Category: All Issues

The Mall is Dead, Long Live the Mall

Ladmark Mall sign

I prepared for the obligatory gift-giving of the holiday season by visiting three malls in the suburbs of Washington D.C. I planned to check-off all of the names on my shopping list and not wait until the last minute to find gifts (for once). I did not find many gifts at the malls and instead relied on Amazon Prime to deliver gifts with a few days to spare; however, I was surprised that the malls were busy. The hustle and bustle that I experienced seemed to counter the dominant media narrative of dying and dead malls in the U.S.

Media reports of major retailers, such Sears, Macy’s, and JCPenney, closing their doors have become a regular occurrence. These closures have fed a narrative that the death of the mall –the large enclosed shopping center– is near in this age of online shopping and minimalist millennials. The closing of major anchor stores is indicative of, or at least often conflated with, the death of the traditional mall itself. The oft-used phrase is typically paired with ominous photographs or videos of empty stores and in some cases abandoned buildings. For example, the website deadmalls.com is dedicated to archiving the death of malls across the U.S. with stories and images. Once synonymous with the image of a booming postwar society characterized by flourishing capitalism, unbounded American dreams, and the assertion of the individual through mass consumption, malls now seem to be a remnant of a bygone era.

The Life of the Indoor Shopping Mall

While indoor shopping centers first appeared in the U.S. as early as the first half of the 19th century, large-scale enclosed suburban shopping centers characterized as “the mall” today did not appear until much later (O’Malley 2016). Historian Lizabeth Cohen (1996) explains that in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a large shift in the population distribution of American citizens as predominantly white families began moving into newly developing suburban areas. With only a small number of local shops located in town centers, these newly developing suburbs were unable to keep-up with the growing demands of a larger population. Many people living in the suburbs had to make trips to nearby cities to buy products until developers began to take advantage of the residents’ growing need for a shopping center. Cohen (1996: 1052) describes the emergence of the new postwar marketplace:

“By the mid-1950s, however, commercial developers–many of whom owned department stores–were constructing a new kind of marketplace, the regional shopping center aimed at satisfying suburbanites’ consumption and community needs. Strategically located at highway intersections or along the busiest thoroughfares, the regional shopping center attracted patrons living within half an hour’s drive, who could come by car, park in the abundant lots provided, and then proceed on foot.”

One such marketplace is Southdale Center, which opened in Edina, Minnesota in 1956; it was the first fully enclosed and climate-controlled suburban shopping mall in the U.S. Designed by architect Victor Gruen, Southdale Center was intended to “bring European sensibilities stateside by dramatically blurring the lines between shopping, socialization, leisure, and play” (Newton 2017:6). Gruen’s design, although never fully realized, would act as the prototype for what we now identify as “the mall.”

As Cohen (1996) explains, after WWII, the move from “town center” to “shopping center” was an intentional transition to combine both consumption and civic activity into an all-in-one center. Despite the narrative that the indoor mall was a public space where all members of the community, especially women, could tend to needs and wants (shopping for the family, recreation, and community activities), the indoor mall acted as a regulated and segregated space intended for middle-class whites; those with a low socioeconomic status and people of color were not welcome in this space. Eventually, the mall as a community center became “too political” for private owners because it was also a strategic location for free speech and demonstrations (ibid.). Therefore, mall owners transitioned away from the community model to focus more intently on consumerism. Gruen, who is now known as the creator of the modern shopping mall, would later state that his original design and ideas were “bastardized” by modern developments, devoid of rich community life (Newton 2017; O’Malley 2016).

Ladmark Mall sign

Source: Briana Pocratsky

 

There was a significant increase in the number of shopping malls and shopping centers in general in the 1960s into the late 1980s (Feinberg and Meoli 1991). O’Malley (2016) writes that the construction of enclosed malls reached its height in 1990 but subsequently decreased through the 2000s. This decline is indicated by the fact that in 2007, “for the first time in more than 40 years, no new malls opened in the United States” (O’Malley 2016:4).

According to retail analysts, the decline of the mall is due to factors such as online shopping, the closing of anchor stores, retiring/retired Baby Boomers, more women in the workforce, teens spending less time at the mall, mall saturation, mall consolidation, and outstanding loans from the indoor mall building boom of the 1990s. While some top-tier traditional malls may be able to adapt to changing socioeconomic conditions by incorporating entertainment and technology into the space, other traditional malls may not have the funds to do so (ibid.).

It is important to note that the “death” of the traditional indoor mall is not necessarily an indication that consumers only want virtual shopping experiences. Preferences regarding online shopping and physical shopping are complex. For example, some corporations associated with an online presence, such as Amazon, are opening “brick-and-mortar stores.” This trend is due in part to consumers’ desires to tangibly experience a product before they purchase it in addition to the immediacy of the transaction (ibid.).

From Traditional Mall to Town Center

My shopping experiences for holiday gifts point to larger questions regarding the evolution of malls locally and in the U.S. more generally. Why do malls in the Washington D.C. suburbs appear to be thriving, and why are malls now often referred to as town centers? There seems to be a turn back to the town center brand and romanticized notions of community along with it.

Before the indoor shopping mall, the town center played a prominent role in suburbia where residents would purchase their products downtown at local shops that were not located in one large building (Cohen 1996). Fung and Safdar (2018) explain that many malls are undergoing makeovers and dropping “mall” from their names, citing Ballston Common Mall in Arlington (Virginia) and its recent renovation plans to become Ballston Quarter in 2018 as an example of this rebranding.

Springfield Town Center (in Virginia) is another local example of this image overhaul. Springfield Mall, which opened in the 1970s, underwent a multimillion dollar renovation from 2012-2014, also dropping “mall” from its name.

Buildings

Springfield Town Center. Source: Briana Pocratsky

 

The moniker “town center” signifies how the mall is changing; it is not simply a site of consumption but a place of experiences and particular lifestyles. In explaining the changing image of the mall, O’Malley (2016:17) notes: “Over-the-top, non-retail experiences, from unique restaurants to indoor swimming pools will be as ubiquitous as the stores, and most malls will incorporate apartments, offices and service providers like doctors, barbers, gyms and hotel rooms into or next to their space.”

Town Centers for the Community

An important aspect of the life trajectory of a mall is related to how it serves the larger community. The turn back to the “town center” tag and the connotations it evokes seems to suggest a move to incorporate malls within the town or the communities of which they are a part, as opposed to operating as isolated and contained consumer locations. For example, Landmark Mall in Alexandria (Virginia), built in the 1960s, is currently undergoing renovations to become the “new Landmark,” described as “a new live-shop-dine urban village” (see the website thenewlandmark.com).

The new Landmark’s homepage emphasizes that the renovations will benefit the community and that the corporate owner “is dedicated to transforming it and bringing back a sense of community” to the area. It is important to consider how these developments affect the surrounding areas in the name of “the community.” What roles are these town centers actually playing in the communities in which they insert themselves? Will they actually foster community cohesion? What does it mean for nearby housing prices? Will these renovated spaces create more jobs or will the number of jobs shrink? How might the arrival of national retail outlets, restaurants, and entertainment venues impact local culture and businesses? In the Washington D.C. suburbs, town centers may be the eventual future of the indoor mall and perhaps even necessary for its survival, but it is also important to consider what incarnations indoor malls or town centers in more rural areas may take, based on (perceived or real) community needs and wants.

References

Cohen, Lizabeth. 1996. “From Town Center to Shopping Center: The Reconfiguration of Community Marketplaces in Postwar America.” American Historical Review 101(4):1050-81.

Feinberg, Richard A. and Jennifer Meoli. 1991. “A Brief History of the Mall.”Advances in Consumer Research 18 (1): 426-27.

Fung, Esther, and Khadeeja Safdar. 2018. “Please Visit Our Collection of Stores Under One Roof, Which Totally Isn’t a Mall.” The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved January 15, 2018 (https://www.wsj.com/articles/please-visit-our-collection-of-stores-under-one-roof-which-totally-isnt-a-mall-1515686374?mod=e2tw).

Newton, Matthew. 2017. Shopping Mall (Object Lessons). New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

O’Malley, Sharon. 2016, August 29. “Shopping Malls.” SAGE Business Researcher. Retrieved from (http://businessresearcher.sagepub.com/sbr-1775-100682-2747282/20160829/shopping-malls) doi: 10.1177/237455680217.n1

By Briana Pocratsky

Return to February 2018 Issue

 

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The Magic of Breakfast: Pancake Saturdays

People eating pancakes

I was doing the customary end of year decluttering, when I found myself flipping through a magazine with an article on the history of breakfast. It never occurred to me that breakfast would have a contentious history. According to this article, the breakfast meal has “long been the source of medical confusion, moral frustration, and political anxiety” (Garber 2016). At one point or another in history, breakfast has been shunned for being a temptation to commit the sin of gluttony, or an occasion for lavish social gatherings (in the 1800s when it experienced a revival). In our times, new research has cast doubt on the purported health benefits of breakfast (Carroll 2016; see also Anderson 2013).

