Prejudice and Discrimination

One of the things I emphasize in my lectures on prejudice and discrimination, it is their arbitrariness presented as natural (often because based on biology), but if races are socially constructed out of physical characteristics (that have no social or individual properties in and of itself), we could just as well create “races” based on height.

Here is a nice (and satirical) illustration from the Catherine Tate Show:

Prejudice, Stigma and Exclusion with Bad Economic Times – 3 Cases

First case, of course, is the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, which is neither a Mosque nor at Ground Zero (which isn’t even Ground Zero) but the very formulation of if is in itself a reflection of prejudice. It’s been discussed to death, so, I won’t spend any more space on that.

Second case: The Sarkozy administration versus the Roms. In France, there is no more convenient and easy political strategy than bash some minority when the majority political party (especially on the right side of the political spectrum) finds itself in trouble in bad economic times (often due to their very policies, and sometimes to global conditions to which they contributed anyway). A few years back, the target was the suburban youth, especially those of North African origins, portrayed as savages, tormenting the good French working class in the housing projects. Bashing and scapegoating a minority, in that case, kills two birds with one stroke: minority bashing easily turns into votes for the right based on trumped up and exaggerated accusations of wrongdoings. But at the same time, it hides the deeper social issues that these governments do not want to touch: urban / suburban housing policies and how the suburban housing development model has not aged well and needs complete restructuring. In the case of the Roms, the deeper issue is that of the failures of many cities and towns to fulfill their legal obligations when it comes to the Rom population. So, bashing and excluding is easier and more fruitful politically:

“Today, as the French government pushed forward with its mission to rid the country of foreign Roma it deems to be living there illegally, Marseille’s most marginalised community was in the grip of both fear and resignation: fear because the authorities have in recent weeks ratcheted up the pressure, and resignation because, after years of repeated expulsions and unrelenting social isolation, many of them have seen it all before.

“That’s France for you,” said one middle-aged woman, sitting dejectedly in pink flip-flops at the rue de Lyon squat. She, like all other Roma to whom the Guardian spoke, was unwilling to be identified. Intense media interest since the start of Nicolas Sarkozy‘s crackdown on crime and illegal immigration last month has made them uneasy in front of the cameras.

Known as the melting pot of the south, Marseille is home to a large proportion – possibly up to a fifth – of France’s total Roma population, itself estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000. Despite its reputation for successful integration, however, the city’s Roma, as in so much of Europe, live apart from mainstream society. Observers say routine expulsions and endemic discrimination have pushed them to the outer limits, both physically and psychologically.

But in recent weeks, ever since Sarkozy announced the imminent destruction of hundreds of squats and the return of Romanians and Bulgarian citizens living in France illegally, the situation has worsened. Police are making ever more regular visits. Across the country, dozens of illegal Roma camps have been broken up, and today, as part of the government’s “voluntary” return programme, 1040 Roma flew home to Bucharest with €300 per adult and €100 per child in their pockets.”

And then, of course, there is the case of Albinos in Eastern Africa that I have blogged about so much. It seems that, every once in a while, something more horrific comes up:

“A Kenyan man has been sentenced to a total of 17 years in prison for trying to sell an albino man to witchdoctors in Tanzania, local media reported yesterday.

A magistrate’s court in northwest Tanzania sentenced 28-year old Nathan Mutei on Wednesday, after he pleaded guilty to charges of human trafficking and abduction with intention to sell an albino man, also Kenyan, for 400 million Tanzanian shillings (£169,000).

At least 53 albinos have been killed since 2007 in the east African nation and their body parts sold for use in witchcraft, especially in the remote northwest regions of Mwanza and Shinyanga, both gold-mining regions where superstition is rife.

Albino hunters kill their victims and use their blood and body parts for potions. Witchdoctors tell their clients that the body parts will bring them luck in love, life and business.

Albinos lack pigment in their skin, eyes and hair. There are around 170,000 albinos living in Tanzania.

“For the offence of human trafficking, you will go prison for nine years, or pay a fine of 80 million shillings. For the second offence, you will go to prison for eight years,” Mwanza resident magistrate Angelous Rumisha was quoted as saying by the privately owned Mwananchi newspaper.

Mutei’s sentences will run simultaneously for each count, meaning that he will spend only nine years in a Tanzanian prison after he failed to pay the fine.

Mwananchi reported that Mutei was arrested on 16 August.

A Tanzanian albino group applauded the court’s judgment, but called for tougher punishment for offenders.

“We are happy with the quick conclusion of the trial, because these cases have been dragging on for too long,” Zihada Ali Msembo, secretary general of the Tanzania Albino Society, told Reuters.

“However, we feel that nine years in jail is such a lenient sentence. This man should have been sentenced to life in prison because he knew very well that this poor albino he was trying to sell would have been butchered,” he said.

Tanzania is due to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in October. The Tanzania Albino Society fears there could be a new wave of albino killings in east Africa’s second largest economy ahead of the vote.

