Black Adversity

Via The Field Negro I have found this  complement to Peggy McIntosh’s oft-used “White Privilege” list. Will Capers’ Blaque Ink has published a list called “Black Adversity: The Opposite of White Privilege”.  He opens by saying:

I want to go on record that the list of adversities are not excuses, nor should it be held as reasons for not trying to understand. They do not describe black life in its entirety, and a few, if not some, are not restricted to just blacks. However, the list shows the harsh realities that blacks face no matter the socioeconomic, political, or religious/spiritual sense or status. Some of these vary depending on the individual, but overall, here’s a list of adversities blacks have to struggle with and overcome. Also within the list are things whites must be aware of and overcome which is associated with fear.

Here’s part of the list:

1. If I’m in a group of others who look like me, that is a cause for some kind of suspicion.

2. In order to not cause suspicion, I must be in the company of (mostly) whites.

3. If I move, I can be sure I will likely end up in poor neighborhood whether I want to or not.

4. If I move into a white neighborhood, it will be enough to arouse suspicion with my neighbors.

5. When I go shopping, I can be sure I will arouse suspicion and be followed around.

6. I will be sure that when I turn on the TV, I will most likely see others who look like me as ball players, criminals, clowns or overall failures of society.

7. When I turn to the local news on tv or in a newspaper, I can be sure most of the crime reported will have faces of suspects who look like me.

8. I know that my history is celebrated during the shortest month of the year and will likely not be celebrated any other time.

9. I know that most of the history taught is of history of mainly white people.

10. I can be sure that most of the stories I have to read for class are stories written by whites featuring white characters.

11. I can be sure that in order to pass in school I have to learn history and literature of whites by whites.

16. When I use cash, checks, or credit cards, my skin is enough for suspicion.

22. The way I look contributes to the way I should talk in order to be considered black.

23. I know that making good grades and good manners are signs that I’m “acting white.”

35. I can be sure that I will be pulled over by police because of my race.36. I can be sure that I will either be harassed, abused or even killed by police because of my race.

37. In court, I will likely not get a fair trial.

38. I know that as a male, there’s a 1 in 3 chance that I will end up in prison, and losing my right to vote.

41. I know a new television series will have main characters that will not look like me.42. I know that negative stereotypes about my people will continue despite a high number of those who do not fit those stereotypes. In other words I will be judged by the actions of a few.

43. I know that my experiences with racism mean little or nothing.

44. I know that I will be a scapegoat for almost anything and everything wrong with this society.

45. I know that there will be movies featuring white people saving my people.

46. I know that my history prior to slavery is hardly discussed or brought up in classrooms. We were taught that we came from slaves and nothing else.

58. I am encouraged to be the best black anything in society and not simply the best.

59. I am assumed that any position I’m in is because of affirmative action and not on my own merits.

60. I have to live with the fact that I am not considered a “regular” person, that I am considered a black person

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.

goodbye house

In 1953, my family moved into the house in Torrance. I was 4. After my parents divorced in the 1970s, my mother continued to live there. Last February she had to move into assisted living after two very stressful years (for both her and my sister) living alone after becoming disabled. My sister, with some help from my brother, spent the spring inventorying and boxing possessions. I’ve been out here for the past 10 days helping with the final sort. My mother worked in pottery and ceramics, and there were a couple hundred pieces in the house. We “kids” took a lot of the stuff, the rest is going into an estate sale. This was my last night in the house. Today  I’m flying  home and the estate sale person takes over, to be followed by the real estate agent.  I have not lived in the house since 1970, but this still feels like “home” even though there has been no comfortable place for me on visits for a long time as my mother spread out and occupied all the rooms of this five-bedroom house.  But it was  a touchstone, a point of reference. In the future when I visit, I’ll have to stay with my father or brother or sister — the old place won’t be there. It’s a strange feeling.

Mom is doing better with the move, by the way. She made the decision to move after a health crisis last December and has made up her mind to look forward, not back. For the first few months she was pretty depressed and demoralized in the new place due to a variety of adjustment problems, but since finally getting her mobility scooter as well as a better doctor who actually talked to her and adjusted her medications (!) and told her to get a case manager to deal with bureaucracies, her depression has lifted. She says food tastes better, she’s gaining weight and making friends. Once again she is chatting up a blue storm to anybody who will listen about all her years of international travels and genealogy researches. As we cleared the house, we moved a shelf full of her smaller pottery plus her plates and prints that can be hung on her walls so her artistic side can be visible in her new space. It wasn’t until her depression lifted that it even occurred to her that she could make her environment less bleak.

On the sociology side, the person doing the estate sale runs a turnkey business: she helps seniors find assisted living facilities, moves them into them, then cleans the house and goes through all the stuff to clean it up and display it for the estate sale, then connects with charities that will pick up what did not sell and empty out the house. You can see that this business is in a growth industry. The real estate agents were very interested — they have other clients who need this service.

