Saints And Roughnecks 2.0… Only Worse

Todd Krohn, over at The Power Elite, continues his exposing of the criminalization of adolescence through a variety of measures often under the banner of “zero tolerance”, the educational version of the oh-so-effective broken windows theory of crime.

What is the broken windows theory of crime?

“The concept of broken windows was developed by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling who published their article titled Broken Windows: The police and Neighbour Safety in the March, 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. The authors posited their theory in the following words: “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in run-down ones. Window breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing (it has always been fun).”[2] “The essence of Broken Windows,” explains Charles Pollard, “is that minor incivilities (such as drunkenness, begging, vandalism, disorderly behaviour, graffiti, litter etc.), if unchecked and uncontrolled, produce an atmosphere in a community or on a street in which more serious crime will flourish.”[3] In other words, crimes flourish because of lax enforcement.”

Loic Wacquant makes mincemeat of it:

“According to Wacquant it is not the police who make crime go away. A trenchant critic of Giuliani-Bratton police work, Waquant puts forth the view that six factors independent of police work have significantly reduced crime rates in America. First, the boom in economy provided jobs for youth and diverted them from street crimes. Even though the official poverty rate of New York City remained unchanged at 20% during the entire decade of the 1990s, Latinos benefited by the deskilled labour market. The blacks, buoyed by the hope of the flourishing economy, went back to school and avoided illegal trade. Thus even though under-employment and low paid work persisted there was decline of aggregate unemployment rates which explains 30% decrease in national crime rates.

Second, there was twofold transformation in drug trade. The retail trade in crack in poor neighbourhoods attained stability. The turf wars subsided and violent competition among rival gangs decreased. The narcotic sector had become oligopolised. This resulted in a sharp drop in drug related street murders. In 1998 it dropped below the one hundred mark from 670 murders in 1991. The change in consumption of drugs went from crack to other drugs such as marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines, a trade which is less violent as it is based on networks of mutual acquaintances rather than anonymous exchange places.

Third, the number of young people (age group between 18-24) declined. It must be noted that the young people in this age group are found most responsible for crimes. The AIDS epidemic among drug users, drug overdose deaths, gang related homicides and young criminals imprisoned eliminated this group by 43,000. This decline of young people resulted in the drop of street crimes by 1/10th.

Fourth, the impact of learning effect that the deaths of earlier generations of young people had on the later generation, especially those born after 1975-1980, avoided drugs and stayed away from risky life styles.

Fifth, the role played by churches, schools, clubs and other organizations in awareness and prevention campaigns exercised informal social control and helped to control crimes.

Sixth, the statistical law of regression states that when there is abnormally high incidence of crime it is likely to decline and settle towards the mean.[10] Wacquant concludes that the dynamic interplay of the six factors was largely responsible for the drop in crime rates in America and the claim that policing alone was responsible for the drop in crimes at best rests on shaky empirical data.”

Zero tolerance is the same idea often applied by school authorities against adolescent behavior. In reality, the application is always biased against certain categories of the population (surprise, surprise). Krohn:

“Back in the 1970’s criminologist William Chambliss published an infamous study of juvenile delinquency entitled “The Saints and The Roughnecks.” In it, Chambliss documented how school teachers and principals often discipline students based merely on their appearance, social class and race and ethnicity (he would also show disparate treatment in the larger community, by law enforcement, in the court system, and so on).

But in school, students who were minority or working class in appearance were often punished and suspended for infractions their white, middle class-looking brethren would often escape punishment. And now we can conclude that things have only gotten worse in the last 30+ years.

Racial Disparity in School Suspensions Grows:

The study analyzed four decades of federal Department of Education data on suspensions, with a special focus on figures from 2002 and 2006, that were drawn from 9,220 of the nation’s 16,000 public middle schools.

The study, “Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis,” was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization.

Throughout America’s public schools, in kindergarten through high school, the percent of students suspended each year nearly doubled from the early 1970s through 2006, the authors said, an increase that they associate, in part, with the rise of so-called zero-tolerance school discipline policies.In 1973, on average, 3.7 percent of public school students of all races were suspended at least once. By 2006, that percentage had risen to 6.9 percent.

Both in 1973 and in 2006, black students were suspended at higher rates than whites, but over that period, the gap increased. In 1973, 6 percent of all black students were suspended. In 2006, 15 percent of all blacks were suspended.

Among the students attending one of the 9,220 middle schools in the study sample, 28 percent of black boys and 18 percent of black girls, compared with 10 percent of white boys and 4 percent of white girls, were suspended in 2006, the study found.

