Race

Race Posts

Mining Black Misery: The Overemphasis on Black Disadvantage

Some years ago I was talking with my mother about the content of one of the classes she was taking.  At the time she was working on her bachelor’s degree.  At around 50, it had been a long time coming for her.  We were talking about a course on public health, I think.  She said something to the effect of – “why is it that all the bad things are happening to black people?  It’s not possible that black people are doing that bad in everything!”

I remember that conversation clearly, because I too had had that same reaction to courses I had been taking.  It might be that almost every black person who has studied the sociological literature on race will have this reaction at some point.

These disparities are explained by “social forces” – the factors external to the individual.  These would be your racist whites, discriminatory government policies, the legacy of slavery and segregation, and so on.

Despite my mother’s objections these are empirical realities.  However, these are not the only realities.  In fact the story narrated by sociological research is incomplete.

Let me explain…

Mining Black Misery

Here is a meta-conclusion that could be generated from taking the sociological research as a whole: blacks are “disadvantaged” and have little control over their own plight and unable to muster positive changes on their own.  Blacks invariably find themselves defeated by institutional and bureaucratic laws they cannot navigate, shifts in historical trends they cannot adjust to, and whites armed with racist ideology.

My mother made those comments because she was introduced to a world she did not know.  My mom was not familiar with these blacks that were so thoroughly disadvantaged.  The black people she saw were a mixed bag of problems and successes – maybe a few more problems than whites who lived across the railroad tracks (I don’t mean that metaphorically…in my hometown whites literally lived on the other side of the tracks), but they had their share of successes and achievements.

My mom posited that the drumbeat of black failures she was exposed to through her coursework was conspiratorial – ideas ginned up by whites in order to entrench their dominant position in society.  She thinks like that sometimes.  It’s not true, though.

The reason is, I believe, much simpler.  Sociologists have made an industry out of mining black misery.  Understanding the effects of race is one of the raison d’etres of the discipline, and the lowest lying fruit is to record and analyze some type of black disadvantage.  For every one paragraph devoted to understanding how blacks have made their way in spite of what may be the most sustained social and cultural onslaught against a group in modern human history, there may be ten devoted to understanding how blacks are dropping out of high school at higher rates, how black women are less likely to marry than other groups, and so on.

Understanding the social forces that influence success are just as important as understanding the social forces that lead to failure.  But one aspect of black life dominates the attention of scholars at the expense of the other.

A common rejoinder would be that we are interested in, say, high school dropouts because this is a social problem that needs addressing.  We don’t need to worry about the class valedictorian, the logic goes, because that person is doing all right.

I don’t agree.  That valedictorian has done something that allowed him to succeed in the way he has.  Let’s focus on his life and people like him in order to provide prescriptions for others.  Because race matters, and blacks experience unique social contexts and interactions, we can study black high achievers in order to provide insight into raising educational attainment for all blacks.  There are young black men and women who have managed to navigate a minefield of low social and cultural capital, poorer schools, possibly a harrowing home environment, and rough neighborhoods and come out with college degrees.  How in the world did they do that?  We should learn as much about them as we can.

Consider the constant drumbeat about black unemployment being twice as high as the national average – currently black unemployment is around 11.4%, while it is at 5.3% for whites.  We’ve spent a lot of time exploring how spatial-mismatch (the idea that jobs are not located where many black residents live) and discriminatory hiring practices have led to this disparity.  This is important.  However, there was a time – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where young blacks were employed at higher rates than whites.  What were the conditions that led to this?

One final example: my mother.  She was one of the many black women who went back to school after raising their children to complete their bachelor’s degrees.  This is quite an accomplishment, as I’ve told her many times.  Understanding the ways in which black women have managed families and achieved many goals in life in spite of disadvantages would be enlightening. The trends are that working class, less educated women of all races are becoming single parents more and more.  More research on how black women have managed single parenthood with some degree of success can help society address this growing trend.

(Lack of) Sociology in the Digital Environment

One of the pleasant surprises about research on the world created through interconnected computer networks, the digital environment, is that minorities are doing quite well in it.  Studies from the Pew Center for Internet and American Life show repeatedly that there are few differences between whites and minorities in terms of adoption, usage, and beliefs about new technology.  Even when there are differences it is often the case that it is minorities who tend to be do better than whites. This is especially so when it comes to the use of mobile devices.

My own research shows that groups that are normally disadvantaged in the physical environment are extracting benefits at a higher rate than advantaged groups.  And so minorities, who may have a difficult time getting their opinions heard in the mass media, can use social media to voice their opinion.  Indeed, blacks are more active on social media than other groups – with “BlackTwitter” being something of a phenomenon.  Or, people of working class backgrounds who may have few contacts that can lead to jobs in the physical environment, can leverage sites like LinkedIn  in the digital environment to find new job opportunities.

