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Archive for Social Discrimination

Book Review – To Free A Family

November 22, 2012 by and tagged , , , ,

Sydney Nathans’s To Free A Family: The Journey of Mary Walker was a birthday gift. What a great reading it turned out to be. As the title indicates, the book is about Mary Walker’s struggle to get her children and her mother out of slavery after she herself had escaped it. It took her 17 years. This is a book that perfectly reveals the connections between biography and history, personal troubles and public issues, and the necessity to place individual trajectories and events in their contextual nexus of structure, history and power. In other words, this book beautifully illustrates, deliberately or not, the sociological imagination.

It is first and foremost a very well written, very engaging, work of history (fully sourced and all that stuff), following the fate of Mary Walker, a slave from a prestigious and wealth family from Raleigh, NC. Mary Walker was take to Philadelphia by her owners as they went there annually so that their invalid daughter receive medical treatment. After an argument with her owner and under the threat of being sent from Raleigh to the deep South, and therefore being separated from her family (owned by the Camerons for generations), Mary decided to escape. As the author notes, such threats of separation were often the main motivation for slaves to escape while leaving relatives behind, because they had at least some hope that they might manage later to get them out of bondage.

Once fugitives, escaped slaves had then to use the underground system to obtain cover and protection until they could reach a safe (i.e. free) state… that is, until the passage of the Federal Fugitive slave law.

So, Mary Walker escaped slavery in 1848, was reunited with her children at  the end of the war in 1865 and died in 1872. The book is her story as recomposed through the massive correspondence and diaries of her (mostly) white friends from Philadelphia and Cambridge (MA) for whom she worked and who helped her in her quest to reunite with her family. Mary Walker herself only left behind three letters. So, we learned about her, throughout the book, through other people’s writings. This renders her a a bit of a passive character in her own story as she never really “speaks”, she is mentioned, spoken about, sometimes cited, but more often than not, a third-person character.

In many ways, Mary Walker was fortunate in that right after her escape, she was helped, taken in, and employed by the Lesley family. Peter and Susan Lesley are central characters in the book because it is mostly through their letters that we get to know Mary. It is their extensive correspondence over the years that gives us a sense of who Mary was and their own perception of her. Mary Walker spent many years caring for Susan Lesley’s mother (who happened to be FDR’s great grandmother). It is the Lesleys who will try to organize a buy out of the remaining Walkers still in bondage and it is them who also attempted to set up an escape for Mary Walker’s children and mother (that failed).

What makes the book important, beyond the extremely moving story of Mary Walker, is to be provided with the historical context and legal background necessary to understand the situation of escaped slaves and the risks they were running even in free states. More than that, what the book successfully shows is that people, abolitionists of various degrees, whites and blacks, did not patiently sit on their hands, waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation. Long before the war, there was a tremendous amount of activism, advocacy and agitation in favor of abolition (and the corresponding, often legislatively successful, backlash from slave states).

Of course, everybody is familiar with the Underground Railroad, but this required a tremendous amount of organization, networking, and resources to pull off successfully. And indeed, success was never guaranteed and getting people out of the South could take years, as it did for Mary’s children. And once out of the South, relocation and integration into Northern society was not easy either. The book describes in great details the challenges related to all these aspects and how much persistence it required from all the parties involved.

The elimination of slavery was not Lincoln’s individual gift to the nation. It was the patient and persistent product of the actions of a large number of people who slowly worked to undermine the institution of slavery, through direct action but also publication, activism, lobbying and networking and raise consciousness on this issue. It is the great strength of this book to seamlessly connect one individual story to this web of social change.

Posted in Book Reviews, Racism, Slavery, Social Discrimination, Social Movements | No Comments »

Book Review – Evil

June 24, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In Evil, sociologist Michel Wieviorka aims to claim “evil” as a territory for sociological investigation. It is not hard to see why sociologists have stayed away from the topic. It is thorny one. And after all, Durkheim taught us all long ago to avoid just adopting common sense categorizations and running with them without examining their social construction as social fact. So, since evil is a common sense concept par excellence, and a rather multi-form and vague one, one can easily see why sociologists have stayed away from the concept as a whole. But it is true that by doing so, we have abandoned that territory to philosophy, religious studies and *gasp* even psychology.

