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.

Flashback Friday.

Sociologists distinguish between the terms norm, normal, and normative.

  • The norm refers to what is common or frequent.  For example, celebrating Christmas is the norm in America.
  • Normal is opposed to abnormal.  Even though celebrating Christmas is the norm, it is not abnormal to celebrate Hanukkah.  To celebrate Hanukkah is perfectly normal.
  • In contrast to both of these, normative refers to a morally-endorsed ideal. Some Americans make a normative argument that Americans should celebrate Christmas because they believe (wrongly) that this is a Christian country.

A thing can be the norm but not be normative. For example, a nuclear family with a married man and woman and their biological children is normative in the U.S., but it is certainly not the norm. Likewise, something can be normal but not the norm. It’s perfectly normal, for example, to date people of the same sex (so say the scientists of our day), but it’s not the norm. And something can be both normal and the norm, but not be normative, like Americans’ low rates of physical activity.

These three terms do not always work in sync, which is why they’re interesting.

I thought of these distinctions when I looked at a submission by Andrew, who blogs at Ethnographer. Bike lanes in Philadelphia used to be designated with this figure:

Today, however, they’re designated by this one:

Do you see the difference? The new figures are wearing bike helmets. The addition is normative. It suggests that bikers should be wearing bike helmets. It may or may not be the norm, and it certainly isn’t normal or abnormal either way, but the city of Philadelphia is certainly attempting to make helmets normative.

Originally posted in 2010.

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.

Rumors are circulating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has plans to euthanize 44,000 wild horses. The rumor is partly true. An advisory board has authorized the BLM to do so; they have yet to make a decision as to whether they will. Even the possibility of such a widespread cull, though, has understandably sparked outrage. Yet the reality of the American mustang is not as simple as the love and admiration for these animals suggests.

Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses worked by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western US. Some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses. Wild herds in the east were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward (the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this:

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So how do we get from that to these mustangs penned up in a pasture running after a feed truck in Oklahoma (a screenshot from the video below):

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It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.

Wild horses fall under the purview of the BLM because most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, and wolves kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 67,000 wild horses and burros on public land in the West, 40,000 more than the BLM thinks the land can reasonably sustain.

Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archaeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.

The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time the BLM concludes that, given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.

So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses?

For many years, the BLM simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.

One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.

So, there aren’t enough people to adopt them and killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits. What to do?

One solution was for the federal government to pay private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Today there are 46,000 wild horses penned up on private lands, fed by feed trucks. Something for which the American taxpayer pays $49 million dollars a year. Holding wild horses has become a business. Here’s a news segment about one of these wild horse operations:

The ranch in video is owned by the Drummond family, a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in north central Oklahoma that have received contracts to care for wild horses.

In addition to the sheer cost involved, paying private citizens to hold wild horses brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, for example, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, two-thirds of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma.

This is very lucrative. Because prices are guaranteed in advance, holding wild horses isn’t as risky as raising cattle. And, if a horse dies, the BLM just gives the rancher a new one. But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market. In other words, the wild horse holding program contributes to the wealth of the 1%, while everyone else’s economic opportunities are harmed.

This is why the BLM is considering a cull. Not because they love the idea of killing off mustangs, but because they’re caught between a dozen rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to best manage a very complicated problem, with no resolution in sight.

Revised and updated; originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at Scientopia and expanded for Contexts.

Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College. 

Flashback Friday.

I just have to say “wow” to this ad for Quartz counter tops, sent it by Lisa Ray of Parents for Ethical Marketing and Corporate Babysitter:

The ad depicts a little girl fantasizing about growing up, but growing up means (extremely) high patent leather pumps; growing up means sexualizing herself.

And the ad does sexualize the little girl who, from the top-scanning-down, looks like a sweet girl trying on mommy’s shoes, but from the bottom-scanning-up, looks like an adult woman who suddenly transforms into a child. The white cotton dress implies innocence and purity, but it’s a costume we regularly see adult women wear when we want to both sexualize and infantilize them. In other words, this ad nicely plays into the mythology endorsed by pedophiles that even little girls want to feel sexy, even little girls want men’s attention, even little girls want sex.

And, yet, we are supposed to think this is sweet. The text, “Harmonizing Beautifully with Life” is, of course, ostensibly about the counter tops. But aligned with the image, it naturalizes both the girl’s fantasy and the conflation of female sex with the performance of sexualized femininity (it’s just “life”; as if there’s a gene for Christian Louboutin shoes that activates in the presence of double X chromosomes). More than simply naturalizing the girl’s fantasy of self-objectification, it endorses it (it’s beautiful harmony).

