Tag Archives: violence

Why I Called it “The Family” and What That Has To Do with Cosby

First, a note on language

In American English books from 1910 to 1950, about 25% of the uses of “family” were preceded by “the.” Starting about 1950, however, “the family” started falling out of fashion, finally dropping below 16% of “family” uses in the mid-2000s. This trend coincides with the modern rise of family diversity.

In her classic 1993 essay, “Good Riddance to ‘The Family’,” Judith Stacey wrote,

no positivist definition of the family, however revisionist, is viable. … the family is not an institution, but an ideological, symbolic construct that has a history and a politics.

The essay was in Journal of Marriage and the Family, published by the National Council on Family Relations. In 2001, in a change that as far as I can tell was never announced, JMF changed its name to Journal of Marriage and the Family, which some leaders of NCFR believed would make it more inclusive. It was the realization of Stacey’s argument.

I decided on the title very early in the writing of my book: The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. I agreed with Stacey that the family is not an institution. Instead, I think it’s an institutional arena: the social space where family interactions take place. I wanted to replace the narrowing, tradition-bound term, with an expansive, open-ended concept that was big enough to capture both the legal definition and the diversity of personal definitions. I think we can study and teach the family without worrying that we’re imposing a singular definition of what that means.

It takes the unique genius that great designers have to capture a concept like this in a simple, eye-catching image. Here is how the artists at Kiss Me I’m Polish did it:

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What goes in the frame? What looks like a harmless ice-breaker project — draw your family! — is also a conceptual challenge. Is it a smiling, generic nuclear family? A family oligarchy? Or a fictional TV family providing cover for an abusive, larger-than-life father figure who lectures us about morality while concealing his own serial rape behind a bland picture frame?

Whose function?

Like any family sociologist, I have great respect for Andrew Cherlin. I have taught from his textbook, as well as The Marriage Go-Round, and I have learned a lot from his research, which I cite often. But there is one thing in Public and Private Families that always rubbed me the wrong way when I was teaching: the idea that families are defined by positive “functions.”

Here’s the text box he uses in Chapter 1 (of an older edition, but I don’t think it’s changed), to explain his concept:

cherlinpubpriv

I have grown more sympathetic to the need for simplifying tools in a textbook, but I still find this too one-sided. Cherlin’s public family has the “main functions” of child-rearing and care work; the private family has “main functions” of providing love, intimacy, and emotional support. Where is the abuse and exploitation function?

That’s why one of the goals that motivated me to finish the book was to see the following passage in print before lots of students. It’s now in Chapter 12: Family Violence and Abuse:

We should not think that there is a correct way that families are “supposed” to work. Yes, families are part of the system of care that enhances the lived experience and survival of most people. But we should not leap from that observation to the idea that when family members abuse each other, it means that their families are not working. … To this way of thinking, the “normal” functions of the family are positive, and harmful acts or outcomes are deviations from that normal mode.

The family is an institutional arena, and the relationships between people within that arena include all kinds of interactions, good and bad. … And while one family member may view the family as not working—a child suffering abuse at the hands of a trusted caretaker, for example—from the point of view of the abuser, the family may in fact be working quite well, regarding the family as a safe place to carry out abuse without getting caught or punished. Similarly, some kinds of abuse—such as the harsh physical punishment of children or the sexual abuse of wives—may be expected outcomes of a family system in which adults have much more power than children and men (usually) have more power than women. In such cases, what looks like abuse to the victims (or the law) may seem to the abuser like a person just doing his or her job of running the family.

Huxtable family secrets

Which brings us to Bill Cosby. After I realized how easy it was to drop photos into my digital copy of the book cover, I made a series of them to share on social media — and planning to use them in an introductory lecture — to promote this framing device for the book. On September 20th of this year I made this figure and posted it in a tweet commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show:

huxtables-myfamilyphoto

Ah, September. When I was just another naïve member of the clueless-American community, using a popular TV family to promote my book, blissfully unaware of the fast-approaching marketing train wreck beautifully illustrated by this graph of internet search traffic for the term “Cosby rape”:

cosbyrapetraffic

I was never into The Cosby Show, which ran from my senior year in high school through college graduation (not my prime sitcom years). I love lots of families, but I don’t love “the family” any more than I love “society.” Like all families, the Huxtables would have had secrets if they were real. But now we know that even in their fictional existence they did have a real secret. Like some real families, the Huxtables were a device for the family head’s abuse of power and sexuality.

So I don’t regret putting them in the picture frame. Not everything in there is good. And when it’s bad, it’s still the family.