Beyond the racial, ethnic and class disparities lies the issue of “zero-tolerance” which, as we now know, means “zero-sense.” The ongoing criminalizing of childhood and adolescence has had a real effect, via the suspension process, on a generation of kids.”

And as Krohn notes, with the Duncan Department of Education dangling money under the noses of the states in exchange for charter schools and higher test scores, there are really no incentive to not suspend or expell.

Arbitrary Roots and Oh-So Very Real Effects of Cultural Gendering

A very good article in the Guardian regarding gender and color stereotyping. Saussure and Levi-Strauss established long ago that signifiers are arbitrary, hence the variability:

If I remember correctly, blue used to be the color of the Virgin Mary whereas pink was the color of angels. Bottom line: we divide the world into neat categories of signified supported by arbitrary signifiers that have very real effects. For instance, all this stuff about color and texture shapes gender socialization in ways that have been extensively studied by many scholars.

So now, pink is a girls’ color and blue is a boys’ color. In spite of such obvious arbitrariness, we still get this type of nonsense when evolutionary scientists who are always so keen on proving that everything gendered is encoded in our genes and innate:

Oy. Right, because, of course, these women were absolutely not influenced by their socialization, and other socio-cultural factors, so it just HAS to be biology.

We see how strongly we use these arbitrary cultural signifiers and how much they organize our perceptions when they get questioned, as with the Pink Stinks campaign:

Cultural standards, especially those pertaining to gender, are not to be messed with. That kind of deviance gets attacked very quickly and nastily:

Anyone who has taught gender has encountered that kind of aggressive resistance from students who feel personally attacked when the social and cultural logic of gender (and its oppressive effects) are exposed.

That is how social structures and cultural standards reproduce themselves: by being not only embodied in social actors, but by also shaping perception not just of “what is normal” but of the very self. Hence, any deconstruction is perceived as a personal attack. Social control mechanisms then get into high gear through a variety of (passive-)aggressive behaviors like the nasty emails above, or students providing anecdotal evidence that supposedly invalidates the point being made.

This is the same logic underlying the phenomenon of corrective rape or any type of gender violence whose goal is to force individuals back into the narrow yet socially and culturally-defined boxes of gender roles. They are at the roots of various forms of symbolic violence (which is no less real than interpersonal, physical violence) as ways to make deviance very costly to those tempted to step outside of the box (and encourage others to do so, as the Pink Stinks campaign ladies do).

Book Review – Bright-Sided

No one writes about the American culture like Barbara Ehrenreich. At the same time, Ehrenreich never lets anyone forgets that there is a socially stratified reality out there and that cultural trends are often ideological scaffolding supporting unequal and precarious systemic conditions for most of us. Her latest book, Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America is no exception.

In this book, Ehrenreich takes on the “positive thinking” industry, tracing its roots back as a reaction to the fire-and-brimstone Calvinism of 18th-19th century America and following the movement all the way to the corporate culture of magical thinking that got us where we are today, through the monumental success of garbage like The Secret, positive preaching of the likes of Joel Osteen and positive psychology.

As usual, Eherenreich’s style is a combination of sarcasm and bafflement as to how supposedly smart people can believe such nonsense along with constant reminders that this stuff is all well and good but there is a harsh reality out there that needs to be addressed, no matter how positive one’s outlook is, to the point of self-delusion.

Ehrenreich also relates her own experience with positive thinking when she got cancer dove into the world of support group along with, and there lies the problem, the whole “mind over matter” mentality underlying positive thinking: if you wish something strongly enough and positively enough, it will happen. Similarly, you can “beat” the cancer through positive thinking. And above all, cancer patients are enjoined to not see themselves as “victims”. Getting cancer is reformulated as an opportunity to reexamine one’s life.

Wait, where have we heard that before? Well, in a lot of corporate motivation stuff. Remember “who moved my cheese?” That is part of the same movement. You were laid off? Hey, that may be the best thing that ever happened to you because now, you can go look for new sources of “cheese”! Don’t waste time blaming your boss or the economy. Losers, whiners and pessimists with a victim’s complex do that. Positive thinkers create their own opportunities through a change in their attitudes!

All this is part of the individualizing trend that Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman discussed in the context of neoliberalism and globalization. No more salvation by society, Peter Drucker told us. It is every individual for hirself, with one’s own set of skills (to be managed like assets and periodically updated) AND the right attitude. But the bottom line is that every person is on their own, with their own cancer or medical condition or their own broken career and precarized future. All the positive thinking industry is dedicated to make people accept that without protesting against the structural conditions that promote such insecurities and risks (in Beck’s sense).

