The “Darkening” Effects of Incarceration

07/23/2009 At 16:54:27 PM
Creative Commons License photo credit: Troy Holden

Research has repeatedly shown that race, rather than being an immutable trait of individuals, is actually quite fluid and may change over time and by social context. In the February issue of the journal Social Problems (v. 57, #1), sociologists Aliya Saperstein (University of Oregon) and Andrew Penner (University of California, Irvine) report their analysis of data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), which demonstrates how incarceration affects convicted offenders’ self-perceptions of their race as well as others’ perceptions of their race (“The Race of a Criminal Record: How Incarceration Colors Racial Perceptions”). The NLSY asked a nationally representative sample of 12,686 young men and women (aged 14-22 years in 1979, when the survey began) a series of questions on a variety of topics, including their racial and ethnic identification; respondents’ race/ethnicity were also classified by NLSY interviewers. After the initial survey, participants were interviewed every year until 1994, when biennial surveying was initiated. In their intriguing and socially important study, Saperstein and Penner analyze NLSY data from 1979-2002 to see if participants’ own racial/ethnic identification changed and whether interviewers’ classifications of respondents’ race/ethnicity changed, depending on whether the respondent was or had been incarcerated in the intervening time period.

Without going into the complexities of the statistical analyses, which included numerous controls to rule out the effects of intervening variables, suffice it to say here that Saperstein and Penner found that NLSY participants who self-identified as European American in 1979 were significantly more likely to self-identify as black in 2002 if they had been incarcerated compared with those who had not been incarcerated. As Saperstein and Penner report, “these findings demonstrate . . . that incarceration leads to changes in racial self-identification and the effect operates primarily through making individuals see themselves as not quite white. To put this into perspective, consider that currently nearly 6 million people in the United States have been incarcerated . . . Based on our results, we would expect that more than 250,000 previously incarcerated individuals no longer identify as white as a result of their incarceration” (p. 103).

Saperstein and Penner also found that interviewers were more likely to change the racial/ethnic classification of NLSY respondents if the respondent was currently or had been incarcerated since the time of the last survey – and the change they made was to “darken” incarcerated respondents. That is, respondents who had been classified by interviewers as white prior to incarceration were more likely to be classified by interviewers as black once they were incarcerated.

Apart from further affirming the socially constructed nature of race, Saperstein and Penner’s study has, as they put it, “real-world consequences for racial inequality.” There is a good deal of research, some of which is cited by Saperstein and Penner, that shows that many white people associate black people, especially black men, with crime. This association is what underlies the practice of racial profiling by police, who, as I have pointed out on this blog before, target black neighborhoods for saturation policing, not surprisingly contributing to higher arrest and incarceration rates for blacks. This association also likely contributes to misidentification of criminal suspects by “eye witnesses,” thus resulting in higher erroneous convictions for blacks. I have also pointed out on this blog how incarceration contributes to poverty – especially poverty among black men due to their disproportionate incarceration rates – because a prison record lowers the likelihood of stable employment in a job that pays a decent wage. Saperstein and Penner’s analysis shows how “actual disparities in incarceration are exacerbated by stereotypical associations about the types of individuals who commit and/or are punished for committing crimes” (p. 110). Interestingly, more states are using early release of prisoners as a way to address fiscal crises, but as the Saperstein and Penner study reminds us, release from prison will do little, if anything, to reduce inequality; we must simultaneously address the invidious link between blackness and crime, not only in the minds of the general public, but also in minds of the formerly incarcerated themselves. Further research on why some people who have experienced incarceration change their racial identification from white to black and the meanings that race has for them, as well as for those who do not undergo this redefinition of self, would be most welcome.

Once Again, Women – Especially Black Women – Are to Blame

How many readers remember the Moynihan Report, the shorthand title for The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” written by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965?  Supposedly, the rationale for the report was to draw attention to the need for social policies and programs that would address the many problems faced by Black families, especially single-parent, female-headed Black families, in the United States.  Regardless of the intent, the Moynihan Report soon became one of the most frequently cited sources to support the argument that the problems facing Black, single-parent, female-headed families – e.g., disproportionately high rates of poverty, crime, illness, substance abuse, “illegitimate” births – were not the products of racism, but were actually caused by Black women themselves: by their strength, their independence, their emasculation of Black men. In subsequent years, the “myth of the Black matriarchy” was refuted by sound empirical research, but such myths, it seems, die hard, and it appears that this one has been resurrected recently, albeit in somewhat different form.


