Race

Race Posts

Micah Johnson, the Dallas Shootings, and the Push to Radicalization

There is some talk that Micah Johnson, the shooter who killed five police during a protest in Dallas, was radicalized online.  Johnson’s desire to “kill white people” was either generated, nurtured, or both by browsing websites and communicating through social media.

I think he was radicalized.

micah-johnson-dallas

As CNN reports, “Micah Johnson’s online history shows he followed dozens of sites that focused on injustices committed on the black community. He visited and liked several websites dedicated to Black Lives Matter and the New Black Panthers, along with the Nation of Islam and the Black Riders Liberation Party, two groups the Southern Poverty Law Center considers hate groups.”

Extremist websites act as pulls towards extremism, and this is enough for the media to go on.  It fits with the good guy-bad guy narrative we like.  There are groups out there that can simply brainwash a person to do bad things.  But there is more to radicalization than what the media can get across in quick soundbites.  There is also a push to extremis.  It is the push, I believe, that we should be most worried about.

The Push to Extremism

In the simplest sense, the push is rejection.  A person who is rejected by those in his immediate surroundings will look elsewhere for the things that we as social animals crave – validation, sympathy, explanations for why things happen the way they do, and so on.  People need friendship and community, and they will find it in their school, family, neighborhood…or online.

There are several steps orthat lead to radicalization. It is quite simple and intuitive process, and if you have taken a criminology or sociology class in college, you may recognize it*:

  1. A person begins associating with a different crowd.  This happens to most people at least once in their lives I imagine.  In fact, for young people, this is a part of growing up.  Consider the new kid in a school.  She has to find a new collection of people.  For adults, whose friendship networks should be somewhat set, as was the case with Micah Johnson, a new crowd oftentimes means that it was because the old crowd rejected him in some way.  Given the little that I know about Johnson, I would speculate a guess that he had some painful run-ins with whites (not uncommon with black males) and no group in his current surroundings was able to address that pain.
  2. This first step is the most important.  Once a person finds a community – physical or virtual – that in their mind they belong to, the human processes of socialization take place.   And so the second step is the explaining of the world through that groups own unique subculture.  It is at this point that Johnson may have come up with the ideas that violence is the way to deal with his problems.  Had he not found these online groups, another solution would have been presented to him.  For example, the people in my family simply take a “the meek shall inherit the earth” approach, and altogether ignore the transgressions of whites.  There is no protesting in my family.  But for Johnson, he found a group that gave him the idea that killing was a possibility.
  3. The future extremist must see rewards for the types of behaviors advocated.  Extremist behavior must be reinforced.  On social media sites, it could be as simple as getting an “upvote” or “like” if you say something the group approves of.  Who knows, maybe some other person that Johnson was connected to online posted a tweet, post, video that suggested using firearms, and it got several positive comments or was favorited a lot.  This is a type of reinforcement, showing that there are rewards for following the norms of the group.

This reinforcement is enough to get people to want this approval.  This is not a weird idea or the presence of a weak mind.  The fact is, most of the things we do are in response to what we think others think. This is a perfectly normal reaction to being in a given community.   The guy who grows his beard absurdly long is not doing it for sanitary reasons – he is doing it because the people he respects respect the beard.    Similarly, since we are dealing with racial issues here, my sense is that much racial phenomena is powered by whites simply making decisions based upon what others think.  They may want to sit down and chat with the black woman or man out of curiosity, similar interests, or physical attraction…but what will my friends think?  In my own experiences, I have found that racial others are far more forthright and open when they meet me one on one.  When they are with their co-ethnics then group dynamics take over, and they must please the group.  It is simply human nature.

But I am digressing.  Back to Johnson.  My belief is that Micah Johnson, and others who resort to deviant behaviors that require strong state responses, including jailing and killing (i.e. extremism), are pushed into these groups and then learn new behaviors there.

There But For the Grace of God Go I

There is a kind of randomness to the idea that our associates can determine what we decide to do in life.  Actually, I choose randomness, but a more religious person may look to divine intervention and say that God has saved them from such a fate.  Whether you take a sociological or theological angle, the fact is that outside influence are at play here.

This idea, what criminologists and sociologists call social learning theory, presents some dilemmas for our society.  If Johnson is an isolated incident, then we can pass it off as one psychopath with a rifle.   Micah Johnson is indeed a lone wolf, but there are other potential lone wolves out there, because the conditions that lead to people like Johnson trying to make sense of racial inequality remain.  This shifts some of the responsibility away from the individual (the crazy person who just wants to kill white people) to society (the patterns in place that push people like Johnson towards extremist groups).

There are these extremist groups out there are always pulling, pulling, and pulling.  But without dissatisfied people who cannot make sense of inequality and injustice – people being pushed – they could not gain strength.

As a society, we have to work on not pushing people.

*The ideas above are modifications and applications of Ronald Akers’ Social Learning Theory.

 

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.