It is common for some politicians to visit witchdoctors during elections in belief that their powers will boost their chances of victory.

“There is talk around the country that the entire albino population could be wiped out by the time the general election is over. We don’t know whether or not to believe these stories, but albinos are now certainly living in fear,” Msembo said.”

In all cases, there are political benefits to be reaped by ignoring the plight of minorities or even going after them directly or indirectly. And there is no doubt that bad economic times make a population more receptive to racist rhetoric and discriminatory state action, especially when political opposition is weak. And by definition, minorities cannot fight back either against discourse (lack of media access whereas members of the dominant groups have almost non-stop access to spill half-truths about minorities without any push-back from media figures) or actions (especially by the state).

Racism – The Consensus Delusion

From Jose Marichal, this very interesting article summarizing a study on racist thinking:

Racists take comfort in an imagined consensus. That’s the implication of a new Australian study, which suggests a possible approach to breaking through bigoted beliefs.

The newly published research, which surveyed attitudes towards that nation’s Aboriginal population, found prejudiced people are far more likely than their non-prejudiced neighbors to believe their fellow Australians agree with their attitudes.

Furthermore, they tend to think the attitudes of their friends and colleagues toward the minority group is even more negative than their own — a false belief that allows them to view themselves as safely within the boundaries of community norms.”

More than that:

Does this mean that the solution is to puncture this false sense of consensus or open-mindedness? The article does not say, unfortunately.

Spouting BS As Social Privilege

Denis Colombi notes this wonderful gem from former Judo superstar turned right-wing politician (you see where this is going, don’t you?):

Let me offer a rough translation of this steaming pile:

“To me, a woman doing judo or in another sport, that’s neither natural not rewarding. For children’s well-being, I think a woman’s place is at home. It is the mother that has it in her genes, her instinct, that capacity to raise children. If God gave women the capacity to procreate, it’s for a reason.

So, this woman, when she has a job outside the home, by choice or necessity, she can no longer fulfill this essential nurturing function. (…) I consider this nexus to be destructured. The foundations of humanity, and nurturing, in particular, are partially shaken.

I have been told I am misogynist. But all men are. Except fags.”


As Colombi notes, in the context of the “big debate” on national identity promulgated by our oh-so concerned administration, gender equality has been posited by officials as a foundation of the Republic. After all, that is the reason why there is discussion to ban certain types of Muslim veils. So, what if instead of very White, very French David Douillet, a Maghred immigrant man had stated the nonsense quoted above? You can bet the outrage would be all over the place, taken as representative of “what Muslim men think of women” and their inability to assimilate into the French society, and duly stigmatized.

Will Douillet be stripped of his French nationality for refusing to accept one of the essential foundations of the Republic: gender equality? Colombi asks, rhetorically, and tongue firmly in cheek. Of course not. What an absurd notion. Stigma is not attached what is done, but to who does it and how the corresponding societal reaction, as Howard Becker has taught us.

Despite claims to generality (“all men think like that”), Douillet’s drivel will not be taken as representative of his ethnic group. That only works for minorities. They are the ones facing sanctions, symbolic and others, for their every move. Spouting nonsense without having to suffer much consequences for it is a form of social privilege.

That’s the sociological interpretation. My more, well, down-to-earth view is below:


Racism, Gender and Stereotyping

Via Sociological Images, this VERY interesting video (note the gender differences in reaction… it would have been interesting to see the reactions if it had been a black man shopping instead of a woman):

It would also have been nice to have some statistics deconstruction: if you target only a specific segment of the population (blacks), then yes, they will show up disproportionately in statistics. If you consider another population to be “safe” (based on stereotypes) and therefore subject them to less scrutiny or no scrutiny at all, then they will be grossly underrepresented in the statistics. Then you can turn around and use the “objective” statistics as support for your prejudice. Neat trick. Works every time.

Good on the ladies for standing up, and shame on the white dude not just for his lack of assistance, but also his reinforcement of the stereotype (“she played the black card”, and then once confronted with his behavior “I felt bad for her”).

And let’s not forget the overall structural effect of these things: the structural exclusion of minorities of all sorts of spheres of social life based on such stereotypes. This is not just a matter of one or two dumb salespeople. They are just channels through which structural mechanisms trickle sown into people’s lives. “Black people are more likely to… (insert one’s preferred undesirable or deviant behavior)” is the way to major social disadvantages for them whether we are discussing medical procedures (such as transplants) or mortgage lending and real estate, or just ordinary shopping behavior.

Book Review – Scapegoats of September 11th

I picked up Michael Welch‘s Scapegoats of September 11th – Hate Crimes & State Crimes in The War on Terror based on Todd Krohn’s recommendation (He’s made Welch his Sociologist of the Semester). In this book, Welch retraces the emergence of the discourse that emerged after 9/11 that ultimately materialized into the apparatus of the War on Terror, grounded in religious dichotomy of good versus evil, and provided the basis for scapegoating. Such scapegoating had very real consequences in terms of both domestic and foreign policy: hate crimes, profiling, erosion of privacy and civil liberties, torture, renditions and other state crimes. Welch then analyzes both these policies and the discourse sustaining them.