I am referring to the substantial media coverage recently of “the successful, but lonely Black single woman.” As one recent Washington Post article put it, there is now a large group of young Black women who seem to “have it all” – good jobs, high incomes, nice homes and cars and clothes – but they’re lonely; they don’t have a man or the prospect of marrying anytime soon. It turns out, according to a report released today by the Pew Research Center, that young, successful White women are experiencing the same relationship troubles.  Among Americans aged 30-44 years old, women are more likely than men to have a college degree.  They are also less likely to have lost their jobs in the recent economic recession; men held about 3 out of every 4 jobs that were lost. These changes are producing a “role reversal,” according to the Pew report, that is “profoundly affecting the marriage pool.” While the Pew report, which analyzes recent Census data, shows that the education and income gap by gender is greater for Blacks than for Whites, the focus of many media stories it seems to me is a new twist on the notion of the Black matriarchy.

Creative Commons License photo credit: craigfinlay

In a recent ABC News Nightline segment, for example, it was reported that the number of never-married Black women is about double the number of never-married White women. The segment mentions various reasons for this difference, including the smaller number of “marriageable” Black men due to higher mortality, incarceration, and unemployment rates. But the segment focuses primarily on Black women. Several young, successful Black women were interviewed about their intimate relationships and what they desire in men they date. The women come across as strong and independent – and as wanting too much. “Relationship guru” Steve Harvey is also interviewed and he makes it fairly clear that these women have unrealistic expectations. He is shown advising the women to adjust their goals by, for instance, dating older Black men.


The Washington Post article I mentioned previously is even more explicit. It features Helena Andrews, author of Bitch is the New Black, a collection of satirical essays about young, successful Black women in Washington, DC.  Andrews and her friends, according to the article, pride themselves on being “mean girls,” especially when it comes to meeting and dating men. But their “bitchiness” is just a mask; in their public presentations of self they convey a “don’t mess with me” attitude, but beneath this veneer is a well of loneliness and, it appears, it’s all their own fault. What do they expect?  Instead of exploring with men – men of all races – why perhaps strong, independent women might be threatening to their masculinity and why this is their problem not the women’s problem, the implication of these and other similar stories is what man would want a woman like this? According to the Pew Research Center study, women’s educational and occupational successes in recent years mean that men benefit more from the economic gains of marriage than women do; in 1965, when the Moynihan Report was issued, the reverse was true.  So why aren’t we applauding young, successful Black women for their achievements instead of blaming them for lower marriage rates? Why are we ignoring the fact that young, successful White women are also reporting difficulties finding compatible marriage partners? And why aren’t we analyzing why men cannot let go of norms of hegemonic masculinity and why they find successful, strong, and independent women intimidating?  Sexism and racism are alive and well.

A Call for a New Abolitionist Movement

From August 7th to the 9th, the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) held its annual meeting in San Francisco, CA. SSSP is an organization of scholars, activists, advocates and students, who apply the principles of social science along with a humanistic perspective to the study and solution of social problems. I had the privilege to hear Dr. Steven Barkan deliver his presidential address on August 8th, and his message is an important one that deserves to be heard beyond the walls of the conference hotel ballroom. Dr. Barkan graciously shared a copy of his speech with me, so I could write about it here.


In his address, Dr. Barkan called for a “new abolitionism.” The United States, he pointed out, as others have, has come a long way in addressing racism, and he celebrated this fact. “We should rejoice that many people of color have made gains unimaginable a generation or two ago . . .” Nevertheless, in 2009, almost 245 years after the Civil War ended, more than 100 years after W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” and four decades after the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, “the problem of the color line continues,” said Barkan. People of color still deal with racism on a daily basis, both “symbolic racism” and more overt racism.


To illustrate how racial inequality manifests itself today, Barkan used the examples of racial disparities in wealth and health. He cited statistics showing that the median net worth of families of color is only $25,000 compared with a median $141,000 for non-Hispanic white families. With the exception of Asian Americans, the poverty rate for people of color in the United States is more than double – and for some groups, more than triple – the poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites. To these observations, I would add that while the racial wealth and poverty gaps narrowed somewhat during the 1990s, the current economic crisis has once again restored them to their 1970s equivalents. Moreover, as Barbara Ehrenreich recently pointed out, to be black and poor nowadays makes the probability of “being sucked into . . . the ‘cradle-to-prison pipeline’” increasingly high.


