Ed, at Gin & Tacos, made a fantastic observation about this photo of a 1960 lunch counter sit-in at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, protesting the exclusion of black customers.
“The most interesting thing about it,” he writes:
…is that the employee behind the Whites Only lunch counter is also black. That’s curious, since on the scale of intimate social contact one would think that having someone handle your food ranks above sitting next to a fully clothed stranger on adjacent stools.
This, he observes, tells us something important about prejudice.
When I first saw this picture and learned about this period in our history… I thought that racism was about believing that another race is inferior. Like most people I got (slightly) wiser with age and eventually figured out that racism is about keeping someone else beneath you on the social ladder… If you actually thought black people were dirty savages you wouldn’t eat anything they handed you. But of course it has nothing to do with that. You’re fine being served food because servility implies social inferiority. And you don’t want to sit next to them simply because it implies equality.
When we observe efforts to uphold unequal social conditions, it’s smart to think past notions of hatred and fear (like the term homophobia unfortunately implies) and instead about how the privileged are benefiting and what they would lose along with their superordinate status. Hate may be useful for justifying inequality, but at its root it’s about power and resources, not emotions.
Sociologists who study inequality distinguish between individualbias, negative beliefs about a group held by individual persons, and systemic inequality, unequal outcomes built into our institutions that will produce inequality even in the absence of biased individuals.
A good example is K-12 education in the United States. School funding is linked, in part, to the taxes collected in the neighborhood of each school. So, schools in rich neighborhoods, populated by rich kids, have more money to spend per student than schools in poor neighborhoods. This system privileges young people who win the birth lottery and are born into wealthier families, but it also benefits whites and some Asians, who have higher incomes and greater wealth, on average, than Latinos, African Americans, American Indians, and less advantaged Asian groups.
Now, teachers and school staff might be classist and racist, and that will make matters worse. But even in the absence of such individuals, the laws that govern k-12 funding will ensure that rich and white children will be given a disproportionate amount of the resources we put towards educating the next generation. That’s f’d up, by the way, in a society that tells itself it’s a meritocracy.
Sociologists who spend time in classrooms know that young people coming into college are much more familiar with the idea that individuals are biased than they are with the idea that our societies are designed to benefit some and hurt others. This is a problem because, in the absence of an understanding that we need to change law, policy, and practice — in addition to changing minds — we will make limited headway in reducing unfair inequalities.
But where do people get their ideas about what causes inequality?
One source is the mass media and, thanks to Race Forward, we now have a portrait of media coverage of one type of inequality and the extent to which it addresses individual and systemic biases. They measured the degree to which news and TV coverage of issues were systemically aware (discussing policies or practices that lead or have led to inequality) or systemically unaware (fails to discuss such policies, explicitly denies them, or refuses to acknowledge racism of any kind).
First, they found that news outlets varied in their systemic awareness, with MSNBC a clear stand out on one end and Fox News a clear stand out on the other. On average, about 2/3rds of all media coverage failed to have any discussion of systemic causes of inequality. Articles or op-eds that robustly discussed policy problems or changes were extraordinarily rare, “never constitut[ing] more than 3.3% of any individual news outlet’s coverage of race…”
Second, they found that systemic awareness varied strongly by the topic of the coverage, with the economy and criminal justice most likely to receive systemically aware coverage:
What this means is that whether any given person understands racism to be a largely one-on-one phenomenon that can be solved by reducing individual bias (or waiting for racists to move on to another realm) or a systemic problem that requires intervention at the level of our institutions, depends in part on what media outlets they consume and what they’re interested in (e.g., sports vs. economics).
There’s lots more to learn from the full document at Race Forward.
I’ve written extensively — not here, but professionally — on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa. I’ve focused on the frames for the practice (common ones include women’s oppression, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, and cultural depravity), who has had the most power to shape American perceptions (e.g., journalists, activists, or scientists), and the implications of this discourse for thinking about and building gender egalitarian, multicultural democracies.
Ultimately, whatever opinion one wants to hold about the wide range of practices we typically refer to as “female genital mutilation,” it is very clear that the negative opinions of most Westerners are heavily based on misinformation and have been strongly shaped by racism, ethnocentrism, and a disgust or pity for an imagined Africa. That doesn’t mean that Americans or Europeans aren’t allowed to oppose (some of) the practices (some of the time), but it does mean that we need to think carefully about how and why we do so.
One of the most powerful voices challenging Western thinking about FGCs is Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonan-American anthropologist who chose, at 21 years old, to undergo the genital cutting practice typical for girls in her ethnic group, Kono.
She has written about this experience and how it relates to the academic literature on genital cutting. She has also joined other scholars — both African and Western — in arguing against the zero tolerance position on FGCs and in favor of a more fair and nuanced understanding of why people choose these procedures for themselves or their children and the positive and negative consequences of doing so. To that end, she is the co-founder of African Women are Free to Choose and SiA Magazine, dedicated to “empowering circumcised women and girls in Africa and worldwide.”
