To be Effective, Apprenticeship Programs Must Address Systemic Racism

President Obama giving speech

Beginning with his January 2014 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama has repeatedly praised apprenticeships and vocational education when discussing the jobs crisis.  It is curious that the nation’s first black president is advocating for a policy that has been historically exclusive and harmful to African Americans.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X recounts telling his middle school English teacher of his aspirations to be a lawyer and the teacher advised him to instead become a carpenter. The astute Malcolm noted the stark contrast between the advice he received and theYoung Malcolm X overwhelmingly affirming advice he gave to less-promising white students. Malcolm X’s story is not an aberration, but rather reflects a general trend of structural and systemic discrimination that operates through vocational education programs, where African Americans were tracked into lower-paying jobs. It’s also true of apprenticeship programs.  The history of vocational education and apprenticeship programs is one that depends upon reifying and reinforcing class divisions along racial lines.  Intended to be ladders out of poverty, apprenticeship programs can, in reality, be problematic. Instead of offering equal opportunity to all who apply, apprenticeships are often awarded to relatives or friends who share the same racial background as the master technician. There is a lot of research that confirms this: white social networks often function to exclude African Americans from potential jobs.

Exclusive policies designed to maintain white male privilege remain a problem in American workplaces some fifty years after legislation barring racial discrimination in employment.  In many ways, typical apprenticeship programs are illustrations of Bonilla-Silva’s theory of colorblind racism.  While it a program may appear to be a colorblind program on the surface, it can also serve to reproduce the existing racial hierarchy by keeping white jobs white and excluding people-of-color from good jobs that pay a living wage. In fact, as this recent study finds the real problem is less overt discrimination and more a kind of hoarding. In other words, whites help other whites (exclusively) and thus hoard resources and opportunities while at the same time expressing colorblind ideology.  This is why apprenticeships must take systemic racism into account or risk reinforcing it.

If apprenticeship programs could be such a nefarious means of excluding women and minorities from high-skill jobs, why would President Obama pursue such policies?

TCOSTUE Cover Photo

There is substantial political pressure on the president to address the “jobs” situation in the U.S.  These proposed efforts by President Obama seek to address the problem of heightened unemployment rates in recent years, which has led some to speculate that a structural shift in the labor market has occurred.  Often the term “structural unemployment” is treated as synonymous with “skill mismatch”.  I co-authored a new book with Thomas Janoski and Christopher Oliver titled The Causes of Structural Unemployment: Four Factors That Keep People From the Jobs They Deserve.  Our book complicates this structural unemployment story by introducing three additional factors in the discussion of structural unemployment, but skill mismatch continues to be a factor.  The basic problem is not that the labor force is untrained, but that the labor force is trained in areas where there is not substantial economic need; on the other hand, the labor force lacks training in areas of great need.  So the skills possessed by laborers do not match the needs of the economy or the needs of employers.

We explore the responsibility of the employer, the employee, and the state in dealing with skill mismatch.  Solutions to the problem of skill mismatch often surround education reform.  We propose a change in the education system that is highly influenced by the German system, which generates skilled laborers at the age of 18 who are eligible for good jobs and are needed in their economy.  President Obama’s proposals, in some ways, fit with some of the educational reform recommendations we propose in our book.

The education reform we propose will allow students who may be less “college-oriented” at the age of 16 to pursue an alternate career path which involves hard skill training during the final two years of high school.  This training will position a young man or woman to be able to earn a good, living wage upon high school graduation.  While current high school graduates have no discernible skill set, these individuals will have specific marketable skills that meet the needs of the economy.

These policies, we argue, would promote job growth.  Additionally, the nature of manufacturing jobs is changing, and the training provided in the new educational system will empower workers with the skills needed to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.  This, in turn, would have a positive impact on the balance of trade, which has declined dramatically along with the shift from manufacturing to services in the U.S.  Service exports do provide a positive balance of trade, but they are not nearly enough to outweigh the cost of manufactured goods imports as shown in the graph below; the U.S. needs to do some manufacturing to bring that balance to a positive, which will ultimately reduce the national debt as well.

Balance of Trade

On an individual level, for those who may not be oriented toward college, they will graduate with much higher potential earnings than they currently have.  Additionally, these earnings could be used to help fund higher education endeavors in the future and minimize (to the extent possible) the amount of student loan debt required, should they decide to seek a new career path or additional training.  This type of retraining, some have argued, could be part of a “new career contract” in the future.  By providing a higher earnings potential for high school graduates and making higher education more financially feasible, our proposed education reform increases social mobility for many people of lower socioeconomic-statuses, and is intentionally designed in this way to be advantageous for economically disadvantaged African Americans, contrary to prior apprenticeship programs.

Apprenticeship programs could still be a valuable and useful tool, but President Obama must be mindful of the history, understand these past failures, and actively work to prevent similar outcomes.  A recent study has shown whites now believe anti-white bias to be a larger problem than anti-black bias. We also know that the majority of the American public has opposed the most popular race-based social policy (affirmative action).