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

Stokely Carmichael: “The U.S. Taught Us Very Well How to Be Violent”

Stokely Carmichael, later Kwame Ture, was an activist and Civil Rights leader, rising to prominence in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party.

He popularized the phrase “black power,” which he defined simply as “black people coming together to form a political force and either electing representatives or forcing their representatives to speak their needs.” 

Ture believed in the value of nonviolence as a tactic, but did not identify as a pacifist. Violence was a tactic he believed in, too, when it was necessary. And it has, in fact, been a successful tool in the activist toolkit. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes at The Atlantic:

“Property damage and looting” — perhaps more than nonviolence — has also been a significant tool in black “social progress.” … [It's] a fairly accurate description of the emancipation of black people in 1865, who only five years earlier constituted some $4 billion in property. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 is inseparable from the threat of riots. The housing bill of 1968 — the most proactive civil-rights legislation on the books — is a direct response to the riots that swept American cities after King was killed. Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil-rights movement.

What cannot be said is that America does not really believe in nonviolence… so much as it believes in order.

Black people may have to disrupt that order and return violence with violence, yet again. As Stokely Carmichael explains in the video below:

Existentialist philosophers talk about the executioner-victim relationship… The victims begin to fight and agitate for their liberation. They use all types of means to get their liberation… fighting for a position of equality.

After [the victim] tries a number of means and they do not work, he then begins to imitate the means by which his executioner has kept him down. That is usually through force and violence… breaking the one taboo that they’ve never been able to break: hitting back against the executioners.

So that you ought not to be upset if we are violent. The Unites States taught us very well how to be violent.

Watch him here:

Angela Davis: “No Idea What Black People Have Gone Through”

From the great documentary, Black Power Mix Tape, Angela Davis puts violence in perspective. She’s being interviewed about the tactics of the Black Panthers. The interviewer asks: “How do you get there? Do you get there by confrontation, violence?” She responds:

Oh, is that the question you were asking?

She smiles to herself.

Because of the way this society’s organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere. You have to expect that there are going to be such explosions. You have to expect things like that as reactions. If you… if a black person lives in the black community all your life and walks out on the street everyday seeing white policemen surrounding you…

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Some very good friends of mine were killed by bombs, bombs that were planted by racists. I remember from the time I was very small, I remember the sounds of bombs exploding across the street, our house shaking. I remember my father having to have guns at his disposal at all times because of the fact that at any moment someone… we might expect to be attacked.

The… man who was at that time in complete control of the city government… would often get on the radio and make statements like: “Niggers have moved into a white neighborhood. We better expect some bloodshed tonight.” And, sure enough, there would be bloodshed.

In fact, when the bombing occurred one of the mothers of one of the young girls called my mother and said, “Can you take me down to the church to pick up Carol. We heard about the bombing and I don’t have my car.” And they went down and what did they find? They found limbs and heads strewn all over the place.

And then after that, in my neighborhood all of the men organized themselves into an armed patrol. They had to take their guns and patrol our community every night because they did not want that to happen again.

I mean, that’s why when someone asks me about violence, I just…. I just find it incredible. Because what it means is that the person asking that question has no idea what black people have gone through… what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.

She’s no longer smiling.

The interchange begins at 1min 40sec:

A SocImages Collection: Police, Black Americans, and U.S. Society

In lieu of a monthly update post, please consider this collection of SocImages posts related to the relationship between police, black Americans, and this country.  See, also, the Ferguson syllabus put together by Sociologists for Justice and this summary of the facts by Nicki Lisa Cole.

Race and policing:

Perceptions of black men and boys as inherently criminal:

Proof that Americans have less empathy for black people:

Evidence of the consistent maltreatment, misrepresentation, and oppression of black people in every part of American society:

The situation now:

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

Jay Smooth: “How Much Do You Think People Can Take?”

There was violence and unrest following the news that Darren Wilson would not be indicted. Some argued that this was proof that the people involved were bad people. Jay Smooth responds with a question: “How much do you think people can take?”

Here is a partial transcript of his 5min discussion, embedded below:

Riots are things that human beings do because human beings have limits.

We don’t all have the same limits. For some of us, our human limit is when our favorite team loses a game. For some of us, it’s when our favorite team wins a game.

The people of Ferguson had a different limit than that. For the people of Ferguson, a lifetime of neglect and defacto segregation and incompetence and mistreatment by every level of government was not their limit.

When that malign neglect set the stage for one of their children to be shot down and left in the street like a piece of trash… that was not their limit.

For the people of Ferguson, spending one hundred days almost entirely peacefully protesting for some measure of justice for that child  and having their desire for justice treated like a joke by every local authority… was not their limit.

