Posts Tagged ‘race’

This year has seen disturbing flare-ups around issues of race, immigration, and white nativism generally.


Source: Chet Strange/Getty Images News

They ranged from clumsy White House tweets about Jewish “disloyalty” to angry controversies around two Muslim congresswomen, more episodes of police shootings of blacks, all the way to mass murders such as the slaughter of Latinos in an El Paso Walmart (and last year of synagogue-goers in Pittsburgh).

Correspondingly, Americans’ anxieties about race have spiked in recent years. In 2016, 38 percent of respondents told the Pew survey that they thought race relations have worsened; in 2019, 53 percent did.[1] Respondents to the Gallup Poll felt the same surge of concern. The following graph shows the percentage who said that they worried a “great deal” about race relations.[2]


Does the rising tide of worry mean that the nation is descending into a maelstrom of racial conflict? More likely, we are seeing the kind of fearful and angry reaction that major social change often brings.


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[Note to readers: I started this blog not for political comments but for reporting social science, especially American social history. But I will scratch the itch… and then return to “regular programming.”]

Premise: Removing Trump is America’s number one priority, because his re-election would make us fall further behind in addressing priorities number two through n–slowing climate change, tamping down war, moderating inequality, repairing the infrastructure, learning to live with growing diversity, and more.

Strategies: They largely boil down to hard-nosed pragmatics: We on the left should not shoot ourselves in the foot.


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In the off-season–and any season without baseball is “off,” as in slightly rancid–the big news in the sports world was political, the fierce controversy over NFL players “taking a knee” during the national anthem to protest… well, a variety of things, from police shootings to the rhetoric of the president. A good deal of this sports politics had to do with race–as a good deal of all American politics has to do with race. That helps explain where baseball stands in this controversy.


Hart, McCovey, Mays 1967

With rare exception, baseball players remained standing during the anthem and stood apart from the protests. While the 2017 World Series winners, the Astros (minus Puerto Rican player Carlos Beltran), made the ritual trip of champions to Trump’s White House on March 12, 2018, the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors spurned the ceremony and several members of the Superbowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles said they would boycott a similar event. This contrast emerges from the historical connection between race and baseball.


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A Street Divided

The sharpest contrast in American communities is that between black and white neighborhoods. There is no greater spatial distinction in our cities. Everyone is aware of it. Would-be homebuyers shop accordingly; parents pick schools accordingly; employers hire accordingly; drivers plan routes accordingly–that is, when homebuyers, parents, employers, and drivers have some choice in the matter.

This great segregation of black and white, scholars had thought, was produced in the twentieth century. New research reveals a more complex story, as described in my latest column for the Boston Reviewhere.

Updates (11/14/16; 1/8/18):

A 2016 article by John Logan and Benjamin Bellman:

“Although some scholars treat racial residential segregation in northern cities as a twentieth-century phenomenon, recent research on New York and Chicago has shown that black-white segregation was already high and rising by 1880. We draw on data from the Philadelphia Social History Project and other new sources to study trends in this city as far back as 1850 and extending to 1900, a time when DuBois had completed his epic study of The Philadelphia Negro. Segregation of “free negroes” in Philadelphia was high even before the Civil War but did not increase as the total and black populations grew through 1900. Geocoded information from the full-count data from the 1880 Census makes it possible to map the spatial configuration of black residents in fine detail. At the scale of the street segment, segregation in that year was extraordinarily high, reflecting a micropattern in which many blacks lived in alleys and short streets. Although there was considerable class variation in the black community, higher-status black households lived in areas that were little different in racial and class composition than lower-status households.”

A 2017 article by John Logan, and this time with , expands the analysis of segregation that uses new, more precise ways of analyzing location, and which shows the ways that 19th century southern cities were segregated, alley by alley:

“In southern cities the authors find qualitatively distinct configurations that include not only black ‘neighborhoods’ as usually imagined but also backyard housing, alley housing, and side streets that were predominantly black. These configurations represent the sort of symbolic boundaries recognized by urban ethnographers. By mapping residential configurations and interpreting them in light of historical accounts, the authors intend to capture meanings that are too often missed by quantitative studies of segregation [using cruder measures].”