This puts President Obama in a challenging political situation.  When viewing the outcomes of affirmative action, it is notable that diversity gains generally ceased during the 1980s, while Ronald Reagan’s administration dutifully weakened enforcement provisions of civil rights laws and lessened the funding for agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  For President Obama, these proposed apprenticeship programs are very promising, but in light of the history of these types of programs, significant oversight is necessary to prevent systemic racial bias.

~ This post was written by guest blogger David J. Luke, Department of Sociology, University of Kentucky.  An earlier version of this post originally appeared at the Work in Progress blog. 

Reading for National Dialogue on Race Day

The  National Dialogue on Race Day happening later today at Tufts University Center for the Study of Race and Democracy hosted by Prof. Peniel Joseph will focus on three broad themes and questions. In anticipation of the event, we’ve selected a few previous posts from the six years of blogging here that touch on these topics.

50 Years after the March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom: How Far Have we Progressed as a Nation in Achieving Dr. King’s Dream of Multicultural and Multiracial Democracy?

 Trayvon Martin, Mass Incarceration, and the public school to prison crisis

Race and Democracy in the 21st Century: What does racial integration, justice, and equality mean in contemporary America and how can we shape and impact this dialogue in our respective communities, nationally and globally?

Read up and join the conversation! You can participate lots of ways, by commenting here, by watching the livestream from Tufts (beginning at 7pm ET) or through Twitter at the hashtag #NDRD.

Letter to Mitt Romney about Racism in the Mormon Church: From a Black Mormon Man

With the fast approaching 2012 elections on the horizon, there is one question left unanswered. As a widely circulated Associated Press article asked, “Will Obama’s Blackness Prevail Over Romney’s Mormonism in 2012?,” it went on to point out the unique and historical pairing of President Barack Obama, an African American, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, who represent two oppressed groups in American society on opposite ends of the political divide as the two run for the highest office in the land. The article, however, went one step further and posed a second, equally challenging supposition—how much progress has been made against race-based discrimination? With two weeks to go before the presidential election, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney have used much personal fodder to attack the other, which is astounding given our inclination in American politics to severely trash the other candidate’s more exploitable areas. In this case, one would have guessed that the Obama camp would have by now unleashed on Mitt’s Mormonism and its racist past just as Reverend O’Neal Dozier told the Palm Beach Post, “If Romney is the nominee, President Obama’s surrogates will bring out [the] racist views in the Mormon Church.”  In fact, to his credit, President Obama has steered clear of the topic all together, leaving it to others to examine. And yet, the American press has been hushed on the topic.

Interestingly, despite the constitution stating that there shall be no religious test to hold public office (United States Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3), President Obama was subjected to months of religious attacks prior to the 2008 election; accusations that still go on presently. But the national media has neglected to discuss Mitt Romney’s Mormon ties coupled with LDS racial folklore. Although I respect the regard given to our First Amendment and the separation of church and state, it leaves me wondering—is this a form of white privilege manifesting through our national elections or are republicans simply cherry-picking topics, peculiarly when this issue was addressed in republican primaries and has since been quietly shelved? (I would argue that they are one in the same.) But the American people have a right to know the totality of the character of the American president.

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The Church’s racial past and present is a prime target for political attacks. On the verge of potentially winning the election, negative attention around the contentious subject of American racism would likely bring unwanted scrutiny to Romney’s political ambitions, particularly when, if successful, he will become the first white man to unseat the nation’s first black president. In January 2012, African-American analyst, Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. wrote an online paper titled “Mitt Romney and the Curse of Blackness” in which he gave his own interpretations to the Book of Mormon. Pointing to the candidate’s LDS beliefs, he found it “deeply troubling” that the Book of Mormon “says…explicitly and in numerous passages [that] black people are cursed by God and our dark skin is the evidence of our accursedness” (pointing in particular to 2 Nephi 5:21; 1 Nephi 12:23; Jacob 3:8; and Alma 3:6). Hendricks is pointing out historical racial metaphors of white=good and black=evil, which symbolism is evidenced in the visceral hatred that many white Americans have at the presence of a black man in White House. Is this perhaps the reason why the history of Mormonism’s experience with Blacks has been convincingly ignored by mainstream American media? Hendricks further remarked, “What makes this all the more problematic …is that at no time has Mitt Romney ever publically indicated that he seriously questioned the divine inspiration of the Book of Mormon’s teachings about race, much less that he has repudiated them.”

