Black Practices

A few things conspired to produce the premise of this blog post.

In one of my classes recently I talked about rising opioid rates in a county in Indiana (Porter County).  The problem had gotten so severe that the local police department produced a video about the epidemic in 2015:

The problem got worse, and so they produced another one in 2017. The opioid epidemic is not a wholly new issue, but it still is a bit striking to see white youths as the face of a drug problem.

I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.  Like the opioid crisis, the experiences of poor Whites in Appalachia is not new.  But this was a great book for those who want a personalized account, and don’t want to plow through a series of data points.

A few years ago, I read Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.  So this was a series of data points that I had to plow through.  But Murray’s book put some empirical, macro-level meat on the bones of Vance’s work.  Murray’s argument put simply, is that uneducated Whites are living vastly different lives than educated whites.  For example, they have higher divorce rates, higher levels of obesity, and are less likely to be steadily employed.

Finally, there is this NPR piece on the rising death by despair rates of white Americans:

I don’t know what changes in economic, health, and educational policy are needed to get at the root of the issues that poor and working-class whites face.  But until these changes are made  (or should I say “if” there are changes) there may be some palliative measures that can be taken.  It turns out that Black Americans have been dealing with these issues for decades.   They have honed, in the crucible of hardship, ways of dealing with adversity.  I don’t think they’d mind it if their white working class and poor brethren adopted these practices.

They’ve Figured Some of this Stuff Out Already

Let me give the logic underlying this idea in bullet points:

  • Black Americans have lived in an environment qualitatively distinct from White Americans.  There is no need to go through the sociological research underpinning that claim.  We know that black people competed in different labor markets, have different experiences with the legal system, live in segregated neighborhoods, and so on.
  • People develop a set of practices to navigate the environments in which they live.  People are quite knowledgeable and purposeful in their immediate contexts.  They engineer ways to achieve their goals and make their lives meaningful.
  • Black people developed a set of practices organized around their world.  I am conspicuously avoiding the word “culture” because it is so politically loaded.  Plus, practices places more emphasis on the discrete actions of people, as opposed to the more ambiguous and amorphous idea of culture.
  • White Americans are increasingly navigating similar environmental conditions of Black Americans.  As I’ve said above, whites are increasingly facing economic hardships and uncertainties, low social mobility, and a political system that ignores their concerns. There is a growing divide amongst whites between college-educated whites and whites with a high school diploma or less.  This is something that both Charles Murray and Robert Putnam pointed out at an Aspen ideas festival a few years ago.  These two guys have diametrically opposed political beliefs, and yet they both agree that America, especially white America, is coming apart.  The have-nots in this divide are operating in a similar environment to the one that black Americans have navigated for decades.


OK, so here are some of the practices:

Talk to your Grandmother

Atomized, nuclear families work well in contexts where money is not an issue. One parent can earn an income that is large to allow the other parent to de-emphasize their career and focus on homemaking and parenting.  Or, two parents earn enough money where they can pay for someone to perform those homemaking and parenting functions (e.g. they hire a maid or AuPair).  In situations where this is not the case, my observations have been that it is much better to incorporate other family members into the unit.  These family members can provide extra funds and perform homemaking and parenting duties.  Immigrant families and black Americans use this family arrangement to maintain a sense of stability in a capitalist economy.

I am reminded here of Vance’s accounts of his grandmother in Hillbilly Elegy.  She was his foundation as he tried to navigate a world where his mother was addicted to drugs and worked her way through several potential baby-daddies.

Water Your Faith (If You’ve Got Any)

It’s not cool to be a booster for Christianity as an academic. But any survey will show that people who attend religious services regularly are happier.  A study from  Britain shows that people without religion are the most miserable people.  A study from the Pew Research Center gives the headline: “[American] people who are highly religious are more engaged with their extended families, more likely to volunteer, more involved in their communities and generally happier with the way things are going in their lives”.

There are several reasons why people who have faith are happier or more content with their lives.  As Nietzsche said, “if you know the why you can live any how”.  Religion gives people the power of a purpose driven life.  When you feel slighted at work you can put it in perspective because salvation does not lie in the good will of your boss.  Another reason is that religion provides an instant community.  When people are alone, they are unhappy.  Apparently, loneliness is as bad for you as smoking as 15 cigarettes a day.  What?!

It is somewhat of a stereotype that black people are religious.  In reality, black Americans are becoming more secular just like all other groups.  But clearly, black people take their faith more seriously than whites, as a recent report from Pew shows.  Two figures below illustrate this, as black respondents, more than any other race or ethnicity believe in God and attend religious services.

There is a clear link between happiness and faith.  Black people’s happiness levels have always been lower than whites (and for good reason).  But over the past several decades the gap has lowered to the point where both groups are equally happy.