Revisionist history

The scary thing about this post from We Are Respectable Negroes describing history as the Texas and Arizona legislatures want it taught is how closely it approximates history as it is actually taught in a lot [a majority?] of our public schools. It’s funny, but it’s not.

Edit: I realized a short quotation to give you the flavor would be useful.

1607– Jamestown founded. Capitalism, which can trace its roots to the Bible, is now firmly rooted in the New World.

1660-1800–Triangular Atlantic trade continues to bring wealth and prosperity to America while giving opportunities to new immigrants.

1776–War for Independence against the tyrannical, evil British empire. Colonists suffer oppression that is unprecedented in human history. Minutemen singlehandedly defeat the evil British Empire in 1783.

1788–The United States Constitution is signed as a document to stand for all time, inspired by God, and never to be changed.

1803-1848–America continues to expand westward into empty territories. American settlers make the land bloom with the help of friendly Indian tribes.

H/T Stuff White People Do

Speaking Truth

We went to a celebration last night of the 81st birthday and retirement-of-sorts of a nun who is a professor of sociology and criminal justice and a social justice activist, who has spent her life working for justice with a special concern for incarcerated women.  He couldn’t stay for dinner, but the Governor (who knew her from back in the day when he was district attorney and teaching part time at her school) dropped by to make a speech about her and give her a an official state plaque full of whereas clauses about her accomplishments. When it was her turn, she said: “So what are you going to do about getting rid of truth in sentencing?”

Ah, those nuns.

Article Equivalents

I went to a reception yesterday for outstanding women of color at the university. This was a lovely event except that we all had to stand for an hour of awards presentations and keynote. The award winners had all done jaw-dropping amounts of service. The keynoter was a Native American professor whose first career was in journalism. She used the occasion to criticize the academy for failing to give adequate credit for service. She said that diversity is not just a matter of getting darker skins in the place, it is a matter of getting people from different communities who have different priorities. She was arguing that diversifying the institution must include giving greater weight to service in the tenure process, making the “three legs” of the academic stool (teaching, research, service) more evenly balanced. For her and for most women of color, she said, what you do is not just about yourself but about what you contribute to your community. I was reminded of other things I’ve been reading/hearing that confirm the difference between the individualism of White professionals and the family and community focus of other groups. Few communities of color need another article in a peer reviewed journal, she said. Then she said something like: “Each board or committee or community project or group of students mentored is another article or book chapter you don’t have time to write.” There really is a finite amount of time and if you are doing a lot of service you have less time to do research and write. You cannot really diversify the institution unless you change the reward structure to acknowledge the importance of service.

(This in turn reminded me of a brief conversation I had years ago with a couple of very prominent woman sociologists. People had exchanged information on the order of “I’m dealing with children now, you know how that is,” and grunts of acknowledgment. Then one woman said, “I was talking about this to X [prominent male sociologist] and he said that each child he had cost him an article.” Eye rolling, exasperated sighs. One article, right. We wish. “Five or six articles at least,” muttered one woman.)

To clarify: I don’t think institutions can or should reward time spent in child-rearing, although they should accommodate it. But institutions can and probably should better reward time spent in community service. How to do this is a hard issue.


Screen Shots from What Would You Do?

After presenting lots of statistics about racial disparities in criminal justice, I showed my class the videos from ABC News What Would You Do? in which first White and than Black youths vandalize a car in a public parking lot. There is only one 911 call on the White boys, but ten on the Black boys. Plus, while the White boys are vandalizing, someone calls 911 to report people who are suspected of planning a robbery — Black kids asleep in a nearby car! Well, most of the class, as expected, saw this the way I did, as evidence of a racial problem. I was trying to emphasize that not arresting Whites when they commit crimes is just as important in racial disparities as arresting Blacks. Some students pointed out (correctly) that it was a demonstration, not a controlled experiment and wondered (fairly) whether the producers selected cases for their strong differences. But a few very vocally insisted that the difference was not about race at all, but that the Black kids were wearing “gang clothing.” They got somewhat offended when I said, “yeah, Black styles” and then cut off that line of argument, saying “OK we disagree on that, but I don’t want to spend the rest of the class arguing about clothing.”

Today I went back to the video and took screen shots of the kids. They are all wearing hooded sweatshirts and jeans, as I said. (One student had insisted that the White kids wore tucked in shirts! Not so.)  There are subtle differences in how they wear the clothes, though. The Black kids’ clothes are bigger on them (and the kids themselves appear to me to be smaller). The White kids’ shirts have words on them which I assume are school names (the resolution isn’t good enough for me to read them) while one Black kid has some sort of design on it that you could construe as edgy — it is definitely not preppy. One Black kid is wearing a cap which (as can be seen elsewhere in the video) is a gold weave thing that I cannot imagine a White kid wearing, but he’s wearing it in the same way as lots of White kids wear baseball caps. In my view the only difference between the clothing was subtle differences in style sensibilities between Blacks and Whites, and that calling the Black kids’ clothing “gang attire” is ridiculous. These few students think that if the Black kids had been in “non-gang” (i.e. “White”) clothing, the result would have been different. (They did not even suggest dressing the White kids in “gang” styles.) I think they are just exhibiting extreme resistance to the obvious. (The same students criticized me for failing to show examples of Black crime.) Opinions?