 

Despite LDS claims as the “one true” church with a universalizing message, these are serious charges in which Romney has remained remarkably silent—not breaking free from his religious convictions, yet not offering any consolation with regards to the teachings of his faith that could provide a glimpse into his own racial beliefs, expressly his thoughts about black people. Virtually nothing has been said about his record on civil and social justice, including during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts. Instead, what we often hear from the mouth of Mitt Romney on matters of race is a reference to what his father accomplished as the great social liberal that he appeared to be. Former Governor George Romney was something special—a white Mormon man with an outward public passion for social justice; something you don’t see everyday, particularly in the 1960’s. George Romney was a social liberal that fought for civil rights, often at odds with racist church leaders determined to alter his course . In 1967, as the elder Romney prepared for his own presidential bid, Jet Magazine picked up on a story where Romney stated, “he would leave the church if it ever tried to prevent him from working for the elimination of social injustices and racial discrimination.” Whether he would ever really have left the Church or not since, by all accounts, he was deeply devoted to the Church and its leadership, Romney took the time to seek the council of high-ranking church leaders on matters of race prior to his run for Governor of Michigan.

 

Mitt Romney’s efforts at instituting something similar to “Obamacare” in his state is, likewise, commendable; however, he cannot continue to avoid the difficult question that many Americans have a right to know, especially if Romney holds similar views as past Mormon leaders who believe Blacks are a cursed race. Mitt Romney and other Mormons today, just like his father did in the 60’s, continue to hear and receive negative messages about the character and disposition of people of African descent, despite the Church changing its official stance on race in 1978. Yet, I do not believe that Mitt Romney is a closet racist. I do believe, however, that he has deep-seated ideas in his head about black folk like most white Americans, particularly those who attend racially segregated churches like the Mormon Church. How could this not be? For most of our history—246 years of slavery followed by 90 years of Jim Crow, about 85 percent of our existence as a nation—we have struggled to truly come to grips with the meaning of freedom and equality, although we use these terms loosely and romantically. Racist images, ideas, notions and inclinations to discriminate (white racial frames) have spanned 20 generations of American life, and white Christianity has been a central fulcrum to justify unjust white enrichment remaining an anathema for black folks. In order to unlearn racism, one has to do serious work, taking a hard look at oneself and the benefits received from unjust enrichment. It has only been 34 years since church headquarters lifted the Mormon priesthood ban that barred black men from holding the priesthood and denied black women temple marriages, hardly enough time to unlearn an entire generation of white racist thinking and understanding about black people, especially given church headquarters has yet to offer up any rational explanation why such a ban existed in the first place. Instead, what is typically articulated from white Mormons and “bright” Mormons (socially-white people of color) for that matter when questions of race arise in the public domain is, “only the Lord knows why Blacks could not hold the priesthood.” Thus, we have an idea where the Church stands today. And further, we know where George Romney stood. But what we all want to know is, what is your position, Mitt?

~ This blog was originally posted here. You can follow Dr. Darron Smith on Twitter: @DrDarronSmith

 

Documentary “Brick by Brick” : Education Series

The documentary “Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story,” (2008), directed by Bill Kavanagh, highlights a struggle around race and education in Yonkers, New York. The film tells the story of federal US v. Yonkers, a less widely known story of integration than the storied Brown v. Board of Education case. The case challenged neighborhood and educational discrimination in important ways. This short clip (2:17) give you a sense of the film:

You can find more information about the film here.

Race, Racism & Social Networking Sites: What the Research Tells Us

I’ve been doing a series about what academic research on race and racism on the Internet.    The series continues today with a look at what researchers are finding about one the most talked about aspects of the popular Internet: Social Networking Sites.

(Creative Commons License Image source)

Social networking sites (SNS), such as Facebook and MySpace, are phenomenally popular and important to the field of Internet studies, (Boyd and Ellison, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” JCMC, 2007, Vol.13(1):210-230).    According to a recent report, the top SNS is currently Facebook, with over 65 million unique visitors per month.  Facebook has displaced the former leader in the field, MySpace, which still currently gets about 58 million unique visitors per month.  These are staggeringly high numbers of people participating in these sites.    But what does this phenomenon have to do with race and racism?

(Source: Complete Pulse, 02/09/09)

White Flight? Perhaps the most talked about finding about race and SNS has to do with the move of whites from MySpace to Facebook.  Researcher danah boyd’s  ethnographic research indicates that it may be “white flight” that led to Facebook’s success over MySpace.  There are also class politics at play here, which boyd has also noted in her research.    This complex interplay of race and class surrounding Facebook and MySpace is also something that Craig Watkins examines in his book, The Young and the Digital (Beacon Press, 2010).   From 2005 to 2009, Watkins explored the movement of young people, aged 15 to 24 from MySpace to Facebook (97).  Watkins found that the same racialized language used to differentiate between safe and unsafe people and communities was used to describe Facebook and MySpace. The participants in his study described MySpace as “uneducated, trashy, ghetto, crowded, and [filled with] predators,” while they described Facebook as “selective, clean, educated, and trustworthy” (80, 83).  Watkins (2010) suggests that the young people in his study associate MySpace with the uneducated and unemployed while Facebook’s uniformity conveys upward mobility and professionalism. Watkins observes that “the young people surveyed and spoke with are attracted to online communities that connect them to people who are like them in some notable way,” most notably race (97).

There’s been some additional research recently which suggests that “friend” selection on Facebook is not solely attributable to race, but that selection is complicated by other variables such as ethnicity, region, and membership in elite institutions (Wimmer and Lewis, 2010).

