Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Did Donald Trump’s campaign and election cry havoc and unleash the dogs of racism?

Last June, hauling out Sykes and Matza’s concept of “neutralization,” I argued that Trump’s constant denigration of “political correctness” allowed his supporters to neutralize norms against racism. If the denigration of political correctness means that the people who condemn racism are wrong or bad, then what they are condemning must be OK. The logic might not be impeccable, but it works. I argued that I wasn’t sure that Trump had caused an increase in racist attitudes, but he gave people a license to express those attitudes.

Aziz Ansari made a similar point on Saturday Night Live  the day after the inauguration. (Apologies if you have to wait through an ad.)

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Ansari’s version is much better than mine, and it reached a slightly larger audience. But there’s another important difference. I was talking about the message Trump supporters took from Trump himself before the election. Ansari is talking about the message they got from the electorate. The election changed their perceptions of the norms about expressing anti-immigrant views.

It’s as though minds of half the country had been clouded by “pluralistic ignorance.” That’s the scenario where each person thinks X but assumes that everyone else thinks Y, so everyone keeps their true ideas to themselves. Then something happens that reveals those previously hidden preferences, and suddenly everyone feels liberated. From the Trump supporters’ perspective, Trump was Dorothy throwing a bucket of water to dissolve the Wicked Witch of Political Correctness, and now all the Munchkins were free to express their feelings about Mexicans and Muslims (and perhaps others).

The 20% increase in hate crimes after the election certainly suggests that racists felt liberated by the election. Unfortunately, because of the uncontrolled variables and the small sample size of just one candidate winning one election, this bit of evidence is hardly conclusive.

But we now have some experimental evidence on the topic. In the two weeks before the election, three economists surveyed Mechanical Turkers in eight very Red states. The MTurkers were asked, in addition to other on-topic questions, if they would authorize the economists to make a donation on their behalf to a strongly anti-immigrant group, FAIR.  Mturkers were told, “The founder of FAIR is John Tanton, author of `The Immigration Invasion’ who wrote ‘I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.’”

For half the MTurkers, the donation question included this:

Note: just like any other answer to this survey, also your donation decision will be completely anonymous. No one, not even the researchers, will be able to match your decision to your name. [emphasis in original]

The other half were told:

Important: in order to ensure the quality of the data collected, a member of the research team might personally contact you to verify your answers to the next question and the following ones. [emphasis in original]

In addition, some of the people were told that Trump was certain to win their state. Others were given no information.

The results strongly support the idea that norms – or at least people’s perceptions of the norms – make a big difference. People who thought their choice would be public were much less likely to make the anti-immigrant donation – 34% vs. 54%. But that difference held true only for people who were not told how popular Trump was in their state. Among the people who were told basically, “Trump is a sure thing to win your state,” knowing that their donation would be public (i.e., known to the surveyors) made no difference in their willingness to donate.

If the researchers had stopped there, they would have been able to say

  • there seems to be a norm against giving money to anti-immigrant groups
  • the knowledge of that norm makes people less willing to make a donation to blatantly racist anti-immigrant group if even one stranger can know about that donation
  • if people think that many others in their state support an anti-immigrant candidate, they no longer feel that they need to keep their anti-immigrant views to themselves

Thanks the results of the election, though, they didn’t have to stop there. The gave the researchers a natural experiment to find out if the norms – or at least perceptions of the norms – had changed. Had Trump’s victory caused the scales of pluralistic ignorance to fall from the eyes of these Red-state Turkers?

The answer was yes. The election had the same effect as did the information about Trump support in the person’s state. It obliterated the difference between the public and private conditions.

To people who were reluctant to let their agreement with FAIR be known, Trump’s victory said, “It’s OK. You can come out of the closet. You’re among friends, and there are more of us than you thought.”

