The news out of the NFL has been brutal these past few days, but certainly good evidence of my long-held conviction that sport is a powerful and important “contested terrain” for all manner of social issues, especially those pertaining to race. The issues and questions about corporeal punishment, race, and culture raised by the indictment, suspension, reinstatement, and re-suspension of Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings are at the top of that list of complicated social issues to which sport can help bring attention. But it is, as we sociologists like to say, really complicated. Below are a few brief but useful points and insights–the first, snippets from a 2012 New York Times commentary by Maryland sociologist Rashawn Ray; the second from a recent facebook post by Joe Soss, a sociologically-inclined political scientist who works in the public policy school here at the University of Minnesota.

First, a few empirical points from Ray’s 2012 commentary on race and spanking:

–“Blacks are more likely to spank their children.”

–“These punishing methods [also] differ by region and class.”

–“…corporal punishment in schools is allowed in Southern states;” and “…whites in the South more likely to spank than whites in the Northeast.”

–“Although some argue that spanking leads to physical aggression or passive-aggressiveness, the evidence is inconclusive.”

–“Altogether, spanking without communication is problematic and should not be used as the primary form of punishment.”

 

And this from Soss:

“In the wake of Adrian Peterson’s indictment, it’s remarkable how quickly the discussion has coalesced around the idea of a “racial divide” in cultures of parenting and corporal punishment. Some of the articles have been terrible; others have used the issue to say some smart things about race and ethnicity in America. But the focus of the conversation itself is a striking example of “racialization” in action. I’m not saying we should ignore the modest but persistent racial differences in opinion on this issue. But somewhere around 80% of *all* Americans say that spanking is sometimes appropriate. And depending on which polls you look at, the opinion gaps associated with racially identified groups are often smaller than differences associated with partisanship, ideology, religiosity, region, and age cohort. There is a lot going on here, it seems to me. But I’m reminded of something Ta-Nehisi Coates has often urged us to do: Pay close attention whenever widespread societal phenomena are reframed, for African Americans, as expressions of something distinctive to Blackness. Reflect on the ways this narrative implicitly exempts and exonerates Whiteness. Investigate how it moves from observations of small differences to claims of opposing group cultures. Ask what role it plays in constructing and reproducing understandings of racial otherness.”

 

None of this, I should note, is about the Peterson case itself; rather, it is about one of the larger sets of issues and debates that this case has given rise to.

The Star Trib keeps it general. We're hoping to get specific.
The Star Trib keeps it general. We’re hoping to get specific.

Welcome back! Wait, many of you never went anywhere. You’ve been reading TSP all summer. You guys have been great. It was me who’s been on hiatus, buried in book writing among other things. (One of those manuscripts, on migration with Syed Ali, is done; another, my long-suffering study of midnight basketball, is close… very close.) Anyway, with the start of a new academic year, I always feel a little like Mr. Kotter.

I am excited about the year ahead. On the teaching front, I’ll be offering—for the first time—a new graduate seminar on “great books” in sociology, a course that grew out of a few posts I did wrote winter, right here on The Society Pages. In terms of the website, we’ve got a great new graduate student board shaping up and we are just about ready to unveil a facelift for TSP (we think it’s pretty sweet).

One of our goals for The Society Pages this year, both online and in our social media, is to do a better job of covering the field of sociology taken as a whole. That’s no easy task. Some of this will involve bringing in more content on topics where there is a lot of great sociological research and writing, but that hasn’t been represented well on our site to date: for example, education, health and medicine, population studies. But doing a better job of covering the field also includes bringing in types of research that are also difficult to find on the web, but needed more than ever: basic social facts, emerging demographic trends, and empirical evaluations of public policy and conventional wisdom. For reasons that aren’t too hard to figure, there’s a lot of opinion and editorializing online, but not nearly so much accumulation and reporting of social facts and useful empirical information.

As fate would have it, our local newspaper ran two big pieces on the OpinionExchange page this very morning that seem to underscore these points and goals. One was about “the situation” in Ferguson, the other about the proliferation of flawed studies—what the author calls “pop-sociology and pop-psychology” in the news and in our social media streams. The former argued the need for more information before taking stands on Mike Brown’s death and its aftermath (though it didn’t have much to say about the broader social contexts and public policies sociologists have focused on in recent weeks). The latter was about how scholars in certain fields still seem to misunderstand the difference between correlation and causation. Specifics aside, both ran under the subtitle: “We need more facts.” We here at TSP couldn’t agree more—and will do our best to help provide those in the weeks and months ahead.