And then after those 100 days, when the so-called prosecutor waited till the dead of night to twist that knife one last time. When he came out and confirmed once and for all that Michael Brown’s life didn’t matter…

Only then did the people of Ferguson reach their limit.

So when you look at what happened Monday night, the question you should be asking is how did these human beings last that long before they reached their human limit? How do black people in America retain such a deep well of humanity that they can be pushed so far again and again without reaching their human limit?

Riots? Violence? Unrest?

That is what happens when you treat human beings that way.

Watch to the whole thing:

Soc’t Joel Best Wishes You a Safe n’ Tasty Halloween

Joel Best, the sociologist famous for debunking the myth that your children might receive Halloween candy impregnated with poison and razor blades, wishes you a “Happy Halloween” and nothing but the Best candy:

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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.

School Shootings: What’s Different About Europe?

Yesterday’s killing was the 39th school shooting in the U.S. this year.  Most of those got little press coverage. Unless someone is actually killed, a shooting might not even get coverage in the local news.

Yesterday’s did.

Why would an apparently happy kid shoot several classmates? That seems to be the question that’s getting the attention of the press and perhaps the public. “Struggling to Find Motive,” said one typical headline. That’s the way we think about school shootings these days.

It’s unlikely that any of the motives that turn up will be all that strange. Fryberg may have been upset by a racial comment someone had made the day before or by a break-up with a girl. He may have had other conflicts with other kids. Nothing unusual there.

But “why” is not the question that first occurs to me. What I always ask is how a 14-year old kid can get his hands on a .40 Beretta handgun (or whatever the weaponry in the shooting of the week is).  For Fryberg it  was easy. The pistol belonged to his father. Nothing strange there either.  Thirty million homes in the US, maybe forty million, are stocked with guns.

Do European countries have school shootings like this? Surely kids in Europe get upset about break-ups; surely they must have conflicts with their classmates; and surely, some of them may become irrationally upset by these setbacks.  So surely there must have been school shootings in Europe too.

I went to Wikipedia and looked for school shootings since 1980 (here and here).  I eliminated shootings by adults (e.g., Lanza in Sandy Hook, Brevik in Norway). I also deleted in-school suicides even though these were done with guns and were terrifying to the other students. I’m sure my numbers are not perfectly accurate, and the population estimate in the graph below  is based on current numbers; I didn’t bother to find an average over the last 35 years. Still the differences are so large that I’m sure they are not due to technical problems in the data.

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Does the U.S. have a much greater proportion of kids who are mentally unstable? Do our schools have more bullying? Are European kids more capable in dealing with conflicts? Are they more stable after break-ups? Do they spend less time with violent video games? Do their schools have more programs to identify and counsel the potentially violent?  I’m not familiar with the data on these, but I would guess that the answer is no and that our kids are no more screwed up than kids in Europe. Or if there are differences, they are not large enough to explain the difference in the body count.

No, the important difference seems to be the guns.  But guns have become the elephant in the room that nobody talks about.  Even asking about access to guns seems unAmerican these days.  Thanks to the successful efforts of the NRA and their representatives in government, guns have become a taken-for-granted part of the landscape. Asking how a 14-year old got a handgun is like asking how he got a bicycle to ride to school.

When the elephant’s presence is too massive not be noticed – for example, when the elephant kills several people –  the elephant’s spokesmen rush in to tell us that “No, this is not the time to talk about the elephant.”  And so we talk about video games and psychological screening and parents and everything else, until the next multiple killing. But of course that too is not the time to talk about elephants.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Reported Sex Offenses Rise in Response to Reform at Occidental College

In 2013, after years of trying to reform the institution from the inside, faculty and students at my college submitted two complaints to the federal government. The combined 330 pages allege sexual harassment, assault, and battery on campus and argue that the college has ignored and silenced victims, mishandled adjudication and, at times, protected men found responsible for assault. We are now under federal investigation.

Forcibly revealing Occidental College’s failings hasn’t been fun for anyone, but it has changed us. It is now easier to report assaults, we are likely more vigilant about recording those reports, and students have more knowledge about their rights. Here is what happened:

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At The Occidental Weekly, Noel Hemphill writes that reports of sexual offenses have skyrocketed. They rose from 12 in 2011 to 64 in 2013. Over half of the cases reported were of incidents that occurred in previous years. That’s normal — victims often take a year or more to decide to come forward — but may also reflect a new desire by survivors to have their experience recorded in official statistics.

These numbers are disturbing, but it is unlikely that they reflect a rise in sexual offenses. Instead, they suggest that survivors of assault are feeling more empowered, have greater faith in their institution, and are pushing for recognition and change.

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.