Tag Archives: race/ethnicity: prejudice/discrimination

Beliefs About Brilliance and the Demography of Academic Fields

A new study led by philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie challenges the idea that women are underrepresented in STEM fields. They first note that there are some STEM fields where women do well (they are 54% of molecular biologists, for example) and some humanities fields where they don’t (they are only 31% of philosophers). Something else, they gathered, must be going on.

They had a hunch. They asked 1,820 U.S. academics what it took to be successful in their field. They were particularly interested in answers that suggested hard work and ones that invoked brilliance.

Their results showed a clear relationship between the presence of women in a field and the assumption that success required brilliance.  The downward sloping line represents the proportion of female PhDs in stem fields (top) and social science and humanities fields (bottom) as they become increasingly associated with brilliance:

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Interviewed at Huffington Post, Leslie says:

Cultural associations link men, but not women, with raw intellectual brilliance… consider, for example, how difficult it is to think of even a single pop-cultural portrayal of a woman who displays that same special spark of innate, unschooled genius as Sherlock Holmes or Dr. House from the show “House M.D.,” or Will Hunting from the movie “Good Will Hunting.”

In contrast, accomplished women are often portrayed as very hard working (and often having given up on marriage and children, I’ll add). She continues:

In this way, women’s accomplishments are seen as grounded in long hours, poring over books, rather than in some special raw effortless brilliance.

They extended their findings to race, testing whether the relationship held for African Americans, another group often stereotyped as less intelligent, and Asians, a group that attracts the opposite stereotype. As hypothesized, they found the relationship for the first group, but not the second (note the truncated y-axis).

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The long term solution to this problem, of course, is to end white and Asian men’s claim on brilliance. In the meantime, the research team suggests, it may be a good idea to stop talking about some fields as if they’re the rightful home of the naturally brilliant and start advocating hard work for everyone.

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.

Irish Dance and the Evolution of Race

“No. We’re Italian. We don’t Irish dance,” said Kristi Corcione’s mother in 1973. The proscription wouldn’t last a generation. Today her daughter trains for the World Irish Dance Championships

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Irish dance has left Ireland and the ethnic communities in which it used to be quietly practiced.

Irish dancing schools have sprung up in Israel, Japan, Norway, Romania, Russia and many other countries not known for their Irish populations. Competitions… can now be found in Hong Kong, Prague and St. Petersburg, among other far-flung cities. More than 5,000 competitors from 20 countries are expected in April at this year’s World Championships in London.

At the New York Times, Siobhan Burke gives the credit to Riverdance, a phenom that “exporting [Irish dance] to an international audience of more than 24 million.”

The spread of Irish dance is a great example of the social construction and evolution of our invented concepts of race and ethnicity.

When it was whites who made up the majority of U.S. immigrants, it really mattered if you were Irish, Italian, or some other white ethnicity. The Irish, in particular, were denigrated and dehumanized. If one wasn’t Irish, it certainly wasn’t a group that most people would want to associate themselves with.

Over generations, though, and as new immigrant groups came in and were contrasted to Europeans, the distinctions between white ethnics began to fade. Eventually, ethnicity became optional for white people. They could claim an ethnicity, or several, of their choice; others would accept whatever they said without argument; or they could say they were just American.

Once the distinctions no longer mattered and the stigma of being Irish had faded, then Irish dance could be something anyone did and others would want to do. And, so, now anyone does. The three-time winner of the All-Ireland Dancing Championship in Dublin is a biracial, black, Jewish kid from Ohio.

Today, the big Irish dance production is “Heartbeat of Home,” a show that Burke describes as a “multicultural fusion” that delivers “plenty of solid Irish dance steps.” Irish dance is evolving, borrowing and melding with other cultural traditions — and it increasingly belongs to everyone — in the great drama of ethnic and racial invention and re-invention.

7Thanks so much to @Mandahl, a proud grandmother of two world class Irish dancers, for suggesting I write about this!

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.

Jay Smooth on the Idea of the “Good Person”

“First, let me say that I’m tired of all of this talk about ‘snubs,'” said an anonymous member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And continued:

And as far as the accusations about the Academy being racist? Yes, most members are white males, but they are not the cast of Deliverance — they had to get into the Academy to begin with, so they’re not cretinous, snaggletoothed hillbillies.

In the video below, Jay Smooth takes on the idea that only “hillbillies” are racist and asks about the idea of the “good person” and what it actually takes to be one.

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.