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A few resources for the interested reader hoping for a little social science around that “Ferguson situation”:

Reflecting on Ferguson? There’s Research on That!

Social Fact: The Homicide Divide.”

Social Fact: Death—Not the Great Equalizer?

Explaining and Eliminating Racial Profiling.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education: “How Professors in St. Louis are Teaching the Lessons of Ferguson’s Unrest.”

The Washington Post Wonkblog: “How Decades of Criminal Records Hold Back Towns Like Ferguson.”

The Average White American’s Social Network is 1% Black.”

What Are Rappers Really Saying About the Police?

The Role of Empathy in Crime, Policing, and Justice.”

Failing to Understand When Non-White People Distrust the Police.”

How Targeted Deterrence Helps Police Reduce Gun Deaths.”

Who Would You Shoot?

Roundtable: Social Scientists Studying Social Movements.”

Roundtable: The Revolutions Will Not Be Globalized?

Reading the Camouflage: ‘You Are Now Enemy Combatants’.

With Germany’s 1-0 victory over Argentina in a tense and tightly final game yesterday, the 2014 Brazil World Cup has drawn to a close. This edition of soccer’s global spectacle drew rave reviews for its games and crowds. However, as those who were willing to go beyond the coverage and commentary of the mainstream sports media well know, the event also generated more than its share of controversy and protest along the way for its cost, construction delays, and disinterest in social conditions in the host nation.

There is much to be learned about the social organization of sport, sports media, and the world from this event, as Alex Manning and TSP staffer Kyle Green suggest in a useful little overview currently running on our TeachingTSP page.  If you are interested in such angles, you might also check out this morning’s piece in The Guardian by Jules Boykoff and Alan Tomlinson.

Tomlinson and Boykoff, two leading sport scholars, take on FIFA’s tax-exempt status, characterizing the sport’s international governing body as a parasite on the world’s most popular game. While you may not agree with all of their conclusions, you will certainly be reminded that the finances of international, spectacle sport–or, what Boykoff and Tomlinson call the “global 1 percent” of the international sporting landscape (among which they include the Olympics and the American Super Bowl)–are far more than fun and games.

The World Cup was the subject of local media and culture reporter John Rash’s column this past weekend. He interviewed me for the piece and we had a wide-ranging conversation about a number of different dimensions of soccer in contemporary U.S. culture–the status of its main professional league (MLS), soccer’s relation to other major league sport in terms of viewing, consumption, and cultural influence, rates of participation among youth, recent sociological research on soccer and international awareness, the tremendous international success of the women’s national team, its popularity among immigrants, etc. Here are the ideas and quotes he ended up using:

Hartmann, who focuses on the sociology of sport, detects an interesting inversion of how Americans perceive global sporting spectacles.

“Americans often watch the Olympics only as a nationalistic competition with a patriotic idea of ‘How is the U.S. doing?’ I think fans of the World Cup are a little less interested in how the U.S. is doing, and more interested in the international competition,” he said. “If you think of the long ideals of sport creating cross-cultural understanding, [the World Cup] is a little bit true to the Olympic ideal.”

Hartmann points out that because soccer is “not a dominant part of our hegemonic sports culture, but a little bit more peripheral,” the fan base is a bit different. Given its global nature, soccer has always been popular with immigrants, who make up a higher proportion of the population than at any time since Ellis Island. And American-born fans tend to be worldly, compared with the general population, he added.

Suffice to say, I am fairly happy with all this, and feel like Rash, the good reporter and thinker that he is, made me sound fairly knowledgeable and smart. Still, perhaps because I took Rash’s call in the middle of a media training session for academics organized by Theda Skocpol’s Scholar’s Strategy Network (coincidence?), I find myself reflecting more than usual on the process and my own participation in it. For example, I don’t remember if I actually used the phrase an “interesting inversion” of typical perceptions of global sporting spectacles, though I kind of like the phrase and wouldn’t put it past myself to have talked my way into a line like that. (I definitely said “global sporting spectacles” a time or two.) I also find it funny that I said “a little bit true” to the Olympic ideal as it is the kind of qualifier I am often critical of professionals in the sports media for over-using.

