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Posts Tagged ‘race’

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.

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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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Snap Decisions and Race

One issue sparking off from the fiery debate around the police shootings of black men is the extent to which Americans simply react negatively to seeing black – whether it is a police officer making a life-and-death split-second decision about the threat a black man poses, a store clerk tracking a black customer in a store more intently than she would a white one, or an online shopper preferring to buy a device shown in a white hand rather than a black hand.

(source)

(source)

Explicit racial discrimination, often subconscious, is rarer than it was once was. And such discrimination does not explain most of the black-white gaps in life circumstances such as lifespan and wealth; those largely grow from historically deeper and convoluted roots, further fed by institutional inequalities. Still, the effects of plain old racial aversion are real – accounting, according to one recent analysis, for perhaps a third of the difference between black and white wages (pdf). And such racism certainly takes an emotional toll.

Two recent publications present yet more systematic evidence that plain old racial aversion persists and matters  — despite the belief among many whites, perhaps most, that reverse discrimination is just as big a problem. (An earlier related post is here.)

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At this writing, the future of the national movement in response to police shootings of unarmed black men is unclear. It could fizzle much like the Occupy movement did (see earlier posts here and here), or it could be more lasting.

Protests here in Berkeley and the greater Bay Area have gotten a lot of attention, not because shootings are common– although Oscar Grant was killed about six years ago – but because a strong cadre of largely non-black anarchists (ironically, one set is called the Black Bloc) repeatedly hijack all sorts of protests and climax them by smashing stores, lighting fires, and blocking highways. Needless to say, terrifying store clerks and keeping people from getting to work on time are not likely to engender sympathy for a cause. Indeed, any left movement that alienates Berkeley citizens is not going to find many allies.

Recently, black community efforts have changed the dynamic some. In Berkeley, for example, a black church and its allies held a brief, peaceful “die-in” on a major street. They succeeded by alerting the police but keeping the planning secret from the anarchists. We are also seeing a few, modest concessions by police departments here and there. Still, the tactical struggle over who represents this protest and who will lead it continues. More broadly, its strategic goals and strategies remain to be defined.

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Reporting from America’s “Slums”

Alice Goffman’s recent book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, her firsthand account of young black men in a poor neighborhood of Philadelphia, has garnered rave reviews in high places and by high authorities, from Cornel West to Malcolm Gladwell. Goffman portrays urban fugitives effectively excluded from the job market, who hustle and deal drugs for money, move from apartment to apartment and relationship to relationship, do their best to evade jail, and are picked up by the police even when they try to live clean. Goffman’s depth of research, the vividness of her writing, and the drama and brutal tragedy of the stories she tells—“enough street-level detail to fill a season of The Wire,” the New York Times reviewer writes—have compelled widespread attention.

But alongside the praise has also come significant criticism……  (Read the rest of this column at the Boston Review here.)

Update 2/12/16: This column is referred to in a symposium, “On Urban Ethnography,” in City & Community, December 2015. The contributors address several of the research and ethical issues.

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