Last Wednesday, Cheryl posted an interesting analysis of the nature vs. nurture debate that has plagued the social and biological sciences since their emergence. More and more research, from both disciplinary areas, is accumulating to overturn this simplistic dichotomy. Rather than thinking of ourselves as purely determined by our body chemistry and structure OR by our social environment, it is useful to think of ourselves as what Donna Haraway terms “material-semiotic” entities—that is, as unique combinations of natural and cultural elements. This way of theorizing the relationship between nature and culture—or rather, the mutual and continuing construction of nature and culture—is given to us by critical science studies scholars. By thinking, as Haraway does, in terms of “naturecultures,” we escape the nature/nurture divide, merging the two inseparably. What we call “nature” and “culture”/“nurture” are actually mutually constituted. more...

One of the latest Romney ads attacks President Obama for removing work provisions from Welfare Reform.  In the ad, disappointed-in-himself Obama (pictured left) sneakily gutted welfare reform by dropping the work requirements, so that as the ad states, “They just send you your welfare check.”  The ad’s claims are false or, as the fact-checking website Politifact put it, pants-on-fire.  What Obama has actually done is allow states to develop their own welfare-to-work programs.  The changes provide states with some flexibility regarding how not whether they meet the work provisions in the original bill.  Republicans, and Romney in particular, previously supported giving states more flexibility but the narrative not the actual policy is really the point here. more...

After a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, jurors in the state of New Jersey will now be asked to consider problems regarding the reliability of eyewitness identifications.  The new court-mandated jury instructions warn jurors, among other things, that, “research has shown that people may have greater difficulty in accurately identifying members of a different race.”  Judges must now ask jurors to “consider whether the fact that the witness and the defendant are not of the same race may have influenced the accuracy of the witness’s identification.”  The acknowledgement of race and racial bias in criminal proceedings may have effects beyond the role of witness testimony.

When a judge asks a jury to consider the unconscious racial biases of witnesses, s/he may, in effect, encourage jury members to not only examine the reliability of eyewitness testimony but also examine their own biases.  When people consider how race affects their evaluations of information, they create an opportunity to challenge racial biases. more...

In my last post, I mentioned the larger discussion about blame for racism that cases like Trayvon Martin produce.  One consistent meme that arises every time black people protest the killing of a black person by a white person is: Why don’t black people protest when blacks kill other blacks?  After all, statistically black homicide victims are more likely to be killed by blacks than any other race.  Black on black homicide certainly happens at a far greater rate than vigilante or even police killing of blacks.  So, why doesn’t the black community protest that?  Why is it only when the perpetrator is white?    The questions (rhetorical as they may be) need answers. more...


Photograph by: Red Huber , Orlando Sentinel/MCT

The Trayvon Martin case has become a national media event complete with competing individual evaluations, competing definitions of racism and competing blame narratives.  In these “racial events,” Americans propensity for individualistic analysis coalesces with America’s racialized culture in order to produce a mix of individual evaluations and sweeping claims about racial groups and the institutional privileges and disadvantages of different racial groups.  In my experience, this process reinforces many of the flawed ideas about race that sociologists regularly debunk and challenge. more...

“I don’t know if I should be saying this right now,” sophomore Allie stated, her eyes making a cautionary sweep of the room, even though except for us it was empty, and the door had long been shut. White and well-off, she held a prestigious academic scholarship and took many of her courses through a selective honors program. But not this course: “[The professor] was a nice lady, but she felt like she had to tie every single thing she said into like, diversity. And it felt extremely forced. And the class was largely, it was a diverse class, more so than any other class that I had taken … Don’t get me wrong I love the diversity at this school, but it just felt so forced…Like it wasn’t even related to our topic, and it just felt almost like someone was forcing it in there… [It] wasn’t in the course description at all. It didn’t count as a diversity requirement or anything.”

The course was an introduction to Public Health. Public Health is the work of protecting and improving the health of communities through education, research, and communication. Sociologists, demographers, and legal scholars, as well as public health scholars and clinical care providers, have documented myriad ways in which race and ethnicity shape communities and their health – influencing at the very least where people live and thus the schools and jobs they have access to, the distances they have to travel to get to their jobs and schools, and the means by which they travel there. Race and ethnicity are fundamental to the study of the health of communities. But somehow Allie didn’t see the connection.

