“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.

Click to visit the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality website.
Click to visit the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality website.

Our friends over at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality are at it again—this time with a special, election-year issue focused on the positions of the various parties and presidential candidates on the issues of poverty, mobility, and inequality in contemporary American society. While these topics may not be as popular, provocative, or controversial as others which have dominated campaign coverage so far, this attention to social stratification and public policy—especially for those on the bottom end of our socio-economic system—is basic, bread-and-butter stuff for any sociologically-inclined reader or researcher.

Three pieces in particular caught our attention. The first two, written by Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Harry J. Holzer, actually work best as a paired set. Each provides a short synopsis of how Republicans and Democrats, respectively, think about the challenges of poverty reduction in the United States. Holzer’s take on the Democrat approach doesn’t have a lot of surprises, though you can be the judge of how the various points of emphasis he lays out have played out in the Democratic primaries of late, especially considering that Holzer is the former Chief Economist of Bill Clinton’s labor department and advisor to the Hillary Clinton campaign. (“The views expressed,” he writes in a wry footnote, “are strictly my own.”) And while you might not agree with Holtz-Eakin’s reframing of poverty as a problem of “self-sufficiency,” I find it refreshing to hear a conservative both acknowledge the depth of the policy challenge as well as put social scientific research and data at the foundation of a prospective policy agenda.

The other piece I’d really recommend is Jeff Manza and Clem Brooks‘ article “Why Aren’t Americans Angrier about Rising Inequality?” The question comes from the realization that in spite of four decades of rising income and wealth disparities along with “stagnating or even declining real wages,” General Social Survey data suggests that Americans are not nearly so concerned (or at least, are much less outraged) than we might expect. Manza and Brooks believe this disconnect is “an important, yet under-acknowledged, challenge for scholars seeking to understand the politics of risking inequality in the United States.” They go on to suggest that the persistent strength of optimistic beliefs about opportunity and mobility is a key reason explaining why Democratic politicians have such difficulty getting public traction beyond their party base.

With the benefit of observing the last few months of presidential campaigning on both the Right and the Left, I’m wondering if perhaps these discontents aren’t quite as absent or one-sided as it once might have seemed, expressing themselves in the political arena more than public opinion polling. In a topsy-turvy political era, where anger is becoming all the rage, this possibility makes me think that we will need to be careful what we wish for when it comes to public attention to and partisan packaging of public policies affecting our economic systems and social hierarchies.

The study of racial inequalities and identities has been one of my main areas ever since I started graduate school in the 1990s. In fact, persistent racial injustice is one of the main reasons I went to graduate school and became a sociologist. But for the most part my emphasis has been on the subtler forms of racism and racial ideologies that emerged and have taken hold in the post-Civil Rights era—the seemingly positive, yet deeply racialized representations of African-American athletes, for example. Racial coding, symbolic racism, whiteness, and colorblindness are all part and parcel of the more covert racism I’ve studied, but my primary interest has been about how these various racialized images and ideologies serve to perpetuate and even legitimate the social and institutional structures that constitute institutional discrimination, systemic racism, and white privilege in contemporary America.

On the whole, I have been less interested in the more blatant, old-fashioned forms of prejudice and bigotry. This wasn’t because I believed such old-fashioned forms of racism were gone—I grew up in Southeast Missouri, Rush Limbaugh territory and I’ve got cousins in the Ozarks. Rather, it is/was because I believed that these forms of prejudice and intolerance were fading away, in retreat.

But now, as these most blatant and overt forms seem to be re-emerging, especially in conjunction with the extreme rhetoric and acts of violence provoked by the Trump campaign, I am beginning to rethink my rather comfortable orientation and set of assumptions. More specifically, I’m beginning to realize that however repugnant and upsetting, we need to try to understand where these sentiments—so at odds with our highest ideals, our better angels—come from and what they mean. What may be most important from a social science perspective is to engage these sentiments empirically, gathering real data on who holds these sentiments and why.

It was with this all in mind that I appreciated the story based upon interviews with Trump supporters our local paper The Star Tribune ran a week ago Sunday. Here’s a sampling of quotes from Trump’s backers:

“Do I like Trump as a person? Probably not. Would I hang out with him? Probably not. Would I like to see him beat Hillary Clinton? Absolutely.”