But, I am one of those sociologists who think we should drag our muddy sociological boots (sociology is muddy par excellence, that is its greatness) where people think they don’t belong, so, naturally, I grabbed the book hoping for, at least, some conceptual clarity and investigative pathways into the topic. Alas, I was deeply disappointed for a variety of reasons.

First of all, the book feels a bit disjointed and that is because the book is not really a book, it is a collection of sections extracted from another book (Nine Lessons of Sociology). Evil is a collection of the chapters in Nine Lessons that were on negative topics, leaving aside the chapters on positive topics. So, Evil ends up being rather short (133 pages of text), divided on five chapters (evil as sociological topic, violence, terrorism, racism, and pathways to research on evil). In addition, the translation feels a bit clunky and to word-for-word, French to English. It makes for a weird read. I don’t know if it is a Polity issue but I noted the same translation problem with Florence Aubenas’s The Night Cleaner. So, that does not help.

Then, when discussing evil, one can immediately see the problem with the collection of chapters. Chapters 1 and 5 are more straight “why we should have a sociology of evil” and “how we should do it”. They have problems of their own that I will discuss below but they make sense. The real thematic difficulty comes with chapter 2, 3 and 4. So, is this what evil is? Violence, racism and terrorism? That’s it? That list seems a bit arbitrary to me. I can think of a lot of other examples of evil. And again, evil has a major definitional issue as sociological concept.

So let me get into the substance of the book a bit more.

Again, the starting point is that, for Wieviorka, there should be a sociology of evil and this is the right time to develop it as the traditional sociological dichotomies have been successfully challenged (body / mind, nature / culture, individual / collective, and the all-time sociological favorite, structure / agency) especially if we enter the concept of evil through its unavoidable link to suffering, and suffering itself is a social phenomenon. Indeed, suffering is at the heart of the human rights regime which demands recognition of suffering in different forms, but suffering is also at the heart of what we tend to call identity politics and the ethnicization of society (the increasing definition of self through an ethnic identity) and part of the historical narrative that accompanies such ethnicization (that includes the identity of victim if not directly, at least historically and generationally). But right off the bat, Wieviorka operates a subtle shift: from evil to violence. I would argue that that is not the same concept. The two are separate. To reduce evil to violence, then one does not need the concept of evil. We already have extensive work on the sociology of violence (and quite a bit from Wieviorka himself). So what does bringing evil to the sociological table add? Hard to tell. Take this, for instance:

“Yesterday, the socialization of children, or migrants, involved learning the national historical narrative; today, migrants and their children contribute to changing this narrative, forcing the nation to recognize  the less glorious pages of its past, its areas of darkness and practices of violence and brutality. From this point on, evil becomes an object for the social sciences: they have to give a convincing account, on one hand, of the past and the present of the groups who mobilize on the basis of an identity as victims; and, on the other, of the impact of their demands on community life. How was violence organized in the past, or how is it organized in the present; and how do the processes of negation of the Other, of destruction and self-destruction, of harm to one’s physical and moral integrity, function?

It is no longer possible to declare, as it was until recently, that to try to understand barbarism, violence, cruelty, terrorism or racism is to open the way to evil, which needs quite simply to be fought without making any effort to understand – any effort of that kind being automatically classed as a mark of weakness. In fact, if we do wish to combat evil, it is preferable to know and understand it. There is a need here, a social demand which calls for analytical tools and studies; the social sciences are better qualified to provide these than moral judgments, philosophical considerations or religious a priori.” (9)

See what I mean? It is all conceptually very muddy: evil, violence, barbarism, brutality, cruelty. Is this all the same? How are these things related? Are they all subcategories of evil? Is interpersonal violence the only form of violence and evil to be considered? What of structural violence? These two paragraphs, to me (I could certainly be wrong), perfectly illustrate the constant conceptual shift that Wieviorka operates throughout the book. But are you really discussing evil when you are discussing racism or terrorism or interpersonal violence in general? I think it is all well and good to want to extirpate evil from the clutches of philosophy and religion but for what purpose? What does this concept add to the sociology of violence / racism / terrorism? This constant conceptual drift persists throughout the book. At the same time, if we accept, arguendo, the concept of evil as violence, racism, terrorism, etc., then we accept it as it is socially defined.

