public sociology

Hello everyone. I’m new at this. My first thoughts are about how “out” to be. Now that I do a lot of public sociology, I have a public personna to consider. How much can I say to the web about the interesting things I’ve observed without delegitmating myself and my work? Much of what I spend a lot of time thinking about is race relations in the US, due to my teaching and public work, and I hope to write about this as I think I have had thoughts and experiences different from a lot of White people’s. But I worry about saying something in public that will seem condescending or insulting to the people I am writing about. I have to think about just how public this forum us. I was up most of the night preparing much-overdue reports for the commission I’m on. Somehow a couple of dozen of us have to agree on a report, and we have not had much time to work on it. Many of us said, “why don’t we just send email drafts around?” Turns out some people are very worried about drafts circulating. Partly we are subject to open records laws. Partly there are concerns that anything that is emailed can get forwarded to who knows who and that people would start criticizing the report before we even get it written. There are people who have already written editorials against what they expect us to say. So getting the work done is that much harder. This relates to a second point. While the political culture in my home town (which for now I’ll call Universityville) specializes in conflict avoidance and being racially sensitive politically correct liberals (albeit racially sensitive politically correct liberals who are uncomfortable talking about race), the political culture in nearby Segregationtown is divisive and combative, especially along racial lines. In Universityville (and on the commission), everybody agrees racial disparity is a big tragic problem that everyone should work together to solve, and we are all on board with the idea that we probably have unconscious biases that affect our decisions. In Segregationtown, some White people argue in public that racial disparities are not a problem, that people are just getting what they deserve, and Black people are much more likely to use the R-word in public as a description of other people. The commission had a debate about the “tone” our report should take. Some of us argued that we should try to get buy-in and reduce the sense of threat among White officials by emphasizing that bias, when it occurs, is often unconscious, and that there are system factors that can produce racially disparate effects without individual bias. Others, especially Black politicians, argued that if our tone was too mild and did not charge bias, their constituents would feel that the whole process had been a whitewash. I should say, by the way, that in many ways I enjoy the rowdiness of Segregationtown’s politics as a refreshing change from the earnestness of Universityville. Philosophically, I’m 100% in the Universityville camp. I actually believe we all have to work together on these things. But my bluntness constantly gets me in trouble and it is kind of relaxing to be in an environment in which there are a lot of other blunt people around.

Amusing moment. After testimony from a public official (guess his race?) who assured us that he is absolutely color blind and never discriminates against anyone on the basis of any demographic factor, who also told us that collecting data on how his agency functions by race is dangerous because “it could be used in the wrong way,” a commissioner asked him if in the 30 years of his career in public service he had ever worked with anyone whom he suspected from their actions or language might possibly have some hidden racial bias. He said “no.”

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

7 thoughts on “public sociology”

  1. 30 years! What an amazing streak! I would think that a statement like that would be cause to ponder what proportion was disingenuousness and what proportion was obliviousness. Or does it just seem entirely like disingenuousness?

    Just my vote, but if you are going to be pseudonymous, you might consider coming up with a more flamboyant pseudonym than “olderwoman.” C’mon! It’s a secret identity–why not be splashy?

  2. I also have problems (about which I can’t be specific) where different parties to the same project don’t/can’t trust each other. It is amazing the degree to which this distrust corrupts the process and undermines our progress, which would benefit all parties. I think it is an issue that needs dealing with, but I don’t know how to even begin (short of one of those wilderness excursions, that is).

  3. I think “olderwoman” is great and would be jealous that it is already taken if I were an older woman.

    We are occassionally asked to discuss race in my office. It is usually a pointless conversation because no one really says anything other than “we need to reach out to all populations.” The result is usually that we “have diversity” in the images we use for public relations and advertisement. No one has ever considered changing the things we do or the programs we offer in order to attract a wider audience. I am routinely in trouble at work for trying to rock the boat. During a performance review, I was actually told to stop asking questions about our decisions because it makes other people uncomfortable.

  4. Back to why he’d say that, I think he felt threatened. He’d already been called on “used the wrong way.” He was probably afraid that if he said he had worked with someone who was racially biased, he’d be asked how he’d responded to the person. Over and over, we find that White officials assume that racial disparities can only arise from personal prejudice and if they are not personally prejudiced, there cannot possibly be a problem. I.e. the idea of institutional racism is simply not out there in the White community.

  5. The other day on NPR there was a great discussion about this on Talk of the Nation. Tom Shapiro and Clarence Page were two of the guests, discussing reasons for the black-white income gap. A caller, I think her name was Meredith, called in to talk about “blame” and how even though she and her family were poor, they didn’t “blame” anyone for their problems like these Black people were. Both guests were quick to point out that there had been no blame placed on anyone, and the word never came up in the show until that point, but that that’s the way such issues are commonly interpreted by “majority” groups. They then went on to more formally explain institutional racism and discrimination. While we’ve already covered that in my inequality class, it would be a great introduction for an outsider.

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