Normally this type of article wouldn’t have caught my attention except that for the last couple of months, breakfast has been an important part of my endeavor to learn more about reentry in the District. Every month Changing Perceptions1, an organization dedicated to enabling returning citizens2 in the District to reach their full potential, hosts Pancake Saturday.

The site of Pancake Saturday is a very special row house on 18th Street in Southeast. I say special because this house serves as a home base for many returning citizens in the District, including those participating in the Aspire to Entrepreneurship program (see Valdovinos October 2017). Some returning citizens live here. For others, this house is the base for their small business, a safe space, a place to stop by for mentorship, or on certain Saturdays, the site of communal breakfast. Pancakes are usually the star of Pancake Saturdays but there are also eggs, bacon and sausage, sometimes waffles make an appearance, and on one occasion, the sweet potato hash from Reese’s Catering, even overshadowed the pancakes. Reese’s Catering is part of a growing network of small businesses owned by returning citizens in the District.

Just like breakfast, pancakes also have a long, albeit much less contentious, history. Pancakes are also ubiquitous throughout the world, known by various names and branded by levels of thinness or thickness. The idea of a “pancake day” is also anything but contemporary (Rupp 2014).

Pancake Saturday, however, is not just about breakfast or pancakes. It is also about building a healthy community and a positive social support network in line with the principles of the Aspire to Entrepreneurship program. Returning citizens in the District of Columbia face many challenges in reentry, some of which are unique to the District (see Valdovinos May 2017). Among the many challenges is securing traditional employment. As I arrived at Pancake Saturday this past October, I noticed that the Clean Decisions team3, another business owned and operated by returning citizens in the District, had gotten an early start on breakfast and the staff were on their way out, ready to start a full day’s work on a full stomach.

We have all heard the adage, at some point in our socialization that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” However, the latest research debunks this aphorism. After looking at the collective body of medical research on the health benefits of breakfast, Aaron Carroll, a journalist, has concluded that: there was “nothing magical about breakfast” (Carroll 2016). And yet, I wonder what a sociological body of research on the significance of breakfast, or meals in general, might suggest? The earliest sociological analysis of our gastronomic experiences I uncovered was Georg Simmel’s 1910 essay on the sociology of the meal.

The last Pancake Saturday event of 2017 was an occasion of delicious food, stimulating conversation, shop talk for returning citizen entrepreneurs, affirmations, reflections on the year ending, and wishes for the new year. And the weather was unseasonably balmy.

People eating pancakes

Pancake Saturday. Source Maria Valdovinos

 

For this group, this repast event has become a site of learning and support, serving to reduce anxiety or frustration for many participants. I’ve never been much of a breakfast person myself, but the meal has become increasingly important thanks to Pancake Saturday. As a student/researcher working in reentry in the District for a year now, Pancake Saturday has provided me entry into ethnographic work, and as a resident of the DMV area, it has connected me to neighbors.

Notes

  1. To learn more about Changing Perceptions and Pancake Saturday, visit their Twitter page at https://twitter.com/changingdc?lang=en
  2. The use of “Returning Citizen” as opposed to “prisoner” is reflective of the use of “people first” language which aims to move past the use of dehumanizing and stigmatizing language such as “offenders”, “inmates”, or “convicts” when talking about people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system.
  3. To learn about Clean Decisions LLC, visit their Twitter page at https://twitter.com/CleanDecisions?lang=en

References

Anderson, Heather A. 2013. Breakfast: A History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Carroll, Aaron E. 2016. “Sorry, There’s Nothing Magical About Breakfast.” The New York Times, May 23. Retrieved (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/24/upshot/sorry-theres-nothing-magical-about-breakfast.html?_r=0)

Garber, Megan. 2016. “The Most Contentious Meal of the Day.” The Atlantic, June 19. Retrieved (https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/06/breakfast-the-most-contentious-meal-of-the-day/487220/)

Rupp, R. 2014. “Here’s the History of Pancakes.” National Geographic: The Plate Series, May 21. Retrieved (http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2014/05/21/hot-off-the-griddle-heres-the-history-of-pancakes/)

Valdovinos, Maria. 2017, May. “There is No Prison in Washington: Challenges of Reentry in the District.” The Sociologist, May 22. Retrieved (http://thesociologistdc.com/all-issues/there-is-no-prison-in-washington-challenges-of-reentry-in-the-district/)

Valdovinos, Maria. 2017, October. “Aspiring to Entrepreneurship in the District.” The Sociologist, October 10. Retrieved (http://thesociologistdc.com/all-issues/aspiring-to-entrepreneurship-in-the-district/).

By Maria Valdovinos

Return to February 2018 Issue

 

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Re-Centering the Student Voice in the Debate of Free Speech in Higher Education

microphone

In January 2018, I attended the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) annual conference to gain a deeper understanding of how university administrators and faculty are talking about the recent attacks on academic freedom on college campuses in the name of the first amendment. A theme around student protest emerged again and again during the many panel discussions on the first amendment on college and university campuses. Here I reflect on how student protest is framed, and how a sociological analysis of power can add to the conversation.

In her piece on the right’s “weaponization” of free speech, Joan Scott (2018) contends that in this current time: “The university as a place for critical thinking, for difficult dialogue and frank, open debate, has been damaged.” She goes on to say that such damage is not simply the result of different subject matter in higher education curricula, but a political choice within the context of the neoliberal university. Rather than encouraging students to engage in debate, colleges and universities tend to encourage students to stay away from difficult subject matter in the name of career preparation. Simultaneously, a resurfaced anti-intellectualism that disregards the importance of academic freedom threatens our mutual capacity for democracy.

This past year, a number of highly-publicized college campus protests flooded millions of social media feeds and TV screens across the country. These protests were against controversial, explosive speakers, Charles Murray at Middlebury College and Milo Yiannopolous at University of California (UC) Berkeley, to name a few. Media frenzy brought free speech debates to the forefront of what was already an ongoing national conversation, especially among college and university campus communities. These protests also became highly politicized. Donald Trump’s tweets, for example, threatened to withhold federal funding from UC Berkeley. With this climate as backdrop, the 2018 AAC&U conference hosted a number of free speech and critical inquiry themed panels and seminars.

Donald Trump Tweet

Throughout the various free speech panel sessions, I found that speakers, facilitators, and participants mainly addressed three themes: constitutional law, moral obligations of campus communities to uphold respectful dialogue, and student conduct when controversial speakers were headlining an event.

Constitutional law scholars clarified the limits and bounds of the first amendment throughout the sessions. Ethics experts spoke on the need for education on civil discourse methods to resist the backlash of using disruptive methods of protest. Journalists argued that the realities on campuses responding to controversial or provocative speakers is often much more civil than the many media reports suggest.

However, somewhat lost in the conversations from my view were students’ concerns that drove protest (whether deemed violent or not), save for a few voices such as sociologist Linus Owens of Middlebury College. Conversations intended to foster dialogue about best practices in creating democratic and safe campuses focused on the form of student protest rather than the content of protest or the context in which students engage in protest to begin with.

As sociologists, we continuously question, observe, and theorize how social inequality transforms our communities. Sociology makes clear that social stratification is not always overt, and is embedded in our interactions and social structures (Giddens 1990; Mooney-Nickel 2013); at the same time, merit and fairness can elevate certain voices over others (Khan 2016). In the context of debating first amendment rights on campus, speakers such as Milo Yinnapolous and Richard Spencer are supported through vast funding networks. During one panel discussion about free speech and critical inquiry, Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed argued that provocative speakers on college campuses are not new. What is new is the amount of money spent on these speakers, and the outside funding networks that use student groups to promote provocative speakers on campuses. For this reason, the marketplace of ideas is skewed in favor of provocateurs.

The limits of a constitutional law or ethics argument could be extended by a sociological analysis of networks, power, and the expanse of inequality that could potentially contribute to frustration and protest, even as colleges and universities are changing rapidly. For instance, many students are paying more in tuition, but seeing less support by institutions of higher education (Mitchell, Leachman, and Masterson 2017). This reality that contributes to tensions on campuses and unequally gives power and voice to outside influences to reshape campus life often also frequently weakens free speech debates in the context of student demands for corrective actions from administrations.

Sociologists can take a significant role in blunting the right’s “weaponized” free speech blade by using our methods and theory to bridge conversations and re-center student voices in three ways. First, sociologists can promote a more dynamic dialogue as to how constitutional law posits equal access to free speech on structurally stratified grounds. Second, sociology’s tradition of power analysis can contextualize explosive speakers as richly funded provocateurs rather than egalitarian colleagues in the marketplace of ideas. Finally, sociologists can challenge the politicized and grossly reductionist notion that college students are immature and coddled, in need of discipline. Rather, the sociological gaze should focus our attention on how a robust education fosters our collective right to citizenship.