“Evil becomes a sociological category and ceases to be a purely religious category when it is treated as a crime, including a crime against humanity, not as a sin; when it can and must be envisaged as a social and historical problem that falls within the scope of human will and justice, and when it ceases to be a theological fact or the manifestation of an instinct.” (11)

But whether evil is treated as sin or crime does not make really any difference because both are socially constructed commonsense categories, the product of processes of structure, history and power. To define evil so does not neutralize the weight of commonsense definition. Evil is still not a social fact in that definition. Shouldn’t the first step in defining evil as an object of sociological investigation to reject the ready-made conceptualizations that societies provide and question these? To state “I hereby declare evil to be a sociological object, so, back off, religion and philosophy” is not enough.

And if that is not confusing enough, then, there is this:

“The closer evil comes to corresponding to the categories and concerns of the social sciences, the more their analytical principles must be applied, in the same way as they are used to study other problems and other social facts. Amongst these principles there is the idea that actors are never either totally unaware or totally aware of the meaning of their action. In other words they are never totally non-responsible; they are of necessity accountable for their actions, or they should be.  In this sense, the advance of the knowledge of evil, thank to the social sciences, goes hand in hand with the idea that the thesis of the banality of evil must be, if not set to one side, at least considered with the utmost caution.” (13)

???

Again, how does this square the acceptance of commonsense definitions of evil (minus the religious overtones)? And this, basically ends the first chapter with no clear sociological definition of evil. As I mentioned before, this is followed by three thematic chapters on violence, terrorism and racism. So, at this point, we are left with “evil = bad stuff we don’t like” and even that might be questioned: is all violence necessarily bad, let alone evil? Paging Franz Fanon.

But as one reads these three chapters, the real theme of the book becomes more apparent: a rejection of the structural and the social and an aggressive return of the Subject (capitalized in the book), with heavy references to Touraine and Latour. This is the real point of the sociology Wieviorka proposes: a sociology of the Subject, then confronted with evil, either as perpetrators, but, more essentially, as victims. On all three topics, Wieviorka argues that the culture, history and structures have received all the sociological attention but that Subjects, and especially victims (Wieviorka does mention perpetrators but he is much more interested in victims) have been neglected not just as victims but as agents. This allows Wieviorka to develop two typologies, in the case of violence, that he will use on the other topics as well: one for the types of violence based on Subject meaning and the type of Subjects involved in violence.

  • Violence based on the loss of meaning (“when the actor comes to express a meaning that has become lost or impossible and resorts to violence because he is unable to construct the confrontational action that would enable him to assert his social demands or cultural or political expectations, because no political process is available for dealing with them.” (19))
  • Violence based on ideology
  • Violence as myth-disintegration
  • Gratuitous violence, violence for its own’s sake
  • Violence as other- and self-destruction (suicide terrorism, martyrdom)
  • Violence as obedience to authority (the Eichmann in Jerusalem defense)

And the types of subjectivity linked to violence (capitalization in the original):

  • The Floating Subject who resorts to violence because of an inability to become a social actor (see the alienated youth from the French suburbs in 2005).
  • The Hyper-Subject resorts to violence through an excess of meaning through meta-political, religious and mythical meaning. This is the violence of zealot and martyr.
  • The Non-Subject exercises violence without involving his subjectivity, as the participants in Milgram’s experiments. It is simply violence as subjection to authority.
  • The Anti-Subject denies the Other the status of Subject through dehumanization, as we see in the dynamics that lead to genocides. It involves gratuitous cruelty and violence.
  • The Survivor Subject, before any violence has taken place, is one who feels threatened for his integrity and existence and acts violently as a survival response to the perceived threat.

One can see that this typology can be useful and how it can lead to certain ideas when it comes to preventing or dealing with different forms of violence (some much less clear and satisfying than others).

  • The Floating subject  provides institutional channels for conflict resolution as well as training of social and political players (bottom-up strategy)
  • The Hyper-Subject  use the “moderates” from the same religious or ideological background to intervene before a hardening of fundamentalisms (top-down strategy)
  • The Non-Subject  delegitimize the authority involved
  • The Anti-Subject  repression and education
  • The Survivor Subject  providing mental models to change the perception

But what does this have to do with evil?

