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.
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.