Most research by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life find few disparities between whites and minorities.  When there are differences, they are often such that it is whites who are lagging behind minorities.  This phenomenon needs to be studied more.

Most research by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life find few disparities between whites and minorities. When there are differences, they are often such that it is whites who are lagging behind minorities. This phenomenon needs to be studied more.

 

The lack of black disadvantage in the digital environment has, I believe, had consequences for the sociological study of new technology.  Sociologists, acculturated into looking for and mining black misery, find there is nothing worth studying!  There is anecdotal evidence to back this up: if one browses the top social science journals you will see a dearth of studies related to minorities and technology.

In the early 2000’s there was quite a bit of talk about the digital divide.  But once that “divide” between those who could buy technology and those who could not vanished, there was, presumably, nothing left to talk about. Sometimes I will hear about lower levels of programming experience for minorities, or blacks running into walls of discrimination in Silicon Valley.  But this all points to the idea that there needs to be something wrong in order for blacks to be studied.

The die is probably cast for sociological studies in the physical environment – too many careers are based on mining black misery.  But there is still an opportunity to take a different path to the study of race in the digital environment.  We do not need to describe the reality of the black experience online as one of disadvantage and discrimination, racism and rejection.  We can describe it in more complex terms, pointing out both the struggles and the successes.

Let’s Talk it Out, Not Tech it Out: No Need for Police Body Cameras

In response to the shooting of Michael Brown, and other reports of police misconduct, the Obama administration has requested over 260 million dollars for police body cameras and training.  Along with funding for body cameras, the administration has also announced a new task force that would develop strategies for “21st century policing”.

“This challenge of strengthening trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve has been laid bare in Ferguson in a pretty dramatic way,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday.

The program, called the Body Worn Camera Partnership Program, would provide over 50,000 small devices to be placed on the lapel of officers.

Keep the task force.  Ditch the cameras.

I know the public will see the cameras as the more efficacious remedy.  They’ll judge the task force as just another bureaucratic igloo – a place where suits hide from the cold, judgmental winds of the public, never having to do anything substantive.

On the contrary, it is the cameras that will be of little use.  Cameras will cause more harm than good, and it is (potentially) the task force that will help address some of the real problems illustrated by events in Ferguson.

Let me explain…

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Organizing “Smartly” in Ferguson, Missouri

I don’t like all that violence going on in Ferguson, Missouri.  It is not grounded in the pain and anguish of the loved ones of Michael Brown.  Rather, the violence stems from outside agitators and political opportunists seeing this as a chance to make a name for themselves.   What is Jesse Jackson doing there?  What about the new Black Panthers?  Do the people of Ferguson really need them to prove their point?

Are these people members of the Ferguson community or members of Brown's family.  If not, what are they doing there?

Are these people members of the Ferguson community or members of Brown’s family. If not, what are they doing there?

“No Justice No Peace” rings hollow when supported by violence and disorder instead of organized civil disobedience.  What inevitably happens is that people focus on the peace – trying to arrest rabble rousers, shaking their heads at looters,  and so forth.  They forget about the justice – should Officer Darren Wilson be charged with murder?

 

I am at risk here, but I wonder if this person lives in Ferguson and if this person is protesting for justice...or just to have a nice image for the media to replay.  Looks good doesn't it.  But it may not do anything to solve the real issue here.

Maybe I am too cynical, but I wonder if this person lives in Ferguson and if this person is protesting for justice…or just sporting this defiant pose to have a nice image for the media to replay. The shot looks good doesn’t it?  I hope his intentions are noble.

The days of marching down main street to prove a point are not over.  As long as the media still covers them, marching and protesting will get the national exposure they want.  But with the help of the digital environment, protests can be more effective…and possibly eliminate some of the rabble rousers who only make the situation worse.  Protesters can organize “smartly”.  Let me explain…

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Redskins and Darkskins: The Power of Symbols

Over the past few years pressure has been building on Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, to change that team’s name.  This pressure has been brought on by a wide array of people and groups.  Sports journalists Bill Simmons and Peter King have boycotted the name, as has news host Rachel Maddow.  The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation from California bought airtime to play the ad “Proud to Be”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mR-tbOxlhvE

Most recently, the United States Patent Office has revoked the trademark of the team’s name because:

“the term ‘Redskins’ was disparaging of Native Americans, when used in relation to professional football services, at the times the various registrations involved in the cancellation proceeding were issued.”

