That murder was racist and it did expose institutional racism and discrimination, so why the quotation marks? Both racism and institutional discrimination are real things in the world. And neither things were in doubt in this case. So, again, why?
Let me make a hypothesis here: we insert quotation marks around factual statements when they somehow reveal that minority / marginal points of view turned out to be objectively correct after all.
One of the marks of privilege is to have one’s privileged point of view readily accepted as factual and objective and not marked by bias whereas the points of view of disadvantaged categories tend to be dismissed as overreactions, exaggeration and overall lack of objective perspectives. Therefore, we put quotation marks as a marker of point of view rather than factual statement.
Here again, individual discrimination (active, individual racism) is easy to spot and mostly socially unacceptable in most Western societies. However, harder to detect and more devastating in its social effects is institutional discrimination. Institutional discrimination is discrimination in results, that is, discrimination as result of a multitude of institutional practices engaged in by a variety of individuals who are not necessarily individually racist themselves.
“Leading black academics are calling for an urgent culture change at UK universities as figures show there are just 50 black British professors out of more than 14,000, and the number has barely changed in eight years, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Only the University of Birmingham has more than two black British professors, and six out of 133 have more than two black professors from the UK or abroad. The statistics, from 2009/10, define black as Black Caribbean or Black African.
Black academics are demanding urgent action and argue that they have to work twice as hard as their white peers and are passed over for promotion.
A study to be published in October found ethnic minorities at UK universities feel “isolated and marginalised”.
Heidi Mirza, an emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, is demanding new legislation to require universities to tackle discrimination.
Laws brought in last month give employers, including universities, the option to hire someone from an ethnic minority if they are under-represented in their organisation and are as well-qualified for a post as other candidates. This is known as positive action. Mirza wants the law amended so that universities are compelled to use positive action in recruitment.
She said there were too many “soft options” for universities and there needed to be penalties for those that paid lip-service to the under-representation of minorities. Positive discrimination, where an employer can limit recruitment to someone of a particular race or ethnicity, is illegal.
The HESA figures show black British professors make up just 0.4% of all British professors – 50 out of 14,385.
This is despite the fact that 2.8% of the population of England and Wales is Black African or Black Caribbean, according to the Office for National Statistics. Only 10 of the 50 black British professors are women.”
This means that there are a series of unacknowledged expectations put on Black academics that limit their access to promotion as well as a lack of social network to rely on (so, no benefit from the strength of weak ties). And because this form of discrimination is largely invisible and harder to detect, it is often ignored if not denied as a lot of people think individual discrimination is the only form of discrimination that exists.
And note the double whammy for Black women.
This is also why positive (or affirmative) actions are the best remedy for institutional discrimination, as they tackle institutional issues (discrimination in result) and force institutions to review processes that are otherwise taken for granted and never questioned.
Rebecca’s Skloot‘s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a sociology book but there is certainly a lot of sociology between the lines. The book is a (well-deserved) best-seller, so, most people know what it’s about. There are several narrative threads: (1) the one that inspired the title, that is, the life of Henrietta Lacks, the woman who gave us the HeLa cells that are so widely use in medical research; (2) a bit of history of medical research, especially cell research, along with issues of consent and commercialization of cell lines; (3) Skloot’s journey as she tries to piece together Henrietta Lacks’s life and that of her family.
This gives the book a very structure that makes it highly readable, as Skloot mixes and alternates all three threads. And the science chapters are very well-written and make the topic very accessible to the non-specialist readers.
The three narrative threads are related, of course. The way in which Henrietta’s cells were extracted and used was fairly typical of the way research was done in the 1950s, and this also explains why the family was so extremely guarded when it came to sharing information with (especially white) reporters and journalists, hence, Skloot’s travails and tribulations when trying to contact Lacks’s relatives.
From a sociological point of view, this book perfectly illustrates what institutional racism and discrimination and structural violence are. The way Lacks’s cells were extracted, without her knowledge or consent (or that of her husband) typically reflects how the medical and scientific profession treated indigent and especially Black patients. These patients, often treated for free at places like Johns Hopkins, were considered fair game for testing, tissue extraction, etc. since they were not “paying customers”. And it is not that Lacks’s ended up in the hands of racist doctors. But she certainly ended up in a whole system of institutional discrimination where black patients got a different kind of care in a still segregated health care system. After all, the institution of medical research does not exactly have a glorious records when it comes to race, as the Tuskegee experiments remind us.
This leads me to the structural violence part. A great deal of the book is dedicated not only to the results of Skloot’s research but to that painstaking process itself. The children of Henrietta Lacks’s turned it into an obstacle course. Once you are past an possible initial reaction – “these people are nutcases” – it becomes clear that they bear the wounds of structural violence, that is, violence by social institution. Henrietta Lacks’s husband and children were lied to, manipulated, never really told what had happened to their wife/mother. And, of course, as the HeLa were widely commercialized, they never got a dime. But when it became known who had produced the HeLa cells, all of a sudden, a bunch of white people got interested in them, again, without compensation or recognition. As described in the book, they all lived in poverty and could not afford the medical care and medications that their mother’s cells had made possible.