Edit: I decided to add shots of the kid with the most distinctively Black hat. In these shots you can see that he’s also wearing a do-rag.  Just to be fair. I can find no evidence that this is “gang attire.” But it is certainly distinctively Black. Do you think it’s the do-rag and not the skin color that matters here?


I’m impressed by the strategy of a blog called White Readers Meet Black Authors by Carleen Brice. The idea of the blog is given by its title, to encourage White readers to explore books (mostly fiction) written by Black writers, with an emphasis on what are sometimes called “mid list” writers, not the folks on the bestseller lists.  The problem the blog addresses is the segregation of books into sections of what are now called  “brick and mortar” book stores, an issue I hadn’t really thought much about until recently.* Any given book can be in only one section. It’s either romance or sci fi, but not both. People trying to sell books to publishers have to tell them what bookstore section to put them in: this is a major structural part of how the business works.

African American readers like to be able to find books by African Americans that feature African American characters. So having a special “African American” section helps to sell books to African Americans. But at the same time, having one’s book in the “African American” section hurts sales to Whites. So the site is trying for outreach, profiling books and authors who write in a variety of genres, including science fiction, adventure, mystery, fantasy, “chick lit,” romance. I’ve gotten brave myself and tried a few new authors, including Brice’s own Orange Mint and Honey, which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Sociologically, the only way to integrate is to cross boundaries. The usual assumption is that the role of Whites is to welcome minorities into “our” spaces. There’s lots of research that shows that most White people are uncomfortable moving into a space dominated by other groups. I’m just impressed by a strategy of friendly outreach trying to overcome that discomfort, and feel like it is an effort I want to support.

*On-line bookstores don’t have this constraint, and the significance of that is another issue.

Screwing up

I’m not going to link to the post* because I’m still embarrassed at messing up so badly, but despite all my “practice” in mixed-race setting, I got myself in an emotional knot and made a posturing inappropriate comment in a blog thread in which Black women were talking in really deep and important ways about their experiences. Even though I really wanted to connect human to human with the tread, my comment was more focused on trying to present myself as experienced and liberal than on connecting with the experiences people were writing about. When called on it, I apologized, and I tried to behave myself thereafter, but I know the people over there think I’m a jerk, and I feel bad about it. So I’m just sitting with the bad feeling, because I think it is good for me. This is not the first time I’ve realized I’ve been a jerk, and I’m afraid it won’t the last. It’s too darn easy to be smug about racial issues when you spend a lot of time with White folks who are more clueless than you are, so as painful as this is, I’m accepting it as an important reminder that there is an objective reason why humility is the best stance.

I knew when I was writing my comment what the ground rules were, and I know that the reason I screwed up was that I got myself in an emotional tizzy that left me more worried about my own feelings than about the needs and feelings of other people. One thing that drives people of color crazy is having to deal with the emotional needs of White folks confronting their own internalized racism and discomfort in charged interactions. If you are White and paying attention to what is really happening and what people of color are saying about their experiences, it can feel just awful, and you feel like you need to be DOING SOMETHING to help, or to distance yourself from all that awfulness. These are legitimate feelings and we White folks need to deal with those feelings, but we need to do it with other White people, I think, because people of color have their hands full already dealing with being the targets of racism.

This ties in with the theme in church yesterday, Hearts Breaking Open. It was done in music and song and was a lot more poetic than I am, but the general point was that we have to let our hearts break, let ourselves be open to the suffering in the world. We cannot fix the world, but we can respond to the world by letting it into our hearts. One of the lines (someone was being quoted, but I don’t know who) was: philosophy is safer than love. When we are confronted with the suffering of others, it is too easy to shut the heart down. It is safer to intellectualize or to be cynical than to feel all that pain. Or to focus on our own pain and not other people’s needs, like not visiting a loved one with a terminal illness because we “just can’t bear to see him that way.” We were reminded that the world is both very beautiful and very broken, and we live amidst that beauty and that pain. When we open our hearts to both the beauty and the pain, we have the possibility of responding to others’ needs.