The topic of violence also allows Wieviorka to introduce the second main theme of the book, after the Subject: globalization. The Subject and globalization are the two poles that he considers should guide the sociological investigation of evil. This allows him to evacuate any form of social structure from analysis, albeit not convincingly and not consistently. But the combination of the centrality of the Subject in the context of globalization leads him to the following formulation:

“The arena of violence is widening, while the scope for organizing debate and a framework for conflict to deal with social problems is shrinking, lacking, or vanishing. Conversely that arena becomes smaller when the conditions of institutionalized conflict permit a negotiated solution, even in circumstances of great tensions between actors. Violence is not conflict; rather it is the opposite. Violence is more likely to flare up when an actor can find no-one to deal within his or her attempts to exert social or political pressure, when no channels of institutional negotiation are available.” (27)

Wieviorka argues that this is the case with the decline of the labor movement in the context of globalization as unions have always been a disciplining force for the working class, as well as offering institutionalized ways to resolve conflict. But he should take the next step and recognize that this has been accompanied by a hardening of state repression on labor issues.

When it comes to the victims of violence, Wieviorka argues that there are three types of suffering that need to be addressed:

  • Collective identity (such as the victims of ethnic violence, genocide) where past mass violence was directed at an entire population, culture, etc.
  • Individual participation in modern life: being the descendants of slaves, to have been deprived of property, rights or a sense of belonging to a larger modern collectivity (such as a nation-state through the denial of basic political and civil rights).
  • Personal subjectivity, that is the denial of the ability to become a Subject through dehumanization, demonization, etc. for the direct victims of violence.

Wieviorka uses these typologies in his analysis of the other two topics: global terrorism and racism. And I have to say that there is nothing really new or uniquely insightful in these chapters if one is already well-read on either subjects.

And the last, and longest chapter of the book tries to weave together the two lines of the Subject and globalization at the expense of structure and society, and that is done with pretty broad pronouncements (“This is not the time to fight the enemies of the Subject – they have been defeated, in any event for the time being.” (89)). Here again, this chapter is plagued with conceptual ambiguities relating to the Subject, individualism, and individualization. In the glorification of the Subject, Wieviorka neglects the fact (mentioned by Bauman, Beck and Sennett, among others), that becoming a Subject, in individualized condition, is often not a choice in the global context of liquid society.

But what is most disappointing is the end result of all this throwing out of the structural baby with the societal bath water in the study of evil:

“By agreeing to be not only a sociology of the good, by opening up to this dimension of the anti-Subject, sociology can avoid a form of romanticism whereby the Subject is of necessity an attractive character, sometimes happy but usually unhappy; it leaves theoretical and practical scope for the darkest aspects of the human individual; it provides theoretical tools with which to embark on concrete research into phenomena as significant as racism, violence, or anti-Semitism.” (108)

My handwritten note in the book reads “that’s it?” and that is exactly what thinking. Really, that was the point of flushing structure (in the name of the Subject) and society (in the name of globalization)? To establish that people sometimes do bad things? I would argue that there is as much explanatory potential for violence in ALL forms (interpersonal, structural or symbolic) through the workings of individuals, interpersonal interactions (micro-aggressions), organizational and institutional and structural. To evacuate some of these layers deprives oneself of strong analytical tools. Similarly, as many globalization theorists have demonstrated, it is too early to completely dismiss the nation-state and society. The dynamics of globalization are more multi-layered and more complex than that (from glocalization to grobalization, and other processes).

And finally, it is also way too early to cavalierly dismiss the power of collective and social movements in the name of the individual. Globalization is still a very collectively contested terrains for social movements, especially of the alter-globalization kind.

So, by the end of the book, do not really expect to have figured out what a sociological reconceptualization of evil means and implies (if you do, please leave a comment because I would really like to know). It felt like the topic of evil was a bit of a cover up for a more theoretical discussion leading to the promotion of an approach based on the Subject and globalization. But neither topics are convincingly developed to created a shiny new approach to the topic of evil (or any other topic, for that matter). If one is interested in the topic of the individual confronted with globalization (in all its dimensions), one is much better off going back to Bauman, Beck, Sennett or Castells who have done a better job of it.

Posted in Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Global Sociology, Globalization, Human Rights, Identity, Institutional Racism, Mass Violence, Racism, Social Change, Social Discrimination, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Theory, Sociology, Terrorism | No Comments »

Institutional Discrimination 101 – (Not) Blinded With Science

August 18, 2011 by and tagged ,

In science, it pays to be white:

“Black scientists in the US are much less likely to be awarded funding than their white counterparts, says a US government research-funding agency.

The National Institutes of Health said that out of every 100 funding applications it considered, 30 were granted to white applicants.

This compared with 20 to black applicants.

