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.
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.
In this powerful spoken word, poet Clint Smith, who is also a teacher in Washington D.C., tells the stories of some of his students. It puts names and details to the struggles of young people trying to thrive in an urban environment that is all too often indifferent to their survival.
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.
When white Americans are in trouble, they rarely hesitate to call the police. That’s because most of them trust the police. They rarely realize the significance during encounters with the police of their own protective “white” skin.
Many white folks also have trouble understanding the deep distrust of the police in other racialized communities. That’s because they fail to realize how quick many police officers are to harass non-white people, and how much less they tend to value non-white lives.
White Americans should listen, with sincerity and respect, to the reported experiences of others with the entrenched racist attitudes among the police, and the rampant abuse such attitudes inspire. They should also listen to the corrosive effects on non-white communities of the relative impunity with which police repeatedly harass, and murder, non-white people.
In the following short film, Stacey Muhammad’s “I AM SEAN BELL, black boys speak,” black Americans effectively explain their reasoned fear, distrust, and dismay regarding the police. I think that for starters, this film is perfect discussion material for all American classrooms. And any other gatherings that include white eyes and ears.
See a complementary post, featuring a great clip from Michael Moore, at Stuff White People Do here.
Originally posted in 2009. Re-posted in solidarity with the African American community; regardless of the truth of the Martin/Zimmerman confrontation, it’s hard not to interpret the finding of not-guilty as anything but a continuance of the criminal justice system’s failure to ensure justice for young Black men.
About himself, Macon writes, “I’m a white guy, trying to find out what that means. Especially the ‘white’ part. I live in that heart of the heart of American whiteness, the ever-amorphous ‘Midwest.’” Macon’s blog, Stuff White People Do, is an excellent source of insights about race and racism.
Desmond, who put himself through college fighting fires in Arizona, returned to his old job as a graduate student in order to study his fellow firefighters. When he asked them why they were willing to put their lives at risk to fight fires, the firefighters responded, “Risk? What risk?”
It turned out that the firefighters didn’t think that their work was dangerous. How is this possible?
Desmond explains that most of the firefighters were working-class men from the country who had been working with nature all of their lives. They raised cattle and rode horses; they cut down trees, chopped firewood, and built fences; they hunted and fished as often as they could. They were at home in nature. They felt that they knew nature. And they had been manipulating nature all their lives. Desmond wrote: “…my crewmembers are much more than confident on the fireline. They are comfortable.”
To these men, fire was just another part of nature. They believed that if you understood the forest, respected fire, and paid attention, then you could keep yourself safe. Period. Fire wasn’t dangerous. One of the firefighters put it like this:
Cause, personally, I don’t consider my life in danger. I think that the people I work with and with the knowledge I know, my life isn’t in danger… If you know, as a firefighter, how to act on a fire, how to approach it, this and that, I mean you’re, yeah, fire can hurt you. But if you know, if you can soak up the stuff that has been taught to you, it’s not a dangerous job.
When these men were called “heroes,” they laughed. Desmond wrote: “The thought of dying on the fireline is so distant from firefighters’ imaginations that they find the idea comedic.”
When a fellow firefighter did tragically die on the fireline during Desmond’s study, he discovered just how deep this went. Unwilling to consider the possibility that fire was dangerous (at least in front of each other), the only way to make sense of the death was to find fault in an individual, or even blame the dead firefighter for being “stupid.” Desmond recounts this conversation:
“That sucks,” J.J. said.
“Someone fucked up,” Donald responded, immediately. “I’ll tell you what happened: Someone fucked up…”
Craig Neilson, the Fire Prevention Officer, added, “Their communications might have been fucked. . . . The fire was under them and burned up.”
“They probably weren’t paying attention,” Donald said…
“They’re probably stupid. Probably weren’t talking to their crew,” Peter guessed.
“Yep. They’re fuckin’ stupid, not talking to anyone. They should’ve known better than to build a helispot on top of the fire,” said Donald.
Heads continued to nod…
Desmond’s answer to why firefighters take such a risky job — because they don’t think it’s risky — was a fabulous counterpoint to dominant theories of risk taking at the time, which tended to suggest that men who did risky things were trying to prove their masculinity or seek adoration as a hero.
It’s easy to conclude that the firefighters are delusional for thinking that fire isn’t risky, but Desmond does a wonderful job of showing that their denial of risk is mundane. We do it every day that we jump into a car and approach 70 miles per hour on the freeway. If we are worried about our safety, it’s usually because we are concerned about the skills and attention of other drivers. Most of us think that we, personally, are pretty decent, even great drivers. The firefighters tend to feel the same about fire.
Today’s deaths remind us that fire is dangerous. We should also remember that risky jobs are disproportionately filled by the least powerful members of our society. Wildland firefighters are typically low income men from rural backgrounds; in Desmond’s study, they were also disproportionately Latino and American Indian. As Desmond wrote: “Certain bodies, deemed precious, are protected, while others, deemed expendable, protect.” Let’s take a moment to remember the 19 who lost their lives yesterday, as well as the other men and women who do the dangerous work of America. And be careful everybody.
In national gun debates, we often think about America as “divided” geographically along the issue of guns. USA Today recently reduced the American gun debate to “urban vs. rural,” saying that “[o]ne of the biggest factors in where you stand on gun ownership and gun violence depends, literally, on where you lay your head at night.” This captures an important truth about American gun politics, but relying too much on the rural/urban divide across states obscures how this plays out within states.
