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.
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.
It is happening again. Lawyers who don’t know anything about data analysis make a request (often an official open records request) for information from agencies. Then, because I have gotten a reputation for analyzing public data and making it reveal previously-unseen patterns, they dump it on me and ask me to analyze it. Some years ago the request was for information on the racial breakouts of juvenile arrests for misdemeanors and citations — the person making the request assumed without asking that information about felonies already existed. That request yielded a pile of printouts of incomparable information from a dozen different agencies, including hundreds of pages of printouts listing all juvenile arrests in the central city. (I dealt with that by giving the data entry job to freshmen in a “research experience” program; it was a good experience for them, even though the data was of limited value.)
This time the request vaguely asked for information on the racial breakouts of arrests and traffic stops and was sent to the two dozen law enforcement agencies in the county. They sent me the responses yesterday. Six agencies responded with spreadsheets that are all in the same format, which includes the breakouts by race for 64 offense groups and five citation/stop categories. The two biggest agencies responded with dumps of all charges: to turn them into the appropriate counts, you first need to collapse the charges down to incidents (as the same person can have multiple charges in an arrest or traffic stop) using the date and time of the contact and the date of birth of the offender, following some sort of protocol for which offense to treat as the “most serious” offense, and then collapse the zillions of specific offenses into a smaller number of categories. Of course there is no crosstalk file for linking the specific offenses into either the 64 standard categories used by the six agencies that used the same format nor the Uniform Crime Reports categories nor the severity code, nor did the agencies include these fields in their data dump, even though they must have that information for their own needs. The most passive aggressive agency did not even include the offense description field, just the statute number. The rest of the agencies responded in a wide variety of ways, including PDFs of pie charts of the racial breakouts of traffic stops, counts by race that summed across arrests and traffic stops, or emails that said “everyone we arrested was white” (no counts given).
UPDATE 7/29: One agency actually sent a VIDEO with slides of their report that rotate in 3-D space and a voice-over describing was was on each page. I am not kidding!
The lawyers don’t understand why I’m saying it isn’t worth my time to try to “analyze” this mess. They say, “We asked for it, it will look bad if we don’t include the results in the report.” And they can’t understand why I can’t get it done by next week, when the draft report is due.
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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”
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The final session of the two-day conference I’ve been describing in the “Farmtown” posts is supposed to be reports from the small groups that met in the morning. These reports get longer and the discussion gets more animated with each successive speaker. As with the sermon, I’ve tried to capture the flavor of the longer speeches. Again what interests me is the way people weave different themes together when they talk. Continue reading “Public Sociology in Farmtown #8: Ideas and Wrap-Up”
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(This continues a series. See the earlier posts in the series for context.)
Our lunch speaker is a Black man I code as about 40 plus or minus 10 years. He has a staff job with a college in another state and is also a Baptist minister. His style is passionate Black ministerial oratory interweaving politics and God, interweaving joking and anger and challenge, ranging broadly across a lot of issues and pulling in quotations from many writers. He says his goal is to challenge and upset people. The talk is free-flowing but planned out; there are extensive quotations from religious and political sources. I’ve tried to capture the feeling of the speech/sermon in my notes.
My goal is to make you upset and angry today. People need to stop being PC and talking about “institutional racism” as a cover and being afraid to call out individual racists. We should demand justice. But instead of demanding, we are sitting complacent and saying we are doing something, but we are not doing something. We should demand drug treatment and job training. Socially responsible businesses should offer training at their own cost, benefits to community. We should go back to Operation Breadbasket, when leaders demanded businesses to sponsor jobs. Continue reading “Public Sociology in Farmtown #7: Inspiration and Challenge”
We have to make choices. As part of trying to convey what it really means to do public sociology (whatever that is), here is the list of what I’ve things done in the past nine days (Written Saturday):
(1) Thursday. I forgot to go to the meeting I was supposed to be at for Unitown’s disproportionate minority confinement project. My bad. It is summer, I got my days mixed up, and was mowing the lawn when my spouse asked me why I was at home.
(2) Friday. Spent time pulling together tables & memos from previous reports relative to American Indians in my state’s criminal justice system for the American Indian activist who asked me to do this last May; I press hard on it because I know I’ll see her at tomorrow’s meeting, so this seems like a good time to do it. She’s older than me, a retired social worker, and does not use email. I also start, but do not finish, reworking the code written by a former grad student so I can access the information from the lastest DOC file I have to meet her request and also update my slides for presentations I’m giving in September and October. (8 hours) Continue reading “My week in public sociology”
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In this episode: details about problems and programs, some startling facts about returning prisoners, a brief eruption around mistaken racial identity, we talk about mentoring. Again, a mosaic of experiences. Remember, these discussions are not being “performed” for Whites; the point is a group dominated by people of color are trying to understand what is going on and what they can do to contribute to solutions.