Race, Identity & Community.  The fact is that people go online to affirm their identity and to find community, often along racial lines.  In the chart of popular sites above, note #13 is BlackPlanet.com.   Scholar Dara Byrne notes that offline social networking traditions among young black professionals, such as First Fridays events, have in many ways shifted to include online engagement at Blackplanet.com (Bryne, (2007). “Public discourse, community concerns, and civic engagement: Exploring black social networking traditions on BlackPlanet.com.” JCMC, 13(1), article 16).

African Americans who are searching for genealogical roots, also use social networking sites to affirm identity and find community.  For example, research by Alondra Nelson and Jeong Won Hwang’s research explores the proliferation of YouTube videos by genetic genealogists (in Nakamura and Chow’s, Race After the Internet, forthcoming from Routledge) . African American genealogists in the Internet era are enabled by developments such as Google’s personal genomics company 23andMe, which sells consumers genetic inferences about their “health, disease and ancestry,” with a social networking component.  In the videos people make of themselves, they reveal and react to the results of their DNA testing in “roots revelations” and viewers respond to the videos.   Nelson and Hwang theorize that these roots revelations, and the call-and-response that follows in the YouTube comments, are premised on a type of racial sincerity in which identities are drawn not only from genetic ancestry results, but also from the networked interaction between broadcasters and their audiences.

Here again, like with BlackPlanet.com, people are going online specifically to affirm racial identity and to seek community around that identity.   In many ways, SNS function in ways that newspapers used to function, creating “imagined communities” among those who engage with them (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 1991).   Following on Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, André Brock looks at online news sites as an important venue for creating racial meanings through a discussion of the series “The Wire” staged by a sociologist and blogger at the New York Times (Brock, “Life on the Wire: Deconstructing Race on the Internet,” Information, Communication and Society, 12 (3):344-363).

Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao (2009) take a different approach to race and SNS and explore the racial themes associated with injustice frequently included by the African American, Latino, and Indian students on their Facebook wall.  They theorize that these wall postings convey a sense of group belonging, color consciousness, and identification with groups historically stigmatized by dominant society. In contrast, the profiles of white students and Vietnamese students rarely signaled group identification or racial themes, reflecting ‘‘strategies of racelessness.’’

Racism & Social Networking Sites. Social networking sites are not only a place where people affirm identity and seek community.  These sites are also a venue where racism regularly appears.   Research by Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Suzanne L. Markoe of the University of California, Los Angeles, is published in the March issue of Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, explores how young people negotiate racism in SNS.

The study, which examined the relationship between responses to racial theme party images on social networking sites and a color-blind racial ideology,  found that white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties.  In other words, the more “color-blind” someone was, the less likely they would be to find parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes (e.g., photos of students dressed in blackface make-up attending a “gangsta party” to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day) offensive.

They look at associations between responses to online expressions of racism and color blind racial attitudes.  Tynes and Markoe operationalize racism by using photos of racially themed parties (e.g., blackface or “ghetto” themes) and asking study participants to respond.  They showed 217 African American and white college students images and prompted them to respond as if they were writing on a friend’s “wall” on Facebook or MySpace. The researchers also measured self-reported racial color blindness.  Their findings indicate that those who scored lower in color blindness were more vocal in their opposition to the images and were more likely to say that they would “defriend” someone who engaged in the practice.   White participants and those who scored high in racial color blindness were more likely to be in the not bothered reaction group. Further, these students were more likely to condone and even encourage the racial theme party practice by laughing at the photos and affirming the party goers.  Although both studies use small samples, Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao’s work along with Tynes and Markoe’s research moves the field of race and Internet studies a step beyond which social networks people join and why to how race (and racism) shapes what they do once in those networks. (I wrote more about this important research back in April, 2010).

Future Research. There’s still a lot missing from our understanding of race, racism and SNS.   One area that I expect will yield a lot of interesting research has to do with race, racism and Twitter.  Current estimates that approximately 8% of all people in the U.S. are using Twitter, a combination microblogging and social networking site where users post 140-character updates.   Twitter also appears to be more popular with blacks than with whites, There are interesting racial ‘eruptions’ here, such as the #browntwitterbird hashtag and with user handles like @whitegirlproblems.   To date, there is nothing in the peer-reviewed literature about race, racism and Twitter and this will no doubt change soon.

For the next installment of this series, I’ll be back with a discussion about race and online dating.

Race, Digital Divides & Mobile Technology: What the Research Tells Us

In the early days of the Internet, there was a lot of talk about “access” to technology.  Alongside that was a lot of concern that only people who are white and rich had access to technology, while people who were poor and/or black or brown (and sometimes women) didn’t have access to technology.  This concern about who had technology and who didn’t got called “the digital divide” and lots of research got done on it.

