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?
It took about an hour (most of it on hold) but the nice IRS man took care of fixing my son’s tax problem. Although the person who keyed in his payment correctly used the first part of his two-name surname, although the layout on the return made it clear that the two names were one surname, and although his name has been correctly interpreted in past years, the person who keyed it in this time used his “last” name. Thus generating two IRS letters, one for having a name mis-match for the social security number, and another for not paying the $10 tax bill. The IRS man suggested that I tell my son to hyphenate his name or just use the first part of it to avoid future problems. I pointed out that the two names with no hyphen are on his social security card. He did agree that this could be an issue.
We gave our children both surnames due to gender equality beliefs and adopted the Spanish system intentionally although we are not Spanish, as it seemed better to use a common system than to make one up. At the time we named our children, hyphens were still giving computers fits, although it has turned out that the hyphen has been adopted by most systems as the way to avoid confusion. These problems are at least as much about cultural dominance than gender roles. The problem is calling them “first name” and “last name” and, in the worst case, having only one “name” field that is parsed positionally. As the IRS man noted, Spanish-system people have this problem all the time. But so do Asian people, who put the family name first. And people of all cultures with two-name personal names. Most of this confusion can be avoided by having two name boxes, one labeled “Family name(s)” and the other labeled “personal names(s)”. I guess that would not entirely clear things up for the one-name cultures or patronymic systems, but it would go a long way. The question is how long it will take to make relatively simple changes in bureaucratic procedures to accommodate diversity.
I’m not sure who (if anyone) has stuck with this series, so I’m not sure what your interests are in wrap-up. Drop comments if you want me to address other issues. Here are my thoughts. This was an overwhelming experience in many ways, and there are many threads one could pick up from the things that happened at the conference. I’ll discuss three themes: the content of what people talk about, the importance of listening along with talking, and cultural differences in public talk. I tried to provide a lot of details about what people said and how they said it because I’m very interested in how people talk as well as what they talk about. I have been struck before how the whole tone of interaction shifts when a meeting is dominated by people of color instead of whites. Although the two day conference in Farmtown was a kind of immersion experience, I have had many similar experiences before. As a White person watching the interactions, I’m most struck by how deeply personal and painful these issues are for Black people.* Continue reading “Public Sociology in Farmtown #9: Reflections on the Experience”
As I mentioned in an earlier post, my UCC church asked me to lead “conversations about race” I described the first week in my earlier post. The second week I did a short version of my presentation on race and criminal justice. Today I began by showing clips of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, first a clip from ABC news “exposing” Wright (the clip starts with a commercial you cannot avoid) and then a six minute clip from the 2003 sermon which places the “God Damn America” line in its context in the sermon, which is about how nations come and go and don’t always follow God’s law, but God’s law endures.* We are a pretty liberal congregation and folks mostly laughed and enjoyed Wright’s political references, as well as saying they appreciated the way the sermon had clearly been planned and was making a point about history. I mentioned why some people objected to the sermon in web comments, even in its longer context, stressing both its political content (as many Whites are unaware of the long tradition of political commentary from Black pulpits) and its “angry” tone, and mentioned that this difference in cultural style is a really big problem. I also commented that there is a similar problem on the other end, with typical Asian interactional styles being considered by many Whites to be too polite and reserved and not assertive enough.
In response, one White woman said that Wright’s angry tone bothered her and she worried about its lack of “solutions” would that just incite racial animosity. Then the one Black participant (the same one from last week; everyone else was White) said that Wright was not angry, that he was just expressing himself passionately and forcefully. She elaborated on this point, talking about her own style and about Black mothers who come in to talk about their children and the White teachers code them as angry when they are just being assertive. She said, “If I’m angry, you’ll know it.” (Not saying I’m some kind of cosmopolitan, but based on my experience, the Black woman’s style was on the very mild and soft-spoken end of the range of Black expression I’m familiar with – well within the range of how I would express myself – and I coded her as warmly and compassionately making the effort to explain a standpoint.) Then the White woman said that the Black woman sounded angry and aggressive to her, and that she was bothered because the Black woman had interrupted her to make the point, and that the expression “If I’m angry, you’ll know it” sounded like a threat to her. Continue reading “culture, style, race, pain”