Degrees of Freedom: Prejudice and Bigotry as Temporal Levels of Social Distance

If the Nobel Committee issued prizes for social science research, Robert Park, Ernest Burgess and Emory Bogardus would have been top candidates for contributions to the empirical study of prejudice and bigotry. The social distance scale, conceptualized initially by Park and Burgess, and later quantitatively measured by Bogardus, is an elegant method for calibrating how members of groups are willing to interact with members of other groups. The cumulative scale describes progressive degrees of social contact or social distance. Many sociologists of course know about this scale and it is one of the instruments in our tool box; but the recent brouhaha over Juan Williams’s statements about ‘people in Muslim garb’ brought to my mind the ubiquity of prejudice and stereotype.

Is it easier for Americans to stereotype one another? Is stereotype or profiling (born of a certain prejudging) a part of the grand American narrative? How different are we in this characteristic from other countries? It is not right, using this short-hand to characterize people we don’t know; it is convenient to do so in the anonymity of public spaces. September 11 has only given some of us more reason to do so. This happens on a daily basis and it signals that we are still very much socially distant from one another. Muslim Americans and Arab Americans are only now finding this out because they have become targets of this public mood for prejudging. This is the subtext of assimilation; if one cannot get past profiling, prejudging and stereotyping, one begins to do the same thing – a cycle that only feeds into how distant we are from one another.

Below is the social distance scale – I ask all who read this piece to honestly measure their temporal levels of social distance. Pick any group, any group at all and insert them into the scale and measure your level of prejudice and bigotry as an American (or not) towards this group. Pick more than one group – indeed, pick all the identifiable racial/ethnic groups in America. And, be true to yourself! For each question, give a yes or no response. My contention is that the degrees of freedom yielded by the dichotomous values you score will not vary by much from one group to the next (pardon my corruption of the term!).

Would you be willing to admit or accept (insert group)
• To close kinship by marriage?
• To my club as personal friend?
• To live on the same street as my neighbor?
• To be a co-worker in the same occupation?
• To citizenship in my country?
• As only visitors in my country? Or
• Would you be willing to exclude (insert group) from my country?

Social distance is both metaphoric and geographic – we do not live physically close to one another and our prejudices keep us psycho-socially separate.

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.

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?

Abolishing the 14th Amendment: Because We’re White

There are Republican senators talking about “reviewing” the 14th Amendment with an eye toward repealing it. Prominent senators, such as John McCain, are waffling on this issue, but seem open to the idea.

Just in case you’re rusty on your constitutional amendments, the 14th Amendment is the amendment passed in 1868 after the end of slavery granting full citizenship to anyone born in the U.S. – meant to include former slaves – and guaranteeing equal protection under the law. The 14th Amendment has long been the legal basis for a number of civil rights efforts since 1868, including being the basis of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954).

So, now, white Republican senators want to repeal this amendment? Or, at least, hold hearings on the possibility?! Is it about race? The Daily Show breaks it down for you in a nice first take on this controversy (7:58):

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Born in the U.S.A.
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

The writers at The Daily Show nail this with the final punchline, ” … because we’re white.” It seems clear this is what’s going on with this move to repeal the 14th Amendment. I’m sure there will be more nuanced sociological analyses in the years to come. Until this, this is good first draft at the salient issues. As a special bonus, it’s also funny, which is not always a guarantee with sociology.

Anti-Racism Rally in Glasgow: Why Not More in the U.S. ?

Hundreds marched in Glasgow, Scotland yesterday in a rally (opens short video, 1:17) to call for an end racism.   According to this report, the march and rally were organized to remind people of the dangers of allowing prejudice and discrimination to go unchallenged, and was organized by the STUC, a labor union.   Reading the news about this anti-racism rally in Glasgow got me wondering, why aren’t there more of these in the U.S.?  While I recognize that a rally is not the same thing as a social movement, but it is noteworthy that the only time there’s an anti-racism rally here, it’s in response to a KKK (or other white racist group) rally, and there’s not a sustained anti-racist movement in the U.S.

There’s some recent research by sociologists Jill McCorkel and Jason Rodriguez that may shed some light on this question (recently highlighted in Contexts).   McCorkel and Rodriguez explored the experience of those who participate in movements dominated by people of other races, specifically, they used multi-year participant observation to study how white people become accepted in civil rights organizations dominated by African Americans (e.g., “pro-black” abolitionism and “conscious” hip hop). They found that white people are rarely recruited into such organizations and, when a white person seeks membership, they’re often relegated to “supporter” roles rather than given full membership. In order to move into the core of the movement, white people had to prove their “realness”— that is, their commitment to political struggle. But regardless of their efforts to “fit-in,” white ­participants in black social movements never could become full members. (You can read the entire article in the journal Social Problems, March 2009).