And, of course, at the time, scientific and medical research was a white men’s world not well-known for enlightened views when it came to race and gender. And institutionally, those were the days before ethical standards, institutional review boards and HIPAA. And the culture was one of silent submission to authority, so, patients (especially women and minorities) did not ask questions and were treated in a somewhat disdainful and patronizing way.
The other kind of structural violence that Henrietta’s children suffered from came from within their family. Skloot provides painful description of the kind of massive abuse one of her sons suffered at the hand of his stepmother (which certainly accounts for his life of anger, violence and marginality) as well as the sexual abuse that one of Henrietta’s daughter experienced at the hand of a male relative, right under her father’s nose (and he did nothing). Male first cousin sexual abuse on female first cousin was apparently not out of bounds in the extended family. The other daughter, who probably suffered from some form of mental disability, ended up in one of these horrible mental institutions, never receiving any visitors after her mother’s death. Apparently, she was experimented upon while there.
Lacking a proper education, the Lackses end up either profoundly religious (of the revival kind, in the case of Deborah), having multiple brushes with the law, or at the very least severe behavioral problems. But all of them ended up prone to conspiracy theories as to what had been done to their mother and how the cells were obtained. None of which is surprising. But the depth of such structural wounds is highly visible as Skloot gets to meet different members of the Lacks’s family.
As I said, this is a fascinating read. Skloot has a great website with a lot of information as extension of the book, and this video:
Let us review: Blacks and Hispanics may show up in higher proportion in crime statistics NOT because they commit more street crimes, but because they are subjected to police scrutiny to an extent disproportionate to their proportion in the general population. If cops were constantly monitoring us white folks that way, the crime statistics would look different.
The constant stopping and frisking of certain segments of the population also generates resentment in said population and lowers the respect they have for police officers perceived as harassing them. Hence, community – police interactions are also more likely to be conflictual.
For Pete’s sake, don’t they read The Saints and the Roughnecks in criminal justice programs anymore?
Because, you see, there was never any real need for social movements and policies on racial equality. White Christian folks would have done it all anyway, on their own terms. After all, that is what wealthy White Christians do, save black kids because their families can’t take care of them (as illustrated in Precious).
So, these socially-themed movies completely evacuate the social except in its negative consequences seen as the a-historical and a-social product of dysfunction and deviant behavior only to be solved by the goodness of white and upper class people. Social policy (automatically equated as welfare which codes as “bad and inefficient and ineffective” in American social unconscious) does not work and is unnecessary.
These movies are part of the common American discourse that systematically rejects the idea of social determination (as opposed to meritocracy) by social allocation of social privileges and disadvantages, in favor of a childish view that one has “to believe in oneself” and have the “right values” to succeed. The significant result is the absence of coherent social policy in the US since this underlying view indicates that the poor are deviant to be sanctioned. Or, in “inspirational movies” (code for “sappy”, childish, and fit to be aired on the Hallmarks channel), individuals saved by other individuals (or families since in such a view, the family is the only social institutions that matters and is therefore undermined by non-family related mechanisms such as social policies).
Oh, and in both movies, the black dysfunctional individuals to be saved are grossly overweight.
I am not saying that every socially-themed movie should be a thorough lesson on structural violence but some movies have done it much better than these two apparently, for instance, City of God.
I really wanted to like Brenda R. Weber‘s Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity. The topic seemed attractive with the potential for a pleasant read on a subject for which sociological analysis has solid tools for critical examination. The author has watched over 2,500 hours of makeover television (which includes such shows as What Not to Wear, Extreme Makeover, The Swan, where the body is the main subject of the makeover, but also Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Pimp My Ride, Or How Clean is Your House? where the house or the car stands as symbolic representation of the people who own them.
I was hoping that the book would be usable for undergraduate classes on sex and gender. I was wrong. The book is a tedious read for the convoluted writing and non-stop jargon that seems to be the trademark of gender studies. And it is fairly repetitive. At the same time, for all the mentions of the 2,500 hours of makeover shows watched by the other, she does not provide a lot of examples and those examples mentioned seem to come from a very limited sample.
That being said, there are some interesting points and analysis that I will emphasize below but again, this book should not be considered a potential read for undergrads in popular culture, media and cultural studies alongside gender.
Weber’s first considerations go to the makeover genre in general to note that it is shot through with contradictions:
“To be empowered, one must fully surrender to experts;
To become “normal”, one must endure “extreme” body-altering interventions aimed at one’s gender, sexuality, race, class, and ethnicity;
To be truly feminine or masculine, one must be hyper-gendered;
To communicate an “authentic self”, one must overwrite and replace the “false” signifiers enunciated by the natural body;
To be unique and special, one must first be critically condemned by the social gaze;
To achieve a state of privacy where ugliness does not code as transgressive, one must appear on national and international television and publicly expose the shame of the “ugly” body.” (4)
So, makeover shows take a “before-body” that is not all of the above: not empowered, abnormal, wrongly-gendered (especially for straight women), sending out too many signals regarding class (not middle class), race and ethnicity (not white). That ugly, deviant, class and race-marked must be dramatically transformed into the “After-body” that is clearly appropriately gendered, middle-class, not too ethnically or racially coded and definitely straight. The before- and after-body may not be literally bodies, but may be homes or cars but the logic is the same.