The study, published in the journal Science, found the gap could not be explained by education or experience.

It suggested small differences in access to resources and mentoring early in a scientist’s career could accumulate, leaving black researchers at a disadvantage.

Blacks make up 13% of the US population, but only 1.2% of lead researchers on biomedical studies are black.

The NIH said concerns over this prompted it to commission a study, which was led by University of Kansas economics professor Donna Ginther.

The research – which was published on Thursday – examined submissions for NIH grant applications by more than 40,000 researchers from 2000-2006.

The study found that 71% of grant-seekers said they were white; 1.5% said they were black; 3.3% were Latino; 13.5% were Asian; and 11% were identified as “other” or “unknown”.

NIH director Francis Collins said it would take action to address the potential for “insidious bias” in the grant process.

“This situation is not acceptable,” he told reporters in a conference call. “The data is deeply troubling.”

When applicants send proposals to the NIH, they identify their race, ethnicity and gender.

This information is removed from the application before the materials are sent to review.

Mr Collins said it was possible that reviewers could guess the race or ethnicity of an applicant by looking at names or where they trained.”

We know, from other similar studies on job applicants that this is exactly what happens, consciously or not. Applicants with African-American-sounding names are much less likely to be interviewed, compared to whites with similar backgrounds on every aspect. This is why some of them modify their names to remove the African-American aspect and pass for white, at least until the interview.

Always keep in mind: institutional discrimination is racism without racists. It is pervasive, far-reaching and has major consequences in terms of opportunities and life-chances. But because it is largely invisible, it is hard to detect and correct, especially because most Whites do not believe it even exists.

Posted in Institutional Racism, Racism, Social Discrimination | 2 Comments »

Downplaying and Explaining The Racial Unemployment Gap

July 18, 2011 by and tagged , ,

Looking at the persistence of the 2-to-1 Black/White unemployment ratio, Andy Kroll notes three major things:

1. That ratio resists explanation:

“The hollowing-out of America’s cities and the decline of domestic manufacturing no doubt played a part in black unemployment, but then chronic black joblessness existed long before the upheaval Wilson described. Even when employment in the manufacturing sector was at its height, black workers were still twice as likely to be out of work as their white counterparts.

Another commonly cited culprit for the tenaciousness of African-American unemployment has been education. Whites, so the argument goes, are generally better educated than blacks, and so more likely to land a job at a time when a college degree is ever more significant when it comes to jobs and higher earnings. In 2009, President Obama told reporters that education was the key to narrowing racial gaps in the US. “If we close the achievement gap, then a big chunk of economic inequality in this society is diminished,” he said.

Educational levels have, in fact, steadily climbed over the past 60 years for African Americans. In 1940, less than 1% of black men and less 2% of black women earned college degrees; jump to 2000, and the figures are 10% for black men and 15% for black women. Moreover, increased education has helped to narrow wage inequality between employed whites and blacks. What it hasn’t done is close the unemployment gap.

Algernon Austin, an economist for the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., crunched data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that blacks with the same level of education as whites have consistently lower employment levels. It doesn’t matter whether you compare high-school dropouts or workers with graduate degrees, whites are still more likely to have a job than blacks. Degrees be damned.”

Academics have thrown plenty of other explanations at the problem: declining wages, the embrace of crime as a way of life, increased competition with immigrants. None of them have stuck. How could they? In recent decades, the wage gap has narrowed, crime rates have plummeted, and there’s scant evidence to suggest immigrants are stealing jobs that would otherwise be filled by African Americans.

Indeed, many top researchers in this field, including several I interviewed, are left scratching their heads when trying to explain why that staggering jobless gap between blacks and white won’t budge

2. The Black unemployment rate is consistently underestimated as the usual figures do not take into account the incarcerated population:

“In the mid-1990s, academics Bruce Western and Becky Pettit discovered that the American prison population lowered the jobless rate for black men by five percentage points, and for young black men by eight percentage points. (Of course, this applies to whites, Asians, and Hispanics as well, but the figures are particularly striking given the overrepresentation of blacks in the prison population.)

Even that vast incarcerated population pales, however, in comparison to the number of ex-cons who have rejoined the world beyond the prison walls. In 2008, there were 12 million to 14 million ex-offenders in the U.S. old enough to work, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). So many ex-cons represent a serious drag on our economy, according to CEPR, sucking from it $57 billion to $65 billion in output.