So, for all the support groups, online communities of cancer survivors (not patients or victims!), cancer becomes a private experience, a private battle:

“I’m not so sure, but without question there is a problem when positive thinking ‘fails’ and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place. At this point, the exhortation to think positively is ‘an additional burden to an already devastated patient,’ as oncology nurse Cynthia Rittenberg has written.” (42)

After all, positive thinking can never fail, rather people fail at positive thinking.

Nothing better illustrates positive thinking as magical thinking than the best-selling, Oprah-certified piece of garbage that is The Secret. I cannot express how much I loathe the whole The Secret Thing. It is an insult to all people in the world in situation of misery, poverty, war, genocide or deprivation more generally. It is a childish justification for selfish greed and lack of concern for social issues. It is also a form of individualization of social conditions.

All this might feel like harmless “feel good” new agey nonsense but the injunction to cut oneself off from “negative people” (that is, anyone with a realistic grasp of the world) has normative implications that can be pretty nasty, from being ostracized to being laid off. This reminded me of my college where mediocre administrators make stupid decision with predictable negative consequences that we, faculty, are expected to fix. And when we mention they got us into this mess because they didn’t do the analysis or we did it for them but they ignored it, the response is always “well, are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” or various injunctions to let go of the past and be future-oriented (because heaven forbid that we might learn from our mistakes). Actually, academia has become heavy on the administrative side imbued with the positive thinking corporate-think.

But what’s with the all the mystic stuff? According Ehrenreich,

“What attracts the coaching profession to these mystical powers? Well, there’s not much else for them to impart to their coachees. ‘Career coaches’ may teach their clients how to write resumés and deliver the self-advertisements known as ‘elevator speeches,’ but they don’t have anything else by way of concrete skills to offer.” (63)

Well yeah, because, again, once you take out the social context and some generic encouragement to go back to school for some skill upgrading (gotta keep the “me” brand up to snuff), there is nothing else, really.And the same goes for positive psychology (I confess that, as a sociologist, I always get a tingle of schadenfreude when psychology gets knocked around a bit as Ehrenreich does… but then, Ehrenreich is a frequent guest / keynote speaker at ASA meetings, and a very popular one too).

There is a nastier side to this though. The “be positive” mantra, in the context of the “lean and mean” global economy, means not just that people have to what Hochschild long ago called emotional work as part of the service economy. No, being positive is more about working harder for less in a forcibly cheerful manner for fear that the slightest hint of “negativity” (sin of sin in the positive thinking movement) might put one as number 1 on the list of next layoffs. So, the obligatory constant self-monitoring is no longer for any trace of sin (as the old Calvinist religion had it) but relentless persistent self-examination for any trace of pessimism.

“The work of Americans, and especially of its ever-growing white-collar proletariat, is in no small part work that is performed on the self in order to make that self more acceptable and even likeable to employers, clients, co-workers, and potential customers. Positive thinking had ceased to be just a balm for the anxious or a cure of the psychosomatically distressed. It was beginning to be an obligation imposed on all American adults.” (96)

In other words, employers can now bombard their employees with “motivational” literature and DVDs as a sort of emotional blackmail and social control in the workplace. Out with the old-fashioned clock watching, in with the “right attitude” as mode of Foucauldian discipline. And so, all of a sudden workplace walls are now filled with stupid motivational posters with their stupid clichéd pronouncements.

And of course, in the United States, there is no amount of nonsense that can’t be made more nonsensical by mixing it with dumb religion, hence the success of Osteens and others of their ilk. In this “theology”, one finds the usual “be positive, you’re not a victim” tripe along with “God wants you to be rich” or “God got you laid off so you would embrace all these wonderful opportunities (that have not materialized yet but don whine about that)”. Of course, this makes the pastorpreneurs very very wealthy.

Ehrenreich ends her exploration of the positive thinking movement by showing how it has influenced the corporate world: the housing bubble was never going to burst. House prices were always going to go up forever. The market would continue to grow and self-correct (remember Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God?). Ehrenreich shows how much the overlords of the corporate world, detached from reality as their wealth, lifestyle and power makes them ended up believing the mantras of positive thinking and “laws of attraction”. Heck, such magical beliefs were also held by Alan Greenspan.

Ultimately though, whether it is positive thinking, Christian science, positive psychology or whatever other new age, religious drivel du jour, this all boils down to ideological constructs that blame the victims of structural conditions that block their opportunities, and justify gross social inequalities.