Why would people (mostly women) subject themselves to such treatments? Makeover shows are morality plays: the before-body is the body of a depressed, disempowered non-subject that displays lack of confidence and is unable then to exploit her full potential in all aspects of her life, professional or personal. The makeover offers the way in which the subject truly becomes a subject: empowered, confident, autonomous, classy and physically attractive – the perfect individualized subject for the neo-liberal order. What emerges through the after-body is the real, authentic self. As Weber puts, the makeover show offers “salvation through submission” (6). The real self may be hiding under overweight, unflattering clothes, or a dirty house. The makeover offers to peel these ugly layers and reveal the real subject, hidden in there for whatever reason (depression, pregnancies and motherhood, etc.).
The contradiction then is that as much as the makeover is supposed to reveal the real individualized self that is now poised to competently take on the neo-liberal world of work and the straight world of romance, it does so through a form of normalization of the body by getting as close as possible to the white middle-class default position for competence, confidence and normativity. In other words, subjects who are seen as “too ethnic” receive more of a “makeunder” than a makeover. Similarly, lower class markers have to be eliminated as much as possible. And, of course, for women, gender has to be clearly codified through feminization. No more baggy clothes and tomboyish attitudes. Heteronormativity rules.
And, of course, such normative stance involves power if it is to be imposed upon the makeover subjects:
“Makeover narratives tend to play fairly old-school rules of power dynamics. Doctors and style gurus are all-knowing, great looking, never wrong; patients are miserable and depressed, aware of their short-comings, unsure of how to help themselves, willing to put themselves in the hands of experts for complete renovation, untroubled by any potential medical or financial complications, and fully satisfied and grateful for After-results.” (17)
And a big chunk of the show is occupied by the process of transformation, showing the hard work and/or suffering that subjects go through to achieve results defined by the experts as stand-in for social standards. There are moments of resistance by the subjects that are swiftly dealt with by the experts. Ultimately, submission to expertise and self-discipline brings the expected results. A nicely packaged morality play. A disciplined and regulated self, that displays its conformity to white, heterosexual, middle-class standards of appearance as neo-liberal subject is well-adapted to (and fulfilled within) the risk society. This disciplined (in Foucault’s sense) after-self contrasts with the undisciplined (fat, sloppy) and socially or ethnically over-signified before-self. The before self is, by definition, self-indulgent (too much food, too much sexiness, especially in non-white subjects) or lazy (dirty house, unruly children). The promise of happiness in personal life and success in the professional domain is the price to be obtained through the disciplining of the self.
As always in individualized discourse (by does not, by any means, evacuates the social), any questioning of the social structure is remarkably absent.
Weber identifies three themes that run through the makeover genre:
Renovation and rejuvenation, not just change but improvement through individualized yet disciplining and normative techniques.
An initial shaming and humiliation of the subject to make them subscribe to the urgency of their makeover, but combined with caring attention from the experts (what Weber calls “affective domination“).
The mandatory final “big reveal” where the After-body is revealed to the amazed audience, spouses and relatives of the subject who gets the celebrity treatment.
Which means that almost all show follow the same format with some variation:
(1) the initial shaming (note the scary music in this clip of How Clean is Your House? anything to emphasize the grossness of the place)
(2) The scolding of the subject by the experts with some resistance easily defeated.
(3) Submission and redemption
(4) The actual work of transformation
(5) The Big Reveal (sometimes before an awed audience, especially for body makeover)
(6) The euphoric subject and satisfied experts
The makeover genre fits perfectly within the individualization thesis in that people’s flaws are blamed on their poor choices and irresponsibility and that there is no salvation by society. Individualized issues require individualized solutions. However, the before-subjects have been shown to be incapable of the discipline that is required for a fulfilled self, as visible to others through personal grooming and style, proper housing and well-raised children. The makeover restores the subject to the middle class state of responsibility, style and restraint.
Individual discipline is posited not just as a moral but a social obligation (so the rest of the world does not have to look at the subject’s fat, ugliness, lousy clothing, spoiled brats, etc.). The individualized self is always under societal gaze. Investing in care of the self is a requirement for a better romantic and professional life.
“The transformational message suggests that the suffering person’s misery is specific, individualized, and nonsystemic. If people tease you about your ears, then change your ears. If people critique you for being a tomboy, become more girly. If people think you are always frowning, then get a brow lift or Botox. The insistence on individuated experience places the focus squarely on self-management and self-production where, as Wendy Brown notes, prime value is put on peoples’ capacity to ‘provide for their own needs and service their own ambition’ (6-7).” (62)
The makeover format also subscribes to a meritocratic ideology where everyone can make it with hard work and discipline (and just a little privatized help)… and a little something else:
“Entrance to Makeover Nation requires that Before-bodies experience abjection, anxiety and the willingness to change. Citizenship for After-bodies, by contrast, confers confidence, glamour and potential celebrity. If the cost of passage to Makeover Nation is the public of one’s lifelong humiliation, subjects seem more than willing to pay the fare, the rewards of belonging far outweighing the pain of isolation and critique.” (79)
These are the main themes that the book develops, providing examples, mostly from What Not To Wear (I would have hoped to read more from other shows, with more examples) but a lot of it is muddled, in my view, by jargon and abstractions that do not bring all that much to the discussion. Actually, they deter from the powerful theme of white, straight, middle-class normalization through individualized discipline.
