Good Morning, Everyone!

It’s nerdy, I know, but I’ve always found the first day of school to be one of the most exciting, hopeful, and uplifting days of the entire calendar year. Maybe that’s what happens when your mom was a kindergarten teacher and your dad a grade school principal. Whatever your story may be, I hope you are ready for another great year of sociology.

I see sociology as a noble profession, vocation, a calling in the Weberian sense. And in this time of tumult, conflict, and change, I believe our work—our research, our ideas, and the information and insights we produce—is more needed than ever by people, in communities, all over the world. This is, in many ways, the essence of the public sociology movement of which The Society Pages has been such a proud and prominent player. And today, on this first day of classes, the people I’m thinking mostly about are students—our graduates and our undergrads. We do many things as sociologists, but given that we are all in the business of teaching and learning, it is good to recall Michael Burawoy’s suggestion from a little over a decade ago that our classrooms are our first public(s).

Our dean at the UMN College of Liberal Arts, John Coleman, gave new students some advice last week. He stressed the need for each student to find their own place here on campus, their community, and to help create a culture of respect across all of our differences. Sound—and very sociological—advice for all of us all over the country, I think. Here’s hoping that we can all do our part to make culture and community (and sociology!) in our departments in the year ahead.

Thanks so much for your continued participation in and commitment to our wonderful community. Have a great day and a great year!

Doug

I turned 50 this summer so maybe I’m feeling a little sentimental. Nevertheless, in this season of tumult, Trump, and 140 character tweets that pass for news, I have found myself sustained by the some of the most old-fashioned modes of media—weekly and monthly news magazines, and, more specifically, long-form journalism. Here are some of my favorites from the past few weeks, categorized in the ways that I think my sociology friends and colleagues would find meaningful:

Social movements: Nathan Heller’s analysis of the efficacy of collective protests “Out of Action: Do Protests Work? The New Yorker, August 2017.

Popular culture: “How American Lost its Mind,” a piece on culture and populism by Kurt Andersen in The Atlantic, September 2017. (Other solid treatments roughly in this category/vein: “The New Paranoia by Colin Dickey in July’s The New Republic; and “European Disunion: What the Rise of Populist Movements Means for Democracy” by Yascha Mounk, also in TNR, August/September).

Sociology of knowledge: David Session in The New Republic, “The Rise of the Thought Leader: How the Superrich have Funded a New Class of Intellectual,” June 2017.

Media studies: a trip down memory lane by my favorite television critic of how Donald Trump built his popularity (and personality) in and through the small screen, Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker, July 2017.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Traditional journalism doesn’t (and can’t) solve all the problems of our fractious world, and indeed I sometimes worry that all of this great writing and reading can be its own kind of distraction or delusion. But the clear-thinking, the ability to put things in broader context, and the commitment to synthesizing social facts and cultural complexities—all qualities that us sociologists aspire to—displayed in these pieces is admirable and much needed. And I can only shake my head in awe for the way these writers, reporters, and critics are able to produce such great, insightful content in such timely and engaging fashion.

 

I was in the 8th grade, in 1980, when Ronald Reagan got elected. As much as my white, southern Missouri friends idolized him, I was terrified. For reasons I only vaguely perceived at the time, I thought he was going to plunge us into war, into a global nuclear holocaust. I felt like he was mean to those who were already marginalized and downtrodden (not words I actually would have used then). His upbeat, moralistic new “morning in America” schtick rubbed me the wrong way. Also Reagan just didn’t seem smart enough to warrant such a post. Believing that a president was supposed to be the best and brightest among us, I preferred the cerebral, deeply spiritual, cautious-to-a-fault incumbent, Jimmy Carter.

Carter wasn’t popular in my class, in my family, in my town, or my state. I was only one of two kids in my class who supported Carter in our little, pre-election caucus—the other was an awkward, unpopular kid who had just recently moved to our town and school. I wasn’t entirely surprised. I went to a Missouri Synod Lutheran grade school, my friends (outside of sports) were exclusively white, and my hometown (Cape Girardeau) also happens to be the place that produced Rush Limbaugh. If anything, I may have been most surprised with myself for breaking with all of the folks I knew so well and thought I had so much in common with.