Welch is a criminologist, so there is a lot in the book about the legislative and legal work that went into the crafting of the whole GWOT apparatus. There is a lot that is not new at this point in the book. A lot of “ink” has been spilled detailing the gory details of the Bush administration policies, and their continuation under the Obama administration. Similarly, several books have been written on the whole torture / rendition issue.

The strongest aspect of the book, in my view, lies in Welch’s mobilizing sociological and social-psychological theories and concepts to address the larger cultural aspects of the GWOT, and how the administration was successful in building up cultural support for its policies and creating a culture of denial, facilitating scapegoating. This is what I will focus on.

“Scapegoating involves displacing aggression onto innocent people selected as suitable enemies due to their perceived differences in race, ethnicity, religion and so on. As a social psychological defense mechanism against confronting the real source of frustration, scapegoating provides emotional relief for people racked with fear and anxiety. That solace inevitably short-term, prompting scapegoaters to step on a treadmill of endless bigotry and victimization.” (4)

Welch argues that after 9/11, there was indeed quite a bit of scapegoating against Muslim men and the level of hate crime against Muslims in the US increased significantly. Sometimes, it was cheered on by right-wing talk radio (the usual suspects, the same “Obama is a Muslim” crowd). This was accompanied by more systematic policy of rounding up Muslim men by the Department of Homeland Security. In that logic, Muslim man = terrorist prevailed both discursively and institutionally.

Similarly, Welch argues that the reaction to 9/11 can be best explained through the lenses of both moral panic framework and that of risk society:

“Moral panic, simply put, marks a turbulent and exaggerated response to a perceived social problem whereby there is considerable concern and consensus that such a problem actually exists. Blame is then shifted to suitable villains who absorb societal hostility. Along the way, the perceived threat exceeds proportionate risks, forming a disaster mentality from which it is widely believed that something must be done urgently or else society faces a greater doom.” (13)

Therefore, according to Welch, there are four elements of moral panic:

  • Concern
  • Consensus
  • Hostility
  • Disproportionality

Moral panics tend to be fairly circumscribed in time. They are specific events, with a beginning and an end. They are not perceived as systemic issues but as moral tales of good and evil. Risk society, on the other hand, establishes that the risks that are the conditions of the post-industrial, information age, are systemic risks. They are less moral in nature, less easily framed in terms of good and evil. Less conducive to scapegoating. Moral panics call for punishment of the scapegoats. Risk society would call for systemic reform that would call into question the social, economic and political arrangements of the global system (hence the hot potato attitude that prevails then). Which is why powerful actors (politics and media) may be seen as cheering on moral panics (calling for drastic policy and keeping the panic alive) while trying to calming things down on global risks (don’t run to the bank when it looks like we’re going into economic recession, don’t sell your stocks).

In the case of 9/11, the dominant theme that emerged and eclipsed all the other is that of safety and security. What can make America secure and Americans safe. For Welch, security and safety became the major sites of social anxiety (a major precondition for moral panic). But this fits very well as well with the risk society approach where risks are man-made (terrorism) and the solution is neither clear nor clear-cut: what is security, after all? What is safety? And the solutions are not easy either: it is impossible to eliminate terrorism from the face of the earth. Not only that but the risk of terrorism it self is unpredictable and incalculable.

The GWOT shares elements of both moral panic and risk society but they operate at different levels and trigger different reaction as mentioned above. They are both sources of social anxiety. Moral panics are sites of social anxiety because the political and media organizations amplify the actual dangers. Risk society is a source of social anxiety because the risks themselves may be invisible and unpredictable. How does one protect oneself against that? The need for security and safety then presents a political opportunity for “tough on (whatever)” political attitude and rhetoric. There was no shortage of that in the Bush administration and their cultural cheerleaders (think Toby Keith and others).

Institutionally speaking, the need for security and safety makes possible the unquestioned (and unquestionable) emergence of the homeland security-industrial complex (the latest version of the military-industrial complex, then the corrections-industrial complex) composed of

  • Private corporations
  • Government agencies
  • Professional organization

And that is alongside the intelligence-industrial complex. Both benefit financially (corporations) or in terms of institutional power (government agencies) or respectability for expertise (professional organizations) from the state of anxiety.

Scapegoating, of course, is one way in which individuals and groups try to regain control over their safety in the absence of clear solution to the risks  to which they are exposed. Social anxiety prepares the ground for the type of “frustration / aggression” that precedes scapegoating, as many social-psychological studies have shown. Scapegoating is even easier if the targeted group can be seen as “different”, “not as human” (Erikson’s process of “pseudo-speciation”). This also involves the classical Authoritarian Personality theory.