Allie had the transcript of a superstar. She’d aced every course she’d taken in college and most every course prior to it. And many of those courses explicitly stated as a primary course objective that students would improve their critical thinking capacities. Allie’s grades would suggest that she’d unequivocally excelled at this; her comments indicate something more ambiguous about her success. They indicate to me that the “critical thinking” valued by the institutions in which a White, privileged student like Allie had excelled might be leaving students to flounder when it comes to thinking critically about race, ethnicity, and the ways in which privileges and oppressions have been – and continue to be – systematically linked to race and ethnicity. For Allie, this lack of support led to a vicious loop: she saw race and ethnicity as having nothing to do with her (Whiteness apparently did not count as race or ethnicity); as mattering only when fulfilling some institutional requirement; and as unworthy of her learning energies unless she was fulfilling such requirements, upon completion of which, she could return to not thinking of race and ethnicity at all.

Sociologists like Eduardo Bonilla Silva see students like Allie the norm among college students who are White and economically well-off: they’ve learned, even been encouraged, to minimize – and deny – the ways in which race shapes social relationships, and the ways in which the blatant racism of the past relates to deeply embedded and ongoing injustices in the present. Such dangerous misunderstandings are evident now in Tucson, Arizona, where the Tucson Unified School District has moved to eliminate its Mexican American studies curriculum and to ban books the discuss the history of the Americas from the perspective of the peoples who have lived on the land prior to European and European-American conquests. Arizona School Superintendent John Huppenthal argues that this ban was a necessary move because the program “promotes resentment.” But what about the resentment of White, privileged students like Allie – the resentment of having to think about, talk about, reflect on systemic inequities by which they have benefited? Allie’s “mainstream” course of study promoted her resentment of her public health course. So do we ban Allie’s honors program, then? Do we ban the high-level honors curricula she followed in high school?

Education scholar and educator Ernest Morrell has described critical thinking as thought and/or inquiry that fosters individual or social transformation (2009:29). A ban transforms nothing, relying instead on binary oppositional terms and explanations. Dangerous and unjust as a ban may be, however, it makes the binary oppositional logic on which it operates apparent. In Allie’s case, her mainstream curriculum allowed that thinking to operate silently. So if institutions like Allie’s really want to “honor” students, shouldn’t they support – actively and explicitly and thoroughly – the voices and perspectives that students need to engage them in the conversations that foster critical thinking?

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If you asked Americans to pick which political party they considered pro-immigration and which one they considered anti-immigration most would agree that the Republican Party is anti-immigration and the Democratic Party is pro-immigration.  Like abortion politics, this does not mean that every Democrat is pro-immigration and every Republican anti-immigration.  Still, the divide between the parties appears to be growing starker as voters either sort themselves into parties due to their stance on immigration or solidify their stances on immigration as a result of their party affiliation.  While many of us may take this alignment for granted, founders of the anti-immigration movement did not see this party alignment as inevitable and such an institutional arrangement was not deliberate.  Instead, the current situation, I believe, points to the outsized role racialized politics play in the American political system. more...

Institutional racism is one of the key concepts sociology professors try to impart to students.  Institutional racism refers to systemic processes which perpetuate racial inequality even in the absence of racial prejudice and intentional individual-level discrimination.  The concept helps students understand how decisions made in the past affects present-day inequality and furthermore that present-day decisions do not take place in a race-neutral realm.  Examining how institutions function discourages the use of anecdotal evidence and encourages students to employ a social-level analysis to social phenomena like racial inequality.

While I spend a great deal of time disabusing my students of the notion that a hidden bigot is hiding behind every racially unequal outcome, I remind them that institutional racism is not racism on autopilot.  In a recent article entitled, “The Neglected Social Psychology of Institutional Racism,” Tim J. Berard explored the concept of institutional racism and urged sociologists to consider the micro-social foundations of institutional racism.  While racism is not an individual-level phenomenon, racism does happen at the micro-social level.  In other words, since racism operates both as structure and as culture, the interpersonal level helps form shared ideas and regularize practices.

