race/ethnicity

Content Note: This post discusses racist memorabilia in sociological context and provides an image of one collection critical of this memorabilia below the page break.

Why do some people collect racist memorabilia and artifacts? Objects depicting African Americans in derogatory and stereotypical ways are commonly referred to as “black memorabilia” or “black Americana,” although scholar Patricia Turner more aptly names them “contemptible collectibles.” 

As documented by David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, these artifacts include everyday objects like toys and games, household items such as cookie jars, and postcards. Although usually associated with the Jim Crow era, many of the items are still produced or reproduced today, and all draw on racial caricatures, such as the “mammy,” “Tom,” “picanniny,” and “brute,” among others. 

Not without controversy, “contemptible collectibles” have different meanings to different people. Some collectors embrace the racist meanings attached to the items. Others buy the objects with the intent of destroying them. Still others hope to “liberate” the artifacts from their previous racist history and hold the objects in “high esteem” instead.

Les Whittington, the grandson of an enslaved person and whose life history is the focus of my recent research, has another reason for collecting. Ignorance or denial of the history of African Americans—especially in Appalachia, where he is from—motivates him to document the existence of slavery and the ensuing Jim Crow era.

Part of Les’s collection includes multiple “mammy” figurines, which he displays in a case, where they look like a small army of racist caricatures. The objects are shocking to see, not just because such iconographic pieces of racist memorabilia are disturbing, but also because seeing so many together is a reminder of the objects’ pervasiveness in the past.

This history may seem long past, but not to Les for whom the legacy of slavery is immediate. His grandfather, “John Myra” Stepp, was enslaved, and died the same year that Les was born.

Les himself grew up in a mostly racially segregated world. Though Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional in 1954, it wasn’t until 1966, when he was in the sixth grade, that Les’s school became the first middle school in his hometown to fully integrate. And another of his relatives, Barbara Hawkins, also one of John Myra’s grandchildren, was one of four Black students to attend the newly integrated high school in 1965.

His family members faced adversity with great resolve, and Les has told me, “And no matter what, they persevered. They were resilient. And they were smart. Because even though they had all those obstacles in front of them, they were still a success.”

But don’t mistake Les’s comments for a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative. Nor should his comments be taken as a way to obscure past or present racism and white supremacy, as Robin Di’Angelo argues is far too common. Instead, as Les has explained to me, his collection is “physical documentation of a lot of hate,” and represents “a history that doesn’t need to be forgotten, [. . .] even though it’s painful to people.” 

Les also acknowledges that the objects are relevant to today, a message repeated by more well-known collectors, such Alan Page (a former NFL player) and his wife Diane Page. Echoing Les’s concerns about the objects, Diane has noted that “contemptible collectibles” are a “constant reminder that we have to be vigilant,” especially because “people have become more comfortable of late expressing racist views publicly.”

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is a professor of sociology at Ripon College. Her teaching and research interests include social inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs and work. 

Black history in Appalachia is largely hidden. Many people think that slavery was largely absent in central and southern Appalachia due to the poverty of the Scots-Irish who frequently settled in the area, and who were purportedly more “ruggedly independent” and pro-abolitionist in their sentiments. Others argue that the mountainous land was not appropriate for plantations, unlike other parts of the South, and so slavery in the area was improbable.

A Sample Slave Schedule
(Wikimedia Commons)

As historian John Inscoe and sociologist Wilma Dunaway show us, this is not the case. According to Inscoe, slavery existed in “every county in Appalachia in 1860.” Dunaway—who collected data from county tax lists, census manuscripts, records from slaveholders, and slave narratives from the area—estimates that 18% of Appalachian households owned slaves, which compares to approximately 29% of Southern families, in general.

While enslaved people in the Appalachian region were less likely to work on large plantations, their experiences were no less harsh. They often tended small farms and livestock, worked in manufacturing and commerce, served tourists, and labored in mining industries. Slave narratives, legal documents, and other records all show that slaves in Appalachia were treated harshly and punitively, despite claims that slavery was more “genteel” in the area than the deep South.