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African-American Digital Practices and Their Relation to Issues in Criminal Justice

Criminal justice professionals with an interest in African-Americans have given little attention to the role information and communication technologies (ICTs) may play in their work.  There are few scholars and professionals who explore how technologies like the Internet, social media applications, and mobile phones impact African-American experiences in modern society.  This state of affairs is understandable.  When one imagines a connection between technology and criminal justice, one thinks of cybercrime, and the battle between large corporations and the highly educated (often white and male) criminals who try to steal money.  African-Americans are not a part of this picture.  One may also think of ICTs as being merely for fun and games, tangential to the concerns of criminal justice professionals.  However, if we widen our gaze and conceive of ICT usage as having an effect on family communication, labor market participation, and political engagement the connections between African-Americans, ICTs, and criminal justice become clearer.

Criminal justice professionals have been slow to explore the links between race, technology, and criminal justice issues. Image credit: Mashable.com

Criminal justice professionals have been slow to explore the links between race, technology, and criminal justice issues.
Image credit: Mashable.com

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A Different Take on Sigma Alpha Epsilon: The Need for Privacy, Even for Racist Chants

A few years ago, in 2009, a photo of President Obama apparently checking out a girl’s booty at the G8 summit began circulating the web.  Headlines such as “The Second Stimulus Package” and “Baby Bot Barack” were everywhere.

We had to place context around this snapshot in order to understand it. Before that happened though, the media had jumped on the picture. Credit: http://mashable.com/2009/07/10/obama-checking-out-girl/

The photo was a misleading snippet of reality.  A video – what is nothing more than several millions of photos, or snippets, strung together – surfaced showing that Obama was gesturing to someone as they were preparing to take a group picture.  The extra snippets were needed to patch together a more complete version of what was going on.

In my opinion, we needed the extra minutes, hours, days, years surrounding the racist chant from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma.  More importantly, we need to change our privacy laws in order to prevent these instances from triggering society’s borg mentality.

The fallout was inevitable, even preordained: the news shows clamoring for ratings, the talking heads using the occasion to burnish their progressive credentials with caustic condemnations, the coached apologies, and the inevitable punishments.

The punishments were swift.  The house has been shut down – and so the people who worked in that house have lost this source of income.  The fraternity has been suspended – punishing all of the present members of that fraternity, and others who may wish to have joined in the future.  Two members of the fraternity – the ringleaders – have been expelled from the university.  These two students are being treated like convicted criminals, with CNN putting profiles of the students online (very irresponsible I think).  They are young, and will likely recover, but this experience will always be a part of their lives.  What if it was their and their parent’s dream that they attend this specific university?  What about the friendships they had developed?  What about their educations?

The young men in that fraternity were doing something odious, to be sure.  But to me, it was a bunch of young men having fun on a bus.  The chant was not directed at anyone.  No one was physically or emotionally hurt. Until the sentiments expressed in these chants translate into actual racial bias or discrimination, or until those chants are directed at an actual person, in my opinion the incident should be passed off as frat boys acting stupidly.

But my concern is bigger than this.  Taking videos of people in spaces surreptitiously, where those recorded do not know or expect their actions to be recorded should be against the law.  It follows that placing such material on social media should also be a punishable offense.  The punishments here should not be levied against the fraternity, or the two ring leaders, but the person who took the video and placed it online.

We need to recalibrate our views on privacy in the Digital Age.  Currently, there is no expectation of privacy in public spaces.  This understanding is anachronistic – developed during a time when every action could not be recorded and transmitted everywhere.  This anachronistic understanding led to a judge in Oregon arguing that “upskirting”, or taking pictures of up a woman’s skirt, in Target, was not illegal.   I think women expect privacy there – even if they are in a store with a bullseye as a logo.  But our understanding of privacy was built in an era before smartphones and digital cameras were ubiquitous.

As a society, we are poisoned by this decontextualized data pulled from private moments and plastered onto public platforms like YouTube or Instagram.  There are few winners here.  The public, already strained by so many media choices, have one more fatuous distraction grasping for their attention (income inequality grows…oh wait, here is [place person here] caught on video calling someone a fag!).  The victims of these digital drive-bys have their lives ruined.  And most insidiously, the very important task of combating racial discrimination and racial inequality is reduced to rooting out individuals who make racist remarks off the cuff or in places they thought were private.

I have a prediction.  A sad one.

Incidents like these will continue, and our society will suffer for it, until a martyr comes along.  Someone who is well-known enough, or photogenic enough must fall victim.  The progression is all laid out.  A decontextualized piece of their private life is put into the public domain.  She then tries to defend herself, explain, and apologize.  But the public outcry becomes too great, and harsh sanctions are levied.  She may end her life over the scandal.  Or, someone feeding off the media frenzy may decide to take her life.  At which time public sentiment will change, and people will begin to have sympathy.  In the public conversation that follows, we will come to see the little snippet of deviance splattered on Instagram as not representative of the person as a whole.  This new conversation will recontextualize the snippet, and she will be seen as a complex individual just like me and you – a little naughty sometimes, but generally good, productive, God-fearing, and law abiding.  I can even see some congressman sponsoring a public-privacy law named after her.

Only then, after some unfortunate person pays the ultimate sacrifice, will society work to change privacy laws.

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.

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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