Category: All Issues

What Public Housing Can Teach Us: Lessons Learned from Grassroots DC

A metal fence that wraps around housing units.

By Emily McDonald

In the summer of 2016, I interned with Grassroots DC, a media organization providing computer/media training to low-income Washington, DC residents and media coverage to issues affecting underserved communities. This nonprofit organization is located in the Potomac Gardens community in Southeast Washington, DC where residents are able to access computers and receive basic computer training. Public housing is one of Grassroots DC’s main areas of focus and a major concern of low-income residents in an increasingly unaffordable District of Columbia. This paper is based on my interview with Grassroots DC President Liane Scott and my research of public housing in the District of Columbia.

In their article about public administration, Baimenov and Everest-Phillips argue that frustration with bureaucratic red tape and government idleness has existed since the dawn of modern, organized government. Yet, “efforts to undermine the motivation and morale of effective and efficient public officials working for the common good have advanced” in recent decades (2016: 389). The authors describe a transnational ideology that public service is by its nature incompetent, thus leaving government officials politically benefitting from a self-reinforcing “permanent revolution of ceaseless reforms” that do little to bring about lasting change (2016:389).

My summer as a volunteer intern consisted of reviewing the budget of the District of Columbia local government to understand how funding for public housing has changed over time. Reading the article by Baimenov and Everest-Phillips confirmed my observations, and, admittedly, frustrations, while I navigated the complicated world of public housing for the first time. In sorting through local and national archives, public housing is certainly in a permanent state of “ceaseless reforms.”

As DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Claire Zippel makes clear, there is “chronic federal underfunding,” putting public housing at risk (Zippel 2016:1). While this came with little surprise to a sociologist concerned with the shrinking public space, the most striking realization in looking through the Council of the District of Columbia and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) archives was the ever-constant change in agreements between federal and local government, each promising to maintain a more efficient, effective environment for public housing residents. This included public/private partnering in the name of better services, short-lived revitalization projects, and a renewed call on local government by city officials to fill in the gaps where the federal had fallen short (Council of the District of Columbia 2016). Programs like “Moving to Work” give local housing authorities more flexibility in how they spend their budgets mandated by HUD without the recognition that a large majority of residents are the elderly and disabled, most of whom do in fact “work” or have worked but live on an income insufficient for this area (Rivers 2016).

Shuffling in the System

As one Potomac Gardens resident described to me, living in public housing and receiving public service felt like a constant “shuffling” in a disjointed system, with “one program over here, one new program over there, and you just don’t know where to go to get what you need.” Rather than making a commitment to maintain public housing, new programs seem to develop for a short amount of time, only to go back to the same shortfalls in the overall federal budget to maintain consistent operation and maintenance.

After gaining an understanding of the system that funnels funding to public housing, I sat down with Liane Scott, President of Grassroots DC, to gain a better understanding of how her organization came to be, her connections with public housing residents through both Potomac Gardens and her career, and how she sees the future of public housing and the activism to support it.

Her organization began as a media project connected with Empower DC, then took on its own incorporation. As she describes it: “In its new incarnation as Grassroots DC, participants continue to create media that tells how low-income, working-class District of Columbia residents are affected by public policy, giving them a forum to voice their individual needs and vital community concerns. These skills are marketable not only within the media industry but in any field that requires basic literacy and computer competence.”

To connect herself with her new community in Potomac Gardens and ensure that more people are able to participate in media production, Scott added basic computer training to her list of services: “In the past, students with limited financial resources, who can only commit the hours necessary to learn media production if it leads to an immediate income, were unable to participate fully in our training program. Because media production also requires basic computer skills, potential students who are not computer literate were also left out.”

“With the addition of computer training to Grassroots DC’s programs, participants have the option of pursuing employment in any number of fields as well as the ability to take advantage of our more advanced media production classes. As a result, we are able to serve far more students from low-income communities. … [In addition] Grassroots DC provides the Potomac Gardens community with a service. I make a few, very old computers available to members of the community on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”

“When I can find a volunteer or find the time myself, we offer basic computer classes to the residents. I help residents with resumes, with job searches, with flyers for community activities, etc.”