Weber also devotes a chapter to men in makeover shows. After all, the whole idea of submitting to expert transformation is a very feminine idea. How do men accept it? Well, they accept it because the shows afford them more places of resistance (after all, they have to accept expertise from women and – gasp! – gays) and more agency (they are depicted as more actors in their own makeovers). And the makeover definitely is geared towards making them more masculine in order to be more attractive and successful, but in a powerful way (as opposed to the feminine, sexy yet classy style for women).
As mentioned all over the place, this is Dances with Wolves meets The Last Samurai where noble savages who, unlike modern white folks, have not lost their connection to nature and are happy in their spiritual bliss and gentle nature stewardship (see how the Na’vi connect – literally – with animals and other natural elements, including souls). Cameron’s noble savages are very new-agey and, in a very 2009-fashion, they are connected to each other and the entire ecosystem through a global network (as Grace the biologist – Sigourney Weaver – tells us).
Against them are lined the superior forces of global corporations and military contractors who do their bidding and get well paid for it. And the battle is over resources that Pandora has and that Earth needs. The corporation wants it and it will take it one way or another. The message on environmentalism and the rights of indigenous peoples is not exactly subtle.
And so, the movie culminates in the final battle between mean Goliath against the gentle David. But the Na’vi have a joker card which answers the question asked in the post cited above:
I have a different view. It’s not about having a character to relate to. It’s about white supremacy. Let’s look at the evidence: Jake Scully gets initially introduced into the tribe because of some religious sign that designates him as special and he will be the only one to be able to connect with the big-ass red bird that will come so handy in battle and reinforces his spiritual status as “Super Na’vi”. And that is on top of the skill set he brings to the tribe: his marine and military training, which will ultimately save the Na’vi. The noble savages, with their bows and arrows, need a white military man to save them and become their leader. Where have we seen that before? Oh, yeah, in tons of movies. The white man in the avatar becomes a better Na’vi than the true Na’vi (and gets the girl, of course).
So, even though we are presented with a story that is designed to convey a message of environmentalism, multiculturalism and peace, we end up with the maintenance of white supremacy… oh and apparently, violence works, especially when based on military training, it’s what allows the Na’vi to win, once all the tribes are united under the leadership of Jake Scully. Without him, they’d be toast.
And, by being a super Na’vi, Scully can erase his being a defective / inferior white man due to his disability who initially agrees to spy on the Na’vi to regain his legs and therefore become a full man again, as promised by the über-patriarchal man delightfully played by Stephen Lang.
Oh, and let’s not forget who tells the story: Jake Scully. He is the narrator all through the movie. White man’s voice and perspective.
As I watched the movie, I could not help thinking whether all these people in the movie theater would think twice about drone bombing in AfPak? I don’t think so. It seems that the sociologists over at Sociological Images are skeptical as well:
In other words, because it relies so much on common colonizer history revised through multicultural lenses that more befit the enlightened 21st century, the story is entirely predictable, almost plot point by plot point.
Another interesting aspect of the story is detailed by Antonio Casilli (and links to a full peer-reviewed article in French for those of you who read it). Casilli’s argument is that cultural analysis shows that there is nothing really new about the avatar trope, including its blue color.
Do read the whole thing or the paper itself if you can.
All that being said, the movie is certainly enjoyable and not boring (even though the final battle scene was getting a bit long for me). I saw it in 3D and the visuals were indeed stunning (the images of the forest at night were beautiful) but again, it has to be viewed with a critical eye beyond the technical prowess.
Years ago (1998, to be exact), the French justice system finally went after Vichy heavyweight, collaborator extraordinaire, and all-around fascist asshole and mass murderer from the 1940s to the 1960s Maurice Papon, finally finding him guilty of crimes against humanity. Before his trial started, Papon gave an interview in which he hoped to make his case to the public before facing the judges. He failed miserably, first by throwing back angrily at the journalist the photos of Jewish girls he had sent to their death. Then, he seriously explained that he sent entire Jewish families to the camps, even though the Germans only demanded the men, because – family values! – he, in his compassionate heart, did not want to break up the families… better have them all killed together!
I am bringing this up because this “humanitarian” reinterpretation of history seems to be one of the strategies of revisionism and negationism. Case in point, you all remember Rabbit-Proof Fence?
Here comes the revisionism: this was not colonial oppression or structural racism:
Well, of course, everybody knows these savages (“wild”) are hot-blooded and young girls have sex with whites (rather than, you know, white men raping Aborigines girls… which totally never happens in colonial contexts). So, you see, it was for the children – family values again – and to temper those wild instincts!
But then, such paternalism is quite often used as an alibi for patriarchal violence, especially directed at racial and ethnic minorities whose oppression (and sometimes massacre) is reinterpreted as paternal protection.
General note: any argument couched in some variation of “it’s for the children” is usually not worth listening to.
This Live Journal entry (via Unusual Music over at Alas, A Blog) is a must-read on the different tropes that Hollywood has developed to deal with racial composition in movies and how white and non-white characters are distributed and combined in the narratives and cast. The entry is chock full of popular culture references that most of you will recognize.