Both theories are adequate to explain scapegoating. Sociologists are equally interested in the consequences of scapegoating, increased in-group solidarity, sense of belonging and superiority and denial of one’s responsibility for the problems. It is therefore not uncommon to see disasters turned into morality plays with heroes and villains, leading to punitive policies, and more generally, a punitive culture, as is the case in the US where more and more behavior come under criminal sanctions and where incarceration levels are the highest in the world. This also leads to a culture of control where the only the consequences of crime matter, rather than its causes. It is simply assumed that criminals are “different”, “not like law-abiding citizens”. Not considerations is given to structural factors.

And when one adds fundamentalist religion to the mix, when social problems are formulated in religious terms, when the GWOT is posited as a crusade, then the risk of scapegoating is increased. It is then not surprising to find an increase in hate crimes directed at the scapegoated religious group.

“In Justice and The Politics of Difference, Iris Marion Young (1990) identifies five ‘faces of oppression’ that generally typify experiences of minority groups” exploitation (e.g., employment segregation); marginalization (e.g., impoverishment); powerlessness (e.g., underrepresentation in political office); cultural imperialism (e.g., demeaning stereotypes); and violence (e.g., hate crimes).” (64-5 emphasis mine)

Combined, these structural and cultural factors render a minority more likely to be scapegoated and targeted for mistreatment and violence perceived as justified, or at least excusable. Scapegoating is also a means of social exclusion and social control towards “them” (whoever the target happens to be) to keep them in line so that violence is then legitimate and seen as the victim’s fault. But of course, if a population is going to be targeted for mass, symbolic or structural violence, perpetrators’ responsibility and agency has to be denied. So, this leads to what Welch calls a culture of denial that makes acceptable all the ways in which scapegoats are mistreated. It is this culture of denial that allows the US society to hardly question the practice of torture, rendition, detention, erasure of civil liberties and mass surveillance.

Following Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Welch identifies three forms of denial that have been used in the GWOT:

  • Literary denial: “We don’t torture” as former President Bush stated. It is a blanket denial that something happened.
  • Interpretive denial: the facts are not refuted but their meaning is reinterpreted (waterboarding is not torture, it’s enhanced interrogation).
  • Implicatory denial: the facts and their meaning are not denied but their psychological or moral impact is denied or minimized (yes, people were tortured but they were not permanently harmed).

When denial becomes embedded into the cultural narrative, then, certain things happen:

“Unlike totalitarian regimes that go to great lengths to rewrite history and block out the present, denial in democratic societies is subtle, often taking the form of  spin-doctoring and public agenda setting. But similar to totalitarianism, democratic nations also build denial into the ideological facade of the state, turning to fraud rather than to force (Cohen 2001; Willis 1999). Eventually, entire societies are subject to slipping into collective modes of denial and when that occurs, citizens adopt potent defense mechanisms against acknowledging atrocities within their own nation. In the war on terror, cultural denial and official denial operate in tandem, developments that pose great threats to civil liberties and human rights (see Neier 2003; Schulz 2004).” (174)

Which is why the antidote to the culture of denial, according to Welch, is the pursuit of the truth and bringing it to light, for instance through court litigation.

This is an important book for the obvious: its topic. It is a one-stop shop regarding all the policies of the Bush administration and all the ways in which scapegoating became policy and trickled down into the culture, where hate crime and state crime coexist. From my narrower perspective, it is also a book that neatly weaves together sociological theory and research with real world stuff and shows the explanatory power of sociological theories and concepts to real-life phenomenon.

Social Stigmas That Kill

Burned alive in Kenya:

This is horrifying, of course, but it is even more so to see how casually people who have participated in these lynchings behave afterward and how just a touch of rationality could put a stop to this:

I have already mentioned how these cases seem to increase as the economic situation deteriorates and people see their conditions degrade and experience even more uncertainties than before. In such conditions, it is not uncommon for scapegoating mechanisms to emerge and for the population to turn against a specific category of people who have no way of avoiding their being stigmatized and targeted, in this case, the elderly targeted by the youth.

Lest we think these things are limited to Kenya (or Tanzania in the case of stigmatized Albinos), case number two: poisoned in Kosovo.

Violence against Roma is not limited to Kosovo… not even to Eastern Europe:

Stereotypes abound about the Roma and here again, economic deterioration makes them an even easier target for violence and institutional discrimination.

In both cases, there is no way the targeted population can disprove the accusations against them. How does one prove a negative ("I am not a witch")? Or how does one prove that one has the right "soul"?

There are always anecdotes available in public discourse that support the stereotype (along with "personal knowledge" stories taken as sufficient evidence). And confirmation bias is commonly used: any information that reinforces the stereotype is easily believed without questions whereas information or data that does not support it is treated with suspicion and questioned. And if that is not possible (the information is factual), then, the new information only proves that there are a few exceptions ("they’re not all bad") but that these do not invalidate the rule.