In looking at racial disparities in health, Barkan cited statistics on infant mortality (i.e., the number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births) that show black infant mortality to be more than double non-Hispanic white infant mortality (13.6 and 5.8, respectively). Life expectancy for African Americans is five years less than the life expectancy of non-Hispanic white Americans. As Arline Geronimus shows in her research on racial health disparities, the stresses resulting from daily life in a racist society “weathers” African Americans, causing them to age more rapidly than their white peers and to suffer more chronic illnesses associated with stress and unrelenting disadvantage (e.g., high crime, inadequate access to health care, poor health care, environmental toxins). Although social class mitigates this disparity somewhat, the “hypersegregation” that African Americans continue to experience in the United States means that they remain nearly as socially isolated from whites in their living arrangements and private lives today as they did under Jim Crow (see Patterson’s commentary).


As Barkan pointed out in his address, these are disturbing statistics, but we must remember that “behind them are the lives and stories of real people.”  And so he called for a new abolitionism, “a new movement to end racial and ethnic inequality.”  Specifically, Barkan argued that this movement should use all the strategies and tactics that progressive social change movements have used historically, including traditional political activity as well as protests and demonstrations, and these should be “responsible and nonviolent but . . . also constant, loud when necessary, and perhaps a tiny bit uncontrollable just to keep things interesting.” Barkan sees this new abolitionist movement as a coalition of diverse racial and ethnic groups, but it should not be a movement whose members are solely people of color because “racial and ethnic inequality is, after all, a white problem. It was a white problem in the past . . . and it is a white problem today.” Barkan is not naïve. He admits that many white people will not easily relinquish white privilege. But he urges whites, nevertheless, to fulfill their moral obligation by taking “a leading role in the new abolitionism.”  


I found Barkan’s address challenging, but inspiring.  He made a strong case against the notion of the US as a post-racial society. The complete address will be published in the February, 2010 issue of the SSSP journal, Social Problems. I urge all of you to read it and I urge you even more strongly to take up Dr. Barkan’s call for a new abolitionism.

Poverty, Stress, and Achievement: What Role Does Racism Play?

Day 58 _ a reveiling day
Two weeks ago, the results of an important study –
“Childhood Poverty, Chronic Stress, and Adult Working Memory” – were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers, Gary W. Evans and Michelle A. Schamberg, examined the relationship between poverty and poor academic achievement, which they note has been studied extensively for many years (Creative Commons License photo credit: frerieke). What makes their research unique is that they measured the mediating effects that chronic stress, resulting from living in poverty during childhood, have on later achievement. They found that the chronic and intensive stressors caused by poverty leads to “working memory deficits” in young adulthood.

Because working memory is critical for language comprehension, reading, problem solving, and long-term retention of information learned, weakened working memory from poverty-induced stress may be central to explaining why young adults who lived in poverty as children have poorer educational outcomes than young adults who lived above the poverty line as children. The longer the child was poor, from birth to age 13, the weaker her or his working memory was as a young adult.

I read Evans and Schamberg’s study with great interest because of its important implications. Poor parents have long been exhorted to spend more time reading to their children and taking them to museums and other educational venues where admission may be free on certain days of the week, with the expectation that these activities, routinely provided by more affluent parents to their children, would improve poor children’s academic achievement.

However, while undoubtedly enriching, the Evans and Schamberg study indicates that these activities are not sufficient to compensate for the negative impact of the daily stressors inflicted by a life of economic deprivation.

Those stressors must be alleviated as well. As important as the findings are, though, the Evans and Schamberg study may not be generalizable to children of color. That’s because their sample was composed of 195 white male and female young adults. This surprises me given that, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, while 12.1% of white families live below the poverty line, 29.1% of black families and 24.3% of Hispanic families live in poverty. And the further impoverished a family is, the more likely they are to be black or Hispanic.

Certainly, poor black and Hispanic families experience the same kinds of stressors that poor white families experience: e.g., housing problems, the dangers posed by living in high-crime neighborhoods, stretching the limited income available to buy food and pay for other necessities. But poor families of color experience a stressor that poor white families do not experience: racism.