If you have faith in a higher power, nurturing that faith and involving yourself in the religious activities commiserate with that faith, can help buttress you from the inevitable suffering of life.

Appreciate Masculinity

This is not an easy section to write given the recent #metoo movement, so I tread lightly.

For decades, black men have had a difficult time in the United States labor market.  I have read on several historical accounts arguing that black women tended to get better jobs than black men.  Before the second world war, the jobs available were not well paying, unionized factory jobs.  What often happened was that black women, as less threatening, ended up getting jobs working as nannies in white homes.  The wages were still low, but it was a “clean” job, and some degree of social and cultural capital could be gleaned from the proximity to white middle-class families.   Moreover, black men have always, even now, been treated more harshly for real or perceived transgressions and are sent to prison more often and longer on average.   Currently, black women are graduating college at higher rates than their male counterparts.

What this means is that black communities are keenly aware of what it is like to not have the presence of upwardly mobile, socially confident men in families.   As a result, there are many organizations that have as their goal the empowerment of black men.  100 black men is an organization that comes to mind.

This idea of empowering white men is unheard of.  Indeed, the general trend seems to be that white men should be disempowered – they are the archetypal antagonist in a morality play about racism, sexism, or homophobia.

This is not the 1960’s, where almost every white man could walk out of his home, stroll down to the local factory, look the boss in the eye and clasp his hand, smirk, and begin work the next day (often supervising low-level black employees who’ve been there for years).  Those days are over.  Now, young white men from poor and working-class families find themselves in the same boat as many of the black men in my extended family – underemployed, adrift, and feeling inadequate.

It might be time for white families to recognize this and focus on these young men.

This is Not Twelve Rules for Life

As I write this, I am waiting on Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life to be delivered.  It is a self-help book written by a working academic in psychology.  I always get a kick out of reading these kinds of books.

Most self-help books promise milk and honey if you follow these X number of steps.  Well, these black practices are more like ways of managing a difficult situation and providing room to breathe so that real change can be pursued.  The analogy would be to black non-violent protesters finding strength in a church before they then went out and marched.


Progress in Regress

Progress is not always about learning how to use technology in more advanced ways.  Progress can also be learning how to reject those technologies when they are no longer beneficial.  To wit:

Some people have decided to either leave Twitter or simply stop participating in the discussions.  See: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ feud with Cornel West

Many people intentionally disconnect from social media – they have decided to get “off the grid”.  See: Dave Rubin’s direct message for August 2nd

Several books critical of Silicon Valley culture and its products have been published within the last few years.  Three that I have read most recently are:

I see this rejection of social media and these critiques of Silicon Valley as a sign of a clear-eyed population observing technology with a healthy skepticism, ready to so “no” when they need to.  Rejection of technology, we can even say the rejection of progress, need not mean ignorance.  There is progress in regress, so to speak.

We are more critical of how these technologies impact our lives.  We are not as enamored with social media companies as we used to be.  There was a time when society saw them as a completely benign force that “does no evil”.  It doesn’t mean they are inherently bad either.  It just means that they are companies, pure and simple.  Their bottom line is not to create a just world, but to increase profits.

We have become much more critical of the way in which new technologies organize and engineer human thought.

For instance, it has become something of a given now that you should not hold conversations via e-mail unless you absolutely have to.  E-mail is instrumental – for relaying information and logistics.  People have rejected e-mail for everyday communication and prefer to call or speak in person.

Another example is the increasing demand for flip phones and other retro cell phones.   Some of this increase could be because of people wishing to adopt a hip, retro pose.  But I suspect that there are a large number of people who have no desire to mired in the Android or the iOS world.

This is not luddism.  This is wisdom.


Humanizing the Debate on Campus Free Speech

Over the past several years there have been numerous instances on college campuses of speakers being shouted down, not allowed to give talks, or otherwise “deplatformed”.  These incidents are then bandied about conservative or alternate media spaces as examples of the decline of Western universities.  The latest incident involves Lindsay Shepherd.  Shepherd, a 22-year-old graduate student and teaching assistant at Wilfred Laurier University, was called into the university’s Gendered Violence Prevention and Support office for a meeting with her supervising professor and two administrators.

Ms. Shepherd had shown a segment of a Canadian television show debating the use of gender pronouns.  The video featured well-known University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson as one of the debaters.  Peterson has been arguing that there are only two genders and he would not be forced to call someone by a gender pronoun other than he or she.  A student in Ms. Shepherd’s class reported to her supervising professor that a toxic class climate for transgendered students had been created because of the video.