The depth of the divide I encountered also surprised me. I remember how my classmates—my friends, again, kids who I had grown up with and I thought were just like me—mocked and ridiculed Carter, the Sunday School teacher and military man, even as they celebrated Reagan who had come to fame as a Hollywood actor. How did that work? I’m not just talking about the silly mustaches and devil horns they drew on the Carter campaign literature my sorry ally and I passed around the room. They were deeply scornful of Carter, convinced that he was bringing ruin upon our country. They thought I was crazy for supporting him, and used strange lines I’d later realize came out of familiar anti-communist lingo to say so. They were as serious about this as I was about my own private fears. They really seemed to think Carter was somehow evil and anti-American. It was so puzzling to me. Looking back, I realize it wasn’t just Reagan that I found so upsetting but the cultural chasm that I was beginning to see. I mean, my friends were terrified about political and social and economic things as well, but their fears were almost diametrically opposed to mine. In fact, you could probably say that my whole career has been predicated on trying to understand such differences and divisions, especially on the racial front.

I didn’t share any of this with anyone really back in 1980. In fact, I don’t remember doing any other politicking for Carter after the debacle of the class caucus. Politics, in my family at least, was better left to others, almost embarrassing to acknowledge openly. Politics, in other words, was personal–but strictly personal, completely private. But I remember feeling scared, perplexed, demoralized. Even sick, physically sick.

Of course today what I’m thinking most about is that I encountered a lot of those same, familiar feelings and fears last night and waking up again this morning. I should be careful here. Trump is no Reagan. His rhetoric has been far more extreme, and as my friend and colleague Chris Uggen says, he’s “unmoored” personally and politically in ways that make this even more anomic and we really have no idea what he will actually do. All of this just adds to the anxiety. And it is not just me. That’s probably my first thought and most important point. Many of my closest friends and family in Minnesota and around the country are experiencing such thoughts and fears, many even more deeply and profoundly than I.

I think it is important to share that with each other today, to not try to grapple with this individually and on our own but to do so openly and collectively and even across the usual political lines if possible. This is about taking care of each other and ourselves. It is about healing and reflection. It is about moving forward and preparing for next steps. And while things today may still be too raw for real, thoughtful processing and planning, that is also what we probably need to at least prepare ourselves to do.

So here’s what I’m trying to remember today, in light of the past, and will try to build upon in the coming weeks and months.

–I’m trying to remember that we’ve been through this—at least a version of this—before.

–I’m trying to remember that the world didn’t end in my childhood, that social change is hard, and that political processes play out over decades and generations.

–I’m trying to remember that America has been a very divided, polarized society for a long time, and all recent elections have been very close.

–I’m trying also to remember that good things sometimes come out of bad ones. As my colleague Michael Goldman observed, “some of the most progressive changes we see today came from collective action once Reagan…was elected.”

–I’m trying to remember that part of my job is to go back and read and think and try to understand what has happened, why it is happening, and how we might respond.

–And I’m also remembering that my attempt to understand both my own feelings and reactions from the 1980s as well as those of folks all around me at the time (perhaps especially those of folks around me) helped propel me to study and think and engage the way I did in high school, to choose the college I went to, and to enter into the field and career I have spent my entire life working in. Sociology is a noble calling, and we need it now more than ever.

–I’m trying to remember that the nation is vast, containing multitudes.

–I’m trying to remember that as dejected and demoralized and downright despondent as I and some of my closest family and friends may be, I’ve got other friends and lots of family who felt that way when things turned out differently in other election cycles.

–I’m trying to remember those Americans most likely to be most hurt by the politics of 2016 (and that it is probably not my closest family and friends nor me or any of my colleagues).

–I’m trying to remember that it’s not just feelings, politics, and rhetoric we need to attention to, it is social conditions and actual programs and policies.

–I’m trying to remember not only that have we been through this before, but that our institutions have proved strong and resilient.

–I’m trying to remember that this nation can be good.

And, for what it is worth, I also know that the sun did come up today, even if it was accompanied by the first hard frost of the season here in the Twin Cities.

 

Photo by Disney|ABC, Flickr CC
Photo by Disney|ABC, Flickr CC

Okay, so I’m short on time and more than a little bit intimidated by Beyonce and all her brilliance. But I grew up listening to country music, have long loved the Dixie Chicks, and I’ve been thinking so much lately about trying to cultivate cross-racial understanding and interactions in our culture that it seems like I need to say something about the remarkable rendition of “Daddy’s Girl” that was part of the CMA country music awards the other night. Fortunately, this new piece on the Atlantic entitled “What Beyonce’s ‘Daddy’s Lessons’ Has to Teach” says many of the things I’ve been thinking about. From the intriguing lack of media buildup, to Beyonce’s blending of feminism, religiosity, and guns, to the racial dynamics of the performers and some of the predictable (and easily repudiated) social media backlash, this piece has it all–and this isn’t even to mention the amazing musicality and rip-roaring entertainment value. Fortunately, there is a link to the performance embedded in the post. And in case you haven’t heard of any of this, here’s the lyrics to wet your appetite.