One argument often invoked to justify racism attitudes and behaviors is that the target (as representative of a whole category and proxy for it) must have done something to the racist perpetrator(s). There is something about the Roma that predisposes them to be victims of violence. This conveniently turns the table and blames the victims for their own victimization.

Research, however, has shown that prejudice and discrimination against one category of people is usually accompanied by prejudice against other categories (racism, sexism and homophobia often go hand in hand). So, unsurprisingly, once the Roma were gone, more violence followed against other categories:

Nationalism and Homophobia at the Eurovision

Radoslav Banga, Rom and proud to claim the heritage, will represent the Czech Republic at the Eurovision with a song "Supergypsy" that makes fun of all the stereotypes applied to Roms. His selection, according to Le Monde, has enraged the Czech neo-nazi who cannot stand the thought of a Rom representing the country (I told you before the Eurovision is all about nationalism). The song itself is really not that great but the video is a satirical accumulation of anti-Rom stereotypes:

But anti-Rom prejudice is not limited to the Czech Republic. Hungary has had its share of anti-Rom violence as the economy deteriorates and prejudice levels deepen:

The rise in prejudice is, of course, perceived not as a reaction to a deteriorating economy but as a logical reaction to an "objective" state of affairs: Roms commit a lot of crimes, everyone knows that. Why doesn’t the government do something about it, clamors the entire right wing (and not just the usual ethnocentric far right)? Once public opinion’s awareness is raised, any incident involving Roms will be labeled as Rom criminality, creating a cumulative record of ethnic anti-social behavior that can be pointed to as major social problem. It works even better when the scapegoated minority has a long history of being blamed for criminal behavior:

And here is a good demonstration of how one creates a criminal ethnic minority:

Furthermore, another good illustration of racial construction works in two steps: (1) define a lot of crime as "Gypsy crimes", but also (2) de-racialize crimes committed against Gypsies as not racial or ethnic hate crime, that is, eliminate the racial motive. What is left is a socially produced view of society where Gypsies commit a lot of crimes against the majority but are never victims of crime because of their ethnicity. This ethnic-based criminality of the majority against the minority is then nicely evacuated, leaving only one category of crimes and criminals.

Another issue that has arisen for the Eurovision is the question of homophobia mixed with extreme nationalism as activist groups plan on organizing a gay pride event corresponding to the Eurovision contest in Moscow (the last gay prides ended badly as nationalists beat up on the demonstrators that included Right Said Fred singer – remember him?). This year might not be very different as nationalism and religious extremism flourishes in Russia:

It remains to be seen whether international reputation matters to the notoriously-homophobic mayor of Moscow.

Book Review – The Violence of Hate

VofH I hve just finished reviewing Jack Levin’s The Violence of Hate – Confronting Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Other Forms of Bigotry (website) for its publisher. It is a short and interesting book that is probably more adapted to criminal justice courses than strictly sociology. It is well-written with a lot of examples and stories, and therefore highly readable for undergraduates. Anyone above that level will probably be frustrated.

Despite the inclusive title (but then why are racism and anti-semitism singled out?), the book deal mainly with racial and ethnic issues. Other forms of bigotry (as mentioned in the title) get a really short shrift. There is very little on misogyny or homophobia. Often, when these are mentioned, it is to indicate that racist and anti-semitic prejudices and social psychological mechanisms involved in such prejudices are similar when it comes to women and LGBTs. I understand that to deal thoroughly with gender issues in a broad would require a much longer book, but then, the title should reflect that and limit itself to "confronting racial and ethnic prejudice", that would be more accurate.

At the same time, when dealing with racial and ethnic prejudice, the book largely sticks to American issues. It is also, in my view, a major mistake. There are examples from other countries, of course, but that does not make a global perspective. A few comparisons here and there are just not enough. A quick look at conflicts around the world reveals a lot of ethnic dimensions whether as causes or consequences or both. Similarly, the book largely ignores the global rise of religious fundamentalism around the world and its role in ethnic prejudice, homophobia and misogyny not just in discourse but in practice.

Of course, if one teaches sociology or social psychology, there is little one will learn in this book, we are not the audience, so I won’t count reading yet again about Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo against the book. It is relevant. My issue is with the theory chapter. As a general rule, textbooks deal very very badly with theory. That section is often botched and it is no wonder that students do not get it.

Moreover, textbooks have a tendency to juxtapose one theory next to each other without really explaining their respective validity. Not all theories are equal. Some are better than others. And yet, we often get treated with things like "this is theory 1, it is largely macro, and critics say it ignores micro realities; then here is theory 2, it is micro and critics thinks it does not pay enough attention to macro factors." As a result, students do not get interested in theory, do not see why they should learn them or what a theory is for in the first place.