World Connection
Creative Commons License photo credit: Digitalnative

Digital Divide(s)? In an initial study conducted by the Census Bureau under the direction of the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, African-Americans were found to have lower rates than whites in both computer equipment ownership and telephone service (“Falling Through the Net,” NTIA, 1995).  Even though the original report was subtitled, “A Survey of ‘Have Nots’ in Rural and Urban America,” the findings about race are what made headlines.  The finding about differences in computer ownership between whites and blacks was widely reported and quickly became known as ‘the digital divide.’  It also sparked an entire subfield of research within Internet studies relating to race.  The initial focus on computer ownership shifted in subsequent versions of the study to Internet access and the second report included “digital divide” in the title (“Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide,” NTIA, 1998).  These initial “divides” in ownership and access have largely vanished now (for example: Leggon, 2006, ““Gender, Race/Ethnicity and the Digital Divide,” in edited by Mary Frank Fox, Deborah G. Johnson, and Sue V. Rosser, (eds.) Women, Gender and Technology, University of Illinois Press, 2006).   Still some researchers subsequently identified “second level divides” that focused on the relationship between skills, “Internet literacy” and Internet usage (Hargittai, “Second-Level Digital Divide: Differences in People’s Online Skills,” First Monday 7(4), 2002).

The rhetoric of “digital divides” has also been heavily critiqued by some scholars as a “disabling rhetoric” that marginalizes people of color as technological innovators (e.g., Anna Everett, (2004) ‘On Cyberfeminism and Cyberwomanism:  High-Tech Mediations of Feminism’s Discontents’, Signs 30(1):1278-86; Michelle Wright, (2005) ‘Finding a Place in Cyberspace:  Black Women, Technology and Identity,’ Frontiers 26(1):48-59).

Selwyn (“Apart from technology: Understanding people’s non-use of information and communication technologies in everyday life,” Technology in Society, 25 (1), 99-116.) contends that digital divide formulations rely on the assumption that Internet access and usage is desirable for everyone, when in fact, people might not be using the Internet because they don’t see a social benefit in doing so.  Brock (2006) extends this argument to race and explains that slower Internet adoption rates among Blacks may have more to do with the lack of culturally relevant content online for Blacks rather than any lack of “Internet literacy.”

Then came Mobile Technology. Much has changed since the mid-1990s when ‘digital divide’ research began and computer ownership and Internet access meant sitting before a desktop machine with a wire plugged into a wall.  Today, being connected to the Internet often means having a “smart phone” (e.g., a phone that enables users to access the Internet).

Samsung Star 3G S5603
Creative Commons License photo credit: liewcf

Ten years ago, Howard Rheingold (2002) accurately predicted the ‘next social revolution’ in computing would be the advent of mobile technologies, and this development has had important implications for race, racism and Internet studies.

Mobile phones enabled with Internet access are approaching ubiquity and with that, bridging some of the divides noted in an earlier era.  According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (a rich resource of data), cell phone and wireless laptop Internet use have each grown more prevalent between 2009-2010.  African-Americans and English-speaking Latinos continue to be among the most active users of the mobile web, for example:

  • Mobile phone ownership is higher among African-Americans and Latinos (87%) than among whites (80%)
  • African-American and Latino mobile phone owners take advantage of a much greater range of their phones’ features compared with white mobile phone users
  • Among Latinos, 29% of mobile-phone users surf the Internet on their device, compared to 12% of mobile-phone-owning whites.

So what does all this research tell us about race and technology?   It’s still way too early to know how these patterns might shift again, but it seems clear that early predictions about “digital divides” between technological “haves” and “have nots” – especially along stark racial lines – were overstating what the evidence suggested.  It also seems very likely that many of those dire early reports about “minorities left behind” were engaging in the disabling rhetoric of racism’s low expectations.  As African Americans and Latinos lead the adoption of mobile technology here in the U.S. is among the more fascinating developments as it over turns those expectations.

Race and Racism Online: What the Research Tells Us

The Internet is changing us.  It’s changing how we acquire knowledge, how we communicate, how we connect with one another.   Today, some 15 years into the scholarship of the Internet, researchers are just beginning to look at how race and racism are (and are not) changing by and through the way we use the Internet.  Over the next week or so, I’m going to be writing a series of posts about what the research tells us about race and racism online.   I’ll also point out spots along the way that, in my view, are understudied and need someone to turn a critical eye toward.

40/365
(Creative Commons License photo credit: Xelcise )

RACE & STRUCTURE OF THE INTERNET. While we may not think of the Internet as having been invented, but in fact it was, at a particular place and time.   The combination of technologies that has come to be known as the popular Internet was developed in a number of specific geographic places, institutional contexts and historical moments.  For more about this history, see  Berners-Lee, T. and M. Fischetti  Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).   This narrative is compelling, but to date, no one has offered a thorough examination of the ways that race was, and continues to be, implicated in the structure of the invention of the Internet.
INFRASTRUCTURE & DESIGN. Scholar Tyrone Taborn notes that the role of black and brown technology innovators has largely been obscured (Taborn, 2007). As Sinclair observes, “The history of race in America has been written as if technologies scarcely existed, and the history of technology as if it were utterly innocent of racial significance” (Sinclair, B. (ed.) (2004) Technology and the African-American Experience: Needs and Opportunities for Study. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p.1).