“This victim-blaming approach meshed neatly with the prevailing economic conservatism of the last two decades. Welfare recipients were pushed out into the low-wage jobs, supposedly, in part to boost their self-esteem; laid-off and soon-to-be laid-off workers were subjected to motivational speakers and exercises. But the economic meltdown should have undone, once and for all, the idea of poverty as a personal shortcoming or dysfunctional state of mind. The lines at unemployment offices and churches offering free food include strivers as well as slackers, habitual optimists as well as the chronically depressed. When and if the economy recovers we can never allow ourselves to forget how widespread our vulnerability is, how easy it is to spiral down towards destitution.” (206)

That’s nice but Ehrenreich forgets one thing- and that is the one GLARING omission of her book – Americans elected for President the ultimate motivation speaker, positive thinkers and religious charismatic. Not a system-changer, as we clearly know now (even though the signs were there before the election). The Hope-and-change theme made a lot of people feel good about themselves, about their ability to happily vote for a black man (“we nominated the black guy” exclaimed Chris Bowers after the Democratic nomination).

A lot of people patted themselves on the back for the positive feeling of being so enlightened and of participating in a collective experiment in positive thinking in action, without affecting the system one damn bit. Obama sold himself as a brand, very successfully. A lot of people embraced Obama, proudly proclaiming they contributed to changing the world (not the universe, mind you but close enough). And one can find in his speeches all the themes of positive thinking that Ehrenreich describes in her book. And yet, somehow, she missed that part.

“Octomom”, Labeling Theory, Power and Deviance

I have already blogged about the "Octomom" and it just so happens that I was discussing deviance with my students today and her case, of course, came into the discussion and that gave me the opportunity to make a few sociological points regarding the labeling process, moral entrepreneurs and power. My first question to the students was to make a list of the norms that Suleman had broken that got her so labeled. They came up with the following:

  • 8 / 14 kids is too many (which I countered with the 18-kid family with a TV show and by asking how many would the norm be?)

  • You’re supposed to have children sequentially (so, I asked that if she had had them one after the other, would that have been ok?)

  • She’s single (I asked why being married was so important. They said because one receives help from the partner. Then I asked whether several husbands would be better with such a large number, no?… polyandry)

  • She’s going to be on welfare and therefore we’re going to pay for her brood (Then I asked why this is so upsetting since we’re paying WAY more for the banks and their CEOs’s bonuses… could social class have something to do with it? I also added that withdrawing support would hurt the children, is that fair?)

  • She had plastic surgery and spent money on fluff stuff (I asked how that was different than bailed out banks spending money on bonuses and perks)

  • She’s weird and creepy and disgusting (I asked whether having children should be limited to non-creepy, non-disgusting people and who gets to define what’s creepy and disgusting – in light of having asked them how many thought they had at least one disgusting habit that, if done in public, would bring about a stigma and many of them had raised their hands)

When all these individual factors are put to the foreground, what remains in the background is the institutional realities such as the social organization of reproductive technologies, the fact of high failure rate and multiple implantations and selective reduction.

Also, once Suleman was labeled, as a society, we allowed ourselves to scrutinize all aspects of her life and promulgate prescriptions as to how she should live it. Her body and her very existence become public domain, open to all, something common to stigmatized and deviant-labeled individuals.

At the same time, similar deviance (such as not being financially independent and costing the taxpayer money) is more likely to be noticed and questioned for people low on the social ladder, and largely ignored, and if noticed, not really sanctioned when done by people high on the social ladder even if the infraction is greater with greater consequences.

And I also mentioned the economy as a factor, mentioned as well in a Newsweek article (hat tip to Jay Livingston, with thanks)

Then, we compared this case to that of the Westboro Baptist Church, Michael Vick and Michael Phelps and noted the obvious gender difference and the fact that Suleman’s case deals with reproduction and feminine sexuality. Also, wealth and status may allow certain individuals to fight back against the label and to reclaim a non-stigmatized identity whereas individuals with low power and status will have a harder time getting rid of it.

I also ask my students to note the role of the media in spreading socially-prescribed emotions and discourse and the selective role of that institution as moral entrepreneur and enforcer.

Bottom line, when something triggers such intense societal reaction, analytically, we should ask ourselves what cultural / social nerve was hit and take it from there rather than give in to the socially-prescribed feelings and discourse.

And I finished by telling the guys who had admitted to smoking and spitting on the sidewalk that, considering how gross and disgusting a habit this is, they should not be allowed to have children. Class over. 🙂