In a just-released preview of his new book, Narrative and Collective Action, Public Policy scholar Frederick W. Mayer of Duke discusses the power of the well-told story for leaders of social movements and politicians. Starting with the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mayer recounts how effective leaders deploy stories rather than analyses. Stories compel us, he says, for almost biological reasons; they can draw people to collective action – if they are the right stories, ones that resonate with the listeners’ biases. Perhaps by imaginatively making us actors in the unfolding excitement, stories move us to action.

For many social scientists, stories, particularly personal stories, are “mere” anecdotes. They drive us nuts by driving out data. Commonly, undergraduates will respond to a well-established finding in the social sciences – say, that rich people are happier than poor, that racial discrimination persists, that children face better odds if they live with two parents – by raising a hand and saying, “But I have an aunt who…” or “I know this guy who….” More importantly, the public persuasiveness of a personal story well told trumps tables of data anytime. Ronald Reagan taught me that.

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Back – it seems long ago but really fewer than six years – when Barack Obama was elected president, much of the nation hoped that we were in for a new, “post-racial” age. Defeated GOP candidate John McCain himself spoke in those terms in his concession speech: “ This is an historic election . . . we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation . . . . America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of [an earlier] time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States.” Some whites feared that Obama would try to benefit his race, but (to the chagrin of many in the black community) he steered in almost the opposite direction, a post-racial one.

Yet the new color-blind age was not to be. For one, the financial disaster Obama inherited disproportionately damaged African Americans, widening economic gaps that had been narrowing. For another, the politics of racial resentment was too tempting a tool not to be used. Ironically, Obama’s elections themselves were only tilted a bit by racial attitudes; those who voted by race, pro or con, were already voting Democrat and Republican accordingly (see here).

But we remain far from the post-racial dream. This post is another look-see at the status of race relations, presenting a few recent studies that show how, though the progress Senator McCain noted has certainly been made, race still matters — a lot. And then I return to the politics.

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For several years some psychologists have been arguing that Americans (especially American youth) of the modern era are more self-absorbed and self-interested than were Americans of an earlier era. (“Earlier” can mean pre-21st century, or pre-1960s, or pre-20th century, or whenever.) Much of the evidence they offer – heavily debated – come from compilations of personality surveys taken by college students. More recently, some researchers have offered evidence based on counting word types. The latest instance is an April paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (h/t Robb Willer) that codes and tabulates words in presidential State of the Union addresses to make the same point. This paper is, frankly, a trifle. But it does provide an occasion for commenting on the general thesis and for extracting the serious and in some ways valid thread in this line of work.

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Virtuous Debt

Pawnshop, 1940

Pawnshop, 1940

In the many postmortems of the Great Recession, a common diagnosis pointed to the consumerist, spendthrift, live-for-today borrowers that Americans had presumably become — and to the highly-indebted government those Americans had voted into office. The crisis revealed, some observers argued, Americans’ fall from an earlier, sober, accounts-balancing virtue. These critics, I argue in my latest Boston Review column, incorrectly explain the crisis, underestimate the importance of debt, and misremember American history. See here.

Twenty-five years ago, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the phrase “stalled revolution” to describe how far American women had come since the 1950s. What she meant (in my reading) is that, although gender relations in America, from workplace to bedroom, had changed radically, the pace of change had slowed tremendously. The quicksand that bogged the gender revolution down was in the home, argued Hochschild, where the culture of traditional gender roles had women handling a “second shift” of home and parental duties in addition to the jobs they now held.

I was reminded of this influential work by a newly published paper in the American Sociological Review. Youngjoo Cha and Kim A. Weeden ask why, after decades of immersion into the workforce, employed women still make substantially less than men. The pay gap remains even though women now get more education than men and have long been covered by anti-discrimination laws. Many explanations have been offered, from subtler forms of discrimination to women’s shyness. Cha and Weeden present evidence that some of this “stalling” has resulted from changes in the workplace that are pressing all of us to work longer hours.

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Middle-class Americans have alternatively immersed themselves in and withdrawn from public urban spaces. In the early nineteenth century, the streets and squares of American center cities were commonly crowded, filthy, and dangerous – certainly no place for a “respectable” woman. By the end of that century, those same spaces had become even more crowded, but were now elegant and enticing – just where “respectable” women went to lunch and window-shop.

By the 1970s, however, middle-class Americans were again avoiding those streets and plazas. Television and the growth of suburbia had drawn many people into their homes. The center cities’ growing poverty and crime drove people away, leaving great American downtowns with abandoned stores and empty plazas. (See these previous posts: here and here.) We would expect, given all the speculations about how today’s communications technologies enable Americans to curl up in their burrows, for the flight from public spaces to have continued. Why go out at all? And if you do, why linger in public spaces?

Keith Hampton, Lauren Sessions Goulet, and Garrett Albanesius just reported a study in which they literally compared pictures of Americans in public spaces in 2010 to similar pictures in 1980. They found the pessimistic descriptions of changes disconfirmed.

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We have just witnessed the opening of the 9/11 memorial and museum at site of the destroyed World Trade Towers, an event that once more raises attention to how we Americans form our “collective memories.” (On collective memory, see here, here, here and here.) In a recent suggestive essay in the Journal of Social History, Stacy Otto argues that New Yorkers have mourned the 2001 tragedy as New Yorkers had mourned the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911.

In the earlier disaster, with eerie similarities to 9/11, 146 garment workers, many of them women and children, died, often by jumping out of windows to escape the flames. Hundreds of people, unable to reach the victims trapped on the high floors, watched helplessly.

Public mourning of the two events nearly a century apart, Otto argues, was in sharp contrast to the “modern” styles of grieving – or avoiding grieving – that had evolved in the years in between the two tragedies.

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