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The difference between cybersecurity and cybercrime, and why it matters

A Texas woman in her 50s, let’s call her “Amy,” met a man online calling himself “Charlie.” Amy, who lived in Texas, was in a bad marriage. Charlie said he was a businessman and a Christian, and wooed her. “He was saying all the right things,” Amy later told the FBI. “He was interested in me. He was interested in getting to know me better. He was very positive, and I felt like there was a real connection there.” Early on, Charlie told her he was having some problems with his business and needed money. She wanted to help.

From 2014 to 2016, she sent him US$2 million – often in installments of a few thousand dollars at a time, always hoping and expecting to get paid back. After she alerted the FBI, two Nigerian citizens were arrested near Houston – both pleaded guilty to wire fraud charges in connection with Amy’s relationship with Charlie. The person who played the character of Charlie has not been identified.

This story is a cautionary example of a crime that happens online. But most advice for avoiding online dangers – like having long passwords, using two-factor authentication and encrypting data – wouldn’t have helped Amy.

The crime that befell her has nothing to do with cybersecurity. It’s cybercrime, a human-centered crime committed in a digital environment. There are more of these each year: In the U.S. in 2016, 298,728 complainants reported losing more than $1.3 billion in various types of cybercrimes, including romance scams but also involving fraudulent online sales, extortion, violent harassment and impersonation scams, among others. As a social scientist who studies online behavior and as the program coordinator for one of the few cybercrime undergraduate programs in the United States, I find it unfortunate that problems like Amy’s get relatively little national attention, especially compared to cybersecurity.

Understanding the differences

Cybersecurity is not merely a set of guidelines and actions intended to prevent cybercrime. The two types of problems differ substantially in terms of what happens and who the victims are, as well as the academic areas that study them.

Cybersecurity is ultimately about protecting government and corporate networks, seeking to make it difficult for hackers to find and exploit vulnerabilities. Cybercrime, on the other hand, tends to focus more on protecting individuals and families as they navigate online life.

The U.S. has created several initiatives to improve its cybersecurity, including investments in cybersecurity education and expanding efforts of government agencies.

Unfortunately, upgrading official networks and training future generations of cybersecurity professionals will not necessarily benefit people like Amy. Technical solutions won’t solve her problems. Social science research into human behavior online is how to help millions like her learn to protect themselves.

Little research

One of the few studies on romance scams like the one that ensnared Amy suggests that there are three stages to these types of cons. It starts with the criminal engaging in intense online communications with the victim. In Amy’s case, Charlie undoubtedly contacted her repeatedly as their relationship began. That built her trust and lowered her defenses – and commanded much of the time and energy she had for social interaction.

Once the victim is isolated from other interpersonal social experiences, the illusion of connection and interdependence can deepen. Charlie no doubt kept this illusion alive any way he could, taking as much of Amy’s money as he could. In the third and final stage, the target finally sees through the veil and learns that it’s all been a scam. That’s when Amy, urged by her financial advisor, suspected fraud and called the FBI.

More research on cybercrime could help deepen scholars’ and investigators’ understandings of how these social science problems play out online. To my knowledge there are just four cybercrime programs at residential four-year colleges. With more effort and investment, academics and law enforcement could learn more and work better together to identify and protect the real people who are at risk from these online criminals.

Race, Cyberbullying and Intimate Partner Violence

(Originally published in The Conversation)

Over the past two decades, cyberbullying has become a major focus for parents, educators and researchers. lists several effects of cyberbullying, including depression, anxiety and decreased academic achievement.

Judging from popular culture, the narratives surrounding cyberbullying tend to have at least one of two themes. One, cyberbullying is a mob-like phenomenon: Television shows such as “American Crime” depict a group of teens preying on a vulnerable individual by using social media and text messaging. Second, the face associated with cyberbullying is often a white one. Both in the aforementioned “American Crime,” for example, and in the television movie “Cyberbu//y,” the victim is white.

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Far Beyond Crime-ridden Depravity, Darknets are Key Strongholds of Freedom of Expression Online

(originally published in The Conversation)

The internet is much more than just the publicly available, Google-able web services most online users frequent – and that’s good for free expression. Companies frequently create private networks to enable employees to use secure corporate servers, for example. And free software allows individuals to create what are called “peer-to-peer” networks, connecting directly from one machine to another.

Unable to be indexed by current search engines, and therefore less visible to the general public, subnetworks like these are often called “darknets,” or collective as the singular “darknet.” These networks typically use software, such as Tor, that anonymizes the machines connecting to them, and encrypts the data traveling through their connections.

Some of what’s on the darknet is alarming. A 2015 story from Fox News reads:

“Perusing the darknet offers a jarring jaunt through jaw-dropping depravity: Galleries of child pornography, videos of humans having sex with animals, offers for sale of illegal drugs, weapons, stolen credit card numbers and fake identifications for sale. Even human organs reportedly from Chinese execution victims are up for sale on the darknet.”

But that’s not the whole story – nor the whole content and context of the darknet.

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