Of course, such research tells us how much, not why — as in, why are ex-cons so much more likely to be out of work?”

3. The answer is the persistence of institutional racial discrimination:

“In 2001, a pair of black men and a pair of white men went hunting for work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each was 23 years old, a local college student, bright and articulate. They looked alike and dressed alike, had identical educational backgrounds and remarkably similar past work experience. From June to December, they combed the Sunday classified pages in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and searched a state-run job site called “Jobnet,” applying for the same entry-level jobs as waiters, delivery-truck drivers, cooks, and cashiers. There was one obvious difference in each pair: one man was a former criminal and the other was not.

If this sounds like an experiment, that’s because it was. Watching the explosive growth of the criminal justice system, fueled largely by ill-conceived “tough on crime” policies, sociologist Devah Pager took a novel approach to how prison affected ever growing numbers of Americans after they’d done their time — a process all but ignored by politicians and the judicial system.

So Pager sent those two young black men and two young white men out into the world to apply for perfectly real jobs. Then she recorded who got callbacks and who didn’t. She soon discovered that a criminal history caused a massive drop-off in employer responses — not entirely surprising. But when Pager started separating out black applicants from white ones, she stumbled across the real news in her study, a discovery that shook our understanding of racial inequality and jobs to the core.

Pager’s white applicant without a criminal record had a 34% callback rate. That promptly sunk to 17% for her white applicant with a criminal record. The figures for black applicants were 14% and 5%. And yes, you read that right: in Pager’s experiment, white job applicants with a criminal history got more callbacks than black applicants without one. “I expected to find an effect with a criminal record and some with race,” Pager says. “I certainly was not expecting that result, and it was quite a surprise.”

Pager ran a larger version of this experiment in New York City in 2004, sending teams of young, educated, and identically credentialed men out into the Big Apple’s sprawling market for entry-level jobs — once again, with one applicant posing as an ex-con, the other with a clean record. (As she did in Milwaukee, Pager had the teams alternate who posed as the ex-con.) The results? Again Pager’s African-American applicants received fewer callbacks and job offers than the whites. The disparity was particularly striking for ex-criminals: a drop off of 9 percentage points for whites, but 15 percentage points for blacks. “Employers already reluctant to hire blacks,” Pager wrote, “appear particularly wary of blacks with known criminal histories.”"

Posted in Institutional Racism, Labor, Racism, Social Discrimination | No Comments »

Book Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

May 24, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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:

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Embeddedness, Gender, Health, Health Care, Institutional Racism, Racism, Science, Social Discrimination, Social Institutions, Social Structure, Structural Violence | No Comments »

Racism By Any Other Name – Whitewashing Les Bleux

April 28, 2011 by and tagged , ,

Holy !@#$. Seriously. I guess this is the next stage in the controversy that followed the World Cup fiasco (which was discussed here). The political fall-out is this: it’s the Blacks and the Arabs that caused the mess in South Africa. There are too many of them in the French national team.

Let’s impose a quota at the source, the training centers that are such an essential part of the French professional football training system:

“Members of the French Football Federation’s National Technical Board, including the France team coach Laurent Blanc, have secretly approved a quota selection process to reduce the number of young black players, and those of North African origin, emerging from the country’s youth training centres as potential candidates for the national team, Mediapart can reveal.

The plan, presented in November 2010, involves limiting the number of youngsters from black and Meghrebi African origin entering the selection process from training centres and academies as early as 12 and 13 years of age.

(…)

Mediapart has also learnt that, during the November meeting, France national team coach Laurent Blanc said he was “favourable” for a change in the selection criteria for youth talent as of the age of 12 to 13 years in order to favour those who sources said he described as having “our culture, our history”. The sources added that Blanc cited the current would football champions Spain, reportedly saying: “The Spanish, they say ‘we don’t have a problem. We have no blacks’”.”

Oh dear. Of course, as sociologist Stephane Béaud demonstrated in his book, there was a lot more to the South African debacle than just a “rebellion of the savages”. There were structural factors involved. But from the get-go, the blame-game involved pointing the finger at the non-whites from the projects, described as thugs. So, it is not entirely surprising, but shocking nonetheless, that the FFF would propose such institutionalized – and probably illegal – discrimination plan. But it is a perfect illustration of the easiness with which leaders of various kinds jump to racial conclusions and measures and ignore others, and how easily these get accepted, even if not quite openly acknowledged.