Children of the Prison Boom

The United States imprisons more people than any other country. This is true whether you measure by percentage of the population or by sheer, raw numbers. If the phrase mass incarceration applies anywhere, it applies in the good ol’ U. S. of A.

It wasn’t always this way. Rates of incarceration began rising as a result of President Reagan’s “war on drugs” in the ’80s (marijuana, for example), whereby the number of people imprisoned for non-violent crimes began climbing at an alarming rate. Today, about one-in-31 adults are in prison. his is a human rights crisis for the people that are incarcerated, but its impact also echoes through the job sector, communities, families, and the hearts of children. One-in-28 school-age children — 2.7 million — have a parent in prison.

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In a new book, Children of the Prison Boom, sociologists Christopher Wildeman and Sara Wakefield describe the impact of parental imprisonment on children: an increase in poverty, homelessness, depression, anxiety, learning disorders, behavioral problems, and interpersonal aggression. Some argue that taking parents who have committed a crime out of the family might be good for children, but the data is in. It’s not.

Parental incarceration is now included in research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and it’s particular contours include shame and stigma alongside the trauma. It has become such a large problem that Sesame Street is incorporating in their Little Children, Big Challenges series and has a webpage devoted to the issue. Try not to cry as a cast member sings “you’re not alone” and children talk about what it feels like to have a parent in prison:

Wildeman and Wakefield, alongside another sociologist who researches the issue, Kristin Turney, are interviewed for a story about the problem at The Nation. They argue that even if we start to remedy mass incarceration — something we’re not doing — we will still have to deal with the consequences. They are, Wildeman and Wakefield say, “a lost generation now coming of age.”

The subtitle of their book, Mass Incarceration and the Future of Inequality, points to how that lost generation might exacerbate the already deep race and class differences in America. At The Nation, Katy Reckdahl writes:

One in four black children born in 1990 saw their father head off to prison before they turned 14… For white children of the same age, the risk is one in thirty. For black children whose fathers didn’t finish high school, the odds are even greater: more than 50 percent have dads who were locked up by the time they turned 14…

Even well-educated black families are disproportionately affected by the incarceration boom. Wakefield and Wildeman found that black children with college-educated fathers are twice as likely to see them incarcerated as the children of white high-school dropouts.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow hung like a weight around the shoulders of the parents of black and brown children. After Jim Crow, the GI Bill and residential redlining strangled their chances to build wealth that they could pass down. The mass incarceration boom is just another in a long history of state policies that target black and brown people — and their children — severely inhibiting their life chances.

Hat tip Citings and Sightings. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

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.

Pesticide Drift and the Politics of Scale

California’s Central Valley is a bread basket of America. It is the source of much of the country’s grapes, tree fruit, nuts, and vegetables. Many of the farms are massive, requiring large amounts of capital, land, and labor.

In the nearby small towns are the homes of the state’s farm laborers. They are primarily Latino. About half are undocumented. Most are poor and few have health care. Politically and economically weak, they are the primary human victims of pesticide drift.

Pesticide drift occurs when chemicals leave the fields for which they’re intended and travel to where humans can be exposed. According to data summarized by geographer Jill Harrison for her article on the topic, California is a pesticide-intensive state. It accounts for 2-3% of all cropland in the U.S., but uses 25% of the pesticides. One in ten of registered pesticides are prone to drift and a third include chemicals that are “highly acutely toxic” or cause cancer, reproductive or developmental disorders, or brain damage. Officially, there are an average of 370 cases of pesticide poisoning due to drift every year, but farmworker advocates say that this captures 10% of the victims at best.

Teresa DeAnda, an environmental justice advocate, stands on the dirt road between an agricultural field and her neighborhood (image from Voices from the Valley):
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State officials and representatives of agriculture business minimize pesticide drift; Harrison calls this “down-scaling.” They claim it’s accidental, rare, and not an integral part of the system when it operates well. “Unfortunately from time to time we have tragic accidents,” says one Health Department official. “I think the number of incidents that have occurred given the, are really not that significant…” says another. “The system works,” says an Agricultural Commissioner, “Unfortunately, we have people who don’t follow the law.” All of these tactics serve to make the problem seem small and localized.