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

When we see individuals holding cardboard signs and asking for spare change wearing camouflage, homelessness among veterans can seem like an epidemic. Recently, however, government efforts to reduce veteran homelessness have had great success. In response to a federal strategy known as Opening Doors, since 2010 veteran homelessness has declined by almost 50%. And in that time period some cities, such as New Orleans, have reported veteran homelessness at functional zero. 

You would never know it from social media. As the world has grappled with the Syrian civil war, political memes have emerged in the U.S. that make the case that we should prioritize homeless veterans over Syrian refugees. These memes foreground a competition between homeless veterans and Syrian refugees in order to make a misleading, emotionally-appealing argument against the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

Deliberately or not, the online images are similar to propaganda. Actors create emotionally-charged illustrations with biased and one-sided evidence to encourage a political point. The memes push a narrative of homeless veterans as overlooked by the government, while this goes against the facts. They also suggest a fallacious argument that the Department of Veterans Affairs will lose funds because of the refugee resettlement program. This is not the case.

At the same time the memes appeal to our sentiments. Features writer for Mashable, Rebecca Ruiz, contends that memes like these pose the emotional question, “If people in the U.S. are suffering, why are we helping refugees?” What if veterans are those slighted? This is a powerful idea because Americans revere veterans.

In Coming Home: Attitudes toward U.S. Veterans Returning from Iraq, sociologists Alair MacLean and Meredith Kleykamp argue that male veterans involved in recent military-related combat are still supported by the general public, even in light of the idea that those exposed to combat have mental health issues and substance abuse problems. They add that veterans are privileged by symbolic capital, or prestige related to their service. A meme that presents veterans as treated unfairly is likely to produce an emotional reaction, something that is known to simplify our thinking and decision-making.

While the digital messages premised on helping veterans are compelling, they are false and a strategic exploitation of our feelings, one with xenophobic, white nationalist, and anti-immigrant goals. They urge us to advocate against Syrian resettlement to solve an unrelated problem that is already diminishing.

Ian Nahan has a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in both sociology and social work. He plans on working with veterans once he obtains a master’s degree in social work at the University of Pennsylvania.

1Recently Nadya Tolokonnikova was interviewed by NPR about Pussy Riot’s latest video. In it, Tolokonnikova explores themes of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny and its influence on governance through a graphic and violent imagined America under a Trump presidency. Trigger warning for… most things:

Tolokonnikova is making a statement about American politics, but she is clearly informed by Putin’s performance of masculinity and how that has translated into policy measures and electoral success. When he took office in early 2000, Putin needed to legitimize his power and counteract the global impression of Russian weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The projection of masculinity was a PR strategy: fishing and riding a horse shirtless, shooting a Siberian tiger, and emerging from the Black Sea in full scuba gear. These actions combined with bellicose foreign policy initiatives to portray Putin as assertive and unrelenting.

In the book, Sex, Politics, & Putin, Valerie Sperling makes a case that his strategy was successful. She investigates the political culture under Putin and argues there is popular support for Putin’s version of masculinity and its implications for femininity, even among young women. As a consequence, the gender and sexual politics of Russia have deviated from those of wider Europe, as indicated by the rise of the Russian slur “gayropa.”

The machismo and misogyny embodied by Putin have also translated into policy: the “gay propaganda” law, for example, and the ban on international adoption to gay couples. In his 2013 address to the Federal Assembly, Putin framed these policies as necessary to combat the “destruction of traditional values.”

While there is no systematic research on the role of masculinity in Trump’s rise to the national political stage in the US just yet, and while the nature of the link between Putin and Trump remains unclear (if one truly even exists), we should consider Putin’s Russia a cautionary tale. His performances of masculinity – his so-called “locker room talk,” discussion of genitalia size, and conduct towards pageant contestants — could go from publicity stunt to public support to actual policy measures. His bombastic language about defeating ISIS and the need for more American “strength” at home and abroad, for example, could easily translate into foreign policy.