* OK, I realize this is more stupid impression management. Of course I should link to the really WONDERFUL post and discussion thread over at stuff white people do in which Black women talked in honest detail about their experiences, where the discussion really evolved and they explored commonalities and differences. One line of discussion, for example, involved their common experiences in programs for the gifted. Another was about not being treated as feminine. The main theme was the “Strong Black Woman” who can take anything, whose feelings don’t matter. It is painful, wrenching, but also very thoughtful and insightful and truly beautiful. My heart was broken open by reading what they wrote, even as it was also broken open by recognizing my own brokenness.

an old friend found too late

My spouse spotted the NYT obit for Dennis DeLeon, an old friend from high school we have not seen since our wedding reception in 1970. Our last communication from him was a note saying he’d get our wedding present to us later. It’s a common name so we wouldn’t know it was him without the picture (which looks just like we remember him) and corroborating biographical details. He was an important part of the speech/debate team, the small circle we spent most of our time with in high school in California, and was my spouse’s debate partner in their senior year. We wondered over the years what had happened to him. Now we know. He was a prominent human rights activist  in New York who announced that he had AIDS in a 1993 NYT op ed . His activism is not a shock, as he was already a student leader in high school and at Occidental College. Nor is his sexual orientation, although it wasn’t anything we were aware of at the time. We were a nerdy crowd and people were not dating much anyway. I sure wish we’d known where he was — it would have been great to see him.

when you are called racist

EDIT: Based on comments received, I now believe that this should be rewritten to make it clear that complaints about racism are often well-founded and that White people ought to listen more to people of color and think about what they say. I’ve been trying to work periodically on a reprise, but find I’m not ready to finish it yet. As I note in the comments, when I posted this I did not expect it to get external links and a lot of traffic. I’m leaving it up so readers can see the comments and reactions.

This is an edited version of what I wrote for my students after a class discussion about the responding when someone calls you racist. The discussion started when a student described an upsetting experience of a homeless man calling her racist because she would not accept a jar of pennies in payment (it was against company policy). I made points I’ve made before about Whites overreacting to the r-word, including the story about teachers overreacting. I cut off discussion prematurely because of concerns about not getting farther behind in lecture materials due to the expectation (which proved correct) that I might miss class the following week, so I sent them this memo, which I think may be of interest to some readers of this blog.

Some of you were upset* because I seemed to be saying that it was OK for minorities to use the word racist as name-calling and Whites should just ignore it, while others were upset with me for seeming to say that any use of the word racist is just name-calling. I actually did not mean either. What I should have been trying to draw out is the whole complexity of the situation and the different perspectives different groups bring to the table. I’ve written some material (below) to explain how I see this, by developing two contrasting points of view – the “minority” (especially Black) view, and the “majority” (White) view. These are both extremes and there are many people who don’t fit these extremes, but I hope it will help to explain the point. Continue reading “when you are called racist”

Extended Family

(This was mostly written last week but I didn’t have time to post it from the road. Today’s snow emergency gives me the time to finish it.)

We’ve been here all week due to the death of my father-in-law Thanksgiving night. The funeral was yesterday, a week after he passed. It was a great celebration of a life well lived by a man who spent time with his children and grandchildren and gave abundantly of himself to a wide variety of community projects. The funeral was followed by a noisy and warm family gathering. Now it is quiet. As I write this, my mother-in-law and brother-in-law are napping, my sister-in-law is watching TV, the other set of grandchildren have headed home or are out shopping. My daughter is napping in the motel. My husband, son, son-in-law and I are all sitting in the living room playing games on our laptops. I decided this was the time to write the blog I’ve been thinking about all week.

I’m not sorry I came here for the whole week. It is important to honor a family you have been part of for nearly forty years. At the same time, it was a hard thing to do. The air travel arrangements for five people were an expensive mess. We traveled on four different itineraries. Three of us had to change travel plans made after the “death is imminent” call. Commitments that seemed unbreakable in the uncertainty of “sometime soon” were sacrificed in the face of the certainty of death. It is a very bad time to be away from work, this close to the end of the semester. I made arrangements to reschedule or plan alternate activities for my classes and I’ve done a lot of work via remote access. But I still care about my work obligations and worried that missing a whole week of classes is somehow too much for an indirect relation like a father-in-law. My son took a whole week away from his classes in grad school. I could not help but think about all the jokes we make about the mortality rate of grandparents, especially just before or after Thanksgiving break.

I did not go to the funerals of any of my own grandparents. The circumstances of each was different, but the relative estrangement of my parents from their own parents, complex and delayed funeral arrangements, coupled with the difficulty and expense of travel made my attendance seem optional to them. I remember and still regret my non-attendance at the last one, the funeral for the grandmother I liked best. I had small children, was in debt and could not afford to fly the whole family out, had just talked to her by phone earlier in the week, and knew the family would not blame me. But I realized too late it hurt anyway, especially because I was the only grandchild missing. A Black friend from a low income dysfunctional family was deeply shocked and scandalized when she found out I had not gone to my grandmother’s funeral. “Were you close?” is the question we often ask when hearing of a grandparent’s death. When I tried to explain to my friend that I’d never seen my grandmother much even as a child, she just said, “But it is your grandmother!”