This is a great illustration of structural racism: how an entire industry perpetuates racial stereotypes and generate white supremacist narratives even if individual producers and shakers and movers are not themselves individually racist. It also reveals how “white male” this industry still is and how it impacts the narratives that ultimately get produced.
This is a good illustration also of the way culture and popular cultural products produce, and reproduce, the “natural” sense of white people as superior to people of color so that these narratives are easily accepted by the majority white audience for whom these movies are produced. The default moviegoer is assumed to be a white man, less so but still as well, sometimes, a white woman.
Go read the whole thing and come back for a perfect example below the quote.
How many of you have seen Baz Luhrmann’s Australia? Here is the trailer:
So, look at the cast: aristocratic British white woman (Nicole Kidman’s character), ruggedly individualist white man (Hugh Jackman) who “married” an aboriginal woman (big trope) so that he is slightly more sensitive to the Aboriginal culture (she died, conveniently, so he can fall in love with the white aristocratic women, after some mild class clash). A few nasty white men (especially David Wenham) depicted negatively (this is the 21st century after all and we are all enlightened people, we know racism is bad). You also have a few aboriginal characters, principally, the mixed race child (BIG trope) who has a hard time finding his place as he belong nowhere: not in the white society, not in the “black” society (big time cliche if there ever was one). We also have his mother (who conveniently dies as well so that the boy can be “adopted” by Nicole Kidman and so that the three of them, with Hugh Jackman, can make up a “normal” family). And then, again because this is the enlightened 21st century and new age nonsense is omnipresent, we have King George, the “true” Aboriginal grandfather of the boy, who has almost mystical powers (because we’re not supposed to diss indigenous culture anymore, that’s too colonial).
And yet, at the end of the movie, the social arrangements have not changed. The heroism of the white characters has not changed the fact of Aboriginal oppression and the exploitative nature of colonialism. What we have is an aristocratic white women on a journey of self-discovery (love and motherhood) and a white man recovering from loss thanks to their adventures defending colonial interests (Kidman’s cattle business) while saving poor little Aboriginal children (never mind that they also do not change the system that socially and institutionally mistreated “half-caste” children… Kidman’s outburst at the oh-so distinguished charity ball has no long term consequences). As the movie aptly tells us before the credits roll out, that system persisted until the 1970s. But hey, the Kidman character has it both ways: first, she saves a little Aboriginal boy and adopts him, and THEN, sacrifices her motherly love to send him back to his grandfather for his “walkabout” rite of passage into his own culture.
As always in US-produced movie, lower-class white people can only be of two kinds: those who accept their station in life and do not challenge the class status quo. In this case, it is the Jackman character. He even states that he stays out of the way of the aristocrats and they do the same (of course, out of love, he will violate that rule). He lives most of his life with Aboriginals, but they work for him and they call him “boss”, even his ex “brother-in-law”.
The other kind of lower-class white people is represented by the Fletcher character (played by David Wenham). This type of lower-class character wants to move up the social ladder but does so dishonestly or even by committing murder. In many movies and books and TV series I have watched, the only way for lower-class people to move up is to submit to upper-class people, accept their dominance, work their you-know-what up for them and be individually rewarded for it by social promotion. But you always have these damn ambitious characters who can’t do it the right way (submission and acceptance of exploitation). These bad lower-class characters, of course, get their comeuppance at the end, as Fletcher does. They are also shown to be rotten through and through: Fletcher is racist and a rapist, he is the biological white father of the mixed race boy that Kidman adopts as he repeteadly rapes the boy’s Aboriginal mother.
This pattern of lower-class distinction characters, incidentally, is something I noticed for the first time when a friend of mine gave me a series of mysteries by Mary Higgins Clark. Once you notice that pattern, you will notice it everywhere in popular entertainment.
All this can only work if audiences are not socialized into identifying structural and systemic aspects of films and books and TV programs, such as class and race. At the same time, these cultural products work to reproduce such systemic blindness and focus everyone’s attention on individual drama which then functions as ideological cover.
When one teaches introduction to sociology courses, one is always on the lookout for a good, readable book that makes a powerful case for the relevance of sociological analysis without dumbing it down or turning it into “you can have better relationships thanks to sociology” kind of drivel. After all, introduction to sociology textbooks are mostly horrendous and I don’t know who could ever be drawn to sociology just by reading a textbook (hence my own personal revolt and work-in-progress).
One of the things that sociology does well is debunking: take commonly accepted ideas and show systematically and with data how these ideas are actually false. That’s why when my new colleague mentioned The Meritocracy Myth by Stephen McNamee and Robert K. Miller jr., I was immediately interested because if there is one thing American students reject outright, it’s the durkheimian idea of social facts that are constraining on individual behavior or the supposed “natural” idea that some people are just smarter than others (I teach at a community college, you’d think they’d be more critical of that one, but nope, and rationalizations abound) or that people’s social positions reflect their moral worth.