There is a substantial body of research that shows that racism is a chronic stressor throughout the life course for people of color, and that the stress caused by racism has serious negative effects on both psychological and physical health. For instance, Nancy Krieger and Stephen Sidney found that stress induced by racial discrimination has as much or more of an impact on blood pressure as smoking, lack of exercise, and a high-fat, high-sodium diet (“Racial Discrimination and Blood Pressure: The CARDIA Study of Young Black and White Adults,” American Journal of Public Health, 86(1996):1370-1378). Ruth Thompson-Miller and Joe Feagin found in their interviews with elderly blacks that memories of racist interactions with whites produced a number of negative physical and psychological reactions indicative of what they call “race-based traumatic stress,” the impact of which lasts a lifetime (“Continuing Injuries of Racism: Counseling in a Racist Context,” The Counseling Psychologist, 35(2007):106-115).

Importantly, Thompson-Miller and Feagin show that men and women of color experience race-based traumatic stress regardless of their social class. But when we consider the additional stressors of poverty and the fact that people of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, the need to examine racism as a stressor in research such as Evans and Schamberg’s seems essential.

Although they do not mention examining racial differences or the potential role of racism on working memory or other indicators of academic achievement in future studies, I hope Evans and Schamberg, as well as other scientists, will undertake this challenging but important research.

For an extensive review of research on the physical and especially psychological impacts of racism on people of color, see a special issue of The Counseling Psychologist. I’m grateful to Ruth Thompson-Miller at Texas A&M University for bringing this special issue to my attention.

Social Class, Race, and Intimate Partner Violence

Chris BrownChris Brown’s February 8th assault of his girlfriend, Rihanna, has put the problem of intimate partner violence in the media spotlight (Chris Brown Creative Commons License photo credit: O.M.Gee!). From Oprah Winfrey to Larry King to numerous entertainment and news websites, talk show hosts, commentators, bloggers and others have examined the incident from multiple angles, spinning off questions about abusive relationships more generally. One of the most frequently raised issues is the social class of the couple. As a writer for CNN recently noted:

Both singers are young, apple-cheeked, immensely talented and squeaky clean – the last couple you’d imagine as domestic violence headliners. Perhaps the only good that will come from the Rihanna/Brown publicity is destruction of our culture’s misconception that abusers and their victims can only be universally poor, uneducated and powerless.

Certainly this is an important lesson to be learned and one that domestic violence advocates have been emphasizing for more than 30 years: Intimate partner violence affects individuals in all social classes and racial/ethnic groups; no one is protected by virtue of their class or race privilege. Rihanna_2That said, one of the most consistent findings from research is a strong inverse relationship between social class and intimate partner violence: As social class goes up, rates of intimate partner violence go down. Analyses of large, national surveys, for example, show that women living in households with the lowest annual incomes were five times more likely to have experienced intimate partner violence than women in households in the highest income category, and three times more likely than women in the middle income category (Rihanna Creative Commons License photo credit: Trangdepp).

Poor women, of course, are not a homogeneous group.  For instance, some poor women are homeless or living in temporary shelters, while others are housed. Some are employed, even if only in low-paying jobs without benefits, while others are unemployed or receive public assistance. Although poor women overall are at greater risk of intimate partner violence victimization, studies show that the poorest of the poor have the highest rates. Consider, for example, that nationally representative surveys of the general U.S. population estimate that about 25% of women are victimized by an intimate partner at some time during their lives. That is an unacceptably high number, but appears slight when comparing it to studies of women on welfare, which report a range of 28% to 63% lifetime victimization rates; the majority of estimates from these studies are 40% to 60% (Richard Tolman, “Guest Editor’s Introduction,” Violence Against Women, 5[1999]:355-369).

Research also indicates that poor women have higher lifetime rates of all forms of violent victimization. In a Massachusetts study, for instance, researchers found that among their sample of 216 housed, low-income, single mothers and 220 homeless single mothers in which the average age was 27, only 16% had not been physically or sexually abused in their relatively short lifetimes. Nearly 33% reported severe physical violence by a current or former boyfriend, 60% reported physical violence perpetrated by a male partner during adulthood, 63% reported severe physical violence by a parent or caregiver during childhood, and over 40% reported that they had been sexually molested during childhood. As the authors of this research point out, the majority of the women in this study had experienced only brief periods of safety during their lives (Angela Browne, Amy Salomon, & Shari S. Bassuk, “The Impact of Recent Partner Violence on Poor Women’s Capacity to Maintain Work,” Violence Against Women, 5[1999]:393-426).