More significantly, I definitely recall stumbling over the question of how to label the more Olympian ideals of cross-cultural understanding (“internationalist,” or “cosmopolitan,” or something else altogether ) and whether to set them directly in contrast to nationalism or patriotism. I’m still not sure which set of terms make my interpretation (and soccer itself) more palpable to ordinary Americans. But the one that thing really makes me cringe in retrospect is the phrase “dominant part of our hegemonic sports culture.” I know I used it, and maybe the term “hegemonic sports culture” made me sound smart. But hegemony is one of those words we often work hard to avoid here at TSP because so few folks out there in the regular world know what the word means.  If only our editor Letta Page had been on hand to clean up my spoken prose.


With Elliot Rodger in the news and the discussions around violence and misogyny, we’ve been getting questions–especially from genuinely concerted and disconcerted white men–about how to acknowledge gender inequality and violence without feeling terrible for being men. These are a variation on the questions about white guilt that I often field in the context of teaching about white privilege.  Fortunately, there’s a great clip from a response to a question by Tim Wise posted a while back on Soc Images that links the two (racism and sexism) directly for white men.

According to Wise, problems of racism, sexism, and violence aren’t best addressed just by feeling guilty. Far better is to take responsibility in the search for collective solutions. In the clip, Wise uses the problem of pollution to make the point and, more to the point, suggests that anger rather than guilt is the appropriate emotional anchor. Here’s a portion of the transcript:

“No. You should feel angry. And you should feel committed to doing something to address that legacy. It’s like, for instance, with pollution, right? We think about the issue of pollution. Now none of us in this room, to my knowledge, are individually responsible for having belched any toxic waste into the air, or injecting toxic waste into the soil, or done any of the things… we didn’t put lead paint into the housing, you know?

Individually we’re innocent of that. But someone did that stuff, and we’re living with the legacy of it right now, or in this case might be dying with the legacy of it, getting ill, right?.

So it isn’t about feeling guilty about what someone did, even if you were the direct heir of the chemical company that did the pollution, but it is about saying, all of us in the society have to take responsibility for what we find in front of us. There’s a big difference between guilt and responsibility.”

What is great about these “Wise words” is how they help us realized that we don’t need to feel shamed by our privilege or hopeless about the immensity of trying to address or even overcome it. They help us figure out how and where to engage. Sociology proper isn’t always the best on this action side. But I’d also add–and would guess that Wise would be among the first to acknowledge–that this action and engagement necessarily starts from a clear understanding of historical roots and social complexities of privilege, and this is where sociological research and analysis has a real role to play.

Great graphic, and I love the title–though I’m not sure if why I like it so much (the title, I mean) is intentional or not. Click for the original.

Over the past week—when not sitting in meetings, prepping for tomorrow’s classes, or trying to squeeze in some research—I’ve been trying to think through the NBA “family’s” self-celebrated claims of having made history on Tuesday with the lifetime ban of Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling. And once again, just like last week, I’m feeling torn.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the league did the right thing in coming down so hard on Sterling. I’m even more impressed, in retrospect, with how quickly and decisively they did it. I was also impressed by the way that players came together in expressing their views and pushing for action. In fact, although I’d have to hear more about it to say whether the threat of a walkout was decisive or not as Dave Zirin has suggested, I do think the collective unity and coordinated action of the players is an aspect of the story that may prove historic.

But some of the self-congratulations just went a little too far for me. Kevin Johnson‘s comparison of the incident to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s 1968 clenched fist salute on Olympic victory stand in Mexico City is probably most egregious in this respect.

The thing about Smith and Carlos (and  I wrote a book about this, actually) is that their gesture was part of a whole year-long effort on the part of African American athletes—and it was a movement intended to use their visibility in sport to challenge racism and injustice in society at large, outside of the world of sport. In other words, this was a progressive, forward-looking societal vision. In contrast, the recent NBA episode—necessary and essential as it was—was really about cleaning up dirty laundry within the world of sport. Again, I’m glad it was done—just not sure about the over-the-top back slapping.

One other thought. The NBA sent a clear message that there is no place for racism in basketball.But there clearly is a place for race in the NBA. In fact, a lot of great sports sociology over the past decade or so has been predicated on demonstrating how, at least since the late 1970s, professional basketball has been built on and around the excellence and performance of African American athletes. The dynamic between basketball and blackness is complicated–in some ways it celebrates blackness and empowers African Americans, in others it is controlling, constraining and even exploitative. But to the extent we can begin to grasp this dynamic and, more importantly, use it to identify and address racism and racial injustice in society as a whole, then I would really be willing to consider the historic implications.

