Soc. Inequality

This is the category for student responses to videos or class activities.

Social Networks and Dealing with White Affirmative Action

A few years ago I did some data analysis on the uses of social networking sites by different racial groups.  I found something very interesting.  African Americans were more likely to do activities on social networking sites that connected them to new people.  In that study, I used the literature on social capital to suggest that black people online were trying to tap into new streams of information for jobs and opportunities.

Bridging and Bonding

Past research had shown that black people tend to have very dense networks of friends and family, usually more dense than other ethnoracial groups.  African-Americans are often enmeshed in a web of parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends who they have known and expect to interact with all their life.  In the parlance of social capital studies, they have on average a large number of “strong ties”.  The resources that are available through networks – information, money, even a shoulder to lean on – is called “bonding capital”.  It is a wonderful thing, this bonding capital. (As a side note, I often wonder if American society could take a lesson from how blacks build and maintain these fruitful networks…but that is for another time).

However, black people tend to have comparatively less connections with people outside of these intimate social networks.  As a group, African Americans have fewer “weak” ties based on professional contacts, or with people in different lifestyle groups.  This has tremendous consequences, as it is often in weak ties where one finds out new information not already available in one’s web of strong ties.  In other words, your family and close friends will always be there for you, but it is the guy in the corner office who can provide unique information about a new position opening up or what the human resources person is looking for on resumes.  Unfortunately for non-whites, most coworkers tend to be white, and those connections are rarely made.

Race matters in structuring networks and the type of capital a person has.  People tend to make connections, however casual and passing, with people who are of the same racial group.  Conversely, they avoid contact with people who are constructed as the racial “other”.  In a lecture given at Brown University, Duke sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues whites treat each other as “fictive kin” in professional settings.  Of course, black people will do the same.  The difference however is that the most important job leads, information, and other types of “hook-ups” are found within white networks.  In this way, racial inequality is reproduced without racism.  This happens even in a context where whites are liberal and progressive on racial matters (indeed, Bonilla-Silva’s comments were directed at academics and his experiences as chair of the sociology program at Duke, where many decisions about department policy where made in white networks before any formal meeting took place).

Duke sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva talks about

Duke sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva talks about “homo academicus” and how through whites forming fictive kinships with other whites, racial inequality within academia is reproduced. The lecture is about 40 minutes, this particular segment starts at the 24 minute mark.

Whites Saving Places in Line

More research on this phenomenon comes from Nancy DiTomaso.  DiTomaso, a professor at Rutgers University, explores the reproduction of racial inequality through white social networks in her book entitled The American Non-Dilemna.  She argues that whites are more likely to form strong relationships with other whites, and therefore when plum opportunities arise, are more likely to share these opportunities with their (white) friends.  Moreover, the help that whites get over a lifetime is cumulative: the white CEO got his initial internship through white networks, his early career miscues were not damaging because his white friends liked him enough to overlook them, and he was promoted because of a combination of merit AND friendship.  The intent is not racist, but the effect is.  In her words, whites see affirmative action as blacks jumping the line, but they do not recognize that they save a place in the line for their (white) friends.

I like the language of DiTomaso’s argument.  It explains the contradictory experiences of white and non-white  in professional settings.

Whites – both liberal and conservative – generally oppose affirmative action because it (a) removes opportunities that would have been available within their networks, (b) it goes against the American values of individual merit, and (c) they argue that affirmative action too often puts under-qualified minorities in positions simply because of their race.  There is an almost visceral reaction to efforts by institutions to target non-white hires and concomitant desire to think lesser of a non-white employee who is seen to be the benefit of racial preferences.  From the point of view of most whites, racial preferences are simply unfair.

At the same time, non-whites can clearly see that plum opportunities and resources tend to be consolidated within white networks.  They assume that because of these networks, whites often gain advantages over non-whites.  Like whites who see affirmative action hires as under-qualified, they have seen in their own lives whites getting jobs and opportunities that they know they are equally or more qualified for (imagine two assembly line workers, one white and one black – the white worker somehow ends up getting the management position).  They have seen their white peers being placed into positions to succeed and their flaws and foibles overlooked.  They know that whites – as DiTomaso says “save a place in line” for their friends.  The saying that the average black person need to work twice as hard as the average white person to reach the same place may be a cliche, but there is hard empirical evidence, coming from numerous studies including DiTomaso’s, to back this claim up.  Non-whites understand that there is affirmative action for whites in labor markets.

Non-whites are aware that they do not have access to the information and resources found within white networks.

Non-whites are aware that they do not have access to the information and resources found within white networks.

The Banality of it All

The rub in all of this is that there are no moral indictments to levy, no punishments to mete out.  The reproduction of racial inequality is simply a manifestation of everyday human – and dare I say positive and prosocial – behavior.  Who wouldn’t help their friends?  Isn’t giving information, using one’s influence, and providing opportunities one of the cornerstones of friendship?  I certainly wouldn’t keep a friend who chose not to scratch my back from time to time.