One issue that has not been mentioned in the Rihanna/Brown case is the fact that the couple is black. Since the early 1980s, large national surveys have shown that black women are at greater risk of being violently victimized by their intimate partners than white women are. Some researchers have argued that the higher rate of intimate violence among black couples is the result of culturally specific factors that include beliefs about marriage and fidelity along with negative stereotypes of black women. But in studies that have examined both race and social class, differences in rates of intimate partner violence between black and white couples are significantly reduced or disappear completely when social class is controlled. The higher rate of intimate partner violence victimization – and, indeed, all types of violent victimization – among black women, then, is another outcome of racism: the result of the disproportionate number of black people who live in poverty. In her recent research on gendered violence in the lives of urban black girls, the vast majority of which is perpetrated by peers and acquaintances, criminologist Jody Miller informs readers:

This book should not be read as an indictment of young Black men and their treatment of their female peers. . . . [W]e, as a society, have created the circumstances that lead to cultural adaptations to situational contexts that shape urban African American young women’s risks. The indictment is of all of us. (Getting Played, New York: New York University Press, 2008, p. xvii)

Thus, while the attention given to intimate partner violence because of the Rihanna/Brown case is important and welcome, the emphasis being placed on the couple’s social status and how intimate partner violence happens even among wealthy couples should not allow us to overlook the fact that the greatest burden of this violence falls on poor women. And, as a direct result of racism, women of color are disproportionately poor and have the fewest resources available to them to cope with this problem.


Doula customs_1060In a post in March, I discussed a report by the Pew Center on the States documenting the dramatic increase in the number of citizens incarcerated in the United States over the past three decades, making this country’s incarceration rate the highest in the world (Creative Commons License photo credit: hoyasmeg). The vast majority of those incarcerated (91.4%) are being held in state prisons and local jails for nonviolent offenses, and young black men and women are disproportionately represented among the prison and jail populations. This week the Pew Hispanic Center released a new report, “A Rising Share: Hispanics and Federal Crime,” showing that the racial and ethnic composition of the federal prison population has significantly changed since 1991, with Latinos now making up the majority of sentenced federal offenders and about one-third (31%) of the federal prison population.

According to the Pew report, 40% of sentenced federal offenders in 2007 were Latino, even though they make up only 13% of the U.S. adult population. Their representation among adults sentenced in federal courts nearly doubled since 1991 when they were 24% of offenders sentenced in federal courts, making them the single largest racial/ethnic group among sentenced federal offenders in 2007. The increase in Latino federal offenders accounted for more than half (54%) of the overall increase in federal offenders from 1991 to 2007.

Who are these people and what crimes have they committed? Data in the Pew report show that more than 72% of Latinos sentenced in federal courts in 2007 were not U.S. citizens. The percentage of Latino federal offenders who were not U.S. citizens rose from 61% in 1991 to 72% in 2007. The majority of Latino federal offenders in 2007 were convicted of immigration offenses (48%), and of these, about 75% were convicted of entering the United States illegally or residing in the U.S. without legal authorization. But of Latino federal offenders who were not U.S. citizens, 61% were convicted of immigration offenses, and of these, 81% were convicted of entering the United States illegally or residing in the U.S. without legal authorization. Indeed, the Pew report concludes that an increase in undocumented immigration coupled with an intensified focus on strict enforcement of immigration laws has “changed the citizenship profile of federal offenders,” (p. 1), leading to label the period 1991-2007 the “age of crimmigration.”

The Pew analysis shows that Latinos sentenced in federal courts were more likely than non-Latino offenders to be sentenced to prison (96% and 82%, respectively), and Latinos who were not U.S. citizens were more likely than Latinos who were citizens to be sentenced to prison (98% and 90%, respectively). But Latinos receive significantly shorter sentences than non-Latinos, on average 46 months compared with 62 months for whites and 91 months for blacks. And Latinos who are not U.S. citizens receive on average shorter prison sentences than Latinos who are citizens (40 months and 61 months, respectively). These shorter sentences are indicative of the non-serious nature of immigration offenses, which raises the questions of whether the criminalization of undocumented immigration is the best strategy for addressing the problem and the best use of federal criminal justice resources. At this point, it remains uncertain how long the “age of crimmigration” will continue.

Who Learns a Second Language?