“Every time the [Republican] party attacks Trump, it reminds people again what they don’t like about the party… There was a decision to go for strong, strong leadership.”

“The guy we’ll see get elected is going to be much different from the guy who is currently resonating with voters.”

“Trump’s idea isn’t nutty, but he certainly sounds like an inflammatory guy who hates Muslims, and I wouldn’t support him if I thought that was true.”

“I’m tired of being pushed around by other countries. I’m tired of looking weak in the world.”

“He wants to …make sure people are not coming here to hurt Americans. He wants to put Americans first.”

“I’d like to see our country for once take care of ourselves. And then if we’ve got the extra money and time and energy, we help who we can.”

“People are scared. They know this country needs a change, bad.”

“I’m really tired of people thinking that Trump supporters are uneducated and that they’re not smart. We are probably some of the savviest, most politically motivated people there are. Sure, he isn’t perfect with his language, but I don’t even care at this point.”

I’m not sure just how representative these quotes are. Trump, after all, didn’t carry Minnesota’s caucuses (that was Rubio’s only victory), and my sense is that those who were willing to go on record (or those that the newspaper was willing to quote) are not the kinds of Trump supporters who chant about building a wall, punch protesters, or throw up Nazi salutes. And I would really have liked to see the story (or interviews themselves) dig a little deeper into who is the “we” implied in “our country,” the “ourselves” who need to be “taken care of” before we help “others,” or the “people” who are scared. This is the kind of rhetoric where race’s dark underbelly reveals itself. But still this piece gives us a bit richer, more concrete sense of what motivates or drives some of these kinds of sentiments: the sense of having fallen behind or being completely left out; the lack of faith and outright anger with the Republican Party; the cynicism about government and deep-seated belief that playing by the rules doesn’t work; completely left out; the belief in the need for strong leadership (“strong, strong leadership”).

In terms of exploring the larger racial context of all this, I’ve found two pieces most enlightening over the last week or so. One is Jamelle Bouie’s Slate cover story arguing—based upon a wealth of recent social scientific analysis—that one of the major driving forces of Donald Trump’s support is anger and resentment—rage, really—at the fact that our sitting President is an African-American man. The other is Phil Cohen’s recent analysis on the Family Inequality blog (of all places) about the distinctive demographic features of Trump supporters. One teaser: they aren’t any poorer than other whites, but they are poorer than most white Republicans.

I have also (re)-turned to Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab’s classic study of right-wing extremism in American history The Politics of Unreason (1970). I haven’t gotten through it all yet, much less been able to think through the implications for today, but several points from the first chapter alone are worth recounting:

  1. Extremist, racially charged rhetoric and politics are nothing new in American history. Lipset and Raab’s book reminds us that the same sentiments and even coalition informed George Wallace’s campaign in the late 1960s and the John Birch Society earlier in the decade; McCarthyism in the 1950s; Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930, the Ku Klux Klan before that, and the Know Nothing party of the previous century. While I’m not sure this is exactly reassuring, it is important to remember that what we are seeing is just the latest manifestation of a long-established American pattern.
  2. This resentment, anger, and rage is often very much the result of racial progress and change. “As disadvantaged racial groups [and others] developed new and higher levels of aspirations, the commitments of the privileged to practices which sustained their special advantages would increasingly confront…the functioning as an effective social order.”…the “continual efforts of the old ‘in-groups’…to protect their values and status…[through] new social movements.” “In almost every generation, ‘old American’ groups which saw themselves as ‘displaced,’ relatively demoted in status or power by processes rooted in social change, have sought to reverse these processes through the activities of moralistic movements or political action groups.”
  3. Lipset’s notion of “working-class authoritarianism:” that “the less sophisticated and more economically insecure a group is, the more likely its members are to accept the more simplistic ideology or program offered to them” (on the Left or the Right).
  4. And one final, somewhat more pragmatic and sociological point: it is institutional structures—unions, parties, regional cultures, religious organizations—that help moderate and contain resentments.
Beyonce and her dancers practice their entrance before the performance. Via Beyonce, Instagram.
Beyonce and her dancers practice their entrance before the performance. Via Beyonce, Instagram.