My own research, which focuses on the life experiences of Leslie [“Les”] Whittington, whose grandfather was enslaved, helps to document the presence of slavery in Appalachia and the consequences that exploitative system had for African Americans in the region. Les’s grandfather, John Myra, was owned by Joseph Stepp, who lived in Western North Carolina. Census records show that Joseph Stepp owned seven slaves in 1850, five women and two men, who together ranged from one to 32 years of age. Ten years later, in 1860, schedules show Stepp owned 21 slaves, making him one of the wealthiest property owners in Buncombe County, the county in which he and John Myra lived.

Joseph Stepp was not unique. According to Dunaway, slave owners in Appalachia “monopolized a much higher proportion of their communities’ land and wealth” compared to those outside the area, driving wealth inequality in the region. Part of the legacy of slavery, these inequities remained in place after the Civil War, reinforced by Jim Crow legislation that subjugated African Americans socially, culturally, and politically. Sociologist Karida Brown explains how Jim Crow Laws led approximately six million African Americans to migrate from the South to the North between 1910 and 1970.

Poverty Rates in Appalachia by Race (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).
Click to view report
Graphic by Evan Stewart

Those who stayed in Appalachia, such as John Myra and his descendants, faced continued restrictions, like living in racially segregated neighborhoods, having limited employment opportunities, and not being able to attend racially integrated schools. Such systematic forms of discrimination explain why racial disparities continue to exist today, even within a region where poverty among whites remains above the national average. To understand these existing inequities, we must document the past accurately.

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is a professor of sociology at Ripon College. Her teaching and research interests include social inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs and work. 

In February of 1926, Carter G. Woodson helped establish “Negro History Week” to educate teachers, students, and community members about the accomplishments and experiences of Blacks in the United States. A native of Virginia, and the son of formerly enslaved parents, Woodson earned a PhD in history from Harvard University, and dedicated much of his life to writing and teaching about information largely omitted from textbooks and other historical accounts. Although Woodson died in 1950, his legacy continues, as “Negro History Week” eventually became “Black History Month” in 1976.

Nearly a century later, Black History is still at risk of erasure, especially in (once) geographically isolated areas, like Appalachia. The standard narrative that Scots-Irish “settled” Appalachia starting in the 18th century hides the fact that there were often violent interactions between European immigrants and indigenous people in the region. Even in the 1960s when authors like Michael Harrington and Harry Caudill reported on Appalachian mountain folk, the people were depicted as Scots-Irish descendants, known for being poor, lazy, and backward, representations that are reinforced in contemporary accounts of the region, such as J. D. Vance’s wildly popular memoir Hillbilly Elegy.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Accounts like these offer stereotypical understandings of poor Appalachian whites, and at the same time, they ignore the presence and experiences of Blacks in the region. Work by social scientists William Turner and Edward Cabell, as well as “Affrilachia” poet Frank X. Walker, and historian Elizabeth Catte attempts to remedy this problem, but the dominant narrative of the region centers still on poor whites and their lives.

Work I have been doing documenting the life experiences of Leslie [“Les”] Whittington, a native of Western North Carolina and a descendent of a formerly enslaved people, has opened my eyes to a historical narrative I never fully knew. African Americans, for instance, accounted for approximately 10% of the Appalachian region’s population by 1860, and many were enslaved, including Les’ grandfather, John Myra Stepp. Yet, their stories are glaringly missing from the dominant narrative of the region.

Source: Appalachian Regional Commission Census Data Overview

So too are the stories of Blacks living in Appalachia today. Even though the number of African American residents has increased in some parts of  Appalachia, while the white population has decreased, little is formally documented about their lives. That absence has led scholar William Turner, to refer to Blacks in Appalachia as a “racial minority within a cultural minority.” Not only does erasing African Americans from the past and present of Appalachia provide an inaccurate view of the region, but it also minimizes the suffering of poor Blacks, who relative to their white counterparts, are and have been the poorest of an impoverished population.