BEYONCE Daddy Lessons lyrics

[Beyonce]
Yee-haw!
(Oh, oh, oh)
Texas, texas (oh, oh, oh) texas…

Came into this world
Daddy’s little girl
And daddy made a soldier out of me
(Oh, oh, oh)
Daddy made me dance
And daddy held my hand
(Oh, oh, oh)
And daddy liked his whisky with his tea
And we rode motorcycles
Blackjack, classic vinyl
Tough girl is what I had to be

He said take care of your mother
Watch out for your sister
Oh, and that’s when he gave to me…

With his gun, with his head held high
He told me not to cry
Oh, my daddy said shoot
Oh, my daddy said shoot
With his right hand on his rifle
He swore it on the bible
My daddy said shoot
Oh, my daddy said shoot
He held me in his arms
And he taught me to be strong
He told me when he’s gone
Here’s what you do
When trouble comes to town
And men like me come around
Oh, my daddy said shoot
Oh, my daddy said shoot
Oh, oh, oh…

Daddy made me fight
It wasn’t always right
(But he said girl it’s your second amendment, oh, oh, oh)
He always played it cool
But daddy was no fool
And right before he died he said remember…

He said take care of your mother
Watch out for your sister
And that’s when daddy looked at me…

With his gun, with his head held high
He told me not to cry
Oh, my daddy said shoot
Oh, my daddy said shoot
With his right hand on his rifle
He swore it on the bible
My daddy said shoot
Oh, my daddy said shoot
‘Cause he held me in his arms
And he taught me to be strong
And he told me when he’s gone
Here’s what you do
When trouble comes to town
And men like me come around
Oh, my daddy said shoot
Oh, my daddy said shoot
Oh, oh, oh
Oh, oh, oh

My daddy warned me about men like you
He said baby girl he’s playing you
He’s playing you
My daddy warned me about men like you
He said baby girl he’s playing you
He’s playing you
Cause when trouble comes in town
And men like me come around
Oh, my daddy said shoot
Oh, my daddy said shoot
Cause when trouble comes to town
And men like me come around
Oh, my daddy said shoot!
Oh, my daddy said shoot!

(Good job Bey, hahaha…)

Source:http://www.directlyrics.com/beyonce-daddy-lessons-lyrics.html

9780393071634_300Getting sociological research into public circulation is an ongoing challenge, especially when we are talking about sociologists writing in their own voice about their own original research. Obviously, we here at TSP see that as one of our primary missions, as does our fabulous partner, ASA’s Contexts magazine. But our resources and media penetration are extremely limited. Over the past few weeks, in fact, I’ve had several conversations with colleagues and students about how few venues exist wherein sociologists can reach a public audience in their own, original voice. Even our colleagues that contribute regularly to national media outlets are often explicitly and unceremoniously instructed not to write about their own research and findings.

Against this backdrop, it seemed almost magical when Elijah Anderson’s piece analyzing Donald Trump’s rhetoric about African Americans and inner-city neighborhoods popped into my feed a week or two back. The piece appeared on Vox under the title “The Sociological Theory that Explains Trump’s Assumption that All Black Citizens Live in the ‘Inner City’.” It is, of course, Anderson’s theories that we are talking about — or, rather, that he himself is sharing with a larger public audience.

Anderson’s jumping off point is the exchange that took place during the second presidential debate when Donald Trump responded to a question from a well-dressed African American man by launching into a riff on how terrible inner-cities are, assuming and implying that this man had come from a St. Louis ghetto. Essentially Anderson analyzes that moment as a way to explain how and why African Americans are so often profiled by other Americans and he does so through a larger discussion of his own theories and research on white spaces, black spaces, and the cosmopolitan canopy.

If you already know Anderson’s work, this will be a bit of a refresher course. If you don’t, it will be a nice introduction and primer to his ideas, which have been fairly widely discussed within the field (especially the notion of the cosmopolitan canopy). And either way, I think it is a rare and important treat to see a leading sociologist writing in their own voice and showing how their research and theories can be used for a broad, mainstream public audience.

Kudos to Professor Anderson, and kudos to Vox for providing such a format and opportunity.