Unfortunately, this book is no exception in this pattern. Theories and perspectives that have been rather thoroughly debunked are still treated with kid gloves. The Bell Curve is garbage and one should not tapdance around that. The same goes with the Moynihan Report and other culture of poverty types of explanations. As with many textbooks, when I read this textbook, I really felt that the author did not enjoy doing it and did it only because it is a required chapter in all textbook. It comes across as a chore before going to the real stuff that the author is really interested in.

There is nothing really new or groundbreaking in this book. Personally, I get a lot more by reading David Neiwert’s blog on US hate groups. I do not necessarily fault the author for the lack of originality. Textbook publishers are afraid of innovation and they keep churning out textbooks that tend to be clones of each other. Part of me thinks that the textbook is obsolete when there are such great resources online. In this case, maybe, this book is the future, very short with just the basic background, and it would be up to the individual instructor to find additional resources elsewhere to make a course interesting.

This book is not for a Sociology of Violence course. It is not broad, global and thorough enough. It is good, though, as a introduction to explaining racial and ethnic prejudice.

Banal Racism – Mexican Stereotypes Edition

>This Burger Kind ad distributed in Spain provoked the ire of the Mexican government:

BK ad

Aaah, the nice contrast between the tall, slender, muscular and handsome American cowboy (how ironic considering the rates of obesity in the US) and the short, fat, greasy, Mexican wrestler… who could possibly find this ethnocentric and racist. BK got the message and decided to modify the ad.

Gated Communities as Alternatives to Residential Segregation

Elena Vesselinov, “Members Only: Gated Communities and Residential Segregation in the Metropolitan United States”, Sociological forum, Vol. 23, No. 3, September 2008, 536 – 555.

This is another article that would be a good read for undergraduate students because it follows step by step the different stages of the research process, all condensed in a relatively short space. This articles takes a serious statistical look at the gated communities around the United States, based on census data. The research question, based on existing literature positing that gating (the increase in gated communities) increases residential segregation and therefore urban inequalities, is as such:

"Do the factors that affect segregation also affect gating?" (537)

In other words, it seems that the existing research assumes similarities between gating and segregation, but are they really similar phenomena? Vesselinov summarizes the research as such:

"Residential segregation has long been under scrutiny as a salient dimension of urban inequality. Segregation, together with other forms of urban inequality such as occupational, racial, and gender inequality, constitutes a central subject of inquiry within urban sociology, for it has serious implications for public policy and everyday life in large cities." (537)

Which then leads to the hypothesis:

"The expectation is that the same structural characteristics that determine the level of segregation will influence the process of gating. The expectation reflects the notion that gating and segregation are closely related as dimensions of urban inequality. Both processes work together to perpetuate social exclusion. (…) First and foremost, gating is a process of social exclusion, based on race, ethnicity, and income. Second, gating, as well as segregation, is rooted in the idea of preservation of property value. Third, people flee to the suburbs or gate in order to avoid crime and the increase in minority populations. Fourth, both processes are related to privatization of space and a certain level of neighborhood autonomy." (543-4)

Indeed, in the 1940s and the 1950s, redlining was a main institutional process to establish residential segregation precisely to prevent blacks and other minorities to settle in mostly white and affluent neighborhood. Protecting property value was related to this. So, homeowners’ covenants and neighborhood improvement associations could then play little government and create their own rules that kept undesirables out of certain areas just as effectively as walls.

So, Vesselinov’s starting point is that indeed, there will be similarities between the processes of residential segregation and gating, such as mechanisms and causes, which then perpetuate urban inequalities. The main things that gated communities are suppsoed to provide are

  • prestige
  • privacy
  • protection

And they do so through physical barriers that enclose their inhabitants and reflect an increased privatization of space in the sense that restricted access applies to streets and sidewalks. Private governments rules these spaces. What, according to Vesselinov, drives gating is the fear of the other in an increasingly diverse society. It is therefore not surprising that a major wave of gating occurred during the Regan years, as social inequalities increased.

However, Vesselinov’s research shows that gated communities are no longer limited to the upper class. Actually, lower and middle class Latinos are more likely to live in GCs (as renters or owners) than affluent whites. The existence of renter communities is indeed an underreported aspect of GCs, especially in the form of gated apartment complexes occupied by renters or area newcomers that belong to the professional middle class. But some degree of diversification does not mean that the image of GCs as homogeneous enclaves does not hold true.

What do the results show? First, gating is more correlated to the presence of immigrants (especially Hispanic) but not the presence of blacks. Gating and segregation tend to go together in areas that have experienced an increase in proportion of immigrants. Secondly, residential segregation and gating do not always appear together (as one reinforcing the other) but rather as alternatives (places with lower segregation but higher gating), for instance in the South and the West.

Vesselinov then concludes that, depsite similarities, residential segregation and gating should be seen as alternatives based on the same causes: fears of "strangers" (anyone socially different). In areas of declining residential segregation, the data shows an increase in gating. Hardly social progress. But why is this the case? Vesselinov offers one possible explanation: fighting the Fair Housing Act of 1964 while stil separating oneself from those deemed undesirable as neighbors.