Coverage of Trump during this election cycle is credited for hundreds of millions in profits for news agencies and Trump himself has enjoyed an unprecedented level of coverage. While Trump has benefited from far more airtime than Putin did in 2000, he has not been able to find the same level of popular support. At least not yet. When Putin rose to status as a national figure in Russia his approval rating was approximately 60%, and it grew from there to levels most American politicians only dream of. If Trump is willing and able to adopt other components of Putin’s leadership style, there is precedent for the possibility that his presidency could truly turn American back.

Alisha Kirchoff is a sociology PhD student at Indiana University-Bloomington. She has previously lived and worked in Russia and is currently working on research in political sociology, law and society, organizations, and gender. Her latest project is on fertility intentions and family policies in Putin’s Russia. You can follow her on twitter.

1Will Davies, a politics professor and economic sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, summarized his thoughts on Brexit for the Political Economy and Research Centre, arguing that the split wasn’t one of left and right, young and old, racist or not racist, but center and the periphery. You can read it in full there, or scroll down for my summary.

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Many of the strongest advocates for Leave, many have noted, were actually among the beneficiaries of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Small towns and rural areas receive quite a bit of financial support. Those regions that voted for Leave in the greatest numbers, then, will also suffer some of the worst consequences of the Leave. What motivated to them to vote for a change that will in all likelihood make their lives worse?

Davies argues that the economic support they received from their relationship with the EU was paired with a culturally invisibility or active denigration by those in the center. Those in the periphery lived in a “shadow welfare state” alongside “a political culture which heaped scorn on dependency.”

Davies uses philosopher Nancy Fraser’s complementary ideas of recognition and redistribution: people need economic security (redistribution), but they need dignity, too (recognition). Malrecognition can be so psychically painful that even those who knew they would suffer economically may have been motivated to vote Leave. “Knowing that your business, farm, family or region is dependent on the beneficence of wealthy liberals,” writes Davies, “is unlikely to be a recipe for satisfaction.”

It was in this context that the political campaign for Leave penned the slogan: “Take back control.” In sociology we call this framing, a way of directing people to think about a situation not just as a problem, but a particular kind of problem. “Take back control” invokes the indignity of oppression. Davies explains:

It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic. Think of what it means on an individual level to rediscover control. To be a person without control (for instance to suffer incontinence or a facial tick) is to be the butt of cruel jokes, to be potentially embarrassed in public. It potentially reduces one’s independence. What was so clever about the language of the Leave campaign was that it spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it. The promise had nothing to do with economics or policy, but everything to do with the psychological allure of autonomy and self-respect.

Consider the cover of the Daily Mail praising the decision and calling politicians “out-of-touch” and the EU “elite” and “contemptuous”:2

From this point of view, Davies thinks that the reward wasn’t the Leave, but the vote itself, a veritable middle finger to the UK center and the EU “eurocrats.” They know their lives won’t get better after a Brexit, but they don’t see their lives getting any better under any circumstances, so they’ll take the opportunity to pop a symbolic middle finger. That’s all they think they have.

And that’s where Davies thinks the victory  of the Leave vote parallels strongly with Donald Trump’s rise in the US:

Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.

Some people believe that voting for Trump might in fact make things worse, but the pleasure of doing so — of popping a middle finger to the Republican party and political elites more generally — would be satisfaction enough. In this sense, they may be quite a lot like the Leavers. For the disenfranchised, a vote against pragmatism and solidarity may be the only satisfaction that this election, or others, is likely to get them.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

1Most Americans are either attracted to or repulsed by Donald Trump’s strong rhetoric around the “wall” between the US and Mexico. His plan is to build one taller and wider than the ones we already have, on the assumption that this will curb undocumented immigration and the number of migrants who live here.

But the idea isn’t just exciting or offensive, depending on who you’re talking to, it’s also wrong-headed. That is, there’s no evidence that building a better wall will accomplish what Trump wants and, in fact, the evidence suggests the opposite.