Saturday Night Live has been having great fun with the presidential campaigns and debates all fall, with Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon headlining in the roles of Trump and Clinton. These skits have been entertaining to be sure, but they haven’t–at least in my opinion–plumbed the depths of social significance in the way that great, memorable, and truly meaningful comedy often achieves. Perhaps it is the source material. In any case, there was a bit this past week that I believe did achieve something quite powerful and sociologically insightful, even while being outrageously hilarious. I’m talking about the Black Jeopardy skit.

“Black Jeopardy” has been something of a recurring bit on the show. The concept is a play off of the quiz show that Alex Trebec has made famous where contestants must provide the questions that go along with various facts about culture, history, and science. In the SNL version of the game, the categories and questions are all based upon knowledge and information associated with black culture and/or unique in African American communities, and typically one of the three contestants–usually someone who is white–has little or no knowledge of any of this. The running gag is how obvious the answers and questions are for black contestants as opposed to the fish-out-of-water, racial other. What is both funny and revealing, then, are both the unique characteristics  and distinctive knowledge of black culture and community (even the categories are often pretty funny but only if you have some knowledge of the culture) as well as what it is like to be a complete outsider. In short, Black Jeopardy is an almost straight-up inversion (and take down) of white culture and privilege.

In this week’s installment, the SNL crew inserted Tom Hanks into the mix. He plays an earnest if uncomfortable white, working-class contestant. The results were not only laugh-out-loud hilarious, but also revealed points of agreement–ranging from distrust of the government and anyone in power, to taking pride in thriftiness to a dislike of thin women–between members of the black community and erstwhile white Trump supporters. The unexpected points of agreement were the key to both the humor and the sociological insight. Such points of commonality are almost never realized or appreciated in our currently polarized, black versus white racial-political climate. The skit not only brought them to the fore, they made them funny.

You probably need to watch it for yourself to fully appreciate my point, and if you haven’t yet seen it, here’s a link.

 

But just to help underscore the brilliance of the concept and execution (and with a little help from my research assistant and TSP board member, Sarah Catherine Billups), here’s a condensed narrative of some of the best moments in the skit.

The Skit: Black Jeopardy with a Trump Player

“Whaddup, whaddup, whaddup! Welcome to Black Jeopardy—the only TV game show where the audience is in church clothes,” host Darnell Hayes (cast member Kenan Thompson) booms before introducing the contestants: Keely (Sasheer Zamata), Shanice (Leslie Jones), and Doug, a white guy sporting a “Make American Great Again” cap.  One of these things is not like the other.  Doug, played by guest host Tom Hanks, looks clearly out of place with his red cap, American flag and eagle t-shit under his blue denim work shirt and white goatee.  All he’s missing is a shotgun and a Budweiser.

“Doug? Are you sure you’re ready to play Black Jeopardy?” Darnel asks with worry pushing his eyebrows to the ceiling.

“They told me a fella could win some money so let’s win me some money, GIT ‘R DONE,” Doug/Hanks explains kind of quietly.

The audience roars with laughter at this fish-out-of-water-fella as Darnell shrugs and then goes on to introduce the categories “Big Girls,” “You Better,” “Mm I don’t know,” “I’m Gonna Pray on This,” “They Out Here Saying,” and “White People.”

Keely and Shanice hit their buzzers with lightning speed to correctly answer the first few questions–which, as is the usual bit for this skit, plays off of the knowledge and experiences that are supposedly unique to the black community.  When Doug nods his head in agreement to an answer and shares that he plays Monopoly Millionaires Club every week too, Darnell brushes him off.

Much to everyone’s surprise, however, Doug buzzes to the answer to the prompt: “They out here saying: the new iPhone wants your thumbprint ‘for your protection.’” He responds, a bit hesitantly, “No no, I don’t think so. That’s how they get’cha.”

“YES!…YES! That’s it!” Darnell points to him in shock.  Did this white guy really just answer correctly?

Keely purses her lips, thinking for a second before nodding in agreement, “Yep. I don’t trust that.”

“Me either,” Shanice joins in.  Both black women turn and look at Doug, fascinated but still a little cautious. “I read that goes straight to the government,” he says matter-of-factly.

“Yeah, not bad dog. The, the board is yours,” Darnell announces, his eyes still wide with newfound curiosity about this white guy in a bright red Trump hat.

Keely chooses the category “They Out Here Sayin” for $800: “They out here sayin’ that every vote counts.” This time, Doug buzzes in a bit more quickly. “What is ‘oh come on, they already decided that weeks ago–who’s gonna win even before it happens.”