Woodson established “Negro History Week” to document and share the history of Blacks in the United States, recognizing that, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” The history of African Americans in the Appalachian region is largely absent from the area’s official record, and without making it part of the dominant narrative, we risk losing that history.

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is a professor of sociology at Ripon College. Her teaching and research interests include social inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs and work. 

Political drama over the past few years has driven us to take a new look at bridging social division. Pundits worry about filter bubbles, cultural enclaves, and the way “identity politics” might be driving us apart into groups that understand each other less and less. The theory assumes we do a lot of identity policing—we figure out who we are, anchor that on who we are not, and spend a lot of time and effort policing that boundary to keep other people out. If everyone self-sorts into similar identity communities, it can be harder to connect in a diverse society.

But is that really what’s happening? Sociologists know that identities are a key part of cultural membership, but we often complain about “identity politics” for certain groups and ignore it for others. Now, new research shows how focusing on one kind of identity can bring people together, rather than pushing them apart.

Photo Credit: Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

In a new study published in Sociological Science, Adam Horowitz and Charles Gomez look at “identity override”—a process where a shared identity can lead people to bridge other social divides. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health, they find evidence for an interesting case of identity override: people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (GLB) have more friendships and relationships with people from different racial groups.

Identity was the key factor here; people who reported same-sex relationships but didn’t identify as LGB didn’t show the same patterns. Rates of interracial relationships also held after the authors controlled for other demographics and whether respondents lived in urban areas. Racial segregation still persists in the United States, but it looks like coming out and coming together encourages interracial social ties that can overcome some of these barriers. Horowitz and Gomez write,

the cross-racial nature of GLB membership allows it to override the otherwise high borders between people without such a second salient identity.

This research provides a little bit of good news for a world that seems full of conflict. In this case, there’s some evidence that investing in an identity doesn’t always mean cutting other people off.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston (Fall, 2019). You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein. Written by a teenage Mary Shelley on a dare, this classic example of science fiction and horror explores the ethics of scientific discovery. In the story, Victor Frankenstein brings a corpse (or, many pieces of corpses sewn together) to life. Instead of continuing to study his creation, he runs away leaving it alone and defenseless. At first, the creature attempts to befriend the people he meets, but they are so offended by this specimen that they chase him away. Lonely, the creature vows to take revenge on his creator by killing Victor’s loved ones. Eventually, both the scientist and the experiment are left alone with their misery, floating off on icebergs.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Frankenstein was based on real science at the time—Galvanism—when scholars and showmen were animating dead bodies with small electric shocks. Shelley saw some of these demonstrations and, after a few rainy night’s in Byron’s castle, penned the novel. Against this bleak backdrop, Shelley asks us to consider who is responsible for the devastation in her story? Is it the creature, a mere experiment, who caused such destruction? Is it the scientist who never took responsibility for his own work? Or, could it be the people, those who shunned the scientific anomaly because they didn’t like what they saw? What happens when other people make a monster out of your work?

We are still wrestling with these questions today as we debate gender and genetics. A recent article from Amy Harmon in The New York Times reports on communities willfully misinterpreting recent research in social science and genetics to support white supremacist views. At the same time, the department of Health and Human Services is considering establishing a formal definition of gender grounded in “scientific evidence” that could curtail civil rights protections for transgender and nonbinary people—despite the fact that biological research doesn’t support this binary view.

The scariest part of these stories isn’t just that science is taken in bad faith, it is also the confusion about who is responsible for correcting these problems. From Harmon’s article:

Many geneticists at the top of their field say they do not have the ability to communicate to a general audience on such a complicated and fraught topic. Some suggest journalists might take up the task. Several declined to speak on the record for this article.

Social science research shows that trust in scientific evidence isn’t just a matter of knowing the facts or getting them right. Trust in science requires cultural work to achieve and maintain, and political views, prior beliefs, and personal identities can all shape what kinds of evidence people accept and reject. While the media plays a big role in this work, experts also have to consider who gets to control the narrative about their findings.