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The data comes from a massive 30-year study led by sociologist Douglas Massey, published last month at the American Journal of Sociology and summarized at Made in America. He and his colleagues collected the migration histories of about 150,000 Mexican nationals who had lived for at least a time in the US and compared them with border policy. They found that:

  • More border enforcement changed where migrants crossed into the US, but not whether they did. More migrants were apprehended, but this simply increased the number of times they had to try to get across. It didn’t slow the flow.
  • Border enforcement did, though, make crossing more expensive and more dangerous, which meant that migrants that made it to the US were less likely to leave. Massey and his colleagues estimate that there are about 4 million more undocumented migrants in the US today than there would have been in the absence of enforcement.
  • Those who stayed tended to disperse. So, while once migrants were likely to stay along the border and go back and forth to Mexico according to labor demands, now they are more likely to be settled all across the US.

In any case, the economic impetus to migrate has declined; for almost a decade, the flow of undocumented migrants has been zero or even negative (more leaving than coming). So, Trump would be building a wall at exactly the moment that undocumented Mexican immigration has slowed. To put it in his terms, a wall would be a bad investment.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

1In his speech accepting the Republican nomination for President, Donald Trump said (my emphasis):

…our plan will put America First. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect.

Donald Trump’s insistence that we put “America First” hardly sounds harmful or irrational on its face. To be proud and protective of one’s country sounds like something good, even inevitable.  Americans are, after all, Americans. Who else would we put first?

But nationalism — a passionate investment in one’s country over and above others — is neither good nor neutral. Here are some reasons why it’s dangerous:

  • Nationalism is a form of in-group/out-group thinking. It encourages the kind of “us” vs. “them” attitude that drives sports fandom, making people irrationally committed to one team. When the team wins, they feel victorious (even though they just watched), and they feel pleasure in others’ defeat. As George Orwell put it:

A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige… his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.

  • Committed to winning at all costs, with power-seeking and superiority as the only real goal, nationalists feel justified in hurting the people of other countries. Selfishness and a will to power — instead of morality, mutual benefit, or long-term stability — becomes the driving force of foreign policy. Broken agreements, violence, indifference to suffering, and other harms to countries and their peoples destabilize global politics. As the Washington Post said yesterday in its unprecedented editorial board opinion on Donald Trump, “The consequences to global security could be disastrous.”
  • Nationalism also contributes to internal fragmentation and instability. It requires that we decide who is and isn’t truly part of the nation, encouraging exclusionary, prejudiced attitudes and policies towards anyone within our borders who is identified as part of “them.” Trump has been clearly marking the boundaries of the real America for his entire campaign, excluding Mexican Americans, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, and possibly even women. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted on the night of Trump’s acceptance speech:

  • A nationalist leader will have to lie and distort history in order to maintain the illusion of superiority. A nationalist regime requires a post-truth politics, one that makes facts irrelevant in favor of emotional appeals. As Dr. Ali Mohammed Naqvi explained:

To glorify itself, nationalism generally resorts to suppositions, exaggerations, fallacious reasonings, scorn and inadmissible self-praise, and worst of all, it engages in the distortion of history, model-making and fable-writing. Historical facts are twisted to imaginary myths as it fears historical and social realism.

  • Thoughtful and responsive governance interferes with self-glorification, so all internal reflection and external criticism must be squashed. Nationalist leaders attack and disempower anyone who questions the nationalist program and aim to destroy social movements. After Trump’s acceptance speech, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullers responded: “He… threaten[ed] the vast majority of this country with imprisonment, deportation and a culture of abject fear.” Anyone who isn’t on board, especially if they are designated as a “them,” must be silenced.

When Americans say “America is the greatest country on earth,” that’s nationalism. When other countries are framed as competitors instead of allies and potential allies, that’s nationalism. When people say “America first,” expressing a willfulness to cause pain and suffering to citizens of other countries if it is good for America, that’s nationalism. And that’s dangerous. It’s committing to one’s country’s preeminence and doing whatever it takes, however immoral, unlawful, or destructive, to further that goal.

