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.

Book Review – One Thousand White Women

OTWW I only read Jim Fergus‘s One Thousand White Women because a friend whose opinion I value recommended it. Well, that was an inspired recommendation as I read the book over Thanksgiving weekend and could not put it down.

The premise of the novel is quite interesting. It is inspired with the historical fact that in 1654, a Cheyenne Chief suggested to the Army authorities that the Cheyennes be given one thousand white women to facilitate the assimilation of Cheyennes into white society through marriage with Cheyenne men. Indeed, the Cheyenne’s kinship structure is matrilineal. Therefore, the children born of these unions would be part of the white society. You can imagine the reception to such a request.

Fergus situates his story in 1875, imagining what would have happened if the US government had agreed to the Cheyenne Chief’s request. So, ok, the US government sends a first "batch" of women… but which women? Certainly not women from "decent" families, right?

The narrative structure of the novel is organized around the journals of May Dodd, one of the women who "volunteered" to be part of the program. May Dodd chose to participate so that she could get out of the asylum where her family had locked her up because she had moved in and had had children out of wedlock with a man from a lower social class than hers. May Dodd comes from a wealthy Chicago family. So, she is institutionalized on grounds of "promiscuity" (the use of psychiatry to "correct" deviant women… that is, those who won’t conform or challenge the patriarchal order is also an interesting aspect of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Changeling ). It is in the asylum that she and other women (also locked up mostly for lack of conformity to the norms of upper class, Victorian, gender roles) receive the visit of government officials giving them the choice between "marrying a savage" or remaining locked up. For May Dodd, it’s not even a choice. She signs up for the program.

During the railroad trip West towards Fort Laramie, Nebraska, we discover the other women who came to the program through other accidents of life: the racist Southern Belle whose father lost his wealth after the civil war and was left at the altar by her disappointed suitor, the evangelist who thinks she’ll bring civilization (i.e., Christianity) to the savages, the traumatized girls who does not speak, the Irish criminal twins, the African American "princess" who will never again be a slave, etc. It is a very fascinating cast of characters, all with their live stories, their typical wounds inflicted by a patriarchal society. Their reactions to the new society they have to integrate make for a great (sometimes quite funny) read.

A large segment of the book is dedicated to the trip West, first to the Fort, then, to the Cheyenne camp. Another is dedicated to the progressive assimilation of these women into Cheyenne society, and their discovery that "savage life " is not what they thought it would be. Quite a bit of culture shock, and a gradual abandonment of ethnocentrism in favor of a more open view of their new culture.

As May Dodd states in her journals,

"Frankly, from the wat I have been treated by the so-called ‘civilized’ people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages."

As for the last part of the book, it is the heartbreaking ending to the "experiment". Remember, this is a story of late 19th century Cheyennes dealing with the white society… it can’t end well. Broken promises and betrayals on both sides lead to a catastrophic conclusion.

Even though the reader knows it’s fiction, the story feels real. It is actually easy to forget that this is a story told by a woman, but written by a man. Fergus makes these journals very believable.

Like I said, the book is a page turner, with fascinating description of Cheyenne life from the point of view of someone completely unsocialized and unprepared to accept it. I also enjoyed the different threads created by the narratives of the other women and their adaptation into their new society. This enriches the story and gives it more density than just focusing on one character.

I have already ordered my copy of Jim Fergus’s other novel, The Wild Girl.

More Albino Atrocities

This insanity has to stop.

Let me reiterate the general point that illustrates perfectly, albeit horribly, the arbitrary of stigma and prejudice, and the corresponding violence exercised against a stigmatized category. Any physical marker can be latched upon and used to mistreat an entire category of people, something that essentialist approaches to race and ethnicity completely miss.

I mean, seriously…

And all in the name of woo-woo.

What Brings Families Together? Power Outages and New Technologies

Power outages = people don’t have anything to do with themselves, so, they have sex = mini baby boom nine months later… correlation? Causation? You be the judge, via Le Monde. Here is the story:

In Massdriel, Netherlands, the number of births increased by 44% in September 2008 compared to the same month in 2007. Officials found that puzzling. Then, they remembered the power outage that affected that town for 50 hours, nine months before. In December 2007, an Apache helicopter had accidentally cut power lines that brought power to nine villages of the commune. Guess what happened during these two days of darkness?

Sorry Robert Putnam, we may not bowl together anymore, but according to this BBC report (and an increasing body of research), new technologies may actually bring people closer together:

This report also shows that nuclear families are the structure more likely to be closely connected (as in parents use these gizmos to exercise greater surveillance of their children, even when these are young adults). What this means is not just an increase in the level of contact but also a shift in the qualitative nature of these contacts. So, yes, communal times may have decreased (for a variety of reasons) but contacts are maintained through other means.