Beyond her official duties as President of Grassroots DC, Scott recognizes her connections to residents here is much more than helping link them to resources. The struggle for affordable housing in the District reaches far and wide. Scott does not consider herself separate from public housing residents: “Years ago I applied for public housing, but as the list was so long, my name never reached the top. So, I could easily be a Potomac Gardens resident. I relate more than I’d like to the struggle for housing and the fear of losing it.” So often in conversations regarding the future and fate of public housing, those who live there are put into a class of their own. What I found through conversations about public housing was a clear distancing between residents of the District and public housing residents of the District. Scott seemed to agree with my observation.

The Class Split

The clear lack of connection between those who can afford private market housing and those who cannot is what she highlights as a problem: “I started working with housing activists regularly about a decade ago. One of the first things I learned was that there’s actually a class split within the housing activist community that I think many don’t acknowledge. Housing is so expensive in the District that you really have to be well-off not to worry about it. So, it’s no surprise that many folks who come to the District for school or for a job with the government, end up also fighting for housing.”

“The thing is, they end up fighting for things like getting money into the Housing Production Trust Fund, which benefits mainly folks who are looking to buy housing in the District. Public housing residents don’t fall into that category but really, it’s the loss of public housing stock and the lack of affordable housing that in another city would come from commercial real estate, that’s really the most pressing need in the District of Columbia.”

This class divide along with a system in a constant state of flux leads to political organizing around public housing. Scott said that: “Just as I’ve learned to accept that my offices will always be subject to occasional flooding, I’ve also had to accept that only a revolution in budget priorities will fix existing housing stock and/or begin to provide enough housing for those in need. These programs that they keep coming up with every decade or so, HOPE VI, New Communities, the Rental Assistance Demonstration Programs are all built on the premise that government need not be universally responsible for providing housing to those who can’t afford market-rate housing and that government has no responsibility to control the cost of housing provided by private industry. It’s not fixable so long as you accept those premises.”

This observation led Scott to connect the issue of public housing in the District to a much broader societal issue, one which we continue to fail to recognize: “It’s really impossible to talk about justice for public housing residents without talking about justice for everybody. If, beyond economic status, our society, as represented by our government, were to ensure that everyone’s human rights were granted then we’d have justice for public housing residents.”

“In other words, if everyone had not only a right to housing but the housing itself; if everyone had not only a right to an education but the education itself; if everyone had a right not only to healthcare but also the healthcare itself, then there would be justice.… But this is an agency, a government and a nation that doesn’t believe homelessness is unacceptable, indeed expects that the problem can only be mitigated never entirely eliminated. And so, my office will continue to be flooded every other month and there will never be anywhere near enough affordable housing for District residents.”

The Richest Communities

In an immensely expensive city with a highly competitive job market, the struggle to pay for adequate housing is not a far stretch for many. As we ask with so many other issues, why is there not more consensus among citizens to demand better? In a city that leans left of the political spectrum, why does a public commitment to maintain affordable housing for the elderly, disabled, and economically vulnerable remain unmade? As Scott describes: “American-style capitalism operates on the premise that everyone should pay their own way, pretty much regardless of circumstance. If you are unable to pay your own way, we will only grudgingly provide for you because we are far more likely to believe that the poor deserve to be poor than that there is any such thing as the deserving poor.

What our American- style capitalism fails to recognize is that the injustice visited upon the poor may not result in physical deprivation but will almost certainly result in moral depravity.” Unfortunately, it seems the same answer suffices for many other social ills: a lack of consciousness against a backdrop of classism, racism, sexism and ageism, and rugged individualist American ideology allows for little solidarity among the vast number of citizens concerned with housing affordability in the District. Public housing provides a stark example of the broader issues of interest to social thinkers, researchers, and citizens alike.

A metal fence that wraps around housing units.

Potomac Gardens. Source: Emily McDonald

 

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my public housing research this summer is that the lack of society-wide support is not to say that the community is not fostered at all. One needs only to walk through the iron gates of Potomac Gardens. A host of residents taking shifts keeping eyes on the streets and sidewalks will greet you, reminding visitors that it is often the less economically privileged who create the richest communities. Such communities are iconic to cities like Washington, DC.