“YES! YES! YES! YES!” Darnell shouts in excitement,” elaborating further himself, “The Illuminati figured that out months ago! That’s another one for Doug!” Is this really happening? Is Doug actually getting answers correct? The audience laughs as Doug says with new confidence, “Okay, we’re doin’ it.”

Next question: “The mechanic says you owe $250 for new brake lines.”

Doug rings in again! “What is ‘you better go to the dude in my neighborhood who’ll fix anything for $40.’”

“Oh, you know Cecil?!” Darnell asks as if Doug is a long lost cousin.

“Yeah, yeah. My Cecil’s name is Jim and he fixed my refrigerator, my air conditioner, and my cat,” Doug replies with pride.

“Yeah, everybody’s got a guy,” replies Darnell. “Wooo, you all right, Doug.” The audience applauds almost politely, with genuine appreciation.

Next, Doug selects the category “Big Girls” for $200. “Skinny girls can do this for you.”

“Doug?”

“What is ‘not a damn thing.”

This time the audience erupts in wild hoots and hollers as Darnell exclaims, “You damn right!”

“Yes! Yes!” Keely and Shanice agree.  Shanice even gives him a high five.  Both the women are smiling and nodding vigorously at this point, no longer looking at Doug like he’s a two-headed giraffe in the zoo.

“My wife—she’s a sturdy girl,” Doug explains.

“That is my MAN right there!” Shanice approves.

“Go Doug, Go Doug, Go Doug!” The host and the other contestants sing and dance to cheer for this white man getting the right answer, again!

As the fictional contest draws to a close, Darnell crosses his hand over his heart and says, “Doug. I got to say, it’s been a pleasure,”

“Well, right back at ya my buh-rau-thuh,” Doug replies in a somewhat uncomfortable attempt to return the complement and stay on common ground.

Now it’s time for the Final Jeopardy.  What else does Doug know? Can he really win this thing? Is it possible that his knowledge and understanding is really on par with that of the black audience, host, and contestants? The audience is ready to find out, and waits for the final category to be revealed.

“Lives that Matter.”

“Oooooh” the audience grimaces and hesitates as Keely’s and Shanice’s eyes shoot daggers in Doug’s direction.  Darnell smiles biting his lower lip, shrugs his shoulders, and shakes his head, “Well, it was good while it lasted, Doug.”

“Hey, I got lots to say about this—,“ Doug insists.

“I’m sure you do!” Darnell says. “When we come back, we gonna play the National Anthem just to see what the hell happens. We’ll be right back!”

As the screen fades out, we see Doug talking and gesturing wildly with his hands as Shanice watches, perplexed and Keely slowly wags her finger.

 

Final Analysis: There are other great moments in the skit of both unexpected commonality and obvious, if amusing, cross-racial tension that we’ve glossed over here. But the insights about race relations and American culture that I see so brilliantly, entertainingly represented and revealed in SNL’s Black Jeopardy can be easily summarized: the initial skepticism and distrust that defines so many inter-racial interactions in our culture; the points of common understanding about culture and society that may actually exist under the surface for some of us; and yet, ultimately, the existence of issues where there is almost certainly going to be a huge disconnect and major disagreements. Great concept. Brilliant execution. SNL and comedy at its sociological best.

U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on Oct. 16, 1968
U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on Oct. 16, 1968. (AP Photo)

So Tommie Smith and John Carlos get to go to Washington, D.C. next week, to the White House, to be received by President Obama with the 2016 United States Olympic team. Who are they and why is this such a big deal?

Smith and Carlos are the American Olympians who raised their fists during the playing of the national anthem during the victory ceremony–their victory ceremony–at the Mexico City Games in 1968. The gesture remains one of the most iconic images in all of sport history, and it has been referenced frequently in recent months with the emergence of a whole new era of African American athletic activism.

My first book was on Smith and Carlos and their demonstration, and over the course of the past few months I’ve been working on a project to situate the current era of athletic awareness in the context of the activism of 1968. Too often in sports, if not society more generally, we have a tendency to confine history–especially the history of racism and injustice as well as conflict and struggle–to the past. Without getting lost in the details, here’s a few facts about the history that I think are still relevant today.

  1. Smith and Carlos’ 1968 demonstration was not the spontaneous gesture of two isolated, discontented individuals; rather, it was the culmination of a year-long effort of activism and advocacy (famously titled “The Revolt of the Black Athlete”).
  2. The athletic activism of 1968 was not directed against prejudice and discrimination in the world of sport; rather, it grew out of the desire of socially-conscious, politically-committed African American athletes to use the publicity and platform of sport to contribute to larger, societal struggles against racism and injustice.
  3. Smith and Carlos were not celebrated by most Americans back in 1968, much less received at the White House for their demonstration. They were kicked off the team in Mexico City and treated as outlaws, villains, and traitors back home.