References

Giddens, Anthony. 1990. Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Khan, Shamus R. 2011. Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Mitchell, Michael,

Michael Leachman, and Kathleen Masterson. 2017. “A Lost Decade in Higher Education Funding: State Cuts Have Driven Up Tuition and Reduced Quality.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Retrieved January 10, 2018 (https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/2017_higher_ed_8-22-17_final.pdf).

Mooney-Nickel, Patricia. 2013. Public Sociology and Civil Society: Governance, Politics, and Power. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Owens, Linus, Maya Goldberg-Safir, and Rebecca Flores Harper. 2017. “Divisiveness Is Not Diversity.” Retrieved January 19, 2018 (http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/03/17/professor-and-two-former-students-say-why-they-think-students-are-protesting).

Scott, Joan W. 2018. “How the Right Weaponized Free Speech.” Retrieved January 11, 2018 (https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-the-Right-Weaponized-Free/242142).

By Emily McDonald

Return to February 2018 Issue

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Our Meeting Place

computer keyboard with social media keys

There are hidden, latent, patterns to our social behavior and the way society functions. These latent patterns may be unintended or unconscious (per Robert Merton), but they may also be meant to be deliberately covert or furtive. So, which functions or patterns of society are unintended, unconscious and which ones are consciously hidden? For me, there are three main outlets that allow us to go behind the scenes, so to speak, to uncover the invisible patterns in our social lives and in society. You don’t have to be a sociologist or any kind of scientist for that matter to avail yourself of the information offered by these outlets.

The quarterly magazine, Contexts, created by the American Sociological Association, is the official channel for jargon-free information about “latest sociological ideas and research.”1 The magazine, perhaps modelled after Psychology Today, is meant to be nontechnical (you won’t find articles using confidence intervals or p values) and to “stimulate fresh thinking, and disseminate important information produced by the discipline.”2

After shepherding Contexts for several years, the editors left the magazine to create The Society Pages, which is an online only platform that “brings social science to broader public visibility and influence.”3 This online sociology ‘project’, as the proprietors call it, is perhaps the most familiar space for staging what has become public sociology, or sociology that is not confined to the closeted world of sociologists.

The other outlet for publicly disseminating information about sociology is Hidden Brain, which uses science and storytelling to reveal the “unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.”4 To be sure, this award-winning weekly series of reports broadcasted on National Public Radio covers more than just sociology; it brings together research from all the social sciences and links them to neurobiology. On my daily commutes, I have often heard revelations or disclosures about certain unknown patterns of our social lives, such as the fact that the rate of mortality declined during the Great Recession (2007-2012).

stick figures dancing

Source: pixabay.com

 

Together, these three outlets provide, for me, sociological information that is credible, accessible and available to me as a public consumer. And all three of them offer different takes on the functions and patterns of especially our latent social lives. It is already easy to see what is manifest, so we need decoders to help us unpack the latent.

In terms of bringing technical social science knowledge to the public, I am convinced that Psychology Today has done an exemplary job – by reaching out to the public more than 50 years ago with a publication that made the stuff of the mind and human behavior easy for all non-psychologists to understand.

While pop psychology may be derisively used to describe oversimplified concepts, the fact that psychology is on the public stage makes it strikingly more accessible to everyone who wants to be informed about things that do not always seem evident about ourselves, our lives.

There is nothing in the public theatre that resembles anything close to Psychology Today for sociology and the challenge remains to let the public in on what sociologists know and talk about. The challenge for any hub outlet for sociology meant for the public is that our information technology eco system places at our disposal thousands of online outlets for information; it is the bane and blessing of our world. And although there is considerable consolidation and contraction in print media, Psychology Today seems to be thriving after 50 years. What is their secret sauce?

computer keyboard with social media keys

Source: pixabay.com

 

For four years now, the editorial team at The Sociologist has wrestled with how our magazine will become like Psychology Today; we want to define ourselves as caterers not custodians of sociology. It may seem we arrived at this public square a tad late, showing up at a time when the stage is crowded with a garden variety of online information outlets, fake news, memes, tweets, blogs, face news (as in Facebook).

When our regional sociology society was founded more than 80 years ago, it was one of the first regional organizations of sociologists to be formed in the U.S. and so it is now the challenge for our magazine to be novel in our engagement in the public square where we want to be. When we transformed our newsletter into a magazine for public sociology, we wanted this space to be a meeting place where all sociologists and non-sociologists can gather through an interest in sharing insights about ourselves. The goal remains the same, and the destination is distinct, but the path is not yet clear to us. We want to be like Psychology Today by providing insights about your social life and also by becoming a resource to get help with your social life.

We hope that the feature section “Ask a Sociologist” will become a go-to resource for all who want nontechnical answers to life’s vicissitudes, social conundrums and latent challenges about living. So send us your questions and your queries. And we also hope that the new “Resources” section will provide a supply of informed people and agencies that can provide help on a range of manifest and latent patterns in life. We also want to bring you perspectives from the Washington D.C. area; this regional aspect of our magazine is how we stay anchored in a physical, actual, space. We are more than a virtual community.

Our rendezvous becomes an occasion for curiosity about our world. Everyone has a story to tell, and we want you to send us your insights for publication – and you don’t have to be a scientist. What we ask of you is that you are earnest and honest in what you write and what you share. It is how we avoid malnourishment in a time of abundance.

Notes
1. http://www.asanet.org/research-and-publications/contexts
2. Ibid
3. https://thesocietypages.org/#/about
4. https://www.npr.org/series/423302056/hidden-brain

By Y. Shaw-Taylor

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Starting with Community: Sociological Practice in Building Scholar-Activist Coalitions

By Marisa Allison, Carrie Hutnick, and Emily McDonald

Following the 2016 elections, members of the Public Sociology Association at George Mason University began a project in attempt to create a community of scholar-activists on our campus. Recognizing the tremendous amount of activist and advocacy work that has been happening in different spheres on our campus, we felt called to use the tools we have developed as public sociologists to lay a groundwork that could help create a network of support during a time of rising attacks on students, faculty, and staff who engage in social justice and liberation work across the U.S. On September 1, the Public Sociology Association invited student activists across campus to come together for a day of reflection and getting to know one another. Our group is now in the process of determining next steps in terms of how to best create a collaborative network of scholar-activists, supporting work that is already present rather than recreating strategies and efforts already in place. What we recount here are a series of lessons that we continue to work through as we strive to create a community of scholar-activists on our campus.

While there are sociologists working outside of academia, a large part of our discipline remains housed in the university. In debates around practicing public sociology, and using sociological inquiry as a means of activism, distinctions are often made between sociologists who work inside the academy and those who do not. As noted by Michael Burawoy in his 2004 ASA Presidential address, such a distinction draws a line between university-based sociologists as the “professionals” who publish for academic audiences and other sociologists engaged in activism, policy debates, and contributing to decisions not necessarily particular to university communities. Yet, there are incredible networks of activist students, faculty, and professional staff that exemplify how the university is embedded in and reflective of the “real” world. Inequality does not dissipate at the classroom door. As Mason’s Vice President for University Life and Mason Sociology alumna Rose Pascarell stated in her address to the Public Sociology Association last year: “If it’s happening in the ‘real’ world, it’s happening here.”

Lesson One

Much of the important advocacy and activist work already underway on campus is invisible to much of the broader university community. As those seeking to build a scholar- activist community, we must recognize the importance of the activist and advocacy work that is already happening. Many of the issues on campus emerge specifically due to our status as students, staff, and faculty, which make us actors within an institution with lived experiences shaped by it, while giving our actions meaning in shaping the university.

For example, in September of this year, the student group “Transparent GMU” went to court after suing the university and the university foundation for not being transparent about donor agreements. This student group is already connected to the UnKoch My Campus initiative, and if their case succeeds, it will not only allow decades of donor agreements to be made public at GMU, which could unmask donor influence over course content, faculty scholarship, and hiring, tenure, and promotion, but it could also set a precedent that would allow anyone to ask for transparency in donor agreements at public universities across the U.S. Such a precedent could potentially disclose efforts made by corporate foundations to influence public perception and public policy under the guise of unbiased research and scholarship that comes out of public universities, but which ultimately benefit corporate interests. Such efforts may seem small in scope, yet could potentially create systemic change by encouraging free speech and autonomy both within and outside the academy. Student activism is often framed as somehow less legitimate “practice” for the “real” world, yet we know the work done by these students is transformative. On the other hand, faculty/staff activism can be suppressed due to their employment status within the university. A scholar-activist community, therefore, must learn to “see” and support one another, in an environment that tends to render us invisible to one another.

Lesson Two

Public sociologists have something unique to contribute to coalition and community building within activist spaces because of our work as both scholars and activists as well as our commitment to centering and highlighting the work of the publics we engage with. In this way we can help bridge and support current work that individual scholars and groups of activists are doing without recreating existing efforts.

