UPDATE: I may have been wrong about this one and, if so, I apologize. The Univ. of Alabama has released a statement saying that the image is not photoshopped, including a quote from the student saying “It’s kind of funny, but people are blowing it out of proportion a little bit.” If anyone has further information on this story, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 2000, the University of Wisconsin – Madison was sued by a man named Diallo Shabazz. Because the college wanted to present itself as a diverse place, Shabazz, a black man, had been featured in university marketing materials for several years. That year, however, his face was photoshopped into a picture of a crowd at a football game. He complained, but was blown off. He’d had enough. In his lawsuit, he asked not for a settlement, but for a “budgetary apology”: money dedicated to increasing the actual diversity of the campus.
Today @EricTTung sent us another example of this kind of doctored diversity, currently the first slide on the homepage of the University of Alabama. Do you see it?
How about now?
Note the skin color of the African American man’s hands.
As I’d written in the post about Shabazz, this teaches us both that colleges believe that diversity is a useful commodity with which to market their institutions and that, “if real diversity isn’t possible, cosmetic diversity will do.”
Recruitment of minorities to a mostly white campus: tricky. Addressing the systematic educational underinvestment in minorities prior to arriving: expensive. Retaining minorities in that environment: challenging. Photoshop: easy.
In the midst of the recession a new occupation emerged: the sign spinner. These individuals stood on sidewalks outside of businesses, dancing with signs or arrows that they threw and twisted in the air and around their bodies. Some of them were pretty cool, actually.
Yesterday NPR discussed the replacement of some of these spinners with mannequins. Robots that are programmed to spin the sign. Of course, they aren’t nearly as good as a halfway decent human sign spinner. But, it was argued, they’re getting the job done.
From human to machine, then. But no one commented on the bizarre race- and sex-change that accompanied this shift. In my part of the country, most human sign spinners are black or Latino men. I suspect that’s true wherever there’s a substantial non-white, non-Asian population. But the mannequins appear to be overwhelming white women.
The Google image search for each somewhat supports this narrative. The mannequins are overly white women and the humans are almost all men and, arguably, disproportionately men of color.
When the business owner or manager can make choices about what race and gender they prefer, they choose white females. Presumably because “sex sells,” the female body (in a bikini) is the universal symbol for sex, and white women are the most valuable commodity in that market.
When we’re hiring low wage human workers, however, business owners and managers have less control over the race and gender composition of their workforce. It appears most would prefer to hire white women in bikinis for everything but, because of institutionalized racism and the sex segregation of occupations, they get men and, perhaps, men of color.
How amazing that something so simple — the evolution of the sign spinner — can tell us so much about who we value and why.
Here’s a commercial for the new robotic sign spinners, to drive the point home:
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.
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.
Here is something quite simple, sent along by Judy B. It’s a screenshot of Gimp, an open source image editing application. An optional plug-in, created by a user, offers a series of filters for images, including ones that “beautify.” One of the options is “skin whitening.”
This is one more reminder that we live in a racist society that conflates whiteness with beauty. Remember, too, though, that someone — very possibly a set of people — had to make a conscious decision to include skin whitening as an option and position it as a sub-category of beautification. Then they had to, literally, type the words into the program and make it so.
This shit doesn’t just happen. It’s not random. Racism isn’t just an ephemeral cultural thing. It involves actual decisions made by real people who, if not motivated by racism, are complicit with it.
“Next to being a Hollywood movie star, nothing was more glamorous.” This breathless statement, quoted in Femininity in Flight, was uttered by a flight attendant in 1945. At the time being a stewardess was quite glamorous. Like motion pictures do today, airlines trafficked in “the business of female spectacle.” They hired only women who they believed to represent ideal femininity. Chosen for their beauty and poise, and only from among the educated, and slender, they were as much of an icon as Miss America. And they were almost all White.
Victoria Vantoch tells the story of the first African American flight attendants in a chapter of her new book, The Jet Sex. Patricia Banks was one of the first Black women to sue an airline for racial discrimination. She graduated from flight attendant training school at the top of her class and applied to several airlines. But it was 1956 and the U.S. airlines had never hired a Black woman. After 10 months of trying, an airline recruiter pulled her aside and admitted that it was because of her race. Which, of course, it was; airlines disqualified any applicants that had broad noses, full lips, coarse hair, or a “hook nose” (to weed out Jews).
Banks sued. After four years of litigation, Capital Airlines was forced to hire her. She postponed her marriage and took the job (airlines only hired single women as flight attendants). When she put on her uniform for the first time, she said:
After all I had gone through, I couldn’t believe I was finally wearing the uniform. I had made it. I was going to fly. It was such an accomplishment.
Individual women weren’t the only ones pushing to integrate the flight attendants corps. International surveys showed that citizens of other countries knew that America had a “race problem” and this was a problem for then-President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. They needed to do something flashy and they turned to flight attendants to do it. If they could make Black women the face of such an iconic and high-profile occupation, they thought, it would help restore America’s reputation. According to Vantoch, Johnson “made stewardess integration his personal cause.”
That was 1961; in 1964 Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act mandating equal treatment in the workplace. The following year, in response to even more lawsuits, approximately 50 Black women were hired by airlines. This would make them 0.33% of the workforce.
Patricia Banks and her fellow first African American flight attendants, including Mary Tiller and Marlene White, would continue to face racism, now from co-workers, passengers, and supervisors. Banks would quit after one year, citing exhaustion in the face of emotionally draining feminine work and a constant onslaught of racism. She was a great flight attendant, though, and proud to show the world that a Black woman could shine in the occupation.
by Jonathan Harrison PhD, Sep 14, 2013, at 12:00 pm
It always gives an old sociologist like me a big thrill when a classical concept that I love appears in a mainstream cultural product. I received such a buzz when I saw the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler over the Labor Day weekend.