Next up is a panel of six people from Unitown, all in their thirties to sixties. None were here yesterday for the first day of the conference. They are a White woman who runs a faith-based nonprofit with a significant prisoner reentry project; an Asian woman community organizer; a Black man who has been a local politician and is head of Unitown’s office of equal opportunity; a Black man who is a former prisoner who is now the head of a returning prisoner’s organization, and a Black married couple (both professionals) who have been involved in a lot of different activist projects; she is now chair of Unitown’s Equal Opportunity Commission. I know five of them from the various groups I’ve worked in and have heard much of what they say before. My notes are details that caught my attention. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown: #6 what’s going on?”
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(This is the next in a series about a two-day conference I attended on racial disparities in education and criminal justice. I was the first speaker. After that, I attended, listened, and learned. This picks up on day two, after a night spent in a dorm room.) After a buffet breakfast, the morning speaker is a Black educational researcher who does qualitative research on children’s and families’ perceptions of schools, stressing the importance of talking to the people being “served” by institutions. One project involved asking children what their sources of support were and then asking teachers what the children’s supports were; in general the teachers did not know. Children often viewed their families as supportive while the teachers saw the same families as unsupportive or problematic. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown: #5 about the children”
I will get back to finish the Farmtown series.* As my last post in the series (#4, White Supremacy) was characterized by one friend as “the world’s longest blog,” by my spouse as “I know I said I liked the longer posts, but . . . ” and by another friend as “you don’t write blogs, you write articles,” I thought I’d pull out the incidents that I most wanted to share with others. If you waded through the long post, there is nothing new here. If not, these are the incidents I thought it was most important to share for discussion.
A Black professor in his sixties gives a lecture whose point is to explain how simple differences become schisms between people because of inequality. He then develops an example using the two white police officers sitting next to me that is an extended tale about what if you (white man) were always knocked down by her (white woman) every time she saw you, what would you do? The white man says “lash out” (most don’t hear him say it) but the speaker says that you’d just lie down to avoid being knocked down, and then goes on to say that you’d teach your children to just lie down and avoid the woman and her children, and the children would do it even if they did not know why. And, he says, the woman’s children would expect the other people to lie down, but not know why they are doing it. I find these different perceptions of how people respond to oppression to be important and telling. I think lashing out is what most whites do think the most common response to oppression is, not having actually experienced it. And even as much as I teach this stuff, I am struck by the speaker’s emphasis that you lie down to avoid being knocked down, and that you can teach that to the next generation. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown: extracts from #4 white supremacy”
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(Shorter extract from this post if this is too long for you)
It is important to place this discussion in the context of the whole conference, so it you are new to this series, please check out the previous post. For a quick recap, I’m writing about a two-day conference on racial disparities in incarceration and education at a university in a rural area I call Farmtown. The previous post focused the first half of the first day and the ways information was brought into the group. This post focuses on the second part of the first day, which ran from 3:15 – 9pm.
Two Farmtown professors do the short version of a workshop they’ve done often before for white faculty at their institution on the ideology of white supremacy. The black social science professor goes first, and it is relevant to note that he is older, in his sixties. His title is “isms and schisms.” The point is about how demographic differences become structures of inequality. He talks about how people respond to experiences of discrimination and then asks people what they see when the imagine pictures of powerful groups (i.e. Congress, Supreme Court). We are supposed to say “white male.” I hear one of the officers next to me say something like “mostly white males with some women and a few blacks and latinos” to Congress, and for the Supreme Court says “mostly white men and a woman and a black man.” At the end of this exercise, he requires the white man to answer his “what do you see?” question, and the answer is “mostly white men.” I’m glad I’m not put on the spot like that. I learn later that the speaker always forces a white person to answer this question. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown (4): white supremacy”
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My in-house editorial advisor says he likes the longer posts better, that the shorter posts seem like wind-up and no pitch, so I’m going to do this in somewhat bigger lumps. To recap posts 1 and 2, I’m writing about a conference of 35-45 participants on racial disparities in incarceration and education being put on at a university in a rural area (Farmtown) that is organized by faculty and staff of color whose attendees are predominantly people of color, roughly half from the hosting university and the others from the metropolitan areas in the state, which include the state capital with the main university campus I call Unitown, the big city I call Segtown, and other urban areas in the swath between Segtown and BigCity in the next state over. I wanted to write about partly because interactions in a conference that is mostly people of color are different from those in a white-dominated setting and are different from what many whites think they would be. And partly just to give the flavor of a real conference in all its complexity.