As sociologists, we identified our potential capacity for theoretical analysis of social issues, our training and experience as instructors in leading students in developing tools for analysis, and our ability to support movements for social transformation through research to support groups engaged in activism on campus. As public sociologists, we reflected on our ability to build relationships with populations we seek to support and allow those directly experiencing issues of inequality to maintain their own voice in activist spaces, define their needs for our support, and have ownership over implementation of tools and information we might provide.

We do not necessarily look to transform practices already in place or claim expertise in issues we ourselves are not directly connected to through scholarship or activism. Rather, we hope to help these groups connect their more immediate efforts of creating effective communities of change to structural efforts that can help them understand how the issues they address are interconnected and influence one another.

Source: George Mason University

 

We hope to work with groups on campus addressing particular issues and working for liberation to create more collaborative networks by finding connections with each other, and with sociological tools of analysis, help them identify ways those connections mirror the structural issues they are facing. This is a reciprocal, mutually beneficial learning process that can inform work as a community rather than a one-way relationship of information sharing.

Lesson Three

Whether we are scholars, activists, or both, when we individually (or collectively) work on any liberation/justice project, that undertaking becomes the main focus of our efforts. One issue in forming a community where the goal is to support and give equal recognition and attention to every project/issue people are addressing in their work is that our current climate makes each different project being addressed a priority. Therefore, supporting the work that the Mason DREAMers are doing around the president’s ending of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is equally important as supporting the faculty and graduate students producing scholarship about white supremacy in response to the events that occurred in Charlottesville.

Ultimately, creating a community of scholar-activists is the best way to support all of the projects that scholar-activists are working on within our campus community. Such an effort requires an active commitment to centering the mission of collaboration rather than centering one specific mission of one specific group. A support network is both showing up for one another when needed without sacrificing one’s own commitment to a particular issue.

No one aspect of liberation work is centered as the most important. Striking the balance between actively creating shared space to come together without reproducing the traumatic silencing many groups experience due to their progressive mission, or due to the identities of the activists themselves, is a challenge our group continues to work through.

One of the key lessons learned in coming together and exploring the idea of how we even begin to create shared spaces as scholar-activists is the recognition that coalition-building is a messy process with no clear answers. As scholars and graduate students, we are often left silent and immobilized with the anxiety of “finding” the answers.

However, this process is ultimately an invitation to dialogue rather than a process of creating the perfect handbook. Our process is rooted in that of “seeing” one another first, overcoming the boundaries that often separate activists engaging in this important liberation work.

As bell hooks stated in her reflections on practicing education as freedom: “Our capacity to generate excitement [in a learning environment] is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence” (1994:8).

Our next steps in terms of taking concrete actions are to continue supporting the work of activists on our campus while continually inviting them to come together. It is our hope that this effort grows. If interested in starting something similar on your own campus, feel free to reach out to us at any time.

References:

Burawoy, Michael. 2005. For Public Sociology. American Sociological Review, 70(1), 4-28.

hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

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Aspiring to Entrepreneurship in the District

By Maria Valdovinos

One of the things we know about a criminal record is that it has a significant negative impact on employability. In a 2009 study, researchers found that a criminal record can reduce the likelihood of a job callback by nearly 50 percent (Pager, Western, and Sugie 2009). This study also found that the penalty is double for African American job applicants than for whites (60 percent vs. 30 percent) (Pager et al., 2009).

Restrictions on traditional employment are one of the most prominent collateral consequences of criminal conviction. Collateral consequences are “legal and regulatory sanctions and restrictions that limit or prohibit people with criminal records from accessing employment, occupational licensing, housing, voting, education, and other opportunities” (Council of State Governments Justice Center, National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction). In 2015 there were over 46,000 documented collateral consequences (Palazzolo, 2015), but the truth is, no one knows how many there are because they are scattered throughout federal, state and local ordinance codebooks.

In an effort to create an inventory of collateral consequences nationwide, the Uniform Law Commission created a model bill, the Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act of 2010 which would require individual states to take inventory of their collateral sanctions.

States, however, have been slow to act on it. Vermont became the first state to enact the legislation in 2014 and to date, is the only state to have done so. As of 2017, the bill has been introduced but not enacted in Nevada, New Mexico, Minnesota and New York (Uniform Law Commission, 2017).

People sit at a table for a meeting.

Aspire to Entrepreneurship Stakeholder Meeting,
August 4, 2017, photo by Maria Valdovinos.

 

Given the challenges of criminal conviction and its negative impact on employment prospects, returning citizens1 in the District have been pressed to find alternatives to traditional employment. One of those alternatives is small business entrepreneurship.

For the past year, the office of Mayor Muriel Bowser has piloted an intensive 6-month entrepreneurship training and business development program called Aspire to Entrepreneurship. The goal of the program is to help returning citizens open, own, and operate their own businesses in the District. During the training portion of the program, participants receive a stipend from Project Empowerment, a program within the Department of Employment Services (DOES) aimed at helping to reduce economic disparity related to employment barriers in the District.

In the spring of 2017, I met with Kate Mereand-Sinha of the Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) to learn more about Aspire to Entrepreneurship and the role of small business entrepreneurship for returning citizens in the District. Consistent with the general research findings on the consequences of criminal conviction, Kate noted that 50 percent of returning citizens in the District are unemployed or cannot find employment and this fact led to the development of the pilot program under the DSLBD. She explains that DSLBD and DOES Project Empowerment are only two of several partners in this effort. Other partners include the Capital Area Asset Builders (CAAB) who provide a matched-saving account program to participants, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs (MORCA) and the non-profit Changing Perceptions which provides mentorship and community for participants. With its stakeholder model, the partners developed three core principles to drive the program’s implementation and design.

“The first one is meeting people where they are. The second one is building the community. And the third one is building community wealth. We use those principles and tie back all the time to ask ourselves “are we on track?” to make sure we are doing the right thing,” says Kate.

It is because of this open community stakeholder model that I have become an Aspire stakeholder. In addition to the core training program, the program also holds monthly Aspire Stakeholder meetings and We * Aspire networking meetings that are open to anyone interested in networking with or supporting returning citizens in their business development pursuits. It is an open venue, which welcomes ideas, topics, and questions, and which seeks to expand its existing collaboration base of Washington, D.C. government agencies, federal agencies, local-nonprofits, and community volunteers.

For the past year, Kate has been the facilitator of the stakeholder meetings where agenda items include the question of program growth and institutionalization. “We have this small pilot, but how do we get more people to do this kind of work? We have this program and it’s strong. How do we help the idea both take root and fly?” she asks. Every first Friday of the month we have met on the 11th floor boardroom of a Washington, D.C. government building in Judiciary Square to tackle this question and discuss any number of matters related to the program, including the many challenges of program implementation.

In the meetings, we have shared success stories, celebrated victories, provided input into the future of the program, identified barriers to small business development such as licensing restrictions (which is a collateral consequence of criminal conviction), learned about the inner workings of the District government and perhaps, my favorite, practiced business pitches. The diversity in business ideas is extraordinary. At first, I silently sat at the far end of the long boardroom table not saying much and only taking notes. True to their second principle of building a community that can be self-reinforcing while drawing its strength from its network connections, everyone is welcome. I have never felt out of place.

The pilot program has been very successful, receiving a U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) DollarWise innovation grant to help expand it. It has recently begun the transition from the pilot phase into a more permanent program within the District government. As more and more cohorts of Aspirants (the term used to describe participants of the program) graduate, the hope among this group of retuning citizens is to build a network of small businesses in the District that will help address the problem of collateral consequences by hiring other returning citizens.

People standing with award.

Aspire to Entrepreneurship program wins award, photo by Maria Valdovinos.

 

Notes

  1. The use of “Returning Citizen” as opposed to “prisoner” is reflective of the use of “people first” language which aims to move past the use of dehumanizing and stigmatizing language such as “offenders”, “inmates”, or “convicts” when talking about people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system. For more information see: La Vigne, N.G. 2016. People First: Changing the Way We Talk About Those Touched by the Criminal Justice System. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.

References

The Council of State Governments Justice Center. 2017. “National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction.” Retrieved September 30, 2017 (https://niccc.csgjusticecenter.org/description/)

Pager, Devah, Bruce Western, and Naomi Sugie. 2009. “Sequencing Disadvantage: Barriers to Employment Facing Young Black and White Men with Criminal Records.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 623:195-213.

Palazzolo, Joe. 2015. “5 Things to Know About Collateral Consequences.” The Wall Street Journal, May 17. Retrieved May 6, 2017 (https://blogs.wsj.com/briefly/2015/05/17/5-things-things-to-know-about-collateral-consequences/).

Uniform Law Commission. 2017. “Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act.” Retrieved September 30, 2017 (http://www.uniformlaws.org/Act.aspx?title=Collateral%20Consequences%20of%20Conviction%20Act).