You can hear Ahmadu discuss her perspective in this program:
Many people reading this may object to the idea of re-thinking zero tolerance approaches to FGCs. I understand this reaction, but I urge such readers to do so anyway. If we care enough about African women to be concerned about the state of their genitals, we must also be willing to pay attention to their hearts and their minds. Even, or especially, if they say things we don’t like.
Michael Dunn shot ten bullets into a car filled with four teenagers after a dispute over the volume of their music. He claimed self-defense, though the gun he said he saw was never corroborated by anyone or found. This weekend he was found guilty of attempting to kill the three teenagers who survived, but not of murdering the one he shot dead, 17-year-old Jordan Davis.
When George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, I put up a post reviewing a study on stand your ground laws. The research found that these laws increase the likelihood that a homicide will be considered “justified,” but only in cases where a white person is accused of killing a black person. Here is the data:
At the previous post, I argued that these data — made to feel real by decisions like these — show that we are “biased in favor of the white defendant and against the black victim.” Stand your ground laws make it worse, but the far right column shows that:
…white people who kill black people are far more likely to be found not-guilty even in states without SYG and black people who kill whites are less likely to be found not-guilty regardless of state law.
Or, to put it more bluntly, we still value white men’s freedoms more than black men’s lives. On average, of course.
Thanks to advances in early diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, white women’s survival rates have “sharply improved,” but black women’s have not. As a result, white women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, but black women are more likely to die from it. Researchers from the Sinai Institute found that Black women are 40% more likely to die from the disease than white women.
Experts trace the majority of the widening gap in survival rates to access, not biology. Black women are more likely than white to be low income, uninsured, and suspicious of a historically discriminatory medical profession.
Immediately after the Seattle Seahawks beat the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Richard Sherman gave an intense, boastful post-game interview. This triggered the always-present racism, as illustrated by many tweets that followed. Here is just a sample from Public Shaming:
These are obviously cruel and full of hate, but the ones in which he was called a “thug” got somewhat less attention:
In interviews about the racist response, Sherman made some really nice points about what this means about the state of America and the specifically racial insults. In a press conference, for example, asked about being called a “thug,” he argued that it’s just “the accepted way of calling someone the n-word these days.” He points out that, in no way was what he was doing thug-like:
Maybe I’m talking loudly, and doing something… talking like I’m not supposed to, but I’m not… there’s a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey, they just threw the puck aside and started fighting. I saw that and I said, “Aw man, I’m the thug? What!? What’s going on here?”
In another video, he expands on this point, saying: “I’m not out there beating on people, or committing crimes, or getting arrested, or doing anything; I’m playing a football game at a high level and I got excited.”
Sherman’s making two points. First, that there was nothing thug-like about his behavior. Thugs are violent criminals. He’s just playing a game. And, second, the term is decidedly racial, applied to him largely because of the color of his skin. Meanwhile, hockey players, who are overwhelmingly white, as well as other white athletes, don’t as often get these sorts of labels even if they are physically violent in ways that exceed the demands of their sport.
Young black adults are less likely than whites to use marijuana, but extraordinarily more likely to be arrested for its use, according to a new report by the ACLU. This is old news, but the data never fails to stun.
First, notice that arrests for marijuana possession have grown over the past 15 years, even relative to arrests for other types of drugs. The first chart is total marijuana possession arrests, the second is the percent of all drug arrests that were for marijuana (note that in neither chart does the vertical axis start at zero and truncated axes tend to make data look more dramatic, as if that were necessary here).
This rise in arrests has disproportionately affected African Americans. The arrest rate for blacks has consistently been substantially higher than that of whites, but it increased, even so, over the 2000s.
According to the report:
…in every state the Black arrest rate is disproportionate to Blacks’ percentage of the population. In fact, in 42 states the Black percentage of marijuana possession arrests is more than double the Black percentage of the population, while in 18 states Blacks account for more than three times the percentage of marijuana possession arrests than they do of the population. In four states, the difference is a factor of at least four.
Most of these arrests are of young people. Almost half (46%) involve 18 to 24 year olds:
The black arrest rate cannot be attributed to different rates of use. Overall, blacks and whites have very similar rates of marijuana use (the first figure below), but among 18 to 25 year olds — the population being arrested the most — whites have slightly higher rates than blacks (second figure): This is a long-standing, well-documented Civil Rights issue. The war on drugs is a war on black people. These practices are harmful to individuals, their families, and their communities. It functions to further the disadvantage faced by black Americans in a society rife with institutions already stacked against them.
New survey data shows that the average person overestimates the diversity of the American population, both now and in the future. Today, for example, racial minorities make up 37% of the population, but the average guess was 49%.
Many Americans fear rising diversity. Over half worry that more minorities means fewer jobs, nearly half think that it means more crime, and almost two-thirds think these groups strain social services. If people think that minorities are bad for America and overestimate their prevalence, they may be more likely to support draconian and punishing policy designed to minimize their numbers or mitigate the consequences they are believed to bring.
Not all Americans, of course, fear diversity equally. Below are the scores of various groups on an “openness to diversity” measure with a range of 0-160.
For the future, Americans are still strongly divided as to what to do about diversity and the racialized inequality we currently see.