But just because there is no directed discrimination here does not mean that we as a society should simply accept it.  The use of affirmative action is one way that government can work to equalize the playing field.  Another is through acknowledgment of and education about this phenomenon.

Finally, the people who are most affected by it can be their own change agents.  And so my research showed that African-Americans were conducting “bridging” activities on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter – attempting to reach out to people from different social networks and overcome the advantages given to whites by white affirmative action.  This behavior by African-Americans is very laudable and very American – an attempt to achieve despite birth or circumstance.

Mining Black Misery: An 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 institutions and bureaucracies that 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 who 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.

The Equality of Man and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Twitter Speaks Truth to Power

If you go to NBC, CBS, ABC, or FOX you will get a familiar narrative:  Israelis minding their own business being attacked by Palestinian fanatics.

But this is not true.

If you want to know the real deal about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, you need to turn to new media.  It is only on platforms like Twitter where a narrative can be developed that explains what is really going on in Palestine (or, alternative news sources like Democracy Now or The Young Turks).

In fact, what is really happening is that every second of every day Palestinians are being oppressed, and the start of this recent  conflict – the rockets from Gaza into Israeli held territories – is just symptomatic of a perpetual difference in power relations.  The ineffectual rockets from Palestine and the Israeli response is like the POW in the concentration camp being beaten for attacking a guard – the guards will maliciously attack the POW ostensibly in self-defense, but they themselves are the reason why the violence began in the first place.  We should not take pity on the guard who beats the POW into submission – our sympathies should lie with the POW.  Similarly, our allegiance as Americans should lie with the Palestinian who has spent most of his life in oppression.

I use oppressed here purposefully, as it goes beyond racism in everyday actions or discrimination in government, schools, and other institutions.  Oppression  is qualitatively different than those terms sociologists bandy about (sometimes too haphazardly in my opinion).  Blacks in the United States, for example, face a mild (but real) form of racism because their world is a world of whiteness and they must live in it. This is, in my opinion, mild within a broader socio-historical context.  Americans value equality of opportunity, and have put legal measures in place to blunt the effects of what can be called “symbolic racism”, and equalize the opportunities of different racial groups.

Indeed, the arguments between Democrats and Republicans over affirmative action and other race-based policy measures are essentially arguments over whether or not the measure is about equality of outcome (Democrats are OK with this, Republicans abhor it) or equality of opportunity (both parties support these measures).  When Republicans believe a policy is more about equalizing outcomes instead of opportunities, it is understood to be unfair – creating an unfair opportunity structure that favors minorities over whites.  Republicans then, with some justification, cart out the term “reverse discrimination”.  I’m digressing, but it is worth taking a moment and applaud the US for even considering these measures and trying their best to implement them.  On some level, they point to the core American belief (the uniquely American belief) that all people are created equal – under God or the constitution, take your pick.  The interpretation of this universal belief is what is generally under debate here in the US – but crucially, not the belief itself.

This is not the case in Israel.  I don’t know anything about Israeli law, but I can safely assume that there are few laws in place that are meant to equalize the life opportunities of Palestinians and Israelis.  Indeed, why would Israeli law makers even consider putting such measures in place?  There is no foundational belief in the fundamental equality between them and the Palestinians.  And this is why Palestinians can be described as being oppressed.  They are seen as categorically unequal, and the state supports that inequality.

For many years, the American public was not aware of the categorical inequality of blacks.  It was at best a vague notion for most.  For some, it was even (mis)understood that blacks were happy with their place in American society.  It took the evening news, and images of blacks being beaten and attacked by dogs, to stir the American public.  At that time the media could show those images and tell that story because the villains in that story were not owned or  bankrolled by them.


The "old media" covered the confrontation between Eugene "Bull" Connor and civil rights protestors (in this picture it is Walter Gadsden).  That coverage led to changes in national sentiment, leading to fundamental changes in American society.  The "old media" cannot cover events in this way anymore.

The “old media” covered the confrontation between Eugene “Bull” Connor and civil rights protesters (in this picture it is Walter Gadsden). That coverage led to changes in national sentiment, leading to fundamental changes in American society. The “old media” cannot cover events in this way any more.


What Computer Networking has to do with Boko Haram

The Islamic sect Boko Haram and their leader Abubakar Shekau are all over the news. The terrorist group from Northern Nigeria has been active at least since 2009.  Most recently the group has garnered international attention after it abducted 230 schoolgirls on April 16th.  Only 43 have escaped.  Nigerians have been very vocal, protesting their government’s lack of effectiveness in finding the schoolgirls and subduing Boko Haram.

In reading news clipping from this story, I realized that what we see happening in Nigeria is one particular example of a phenomenon that will in all likelihood be repeated globally over the next several years.  There will be more attacks from terrorist groups.  There will be more bombings.  There will be more abductions.  And it is not because of Islam.  It is because of what computer networks have done to societies in the 21st century.