In response to my post on bystander intervention last month, an anonymous commentator maintained that the behavior of a deli clerk in an ABC News social experiment was not racist. Rather, the commentator argued, the deli clerk was reacting to the lack of assimilation on the part of the Mexican day laborers who could not place their order because of their lack of English proficiency. If they want to live in the United States, Anonymous asked, shouldn’t they learn English? Aside from the victim-blaming nature of the comment, I thought that Anonymous raised an interesting question, and in my brief reply, I mentioned that I’ve traveled to many countries where English is not the primary language and where I could not speak the native language, but I was always assisted by native speakers in ordering food, getting directions, finding transportation, and the like. Moreover, I pointed out that learning a foreign language takes time. But in thinking more about Anonymous’ question, I was compelled to explore the issue of foreign language acquisition further.

I was curious, for example, to learn just how long it does take for a non-English speaker to become proficient enough in English to be functionally literate (i.e., to be able to perform basic tasks of everyday living without difficulty). Not surprisingly, a number of factors play a part. One of the most important variables is the amount of formal schooling individuals have received in their first language. In a longitudinal study (1982-1996) of about 700,000 English language students who had no background in English, Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier found that children 8-11 years old who had had 2-3 years of formal education in their native language took 5-7 years to become proficient enough in English to reach native speaker performance (i.e., 50th percentile) on normed tests. However, individuals with little or no formal schooling in their native language (e.g., children younger than 8, or individuals who were below grade level in reading and writing in their native language) took 7-10 years to reach native speaker performance. Thomas and Collier reported that these findings do not differ by native language (e.g., they studied Asian and Hispanic students), country of origin, or socioeconomic status, although we know that socioeconomic status itself is directly related to educational achievement.

Drawing on Thomas and Collier’s findings, Judie Haynes, writing for, argues that maintenance of literacy in one’s native language should be encouraged and fostered while English is being learned, and she advocates a developmental bilingual or two-way immersion program in U.S. schools, an idea that “assimilationists” would no doubt consider anathema. Additional research, though, supports Haynes’ position, showing that bilingualism is positively, not negatively, associated with scholarly achievement (see, for example, research cited by Alejandro Portes and Ruben Rumbaut in Immigrant America: A Portrait, 3/e, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006, especially Chapter 7). But other studies indicate that the assimilationists needn’t worry: Among immigrant families to the United States, monolingualism is the norm within one or two generations after arrival. Portes and Rumbaut examine research that shows a clear historical pattern in which first generation immigrants learn enough English to get by, but continue to speak their native language at home and often in social settings with other immigrants; the second generation – those who immigrated as children with their parents or were born here – may speak the language of their parents at home, but English everywhere else, thus becoming fluent English speakers and “anglicized.” Members of the third generation typically speak only English, both at home and elsewhere (see also analyses by the Pew Hispanic Center). As Portes and Rumbaut argue:

Fears of linguistic and cultural fragmentation, like fears of ethnic radicalism, play well in the popular press, and harping on them has made the fame and fortune of many a pundit. However, historical and contemporary evidence indicates that English has never been threatened as the dominant language of the United States and that, with well over two hundred million monolingual English speakers, it is not threatened today. The real threat has been to the viability of other languages . . . (p. 242).

Indeed, the National Association for Bilingual Education reports that compared with other countries, the United States lags far behind in terms of the percentage of citizens who speak a second language. While only 9% of Americans speak both their native language and another language fluently, 50% of Europeans are fully bilingual. As Portes and Rumbaut quip,

“What do you call a person who speaks two languages?”
“And one who knows only one?”
“American.” (p. 207)

Though humorous, one unfortunate outcome of the reality this fictitious dialogue represents is that by stubbornly adhering to the false “English-only ideal,” most Americans “[sacrifice] the possibility of looking at things from a different perspective and [become] bound to the symbols and perceptions embedded in a single tongue” (Portes and Rumbaut, p. 242).

Spreading Racialized Fear in “Post-racial” America

In an article in the January (2009) issue of The Progressive, political analyst Chip Berlet argues that the election of Barak Obama “has poked the racist beehive, and we can expect a lot of buzzing around in the months ahead,” (p. 27). Berlet notes the increase in racist incidents – e.g., cross burnings, arsons – in communities throughout the United States following the election, with the Southern Poverty Law Center noting that the rate has been far above “normal.” Berlet remarks that rightists of all kinds are “eager to reframe issues in ways that invoke racialized fears” among white citizens (p. 27). Interestingly, as I read this, I thought of the recent exchange on this blog regarding Jessie Daniels’ post on the Grant police brutality case. I think some of the reaction to Jessie’s analysis reflects the success of the previous political administration and various right-wing groups in convincing many of us that we have much of which to be afraid and from which we need protection. The law-and-order, lock-em-up approach to criminal offending in this country – so much a part of the “War on Drugs,” as well as the “War on Terrorism” – has garnered widespread mainstream support and resulted in a dramatic rise in incarceration rates such that the United States now has more citizens in prison than any other country in the world. Many people are convinced that the police must be aggressive in combating crime and catching “bad guys,” and in doing so, they may make some mistakes, but they’re “honest mistakes”; the police, after all, are “just doing their job” (image from here).