There’s been a lot of talk among sociologists lately about the status of ethnographic research and knowledge, and writing has been at the center of it. Does well-written, powerfully argued fieldwork enhance our sociological understanding of others and the world around us, or is a powerful narrative something ethnographers use to draw readers in and convince them of the veracity of claims that may lack strong supporting data or careful engagement with existing literature and social theory?

I think this larger debate is important context for Matthew Desmond’s argument–offered in the conclusion of Evicted, and highlighted recently at the Sociological Imagination blog–against first person narrative in the presentation of ethnographically driven social science. In Desmond’s view, this approach fails to “capture the essence of a social world” because “the ‘I’ filters all.” He explains: 

“With first-person narration, the subjects and the author are each always held in view, resulting in every observation being trailed by a reaction to the observer. No matter how much care the author takes, the first-person ethnography becomes just as much about the fieldworker as about anything she or he saw.”

“At a time of rampant inequality and widespread hardship, when hunger and homelessness are found throughout America, I am interested in a different, more urgent conversation. ‘I’ don’t matter.”

I really respect Desmond and his book (not to mention his writing chops, of which I am embarrassingly jealous–I mean, I really love that “I filters all” line). And I completely agree that sociological research should not be about the researcher, if only because we sociologists tend to insist that no one is really that special or unique in the modern world. (For years I’ve joked about writing a memoir entitled “It’s Not About Me.”)

However–there it is, you knew it was coming–I am not entirely comfortable with eliminating first-person perspective from all sociological writing, ethnographic or otherwise. In fact, sometimes I believe it is appropriate and even necessary for social scientists to write this way. At least, that’s what I argued in the conclusion of my new book on Midnight Basketball–a book that has a good bit of fieldwork in it and that I decided, against many of my other impulses and principles, to write in the first person. 

I did this partly to construct something of a narrative thread–the thread of my discoveries and idiosyncratic insights–for a potentially dry historical narrative/case study. More importantly, though, I took this approach because I wanted to “openly acknowledge, if not highlight, the constructed nature of the narrative and research process.” I wanted my readers to know and thus be able to assess my research and its various findings, interpretations, and claims. In other words, as I put it in the end,

“I think the more we know about the research process–what data is collected and how it is collected, the manner in which it is analyzed and interpreted–the more I am able to understand and assess the relative strength and power of the claims and findings that are offered.”

That doesn’t mean Desmond is completely wrong, or that I would write every book or article the way I did my midnight basketball book. But it is to say that there are many different reasons for writing in the voices and rhetorical styles that we social scientists do, and that, given the complexity of the social worlds we live in, as well as the wide array of sociological approaches to analyzing and understanding these worlds, I think having a diversity of narrative devices in our tool kit is something worth preserving.

 

“We simply do not need more poetry, gender studies or sociology majors. Starbucks is fully stocked with baristas for the foreseeable future.” (StarTribune, Monday, September 5, 2016).

This is the pull quote from this morning’s local paper that I was confronted with as I prepared to head to campus to finalize my syllabus on this Labor Day holiday. It actually comes from an editorial written by an economics professor and academic administrator that originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The piece argued that if more of higher education is to be publicly funded–as per the calls of the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic party–then taxpayers should have more of a say in what academic programs are offered by colleges and universities for students to study.

Troubling though it is, the sentiment is far from new. Attacks on the liberal arts and publicly funded higher education more generally have not only proliferated, they have begun to be institutionalized in states ranging from Wisconsin to North Carolina to Louisiana. But what jumps out at me, for obvious reasons given my position and this website, is the inclusion of sociology on the list of supposedly unproductive and unemployable college majors. If this were just this one instance, I might write it off. But over the past few weeks, I’ve seen and heard sociology pop up in several such conversations and contexts. Perhaps most notably, there’s a radio spot running currently on my favorite sports talk station in the Twin Cities in which some for-profit college identifies sociology as a major that will leave its graduates channel surfing on the couch without meaningful work or income.

Obviously, I couldn’t disagree more. I feel like sociology is an extremely valuable area of study, not only in terms of the general value of a liberal arts education, but in terms of cultivating useful, marketable skills in the workplace. Indeed, with its emphasis on research, communication, critical thinking, and the realities of our social conditions, I see sociology as great preparation for a job market that values soft skills, creative thinking, flexibility and the ability to think, learn, and re-invent one’s self over time.