As I myself wrote, in his best-selling book, Bowling Alone (2000), political scientist Robert Putnam deplores the loss of American community. For Putnam, the decline in American participation in bowling leagues symbolizes the increasing disconnection between people as they retreat from all sorts of civic and community participation and engage in more isolated activities, such as passive television watching.

Indeed, data regarding membership in associations, political participation, and volunteering show a decline. Putnam deplores such a state of affairs as such community activities were essential to civic-minded socialization where social norms were transmitted.

However, if participation in traditionally household-based activities, such as bowling leagues and PTAs, show a marked decline, other forms of sociability have increased. New communication technologies allow for new and different forms of sociability. For instance, virtual or online communities are on the rise. The best example of rising online communities are Facebook, MySpace or Flickr.  Such communities are different in that they are not household-based but individualized. They provide a different type of socialization than traditional communities.

Virtual or online communities show that far from disappearing, communities are changing. Traditional communities are neighborhood or village-based. In the age of globalization, disappearing borders and unprecedented movements of population around the globe, communities are not disappearing but reconfiguring into geographically dispersed networks.

According to Jeffrey Boase and al (2006), such geographically dispersed communities are facilitated by new electronic communication technologies, such as emails and the Internet. Moreover, research shows that new communications technologies extend our social connections but deepen them as well. People who interact face-to-face also tend to call each on the phone and exchange messages via emails or instant messages or text messages. This phenomenon of using multiple media to communicate is called media multiplexity.

New communication technologies promote what sociologist Barry Wellman calls networked individualism. Networked individualism refers to the fact that, thanks to the Internet, individuals can get in touch with other individuals for all sorts of purposes. In this sense, online communities do not replace traditional communities but supplement them. People can find information or help or simply create relationships from traditional sources, such as relatives or they can tap into extended networks of other individuals.

In this sense, being socialized into the competent use of new communication technologies becomes an essential skill not only to be able to access the wealth of information available but also to be able to be able to build individual networks of relationships with and (not or) without face-to-face interactions.

In her study of the virtual community Cybertown™, Denise Carter (2004) challenges the notion that virtual communities are only poor and shallow imitation of the “real thing”, face-to-face interaction. First, Cybertown™ is an elaborate virtual environment, not just a chat room or message board. It has more than a million citizens from all over the world earning citycash from jobs. It is designed like any large city in the world, with plaza, cafes, post office and police. The residents live in the suburbs in private homes and they can have (virtual) pets. It is truly a social space where people develop friendships and throw parties at their houses, or go to clubs. Residents usually maintain consistent personae, keeping the same username and avatar (virtual character). Frequently, people who meet and become friends at Cybertown™ end up meeting offline.

For Carter, virtual communities are appealing because they do not rely on traditional kinship bonds (based on blood ties) but allow the development of chosen friendship ties. Friendship is not based on hierarchy. Moreover, where kinship ties are defined by tradition and customs, friendship persists based on the quality of relationships. In Cybertown™, people are specifically looking to build new relationships where gender, race and other ascribed statuses are irrelevant and where the quality of the relationship is the only criterion that matters. Moreover, the fact that many residents are able to sustain such friendship offline suggests that relationships developed online are not shallow but free from cultural and social constraints.

So, is all well and good and safe in the virtual world? Not quite. Another Le Monde article (whose link seems broken right now, I’ll update if necessary) explores how social prejudices may actually be amplified online as anonymous communications may protect individuals from the social disapproval and sanctions they might face in real life for overt expressions of prejudice. This will not be news to anyone hanging around YouTube or anyone who followed the American presidential campaign. There is no doubt that the Democratic primary unleashed an enormous amount of sexism and there is no putting back that nasty genie into the bottle. This has been analyzed expertly elsewhere, especially by Scary Smary Anglachel and over at Corrente, so, I won’t belabor the point.

The bottom line is that is we should resist oversimplified depictions of the way new technologies shape the way we interact, either to deplore the good old days where people REALLY communicated with each other (like any nostalgia, it’s largely reconstructed memory), or to project a socially liberated mode of communication, free from social determinations.

The uses of new communication technologies are still shaped by mechanisms of social stratification (the digital divide) and still allow people to easily project their prejudices as well as extending their social capital in a variety of directions on a global scale.

However, in these global mediascapes (to use Appadurai’s terms), not everyone is included and processes of marginalization and exclusion operate as well. At the same time, these have permitted the emergence of truly global social movements and facilitated the rise of the global imaginaries.