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Why Diversity

“Diversity” became the announced goal of schools and employers and liberal activists once American voters and courts turned against “affirmative action” for black Americans (never mind the idea of reparations). Earlier, in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Johnson and Nixon administrations had pushed racial “goals” (not quotas, they stressed) in a not-so-transparent effort to redress some of the economic disadvantages accrued from centuries of slavery and Jim Crow. However, with votes such as the 1996 passage in California of a constitutional amendment outlawing state institutions from considering race in employment, contracts, or education, and with Supreme Court cases reaching almost as far, liberals retreated from affirmative action to promoting “diversity.” Ethnic diversity, they argue, is good for everyone, not just minorities; it makes learning, working, neighboring, and deliberating better (e.g., here). Thus was born a defense for legally considering race just a bit, as well as a set of careers in diversity promotion, management, training, and law.

Opinion leaders from school teachers to corporate CEOs now promote, with some support from research, the virtues of diversity. Yet, out of view from most public discussion of the topic, a line of scholarly research emerged that implies the opposite. It suggests that the more diverse neighborhoods, cities, or countries are, the less people cooperate to common ends and the more they socially disengage; they “hunker down,” in one colorful rendition. A new paper by Maria Abascal and Delia Baldassarri in the latest issue of the American Journal of Sociology revisits this academic line of research and forces us to think back to why diversity was important in the first place.


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Black by Choice?

A couple of weeks back, we witnessed two quite different but intriguing cases of people laying claim to an African-American identity without having the lineage that we generally assume provides that identity– biological descent from African slaves in the United States. These two people were, in effect, asserting that they could choose to be African-American.

One was the media-circus case of Rachel Dolezal, who had become a leader in Spokane’s African-American community despite, it was eventually revealed, no apparent African-American ancestors. She, in effect, chose to be black.

The other was the somber and uplifting address by President Obama on the occasion of the murders in Charleston. He delivered a sermon in the style and cadences of the African-American church, from the start–“Giving all praise and honor to God”– to the end–breaking out in “Amazing Grace”– and in the middle–explaining the obligations of receiving undeserved grace. This from a man with no ancestral claims on African-American culture, a man with a white mother and a Kenyan father who was raised by white grandparents. Along the way Barack Obama nonetheless chose to be African-American and act as if he, too, came from a family that endured slavery, sharecropped cotton, and sang gospel.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Choosing who one wants to be is a powerful American cultural theme. It would be amazing if we are glimpsing–though still far from entering–an era when even American blackness is a choice.


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Untangling the Race Gap

Many efforts have been made to explain the persisting black-white gap in economic attainment. It is particularly puzzling because there was considerable progress in closing that gap in the decades after World War II. And then the closing slowed down. The mid-1990s seemed to bring more progress for black employment and wages, but the 21st century – especially the Great Recession – has seen retrograde movement. Moreover, as sociologists Becky Petit and Bruce Western have shown, the standard economic indicators we use, such average income, underestimate the width of the racial gap because they typically ignore the disproportionately high percentage of black men in prison or effectively out of the labor force.[1]

When the General Social Survey asks respondents to choose an explanation for this persisting gap, about half – white, black, and Hispanic – choose blacks’ lower “chances for education” and lower “motivation or willpower” as factors (although about half of blacks and Hispanics also choose the discrimination explanation).[2] Social scientists have explored more complex anayses. The accounts can be sorted into ones that stress the lasting effects of slavery and Jim Crow – often emphasized in this blog; ones that stress current circumstances like remaining discrimination or the suburbanization of jobs; and ones that stress combinations of the two, such as how lacking family wealth makes it harder for youths to go to college just when college-going has become more important.

In a new paper [gated], University of Michigan sociologist Deirde Bloome presents a sophisticated analysis that points to contemporary conditions that have stymied the closing of the black-white gap in family income; it points more to the family part than the income part of family income.


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