stepping carefully

Yesterday I had an email exchange with a local conservative politician & blogger. I realized I was concerned to be careful not to say anything that could be pulled out of context. He originally asked (in less than polite language) a not-unreasonable question about whether statements about incarceration rates considered arrest rates, so I sent him the appropriate tables with an offer to explain the data. He responded without even looking at the data with an ill-worded and hostile question asking me to say whether this is all a matter of Black criminality or all a matter of “scapegoating whites.” I responded by complaining about his false dichotomy and inflammatory language and explaining (at length) about the complexity of the issue and the nature of the relevant data. I stressed that assessing the balance of “differential crime” and “unfair treatment” is difficult and that people working on the issue offer proposals both to address the sources of crime and to address the treatment in the system. I got back another less-insulting but still oversimplified dichotomized question about whether it is just a matter of people being punished unfairly or not, so I responded by saying that I believed my previous reply had already addressed that question. I was afraid that any attempt to answer his over-simplified question would just make its way into an ill-informed blog post. Sigh. This whole society has degenerated into slogan-slinging. We’ve reached the point where trying to address issues in a reasoned and nonconfrontational way is, itself, attacked. Ugh.

What makes this so hard is that racism is, of course, one of the central problems. Racism impacts the conditions that foster crime as well as the treatment of people by the criminal justice system. And “crime” is a heterogeneous category. I read the evidence as saying that the racial differences in arrests for serious crimes probably roughly track racial differences in doing the crimes, while there is a huge racial gap in your chances of getting arrested for a drug offense or a lesser crime (like disorderly conduct, vandalism, theft). It is very hard to keep a moral focus about the importance of the issue and the problem of race while also pushing past over-simplified dichotomies about what is going on.

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 --Pam Oliver

4 thoughts on “stepping carefully”

  1. “… but it sounds glib and facile to me, as if you imagine that all standing up to racism entails is talking back to racist jokes at college parties or something. I don’t know anybody who is out in the trenches who thinks this stuff is easy…”

    Olderwoman, I want to thank you for the comments you make on SWPD. You are so right, none of this is easy, no matter how often the POC write, in utter frustration, “This isn’t so %$%$%^$^% difficult!”

    Yes it is difficult. Or there would be a lot MORE discussion about the topic of the original posts and a lot LESS discussion about how to comment, when to comment, who should comment, what the comment should include, etc.

    I’ve read thousands of comments there but have posted maybe three or so. I really appreciate your voice there. You usually add something original to the discussion but rarely seem to enrage or annoy anyone … or maybe you do, but the regulars give you the courtesy / respect of not name-calling or questioning — no, not questioning, condemning your motives.

    I recently met a white woman who is very actively involved in social justice work with POC. It was such a relief to have something to talk to about “all of this.” Wish I could find that online.

  2. Olderwoman

    I didn’t see a place where I could email you directly so I’m commenting here. I am in the process of putting together a blogspace where I interview various individuals who do anti-oppression work in their daily lives, online and off. I would love to speak with you more about this and where I’m coming from, and if you’re comfortable, perhaps interview you about your anti-racist work as a teacher. I can be reached via email or google chat at I hope to hear back from you but respect your wishes if you’d rather not take part in my project.

    I’ve appreciated your thoughtful commentary at SWPD. It’s important for me to acknowledge my allies wherever I find them. Thank you for speaking out.

  3. Older woman,

    Thanks for that link. I’ve read through several of your older posts and I had seen that one.

    Sorry if this was an inappropriate use of your comment space. My primary point was to tell you I appreciated your posts. Secondary was why.

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