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“28 Blocks” Mural and Public Art

By Briana Pocratsky

On a warm, sunny Saturday evening I walk down R Street NE toward the Metropolitan Branch Trail. A train rumbles past on Metro’s Red Line. I look to my left. A red brick warehouse, Penn Center, sits on the outskirts of Eckington, an industrial neighborhood in Northeast Washington, D.C. On the side that faces the rail line is a large mural of black, white, and gray that runs the length of the building. Emerging from the brick surface are images of the Lincoln statue, people quarrying large blocks of marble, and a man chiseling. This mural, “28 Blocks,” has received substantial local media coverage and interest the past few weeks.

“28 Blocks”

The mural includes a familiar sight: the Lincoln Memorial statue, which sits a few miles southwest. Since its official unveiling in 1922, this marble statue of the 16th President has been a witness to a range of important historical events. The popular narrative surrounding the creation of the Lincoln statue typically credits architect Henry Bacon and sculptor Daniel Chester French with designing the Lincoln Memorial and the Lincoln statue respectively; but, there’s more to the story. “28 Blocks” provides a more complete visual account of the statute’s creation. The mural highlights the often overlooked contributions of individuals whose labor made not only the statue but the nation possible. Referring to the twenty-eight blocks of white Georgia marble used for the statue’s construction, the title suggests that this mural has a different story to tell.

While the mural includes a rendering of the familiar Lincoln statue at its far end, there are a number of less familiar images that accompany Lincoln as one walks down the Metro trail. In the trailer for the “28 Blocks” documentary film, the mural’s artist Garin Baker explains that “28 Blocks” started with the question of who built the Lincoln Memorial statue. Looking into the history of the statue, Baker found that first and second generation freemen and Italian immigrants were integral to the iconic statue’s construction. A quote by Frederick Douglass at the bottom left of the mural reminds us that finished products or end results have a history that precede them. The inclusion of the quote within the context of the mural suggests that without the labor that went into the statue there could be no great statue –with every end product there are very important, and often unrecognized, means.

While the mural features Daniel Chester French thoughtfully examining a small scale model of the statue, the mural also features less well-known creators of the statue and its setting. Also referenced in the mural are African American men, who quarried the marble used for the statue; Evelyn Beatrice Longman, a woman sculptor who created decorative art that is inside of the Lincoln Memorial; and the Piccirilli Brothers, a family of Italian immigrants who carved the statue.

Men quarry marble.

Photo by Briana Pocratsky.

 

The Complexities of Public Art

As I sit on a bench near “28 Blocks,” I see people on the trail pause at the mural. One cyclist stops, looks at Frederick Douglass’ quote for a while, and takes a selfie with the mural. Others on the trail glance at the mural for a few moments as they walk, jog, or bike past. A few others simply pass by, unfazed by, or perhaps already familiar with, the huge mural. While “28 Blocks” seems to be welcome in Eckington and in the District, public art is not always welcome in its intended spaces.

The seemingly positive reception of “28 Blocks” by the general public led to me think about public art, mainly its definition and its relationship to society. The notion of art itself is a topic that can result in a number of questions. What is art? Does art have a role in society? Can art be revolutionary? The notion of public adds yet another layer of complexity to an already challenging topic. For example, is “public art” art made by the public, art presented in a public space, or art made for the public? Whatever the case, public art is related to public opinion in some way, especially when the artwork is tied to public space and public funds.

In the 1990s, two artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, attempted to understand the world’s Most Wanted paintings and surveyed individuals in a number of countries for their aesthetic preferences in order to “discover what a true ‘people’s’ art would look like” (Dia Art Foundation 2016:1). Based on the survey results, the artists created a painting for each country that reflected these preferences.

The U.S.’s Most Wanted painting is the size of a dishwasher and features a hodgepodge of images including George Washington, children, and wild animals (a hippo and deer) in a grassy green foreground with blue water, mountains, and sky in the background. The project as a whole is tongue-in-cheek; a commentary on the reliance and inadequacy of polling as a means of participatory democracy and the reduction of everything to numbers in general.

Photograph of Garin Baker's "28 Blocks" mural.

Photo by Briana Pocratsky.

 

The project also demonstrates the difficulties in incorporating numerous opinions into a singular whole or, in this case, a work of art. Most Wanted illustrates how public opinion may be distorted or misrepresented and gets at some of the complexities of a democratic society.

The following example shows how public art can result in controversy if power and authority are concentrated outside of the public, such as with the artist or the government. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, a 12’ X 120’ X 2 ½’’ modernist COR-TEN steel sculpture, was a site-specific public artwork installed in 1981 in Federal Plaza, Manhattan. Commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), Tilted Arc sat in a busy plaza surrounded by federal office buildings.

Serra’s sculpture caused controversy and illuminated societal tensions about private/public spaces and power, illustrated by petitions, a public hearing, a lawsuit, and media coverage. Some found Serra’s work to be an obtrusive, elitist eyesore and even a potential safety hazard that dismissed local culture. Others found it to be purposely disruptive and critical artwork that did not pander to the public. Removal of Tilted Arc from Federal Plaza would destroy Serra’s site-specific public art.

Tilted Arc highlights the lack of public spaces dedicated to fostering debate. As historian Casey Nelson Blake (1993:250) explains, Tilted Arc “demonstrates that the most important source of the aesthetic crisis of public art is the ongoing political crisis of the public sphere. Bitter disputes of the aesthetic and social functions of public spaces both reflect and contribute to a waning belief in the very possibility of a democratic public sphere constituted by collective deliberation.” As sociologist Steven C. Dubin (1992:38) further explains, public art controversies tend to occur when “there is a high degree of communal fragmentation and polarization, and widespread civic malaise and low communal morale.” This controversy usually manifests at public sites, such as Federal Plaza. Eight years after its installation the federal government removed Tilted Arc from the plaza, replacing the artwork with benches and some landscaping.

Public Art: Always Controversial?

When public art causes major controversy, it becomes clear that art, especially public art, can materialize complex power dynamics that were hidden, dormant, or largely unchallenged. But, public art does not have to be controversial to provide a commentary on power or to enrich a community or public. This is evident by the reception of Baker’s mural. “28 Blocks” is not Baker’s first work of public art; Baker is well-known for “public art murals” across the nation and in Europe. Rooted in realism, Baker’s murals are approachable, welcoming passerby to linger on details of large-scale art.

A man chisels, a man looks at Lincoln statue model, and a woman descends a staircase

Photo by Briana Pocratsky.

 

While Baker’s mural may disrupt our notion of the narrative surrounding the Lincoln statue, the mural also promotes a needed narrative of solidarity in a particularly divisive time in U.S. history. By using an iconic image woven into the cultural fabric of the nation, Baker grabs the public’s attention in order to convey a narrative that would otherwise be unknown or dismissed.

Celebrating the contributions made by immigrants and African Americans to the construction of this national symbol, the mural challenges and complicates the dominant narrative of who helped to build the nation. To view Garin Baker’s public art murals and other artwork, visit http://garinbaker.com/.

References

Blake, Casey Nelson. 1993. “An Atmosphere of Effrontery: Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, and the Crisis of Public Art.” Pp. 247-289 in The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History, edited by R.W. Fox and T.J.J. Lears. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Dia Art Foundation. 2016.

“Komar + Melamid: The Most Wanted Paintings.” Retrieved September 8, 2017 from (https://www.diaart.org/program/exhibitions-projects/komar-melamid-the-most-wanted-paintings-web-project).

Dubin, Steven C. 1992. Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions. London: Routledge. National Park Service. 2017.

“Lincoln Memorial Builders.” Retrieved September 3, 1027 from (https://www.nps.gov/linc/learn/historyculture/lincoln-memorial-design-individuals.htm).

Strong, Shawn. 2017. “28 Blocks Trailer.” Vimeo website. Retrieved September 2, 2017 from (https://vimeo.com/222625398).

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Berlin on My Mind: Traveling through Memory

By Amber Kalb

I traveled to Berlin, Germany in June 2017 for a Jewish studies program at Humboldt University. Memory of Berlin’s former Jewish inhabitants is omnipresent, inscribed into the buildings, on the cobblestones, and, of course, in the memorials that fill the public spaces as a reminder of those who were persecuted and perished in the Holocaust. I have been exposed to Germany’s ongoing memorial debates concerning the preservation of memory and how it ought to be done (whether through icons with specific lessons to imprint onto the public consciousness or by more ambiguous, conceptual monuments that resist passive speculation).

I was able to observe and, in some cases, speak with people in the “spaces of memory” or “the space between the memorial and the viewer” where one renegotiates the spatial and temporal boundaries that separate the lessons of the past from their applicability in the present (Young 2000: 374).

Over the course of eight weeks, I lived and learned under the same roof with a group of both Jewish and non-Jewish students (hailing from Toronto, Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, Budapest, Madrid, Moscow, and the States, namely Florida, Kentucky and Texas), and the conversations often revolved around our experiences walking through a city that is a dizzying amalgam of sleek futuristic structures interrupted by surviving architectural relics of and memorials to Berlin’s past.