Ironically, crime in the United States has declined fairly steadily since the 1990s, and many criminologists attribute at least some of this decline to the prosperous economy during this period. Given the current economic crisis, we can be fairly confident that crime rates will be on the upswing, and we are likely to hear an outcry for more police intervention. I doubt, however, if many of those who demand such action will be expecting law enforcement to arrest the “white collar” offenders on Wall Street who precipitated this mess in the first place, or those in the previous administration whose gutting of regulatory legislation helped fuel Wall Street greed. Such offenders are rarely considered “criminals” and their offenses aren’t viewed as “real crimes.” Instead of “crime in the suites,” law enforcement will be focused on crime in the streets, and those most likely to be caught up in any new “crime crackdown” will be those who are always the first targets of law enforcement: the poor, and racial and ethnic minorities who are disproportionately represented among the poor. But this time, we have a liberal Democratic president in office, who also happens to be African American, which returns me to my opening concern. If crime increases during Obama’s first term in office – and it most certainly will – rightists will likely use it to invoke racialized fears.

No doubt some of the comments about Jessie’s original post on the Grant case were offered by members of rightist groups, who lurk on progressive blogs to try to disrupt the dialogue. I see this not infrequently on feminist sites when members of fathers’ rights groups post comments about women being as violent as men or claims that divorcing mothers falsely accuse their spouses of abuse. This, though, actually bothers me less than attempts to saturate the mainstream with racist fears. If rightists feel the need to infiltrate a progressive blog such as this one, we must be doing our work well; they’ve noticed us and we’re cause for them to be concerned. What is more important, then, is for progressives to be certain not to just talk among ourselves and to like-minded folks, but to discuss these critical issues more broadly and to debunk racist myths whenever and wherever we find them. In other words, we need to knock down the racist beehive.

Bystander Intervention

My older son’s godmother recently included me in an email message she sent to a number of her friends and relatives. The subject line of the email was “What would you do?” and the message contained a link to two ABC News videos. She further disclosed that she and her husband had bets on how each recipient would react to the videos and answer their question, “What would you do?”

I encourage readers to click on these links (, and ask themselves this question. The videos are disturbing and yet, at the same time, somewhat encouraging.

ABC News conducted a social experiment in which an actor working in a New Jersey deli refuses to serve two Hispanic men or women, also working for ABC News, who cannot speak English. The actor makes a variety of racist comments to the men and women in the presence of other store patrons. The objective was to see if anyone intervened on the Hispanics’ behalf. Of the 80+ customers who witnessed this overt racism, some did nothing and many supported the actor by adding racist comments of their own; the victims’ and bystanders’ gender did not seem to make a difference in the reactions. About 30 bystanders, though, did intervene and were quite strong in denouncing the actor’s words and behavior. That’s a little more than 35%, which in 2009, when we are about to inaugurate our first African American president, may seem discouragingly low.

But being familiar with the extensive research on bystander apathy, I found reason to be optimistic in considering this outcome, and I was especially heartened by the vehemence of the bystanders’ denunciations.

An important component of these videos is the point that the racist behavior of the deli counter worker/actor is not unusual. Interviews with Hispanic day laborers reveal that they encounter this sort of treatment on a regular basis. And as moving as they are infuriating, the day laborers’ accounts give viewers a sense of the toll this everyday racism takes on those who are subjected to it. It is perhaps this aspect of the videos that will motivate viewers to work harder to ensure that future experiments of this type will find every bystander who witnesses racism clearly and strongly denouncing it.