So a number of students, media members, and colleagues have been asking this afternoon what I think of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s lifetime ban of Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling following the release of racist comments apparently directed at his mixed-race mistress. (Silver says the league will also fine Sterling $2.5 million and do “everything in his power” to force Sterling to sell the franchise.) I guess I’m glad that the league came down hard and did so quickly. Sterling’s most recent comments are obviously just the tip of the iceberg—his whole history of racist attitudes and behaviors, and the fact that he had the wealth and power to actually act upon these views reminds of the familiar definition of racism: prejudice + power. I still have no idea how this guy was set to receive a Lifetime Achievement award (was it his second?) from the NAACP in LA.

But I will also say that I am worried that this quick and definitive resolution may not be the best thing for our collective understanding of American racism, racial injustice, and race relations. This, because I think the particulars of this case–both the old fashioned prejudice and bigotry of Sterling’s comments and that it has unfolded in an extremely unusual, racially glorified arena –can distract us from the deeper realities and problems of race and racism in contemporary America: the subtler kinds of stereotypes and obfuscating ideologies that still circulate in and through popular cultural practices such as basketball, for example, or the bigger, structural issues of discrimination, segregation, and inequity that most African Americans and other people of color live with everyday. These are still all around us–and quick and easy solutions to the most obvious and extreme forms of prejudice in the completely atypical arena of professional basketball don’t help us get there. This is the danger of playing out our racial dramas and debates in and though popular cultural forms such as sport (much as I have made a bit of a career analyzing such incidents and exchanges).

This isn’t just me. I’ve been gratified to see sociologists from all over the country writing about this–and in fact using this incident in the world of sport to call attention to the larger, more complicated dynamics of race and racism that sit just beyond the view of the sports commentators and usual pundit discussion and outrage. One of my current favorites–I handed it out in my sport and society class this morning– is Joyce Bell and Wendy Leo Moore’s commentary last night in Racism Review (and this isn’t just because both of them were students of mine once upon a time). I mean, I think the title alone should lead you to click on the link and see what I mean: “Donald Sterling is ‘a Racist:’ Feel Better Now?”

Another came from Max Fitzpatrick, a sociology instructor at Central New Mexico Community College. He sent it to us here at TSP directly, so I’m going to post it directly below. What I love about Fitzpatrick’s take is his use of Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim to frame his basic, sociological points about not losing sight of the racial forest in the popular cultural trees. And let me just say that as someone who is teaching Intro to Sociology right now (perhaps Max F. is too?), I think is a great way to remind my students of the application and value of the classics for today’s issues. So, anyway, take it away, Max:

Recently there has been a lot of righteous finger-wagging at racist comments uttered by older white personalities. When celebrity chef Paula Deene, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, and rebellious rancher Cliven Bundy spoke bad words about black people, mainstream and social media pounced.

Deene and Sterling are economic elites who have made fortunes employing black labor and selling black culture. It is sadly ironic that they disparage the very group whose alienated labor they exploit and whose culture they have commodified. But the popular criticism of their racist statements has not approached such a systemic analysis—remaining instead at the surface level of the individual. The uproar chastises these people as racist celebrities, when the real danger is that they are authority figures presiding over economically powerful institutions with broad cultural influence. Racism matters most when it is combined with power. But the internet snarkfest has avoided that point almost entirely.

Ostensibly progressive white pundits, hipsters and intellectuals flaunted their antiracist bona fides by trashing the curmudgeonly old racists. These eager acts of reproach came fast and furious at the low hanging fruit of racist white people forged in an era of racist white supremacy (which itself shows that cultural change often comes at the pace of generational replacement).

But the critical finger-pointing from the left seemed to be more about feeling good about ourselves than actually engaging in a deeper analysis of the realities of racism and racial injustice in contemporary America.

Of course, we should call out racist statements from quarters both lofty and low. As classical sociologist Emile Durkheim might contend, punishing racist deviants in the court of public opinion is necessary for society to reaffirm its antiracist values, to create social cohesion based, in part, on social norms against racism.

However, we cannot content ourselves with cyber-tar-and-feathering the ancient miscreants. Indicting individuals alone leaves wholly unscathed the root of the problem.

Another classical sociologist, Karl Marx, made the point that people’s beliefs derive from the society in which they live and work. Changing people’s beliefs, then, cannot be accomplished by argument and shaming alone. You have to alter the base of society. In The German Ideology, Marx wrote:

all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism, by resolution into “self-consciousness” or transformation into “apparitions,” “spectres,” “fancies,” etc. but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which gave rise to this idealistic humbug; that not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history

Accordingly, we cannot end the ideological specter of racism by gleefully spewing snark in response to select individuals’ racist statements. To change beliefs, we have to change the system.