I found myself thinking about institutional racism and its social psychology as I followed the US budget negotiations.  Most politicians, and the American public, support “government spending cuts” – or at least the rhetoric.  However, a recent New York Times article highlighted Republican congressional representatives who voice strong support in favor of deep spending cuts but are fighting to preserve federal money for their districts.  Their behavior closely mirrors the American public, who favor “spending cuts” but don’t favor cutting much specific spending. The seemingly contradictory behavior of Republicans has been called hypocrisy, while statements of voters have been blamed on ignorance.  Most Americans overestimate the size of programs they want to cut and underestimate, or in some cases are unaware of government’s role in those programs they favor.  This patterned misunderstanding hardly seems coincidental.  Instead, it is more likely that the negative framing of government spending relies on the perception of who benefits from government spending. more...

By Rachael Liberman

In a recent critique posted on The Huffington Post (18 January), Bestselling Author and Speaker Rebecca Walker (note that this “title” introduction comes from The Huffington Post and fails to include her work as a prolific feminist) poses the following question, which also serves as the title of her article; “Does This Lego Toy Send the Wrong Message to Children?” Stemming from her concern over the possible normalization of the prison-industrial complex,” Walker points out that one of the Lego Group’s toys, the “Prison Transport Vehicle,” presents incarceration as “play,” which is similar to her, and other’s, conceptualization of the way that African Americans are treated in the criminal justice system vis-à-vis the disciplinary power elite. She writes, “But at a time when more African Americans are in the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850, the mass incarceration of one – arguably targeted – group is a lot like war, and thus the Prisoner Transport Vehicle most definitely qualifies as making ‘war seem like child’s play’. Or, in this momma’s speak: indoctrinating kids into a for-profit system that often denies citizens adequate legal representation; strips them of basic human rights; criminalizes them for a lifetime; and rarely offers hope of rehabilitation or opportunity for personal, psychological growth.”

Later in the article, Walker calls for “a little more scrutiny” over the Prisoner Transport Vehicle as well as other toys that “normalize incarceration.” So what aspects of incarceration is this toy normalizing? Drawing on Foucault’s reading that the process of normalization creates an effortless dichotomization of “normal” and “abnormal,” it appears that this toy has the potential to make getting transported to jail “normal,” getting handcuffed and arrested “normal,” etc. In other words, it seems that playing with the Prisoner Transport Vehicle allows for children/adults (the website offers products for individuals aged 0-12+) to channel their knowledge about the criminal justice system and incorporate it into “play.” Whether or not these children will incorporate the act of consciously “playing God, symbolically or otherwise,” as Walker suggests, is based on many factors, including their cultural context. That being said, Walker’s concern with the possibility of children combining this particular toy with racist ideologies they’ve learned from their particular socializing bodies is an astute observation. Normalizing practices come in many forms, including the body shape and size of Barbie, as well as the fact that when I went to the LEGO website there was a separate category for “girls” within the sixteen categories available for purchase. more...

Today, the Central London County Court has delivered its verdict in relation to the British National Party’s [BNP] membership policy. Judge Paul Collins’ decision – whilst noting the BNP’s attempts to modify its constitution – found that the party recruitment policy was ‘still likely to be discriminatory.’

Since the proceedings have been initiated the BNP has removed any requirement for members to be white, although it retains many troubling conditions. For instance: the compulsory opposition to “integration or assimilation” of ethnic minorities into Britain, an explicit demand that members encourage and promote the “maintenance and existence of the unity and integrity of the indigenous British”, and an obligation to seek a reversal of immigration into the country. Alongside these demands, any individual who wishes to join the BNP is also expected to submit to a 2 hour long home visit by two members of the party (one male and one female) in order to ascertain their commitment to the BNP’s aims (and to identify any would-be saboteurs).

Perhaps understandably the BNP’s leader Nick Griffin has reacted to today’s events with belligerence, describing the ruling as ‘appalling’. However, it would seem that the Equality and Human Rights Commission are determined to bring an end to what many see as a dangerous political force with inherently racist policies.

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