What’s more, the kinds of graduates we produce and the research we put into the world are of tremendous societal value as well–indispensable, I think, to making a good society as well making money. One of the points in the editorial that is the most objectionable to me is the assertion that we need fewer criminal justice majors, social workers, and elementary school teachers than we do computer engineers and statisticians–which seems to be based mainly on the fact that the starting salaries of the latter seem to be about double those of the former rather than any actual consideration of the societal value and necessity of these occupations. (Oh and by the way: statistics, methods, and data analysis are a key component of any self-respecting sociology curriculum as well.)

I don’t want to dwell on this little cloud of negativity much further at the start of an exciting new academic year and on what, for me at least, will be a day full of sociological labor, except to say two things. First, such talk should serve as a useful reminder of how misunderstood and marginalized our discipline can be. And second, if we understand it properly, such talk can also provide a powerful incentive and inspiration for doing the best work we all can do in the coming year to promote a broader understanding of what sociology is and why our teaching, research, and writing is so necessary and essential in the worlds in which we live.

When even Michael Jordan—that erstwhile poster child of the transcendent, apolitical, super-star athlete—jumps into the fray, you know something is up. I am referring, of course, to the public announcement Jordan made Monday. Saying he could “no longer stay silent,” legendary #23 pledged to donate $1 million each to a charity for community-police relations and to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Jordan said, “We need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers—who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all—are respected and supported.”

Serena Williams after her 2016 Wimbledon win, via bustle.com.
Serena Williams after her 2016 Wimbledon win, via bustle.com.

But Jordan is not the main story here, at least not when viewed in sociological perspective. The main story, the bigger story, is about all of the athletes and sports organizations who have been speaking out about social issues in one way or the other over the course of the past few months: NBA star and American Olympian Carmelo Anthony urging athletes to quit worrying about their endorsement deals and speak out on police killings; tennis player Serena Williams offering support and then a clenched fist salute on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon; the testimonials of Anthony and fellow NBA stars Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade at the ESPYs; WNBA players and teams, led by the Minnesota Lynx, dressing in support of Black Lives Matter and against police shootings; the NBA moving next year’s annual All-Star game out of North Carolina because of that state’s LGBTQ politics. My hometown paper, The Star Tribune, ran a whole page story in last Sunday’s sports section about a host of athletes taking social justice stands or actions in Minnesota alone.

Let there be no doubt: we live in a new era of athlete awareness and advocacy, unlike anything we’ve seen since the late 1960s.

LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2012, hoods raised and heads bowed in memory of Trayvon Martin.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2012, hoods raised and heads bowed in memory of Trayvon Martin.

I believe the roots of this new movement can be traced to LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates tweeting out a picture of themselves in hoodies, with heads bowed in support of Trayvon Martin, a few years back (see also). Others recall when the entire Phoenix Suns team wore jerseys in solidarity with Latinos who felt threatened by proposed anti-immigration legislation in Arizona. Since then, we’ve seen NBA players like Chris Paul threatening to boycott the NBA All-Star Game unless something done to disavow the blatant racism of then-owner Donald Sterling; St. Louis Rams football players entering the field in the “hands up” gesture of Ferguson protestors; and, perhaps most amazingly, the University of Missouri football team using the threat of a boycott to force the removal of their university’s president.

Hartmann coverAs a scholar who’s done a good bit of work on sport and race and social unrest and social protest over the years—including a book on the 1968 African American athletic protest movement, the activism associated most famously with Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s iconic victory stand demonstration in Mexico City—I’ve been asked a lot of questions and invited to make a lot of presentations on athlete activism over the past year. So, as all of this has been unfolding, I’ve begun work on a paper situating the most recent activism and advocacy in the context of the protests of the Civil Rights era. Below, a few of the points I’m building the paper around:

