Tag Archives: prejudice/discrimination

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.

The Average White American’s Social Network is 1% Black

American divisions over the state of our country’s race relations were brought to the forefront in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s shooting by a Ferguson, MO police officer named Darren Wilson. Black Americans are more than twice as likely as whites or Hispanics to say that the killing was part of a broader pattern (source).  And blacks are twice as likely as whites to say that race played an important role in Wilson’s decision to shoot (source).

At The Atlantic, Robert Jones argues that these disparate opinions may be caused, in part, by the different life experiences of the typical white and black American. He shows data, from the American Values Survey, indicating that black people are much more likely than whites to report living in communities rife with problems, from a lack of jobs and inadequate school funding to crime and racial tension.

In the meantime, whites may be genuinely naive about what it’s like to be black in America because many of them don’t know any black people.  According to the survey, the average white American’s social network is only 1% black.  Three-quarters of white Americans haven’t had a meaningful conversation with a single non-white person in the last six months.

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In contrast, the social network of the average black American is 65% black and, among Hispanic Americans, 46% Hispanic.

The average white person’s failure to engage meaningfully with people of color isn’t solely a matter of personal choice, though that is certainly part of it.  Nor is it simply a function of the country being majority white, non-Hispanic (but not for long).  White insularity is caused, too, by occupational and residential segregation which, in turn, is the result of both individual choices and institutionalized mechanisms that keep black people in poverty and prison.

If we want the people of America to embrace justice, we must make our institutions just.

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.

Reading the Camouflage: “You are Now Enemy Combatants”

Much has been said — and much more should follow — about the militarization of the police in American cities.  The images coming out of Ferguson, MO these past weeks testify to the distribution of military-grade hardware, gear, guns, and vehicles to your everyday police officer.

Here I’d like to focus on just one small part of this distribution of military-grade equipment: the uniform.  It’s not, by a long shot, the most straightforwardly dangerous, but it is a powerful symbol.  It’s a “dead giveaway,” writes a political scientist at Gin & Tacos, that there is something amiss with the “mindset of law enforcement.”  He’s referring to the swapping of blue or tan in favor of camouflage, like in this photo by Whitney Curtis for The New York Times:

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From Gin & Tacos:

Of what conceivable practical use could green or desert camouflage be in a suburban environment? Gonna help you blend in with the Taco Bell or the liquor store? Even if they did wear something that helped conceal them, that would be counterproductive to the entire purpose of policing in a situation like that; law enforcement wants to be visible to act as a deterrent to violent or property crimes in a public disturbance.

He concludes that “[t]here is only one reason those cops would wear camo” and, if I can put words in his mouth, it’s to be frightening and intimidating.  And, perhaps, to enjoy being so.

This is clear when we think about the role that camo plays in everyday fashion. For women, it’s a fun appropriation of masculinity.  For men, it’s a way to signal “I’m tough” by reference to hunting or soldiering. What irony, after all, that black men in Ferguson were also photographed wearing camo during the unrest that followed Brown’s death.

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On their bodies, of course, the camouflage is much more benign.  In contrast, alongside kevlar, automatic rifles, and riot shields on cops, it’s terrifying. It sends a clear message to the people of Ferguson: you are now enemy combatants.

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.

W.E.B. DuBois on the Indifference of White America

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W.E.B. DuBois (1934):

The colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that most white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all Americans. A saving few are worried about the Negro problem; a still larger group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of Americans are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise.

For many years it was the theory of most Negro leaders that this attitude was the insensibility of ignorance and inexperience, that white America did not know of or realize the continuing plight of the Negro.  Accordingly, for the last two decades, we have striven by book and periodical, by speech and appeal, by various dramatic methods of agitation, to put the essential facts before the American people.  Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved.

- From “A Negro Nation Within a Nation.

Borrowed from an essay by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Photo from ibtimes.com.

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.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown Attacks Portrayals of Black Men Killed by Police

This has been a hard week.  Another young, unarmed black man was killed by police. The Root added Michael Brown’s face to a slideshow of such incidents, started after a black man named Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by officers less than one month ago.  This week’s guilty verdict in the trial of the man who shot Renisha McBride left me feeling numb.  Nothing good could come of it, but at least I didn’t feel worse.

The shooting of Michael Brown, however, is still undergoing trial by media and the verdict is swayed by the choices made by producers and directors as to how to portray him. When Marc Duggan was killed by police earlier this year, they often featured pictures in which he looked menacing, including ones that had been cropped in ways that enhanced that impression.

Left: Photo of Duggan frequently used by media; right: uncropped photo in which he holds a plaque commemorating his deceased daughter.

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As the media coverage of Brown’s death heated up, the image that first circulated of Brown was this:

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Reports state that this was his current Facebook profile picture, with the implication that media actors just picked the first or most prominent picture they saw.  Or, even, that somehow it’s Brown’s fault that this is the image they used.

Using the image above, though, is not neutrality.  At best, it’s laziness; they simply decided not to make a conscious, careful choice.  It’s their job to pick a photograph and I don’t know exactly what the guidelines are but “pick the first one you see” or “whatever his Facebook profile pic was on the day he died” is probably not among them.