References
Baimenov, Alikhan and Max Everest-Phillips. 2016. “A Shared Perspective on Public Administration and International Development.” Public Administration Review 76:3, Pp. 389-390.
Council of the District of Columbia. 2016. Housing and Community Development. Retrieved December 22, 2016 http://dccouncil.us/budget/2016/housing-and-community-development.
District of Columbia Housing Authority. 2015. Budget Oversight Hearing. http://dccouncil.us/files/user_uploads/budget_responses/41515DCHACombinedTestimony.pdf.
Rivers, Wes. 2016. “Going, Going, Gone: DC’s Affordable Housing Crisis.” DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Retrieved December 22, 2016
http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1685683-d-c-affordable-housing-report.html.
Zippel, Claire. 2016. “DC’s Public Housing: An Important Resource at Risk.” DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Retrieved December 22, 2016 http://www.dcfpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/16-01-27-Public-housing-paper-final.pdf

Return to January 2017 Issue

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Meeting Children’s Needs in an Era of Accountability

By Katie Kerstetter

Evanston Elementary School

In a large suburban community in Maryland, about a half hour drive from the White House, students at Evanston Elementary are entering their classrooms on the first Monday after their winter holiday break. Ms. Brown, a first grade teacher, is reminding her students about their morning routine. “Let’s go, Brenda, jacket away,” Ms. Brown says. “I like how you are sitting with your book open. Do you need to blow your nose?” Ms. Brown asks a girl as she bends over to fold down the collar of another student’s shirt.

“Diego, go ahead and sit and eat your breakfast because we only have a few minutes left and maybe we’ll find your glove as you unpack,” Ms. Brown advises a boy who is hovering around the cubby area near the entrance to the classroom. “Laurence, come over here so I can check your work. It’s number seven on the chart.”

Ms. Brown checks a few other students’ homework papers and then calls Laurence over again. “I finished writing in my book,” Laurence says after walking over to Ms. Brown’s desk. “Your assignment book,” Ms. Brown corrects him. “You are supposed to do that number nine. How many weeks have you been here?” Ms. Brown pages through his assignment book to find out. “Three weeks. So, you should have this routine down. If not, you can look up at the chart,” she says, referring to the pocket chart with the morning schedule on the chalkboard at the front of the room.

Say it that way

At 7:50 AM, a bell rings over the Public Announcement System, indicating the start of the official school day. A boy stands up, puts his breakfast trash in the bag the food came in, and then throws it away. A girl eats what looks like a turnover as she walks to throw her breakfast trash away. All of this happens without prompting from Ms. Brown.

“Okay, boys and girls, let’s get started,” Ms. Brown says and begins to count down from ten to one. “Maryland is ready. I’m going to give them two points,” Ms. Brown says, referring to a group of students who have cleared their desks in preparation for the first lesson and thus have earned two points in the classroom’s table points competition.

“Laurence, let me see your eyes up here,” Ms. Brown says to the student she earlier admonished for not knowing the morning routine. The boy looks up, rests his chin in his hand, and sighs.

Ms. Brown projects sentences on the screen that say, “Good morning, class. Happy Monday! We did not have school on Friday because of the snow. What did you do on your snow day?” Ms. Brown reads the sentences aloud and then calls on several students to respond. “I sled,” a student says. “I went sledding,” Ms. Brown corrects him. “Say it that way.”

Several other students share how they spent their snow day. “Find and frame the word ‘snow,’” Ms. Brown says. She calls on a girl with a raised hand who comes up to the projector screen and puts her fingers on either side of the word “snow.” Ms. Brown circles the word so that it is highlighted on the projector. The learning day has begun.

Achievement Charter School

About nine miles away from Evanston Elementary, students are coming from different quadrants of Washington, DC to start their school day at Achievement Charter School. In Ms. Kelly’s first grade classroom, a girl enters the room with a man who is holding a tray of school breakfast in one hand. Ms. Kelly is on the carpet in the middle of the classroom, hugging another girl from behind. Five students ― four girls and a boy ― are sitting on a low cubby shelf at the front of the carpet. They have white boards and dry erase markers and they are watching the three girls dance. The students sitting on the cubby shelf hold up their white boards. One of the white boards has three columns of numbers written in dry erase marker, which looks like a series of scores for each dancer. The three girls start to dance again, this time singing a song aloud in unison. When they finish, the students on the cubbies hold up their small white boards again. One says “8” and another says “100%.”

The beanbag chair

Laura, another student, comes into the room and stands just inside the classroom door for a few moments. She seems disturbed by something, possibly all the sound coming from the carpet.

“Laura, look at the habitat,” Ms. Kelly encourages her, motioning toward the classroom’s terrarium.