While McCorkel and Rodriguez’s research is focused more on the challenges that an influx of progressive, anti-racist whites posed to two racially progressive movements, their research also suggests a few speculative explanations for why there’s not a robust anti-racist movement in the U.S.  First, it suggests that whites are rarely seen as natural allies by people leading organizations focused on racial equality.  Further, it suggests that anti-racist whites are not organizing among themselves to form a movement against racism, but rather are seeking out organizations dominated by African Americans.    Yet, once in those organizations, anti-racist whites must do the work of proving their “realness” to others rather than engaging work that might change structural inequality, dismantle institutional racism, or raise the consciousness of other whites.  Perhaps anti-racist whites who want to see real social change should work on doing something to change the school-to-prison pipeline, as just one example, rather than trying to get demonstrate how “real” they are.

Or, maybe like whites in Glasgow, whites here in the U.S. could organize an old-fashioned anti-racism rally.

Black & Poor: Bill Wilson’s Theoretical Muddle

As with his previous books, trouble with William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race begins with its title: Is there anybody on the planet, in academic or popular discourses, who believes that black disadvantage is “just race”? Is Wilson merely shadow boxing? Has he set up a straw argument, making a caricature of his opponent, all the better to demonstrate the rectitude of his position? Is the book an answer to critics who assailed him for undercutting the black protest movement by proclaiming that race was of “declining significance”?

The fierce debate that followed the 1978 publication of  The Declining Significance of Race was a reiteration of a longstanding debate on the Left. On the one hand, there are those in the Marxist tradition who subsume race to class and contend that the problem of race is primarily one of economic inequality. On the other hand, there are those in the black radical tradition who insist that it is not “just class,” not only because we are left with the legacy of slavery, but also because racial discrimination, especially in the world of work, is still systemic and widespread. On this view, the problems of African Americans are fundamentally different from those of other exploited workers, requiring different policy remedies. But neither side of the race/class debate is so simplistic or obtuse as to assert that either race or class operates to the exclusion of the other. Indeed, over the past twenty years a consensus has emerged concerning the “intersectionality” of race and class (a problematic that W. E. B. Du Bois wrestled with throughout his long life). Hence, Wilson’s epiphany, that race and class are “entwined,” has long been accepted as axiomatic by both sides of the race/class debate, and one wonders whether his book, with its dubious title, was even necessary.

Another problem with Wilson’s title is that it doesn’t quite match the thrust of his book, which is preoccupied with another academic squabble: the structure/culture debate. On the one hand, there are those who emphasize the role that major societal institutions play in throwing blacks into poverty and limiting their avenues of escape. Others, however, locate the sources of black disadvantage in an aberrant ghetto culture that, or so they claim, perpetuates poverty from one generation to the next. Wilson steps into this breach, methodically reviews the knowledge claims of both sides, and alas concludes that structure and culture are “entwined.” Had he been faithful to his argument, Wilson would have titled his book, More Than Just Structure.

morethanjustraceIn his laudatory review of More Than Just Race in the New York Times Book Review, Richard Thompson Ford echoes Wilson’s claim that “the vitriolic condemnation of the Moynihan Report effectively closed off a serious academic focus on the culture of poverty for decades, robbing policy makers of a complete and nuanced account of the causes of ghetto poverty.” Now, it is undeniable that Moynihan was pummeled, but not for bringing to light compromising details concerning black families. Rather Moynihan came under fire for inverting cause and effect. Instead of blaming joblessness and poverty for the fracture of black families, Moynihan blamed the “weak black family,” going back to slavery, for the litany of problems that beset the black poor.

Moreover, it is preposterous for Wilson and Ford to suggest that reaction to the Moynihan Report short-circuited a full vetting of the culture of poverty thesis since this has been the reigning precept behind public policy over several decades, culminating in the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act that abolished entitlements for poor people that had been in place since the Depression. Indeed, Wilson should reflect on what the obsession with ghetto culture has wrought. Continue reading…

Teaching “Race & Ethnicity” : The First Day (Open Thread for Comments)

What’s the best way to begin a class on “Race & Ethnicity”? This question is inspired in part by the terrific discussion in yesterday’s comments about the common trainer’s question, “what about being (fill-in-your-racial-ethnic-background) makes you proud?” and by a recent question on the Teaching Sociology listserv.

For the readers here who are professors and classroom teachers, what’s the best exercise or introduction to this class that you’ve used?

For readers who have taken such a class, what sort of exercises have you enjoyed on the first day? What sorts of exercises do you absolutely loathe?

Let us hear from you in the comment box.

And, as a reminder, we have a (beginning) stash of films and syllabi here at RacismReview available for download. I know lots of folks are working on their syllabus for the upcoming semester right now. Please email me (jessiedanielsnyc _at_ gmail _dot_ com) if you’d like to see your syllabus added to the mix.