In the book, McNamee and Miller review the roots of meritocratic individualism and then proceed to deconstruct all the different aspects of meritocracy and explore how social privileges and disadvantages are socially allocated based on a variety of factors mediated through various social institutions. They provide a strong demonstration for the power of the social structure. Seamlessly combining social theory (like Bourdieu on social and cultural capital) and recent data, the authors mercifully work towards a welcome “everything you believe is wrong” conclusion.
“The acceptance of meritocracy in America is predicated not on what ‘is’ but on the belief that the system of inequality is ‘fair’ and it ‘works.’ According to the ideology of meritocracy, inequality is seen to be fair because everyone presumably has an equal (or at least adequate) chance to succeed, and success is determined by individual merit. The system supposedly works because it is seen as providing as individual incentive to achieve that is good for society as a whole; that is, those who are most talented, the hardest working, and the most virtuous get and should get the most rewards.” (4)
This is the mark of an ideological construct that it is promoted by a variety of institutional arrangements (schools, media, etc.) so much so that it becomes natural (after all, how different is this from the structural-functionalist view of inequalities). And like many ideologies, this belief is a cultural underpinning of the maintenance of the status quo, politically, economically and socially while making increasing levels of inequalities acceptable. And like many such ideological constructs, they are based on scrapping from view the nasty side of the history of social privilege, as perfectly illustrated by this Ampersand comic found at Eric Stoller’s website:
So, McLemee and Miller deconstruct this belief, taking on the sub-arguments one by one and showing how they do not survive scrutiny. They demonstrate how social privileges and disadvantages are allocated before birth and are accumulated every step of the way as the privileged accumulate social, economic and cultural capital by sending their children to “the right kind” of kindergartens, pre-schools and schools. Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Chamboredon’s thesis on Social Reproduction is well known: schools reward upper-class habitus and privileged kids’s possession of the right kind of social and cultural capital and allow them to accumulate more of it.
The authors also examine and discard the “attitude” argument (“those with the right attitude succeed”) as well as the moral argument (success comes to the virtuous, those who postpone gratification, as opposed to the poor who, as often repeated, have the wrong values, go for immediate gratification and have their own self-defeating subculture, as the culture-of-poverty argument goes). One would think that with the economic collapse and the exposure for the whole world to see of the incompetence and immorality of the financial class, that argument would have been put to rest, but no, the mortgage crisis was the fault of all these poor people who could not defer gratification and had to buy houses they could not afford (never mind that reality shows otherwise and points the blame higher on the social ladder).
“But,” my students often argue, “what about athletes, and Oprah?” (Why do they ALWAYS have to bring Oprah to the conversation??):
“One could argue that these ‘elites’ are truly talented and have extraordinary physical qualities not available to the average person (e.g., size, speed, agility, hand-eye coordination). Raw talent alone, however, is not enough. Talent has to be cultivated through recruitment and opportunities for training. Potential talent can go unnoticed, particularly in the absence of opportunities to develop and exhibit it. Training may be expensive and not easily available to people of modest means, particularly in such sports as golf, tennis, swimming and figure skating.” (28)
And then, there is, of course, the question of inheritance, the most obvious mechanism of transmission of privileges. Advocates of meritocracy should militate for the abolition of any form of inheritance, after all, it is unearned. Of course, it would be impossible to scrap any unearned privilege from one generation to the next as it would be impossible to eliminate social and cultural capital. Indeed, what is captured under the “silver spoon” expression covers a wide range of behavioral and dispositional traits and symbolic advantages that go beyond material wealth.
There are also all the different forms of structural discrimination by race and ethnicity, gender and sexual preference, age and others. Being part of the dominant group constitutes an invisible (and therefore deniable) form of unearned privilege (as the comic above also illustrates) that has cumulative effects.
And then there’s luck, just plain and simple: being born in the right place at the right time, at times of economic transitions (as opposed to economic recession… the structure of opportunities is pretty bleak right now, especially for those already disadvantaged because they have nothing to fall back on, which is another advantage to the privileged who can then engage in greater risk-taking behavior with bigger potential pay-off because they have greater resources to fall back on).
“In thinking about who ends up with what jobs. Americans tend to first think about what economists call the ‘supply side.’ In labor economics, the supply side refers to the pool of workers available to fill jobs. The ideology of meritocracy leads Americans to focus on the qualities of individual workers: how smart they are, how qualified they are, how much education they have, and so on. These ‘human capital’ factors, however, represent only half of the equation. The other half, the ‘demand side,’ is about the number and types of jobs available. How many jobs are available, their location, how much they pay, and how many people are seeking them are important but often neglected considerations in assessing the impact of merit on economic outcomes.” (137)
So, once we have the picture of an unequal system that is a far cry from the claims of the meritocratic ideology, why should we care? We should care because increased stratification, first, is unfair. Some people are gaming the system intentionally or not, and for others, the system is gamed in their favor. So, basic social justice applies. As the book demonstrates, most of the privileges are unearned.
More than that, as demonstrated in The Spirit Level, social inequalities are bad for society on a variety of indicators. An unequal society is even bad for those who benefit the most from unearned privileges, so egalitarian policies are the solution to provide equality of opportunities, or even, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett recommend, equality of results (somehow, always a more controversial claim). Most of the remedies McLemee and Miller suggest are well-known: progressive taxation, government spending, etc. Nothing really new here.
