the authors conclude that the results are still partly explained by a simple phenomenon: parents teaching their children.  The bias of Southern whites during slavery has been passed down intergenerationally.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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

The Relationship Between Lead and Crime

In the late 1990s, I turned down my publisher’s offer to do a third edition of my criminology textbook.  It wasn’t just that editions one and two had failed to make me a man of wealth and fame.  But it was clear that crime had changed greatly.  Rates of murder and robbery had fallen by nearly 50%; property crimes like car theft and burglary were also much lower.  Anybody writing an honest and relevant book about crime would have a lot of explaining to do.  And that would be a lot of work.

I politely declined the publisher’s offer.  They didn’t seem too upset.

If I had undertaken the project, I probably would have relied heavily on the research articles in The Crime Drop in America, edited by Al Blumstein and Joel Wallman. They rounded up the usual suspects – the solid economy, new police strategies, the incarceration boom, the stabilization of drug markets, anti-gun policies.  But we all missed something important – lead.  Children exposed to high levels of lead in early childhood are more likely to have lower IQs, higher levels of aggression, and lower impulse-control.  All those factors point to crime when children reach their teens if not earlier.

Lead had long been suspected as a toxin, and even before World War I many countries acted to ban or reduce lead in paint and gasoline.  But the U.S., thanks to the anti-regulatory efforts of the industries and support from anti-regulation, pro-business politicians, did not undertake serious lead reduction until the 1970s.

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has been writing about lead and crime. Because race differences on both variables are so great, it’s useful to look at Blacks and Whites separately.  In the late 1970s, 15% of Black children under age three had dangerously high rates of lead in their blood (30 mcg/dl or higher). Among Whites, that rate was only 2.5%.  By 1990, even with a lower criterion level of 25 mcg/dl, those rates had fallen to 1.4% and 0.4%, respectively.

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The huge reduction in lead was matched – years later when those children were old enough to commit crimes – with a reduction in crime. (note that the graphs show rates of arrest, which may somewhat exaggerate Black rates of offending):


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Much of the research pointing to lead as an important cause of crime looks at geographical areas rather than individuals.  A study might compare cities, measuring changes in lead emissions and changes in violent crime 20 years later.  But studies that follow individuals have found the same thing.  Kids with higher blood levels of lead have higher rates of crime.  The lead-crime hypothesis is fairly recent, and the evidence is not conclusive.  But my best guess is that further research will confirm the idea that getting the lead out was, and will remain, an important crime-reduction policy.

Kevin Drum also emphasizes race differences.  And here the evidence is less solid:

[A]rrest rates for violent crime have fallen much faster among black juveniles than among white juveniles…  black juvenile crime rates fell further than white juvenile crime rates because they had been artificially elevated by lead exposure at a much higher rate.

But that  depends on how you intepret the data. As the graphs of arrests show, the percentage reductions are roughly similar across races.  Among Black youths, the arrest rates for all violent crime fell from 1600 per 100,000 to less than 700 – a 57% reduction.  For Whites the reduction was from 307 to 140 or 54%. But in absolute numbers, because Black rates of criminality were so much higher, the reduction seems all the more impressive. In that sense, those rates “fell further.”

Arrest rates for Blacks are still double those of Whites for property crimes, five times higher for homicide, and nine times higher for robbery.  Lead may be a factor in those differences.  Remember the lag time between childhood lead exposure and later crime. Twenty years ago, high blood levels of lead among children 1-5 years were three times as high for Blacks as for Whites.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

What Exactly Will Happen If Black Men Pull Their Pants Up?

Screenshot_1In this five minutes, Jay Smooth attacks the “politics of respectability” and attacks it hard. What exactly will happen, he asks, if Black men pull their pants up?  Affordable housing? Well-funded schools? Job opportunities? What is this politics really about?  Our shame, internalized racism, and sense of helplessness, he says.

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