“Why?” Laura says in a slightly grumpy voice as she walks toward the mesh container on the other side of the room. “Oh gosh!” she says, her eyes close to the mesh, as she sees that a multitude of crickets has hatched overnight. “Bryan, if you’re going to sleep, go ahead. If not, I’m going to take you downstairs soon,” Ms. Kelly says to one of her students. Bryan walks to a desk at the front of the carpet and takes out red, noise-cancelling earphones from inside of the desk. He walks back to the classroom library and curls up on a beanbag chair.

Ms. Kelly picks a popsicle stick out of a black plastic cup. “Lori,” she says. “Yay!” a girl says as she moves to the front of the carpet to lead the other students in correcting the spelling, punctuation, and capitalization of a passage Ms. Kelly has written on the white board. “You are the teacher,” Ms. Kelly says to her.

Take a break

Lori is a commanding presence at the front of the carpet. She stands on the cubby shelf with her back to the white board and tells a fellow student to sit on her bottom.

Lori asks Ms. Kelly for the plastic cup of popsicle sticks. She picks out one of the sticks and calls on a boy. He pauses. “You can skip if you want to,” Lori tells the boy, but he declines. “Do you want me to come back?” She asks him, and he indicates that he does. Lori picks another popsicle stick. “Tamara, take a break,” Lori says to a girl who is talking, using the school’s term for a “timeout.” “Ooooh,” several students say. Ms. Kelly looks like she is trying to suppress a smile. “She’s the teacher now,” Ms. Kelly tells the students.

In 2012 ― just over a decade after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) ― I conducted interviews and participant observations at two public elementary schools in the Washington, DC region: Achievement Charter and Evanston Elementary. I was curious about how schools and their teachers respond to the social, emotional, and material needs of their students amidst the pressures of school reform policies that require schools to demonstrate high levels of academic achievement.

School Choice

The passage of NCLB made two significant changes to the Kindergarten to grade 12 (K-12) public education system in the U.S. First, it created a system of accountability for public schools based on high-stakes standardized testing and second, it facilitated the development of “school choice” models that sought to provide students with choices beyond their neighborhood school.

The standardized assessments that states were required to implement as a condition of receiving federal funding were often characterized as “high-stakes” because schools that consistently failed to meet targets could be required to undergo reconstitution ― to close and reopen with a new staff and/or curricula ― and their students had the option of attending an alternate school, including a public charter school.

Through my research project, I sought to uncover, from the standpoint of children and their teachers, how schools are organized and equipped to meet the non-instructional needs of their students within the current school reform environment.

How do school reform policies constrain and enable schools in their attempts to meet students’ social, emotional, and material needs?

As schools attempt to meet children’s needs, what are the consequences for the types of noncognitive skills that are transmitted to students and the types of caring labor that are required of teachers?

Learning First

From my observations and interviews at Achievement Charter and Evanston Elementary, I discovered that while both schools serve a student population that is predominately low-income and
both are subject to the requirements of standardized testing and accountability policies, each school’s approach is different in meeting students’ social, emotional, and material needs and in the types of noncognitive skills that are transmitted to students through this work.

A cartoon chalkboard that reads "teachers wanted" in chalk

Source: pixabay.com

 

At Evanston Elementary, a traditional public school that has struggled to meet school reform mandates, the school day was often characterized by what I refer to a learning first orientation. As a school that had been labeled as “underperforming” according to reform policies, its teachers were under continuous pressure to demonstrate that they could improve the academic achievement of their students.

With a learning first orientation, the school emphasized a clean division of labor between the preparatory work required for schooling ― eating breakfast, checking homework, gathering materials ― and the learning day, which focused primarily on the transmission of a particular set of cognitive skills and the assessment of those skills.

Students at Evanston Elementary were frequently engaged in various forms of testing and assessment, and teachers were required to report, via an online system, a certain number of graded assignments for each student in each subject per week. The strong focus on achievement and assessment appeared to bleed into teachers’ interactions with students, which tended to be more directive in nature and oriented toward following a set of directions and routines.

Integrative Approach

At Achievement Charter, a public charter school that has demonstrated the ability to successfully meet school reform mandates, the school and its teachers practiced what I refer to as an integrative approach.

Rather than separating the preparatory work for learning from the learning day, the school institutionalized a curriculum that integrated social and emotional learning into the academic curriculum and granted teachers ample resources and latitude with which to meet students’ basic needs, such as sleep, within the boundaries of the school day.