"Gating seems to be this new mechanism. (…) The increase, particularly, of the Hispanic population in the South and the West seem to have led also to an increased desire for clear demarcation of residential lines and, again, gating provided the option of secluded residential space. Moreover, gated residences offer one important advantage compared with the process of residential segregation: residents do not have to escape to second, third, and forth rings of suburbs in order to avoid poverty or an increase in minority groups. A more efficient method is the walling off, which generally can take place anywhere in the metropolitan area. In addition, gating, unlike residential segregation, is not regulated by any federal legislation (Schragger, 2001). In fact, many local governments have a vested interest and encourage the building of GCs (McKenzie, 1994, 2004)." (553)

So, when segregation is no longer possible for a variety of reasons, gating becomes the preferred alternative.

My Commenters Are Smarter Than Me – Collective History And Public Policy

In a previous post, commenter Outremer added two important data points related to the ways in which debates and controversy over contemporary French public policy are shaped by collective history. So, I’ll just reproduce them here:

"These issues have been profoundly in play, in similar and very different ways, in the French overseas departments (states) Martinique and Guadeloupe, where the vast majority is black, and where hostility towards whites is systematic and intense, as well as ignored, and usually is also often overcome by an overarching sense of equality and a set of very respectful manners that discounts race differences. Other factors here are the history of colonialism since 1600s, with some few thousands of surviving progeny who draw on their communal and ancestral ties with France, and strong local culture and language (creole which is not understood by most French). France has many proudly quasi-independent nationalities within (Basque, Corsican, Creole, etc.) which seem to coexist and partake of the French polity while continuing strong local traditions. I find that discrimination is encoded very differently here than in the US South, or US Northwest where I’ve lived most. I have been disappointed that here in Martinique, access to learning about local creole culture is starkly absent from the curriculum, and intercultural sharing is challenging if also accelerating by drinking rum together. Cultural traditions dissipate less when closed."

I think there are several dynamics at work and that not every ethnic group is treated the same. After all, Corsican nationalist groups (literally) get away with murder and systematic terrorism (not to mention all sorts of fraud and large-scale subsidizing by France and the EU) whereas French youth from North African descent get to experience the TLC from the anti-criminality brigades. The French state has always (for some incomprehensible reasons) accommodated the Corsicans but repressed "les jeunes de banlieues." Whiteness might be a factor along with the fact that Corsicans, for better and for worse, have a longer history with France (along with the misfortune of having produced Napoleon and his power and money-grabbing family).

Similarly, Britons and Basques have been largely treated with kid gloves with the exception of ETA in the latter’s case. Even though Basque nationalist have been subjected to extensive surveillance by the French state, one needs only consider their treatment by the Spanish state to see the difference. As for the Britons, well, in a country with such a strong tradition of centralized and national curriculum, they managed to get les écoles diwans.

Colonial territories such as Martinique and Guadeloupe are a different story altogether. Suffice to say here that nationalist (often racialized) demands are usually not kindly treated by the French state.

Outremer also added this:

"Of course I should have mentioned that there have been dramatic and intense strikes here that have demonstrated the local power of the unions; which also echo and draw strength from French and local cultural traditions of opposition and even more from ethnic politics of solidarity aggravated by ethnic discrimination. The entire economy here was shut down for well over a month (no schools, no gas, no postal service, no supermarkets or stores), until agreement was secured on lowering prices on common food items and on increasing salaries for the lowest paid workers."

It is indeed interesting that forms of protest use a well-known repertoire of contention in the French context: the labor strike.

And to add some more to this topic, this was in the news today:

It remains to be seen what this Committee for the Measurement of Diversity will actually measure and whether it will be able to detect forms of discrimination that have gone unnoticed before. I am glad though to see that Michel Wieviorka (current president of the International Sociological Association and very well-known sociologist) is part of the group.

When Bad Collective Memories Influence Public Policy

France does not like the idea of collecting ethnic data because the last time we did it was before we sent the Jews to the concentration camps, going above and beyond the demands of the Nazis. In 1978, the government passed a law prohibiting the collection of ethnic data.

France also does not like the idea of ethnic data because it goes against the myth (because it is a myth) of a unified Republic where all that matters is the national identity. France is not a multicultural country and significant segments of the population (both from the left and right wings of the political spectrum) do not want a multicultural country. They want an assimilationist Republic (that is, one where immigrants make all the efforts to assimilate but nothing is due from the dominant group). The problem is that one of the necessary conditions of assimilation is acceptance of assimilated minorities by the dominant group: that is both cultural and institutional assimilation, which means no discrimination. Many studies have shown this is far from the case and that discrimination, both individual and institutional is widespread.

In this way, France is a very Durkheimian society where the educational system is still very much perceived as the frontline of the Republic (and public school teachers were the main soldiers of the Republicm wrestling young minds from the dreadful clutches of the Church), where children are taught the value of being French and living in a republic and where collective conscience is clearly internalized. Not a big surprise here: Durkheim was very instrumental in the development of the French public system of education.