Okay, I’ll make this quick since it’s a bit dated. After I wrote that little post about Saturday Night Live’s “Beyonce is Black” spoof a couple of weeks back, I had a number of students and friends wanting to know what I actually thought about her Superbowl performance (well, her part in the Coldplay performance featuring Beyonce and Bruno Mars). I’m no music critic (or big Beyonce fan, for that matter) so I hadn’t really taken the bait. However, I did spend some time reading what other people were saying—both about the performance and about the backlash it seems Beyonce experienced.

One piece that really caught my attention was by the Salon blogger Lasha. She was struck by the very different reception that Beyonce experienced than the one that met rapper Kendrick Lamar after his racially pointed and politically charged performance at the Grammys just days later. According to Lasha, it was one more instance of the unfair, sexist policing of African American women’s political expression.

Lasha’s point about the marginalization of black women’s radicalism is well-taken. I also think there is some additional social context worth considering. For one, there are expectations and previous record. I think part of the thing with Beyonce is that her Superbowl performance was perhaps her first “socially conscious art.” This surprised folks—it defied their expectations of the “Single Ladies” singer, upsetting those who didn’t see it coming or didn’t understand where she was coming from (witness my previous post on the SNL spoof).

Even more important, in my view, is the actual social context of the performances: the music industry versus the sportsworld. We Americans have come to expect and accept social consciousness and political radicalism in the music context. We not only do not expect such expression in sports, we actually oppose it. Not all cultural arenas are unique, and there are many things about the world of sport that make it uniquely powerful and complicated. As I written on many occasions—for example, in the piece Kyle Green and I did on this site about politics and sport being strange bedfellows—there are deep cultural norms about sport that make any kind of social statement in the realm of sport extremely complicated and typically controversial, especially where race is involved.

I won’t try to rehearse all of the ways this works, much less how racial movements and politics are implicated (there’s a lot on this in my book on the 1968 African American Olympic protests, if you are interested). But when it comes to statements of protest, unrest, and activism, Americans tend to see sport as somehow unique or special—either because we see sport as somehow sacred or sacrosanct (that is, above politics) or because don’t want our entertainment complicated or sullied by the realities of the non-sport world. So while sexism is clearly at play, there’s at least one other important thing going on—the idealization of sport on its highest, most holy day in America: Super Bowl Sunday.

So, did you see the Saturday Night Live spoof “The Day Beyonce Turned Black” yet? It’s pretty amusing—from the opening sequence (“For white people, it was just another great week. They never saw it coming. They had no warning…”) to the line “Maybe this song isn’t for us… but usually everything is!” and finally the white mom who was so freaked out she thought the music turned her daughter black (forgetting they had invited her African-American friend and mom for a play date). The SNL send-up is also, in my view at least, a pretty good example of comedy rooted in sociological analysis and commentary.

I don’t know who actually wrote the skit, but it reminded me of a line that one of the newest cast members Leslie Jones offered in a profile in The New Yorker (January 4, 2016) last month. (She plays the African-American mom in the play date scene of the sketch). Jones said, of working with the mostly white men on the SNL writing team, “One thing I learned: they’re not racist. They’re just white. They don’t know certain things.”

I don’t know if she meant to get a laugh here (Jones’s comedy can be as unsettling as it is hilarious, at least for a white guy like me), but there’s solid sociological insight behind it. In recent years, scholars studying white culture and identity have emphasized at least two different kinds of things whites don’t really know about or are blind to:

  • Privilege. Too often, whites just don’t realize that the disadvantages and injustices people of color face in this country and all over the world are intimately connected with their own advantages. Where there is disadvantage, there must be advantage, so…
  • The normativity of white culture. This speaks to the fact that white cultural beliefs and values are so dominant culturally, so taken-for-granted, that they aren’t even realized as something specific or unique. The idea that there are other ways to see things, other ways to make sense of events, music or movies, political causes or candidates—it’s incredibly easy to think there’s a unique “black point of view” without recognizing that means a “white point of view,” as well.