As I was listening to the ins and outs of this story on talk radio, I found myself saying, “What’s the big deal?” “This isn’t hurting Native Americans in any material way.” “Here are the thought police again.”  “The government has no right to interfere in the business of the Washington Redskins.”

And then yesterday, as I was getting off the elevator in my apartment building,  I spoke to a couple to my right, then turned to my left to do the same to a young girl.  She quickly averted her eyes and looked down when my face turned towards hers.  Then I remembered why many Native Americans would want this name changed.

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Canaries in Coal Mines

The metaphor of the “canary in the coal mine”, is apparently an overworked one, so says an article by the Wall Street Journal.  But it’s just so darn useful.

I often use it when explaining the causes of many social problems.  Groups with less money, education, social, and cultural resources tend to be “canaries”.  The problems they endure presently often become the problems of wider society in the future.  It was the poor and minorities who first began defaulting during the housing crisis.  We have a heroin epidemic in this country, hitting poor white communities the hardest.

Disadvantaged groups suffer social problems at higher rates than other groups because they don’t have resources to shield themselves from these problems.  When things happen  – the economy tanks, a new narcotic enters the market or bacteria is introduced – they get the worst of it.  Just like the canary in the coal mine gets the worst of a mine filled with toxic gas.

Now let me shift gears…

In the recent European Parliament elections, far right groups made impressive gains.  While many people are surprised by these gains, scholars who study online speech should not have been.  They had seen many online “canaries” pointing to the rise of anti-immigrant, extremism in Europe.  I also like to explore content online, and I’ve seen similar canaries that point to this same phenomenon occurring in the United States.

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Predicting the Future

I spend a lot of time teaching and talking about what computers, the Internet, and the combination of the two (computer networking) can do.  In my classes, I like to paint a vision of the future, in brush strokes of bits and bytes.  I like to talk about how computer networking creates a digital environment, new in human history.  The possibilities seem infinite.

I like to imagine what the future would be like.  It is only a matter of time before drones and other robotic military units will be standard for rich, technologically advanced countries.  Moreover,experts believe that fresh water, oil, and and other resources will become scarce.  Technologically advanced countries will have the means and motive to make vassal states out of less technologically advanced, but resource rich countries.  Imagine one country using computer networked drones as a cudgel to beat weaker governments still using 20th century weapons into submission.  It’d be just like how the English were able to use the maxim gun to pacify African and Asian countries attacking them with spears.  A new age of imperialism may be in our future.

More optimistically, I can envision the type of world we can live in when 3-D printers become ubiquitous.  I can envisage a multitude of makers, working away in their garages, all using their 3-D printers to make goods to sell on the market.  We can become a nation that is less unequal economically, as profits migrate from a few large corporations to a swath of households and small businesses.  We could become more democratic as money corrupts the system less. It would make it easier for people not born into wealth to reach middle class status.  It may even inaugurate a new era of tinkering and making that would rival the industrial revolution from the 17th and 18th century.  I like this idea.

We can let our imaginations run free and think about the world of the future.  No one can know what things will be like in a few years, much less decades from now.  There are so many possibilities.

But there is one certainty when it comes to computer networking and humanity.  There is one thing that technology can never accomplish.  Curiously, this came to me when listening to an interview given by Fadi Chehadé, the president and CEO of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), on C-SPAN’s series The Communicators.

 

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The Borg (not Mob) Mentality

As everyone knows by now, Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clipper, has been banned from coming to NBA games and team practices.  The league has begun taking steps to force Sterling to sell the team.  These actions were set in motion by an audiotape of him making racist remarks was leaked to TMZ by his then girlfriend.

As I write this, on 5.2.14, the Sterling affair still has legs.  One storyline – the one I am most interested in – is about privacy, and what is the responsible way of reacting to private conversations being made public.  This is a welcome development.  As I said in a prior post, it is troubling that we as a society allow intimate conversations to be made a part of public discourse, and that a person can be prosecuted for those private conversations.

ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock writes “[A]n angry, agenda-fueled mob provoked NBA commissioner Adam Silver into handing Sterling a basketball death sentence.” I heard an interview he did on Colin Cowherd’s radio show, I thought it was excellent, one of the best I’ve heard in a while.   Los Angeles Laker great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has also expressed some concern over society’s reactions to the Sterling tapes.  In an editorial for Time Magazine, Abdul-Jabbar expresses some concern over what the media did to Sterling.  Abdul-Jabbar writes that the media got “caught big game on a slow news day, so they put his head on a pike, dubbed him Lord of the Flies, and danced around him whooping.”

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