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Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the US saw a spike of hate incidents after the election of Donald Trump on November 8th. 867 real-world (i.e., not internet-based) incidents were reported to the Center or covered in the media in just 10 days. USA Today reports that the the Council on American-Islamic relations also saw an uptick in reports and that the sudden rise is greater than even what the country saw after the 9/11 attacks. This is, then, likely just a slice of what is happening.

The Center doesn’t present data for the days coming up to the election, but offers the following visual as an illustration of what happened the ten days after the 8th.

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If the numbers of reports prior to the 8th were, in fact, significantly lower than these, than there was either a rise in incidents after Trump’s victory and Clinton’s loss, or an increase in the tendency to report incidents. Most perpetrators of these attacks targeted African Americans and perceived immigrants.

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The most common place for these incidents to occur, after sidewalks and streets, was K-12 schools. Rosalind Wiseman, anti-bullying editor and author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, and sociologist CJ Pascoe, author of Dude, You’re a Fag, both argue that incidents at schools often reflect adult choices. Poor role models — adults themselves who bully or who fail to stand up for the bullied — make it hard for young people to have the moral insight and strength to do the right thing themselves.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Originally posted at Race, Politics, Justice.

A few days after Donald Trump won the electoral votes for president, some people started suggesting that pro-immigrant people in the US wear safety pins in emulation of the movement in Britain after Brexit to signal support for immigrants. A social media debate quickly ensued about what this might mean, some asserting that the safety pin meant that an immigrant could view one as a “safe” White person, some ridiculing the exercise as a “feel-good” effort by Whites to distance themselves from the White nationalist vote, some interpreting its meaning as “I don’t agree with Trump.” (This latter interpretation was offered by both pro- and anti-Trump people.)

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My entirely unsystematic observations were that it was African Americans who were mostly negative and White liberals (like me) who were trying to figure out what the “meaning” of the pin would turn out to be. I’m not sure what immigrants thought about safety pins, although I know they are generally frightened by the election results.

Through a neighborhood email newsletter I learned that a family in the area received a racist hate letter using the N-word after the election and that a resident who is also a minister ordered a bunch of yard signs that say “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in English, Spanish and Arabic. I bought one and will put it in my yard. I really don’t know how this action will be viewed by actual immigrants.

There are some non-Muslim women who have taken to wearing scarves as a symbol of solidarity with Muslims (one story circulating talks about attacks on a non-Muslim woman who was wearing a scarf due to hair loss from cancer treatment), an action that has received (so far as I know) little endorsement from Muslims and some responses that say that this subtracts from the religious symbolism of wearing hijab. After Trayvon Martin was killed, many Black people put up pictures of themselves in a hoodie with “I am Trayvon Martin,” but also often objected when Whites did the same, because the point was that a White person in a hoodie was not treated the same.

In the 1990s, Madison had a flurry of protests and counter-protests in which out-of-town anti-gay protesters were picketing pro-gay churches. Many Madison residents, including me, put up yard signs distributed primarily through churches that said “Madison supports its gays and lesbians.” About the same time, the KKK came through, and we also put up “Let your Light Shine, Fight Racism” signs in our yards. (I recall having both in my yard in the same winter.) Also in the 1990s, many of us wore rainbow ribbons (I kept mine pinned to my purse so I didn’t have to remember to put it on), again as a symbol of support for gays and lesbians. During the first Gulf War, Madison’s lawns often featured either anti-war signs or “support our troops” signs or, often, both. Earlier this year, after a lot of Black Lives Matter protests here as well as around the country, in addition to the relatively small number of yard signs or flags supporting BLM, some streets blossomed the “Support our Police” yard signs. And, of course, yard signs are a staple of political campaigns, most Decembers see a flurry of “Keep Christ in Christmas” yard signs, and Wisconsin Badger and Green Bay Packer pennants fly all around town on particular weekends.