Here’s where the work and sociology part comes in. We academics have careers that are very flexible in many ways. But we relate to a national job market and typically live far away from our families of origin. We are rootless nomads, and many of us do not even realize how peculiar this is. There are a fair number of ethnographies written about working class folks who live within a few miles of their extended families as if they are some sort of backward exotics worthy of anthropological notice. There are not many ethnographies about the family structures of the nomadic academic and business classes, and it is my impression that many sociologists think this is what “normal” families are like. Many of us were reared in the same kind of rootless placeless families as we are creating. There are deep costs we pay, and our children pay, for this lifestyle. Even if you don’t view the effects as “costs,” there are definitely huge impacts on people’s understandings of what human relationships are about. For one thing, we believe that a sign of having a significant commitment to the academic life is that one is a rootless cosmopolitan who is willing to live anywhere the intellectual climate is good. And we know that schools that “hire their own” and give preference to people who don’t want to move tend to become inbred and parochial intellectual backwaters. I think it is true that the mobility of the professorate is good for science. But what is good for science is not good for families or people.

Those of us in the higher occupational categories give a very high priority to jobs and job advancement over other values. There are other value systems. I remember hearing my husband’s grandfather complain about one of his sons (one of my husband’s uncles, a business executive) that he spent too much time working and did not take his son fishing. The working-class uncles got more esteem from the older man for face time with children than for the money they made. My father-in-law did not go to college. He worked his way up into management from the shop floor, then lost place in a corporate shuffle and finished his career in a variety of lower-level jobs. I know my father-in-law spent a lot of time with his sons, and both my husband and brother-in-law spent a lot of time with their children, not in a “look at me, I’m violating gender roles” way, but in a “this is what fathers do” way. There is a traditional “family man” masculinity that involves active hands-on time with children and caring treatment of wives and mothers that often seems invisible in rhetoric about gender roles and family life, although it shows up periodically in the research literature, often to the surprise of the sociologist authors who report that “feminist” attitudes are not well correlated with actual patterns of household activities (basically because working-class people on average have less feminist attitudes and more gender-egalitarian household task allocations than professionals).

Professionals also have jobs that require us to do things that cannot be done by others and cannot be deferred until later. We are much more able to respond to the needs of kin or life emergencies in the summer and during breaks than in the middle of the school term. Our jobs are a central part of our lives and our identities. This, coupled with our distance from extended families, leads us to have a high proportion of our close significant relations tied to work rather than neighborhood or family. I was talking with a colleague about her research on how these patterns put people like us at a significant disadvantage under certain kinds of major life challenges. (I’m not going to say more because I don’t want to scoop her as-yet unpublished research. But it is going to be a blockbuster when it comes out.)

More and more graduate students come from academic families where our nomadic lifestyle is the norm. If your extended family is already scattered all over the country (or globe), you have no choice anyway. Other people come from bad families they are happy to be far from. (My own thin relation with my grandparents was due to divorce and abuse when my parents were children.)  But if you come from a good family that has a place, one of the choices you face as an academic is whether to try to live closer to that family, even if it puts you in a less good place than you’d like to be otherwise, and even if it means you may not be able to live as an academic. Geographic choices that seem manageable when you are young and childless often become more painful when you have children who don’t know their grandparents, or your parents age. Monday, 36 hours after finally getting us all back from the delayed flights from the funeral, I got word that my mother had been hospitalized with unexplained bleeding. Fortunately the diagnosis points to a relatively mild problem and is not immediately threatening. But I am sick to report that one of my first thoughts was, “Oh no. I can’t miss any more class. I just can’t.”

The work-family choices are not just about caring for small children. They are about the structure of your whole life. If you think this is just a “personal issue” and not a “professional issue,” then you should realize you’ve said something about yourself. Or perhaps about your family.

My jaw dropped: racial interactions

I study racial disparities in criminal justice, but this still completely blew me away. I started clicking around and have ended up collecting links to a large number of quite amazing videos of racial interactions that would be great discussion-starters in class. The two segments that just make my jaw drop were broadcast last February on ABC 20-20’s “What Would You Do?” series last February. They are a little over six minutes each after a 15 second commercial*. The setup is a parking lot in a public park in a White suburb. In part 1, for several hours three White boys overtly vandalize a car. Dozens of White people walk by, looking but doing nothing. Only one ever calls the police; a few say something to the boys. In part 2, three Black boys do the same thing: lots of people call the police, many more people intervene.  In both cases, there is overt criminality going on, although possibly so overt that people might have defined it as some kind of stunt. On balance, a clear demonstration that failure to sanction overt White crime is part of a racial disparity pattern, not just response to Black crime. But the real shocker: while the White kids are vandalizing the car, the police DO get TWO 911 calls from the same parking lot. What they call about is Black people SLEEPING in a nearby car: they phone it in as “possible robbery!”

Vandals 1 (white)
Vandals 2 (black)
(*I found these originally on Youtube but link to ABC despite the commercial opening in the interest of supporting copyright holders where possible.)

Edit: here’s a more recent episode, this time involving kids trying to cut the chain on a bike lock.

There are also some really chilling Driving While Black segments available.