The Impact of Racialized Attacks on Senator Obama

     The fivethirtyeight website reports on an analysis of the last month’s changes in voter preferences for Senators McCain and Obama:

Survey USA has now released polls in fifteen states that were taken at the height of the Jeremiah Wright controversy (this past Friday through Sunday). We can compare the demographic groups in these polls to Survey USA’s previous set of polls, which were conducted in the last couple days of February. . . . I’m merely comparing Obama’s net advantage against McCain between the February and the March surveys. If Obama was leading among whites in Oregon by 6 points in February, but he trailed by 2 points in March, that would be recorded as a “-8”.

What they call the “Wright effect” is significant. Summing the effects across the fifteen states, Senator Obama’s net advantage relative to McCain has dropped by 9 percent among whites, 4-7 percent among men and women, 3 percent among younger voters and 13 percent among older voters, 9 percent among Republican voters, 1 percent among Independents, 5 percent among Democrats, and 5-11 percent among liberal and moderate voters. In contrast, black support went up 6 percent, and Hispanic support up 5 percent.


        Of course, these data are early yet in the season, and the last polling was done close to the Dr. Wright story, with no impact yet from Senator Obama’s powerful speech, but they do suggest some impact not only from the negative and racially biased way the corporate media have spun the Wright story, but also from the impact of earlier racialized attacks this month by Representative S. King and the corporate media on Senator Obama’s Muslim “connections” and “optics.”

        As I predicted two months back, these racialized attacks on Senator Obama have come just as he appears to be the likely Democratic candidate and seem to have had their intended effect in backing off some white voters. There are at least two other somewhat similar, major political attacks on Senator Obama waiting in the political wings. Such intentional attacks, because of the deep white racial framing of the “dangerous black man” in many (especially white) voters’ minds, create major hurdles for Senator Obama in his pioneering attempt to win the presidency in the fall.


Michelle Obama: Sociologist

White denial of racism is central to this serious, yet often fatuous, political season, as we see in the many web and media debates over a senior thesis written by the young Princeton sociology student Michelle Obama some 23 years ago. Whites are attacking her for writing honestly and candidly, from data she gathered in 90 questionnaires returned by Princeton’s Black alumni about their views, especially about their ideological focus, commitments to the Black community, and contacts with other Blacks during and after their Princeton experience.  Princeton University’s librarians have so far restricted access to Obama’s senior thesis, but you can find it here.

In searching the web today I found there are already some 26,000 references to this story of a 1985 senior thesis entitled, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” and recorded under her maiden name, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson. One would think that honest writing about U.S. racial matters from someone who has both lived it and studied it would get serious public attention and turn the focus on the often isolating and negative impact that predominantly white campus climates have on African American students, but the opposite has, for the most part, happened.

We also see this in the vulture-like media attention to her painful life-reflecting comments that:

“for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction.”

Reactions to this by various, including well-educated white commentators are clueless about the deep structures of racism still undergirding U.S. society.   A great many African Americans, probably an overwhelming majority, would know exactly what she means.

One of the interesting stories on her senior sociology thesis can be found on, by Jeffrey Ressner.   Like a majority of Black students at other historically white institutions in numerous more recent studies (see the summaries here and here, Obama and other Princeton University students have faced problematical, isolating, and often negative racial experiences on historically white college campuses. In her sociology thesis Obama comments on her own experience:

“I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second.”

Sadly, this is commonly reported by Black students on historically white institutions today, as both Jessie and Lou have reported in recent posts, and as can be seen in the books linked above.

Obama notes that in 1985 Princeton University had only five tenure-track Black faculty and modest numbers of Black students, a white world indeed! From her 90 questionnaires she found that for many Black alumni/ae going to Princeton meant, as she feared for herself:

“further integration and/or assimilation into a white cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant.”

One commentator at the end of the Ressner column, which accents Princeton’s refusal to release the thesis, makes a comment I suspect many whites would make:

“It was 1985 and a very very very very different United States.”

Sadly, the empirical data on historically white institutions, including our colleges and universities, strongly suggest that 2008 is all too like 1985, for a great many college students of color, and most especially African Americans.  In our field research, The Agony of Education: Black Students in White Colleges and Universities, we see many Black students at historically white institutions giving accounts like this one with a white professor outside a university classroom:

“This is one time in a social science department. I had a professor. . . . One day we were talking about Black stereotypes, and you know how they say like, ‘They’re criminals and always wanting to rob people.’ So after class I wanted to talk to her. And a girlfriend and I were standing waiting for her, so she’s coming out of the class, and she’s all like ‘Oh, what?’ And I say, ‘Can I talk to you, whatever?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, I thought you wanted to rob me or something.’ ” Being framed like this in negative ways, even in naïve joking fashion, often has the kind of isolating or negative impact today that Michelle Obama discusses in her senior thesis.

As the famous educator John Henry Newman once put it, the university should be “a seat of wisdom” and “a light of the world.”  Yet, as Obama’s thesis and much social science research later show, wisdom and light are typically not everyday realities when it comes to racial isolation and other barriers on predominantly white college campuses (see, for example, our new book on white college students’ racist performances). Denials notwithstanding, the empirical data show that serious racial barriers remain widespread on historically white campuses.