  1. Athlete Awareness. While public advocacy may be new, social awareness among athletes is not. Athletes, especially elite professional and Olympic athletes, have long been far more educated, intelligent, and aware than prevailing if outdated “dumb-jock” stereotypes allow. The problem, in my view, has not been lack of social awareness and understanding, but barriers to public expression. Anthony has referenced highly lucrative endorsement deals (sometimes offering more renumeration to players than their actual sporting endeavors do), but formal and informal league rules, organizational pressures, and norms about the public roles of athletes all also apply. If there is a new consciousness, in my view, it involves a revitalized understanding of the powerful platform that sports provides athletes who are so inclined to voice their opinions.
  2. Larger Context and Connections. Those athletes who have chosen to use their status as public figures to speak out on social issues are not just speaking off the cuff, nor are they isolated malcontents. These public expressions are deliberate and reflective, responding to social issues such as police brutality and profiling or hateful gender or sexuality policies outside of the world of sport, in concert with other public leaders, and more often than not in close communication with other activists and organizers. Perhaps the best and clearest example of this was at the University of Missouri last fall: football players launched their boycott after working with campus leaders on ways to show their support for student on a hunger strike in protest of racial conditions and treatment on campus.
  3. Black Athletes as Leaders. It almost goes without saying that African American athletes have been the most prominent and powerful figures in this emerging movement (I think all but one of the athletes profiled by the Star Tribune were persons of color)—except that in our perverse “colorblind” culture, we often dodge the opportunity to name race explicitly and talk about it openly. This conversation is important for far more reasons than I can discuss here; it speaks to the unique racial composition of the American sports world, the prominent role of African American athletes in our culture, the centrality of race and racism in American society, and the larger role of sport in the construction, reproduction, and contestation of existing racial hierarchies. At the most basic levels, though, we can consider how sport is both impacted by and a driving force in the larger racial unrest in contemporary America—including the recognition of persistent patterns of racial injustice, emergent movements of resistance and opposition (such as Black Lives Matter), and the countervailing, reactionary movements of containment, denial, and resentment. The role of white athletes will be interesting as today’s movements unfold. At the University of Missouri, white players and coaches supported black activists, and, in the WNBA, star Minnesota Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen and head coach Cheryl Reeves, both white, lent their support to protesting players. Whether white athletics and athletic leaders continue to step up and assume responsibility remains to be seen. For what it is worth, I’m impressed though not at all surprised the female athletes–including a huge swath of the WBNA–have been such powerful public voices in recent weeks.

Will this advocacy and activism change anything?

Via Time Magazine, the 1968 Olympics victory stand salute.
Via Time Magazine, the 1968 Olympics victory stand salute.

The initial answer is not always encouraging. If my study of the 1968 Olympic protests taught me anything, it is that sport protests usually do not change anyone’s mind or political position. Though we tend to heroize Smith and Carlos these days (as we did with the recently deceased Muhammad Ali), the truth is that these athlete advocates were seen as villains and traitors by mainstream Americans in the 1960s. If anything, their actions inspired a good deal of backlash and resentment, probably hardening some lines of conflict and division. Some of that reaction is already unfolding now.

But this doesn’t mean that nothing at all came of athlete activism in the past or today. One of the things that athletic protests and demonstrations can accomplish is forcing Americans who are or were not otherwise interested in such issues to look up from their otherwise comfortable, apolitical lives and pay attention to the social issues around them. So athletic advocacy can, in fact, play an important role in bringing issues of social injustice—police bias and brutality, policies toward LGBTQ Americans—to broader public visibility and debate. I believe it’s already happening.

And all of the money and attention we lavish on athletes and athletics in this country does put athletes in a unique and, on occasion, powerful material position. Witness the events at the University of Missouri: here, we saw athlete activists and their allies using the power afforded to them by virtue of how the institution and the public rely upon them for their athletic performances to force concrete, organizational change. This was amazing, revealing, and essentially unprecedented.

One final point on social and cultural change. When harkening back to 1968, I constantly find myself remembering and trying to remind others that Smith and Carlos not only didn’t change many people’s minds about race problems and civil rights, they didn’t change American norms about the relationships between sport and social change. If fact, they and their allies (as well as their opponents) were caught within prevailing conceptions of sport as a somewhat special, sacred, or apolitical cultural space. To wit: while some saw athlete activists in the 1960s as heroes or villains, public opinion polls showed that most everybody agreed that sport wasn’t a place for politics or, by extension, protest. The two sides simply disagreed on what counted as protest and politics. Those who sided with Smith and Carlos saw them as standing up for what was good, right, and morally just—in the idealistic way that high-minded sport supporters have long celebrated sport; the majority who were against them saw them and their actions as disruptions outside the social status quo.

What is at stake here is not just whether we agree with the particular causes of athlete activists. What is also at stake is how we understand sport and athletes in society, especially when it comes to issues of racial justice and social change. Will the cultural stereotypes about athletes change? Can we begin to see sport as something more than an arena for entertainment and release, or some kind of apolitical sacred space? If social change is hard, sometimes cultural change is even harder—so on those questions, I remain cautious and curious.