The urban/rural divide in gun cultures suggests that guns are a necessary and practical tool for rural Americans who need them for the purposes of hunting, self-protection, and so forth. But these same factors should become irrelevant in the urban setting: between supermarkets and public services (combined with denser living), urbanites should see guns either as a hobby (for some urbanites) or a hazard (for most urbanites) rather than a practical tool of everyday life.
Following this logic, public law enforcement officials in urban areas should also oppose gun rights, and in fact, many do. Ken James, police chief of the Emeryville Police Department and head of the firearms task force of the Police Chief’s Association of California, recently called the notion that guns are defensive weapons a “myth” has said in the past that he prefers that his officers do not carry guns off-duty. Likewise, a number of national police associations have come out in support of Obama’s gun control proposals. In contrast, over 400 county sheriffs have publicly stated that they will not enforce any “unconstitutional” laws signed by the Obama administration. Perhaps the rural/urban divide is driving gun politics.
But maybe not. Let’s take a closer look at the county-level politics of gun control attitudes in California, a state with some of the most restrictive gun laws in the US, and Arizona, a state with some of the most permissive laws.
Interestingly, both states have roughly the same number of counties with sheriffs that have aligned themselves with this pro-gun platform: in Arizona, 40% of county sheriffs have signed on, while in California, this figure is 31%. These numbers aren’t that different, considering how different their gun laws are. But here’s where it gets interesting: the expected urban/rural divide appears in California, but not Arizona, where urban counties have more pro-gun sheriffs. What this means is that the rural/urban divide — at least in terms of sheriff support for gun rights — is flipped between gun-phobic California and gun-crazed Arizona.
No doubt, these two maps raise the question of how other issues intersect with, and structure, gun politics: for example, the politics of immigration likely have much more to say about the differences between Arizona and California than any straightforward divide between rural and urban America. Indeed, these maps suggest that there are logics about the role of guns in the pursuit of social order and policing at work in California versus Arizona that are not captured by neat dichotomies between “rural” and “urban” Americans.
Jennifer Carlson, PhD is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. She is working on a book manuscript entitled, “Clinging to their Guns? The New Politics of Gun Carry in Everyday Life.”
Poverty in the United States is stereotypically associated with racial minorities in urban centers. However, a closer look at social geography reveals a more complex situation: a majority of poor people are white and live in the suburbs. This makes sense when you consider that whites are the largest racial group in the U.S., making up 75% of the population, and that there are three times as many suburbanites than urbanites.
A majority of Americans are losing wealth, and we know it’s going straight to the top. This is not a conspiracy theory, but the economic arrangement of the last 40 years. The New Deal, which created the middle class and the American Dream, was systematically dismantled by elite interest. The revolving door, the shuffling of elites in top positions of power between the public and private sectors, made this possible. The New Deal was abandoned for neoliberal policy. As a result, the comfortable middle class lifestyle was replaced by unemployment and working class struggle.
Suburban poverty normally reflects the spread of metropolitan poverty, but in recent years, suburban poverty has been growing at a faster rate. From 2010-2011, poverty in America’s 100 largest metro areas increased by 5.9% overall. Suburban poverty grew at a rate of 6.8%, while urban poverty grew only 4.7%. In general, the poverty rates in urban areas are still higher (21%) than those in the suburbs (11%). Most notable is the rate of change in the suburbs, which can be attributed to increasing inequality, the housing market crash, gentrification, efforts to make low-income people more mobile, and public housing vouchers.
For the past decade, suburbanites commuted between suburbs rather than into cities for work. More affluent, nearby suburbs provide low-wage service jobs in food and retail. Poverty rates in suburbia are rising due to a crumbling middle class, but the poor are still mainly concentrated in inner-ring suburbs close to cities, and on the fringe — former rural areas consumed by suburban sprawl.
Poverty’s expansion to the suburbs is a symptom of an increasingly unequal society. The geographic isolation of the suburban poor in the inner and outer rings of suburbia troubles the validity of the claim that poverty moved to the suburbs. More accurately, people are getting poorer and more people live in the suburbs—or areas now designated as such. It’s plausible that economic inequality and leapfrog developments have changed the sociogeographic landscape. Low-income earners are displaced to the outskirts of the city (inner-ring of the suburbs) due to gentrification, and the rural poor are now more easily counted among the suburban poor due to suburban sprawl. Whatever the case, suburban poverty presents unique challenges to policy makers because federal antipoverty resources are tailored for densely populated urban areas. The stereotypical images of inner city poverty and suburban affluence are the ultimate fiction.
Kara McGhee is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Missouri specializing in culture, identity, and inequalities. She is a regular contributor for The WILD Magazine.
Inequality by (Interior) Design, a blog by sociologist Tristan Bridges, turned one-year-old last month and it is quickly becoming one of my favorites. In a recent post, Bridges featured a product that reminds us all why history is awesome: the “portable baby cage”:
As I discussed in a previous post, with industrialization came cities and with cities came crowded, cramped living quarters. The baby cage kept infants out of harm’s way and gave the family a bit more space. As Bridges discusses, it also coincided with the idea that babies needed a lot of fresh air to be healthy. The baby cage seemed like the perfect solution.
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.