There are consequential choices to be made.  As an example, here are two photos that have circulated since criticism of his portrayal began — the top more obviously sympathetic and the bottom more neutral:

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Commenting on this phenomenon, Twitter user @CJ_musick_lawya released two photos of himself, hashtagged with #iftheygunnedmedown, and asked readers which photo they thought media actors would choose.

Top: Wearing a cap and gown with former President Clinton; bottom: in sunglasses posing with a bottle and a microphone.

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The juxtaposition brilliantly revealed how easy it is to demonize a person, especially if they are a member of a social group stereotyped as violence-prone, and how important representation is.  It caught on and the imagery was repeated to powerful effect. A summary at The Root featured examples like these:

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The New York Times reports that the hashtag has been used more than 168,000 times as of  August 12th.  I want to believe that conversations like these will educate and put pressure on those with the power to represent black men and all marginalized peoples to make more responsible and thoughtful decisions.

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.

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent “Westernizing” Surgery

Eyelid surgery is the third most common cosmetic procedure in the world.  Some are necessary for drooping eyelids that interfere with vision, others are undertaken in order to enable people to look younger, but many people choose these surgeries to make their eyes look more Western or whiter, a characteristic often conflated with attractiveness.

Recently Julie Chen — a TV personality and news anchor — revealed that she had undergone eyelid and other surgeries almost 20 years ago in order to comply with the standards of beauty and “relatability” demanded of her bosses.  She released these photos in tandem with the story:

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Chen said that she was torn about whether to get the surgeries.  Her entire family got involved in the conversation and they split, too, arguing about whether the surgeries represented a rejection of her Chinese ancestry.

Ultimately, though, Chen was under a lot of pressure from her bosses.  One told her “you will never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese.” He went on:

Let’s face it, Julie, how relatable are you to our community? How big of an Asian community do we have in Dayton? ‘On top of that, because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes, sometimes I’ve noticed when you’re on camera and you’re interviewing someone, you look disinterested, you look bored.

Another man, a “big time agent,” told her: “I cannot represent you unless you get plastic surgery to make your eyes look bigger.”

While cosmetic surgeries are often portrayed as vanity projects, Chen’s story reveals that they are also often about looking “right” in a competitive industry. Whether it’s erotic dancers getting breast implants, waitresses getting facelifts, or aspiring news anchors getting eyelid surgery, often economic pressures — mixed with racism and sexism — drive these decisions.

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.

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors

There is one similarity between the Israel/Gaza crisis and the U.S. unaccompanied child immigrant crisis: National borders enforcing social inequality. When unequal populations are separated, the disparity creates social pressure at the border. The stronger the pressure, the greater the military force needed to maintain the separation.

To get a conservative estimate of the pressure at the Israel/Gaza border, I compared some numbers for Israel versus Gaza and the West Bank combined, from the World Bank (here’s a recent rundown of living conditions in Gaza specifically). I call that conservative because things are worse in Gaza than in the West Bank.

Then, just as demographic wishful thinking, I calculated what the single-state solution would look like on the day you opened the borders between Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. I added country percentiles showing how each state ranks on the world scale (click to enlarge).

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Israel’s per capita income is 6.2-times greater, its life expectancy is 6 years longer, its fertility rate is a quarter lower, and its age structure is reversed. Together, the Palestinian territories have a little more than half the Israeli population (living on less than 30% of the land). That means that combining them all into one country would move both populations’ averages a lot. For example, the new country would be substantially poorer (29% poorer) and younger than Israel, while increasing the national income of Palestinians by 444%. Israelis would fall from the 17th percentile worldwide in income, and the Palestinians would rise from the 69th, to meet at the 25th percentile.

Clearly, the separation keeps poor people away from rich people. Whether it increases or decreases conflict is a matter of debate.

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Meanwhile, the USA has its own enforced exclusion of poor people.

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Photo of US/Tijuana border by Kordian from Flickr Creative Commons.

The current crisis at the southern border of the USA mostly involves children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They don’t actually share a border with the USA, of course, but their region does, and crossing into Mexico seems pretty easy, so it’s the same idea.

To make a parallel comparison to Israel and the West Bank/Gaza, I just used Guatemala, which is larger by population than Honduras and El Salvador combined, and also closest to the USA. The economic gap between the USA and Guatemala is even larger than the Israeli/Palestinian gap. However, because the USA is 21-times larger than Guatemala by population, we could easily absorb the entire Guatemalan population without much damaging our national averages. Per capita income in the USA, for example, would fall only 4%, while rising more than 7-times for Guatemala (click to enlarge):

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This simplistic analysis yields a straightforward hypothesis: violence and military force at national borders rises as the income disparity across the border increases. Maybe someone has already tested that.

The demographic solution is obvious: open the borders, release the pressure, and devote resources to improving quality of life and social harmony instead of enforcing inequality. You’re welcome!

Cross-posted at Family Inequality.

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