This 10-minute segment was produced by a New York news station about Nassau County. It is really quite incredible, the tester ends up handcuffed and held for thirty minutes after making a U-turn on a residential street and refusing to explain what he is doing in the area. No response to White testers who duplicate the action, although the Blacks in the trailing news car are stopped and hassled.

This ABC Primetime episode on Driving While Black is also very good, but the YouTube versions are all scratched and vertically stretched. I cannot find an on-line version of the original. The first segment is 10 minutes, the second is about 2 minutes of wrap-up
10 minute main segment
2 minute wrap up

A Fox news video shows a black customer being surrounded and beaten by whites but the black man is the only one arrested

The ABC Primetime What Would You Do? series also has a number of great segments (generally 8-10 minutes long) about bystander intervention into overt cases of racial/ethnic discrimination. Actors play the part of store clerks or real estate sales people who overtly insult and harass Black or Muslim or Spanish-speaking lower class (day laborer) shoppers (also actors). Bystander responses are videotaped. Each segment shows lots of people either standing by without intervening or in some cases approving the discrimination, but also highlights people who do intervene. John Dovidio (a psychologist known for work on bystander intervention) provides commentary that praises those who do intervene. Again, these seem like great discussion-starters. I linked to YouTube when I could not find the segment on the ABC site.

Real estate agent insulting Black and Muslim couples looking at a home.

Black shopper in a upscale clothing boutique gets insulted and even frisked

Muslim woman trying to buy an apple Danish (quite a few shoppers join in on the discrimination, while a White man who says is son is fighting in Iraq challenges it)

Spanish-speaking guys in work clothes trying to buy coffee (quite a few shoppers again join in on the discrimination, few seem to speak against it)

H/T to which pointed me to the Muslim shopper video on YouTube, from which I found the rest through YouTube searches, ABC News searches, and Google.

oh my

This is sociologically useful I guess. I friended my aunt on Facebook, and after I posted one of those viral pro-health care reform things that was going around, she responded with notes equating health insurance reform with wanting a government handout because you are too lazy to work and then “everyone gets health care if they ARE DYING WHY DO U LIE” [stet on the capitalization] about that “nobody should die for lack of insurance” thingie. Well ok, I mean not all of us are used to writing in complete sentences and we do have different political opinions and this is my aunt after all, not some troll I don’t know.  I responded politely with my opinions.

And maybe she was mad  because earlier this year I hit reply/all instead of just reply when, after she* forwarded to me and several dozen other people this weird story about a Muslim invited speaker in a prison workshop confessing under tough questioning that really Muslims are required to kill all non-Muslims and he used the phrase “people of faith” and  Obama uses that phrase so draw your own conclusions (i.e. Obama must be a Muslim who plans to kill all non-Muslims), I responded by saying that this was obviously an urban myth that made no sense on its face because a) an invited speaker Muslim would have known the jihad question was coming and wouldn’t be tricked in that way and b) if he really did plan to kill all non-Muslims he wouldn’t say so in a prison workshop and c) liberal Christians use the phrase “people of faith” all the time, and that is obviously Obama’s tradition.

Now the latest is is an email that she sent me, two youtube links, one equating Obama’s plan to speak to school children with Lenin, Hitler and others’ indoctrination of youth, and another showing an election-period video (commercial) in which a mixed-race group of children sing about hope for unity and change and “vote Obama” with Hitler’s youth campaign.

This whole Facebook thing is confusing my normal policy of avoiding political discussions with certain relatives. I’m not actually trying to get in a fight. I guess it is at least getting me out of that liberal academic bubble. Sigh.

*At the time I thought it was my uncle whose name is used on the email, but now I’m guessing it is her.

interesting post on racial boundaries

I found this post by dorkchaser at thinkingsex while surfing when I should be writing. The surfing’s bad, but this is a really good post on the different experiences of a white-identified girl and her brother in the same majority-Black high school, because she appeared biracial and he did not. The post discusses this with reference to Joane Nagel’s Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers, which I am now motivated to read.


The task force report on addressing racial disparities in criminal justice is now officially done and voted on. Hurrah! There was a sense of euphoria, I think. I felt it . Some of us talked about how we really need a party. The head of the public defender’s office offered her home for this purpose for  next month, although I don’t know whether it will actually happen. The last few weeks have been very intense and conflictual. I’ve drafted several partial posts about some of the conflicts and issues, but couldn’t get them into a state to post, partly because I was too darned busy trying to catch up on everything else I should be doing. The events involved crying, shouting, confrontations between “system” people concerned about being made to sound bad or worried about being told to do things that are just impossible and “community” people wanting their voices and perspectives heard. Also glaring examples of racial/ethnic cultural differences and the huge effect of standpoint. The past three rounds of meetings have involved people proposing changes to the report to bring it into line to something they could vote for. Several key compromises were worked out. I bailed out of the writing committee after the last round — I just had to do my course preparation and other work. The chairs just hung in to the bitter in, accepting and processing proposed changes and trying to get a consensus document pulled together. I’ve worried that the watered down the voices of the oppressed too much, but the compromises saved the “public hearing” section, in which people’s stories are told, albeit with language reminding people that they are unverified stories from particular individuals.