Posted in Racism, Social Discrimination, Sports | No Comments »

Prejudice and Discrimination

April 4, 2011 by and tagged , , ,

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

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

Posted in Identity, Institutional Racism, Prejudice, Racism, Social Discrimination | No Comments »

Institutional Discrimination – A Tentative Exploration

October 28, 2010 by and tagged ,

This is my work for tomorrow (this will probably kill my students but what the heck!):

Institutional Discrimination 1

Posted in Institutional Racism, Social Discrimination, Teaching Sociology | 2 Comments »

Bed Bug Stigma – What Would Goffman Say?

August 21, 2010 by and tagged , ,

Quite often, students tend to confuse deviance will illegal activities and criminality. I always have to remind them that a deviant label may be imposed on people who hold unconventional beliefs but also people who have conditions that others find repulsive, disgusting and generally gross. In all cases, pretty much anything may be defined and re-defined as deviant. There is an arbitrary dimension to deviance.

And once someone has crossed the social distance between primary deviance (the norm-breaking phase, in this case, the infestation) to secondary deviance (the social discovery of the deviant condition), society, groups and individuals impose a stigma on the deviant person or group. For science-ficton fans, a wonderful illustration of this process (along with tertiary deviance, that ism the internalization of the label) can be found in David Marusek ‘s novel, Counting Heads, and the stigmatized “stinkers” (people who have been  – sometimes – wrongfully labeled deviant and “seared” and, as a result, permanently stink because of loss of control of bodily processes).

Case in point, bed bugs… Via Art Jipson on Twitter, this article from the New York Times. The article details all the minute forms of discrimination that the stigmatized endure as their participation in society gets limited by others and confined to what others find acceptable. Their very person becomes a source of pollution and they become, literally, untouchable:

“Jeremy Sparig spent months fighting bedbugs. Now, to some people, he is like a mattress left on the street, something best avoided in these times.

“They don’t want to hug you anymore; they don’t want you coming over,” said Mr. Sparig, of East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “You’re like a leper.”

At the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which recently had a bedbug breakout, defense lawyers are skittish about visiting, and it is not because of the fierce prosecutors.

Even Steven Smollens, a housing lawyer who has helped many tenants with bedbugs, has his guard up. Those clients are barred from his office. “I meet outside,” he said. “There’s a Starbucks across the street.”

Beyond the bites and the itching, the bother and the expense, victims of the nation’s most recent plague are finding that an invisible scourge awaits them in the form of bedbug stigma. Friends begin to keep their distance. Invitations are rescinded. For months, one woman said, her mother was afraid to tell her that she had an infestation. When she found out and went to clean her mother’s apartment, she said, “Nobody wanted to help me.””

The fact that the threat is invisible yet easy to imagine (little creepy-crawlies are eating you up while you sleep) and reconceptualize: one person in the article compares it to terrorism, another to being a human sacrifice, a third like H1N1 (super bug!). I’m sure there is a movie in there, somewhere. Or at the very least, a Saturday night Syfy movie with bad CGI.

At the same time, the invisibility of the threat makes it impossible for the victims to prove that they are “clean” and remove the stigma (stigmas tend to be sticky).

Maybe a video game can help destigmatize the condition…

Posted in Social Deviance, Social Discrimination, Social Stigma | 1 Comment »

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

August 20, 2010 by and tagged , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mwananchi reported that Mutei was arrested on 16 August.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Prejudice, Racism, Social Discrimination | 2 Comments »

Extreme Discrimination – Hunting Albinos

July 16, 2010 by and tagged , ,

I have blogged about this topic many times before: the mutilation or killing of albinos in Tanzania based on the belief that turning albinos body parts into potions will bring wealth.

Here is a more recent video on this:

The website for the NGO mentioned in the clip: Under The Same Sun. It is a short clip that can easily be used in class.

Posted in Social Discrimination, Social Stigma, Sociology | No Comments »

The Invisibility of Structural Discrimination

June 6, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , ,

This is one of the hardest things to teach when one teaches the sociology of race and ethnicity: that racism and discrimination is not simply a matter of racist individuals, burning crosses and white sheets but a systemic matter, that which results in inequalities in results. It is hard to teach to white students because it is largely invisible and has no obvious cause (as opposed to individual discrimination).