None of this is too suggest that there isn’t racism, or that some, perhaps many, whites, are racist in some quite basic ways. But it is to say that more than a few of the problems of race in this country spring from a lack of awareness of the realities and nuances of others’ lives (not to mention their own) that white people have the privilege of never attuning to. And some sociologists have even upped the ante with terms such as “colorblind racism” (Eduardo Bonilla Silva) or “laisse faire racism” (Laurence Bobo), which are intended to suggest that this ongoing unawareness, this comfortable complicity of white Americans with the racial status quo, is itself a form of racism.

Confucius is often credited for the saying, “True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.” Whoever said it, they were on to something. When it comes to race in the United States, many of us white folks would do well to pay more attention to the basic facts of the society we live in, as well as how Americans of color understand and experiences these realities on a daily basis. And maybe then we’d be less astounded by Beyonce suddenly becoming black (though her transformation has been dramatic and somewhat unexpected I think, even for people of color), and more interested in the visions of Blackness and race relations more generally she is now trying to call attention to in this Black Lives Matter moment.

Happily, many of our fellow sociologists are showing off their spider-senses in public writing with big audiences and broad, synthestic ideas.
Happily, many of our fellow sociologists are showing off their spider-senses in public writing with big audiences and broad, synthetic ideas woven from rigorous research.

Sociologists are uniquely positioned to pull together research and provide perspective on almost any of the major problems that confront the human species today—from climate change to terrorism and war, inequality, food scarcity, human rights, criminal justice policies. Anything. You name it, there are sociologists working on it and writing about it and helping large public audiences to understand what we are up against. I’ve believed that at least since I was editor of Contexts, and probably long before that.

One example I’ve given numerous times over the past couple of years is an article Eric Klinenberg wrote for The New Yorker in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. It called attention to how unprepared most American cities are for the effects of climate change. Klinenberg’s piece was big picture and beautifully written. It also synthesized research findings from other fields (including the natural sciences) and packaged them in a way that not only made the work coherent, but really highlighted its implications for citizens and social life (for an overview from our Clippings team, click here.)

This week brings a few more wonderful examples. One comes from the most recent class of MacArthur Genius Grant recipients, Matt Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard. Writing in The New Yorker (again!—it was only about a year ago that I christened the magazine “champion of serious sociology“), Desmond helps draw our attention to the crisis in housing and evictions that is so deeply implicated in the problems of urban policy, crime, and poverty all across the country:

For decades, social scientists, journalists, and policymakers have focused on jobs, public assistance, parenting, and mass incarceration as the central problems faced by the American poor, overlooking just how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty. Not everyone living in a distressed neighborhood is associated with gang members, parole officers, employers, social workers, or pastors. But nearly everyone has a landlord.

“For many poor Americans,” he writes with authority and conviction, “eviction never ends.”

And then there’s Adia Harvey Wingfield, professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis’s reborn sociology department. Drawing on the pioneering work of Arlie Hochschild (along with Minnesota’s own Jennifer Pierce and Millsaps College’s Louwanda Evans), Wingfield writes in The Atlantic about the consequences of the emotional labor done by women in the service industry, “How Service with a Smile Takes a Toll on Women.”

Writing—and writers—like this show off many things, not least of which is the synthesizing and contextualizing ability that characterizes the discipline of sociology, that enterprise I told my intro students last night is can be called the “big tent” of the social sciences.


Via Joe Soss on Facebook.
Via Joe Soss on Facebook.

On Facebook, today, scrolling through my friends’ posts, I spotted U of M professor Joe Soss’s post featuring an eye-catching photo of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hot-dogging it at a pool hall, accompanied by the following quote:

“We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed” (MLK, report to SCLC staff, May 1967).

And I loved Soss’s gloss on the photo: “I bet,” Soss wrote, “he sunk that pool shot too.

The day and the photo got me thinking. I had just done a television interview about how Minnesota was recently ranked as the least racially integrated state in the nation by a financial services website. After making the usual comments about being cautious about state-by-state comparisons, particularly about gaps and changes over time, I talked to the reporter about how Minnesotans’ general sense of themselves as relatively successful in terms of racial harmony and our sometimes self-satisfied liberalism can get in the way of our fully recognizing and then really addressing, in policy and social action, racial inequality problems in our state, especially those pertaining to African Americans.