Tonight’s meeting had a different spirit, friendlier, warmer. We’d all gone through intense disagreement and struggle and had ended up with something people are pretty proud of, even the people who voted no on some of the specific resolutions. The conflicts and divisions are still there. After all the votes, some of the people had to hurry away at the official ending time of the meeting. About half of us stayed around for check out, where people took turns saying that the experience was often painful and difficult, but we respect each other and feel like we have grown from the experience. This is a group of people who are mostly White and Black, one Hispanic, a mixture of “system” people and “community advocates.” One of the women, an older Black woman with a 9th grade education (how she describes herself) whose son is in the system and who was on the committee as a community advocate, expressed her pride at having her name in “the book”, the 80-page report (with appendices).

If I ever get time, I’ll try to go back to those partial posts and try to describe some of the dynamics and conflicts. In the meantime, I’m thinking to myself that finally, by the last meeting, we’ve done the work we need to do to be together as a community, and now we are disbanding. Somehow this seems like a metaphor for our society.

In the meantime, I’m behind in course prep and in pulling together the paper for a conference in two weeks.

Reading Tables

Reviewing articles makes me realize that people (including people who appear to be otherwise quite sophisticated in their methods) don’t know how to read tables for error and instability.  Obviously, I just found a zinger. Details suppressed in the interest of the integrity of the peer review process. But if the author had really looked carefully at the tables instead of just coming up with stories to explain the coefficients, s/he should have realized something was amiss.

When you are comparing different model specifications on the same data, don’t just look at what is significant, and don’t just look at the variables you are interested in. Pay attention to whether the coefficient on each variable is relatively stable across models or fluctuates with the addition or subtraction of other variables.  The coefficients on the same variables on the same sample normally stay pretty similar as other variables come and go from alternate specifications.  If the coefficients are relatively stable (roughly the same magnitude, roughly the same standard error) in different models, this is good. They may go in and out of statistical significance depending on what else is in the model, but if the effect size stays about the same and the standard error stays about the same, that’s stable, that’s good.

If they are not stable, you need to know why before you mail the article off to the journal. In the worst case, unstable coefficients change between significantly positive and significantly negative, or between close to zero and large in either the positive or negative direction.  But also pay attention if they keep the same sign but get a lot bigger or smaller.

What if coefficients are not stable? If the coefficient of variable X changes when you add other variables, one of three things is true: (1) the other variables correlate with X and overlap or interact with it in explaining the dependent variable, or (2) the sample is different in the two models, or (3) you made a mistake in running the models or copying the tables.

Some correlations or interactions among independent variables are substantively meaningful or otherwise unproblematic. It is normal for the coefficients of each of a set of correlated variables like income and education to be smaller when they are together in a model. Sometimes the whole point of an article is that a coefficient goes to zero or changes from zero to significant when something else is controlled. Similarly, sometimes the point is that some factor is salient only for a subset of the sample.

But before you hang your whole theory or interpretation on a fluctuating coefficient, you want to make sure it isn’t just a mistake. Make sure there are no typos in the code that produced the results. Make sure the table is copied properly. Check the sample sizes to be sure cases were not dropped for some unexpected reason. And especially check for specification error: explicitly test whether coefficients bounce with minor changes in model specification. Very often, you will see that the explanatory power of a model does not change at all when you add more variables, even though the coefficients change. This is a symptom that your sample is too small to make the distinctions you are trying to make. This is especially likely in fields where samples are necessarily relatively small, as is often true in research on organizations or political units or annual time series. Do your variables of interest have strong bivariate effects without controls? If not, exactly which control variables are needed in the model for the variable to have a significant effect? At what point do you stop adding explained variance and just change coefficients? In particular, watch out for pairs of correlated variables like income and education that take opposite signs in models with lots of other independent variables: this is frequently an artifact.

The problem of ignoring coefficient fluctuations is especially likely when the coefficients for “control variables” are suppressed. I have reviewed quite a few articles in which coefficients on control variables fluctuate quite suspiciously with nary a mention from the author, and am never happy when control variable coefficients are omitted entirely. (If they are going to be suppressed in the interest of space and readability from the main table, I still want to see them in an appendix as a reviewer, even if they appendix will end up on a web site instead of in print.)