Notice also the class story in the ad. Who exactly is class privileged enough to have the freedom to allow “the quiet moments” to “steal the show”? Well, apparently people who are rich enough to wear Louboutin shoes. Louboutin began putting red soles on all his shoes as a not-so-subtle way to advertise that the shoe was Louboutin and, therefore, a very expensive shoe. It worked.  Fashion writers started pointing out the red soles with glee, as in this story about Angeline Jolie on a red carpet. The fact that the sole of this shoe is red is no accident, it’s meant to add class to the counter tops, in both senses of the word.

A final word on race: That the girl in the ad is white is no accident. And it’s not only because marketers expect the majority of their customers to be white, but because of what whiteness represents. Her white skin symbolizes the same thing that the white counter tops and white dress symbolize: purity, cleanliness, even innocence. It is only because all those symbolic elements are there that we can put a black patent leather heel with a red sole on her and still think “sweet.”  Imagine the same ad with a black child. In the U.S., black women are often stereotyped as sexually loose, morally corrupt, irresponsible teen mothers on welfare. With that symbolic baggage, this ad would be a morality lesson on the hypersexuality of black girls and their propensity to “grow up too fast.” It wouldn’t look sweet, it’d look dangerous.

“Harmonizing beautifully,” indeed.

Originally posted in 2010.

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.

Using pictures with the tag #americanparty on Instagram, Buzzfeed put together a non-scientific collection of what “American Parties” thrown in other countries look like. it’s an interesting window into how they view us. Themes include red cups, popcorn, marshmallows, and sports jerseys. Happy 4th of July weekend everyone.

Visit the original post for the whole set of “American Party” photos or you can browse the hashtag yourself. Here’s my favorite, from Russia:7

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.

If Mexicans celebrated the 4th like Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo:

From Flama.

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.

All eyes are on the Confederate flag, but let’s not forget what enabled Roof to turn his ideology into death with such efficiency.

From cartoonist Jonathan Schmock3Visit Schmock’s website here.

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.

In the aftermath of Dylann Roof’s racist murder, some cities in the South are reconsidering their relationship to the Confederate Flag. Should it fly? Be in a museum? Burn? The discussion raises larger questions of how to move forward from ugly histories without simultaneously whitewashing a city’s past. And, as well, how do we know when something is truly in our past?

I was thinking about just these questions a couple weeks ago when a friend of mine walked me by the monument to the Crescent City White League in New Orleans. The conical stone was erected to commemorate the return of white supremacist government two years after a lethal insurrection against the Reconstruction state government in 1874. In that insurrection, thousands of former Confederate soldiers attacked the city police and state military. They killed 11 members of the NOPD and held city government buildings for three days before federal troops arrived and they fled.

Two years later, the white supremacist politicians were back in power and they placed the monument in a prominent place where Canal St. meets the Mississippi. The monument, to be clear, is in honor of cop-killing white supremacists.

Here it is in 1906 (source, photographer unknown):14

So, what to do with the thing?

In 1974 — one hundred years after the insurrection and 98 years after its erection — the city added a marker nearby distancing itself from the message of white supremacy. It read:

Although the “battle of Liberty Place” and this monument are important parts of the New Orleans history, the sentiments in favor of white supremacy expressed thereon are contrary to the philosophy and beliefs of present-day New Orleans.

In 1993, some of the original inscriptions were removed and replaced with this slightly more politically correct comment:

In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place. … A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.

It was also moved to a new location. Today it sits between a flood wall, a parking lot, and an electrical substation. If you wanted to give a monument the finger, this is one way to do it. Here’s how it looks on Google Maps streetview:

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So, the question is: What to do with these things?

I’ll admit that seeing the monument tucked into an unpleasant corner of New Orleans was somehow satisfying. But I was also uneasy about its displacement. Is this an example of New Orleans trying to repress knowledge of its racist history? (And present?) Or is it a sign that the city actively rejects the values represented by the monument? Conversely, if the city had left the monument at the foot of Canal St. would this be a sign that it took history seriously? And, thus, responsibility for its past? Or a sign that it didn’t take an anti-racist stance seriously enough?

This seems like an obviously difficult call to make, but I’m glad that we’re using the horror of Roof’s massacre to begin a discussion about how to handle symbols like these and, maybe, truly make them a part of our past.

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

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.