Of the various walking tours scheduled throughout the program, Berlin’s Jewish quarter was in many ways the most haunting. Armed with photographs from the interwar period, our tour guide would march us up and down gentrified streets pointing out the shops and apartments that had once been predominantly occupied by the Jewish communities. A kosher butcher on this corner, a record store on the next, all erased except for images he held up as proof of their transient existence. While much of Berlin’s Jewish communities has disappeared in the post-war period, the construction of memorials commemorating a murdered people has proliferated in public spaces all over Germany.

As the walking tours wore on, so would the number of memorials to which we were exposed. In speaking with fellow students, many expressed feeling suffocated by the sheer pervasiveness of them, while others walked seemingly unperturbed by their presence. One acquaintance would often avoid routes that were particularly crowded by monuments and memorials because of the intense feelings of melancholia they provoked. In another instance, at the Eisenman Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I watched as children jumped slab to slab as parents relaxed nearby enjoying what I imagined was an overdue family vacation.

As I reflected on the variety of ways each of us chose to engage with these spaces of memory, what stood out the most was a sense of disengagement. Perhaps, that is too simplistic of an interpretation of my limited observations and interactions, but I think there are some important questions contained in these moments of passive acceptance and avoidance.

Visitors resting on the concrete slabs of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Photo by Amber Kalb.

Visitors resting on the concrete slabs of the Memorial to
the Murdered Jews of Europe. Photo by Amber Kalb.

 

What does it mean when memorials and monuments fail to engage people in memory work? How might we relate these relics of the past to the present? And, to what end?

Obviously, these questions have little to do with the monuments and memorials themselves (whether they be traditional, conceptual or otherwise), but rather what they symbolize to a society.

Ultimately, it is not the statues or icons that transmit lessons from the past into the present, but it is the continual conversations we have with one another and ourselves that create, maintain and eventually, renegotiate their meaning for the present.

During my stay, I would often find myself walking about the city, hoodie up, staring at my feet to avoid the spitting rain that seemed to find me whenever I ventured outdoors. My eyes were always naturally drawn to the gold Stolpersteine that perforated the brown and grey cobblestone.

Inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution and placed in front of the homes where they were last known to freely reside, the Stolpersteine (meaning, “stumbling stone”) are one of the many civic commemorative efforts in Berlin and Europe designed to intrude on and interrupt the present with memories of the past.

The old Jewish Cemetery on Groβe Hamburger Straβe. It was desecrated by the Nazis. Photo by Amber Kalb.

The old Jewish Cemetery on Groβe Hamburger Straβe.
It was desecrated by the Nazis. Photo by Amber Kalb.

 

When I passed by a refugee center, overburdened and undersupplied, I wondered how people negotiate these new instances of persecution considering their memories of past Nazi crimes under the Third Reich.

A memorial in the former Jewish neighborhood of Berlin to its former residents who tried to escape deportation. Photo by Amber Kalb.

A memorial in the former Jewish neighborhood of Berlin to its former residents who tried to escape deportation. Photo by Amber Kalb.

 

I wondered: Are daily errands interrupted by a sense of injustice as they enter these spaces of memory?

I realize this question seems rather historically and geographically limited, given transnational nature of contemporary Holocaust memory and the current political and social climate where monuments and their meanings are increasingly contested. But this question applies to every community that erects monuments in an effort to impart normative meaning and values to the next generation.

References

Young, James Edward. (2000). At memory’s edge: after-images of the Holocaust in contemporary art and architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Racism in TrumpAmerica

By Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
109th President of the American Sociological Association

This is an abridged version of a presidential talk to the District of Columbia Sociological Society, January 27, 2017.

This article is about race in TrumpAmerica and is oriented around two pressing questions: (1) is Trump’s victory evidence of an increase in “racism” in the nation? and (2) is the problem of racism concentrated among poor, uneducated, working class white folks? To answer these questions, I will do four things. First, emphasize the need for theoretical clarity on what racism is all about and give you a taste of what I will articulate in my ASA speech in 2018. Second, argue that systemic racism did not die in the late 1960s with the collapse of Jim Crow, but was replaced by a more formidable regime—the “new racism.” Third, contend that although there are several racial ideologies at play, “color-blind racism” rules the ideological landscape of the nation. I will argue that this ideology is the connecting racial tissue of how most whites think, talk, frame, and even feel about race matters. Lastly, conclude by addressing what needs to be done to advance the cause of racial justice in America.

What is Race? What is Racism?

Following the advice of the King in Alice in Wonderland, I “begin at the beginning” by addressing some racial theory. We cannot continue discussing race matters by accepting the premise that race is the fulcrum of things, a premise that reifies the existence of the category. Race is absolutely nothing without racism. Racism is the engine that creates the conditions for races to exist through racialization (Omi and Winant 1986). Race then is “socially constructed,” but as is the case with all social categories, it is a never-finished product—it must always be recreated through practices in the everyday. This implies that “race” has fractures, imperfections, and ambiguities which allow us to do political work to change things. If race was a finished thing, there would be no point in doing politics in the race arena as actors’ views, postures, and likely actions would be preordained.

But beginning our conversations on racism rather than on race is not enough. We must still do something harder: challenge the dominant narrative regarding what racism is all about, the racism-is-prejudice perspective which focuses attention on the individual-level analysis of people’s attitudes, motivations, and behaviors. This perspective, so evident in the last election cycle, does not allow us to justify the agenda and politics the moment requires. The more we focus on individual prejudice, the more we will continue advocating for education, diversity training, and racial dialogues or “beer summits” as the solutions to racism. We must find ways of advancing a structural interpretation of racism. We must explain that racism is about racial domination or racial rule. And because racism is anchored on systemic advantages for whites, whites are vested in maintaining the (racial) world as it is (Bonilla-Silva 1997).

A Taste of Feeling Race

Although I believe it is crucial that we anchor our analysis of race matters in a structural-materialist theory, we must expand our notion of the “material.” Why?  Because humans do not survive on bread alone! Once any social category is created, it is also charged emotionally. Simply put: one cannot create social divisions without imbuing and bonding the actors emotionally.

Hence, racialized actors pursue not just “objective” race-based interests, but also subjective or emotional ones.  (On this, please see the book by Paula Ionide, The Emotional Politics of Racism.)

I have labeled the Post-Civil Rights racial regime as the “new racism” and argued that its dominant practices, unlike those typical of the Jim Crow period, tend to be subtle, institutional, and seemingly non-racial (Bonilla-Silva 2001). For example, whereas school or residential segregation were maintained in the past through direct exclusionary strategies, today they are reproduced in a seemingly “non-racial” fashion. Neighborhood segregation, for instance, is accomplished through steering by realtors, white property owners relying on white networks to get renters or buyers or using clever strategies to exclude minority clients, and redlining by banks.

In White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era (2001), I added an important detail to my original argument—the idea that although some of the practices may not be covert and subtle, they are so by virtue of being invisible to the white population. For example, Post-Civil Rights’ racial control practices (police brutality, racial profiling, and community surveillance) although not “overwhelmingly covert” are part of the “new racism” because (1) they are perpetrated by state officers (actors regarded as objective and legitimate by whites), (2) the agencies in charge (police departments and criminal justice system) are deemed racially neutral, (3) whites perceive crime as black/brown, hence, whatever happens to “them,” it is okay, and (4) the incidents that happen (e.g., Rodney King, A. Diallo, Trayvon, etc.) and garner public attention are treated as “isolated cases.”

Source: pixabay.com

 

Cell phones and social media have made these incidents more visible, but nonetheless, this violence is regarded by most whites as legitimate and non-racist. Perhaps since the murder of Trayvon Martin, we have focused intensely on one aspect of the “new racism” control tactics: police brutality. This is expected as social mobilization always follows incidents that galvanize people’s attention and we have had plenty of opportunities. Watching the news gives the impression that we are indeed in what Michelle Alexander (2010) labels in her book as the “New Jim Crow,” but I want to suggest that this interpretation limits our ability to understand what is going on, and of what we should do.

First, although we think police brutality and shootings of black folks are on the rise, cause-of-death data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that between 1968 and 2011, blacks were, on average, 4.2 times more likely to be killed by cops than whites, so police brutality is not a new concern (CDC 2012). Police brutality and shootings have been a consistent fact of life for people of color in America. Second, the vilification of black and brown folks by regular white folks, which allows them to be okay with the violence inflicted upon us by the police, began way back but intensified in the 1960s. This vilification has crystallized in a controlling image that Kathryn Russell-Brown labels as the “criminalblackman” (1998) as well as what historian Heather Ann Thompson calls the “criminalization of urban space” (Thompson 2010). Both images have facilitated measures, laws, and policing tactics that have produced our mass incarceration system.