As I mentioned above, this is a book really for undergraduate students. The professional sociologist will not find anything really new in the book, but clear conceptual definitions and some pretty nice argumentative retorts to usual students defending the meritocracy myth. It’s a book that should be mandatory reading for any sociology department’s undergraduates.
The main argument made by Wacquant is that the social policy of transition from welfare to workfare cannot be understood unless it analyzed in conjunction with the rise of prisonfare (mass incarceration of certain categories of the population). Workfare and prisonfare are two sides of the same coin: the areas where the neoliberal state can still assert its authority once depleted of its economic and social policy functions.
As neoliberal policies get implemented (in the name of globalization or moralization of society through work or punishment), a lot of people find the rug pulled from under their feet, mostly the poor and more specifically single women with children and minorities. What to do with these? Well, for the women, it will be workfare. For the men, it will be prisonfare. This seems a bit simplistic but the data clearly show such a trend. In the United States, this is combined with the inherent structural and institutional racism at the heart of society. Prisonfare is the lastest mode of black subjugation and control along with ghettoization.
For Wacquant, the combination of workfare and prisonfare fulfills both economic and symbolic functions for the neoliberal punitive state (as workfare is equally punishing as prisonfare) fight the crisis of legitimacy that pervades all developed democracies as the state divests itself from its capacity to set economic policies and abandons policies of social justice and redistribution. With the help of the media, public attention is directed not at the massive transfer of wealth to the top of the social stratification ladder but rather on designated “incorrigible” deviants: welfare cheats and parasites, criminals and pedophiles against whom the ever-more intrusive mechanisms of the surveillance society are applied.
Of course, this all is based on a series of lies that nonetheless produced and dispersed throughout society, mostly, again, through the media: that the US is spending enormous amounts of money on welfare (False: AFDC never accounted for more than 1% of the federal budget) or that crime is on rise, perpetrated by ever younger and more dangerous “predators”. Here again, this is false: crime has been on the decline for a long time irrespective of the policies implemented or not. See below, for instance as Americans still believe that there is MORE crime (and by that, they think street crime):
Regulating the poor is indeed the major outcome of these policies but there is not, according to Wacquant, some large-scale conspiracy as such a conspiracy would require much more competent coordination and centralization as is available in the United States. What we see are the logical conclusions and results of separately adopted neoliberal policies: liberalization / privatization on the economic domain, shrinking of the state in the name of efficiency, and de-socialization of waged labor (along with waves of outsourcing and off-shoring) along with a moral cultural outlook on social deviance. Such economic policies are bound to be devastating on certain segments of the population which then need to be controlled for their individual moral failings, largely depicted in terms of lack of self-control and responsibility.
Either way, the victims of neoliberal policies are irresponsible, unproductive individuals who need to be disciplined (in Foucault’s sense) and that is the job left to the state, with the recourse of private sector actors such as private welfare / child welfare administrations and private prisons. In this sense, in this punitive environment, structural conditions leave the most vulnerable members of society to fend for themselves even though their ghettoization prevents them from improving their conditions. Then, they are blamed for their lack of ability to get out of them.
There is, of course, one type of economic activity which would lead to better economic results: illegal economy. This is where the policies of the War on Drugs work to prevent those deprived of socialized wage labor from one exit from poverty, lending them, of course, in prison, serving large sentences for which there is no parole.
These very real economic impact of the neoliberal state on the poor is coupled with a persistent stigmatization that successfully covers the fact that these policies, workfare and prisonfare, do not have much to show for themselves almost 15 years after their implementation. But this is also the one weak point I found in Wacquant’s book: it needs some major statistical and data updating. Most of the data date back from the 1980s and the most recent date from the 1990s. One would want to know the state of these trends now. A lot can happen over 10 years, especially since these 10 years cover the entire Bush presidency.
Moreover, Wacquant also demonstrates that this double regulation of poverty (through workfare and prisonfare) has been exported to Europe, stating with the liberalization of the state through Thatcherism in the UK, the Kohl years in Germany and the oh-so memorable Chirac years as PM in France. Even the various left-of-center parties, such as the socialist parties in Western Europe have embraced the law-and-order view of the state and neoliberal economic “reforms” all the way to Sarkozy’s slogan to “work more to earn more”… we all know what happened to that in these past years.
In a way, this book truly illustrates the best of sociological analysis: it is a combination of solid data analysis, identification of patterns and trends and use of theory to pull it all together and a very convincing and critical demonstration. In this, this is a powerful book. I am not sure it is readable at the undergraduate level though and that is unfortunate because I am always on the lookout for great sociological books for my students to read to get a sense of how powerful sociological analysis is. Or at the very least, it should be offered as guided reading, with a lot of work to be done on the instructor’s part to guide the students through it many levels of analysis.
“To grasp the kinship between the ghetto and the prison, which helps explain how the structural decline and functional redundancy of the one led to the unexpected ascent and astonishing growth of the other during the last quarter of the twentieth century, it is necessary first accurately characterize the ghetto. But here we come upon the troublesome fact that the social sciences have failed to develop a robust analytic concept of the ghetto; instead they have been content to borrow the folk concept current in political and popular discourse at each epoch. This has caused a good deal of confusion, as the ghetto has been successively conflated with – and mistaken for – a segregated district, an ethnic neighborhood, a territory of intense poverty, a zone of housing blight and even, with the rise of the policy myth of the ‘underclass’ in the more recent period, a mere accumulation of urban pathologies and antisocial behaviors.