Also pay attention to the number of cases in each model, to be sure you are not losing cases unexpectedly to missing data or other anomaly. If patterns of missing data are not a problem, the coefficients will stay pretty stable despite sample size fluctuations. But if a coefficient changes markedly when the sample size changes, that’s another sign of trouble.

uh oh

I’ve got to be careful how I say this. A future candidate for public office left a message on my home answering machine asking me to call. When I called back the cell phone number given, Candidate could not remember who I was, said “are you a lawyer, I’ve been calling a lot of lawyers.” Uh oh #1 — you are running for office, you leave me a message, but when you answer your phone you don’t know who I am? We arranged a later time for a longer phone conversation. When Candidate called me the second time, Candidate still did not know who I was, except a name on a list. The only information Candidate had is what I told Candidate the first time, that I’m at the University. Uh oh #2, now you have had time to prepare for the call again, and you still don’t know who I am.  I don’t want to sound arrogant, but the last time someone was planning to run for this office, the candidate asked to meet with me because of my particular expertise, bought my lunch, and was hoping to get my particular endorsement as well as assuring me that my policy input would be important. As Candidate is from my party, I’m going to vote for Candidate against the other party as a matter of principle.  But unless Candidate learns FAST, I’m very uneasy about the outcome of an election I care about a lot. I don’t mean learns fast about me, I mean learns fast about how to do basic Internet research and how to handle cold telephone calls without sounding like a total doofus.


We are trying to get the task force report done. This is a ton of work. Lots of writing. But the most time-consuming part is the endless pre-meeting meetings and conference calls to discuss what to write, how to hold the meetings. Calls and meetings that seem to resolve nothing. There are some real substantive disagreements about certain key issues. But the biggest problem is language. Statements that seem reasonable and neutral to some of us strike others as strident and offensive. Quotations from public hearing statements by offenders, accused offenders, or the family and friends of offenders about unfair or unreasonable aspects of the criminal justice system are viewed by the system people as unsubstantiated hearsay that should not be included in the report. But the consequence would be to banish entirely the voices of those at the bottom of the system. (I’m going to try to see if we can negotiate language that includes them as perceptions.) Even the claim that a lot of people think the CJ system is unfair or biased is subject to critique — how do we know it is a lot of people? Well, if “people” means “Black people,” you have to be living in a hole not to think a “lot of” people think the CJ system is unfair. But of course the people launching that critique don’t think “people” means “Black people.”

Then we are hassling about whether there are “too many” citations for low level offenses. Citations are better than arrests, we mostly agree. But citations come with fines, large fines on the order of several hundred dollars a ticket. This is no biggie if you have a full professor’s income or a lawyer’s income. But if you have no job or a McJob, the fines are huge relative to your resources. So one proposed recommendation is to give fewer tickets. But the system people are upset at any implication that they are giving “too many” tickets or even a lot of tickets. Should I go back and crunch the older data that shows that this area has an extraordinarily high level of “disorderly conduct” arrests? Would actual data even seem relevant to the people having this argument?

And the planning committee is hassling about voting rules, which were never agreed upon at the beginning of the process. Some people were hoping for consensus, although without a clear idea of how you achieve consensus, not to mention the problem that consensus is the same thing as allowing one person to veto. Some of us are pushing for voting, but even then you have to argue about voting rules. Do you have a vote if you are not at the meeting? How will the opinions of people who can’t get to the meeting be assessed? And I won’t even go into the confusion and disputes about the process we went through in collecting and consolidating recommendations. Or the lack of trust that is making every single part of this process difficult. It is exhausting.

police report

One of the many disputes that have arisen in task force debates is the complaint of some “community” people that police sometimes lie on their reports and that the prosecutor just assumes the police are telling the truth. Law enforcement folks and prosecutors react with offense: “It is a felony to lie on a police report.” I roll my eyes. Um, it is a felony to deal drugs, too, but that doesn’t mean people don’t do it. And there have been at least some cases in which movement activists have video taped protest policing and caught police lying on reports. To point out that some people break the law, by the way, is not to assert that all or even most police lie. Most often there is no need to lie. But there is the time-honored and safer tactic of putting the most persuasive possible construction on ambiguous events. Not to mention the ubiquitous problem that different people simply see events in different ways and that well-intentioned honest police may still lack a complete view of the situation. So I was very interested to read the police report for the arrest of Henry “Skip” Gates in Cambridge the other day. Here’s a copy of the police report on the arrest of Gates for disorderly conduct which was posted by BigSole whom I got to from Field Negro. Today a Facebook link pointed me to this careful analysis of the report at The officer is clearly trying to justify the disorderly conduct arrest, which has to involve other people and a public place and cannot be made inside a person’s own house. Even the officer’s own version of events involve him persuading Gates to walk outside so that he could have an excuse to arrest him. Gates had already provided his identification and the officer makes it clear in his report that while he was still inside Gates’s house he knew he was no longer investigating any kind of crime. Gates’s “crime” in the officer’s own report consists solely of loudly accusing the officer of being a racist and asking for his name and badge number. The report makes it clear that the arrest was meant as a retaliation for being yelled at and called a racist, and he really didn’t care that the charge wasn’t going to stick. Out on the streets, this kind of interaction happens all the time: objecting to police mistreatment when you have, in fact, done nothing wrong gets to you arrested for disorderly conduct or resisting an officer. To me the most frightening thing about this incident are the large number of commenters on some sites who are sure the police have the right to retaliate if you object to their mistreatment.