The bicentennial of Frankenstein asks us to consider, this hallow’s eve, the responsibility we carry as researchers, as interpreters of research, and as those who lead people to research. It is our guidepost and our warning call. This is why we (a science educator and a sociologist) both think science education and public engagement from experts is so important. If practitioners back away from the public sphere, or if they don’t intervene when people misinterpret their work, there is a risk of letting other social and political forces make them into Victor Frankensteins. What do you think? Do experts just need to stick to the science and leave their results to everyone else? Or, do scientists need to start worrying more about their PR?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (Frankenstein’s Laboratory at The Bakken Museum)

Sofia Lindgren Galloway is a STEM Educator at The Bakken Museum and a theatre artist in Minneapolis. With The Bakken Museum, Sofia performs educational plays and teaches classes about Mary Shelley, Science Fiction, and the history of electricity, among other topics.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

Many tennis clubs today uphold an all-white dress code. But does this homage to tradition come with the racism and sexism of the past? Wimbledon’s achromatic clothing policy hearkens back to the Victorian era, when donning colorless attire was regarded as a necessary measure to combat the indecency of sweat stains, particularly for women. Of course, back then, women customarily played tennis in full-length skirts and men in long cotton pants — also for propriety’s sake.  

Serena Williams at the French Open, 2018 Anne White at Wimbledon, 1985

But today, not all tennis clubs insist on all-white.While Wimbledon is known for having the strictest dress standards (even Anne White’s catsuit pictured above got banned there in 1985), the other grand slams, including the French Open (along with the U.S. Open and the Australian Open), have recently become venues for athletes to showcase custom fashions in dramatic colors and patterns. Since the advent of color TV, athletes have used their clothing to express their personality and distinguish themselves from their competitors.

For instance, Serena Williams wore a black Nike catsuit to this year’s French Open. Her catsuit, a full-body compression garment, not only made her feel like a “superhero,” but also functioned to prevent blood clots, a health issue she’s dealt with frequently and which contributed to complications with the birth of her daughter. On Instagram, she dedicated it to “all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy.”

Despite this supposed freedom, Williams’ catsuit drew the ire of the French Tennis Federation. Its president, Bernard Giudicelli, said in an interview with Tennis Magazine that “[Catsuits] will no longer be accepted.” The FTF will be asking designers to give them an advance look at designs for players and will “impose certain limits.” His rationale?I think that sometimes we’ve gone too far,” and “One must respect the game and the place.”

The new policy and the coded language Giudicelli used to justify it have been called out as both racist and sexist. By characterizing Williams’s catsuit as a failure to “respect the game,” the FTF echoes other professional sporting associations who have criticized Black football players kneeling during the anthem and Black or Latino baseball players’ celebrating home runs. Moreover, the criticism of Williams’ form-fitting clothing and the reactionary new dress code it spawned are merely the latest in a series of critiques of Williams’ physique.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains in his “Program for a Sociology of Sport” that practices like the policing of athletes’ apparel are a way for the tennis elite to separate themselves from other players and preserve a hierarchy of social status. This became necessary as the sport, derived from royal tennis and known as the “Sport of Kings,” experienced a huge increase in popularity since the 1960s. Bourdieu describes how this expansion resulted in a variety of ways to play tennis, some more distinctive than others:

…under the same name, one finds ways of playing that are as different as cross-country skiing, mountain touring, and downhill skiing are in their own domain. For example, the tennis of small municipal clubs, played in jeans and Adidas on hard surfaces, has very little in common with the tennis in white outfits and pleated skirts which was the rule some 20 years ago and still endures in select clubs. (One would also find a world of differences at the level of the style of the players, in their relation to competition and to training, etc.)

In reanimating the dress code, FTF officials are engaging in boundary work to preserve the status of a certain kind of tennis — and, by extension, a certain kind of tennis player — at the top of the hierarchy. In so doing, it is limiting the expression of a sports icon who redefines beauty and femininity and perhaps elite tennis itself.