This is an ambitious and even exhausting conference. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown (3): getting information”
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I wrote this from notes I took at a conference on racial disparities in incarceration and education at a branch campus of the state university located in a rural very-white area I will call Farmtown. I was invited to give my disparities talk by a group of university-connected people in Farmtown who have been meeting because they want to do what they can to fight problems of racial disparities. The call to the conference expressed the hope of linking up people in different communities working on these issues. Farmtown is 150 miles away from metropolitan Segtown, where most of the state’s African Americans live, and 75 miles away from Unitown, the state capital and home of the major university where I work and live, so this seemed an odd locale for such a conference. I could have just given my talk and left, but I am a member of the “community” who is working on these issues, so I decided I’d like to stay for the whole two days to talk to people and see what was going on. I told the organizer that if they covered my conference registration fee (which includes three meals and a dorm room) I would consider myself adequately compensated, and did not need an honorarium. I was told that about 45 people have registered for the conference, although not everyone is spending the night, a large contingent of Unitown people are coming tomorrow only, and some people have been coming and going from the room.
When I counted at the opening session, I got about 11 whites and 18 people of color who are mostly black. I learned as the day progressed that I had miscategorized some folks, about which more later, but the errors were in both directions. The conference is about 2/3 people of color. Thinking about it later, I realize that I am the only white speaker at the conference. Although most of the groups I talk to are overwhelmingly white, I have addressed and worked with groups that are at least half black before, and am comfortable in the setting. I’ll talk more later about the impact of racial mix. Roughly half the attendees are from Farmtown, virtually all university faculty, staff, or students, including mostly people of color but also a couple of white deans. In pre-opening chit chat, a white woman who is one of the deans chats with a black woman who is a U-Farmtown staffer about the new choir director at the church they both attend. Most of the non-Farmtown people I talk to turn out to be alumni of U-Farmtown, and the core of the conference is clearly African Americans who know each other because of the U-Farmtown connection. This surprises me, as it had not occurred to me that ANY African Americans would be at or have gone to a university in this very-white part of the state. Shows what I know. I learn more later about what they have been doing at U-Farmtown and think there are things to learn from them. There are few representatives from the criminal justice system here, unlike the groups I’ve worked with in Unitown or Segtown. Unitown’s police force has three representatives here, one black (who seems to know the organizers well) and two white, a man and a woman; all seem fairly young to me. I chat with the black police officer as we wait for the opening; he knows of my work and we talk about the issues. There is also someone from the state university system and her intern; I don’t know whether she is part of the network or not.
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Index/List of the Whole Farmtown Series
In the past 8 years, I’ve given over 80 speeches to various audiences about racial disparities and have attended some or all of dozens of conferences, as well as participated in over a hundred meetings of various groups, boards, and commissions. These range from lawyer-dominated professional groups to white church groups to student groups to mixed-race community groups. Although I am a good public speaker and articulate and forceful in manner, I’m also by nature an introvert and by avocation an academic who is quite happy spending hours in front of a computer or otherwise minding my own business. So being at all these conferences and meetings has opened me to a lot of experiences I would not otherwise have had. I’m interested in what people talk about and how they talk. Last week, I spent two days at a racial disparities conference organized by university people in a rural area I’ll call FarmTown. I took detailed notes on what happened and my reactions and thought I’d write some of this up as a blog, as a reflection on what this “public sociology” stuff is really like out there in the trenches. I told some of the organizers of the conference that I was going to do this, and they were ok with it, agreeing with me about not using real names. It was a complex event, and my impressions are more about the juxtaposition of many different themes and kinds of experiences than about drawing any single conclusion or point. I’m going to follow the wise lead of some other bloggers (especially Bradley Wright who does this so well) and break this up into a series of small posts, rather than one long one. In so doing, I’ll lose the kaleidoscopic impact of the event as a whole, but avoid producing one big block of indigestible prose. My point, to the extent that there is one, is to counter what I see as a common one-sided romantic or patronizing view of “public sociology” as a sociologist bringing revealed truth to the uneducated masses or the national elites, and to stress the extent to which I learn things I did not know when I get out of my office and go spend time with people in different social locations.