Vociferous finger-wagging makes us feel good and righteous about ourselves, but it does nothing to change the material foundations of racism. Unequal group relations and institutional racism go unmentioned as the internet gangs up on a few old white racists. No matter how many poignant reprimands we make of racist individuals’ speech, the conditions Black people face in this society will remain unchanged.

We jail blacks six times more than we jail whites. Blacks live four years fewer than whites. Black unemployment is more than double white unemployment. The high school dropout rate for black students is 40% higher than the rate for white students.

Instead of merely being what Marx sarcastically called “critical critics”—those who attempt social redress through words alone—we should take these opportunities to bring attention to—and to change—the poor social conditions and institutional discrimination disproportionately faced by people of color. Attacking the material foundations of the problem will be more effective than simply laughing at the wrinkled old symptoms of the problem.

And it will still make us feel good about ourselves.

Kenworthy's latest, with cool background via University of Arizona.
Kenworthy’s latest, with cool background via University of Arizona.

Procrastination? No way. When it comes to economics, it’s just that I’ve spent my past few weeks thinking about the topic in sociological rather than personal terms.

It started back around spring break, when a group of political scientists proposed a reading group on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  The book is a little windy and Piketty may be an economist, but he thinks like a sociologist—not only in taking on the problem of inequality itself but in seeing it as a problem, in understanding its roots in social and political systems, and in using graphs and charts to bring complicated and troubling economic trends to life.

It continued a week or two later when Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff sent us a synopsis of the new edition of their book on corporate diversity (or the lack thereof) in the contemporary United States. I love this long-term, fairly basic  project because so often when we sociologists study social inequality we focus on disadvantage, marginalization and poverty. Zweigenhaft and Domhoff—or, as I like to call them, Richie Z. and the Big B.D.—turn this on its head, tracking the social demographics of the other side of the economic coin, the most privileged of Americans, the corporate elite. We published that just last week as “Trends at the Top: The New CEOs Revisited.”

And, after lecturing on the cultural and political foundations of capitalism last week in my Intro class, I’ve spent the last few days reading Lane Kenworthy’s bold, visionary call for better government involvement in our economy and collective lives, Social Democratic America. The timing isn’t accidental, nor all just about taxes. Kenworthy is going to be here on campus at Minnesota tomorrow, as part of our ongoing Scholars Strategy Network series. It should be good.

Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’ve got a little paperwork to prepare for tomorrow’s mail.

Maybe a little less of this? Photo by Axel Hartmann (no relation), http://grenzquerer.com/. Click for original.
Maybe a little less of this? Photo by Axel Hartmann (no relation), grenzquerer.com. Click for original.

Spring break brings time for reflection. Last week during my days at home in Minnesota (where it still does not feel like spring), I spent a little time reflecting on what we’ve learned about sociology in doing The Society Pages. And in that process, I came across this line, which can be found in the “About Us” that runs in the banner on our home page: “we’re talking about society with society.”

I haven’t always been enamored with this phrase. In the past, it has read to me as a bit trite, and probably kind of functionalist. Truth be told, I’ve tried to edit it out of existence several times. But somehow—largely, I think, due to the insistence of our masterful associate editor and coordinating producer Letta Page*—it has hung around, and recently, it has begun to grow on me. Part of its emerging appeal is that I have had folks use it to introduce me and TSP at several public events recently. Clearly it works, it has appeal. It means something. Why is that? What is that?

Besides the catchy turn of phrase, I think the reason it resonates is because it stands in contrast to the usual “detached ivory tower intellectual.” It signals a vision of sociology and scholarly activity that is embedded and engaged in the worlds and with the people that it studies—or, even better, engaged and involved in the communities of which it is part and parcel.

One of the readings that has been a staple of the senior capstone sociology course I teach regularly has been a piece from Minnesota public affairs scholar Harry Boyte. The basic gist is that social scientists should not think of themselves as legislators (who come from on-high, bearing truth to the people), but  as interpreters, whose job it is to produce information and ideas that can enrich public discussion and policy. Even better, they should be part of those processes of deliberation and public policy formation. In other words,  social studies scholars should understand ourselves as part of the public, working with everyone else to refine our understandings of the worlds we all share and live in together.

This more involved, reflective orientation isn’t just about producing a more accessible and useful sociology for society (which we talk about a lot here at TSP), but actually—in its engagement with real people in the social world—a better sociological understanding of society itself. In short, it’s about creating a better sociology.

*I knew he’d come around. –Ed.