This is why this post by Tim Wise is really useful in exposing structural discrimination:

“How many have heard that persons with “white sounding names,” according to a massive national study, are fifty percent more likely to be called back for a job interview than those with “black sounding” names, even when all other credentials are the same (5)?

How many know that white men with a criminal record are slightly more likely to be called back for a job interview than black men without one, even when the men are equally qualified, and present themselves to potential employers in an identical fashion (6)?

How many have heard that according to the Justice Department, Black and Latino males are three times more likely than white males to have their vehicles stopped and searched by police, even though white males are over four times more likely to have illegal contraband in our cars on the occasions when we are searched (7)?

How many are aware that black and Latino students are about half as likely as whites to be placed in advanced or honors classes in school, and twice as likely to be placed in remedial classes? Or that even when test scores and prior performance would justify higher placement, students of color are far less likely to be placed in honors classes (8)? Or that students of color are 2-3 times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled from school, even though rates of serious school rule infractions do not differ to any significant degree between racial groups (9)?

Fact is, few folks have heard any of these things before, suggesting how little impact scholarly research on the subject of racism has had on the general public, and how difficult it is to make whites, in particular, give the subject a second thought.”

It is also a subject of annoyance to students to have it pointed out to them that assuming that one knows better than minorities when it comes to racism and discrimination is a blatant assertion of privilege and yes, it is racist. This form of racism occurs especially when minorities are accused of “playing the race card” when they point out examples of racism or discrimination. The difference in perspective is neither new nor limited to race (it is present in class and gender inequalities as well). The underlying assumption is that if the white person does not see racism, then, it is not there and to invoke it is playing the race card, which minorities are accused of playing too much of.

It is indeed a major social privilege not only to have one’s perspective never questioned and taken as the default, objective stance (while minorities are seen as “overreacting” or “being too sensitive”, note the feminization), but also to be able to make claims that one knows better about minorities’ experiences.

Read the whole thing.

Posted in Institutional Racism, Racism, Social Disadvantages, Social Discrimination, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Sociology | 4 Comments »

Institutional Discrimination 101 – Stimulus Edition

January 8, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , ,

Via Venus Evans-Winter: First, use this neat interactive map…

Does this have to do with the lower numbers of minority-owned businesses or the lower numbers of minority in the overall US population?

And, of course, having a lower probability of receiving stimulus aid has a negative impact on the capacity of a business to recover. So, how does this happen?

Nice try but we know that minority are discriminated against at that level as well and end up with lower credit scores, all things being equal.

Posted in Economy, Institutional Racism, Social Disadvantages, Social Discrimination, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Privilege, Sociology | No Comments »

Mandating Equality

December 2, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This is interesting:

Needless to say, this is a good idea. At the same time, ideas like these (think affirmative action) are often misunderstood because they examined as if the only existing form of discrimination was interpersonal. Actually, such a program is designed to fight structural / systemic discrimination, that is, the form of discrimination that exists even in the absence of interpersonal sexism. Rather than wait for cultural change to affect social structure, the idea is to change the social structure to change the culture. It is also a recognition that economic relations are embedded in structurally discriminatory relations and practices. Finally, such programs are also designed to progressively make up for the cumulative effect of institutional discrimination: by pushing for a proportion of representation, the idea is to allow a previously disadvantaged category to start accumulating cultural and social capital that it was previously denied.

It is also in this line of thinking that I agree with banning the burqa as part of holding the secular line and it was interesting to see Turkish-born, German sociologist Necla Kelek state the following:

As I see it, a ban on religious practices that contradict established secular values and are directly repressive is part of the same process as mandating quotas of women as seen above. It is fighting inequality and disadvantages.

Posted in Cultural Capital, Culture, Embeddedness, Gender, Networks, Patriarchy, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Disadvantages, Social Discrimination, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Structure | No Comments »

Women Live Longer but Less Healthy Lives Than Men

November 9, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

This seems appropriate after the US healthcare bill fiasco:

The differential then has to do with structural discrimination an social stratification. Women are on the receiving end of many more social disadvantages than men.

The WHO report notes that societies need to specifically address the health needs of women which means more than just suppressing reproductive health. Reproductive health is central to women’s health. If one wants to know how women are treated in a given society, one needs only look at reproductive health and rights.

Posted in Gender, Health, Health Care, Patriarchy, Social Disadvantages, Social Discrimination, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stratification | No Comments »

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