So how should we think about these visible symbols and the varying reactions they elicit?

Let’s begin with the obvious. Symbols are symbols, and displaying a symbol is not the same thing as showing up for a protest or taking other active steps to pursue social policies you believe in. Wearing or displaying some sort of symbol of support for a minority is not the same thing as being a minority, nor will the symbol necessarily be interpreted by others in the way it is meant. This does not make symbols meaningless. They are visible symbols of adherence to some cause or belief system and, as such, open the wearer to reactions from others. But, as symbols, they are subject to multiple interpretations and their meaning varies with context. So those displaying symbols and those viewing others’ displays of symbols need to do interpretive work to understand the symbol and to assess the consequences of displaying it.

If you display or wear a symbol that you are sure others around you will approve of, you have little to lose from the symbol and something to gain. Signaling support for a cause the majority supports signals your affiliation with the majority. Supporting a beleaguered minority in a context where the majority is at least tolerant is also a low-cost gesture. When I displayed pro-gay ribbons and yard signs, I had no expectation of negative reaction, and I doubt any other straight person in Madison did either.

But that does not mean it was meaningless. Gays and lesbians I knew personally were feeling attacked and the visible support was meaningful to them. The signs and ribbons were passed out at church by people I knew. In that context, I could either display the symbol or not display it but, either way, my action would be interpreted as having meaning. I felt the same way about this latest “welcome neighbor” sign. When confronted with the question, I could either put up a sign or not put up a sign, but either choice carried meaning. I know of at least some instances in the 1990s in which gay and lesbian people stated that the signs made them feel supported and better about living in Madison. Of course, you can “do” support without yard signs or ribbons. After 9/11, Christian churches and Jewish congregations reached out to Muslim congregations (and Muslim congregations for their parts held open houses) and Muslims generally felt supported in Madison, even without yard signs or ribbons.

In places where the symbol is low cost, one can justly be suspected of displaying the symbol just to go along with the majority or as a low cost way of feeling good about a problem you don’t plan to do anything more about.

The same yard signs and ribbons (or safety pins) in some areas would not be safe gestures but would open up a person to verbal or physical assaults, or worse. Whites who visibly supported Blacks in the old rural South or Chicago’s segregated White neighborhoods in the 1950s were violently attacked and had their houses bombed. Displaying pro-gay symbols in areas dominated by conservative Christians in the 1990s could lead to hostile interactions. Even displaying the wrong sports team colors can get you hurt in some contexts.

Displaying a symbol where you know you are an opinion minority, and especially where it opens you to attack, is a very different gesture than where it is safe. In these contexts, it is an act of dissent. It is especially meaningful to dissent visibly in contexts where a dangerous segment of the majority feels empowered to commit violence against minorities. In these contexts, the symbol does not necessarily mean “I am a safe person” but “I am willing to draw the attention of dangerous people” or “not everybody supports those people.” If the intent is actually to shelter minorities from violence, the goal usually is to get as many people as possible to wear the symbol of dissent, to signal to those who intend violence that they cannot act with impunity and cannot count on community support.

Conversely, yard signs and other symbols are sometimes used by majorities to coerce compliance or intimidate minorities. Pro-police, pro-KKK, anti-gay, anti-immigrant symbols and yard signs signal to minorities that they are not safe in the area. When you know that you are in an area where your views are contested, your visible symbol chooses sides.