Amy August is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on education, family, culture, and sport. Her dissertation work uses qualitative methods to compare the forms of social capital recognized and rewarded by teachers and coaches in school and sports. Amy holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Illinois at Chicago, a MA in Teaching from Dominican University, and a MA in Comparative Human Development from the University of Chicago.

The recent controversial arrests at a Philadelphia Starbucks, where a manager called the police on two Black men who had only been in the store a few minutes, are an important reminder that bias in the American criminal justice system creates both large scale, dramatic disparities and little, everyday inequalities. Research shows that common misdemeanors are a big part of this, because fines and fees can pile up on people who are more likely to be policed for small infractions.

A great example is the common traffic ticket. Some drivers who get pulled over get a ticket, while others get let off with a warning. Does that discretion shake out differently depending on the driver’s race? The Stanford Open Policing Project has collected data on over 60 million traffic stops, and a working paper from the project finds that Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be ticketed or searched at a stop than white drivers.

To see some of these patterns in a quick exercise, we pulled the project’s data on over four million stop records from Illinois and over eight million records from South Carolina. These charts are only a first look—we split the recorded outcomes of stops across the different codes for driver race available in the data and didn’t control for additional factors. However, they give a troubling basic picture about who gets a ticket and who drives away with a warning.

(Click to Enlarge)

(Click to Enlarge)

These charts show more dramatic disparities in South Carolina, but a larger proportion of white drivers who were stopped got off with warnings (and fewer got tickets) in Illinois as well. In fact, with millions of observations in each data set, differences of even a few percentage points can represent hundreds, even thousands of drivers. Think about how much revenue those tickets bring in, and who has to pay them. In the criminal justice system, the little things can add up quickly.

Originally Posted at TSP Discoveries

Whether we wear stilettos or flats, jeans or dress clothes, our clothing can allow or deny us access to certain social spaces, like a nightclub. Yet, institutional dress codes that dictate who can and cannot wear certain items of clothing target some marginalized communities more than others. For example, recent reports of bouncers denying Black patrons from nightclubs prompted Reuben A Buford May and Pat Rubio Goldsmith to test whether urban nightclubs in Texas deny entrance for Black and Latino men through discriminatory dress code policies.

Photo Credit: Bruce Turner, Flickr CC

For the study, recently published in Sociology of Race and EthnicityThe authors recruited six men between the ages of 21 and 23. They selected three pairs of men by race — White, Black, and Latino — to attend 53 urban nightclubs in Dallas, Houston, and Austin. Each pair shared similar racial, socioeconomic, and physical characteristics. One individual from each pair dressed as a “conformist,” wearing Ralph Lauren polos, casual shoes, and nice jeans that adhered to the club’s dress code. The other individual dressed in stereotypically urban dress, wearing “sneakers, blue jean pants, colored T-shirt, hoodie, and a long necklace with a medallion.” The authors categorized an interaction as discrimination if a bouncer denied a patron entrance based on his dress or if the bouncer enforced particular dress code rules, such as telling a patron to tuck in their necklace. Each pair attended the same nightclub at peak hours three to ten minutes apart. The researchers exchanged text messages with each pair to document any denials or accommodations.

Black men were denied entrance into nightclubs 11.3 percent of the time (six times), while White and Latino men were both denied entry 5.7 percent of the time (three times). Bouncers claimed the Black patrons were denied entry because of their clothing, despite allowing similarly dressed White and Latino men to enter. Even when bouncers did not deny entrance, they demanded that patrons tuck in their necklaces to accommodate nightclub policy. This occurred two times for Black men, three times for Latino men, and one time for White men. Overall, Black men encountered more discriminatory experiences from nightclub bouncers, highlighting how institutions continue to police Black bodies through seemingly race-neutral rules and regulations.

Amber Joy is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her current research interests include punishment, sexual violence and the intersections of race, gender, age, and sexuality. Her work examines how state institutions construct youth victimization.