Yet, race is implicated in the very structure of the “graphic user interface” (GUI).  For example, Anna Everett observes that she is perpetually taken aback by DOS-commands designating a “Master Disk” and “Slave Disk,” a programming language predicated upon a digitally configured “master/slave” relationship with all the racial meanings coded into the hierarchy of command lines (Everett, 2002, ‘The Revolution Will Be Digitized: Afrocentricity and the Digital Public Sphere’, Social Text 20(2):125-146., p.125).

Nakamura writes that the drop-down menus and clickable boxes that are all too often used to categorically define `race’ online are traced back to the fact that race is a key marketing category (Nakamura, 2002). Beyond the selection and targeted-marketing via race, elements of the interface are racialized.  The nearly ubiquitous white hand-pointer acts as a kind of avatar that in turn becomes ‘attached’ to depictions of white people in advertisements, graphical communication settings, and web greeting cards (White, M., The body and the screen: theories of Internet spectatorship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006). The images of racial or ethnic minorities and their relationship to IT infrastructure and design is either to the role of consumers or of operators of the technological wizardry created by whites.

Assumptions about the whiteness embedded in the infrastructure and design gets spoken when there are ruptures in that sameness, such as the introduction of an African-American-themed web browser, Blackbird which I wrote about here in 2008.   While Blackbird caused quite a stir among those who had operated on the assumption of a race-blind Internet,  the development of a racially-themed browser is not qualitatively different from, but rather an extension of, the racially targeted marketing facilitated by drop-down menus and clickable boxes.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back tomorrow to discuss some of what the research tells us about race and mobile technology.

Race as Biology is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem is Real

I get all kinds of email about this blog, a good portion of it is what you might call “hate” mail.  Basically, some people who come across this blog (I assume they don’t stay around as regular readers), find it objectionable that we write about race at all.  We are, according to them, making the world a whole lot worse through our little bit of bandwidth focused on racism, because “race doesn’t exist.”   I’ve been meaning to address this old argument here for awhile.  Just recently, I was reminded of a scholarly article* that does just that and takes on this flawed logic.    So, this post is for those haters in my inbox.

I ♥ Haters
Creative Commons License photo credit: The Infatuated

Race as Biology. When I first started teaching “race and ethnicity” at a large state university in the early 1990s, many of the textbooks in sociology defined “ethnicity” as cultural (e.g., language, religion, clothing, food, rituals) and “race” as, at least partially, “biological” (e.g., skin color, hair texture, “phenotype” – roughly face shape).  Most scholars and textbooks within sociology have moved away from this crude definitional distinction, but the notion that race is a biological one has deep historical roots.

The idea that race is a biological, discrete and meaningful scientific category emerged beginning in the 17th century (1600s) and solidified in the 19th century (1800s), often based on armchair-speculation about different cultures encountered through colonialism.  These baseless claims were used as ideological justification for enslaving people to steal their labor so that white colonists could extract (illegal) profit from that labor.  This is the part that people miss when they argue “there’s always been racism, and there always will be.”  Racist ideology has a specific history, it started a a moment in time (for a discussion of what the world was like before that, see this book).  This is important because if racist ideology was created it can also be dismantled.

The rise in the idea that race is a biological category very closely tied to the development of science, but that’s different than saying race is biological. The vast majority of those doing research in this area that race is a social construction.   Certainly, biology matters.  And, there are physical differences between people.   But what’s significant about these when it comes to race is not the biology of those differences, but the social weight we attach to them.    The fact is that race still matters because racism is a real social problem.

Racism as Social Problem. So, if race isn’t a meaningful biological category, shouldn’t we just stop talking about it?  No, because the fact is that race as a social category remains a significant predictor of which groups get access to goods and resource and which groups face barriers.  While the Civil Rights Act outlawed de jure forms of discrimination in public accommodations, housing, employment and education, the fact is that de facto discrimination persists.  While overt individual discrimination is often easier to identify, it’s also part of that de jure discrimination that was outlawed.  More pervasive today in many ways is institutional discriminationthe uneven access by group membership to resources, status, and power that stems from seemingly neutral policies and practices of organizations and institutions.

There are lots of examples of this form of racism today.  The educational system is failing, and its failing black and brown kids more than any other.   This failure is what one scholar has called “the educational debt.” Unemployment among blacks in the U.S. is expected to reach a 25-year high this year, hovering between 17.2% and 20%, double the unemployment rate for whites, which is around 9.8% nationally.   The criminal justice system is perhaps the leading example of institutional racism.  With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States now has more than 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and many of these are African American. One in every fifteen African American men lives in a prison or jail cell, while powerful corporations like CCA profit from this system.