Next: Farmtown #2: The Set Up
Index/List of the Whole Farmtown Series
There have been several posts lately about public sociology and the tenure process, including newsocprof and thepublicandtheprivate and, most recently RadioFreeNewport. All are written by young scholars. The general tone of these remarks is either to worry about the impact of public sociology on getting tenure, or to decry older sociologists who tell younger sociologists to focus on getting tenure before getting heavily involved in public sociology. So another view seems helpful. I say this as someone who did not do public sociology until later in my career, well after I had tenure. These younger writers are ignoring the central point that tenure protects you when you do public sociology. Continue reading “tenure and public sociology”
Things I’ve been doing that did not seem bloggable:
1. Writing official letters of discipline for plagiarism cases. I could write a blog about this, but we all know about the problem and it just depresses us.
2. Reading graduate papers. Work, not unpleasant, not bloggable as not anonymous. Could be combined with my own writing trauma into some sort of essay about writing, but at this point I think others are doing it better.
3. Pulling up garlic mustard. This might be bloggable, as I have to figure out what to do with 5 bags of plants that cannot be sent to the land fill and are dangerous to just leave lying around in your yard. Why 5 bags? Because I just this spring learned that a big patch of my back yard has been taken over by it. But do any of the rest of you care about garlic mustard? Is this really a topic for a sociology blog?
4. Misc family things: consulting with my son who is graduating and moving into his first apartment, talking to my housebound mother for 30-60 minutes on the phone everyday, and also less often to my father who is also having health issues, preparing for relatives’ visit to said son’s graduation, attending graduation parties for other young people.
5. Sunday school teaching. Very funny incident that is only funny to liberal Christians: conservative Christians would be appalled that it happened at all, and non-Christians would find the whole thing just weird. Only sociology if it turns into a reflection on the sociology of different kinds of religion.
6. (Edit). I forgot getting up at 5:30 (I’m not a morning person) to do a public radio interview. Do you suppose this is what Michael Burawoy had in mind?
I still intend to write a post with my thoughts on newsocprof’s discussion of public sociology and the tenure process, which jt also addressed in a response post in The Public and the Private. That will come later, after the flurry of end-of-term grad advising and family business (including my son’s college graduation and attendant in-law visit, out of town trips, and help moving).
In the meantime, I thought I’d mention this week’s public sociology issue for me, which is less philosophical and more mundane. The Governor is finally giving a press conference next week about his intentions with respect to the big racial disparity report released by the Governor’s Commission in February . We Commissioners have been invited to the press conference, which is being held in the city 80 miles away at 2 in the afternoon. As far as I can tell, we are being invited to stand behind the Governor while he talks. I’ve never met him; I don’t know whether he will even bother to talk to me. I’ve decided to go, even though this will take up at least four or five hours of my day, lead me to reschedule a bunch of grad student appointments, and make it that much harder for me to get time to get any work done before the relatives show up next week. It could turn out to be a total waste of my time. But I find that I hate to miss it.
In other public sociology news, two national NGOs jointly released their reports on disparities in drug arrests last week showing that the big city in our state is one of the nation’s worst, so I got calls from reporters. A bunch of people said to me, “I heard you on the radio.” I said, “So what did I say?” I never did find out. I did not realize he was taping, although I guess I should have. Apparently what he put on the air was OK. You never know. That’s another fun part of public sociology: there is nothing like a good quotation out of context to make you sound like an idiot, or worse.
Maybe as long as two years ago, a state legislator called me to say that they were trying to get a commission created to deal with racial disparities, and would I agree to be on it if asked. Last January, the Governor announced that such a commission would be created, and it made front page news; I got a lot of reporter calls about it, many asking me if I’d be on the commission. I said I did not know if I’d be asked, but I’d serve if asked. The commission got created in late March and had its first meeting in April. The fact that the commission had actually been appointed was not news and was buried in a short paragraph in back pages. We were supposed to report in October, but this was impossible. Given the expertise on the commission, we could have begun writing our report at the first meeting and done a good job, but it was deemed important to get testimony from stakeholders and the public, and there were some things we learned we did not already know. Because of that, and other often-frustrating organizational issues I will not go into, we had to defer the deadline and were not able to really write the report until January. It is released today in the middle of one of the most exciting political weeks of the decade. I am assuming it will get essentially zero play, as “news hole effects” (which I’ve researched) mean that any bit of news is inevitably in conflict with other news. All I can hope is that our recommendations might get implemented despite the total lack of public discussion that can be expected from the timing of all this.
I recently asked for advice about the best format for posting a lot of graphs on a web site so they could be either read on line or downloaded and printed. In case this information is more generally useful, I’m summarizing what I learned here. Continue reading “graphs on the web”
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) Continue reading “public sociology”