It’s not easy to get politicians to pay attention to some of the weakest of their constituents, but activists have made some headway by what Harrison calls “pushing it up the scale.” Contesting its framing it as small problem by virtue of its frequency or impact, they argue that pesticide drift is routine, regular, and systemic. “These things happen every day,” says one resident. “You can smell [the pesticide use],” says another. “You can see it. When you drive, it gets on your windshield.” An activist argues: “The art of pesticide application is not precision delivery. It’s sloppy, and it often spills.” They further contest the downscaling by arguing that pesticide drift is harming the overall air quality. By describing it as air pollution, they make it a state of California problem, one that affects everyone. This makes it more difficult for big agriculture to say it’s no big deal.

An activist upscales in Wasco, CA (image from Voices from the Valley):
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Upscaling and downscaling are both part of the politics of scale, a tactic that involves making a problem seem big or little. Harrison notes that many environmentalists advocate a local approach. “The local,’” she writes, “is commonly touted as the space in which people can most directly voice their concerns and effect political change, due to local officials’ proximity to constituents and familiarity with local issues.” This case, though, suggests that justice isn’t one size fits all.

If you’d like to know more the struggle for environmental justice in the San Joaquin Valley, sociologist Tracy Perkins has started a website, called Voices from the Valley. You can also check out Remembering Teresa for more on pesticide drift. 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 Flambeaux: A History of Race, Gender, and Fire on Mardi Gras

New Orleans has been celebrating Mardi Gras since the 1730s, but it took a hundred years before we began to see street processions. The first processions included carriages and maskers on horseback. The first floats appeared in 1856 with the formation of the first Mardi Gras krewe: the Mistick Krewe of Comus.

Enslaved and free men of color lit the spectacles with torches. They were called the flambeaux. Eventually, they became a spectacle in themselves, dancing for tips. In the historical engravings below from the 1850s, you can see men carrying torches among the festivities (Wikimedia Commons and the Library of Congress).
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Today, there are still flambeaux carriers and they are still mostly black men. The tradition has been passed down through generations. In a video at nola.com, a flambeaux carrier named Herbert Long explains that he’s been carrying flame for 18 years, following “generations of [his] family.” Today they carry kerosene torches. These photos were taken by David Grunfeld for nola.com:
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Unbelievably, the first white men to carry the flambeaux appeared in a parade in 1969, something I’ll talk about tomorrow. Meanwhile, the first ever all-female flambeaux troupe, the glambeaux, debuted in 2014 (images from @dmassawwl, wduv, and pspo on tumblr).
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Today, the flambeaux are a beloved part of the Mardi Gras tradition, good and bad.

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

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.

Physiognomy: Faces, Bodies, and the “Science” of Human Character

Flashback Friday.

Reader Lindsey H. sent me a copy of a book called Vaught’s Practical Character Reader, apparently published in 1902 and revised in 1907 by Emily H. Vaught. Also available on Amazon. The book can best be described as an application of the theory of physiognomy, which is the idea that you can tell all kinds of things about a “person’s character or personality from their outer appearance” (wikipedia). Some images from Vaught’s book:

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The book is full of images in which the features stereotypically associated with Northern and Western Europeans, or the mythical Aryan race, are associated with sincerity, honestly, a work ethic, and every other positive character trait, whereas large and especially hooked noses and small, hooded, or almond-shaped eyes were indications of negative traits.

Here we learn that the broadness of a person’s face tells you whether they are vicious or harmless:

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The text does not explain whether the implication is that all Native Americans are vicious and all Blacks are harmless, or if these are just examples and those races would have just as much variety as we see among Whites.

For those of you who are considering procuring yourself a wife, Vaught provides some tips on picking out a woman who will be a good mother (the same general head shape indicates a good father as well):

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Avoid at all costs a man or woman with this head shape (notice the pointed nose, larger ears, and smaller eyes compared to the image above, in addition to the apparently super-important head protuberance):

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Also, based on the illustrations, apparently men who wear bowties are good fathers but those who wear neckties should arouse your suspicion. There is also a section titled “How to Pick Out a Good Child,” which I intend to take with me next time I am child shopping.

The back page advertises other books available from Vaught’s press, including Human Nature Year Book from the Human Science School and the new Text Book on Phrenology, which addresses “Heads Faces Types Races.”

I have seen examples of physignomy and phrenology before, and images of their practitioners measuring people’s heads and facial features, but I have never before seen an entire book devoted to it. These pseudosciences were taken quite seriously at the time, with “experts” showing that Africans and African Americans, for instance, had facial features that proved them to be less civilized and intelligent than those of European descent and that Jews were inherently deceitful.

Thanks a ton for sending it in, Lindsey!

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.