Thus, Donald Trump’s claim to bring back “law and order” and his endorsement of tactics such as “stop and frisk” are not new developments. Finally, and this is key, the bulk of racial practices and behaviors that keep folks of color in “their (new but still subordinated) place,” are of the new racism or hegemonic variety. Although our focus on violence is understandable, we need to be analytical and political about how racial inequality is reproduced in this period. We are not in a New Jim Crow Era as racial domination in schools, jobs, stores, or in the streets is mostly, albeit certainly not exclusively, accomplished through “now you see it, now you don’t” tactics.

When folk of color are asked “May I help you?” at Nordstrom, or told by a teacher that they may be good in physical education, or declined for a job or denied admission to college based on exams that do not predict much, or charged more for a loan independent of their financial profile, or steered into a different neighborhood by a smiling realtor, or told that their accomplishments on the job are due to affirmative action, we must understand that all of these things are examples of the “new racism.” Although it may not seem politically sexy to organize against these slippery things, they are the core practices that maintain the racial monster we face these days.

Contemporary Racial Ideological Field

In my book, Racism Without Racists (2010), I argue that a new racial ideology dominates the landscape: color-blind racism. However, no ideology, racial or otherwise, rules any polity at any point in time a hundred percent. This means that although color-blind racism is hegemonic, there are still strong pockets of old-fashioned, Jim Crow-type prejudice out there.

How many whites still hold old-fashioned racist beliefs? It is hard to tell with precision, but I guesstimate, based on survey results and recent political outcomes, that about between eight to ten percent of whites do not sing the color-blind song. This does not mean that 8-10 percent of whites belong to the Klu Klux Klan or are “fascist”—a term used very lightly in this last election cycle.

But it means that a non-trivial number of whites still hold outmoded racial views, so we must pay attention to this segment of the white community. “Deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton referred to them during the campaign, exist, but they are not fifty percent of the white population. Not all whites spewing the old-fashioned racial poison do so in the same way as whites did in yesteryears! Variations in tone and articulations with elements of color-blindness abound.

For instance, although Donald Trump made many racially crude remarks throughout the campaign and had a record of racial discrimination in housing1 and in dealings with black employees,2 and has allegedly odious racist personal views (Johnston 2016), he insisted in the campaign that he was “the least racist person you’d ever met,” that he loved Mexicans and that Mexicans loved him back—which he demonstrated by eating a taco salad during “Cinco de Mayo,” and by insisting that, “I love the Muslims. I think they’re great people.” More significantly, his racialized articulation was coded by the media and by most journalists as not “really racist,” which contrast with how they dealt with characters such as Donald Sterling (Clippers), the Nevada rancher Clyven Bundy, David Duke, or Richard Spencer (Alt-Right leader).

The White Color of Color-Blind Racism

My main claim in Racism Without Racists is that the nasty racial discourse of the past has been, for the most part, replaced by a more “civilized racism” that I label “color-blind racism.” By this I mean the new dominant racial ideology anchored in the abstract extension of the principles of liberalism to racial matters.

This ideology is comprised of frames, style, and racial stories (for definitions, see chapters 3, 4, and 5 in the book). The central frames of this ideology are “minimization of racism,” “cultural racism,” “naturalization,” and “abstract liberalism.” Combined, these frames amount to this: whites believe that racism is gone, that people of color do not do well because of cultural deficiencies, and that programs assisting people of color represent reverse racism. In this section I will focus on the minimization of racism frame.

Whites do not believe that discrimination is why nonwhites fare worse than whites in America. Instead, they believe that “it’s because of their culture,” “class,” “legacies from slavery,” “Mexican/Puerto Rican backward culture,” “culture of segregation,” “lack of social capital,” welfare dependency, or plain laziness. For whites, the plight of people of color is due to “Anything but racism!” An example of this is Sandra, a retail salesperson in her early forties, who explained her view on discrimination as follows:

I think if you are looking for discrimination, I think it’s there to be found. But if you make the best of any situation, and if you don’t use it as an excuse… I think sometimes it’s an excuse because people felt they deserved a job, whatever! I think if things didn’t go their way I know a lot of people have a tendency to use prejudice or racism or whatever as an excuse. I think in some ways, yes there is (sic) people who are prejudiced. It’s not only blacks, it’s about Spanish, or women. In a lot of ways there [is] a lot of reverse discrimination. It’s just what you wanna make of it (Bonilla-Silva 2010: 46).

This needs very little comment. Since most whites, like Sandra, believe discrimination has all but disappeared, they regard minorities’ claims of discrimination as excuses or as minorities playing the infamous “race card.”

I could say more about the style, particularly semantic moves such as “I am not a racist, but…” or “Some of my best friends are black…” and racial stories of color-blind racism such as “I didn’t own any slave” and “The past is the past,” but I must move on and address the race/class question. Despite the hoopla in the media and by sociologically-inclined pundits, the core racial views of poor, working, and middle class whites are actually quite similar. This in part explains why most whites voted for Trump, including the millennials. (As an aside, I must point out that analytically, voting for Hilary or for Obama, cannot be read, as so many have done, as evidence of people not subscribing to a particular racial ideology. All Americans are racialized subjects, hence, have racial viewpoints. It is my belief that the majority of whites, whether Democrat or Republican, subscribe to color-blind racism, although most likely, Republicans do so with more intensity and nastiness.)

The following examples illustrate the similarities in the racial views of working and middle-class whites. First is Bob Hardey, Mayor of the City of Westlake in Louisiana, in Arlie Hochschild’s book Strangers in their Own Land:

I have had enough of poor me. I don’t like the government paying unwed mothers to have a lot of kids, and I don’t go for affirmative action. I met this one black guy who complained he couldn’t get a job. Come to find out he’d been to private school. I went to public school like everyone else I know. No one should be getting a job to fill some mandated racial quota or getting state money not to work (Hochschild 2016: 92).

How different is the Mayor’s view from that of John Avery, a worker in Youngstown, OH, interviewed in Joel Gest’s book, The New Minority?

There are a lot of people who abuse [welfare]. I am running around busting my hump, while another guy sits on his porch. That’s not right. I get food assistance and medical from the government because of my daughter. But I go to work every day, even after I broke my leg. You have to earn it [People on welfare] are driving around in new cars and I can’t even afford a vehicle. The government pays their rent and utilities, and so they spend the cash on gold chains and a Cadillac, when I can barely afford my Cavalier…People will take advantage of things any way they can (Gest 2016: 95).

Source: pixabay.com

 

And these views are not new as we have had the data on the racial views of white workers and middle-class folks for years. For instance, Al Ricardi, a taxi driver quoted in Lillian Rubin’s Families on the Fault Line (1994), stated:

Those people, they are hollering all the time about discrimination. Maybe once a long time ago that was true, but not now. The problem is that a lot of those people are lazy. Theirs is plenty of opportunities, but you’ve got to be willing to work hard.

When pressed to define who “those people” are, he said:

Aw, c’mon, you know who I am talking about. It’s mostly the black people, but the Spanish ones, too.

My point on the similarities in the racial views of poor and middle-class whites is not new. Barbara Ehrenreich said the same thing in her 1990 book, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class: “On most of the key “backlash” issues, as defined by the media, it was hard to distinguish the blue-collar people singled out by the news magazines from the rest of the Middle Americans” (104). She cites a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor in a story, based on a poll commissioned by Newsweek, as saying that successful blacks were “almost all light-colored” and an investment advisor who defined “law and order” for the pollsters as, “Get the niggers. Nothing else” (105). In my own data, gathered in the late 1990s, John II, a retired architect, said about reparations that,

Not a nickel, not a nickel. I think that’s ridiculous. I think that is a great way to get the black vote. But I think that’s a ridiculous assumption because those that say we should pay them because they were slaves back in the past and yet, how often do you hear about the people who were white that were slaves, say, Boy we should get reparations, the Irish should get reparations from the English (Bonilla-Silva 2010: 79).

Conclusion

I return to the questions I posed at the outset and discuss what is to be done. First, is Trump’s victory evidence of an increase in “racism”? The right question is not if we have more or less “racism” today, but whether systemic racism is still in place. My answer to this more theoretically clear question is that we have had a new racial regime in town for a while: the new racism. Trump’s victory denotes the ebb and flow of the race-class question under the new racism regime. Our present situation, in fact, is remarkably similar (including the reaction of the liberal-progressive community) to Regan’s victory in 1980 and, to a lesser extent, to Bush’s victory in 2000.

Second, are poor whites the reason for why we have racism in the nation and for Trump’s victory? As I argued, we should not vilify poor and working whites for Trump’s victory or for racism in the nation (racism is society-wide), but I am not suggesting a return to the “workers of the world” approach to politics (class over race) or the empathy-without politics route advocated by Hochschild either. What the moment requires is a more nuanced understanding of the race/class nexus in contemporary America. What we desperately need is an analysis to help us to forge the politics necessary to work with the “white masses.”