One of the movie’s African American characters, speaking in the 1940s, notes that a Black man must wear “two faces,” one for other Blacks and another for Whites. Perceptive critics have identified how this borrows from “double consciousness,” a concept that W.E.B. DuBois first wrote about in 1897. A.O. Scott cites Paul Laurence Dunbar’s line, “We wear the mask that grins and lies”; whilst Frank Roberts notes that the movie’s butler “wrestles with the realization that he is in The White House but certainly not of it,” which in turn illustrates the wider dilemma of being in America but not of America.
Still of Lee Daniels’ The Butler from imdb.com
Still of Lee Daniels’ The Butler from imdb.com
However, what really gives the movie its power is how it resonates with the continuing experiences of African Americans today. Black men who are still shell-shocked by the George Zimmerman verdict will know only too well how they often have to show “two faces” in order to avoid harassment. Barack Obama noted this fact when he observed, a week after the verdict, that there “are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars” or of “getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”
Similarly, Father Bryan Massingale, who is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a professor of theology at Marquette University, records how he was once “abruptly stopped by the police, rudely questioned and roughly searched, under the suspicion that I was the perpetrator of a robbery” and how “Living with such terror and indignity is to be expected” even if you are ” a priest, a university professor, and a respected member of the community (or so I would have thought).” Such profiling strongly resembles DuBois’ emphasis upon:
…this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.
The entire subtext of The Butler is the manner in which the movie’s different characters cope with the task of continually “measuring one’s soul” in this way: the continual feeling of being trapped in the gaze of the white employer’s “contempt and pity.” It is a tribute to the ability of popular culture to occasionally convey powerful truths that this movie does not pull its punches in staying true to that part of DuBois’ sociological vision.
Dr. Jonathan Harrison earned a PhD in Sociology from the University of Leicester, UK. His research interests include the Holocaust, comparative religion, racism, and the history of African Americans in Florida. He teaches at Florida Gulf Coast University and Hodges University. He’d like to thank Dr. Kris De Welde for her comments on earlier drafts of this piece.
Last week sociologist Philip Cohen, who blogs at Family Inequality, attended the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. He noted that the crowd was primarily Black; you can see participants in his photoset here. Are White people unenthusiastic about Civil Rights? Perhaps. There is evidence, in any case, that they are less likely than Black Americans to think that ongoing activism is necessary. Cohen offers the results of a series of polls.
Pew Research Data published in the Los Angeles Times reveals that Black people are less likely than White people to think we’ve made a lot of progress in the last 50 years. They are also substantially more likely to believe that Blacks are treated less fairly than Whites in a wide range of circumstances:
A Gallup poll confirms that Black Americans are less likely than Whites to feel that race-related rights are “greatly improved.” It also reveals that they are more than twice as likely to endorse new civil rights laws and government intervention to assure non-discrimination.
Finally, the General Social Survey asks whether the fact that Blacks are worse off than Whites is due to mainly to discrimination or because of some other cause. More than half of Blacks and a third of Whites say “yes, it’s discrimination.”
These data reveal that plenty of White Americans are concerned with racial equality, believe we have a long way to go, and support working to improve the treatment of Black Americans. There are also plenty of Black Americans that think things aren’t so bad. Nonetheless, there is a significant and persistent racial gap between the two groups.
In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I proctored law school exams to earn extra money. At the end of one exam, while I was collecting the final papers, I overheard two students discussing their answers on an essay question about sentencing. One said to the other: “I gave the rich guy a lesser sentence because I figured, since he had such a cushy life, it would take less punishment to get through to him.” There’s your next crop of lawyers, I thought, doling out the prison sentences to the poor and letting the rich off with a slap on the wrist.
Well, it turns out that there is a well-documented psychological phenomenon behind what I’d overheard. Morten B. sent along an essay by Jason Silverstein in which he reviews the literature on the racial empathy gap. All things being equal, if you show a person an imagine of a dark- and a light-skinned person being harmed, they will most likely react more strongly to the latter. Studies have found evidence of this using both self-report and measures of brain activity. Notably, both Black and White people respond similarly.
Here are the results of six studies using self-report; in the first four, the relationship between race and how much pain subjects attributed to the target was statistically significant:
What’s going on?
Silverstein explains that this isn’t necessarily about racial animosity or even identification with one’s own group (remember that both Black and White people show this response). Instead, it appears to be related to the perception that Black people have already had to cope with a great deal of pain — from racism, poverty, poor health, etc — and, as a result, have a greater pain threshold. In other words, they are less sensitive to pain because they’ve been hardened.
Efforts to parse out whether this effect is due to race specifically or perceptions of whether a person has lived a hard life suggest that it might be primarily the latter. But, as Silverstein points out, we tend to homogenize the Black population and assume that all Black people face adversity. So, whether the phenomenon is caused by race or status gets pretty muddy pretty fast.
In any case, this is perfectly in line with the soon-to-be-lawyer I overheard at Wisconsin. He gave the “hardened criminal” a harsher sentence than the person convicted of a white-collar crime because he believed that a greater degree of suffering was required to make an impact. That was just a hypothetical case, but Silverstein reviews research that shows that the racial empathy gap has real world consequences: undertreatment of pain (even in children) and, yes, harsher sentences for African Americans convicted of crimes.