Another dimension is the clarity or ambiguity of a symbol. This also is contextual. In the US today, it is not quite clear what a safety pin is supposed to signal. Does it merely signal opposition to violent attacks on minorities, or does it also signal opposition to deportations and registries? Can I assume that a safety pin wearer supports DACA and keeping DACA students in the US?  Does a safety pin also mean the wearer supports Black Lives Matter? Expanded immigration policies? Or is it merely a signal that one voted Democratic and is vaguely against “hate”? Or that the person voted for Trump (or Stein?) and wants to disguise the fact in a liberal area? In the late 1960s during the anti-war movement I once tied a white scarf to the sleeve of my dark jacket when biking at night across campus so I could be seen. Several people stopped and asked me what my white scarf “meant.” Was it a new anti-war symbol? If so, they did not want to be late to adopt.

But non-verbal symbols can come to have very clear meanings. In Britain, the safety pin has a clear meaning, from what I’ve read, although its meaning in the US is not clear. In the US, a spray-painted swastika can be safely assumed to be the work of neo-Nazis meant to intimidate minorities and not a Hindu religious symbol. Text is often clearer: The phrase “let your light shine, oppose racism” is hopefully a clearer symbol that merely lighting a candle in your window in December, and “Madison supports its gays and lesbians” is also relatively clear. The latest sign about being happy my neighbors are here, written in Spanish and Arabic, also conveys pretty clear meaning in its language choices as well as its content, although could be criticized for its ambiguity about racism (as the impetus for the signs was a hate letter that used the N-word) and immigration policy (as the sign does not mention your document status).

The ambiguity of a symbol can make signaling one’s actual opinions complex. This is a Christian-majority country and there is a strong politicized Christian movement that is affiliated with White nationalism and/or strong anti-abortion sentiments and/or hostility to gays, lesbians, transgender and other sexual minorities and/or hatred of Muslims or, possibly, Jews. This makes any overt Christian symbol (a cross, a crucifix, a “keep Christ in Christmas” yard sign) an ambiguous symbol that is likely to be interpreted both by non-Christians and also Christians one does not know as a symbol of adherence to the Christian Right or at least Republicanism. Muslim women have a similar problem, as their hijab is often interpreted as symbolizing things other than what they think it symbolizes.

The minister who organized the welcome neighbor signs in Madison told reporters that part of his motivation was that as a White Evangelical Christian, he wanted to distance himself from White Evangelical Christians who are advocating messages that he considers hateful. In the 1990s, pro-gay churches similarly sought to distance themselves from the association of Christianity with anti-gay movements.

But even text symbols can “mean” something other than what the user thinks it meant. I interpret the pro-police yard signs in Madison as “meaning” opposition to Black Lives Matter, as I interpret “Blue Lives Matter” to have a similar meaning. I make this interpretation because there were no pro-police signs in Madison before Black Lives Matter, because the only contextual factor that could be construed as anti-police would be Black Lives Matter, and because the last time pro-police signs and bumper stickers were common it was the “Support Your Local Police” bumper sticker campaign launched by the far-right John Birch Society in 1963. In fact, a quick Google search reveals that the JBS has revived this campaign and there is now a movement among police to spread this slogan as opposition to federal attempts to supervise and rein in the excesses of local police. It could be that someone who put up that sign lives next door to a police officer and couldn’t say no when asked to put it up, despite the person’s private support for Black Lives Matter and concern about racial disparities in Madison. But the “meaning” of the sign still encodes opposition to BLM, regardless of private motives. Likewise, some of my neighbors referred to pro-Trump yard signs in the area as evidence of “hate,” a characterization which other neighbors objected to.

Symbols have to be collective to have any meaning at all, and that is why they tend to have a fad-like character and are typically promulgated and distributed by organizations. That is also why people may contest the meaning of symbols. They are superficial and elusive conveyors of meaning. There are no clear guidelines about when to display symbols and how they will be interpreted. But the use of symbols to convey one’s identity and stance with respect to important issues is an important part of how people come to perceive the opinions of those around them. And that is important.

Pamela Oliver, PhD is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her specialty is collective action and social movements and, since 1999, she has been working intensely on the issue of racial disparities in criminal justice. You can follow her at Race, Politics, Justice.