As a result, France is notoriously hostile to policies such as affirmative action which are perceived as promoting communautarianism and separatism, that is, the slicing and dicing and allocation of rights and benefits along ethnic lines (France already allocates many benefits either universally, such as the health care and educational systems as well as family benefits, or on the basis of income). This deeply-held attitude is the basis for the controversy over the veil in schools and demands for special privileges by some Muslim groups.

There is no doubt that the current economic situation will not provide a calm context for rational discussions of immigration policies and persistent discrimination.

Such nationalist fears of national undermining from within are also accompanied by fears of undermining from above, notably through assimilation into the European Union. As much as mainstream political parties have made France a main engine of the European Union (along with Germany), there has always a clear and vocal anti-EU current in French politics, both on the left and the right reflecting fears of imposition of neo-liberal policies along with fears of the loss of cultural specificity (don’t touch my camembert!).

If Men Define Situations As Real…

In a comment to this post on the social construction of race, Ian Welsh reminded me of the importance of Thomas Theorem, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." The analytical difficulty is that certain thing, like "race" (as socially defined) seem to have an objective existence because they are used so commonly in discourse and practice (as well as social science research, I might add). And of course, one can "see" race.

Relatedly, I blogged a lot about the murders of albinos in Eastern African countries as a good example of social construction of deviance and stigmatization with very real and concrete consequences (if albinos’ body parts are defined as having magical properties, then, it "makes sense" to kill them for said parts).

Another example of such a process emerged recently:

Of course, to be at the receiving end of the full force of governmental power makes such consequences more horrifically real for the accused.

"When men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." … And when powerful men define situations as real (the existence of witchcraft), then they are not only real in their consequences (the internment of suspected witches), but the scope of such consequences becomes magnified to the point of creating a potential human rights disaster.

It would also be interesting to find out whether deteriorating economic conditions in Africa foster a more intense or violent search for scapegoats (albinos or witches) as they might in Western countries as well (non-White immigrants).

One would think that the scapegoats here would be bankers or CEOs or the financial / investor classes.  All of them are to a certain extent. However, as the financial crisis deepened, the main narrative promoted by the mainstream media has been "we’re all to blame". How interesting that when low-class people commit deviant acts, they are perceived as individually or categorically to blame but when the crimes or deviant acts of the wealthy (acts that have far deeper consequences for the entire social structure) become impossible to ignore, blame and responsibility has to be diffused throughout the social structure and re-directed somewhat lower on the social ladder ("if only these idiotic poor people had not taken out all these loans"… ignoring the inconvenient evidence to the contrary). Thank goodness for individuals like Bernie Maddoff who allow the main narrative to be individualized.

Internalized Institutional Prejudice At Work

Via Jenn Lena who wants us to spread the word on this:

Here is some context of the whole incident. I find the whole idea that the officer confused his gun with the Taser he was actually trying to get not exactly an excuse. There is now a fairly long record of using Tasers just because people do not comply fast enough (tasering a guy who does not get up because he has a broken back) or behave in an annoying fashion ("don’t tase me, bro’"). And I am quite sure that young black men are more quickly perceived as combative and non-compliant than other categories, which lowers the bar at which officers decide to escalate the use of force.

Socialization (childhood and professional) involves internalizing which categories of the population are automatically put in the "safe" category and others in the "to be feared". Young black men are definitely in the latter… approaching middle age white academic women like me are in the safe category. For the diversity training that cops might receive, if they do, there is still this "safe-dangerous" continuum that affects social interaction and makes it more likely that interactions with individuals of the "dangerous" category are more likely to escalate and to involve violence. Any word or behavior is more likely to be interpreted as threatening.

This "safe-dangerous" continuum is socially produced, of course. It is more a Durkheimian social fact: external to us but exercising influence over our behavior.

And of course, young black men also internalize the fact of being negatively perceived by police, which in turn, shapes their behavior as well. As one blog commenter stated, "Any black man that says he is not nervous when he must deal with police is a liar." And the lack of fear that other categories experience is an invisible privilege that is enjoyed without realization. To perceive the cops as people who are here to help you that is often treated as the default setting from an upper class white perspective. This is the norm. From this perspective, the perception of the cops as threatening can then be dismissed as "they brought it on themselves." The norm of "cops as helpful" is then held constant and if something happens (such as this shooting), then, something else, some other factor must be involved (the person was non-compliant; the shooting was purely accidental; the cops were afraid of the crowd on the train, etc.)

What is equally interesting is to contrast the SF Gate article I linked to behavior and the search for an explanation of why the officer shot Grant and what exactly happened through the whole interaction with the comments of the people on the train (you can hear them all through the video), watching the interaction unfold. They seem to have to no trouble figuring out what is going on and the progressive escalation.

What a tragedy.