Not all of my comments made it into the piece (see actual story here), and afterwards I found myself thinking back to that most famous of sociology majors, Dr. King (see below for a great photo Soc Images spotted on the HBCU website, dated 1948) and his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In it, he writes that he believes white moderates are among the greatest obstacles to his vision of change. One passage reads:

…I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

Many years later, many protests and rallies and elections later, America remains torn between high-minded colorblind ideals and persistent racial inequalities, while white Americans have the easy option and privilege of just living with the status quo. Maybe if I had quoted Dr. King directly, I could have made that point even stronger.

Via HBCU. Click for original.
Via HBCU. Click for original.

Socks. A simple pair of socks.

Amidst everything that seems to be going haywire in our world these days, it is good, right, and necessary to take this day and reflect on all that we have to be thankful for in our lives. There are many blessings I personally am thinking of this morning–family near and far, house and home, health (except for the deranged disk in my back), meaningful work, caring colleagues, great students, engaging friends. But thing I keep coming back to this morning is this pair of socks I’ve been wearing once a week every week this past fall.

It is a pretty cool pair of socks. They are mostly white, 3/4 length athletic socks with thick red and blue strips that encircle the calf. Think of 1970s ABA swagger and hip-ness, and you kind of get the picture. I’m pretty sure I’m the envy of all when I wear them. Truth be told, they are probably a bit too stylish for me. But they are also so thick and absorbent and comfortable that I’d wear even if they weren’t cool.

So they are great socks, yes. But what I really like about these socks is that every week when I put them on–and I do wear them once a week without fail–I think of my former graduate student Kyle Green. Kyle, you see, is the one who gave me these socks. He presented them to me as a going away present just after he defended his wonderful dissertation study (an ethnography of mixed martial arts) and before he left for his new, first job in New York (Utica College). They were one of the most unusual going-away gifts I’ve ever gotten from a student. I think he gave them to me because we had a lot of fun playing pickup basketball together on Thursday nights. And why I’ve come to love them–and am grateful for them this morning–is because they remind me of Kyle and how much I enjoyed working with him, and how proud I am of what is doing out there on his own. It is my weekly “Kyle moment,” as I told him yesterday when he was telling me about this great new methods project he’s been working on for TSP.

So its really not the socks I’m thankful for this morning as it is Kyle–and all of the people like Kyle (and so many of you!) who help make my life so meaningful and satisfying and wonderful.


Map by Olivier Kugler, © New Yorker.
Map by Olivier Kugler, © New Yorker.

Last month, The New Yorker published a great, extended form piece documenting the long, complicated, terrifying, and still uncertain journey of one Syrian refugee from his homeland to a new country in Europe. “Ten Borders: One Refugee’s Epic Escape from Syria,” by Nicholas Schmidle, is certainly investigative journalism rather than social scientific analysis, but the article paints a moving, deeply human portrait of what these folks—so often marginalized, dismissed, or even demonized—are going through. Here on The Society Pages, we’ve also taken quite a few looks at different angles on migration, immigration, and the refugee experience. Here are a few pieces you may find interesting:

The Invisibility of Today’s Women Refugees,” by Katharine Donato. A TSP special feature on how female refugees’ movements are often masked by social forces that shape the timing of their moves.

‘Traditional Women’ and Modern Migration,” by Allison Nobles. Reporting new research from Anju Mary Paul in Social Forces.

Refugees and Social Instability: There’s Research on That!” by Evan Stewart and Miray Phillips. Social science on the motives and meaning of migration shows a clear difference in why refugees and migrants travel, but also how the places where they move can blur the lines between the groups.

Fifty Years of ‘New’ Immigration: Viewpoints,” by Shehzad Nadeem, John D. Skrentny, Jennifer Lee, Zulema Valdez, and and Donna R. Gabaccia. A Contexts magazine collection of essays on U.S. immigration since 1965.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my latest book, Migration, Incorporation, and Change in an Interconnected World, with Contexts co-editor Syed Ali.