A comparative and historical sociology of the reserved Jewish quarters in the cities of Renaissance Europe and of America’s ‘Bronzeville’ in the Fordist metropolis of the twentieth century reveals that a ghetto is essentially a sociospatial device that enables a dominant status group in an urban setting to simultaneously ostracize and exploit a subordinate group endowed with negative symbolic capital, that is, an incarnate property perceived to make contact with members of the category degrading by virtue of what Max Weber calls a ‘negative estimation of honor.’ Put differently, the ghetto is the materialization of a relation of ethnoracial control and closure built out of four elements: (i) stigma, (ii) constraint, (iii) territorial confinement, and (iv) institutional encasement. The resulting formation is a distinctive space, containing an ethnically homogeneous population, which finds itself forced to develop within it a set of interlinked institutions that duplicates the organizational framework of the broader society from which that groups is banished and supplies the scaffoldings for the construction of its specific ‘style of life’ and social strategies. This parallel institutional nexus affords the subordinate group a measure of protection, autonomy, and dignity, but at the cost of locking it in a relationship of structural subordination and dependency.
The ghetto, in short, operates as an ethnoracial prison: it encages a dishonored category and severely curtails the life chances of its members in support of the ‘monopolization of ideal and material goods or opportunities’ by the dominant status group dwelling on its outskirts. (…) Note next the structural and functional homologies with the prison conceptualized as judicial ghetto: a jail or penitentiary is in effect a reserved space which serves to forcibly confine a legally denigrated population and wherein this latter evolves its distinctive institutions, culture, and sullied identity. It is thus formed of the same four fundamental constituents – stigma, coercion, physical enclosure, and organizational parallelism and insulation – that make up a ghetto, and for similar purposes.” (204-5)
This is a great video to use if you teach introduction to sociology. The class, racial and gender dynamics are unmistakable (“she’s eager to please!”… well duh, if you make attitude a condition to continued employment, yes, the lowest paid employees are the ones who have to do most of the emotional work).
Sherryl Kleinman and Martha Copp, Denying Social Harm: Students’ Resistance to Lessons About Inequality, Teaching Sociology, Vol. 37, No. 3, July 2009, pp. 283 – 293.
Those of us who teach undergraduate courses in sociology know how hard it is to fight the pop psychology mixed with mass media culture, individualism and Weberian protestant ethic (people’s position in life reflects their moral worth) that passes for students’ critical analytical skills especially on the topic of social inequality.
In this article, the authors tackle four folk beliefs (defined, following Howard Becker, as conventional understandings that people use to make sense of the world and to act toward it) that get in the way of students’ understanding of the social dynamics and structures of inequalities and their harmful consequences. These four folk beliefs are
Harm is direct, extreme and the product of an individual’s intentions;
Harm is the product of the psyche;
For harm to occur, there must be an individual to blame;
Beliefs and practices that students cherish and enjoy cannot be harmful.
These folk beliefs, again, are not surprising but the product of the surrounding culture marked by individualism, pop psychology and religious moralism (that last one is not mentioned by the authors, it is my contribution and I find it a very powerful factor in ignoring and denying the social).
So, students readily understand interpersonal racism (and find it distasteful) but have a hard time grasping institutional racism and discrimination. They tend to completely deny sexism and are on the fence on homophobia, probably less because of religious reasons but because of the ick factor. It is harder to understand how social structures and institutions produce and reproduce inequalities with harm socially inflicted upon entire categories of people. What students understand is "bad people do bad thing for psychological reasons" or "stupid / immoral people are stuck at the bottom of the social ladder because of their own shortcomings".
Similarly, students have a hard time understanding the notion of social privilege or the fact that they, themselves, might be the recipient of unearned privileges precisely because other people are disadvantaged. They will often argue that they, personally, are not privileged. Or, as the authors mention, they will come back with false parallels (black people can be racist too). And if the social context cannot be totally evacuated through blame or "psychologization", then, students will often perceive that their sociology instructor brings it up to excuse immoral behavior.
So what do we do? The authors conclude their article with a bullet point list of recommendations for teaching to tackle these four folk beliefs but these are so general to be largely useless (example "shift students’ focus away from "good people" vs. "bad people" to the unintended consequences of specific social practices for reproducing or challenging inequality", well, duh, but that does not really help as to HOW one accomplishes that AND, this is as much the expected outcome as the process).
The second weakness of this article, for me, was the fact that the authors go through the first two folk beliefs with an almost exclusive focus on gender and not a word on social class.
Finally, too often, the explanation for students’ resistance to social explanations of inequality relies on "conceding the existence of the social nature of inequality would shatter the students’ image of themselves as "good people"". This seems a bit weak tea and a soft persistence of pop psychology (it’s about self-esteem, the catch-all American category). I would argue that it has more to do with bringing to the fore structures of power and questioning them. These structures are not meant to be exposed and irritation would seem the normal reaction. Unpacking this stuff is not pretty.