The Right to Bear Arms

In June, the Supreme Court of the United States completed its 2007 term with several significant decisions, one of which, District of Columbia et al. v. Heller (5-4), provided a landmark ruling with regard to the right of American citizens to bear arms.  Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia rejected a narrow interpretation of the Second Amendment as the right of citizens to keep and bear arms only in connection with a “well regulated militia,” as stated in the preface of the Amendment.  Instead, Justice Scalia maintained that the phrase “to keep and bear arms” means that every citizen, whether in the militia or not, could possess in their homes weapons for their personal defense, and further, that the Amendment applies to weapons, such as handguns, that did not exist when the Constitution was written.  In rendering this decision, the Court struck down as unconstitutional a law banning handguns in the District of Columbia. 

 Legal analysts and commentators were quick to point out that the decision was not likely to bring about dramatic changes in gun laws in most jurisdictions, particularly since the Court explicitly stated that certain restrictions were unaffected.  For example, the Court said that the Amendment only pertains to weapons in “common use” and not “unusual weapons,” such as machine guns.  Moreover, Justice Scalia qualified the majority opinion by saying that it protected only “the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home,” so that prohibitions on firearms possession by felons and the mentally ill were not deemed unconstitutional by this ruling, nor are laws prohibiting possession of firearms in certain places, such as schools and government buildings.  And, because the case originated in the District of Columbia, the decision affected only federal law; the Court did not explicitly address the question of if or how their interpretation of the Second Amendment applies to state and local jurisdictions (image from allamericanpatriots).

 This latter question may get answered soon, since immediately following the Court’s decision in Heller a lawsuit was filed in Chicago challenging that city’s similarly restrictive gun law.  Another suit, filed in San Francisco the day after the Heller decision was handed down, challenges a law there banning handguns in public housing developments. So while legal analysts were claiming that the Heller decision is important though largely symbolic, I couldn’t help but question who gains and who is most likely to lose as a result of this decision, given the new legal challenges filed already in its wake.

 I was struck, for example, by comments that the Heller ruling will most likely affect gun control laws only in major urban areas.  It is mostly municipal governments, after all, that have enacted laws like the one in DC because of the high incidence of gun violence in many urban neighborhoods. And some commentators remarked that the gun restrictions were not enforced in these neighborhoods anyway, so the Heller ruling would probably have no impact, one way or another, on gun violence there.  I came away with the sense that what was really being said is that these areas – and by extension, their residents, who happen to be disproportionately poor and people of color – are expendable: Just let them all have guns and they can shoot it out.  To me, there are strong undertones of abandoning neighborhoods perceived as “not worth saving,” areas where “law-abiding, responsible citizens” don’t live or wouldn’t go to anyway. 

 Perhaps I am reading too much into these comments, but I think it is worth remembering that all such decisions, by the Supreme Court and by policy makers, almost always have differential effects on different groups of people – with some benefiting and others losing – even though they are promulgated as affecting everyone equally.  There is considerable debate, for instance, as to whether gun control laws really do reduce violent crime. In fact, there are researchers who argue that potential crime victims who have guns may deter criminals.  Yet, I cannot help but think of a recent case in Houston, Texas, in which a white man, Joe Horn, shot and killed two Hispanic men, whom he saw breaking into his neighbor’s home. Horn mistakenly identified the men as “black” when he phoned a 911 dispatcher about the break-in, telling the operator he was going to shoot the men, that he was going to kill them, that he was not going to let them “get away with it.” Texas law permits the use of deadly force to protect property, and a grand jury refused to indict Horn.  But some observers questioned whether the grand jury – described as a “sea of white faces” – would have come to the same decision if Mr. Horn were black. The Supreme Court has now given citizens the right to bear arms to protect themselves and their “hearth and home,” but how will that right be implemented in practice? There has historically been a wide disparity between the written law and the law “in action,” with  the poor and people of color usually being on the losing side when it comes to how laws are applied.            

Supporters of the DC handgun ban argued that it was correlated with a reduction of homicides in that city. Although some researchers dispute this finding, one may legitimately ask, who is most likely to die from a firearm homicide?  According to the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), the answer is young black males.  Statistics compiled by the CDF show that the chance of a black male being killed by a firearm before his 30th birthday are 1 in 72; a white male had a 1 in 344 chance.  The CDF reports that black children and teens are more likely than white children and teens to be victims of firearm homicide, and the firearm death rate for black males, 15-19 years old, is more than four times greater than the firearm death rate for white males, 15-19 years old (image from cinematical).

 It is still too early to determine what impact the Heller decision will have, particularly in terms of challenges to other municipal gun control laws and death rates.  But taking legal history into account, I am not optimistic that residents of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are going to benefit this time around either.