Now a few words on what is to be done to address the seemingly beyond race and racism (as practices and as ideology) we face today as well as the harsher, more direct version practiced by poor whites and white workers. First, we must preach that racism is not about good and bad people, but about an institutional racial order that benefits some at the detriment of others. Second, if racism is structural, we must fight the nonsense that tolerance, teaching folks to be good people, or organizing “beer summits” are the tools to fight racism. To be clear, being nice and tolerant is good, but none of these things alone will change the basics of our racial order.

For that to happen we need a serious social transformation. Third, since 1980, we all but abandoned the white working class. We viewed them as Archie Bunkers and stopped doing what radical and ethical people should always do: work with as many people as one can in the effort to build the “new society.” The white working class, as much as the white middle class, is deeply racialized, so I am not saying the work will be easy. However, they have fractures and ambivalences that can be exploited.

Gest, for instance, suggests that in areas where black and white workers live together and interact meaningfully, class tends to become a more salient identity.

Others, such as David Roediger (2007) and Joel Olson (2004), advocate for an abolitionist-democratic movement from below—a politics committed to expanding freedom through the dissolution of whiteness. But whatever we do, we cannot abandon forty to fifty percent of the people as that leaves the door wide open for Trump-like politicos to play the white ethno-nationalist card.

I end by outlining a specific plan of action for us, sociologists committed to creating a racially just society. First, we must appreciate the centrality of social movements in fighting racism. Given that racism is structural, the bulk of our efforts should be dedicated toward organizing people for social change. (I know we want to do “more research” but research has not freed anyone in history!) Second, although we must do social justice work where we work and live, it is also time to get out of our comfort zone. The struggle for racial justice requires that we do socio-political work in Youngstown, Ohio; Warren, Michigan; Erie County, Pennsylvania; Gary, Indiana; the “rural” counties of Wisconsin; and in the South. Lastly, although we must work on raising the consciousness of the people, we must also educate ourselves. This means moving beyond liberalism and becoming anti-racists, and anti-racism begins by retooling ourselves—recreating how we live our life, with whom we associate, and what we do about systemic, cultural, and personal racism. The time for theoretical progressiveness is over! It is time for all of us to recommit to the struggle; it is time, once again, for action. In the words of black abolitionist Frederick Douglas, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Notes

  1. He was sued twice by the Department of Justice in the 1970s (Kranish and O’Harrow Jr. 2016).
  2. He was fined in the 1990s by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission for forcing black dealers out when high rollers were around (White 2016).

References

Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of  Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 1997. “Rethinking racism: toward a structural interpretation” American Sociological Review 62:46580.

____. 2001. White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

____. 2010. Racism Without Racist. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2012. Multiple Cause of Death Data. Atlanta: United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. 1990. Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class. New York: HarperCollins.

Gest, Justin. 2016. The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in their Own Land. New York: The New Press.

Ionide, Paula. 2015. The Emotional Politics of Racism: How Feelings Trump Facts in an Era of Colorblindness. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Johnston, David Cay. 2016. The Making of Donald Trump. New York: Melville House.

Kranish, Michael and Robert O’Harrow Jr. 2016. “Inside the Government’s Racial Bias Case Against Donald Trump’s Company, and How He Fought It,” The Washington Post, January 23.

Olson, Joel. 2004. Abolition of White Democracy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant 1986. Racial Formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.

Roediger, David. 2007. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso.

Russell-Brown, Katheryn. 1998. The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment and Other Macroaggressions. New York: New York University Press.

Thompson, Heather Ann. 2010. “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History” The Journal of American History 703-734.

White, Abbey. 2016. “A Trump-Owned Casino Was Fined For Agreeing to Keep Black Employees Away from a Racist High Roller,” Paste, March 10.

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Putting the Social in Science: Sociologists March

By Emily McDonald

Earth Day 2017 will be remembered for more than the usual day of service, recycling drives, and tree planting. On the morning of April 22, thousands of people descended on the National Mall (in Washington, DC) for the March for Science while over 600 satellite marches occurred around the globe. Signs ranged from “Grab Him By the Period Table” referencing the abhorrent Access Hollywood tapes that surfaced during the 2016 presidential campaign, to “I’m With Her,” a clear play on the Clinton campaign with an arrow pointing to the planet.

Among the signs of chemistry, biology, and environmental puns were some familiar references to the sociological eye. On March 21, 2017, the American Sociological Association (ASA) announced they were partnering with the March for Science, calling sociologists around the globe to gather at their respective marches to stand for sociology. And gather they did.

On the morning of the march, the K Street office of the ASA was packed with sociologists from Washington, DC to San Francisco, gathering for breakfast before the day’s events. In their outreach efforts, the ASA suggested three statements for signs: “Good Public Policy Needs Sociology,” “Are Marches Effective? Ask A Sociologist,” and “Sociology: The Science of Us.” These signs, along with a few other creative ones, such as “What the Foucault?” and “This Is Not Normal” with an arrow pointing outside of a bell curve, were all around the National Mall and throughout the satellite marches. Meanwhile the #March4Sociology hashtag brought together sociologists marching around the globe via social media to share their experiences.

While well-represented, scientists as a whole were not all in agreement that the March for Science was the right move. According to a New York Times article published five days before the march, some saw this as a politicization of science that would only result in increasing the perception that science is nothing more than partisan ideology (Roston 2017). Yet, the March organizers remained committed to a nonpartisan march that “champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity” (March for Science 2017). Considering Burawoy’s (2005) ASA presidential address that spurred over a decade of ongoing conversations and debates on sociology’s relationship to the public, a march sponsored and supported by the ASA highlights both the ongoing transformation of the discipline and the complicated times in which we find ourselves.

Source: Emily McDonald

 

I found a few hours in the day to sneak off to my neighborhood coffee shop in Washington, DC where I took a break from the day’s activities to work on a paper due the following week. The coffee shop was full of individuals wrapping their signs with clear packaging tape to protect their messages from the forecasted rain before heading to the mall. I struck up conversation with a couple next to me, giving them some guidance on the bus routes. I wished them luck and said I would be out there soon as well.

One of them, a molecular biologist, asked, “Are you a scientist too?” To which I replied: “Well, sort of. A social scientist. I am a sociology PhD student.” She responded: “You’re absolutely a scientist. We all have to stand together during this time. Who cares about the subtitle?”

As a young sociologist with an admittedly newfound commitment to showing up and making a public statement in the era of Trumpism, I find myself reflecting on the nature of activism often. What is new? What has always been true, but not clear to me as a privileged woman in the academy? It seems activism is not and can no longer be about simple policy recommendations, but about gauging the public imagination on what we are willing to hold as fundamentally important, such as the ability to explore and debate empirically without threat of retaliation.

This activism comes in the form of marches and protests, but also in the ongoing commitment to imagine and create alternatives in the future through a robust solidarity and forged alliances.

Funding wars that have loomed in the academy over the past decade have pitted disciplines against one another to prove their scientific worth. Sociology has arguably not been immune to the effects of funding crises as departments feel the pinch to prove their relevance and establish themselves as a “respectable social science” (Dinerstein 2017). Less than a week after the March for Science, President Donald Trump delivered the keynote speech at the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) annual convention in Atlanta. During the convention, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre named “academic elites” as one of America’s “greatest domestic threats” (National Public Radio 2017).

Source: Emily McDonald

 

Theorizing and contemplating the politics of solidarity and alliances has a long history in the social sciences and the humanities, and scholarship provides a robust critique of solidarity that artificially erases unequal power relations, but returns us to the importance of true coalitions again and again. Whether it is the March for Science, the Women’s March, or the Tax March, the power distribution among constituents must and should be historicized. As Alicia Garza (2017) suggests in her reflective post-Women’s March article: “No one is safe from the transition this country is undergoing … Simply said, we need each other, and we need leadership and strategy.”

As with the other mass mobilization marches that have taken place over the last few months, the question remains as to whether or not the March for Science is a brief moment of solidarity, or the beginning of a broad collaboration to speak for a better future. Ana Dinerstein (2017) suggests that: “The creation of utopias, as expressions of the desire for a better way of being or living, is the proper and distinctive method of sociology” (p. 14-15). Certainly sociology should remain a contributing voice to the conversation about a future beyond the limited possibilities we currently allow ourselves to imagine.

References

Burawoy, Michael. 2005. “2004 ASA Presidential Address: For Public Sociology.” American Sociological Review, 70(1), pp.4-28.

Dinerstein, Ana.  2017. Social Sciences for an Other Politics: Women Theorizing without Parachutes. Palgrave Pivot.

Garza, Alicia. 2017. “Our cynicism will not build a movement. Collaboration will.” Mic, January 22.

March for Science. 2017. “Our Mission.” Retrieved April 23, 2017 (https://www.marchforscience.com/mission/).

National Public Radio. 2017. “Trump Criticizes ‘8-Year Assault’ On Gun Rights At National Rifle Association.” Retrieved April 29, 2017 (http://www.npr.org).

Roston, Michael. 2017. “The March for Science: Why Some Are Going, and Some Will Sit Out,” The New York Times, April 17

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