These systems work together, as well.  There’s an excellent – if chilling – example of this in the recent documentary, “The Lottery,” (a better film about educational inequality than the Gates-promoted “Waiting for Superman”).   In the film, Susan Taylor former editor of Essence magazine and now a philanthropist, tells of a story of having a rich, white woman (unnamed) in her living room for a fund-raiser for her charity. The woman tells Taylor, “I want you to put my husband’s corporation out of business.  They build prisons.  To estimate the number of cells they’ll need they find the number of black boys failing fourth grade and project from the number of prison cells they’ll need based on that number.”   Taylor says she’d heard that before but didn’t believe it until then.   There’s also powerful research that explores the way the school-to-prison pipeline words for young, black boys.  Ann Arnett Ferguson’s Bad Boys (University of Michigan Press, 1991) and Pedro Noguero’s The Trouble with Black Boys (John Wiley & Sons, 2008) are just two examples of this growing research field.

One final aspect of this racism as a social problem is that within each of these areas – education, employment, and criminal justice – is that race as biology is often used as a justification by haters to explain the inequality caused by systemic discrimination.

So, once more, for all those haters in my inbox… race and racism are not the same thing, but I know that haters are gonna hate.


*This post draws on an article [pdf] by scholars Audrey Smedley (Virginia Commonwealth University) and Brian Smedley (Institute of Medicine) with the same title as this blog post (subtitle: “Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race”) in the January 2005 issue of American Psychologist.

Race, Racism & the Internet: 10 Things Sociologists Should Be Researching

There was exactly one session on “Race and New Media” among the hundreds of panels at the recent American Sociological Association meetings last week in Atlanta.  The panel was interesting, thought-provoking and presented by a diverse group of sociologists, and I’m not just saying that because I organized it.   I think there should be lots more research like this.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: atxryan

One of the main points I make in my book Cyber Racism is that white supremacy has entered the digital era, and that means it’s changing, morphing into new forms.  Some of those centuries-old components continue to exist, but now they exist alongside new forms of racism, such as cloaked websites.   This is true not only of the extremist groups I’ve studied, it’s also true of lots of other dimensions of race and racism.   This seems like an arena ripe for sociological investigation, yet I continue to be puzzled by the fact that there’s not more research in this area.

Within sociology there’s a gap between researchers who critically study race and those who study the Internet.  I talked with several prominent sociologists who study Internet and society at the meetings, and they concurred with my assessment of the field.  As one scholar told me when I mentioned the few submissions I received for the “Race and New Media” panel: “That’s because no one studies that.”    Another prominent scholar suggested that the problem is that the critical race folks just don’t know the Internet research and vice versa.  I tend to agree. I talk to people who know the Internet and the research about it, and they generally don’t know much about critical race scholarship.  And, the people I talk to who are critical race scholars, generally don’t know much about the Internet.

In many ways, the study of race and the Internet has been ceded by sociologists to scholars working in other fields such as history, psychology, communications, cultural studies, and political science.   There’s good work going on in those fields, most notably Lisa Nakamura’s work, which I admire and have mentioned here before.     One of the things I enjoy about the growing field of Internet-related research is that it’s interdisciplinary, so maybe it’s not worth raising these intra-sociology disciplinary issues, but it strikes me as a missed opportunity for the field.   Part of the problem here is that the Internet changes quickly, and sociology is just slow. One of my graduate professors used to refer to sociology as “slow journalism”.  If journalism is the first draft of history, sociology is the re-draft of history in many ways. I think that sociologists have something valuable to offer in terms of our understanding of how the Internet is transforming patterns of human social behavior.   While lots of sociologists who study race are using the Internet as a tool for their research (everything from Google Scholar to analyzing messages on email listservs), only a very few are considering the Internet as an object of study, and exploring the ways it’s changing the production of and resistance to race and racism.

So, in an attempt to suggest ways to bridge this gap, I’ve sketched out 10 areas I think sociologists should be researching:

  1. infrastructure / design – How computers and the “graphic user interface” (GUI) – like web browsers are designed affects how people use the Internet.  In 2008, I wrote about the development of a custom browser, Blackbird, designed for use by African Americans, that cause some uproar.  How does the way that interfaces are designed affect the way people use the Internet and how is race implicated in this?  There’s terrific research on user-centered design being done by sociologist Nalini Kotamraju and some on open source software by Jon Smajda which highlight the useful bridge between a deep knowledge of infrastructure and software design.  Michelle White (cultural studies) has done some interesting work on this (why is that little hand always white?), and of course, Nakamura’s relevant here again.   I don’t know of any one in sociology doing research like this on race and interface design.
  2. industry –   The leading tech firms in Silicon Valley are dominated by white men and a few white women, yet the manual labor of putting together circuit boards that run computers is largely done by immigrant and global south women.  How does the predominantly white tech industry located in the global north and the immigrant / global south labor that powers the Internet say about race and technology?  (See, J. Shih, Circumventing Discrimination: Gender and Ethnic Strategies in Silicon Valley, Gender & Society, 2006, 20; (2): 177-206).
  3. gaming - Literally millions of people are playing online games, and meeting in person at gaming conferences, yet this social phenomenon is going largely unremarked upon by sociologists.    Lori Kendall’s Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub (UCPress, 2002) looks at the reproduction of race and gender in one of these game spaces, but I see little other work on this important topic by sociologists.
  4. popular culture / fandom – There are huge – again in the millions – of online groups for everything from tennis to celebrities to popular fiction.   How is being a “fan” shaped by race, and how is online “fandom” in popular culture shaped by race and racism?   Sociologist Sarah Gatson has explored some of this in her work and is seeking papers [pdf] for a special issue of a journal about this.
  5. mobile technology – It’s been a few years since Howard Rheingold (whom I think of as an honorary sociologist) wrote his groundbreaking book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, and I’ve yet to see anyone extend that work to look at mobile technology and race.   There’s research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project documenting that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to access the Internet through mobile devices.  What does this suggest for all that talk of the “digital divide” among sociologists a few years ago?
  6. identity +  community -  In the early days of the Internet, lots of people thought that we would go online to “experiment” with identity, to engage in “identity tourism” to use Nakamura’s phrase.   Yet, that’s not turned out to be the case.  In fact, the way people use the Internet most often is to reaffirm their offline identities.  Sociologist Emily Ignacio’s excellent book Building Diaspora: Filipino Community Formation on the Internet (Rutgers UP, 2005) is an example of this type of work and there should be more.
  7. social movements :  I mentioned my book on racist social movements, and I’d like to see more done on progressive social movements around race, such as the march organized around the Jena6, which was mobilized primarily through young, African American bloggers. One of the strategies I used in my research was to examine movement discourse pre-Internet and post-Internet, and this is another angle that could be pursued by those interested in race and the offline mobilization of social movements around race.
  8. racist framing in Facebook, MySpace, Twitter – Social media is framed by racist language, and within a larger white racial frame, yet there’s very little sociology that looks at this.  Stephanie Laudone (graduate student at Fordham) is at work on a dissertation that takes up some of these issues in Facebook.
  9. health/science - Internet users increasingly look for health and scientific knowledge online.    Victoria Pitts (a CUNY colleague) has written about these issues as they relate to gender, (see Illness and Internet empowerment: writing and reading breast cancer in cyberspace, Health, 2004, Vol 8 (1):33-60), but I don’t know of any similar research that looks critically at race and health.
  10. surveillance culture – We live in what some have called a ‘surveillance culture.’   Sociologist Simone Brown is writing about some of these surveillance technologies as they relate to border crossings (fascinating work), and there are implications of this surveillance culture for understanding race and the Internet.    As just one example, given the millions of Black and Latino men locked up in the U.S., what are the implications of the “inmate locator” websites run by state and federal governments?  How do systems of incarceration work together with online registries and databases of Black/Latino men to shape racial inequality in the digital era?

Of course, this is just a back-of-the-envelope sketch of what I think are the promising areas of investigation for sociologists.    Where I know about people’s work in these areas, I’ve included it (let me know if I left your work out and i’ll add it).  So, what did I miss?  What are some other areas of research?

Race and the Death Penalty, II: Black Defendants, White Victims

This is the second part of a four-part series on the most common death penalty cases: those involving black defendants and white victims. In this post, *we explore some of the research about the racial dynamics in this type of death penalty case.

Most crime is intra-racial, that is it happens among the same racial group. The majority of homicides of whites are perpetrated by other whites, the majority of homicides involving black victims are perpetrated by other blacks.

Yet, despite this statistical fact, the black defendant/white victim has the highest chance of being selected for a death sentence.   One study in the midwest found that prosecutors are 2.5 times more likely to seek the death penalty when a black defendant kills a white victim.

One factor that may be influencing the death penalty decision is the race of the prosecutor.  According to a study conducted by Professor Jeffrey Pokorak of St. Mary’s University School of Law, the racial breakdown of District Attorneys in death penalty states is as follows: 97.5% whites, 1.2% black, and 1.2% Hispanic. There is no absolute way to show that because the majority of District Attorneys in America are white, they are racist against blacks. However, prosecutorial discretion studies illustrate racial patterns in cases where death sentences are sought.

Another factor that researchers have examined is the race of the jury pool.  In cases involving a black defendant and white victim, having five white males on the jury doubles the chance that the death penalty will be imposed [opens PDF].  Having just one black man on a capital jury cuts the chance of a death sentence in half [opens PDF].  In addition to the composition of the jury pool, the prejudice of jurors’ may also play a role in who gets the death penalty.

One study found that defendants who were perceived as looking more “stereotypically black” (i.e., having darker features) more than doubles the chances of being sentenced to death in capital cases involving white victims.

Our question for readers here: Do we – as a society – value the lives of black and white victims differently?

~ *We are a group of four sociology students studying the death penalty in Danielle Dirks’ “Capital Punishment in America” undergraduate course at University of Texas-Austin.  This is the first post of our four-part blog series on race and the death penalty. Please read and feel free to comment or ask questions. Thank you for your time!