The focus on social and emotional learning at Achievement Charter appeared to influence the transmission of a set of noncognitive skills that sociologists have associated with an emerging sense of ease in interacting with middle-class institutions, including an ease in communicating with adults and peers (as Lori demonstrated in the vignette above). This focus also equipped facility with skills in conflict resolution and negotiation.

The transmission of these noncognitive skills also sets Achievement Charter apart from an academically successful subset of public charter schools, often referred to as “no-excuses schools,” which scholars have recently begun to critique for their authoritarian approach to school discipline.

The experiences of teachers in Achievement Charter and Evanston Elementary point to some of the perils and possibilities that have emerged a decade after the passage of high-stakes school reform policies.

On one hand, high-stakes standardized testing policies appear to be influencing the social organization of public schools, particularly those that have been labeled as falling short of school reform goals, in ways that narrow the curriculum to a set of cognitive skills and habits that promote students’ performance on standardized tests. Previous research has examined how NCLB has narrowed schools’ curricula to focus instructional time primarily on tested topics, and how schools labeled as “failing” have allocated more time to test preparation instruction.

Image of bubble scantron sheet and a pencil

Source: Alberto G, flickr.com.

 

In the case of Evanston Elementary, a focus on meeting the substantial requirements of school reform policies has led the school to emphasize skills in following directions and deference to authority, skills that contribute to successful test-taking behaviors but may not equip students to interact as easily with adults and peers and particularly in ways that are valued by middle-class institutions and institutional actors.

Accountable Schools

On the other hand, school reform policies that encourage the authorization of public charter schools such as Achievement Charter have created the opportunity for new forms of schooling to emerge. (Although, it should be noted that not all charter schools adopt a similarly integrative approach to learning.) In the case of Achievement Charter, instruction focused on the transmission of a particular set of noncognitive skills has developed that may have promise for helping low-income students interact with middle-class institutions with more ease, including providing students with a toolkit of habits and dispositions they can draw on to help them successfully navigate secondary and post-secondary schooling.

The substantial financial resources that Achievement Charter was able to mobilize to pursue its integrative approach and the autonomy it was granted as a public charter school to extend its school day and year to accommodate additional types of learning, raises important questions about prospects for expanding these benefits to a broader population of students.

Katie Kerstetter is a Research Affiliate with the Center for Social Science Research at George Mason University and an Adjunct Research Associate at the Center for Population Studies at the University of Mississippi. This article is an excerpt from a book Katie is writing titled Caring in an Age of Accountability: How Schools Meet Children’s Needs.

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The Ten Frugalities of Affluent Climate Activists

By Jean Léon Boucher

I was born into a large Roman Catholic family and had a homemaker mom and working-class dad who were raised during the Depression. It was here that I learned the habits of frugality and never imagined that affluent people could be frugal too. But, that’s what I found during my research on climate change activism in Washington, DC. Climate change activists are those folks trying to persuade corporate and governmental bodies to step-up the policy response to global climate change.

Last fall (2015), with a team of graduate students, I surveyed 153 climate change activists in order to learn what motivated them. Some were present when Pope Francis spoke at the US Capitol and others attended different protest actions at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Freedom Plaza, and the American Petroleum Institute. Though I had a lot of activists respond to my questionnaire, I was interested in the most affluent. After sorting my data I interviewed 28 individuals in greater depth —these were people with household incomes over $100,000.

Taste of Necessity

I have interests in social class and social reproduction (social reproduction is the way social status and culture is passed down through family generations), so I asked people questions about their family origins and the education, occupation, and wealth of their parents and their grandparents. Besides finding that nearly all climate activists came from left-of-center families, I also found that about half of my interviewees identified with some form of frugality retained from their childhood. Not everyone practiced the same type of frugality nor did they have the same motivations, but I encountered a set of stories in which I identified about ten different frugalities among affluent activists.

Moreover, I also found that these activists were reproducing what Pierre Bourdieu ([1979]1984:178) called a “taste of necessity,” defined as the preference (due to economic conditions) that the poor and working classes have for certain goods and practices, even after the necessity had dissipated. I list these frugalities below.

A crowd stands outside with signs

Demonstration at the American Petroleum Institute, Washington, DC. Source: Jean Léon Boucher.

 

The Ten Habits

(1) As expected, some activists spoke of a frugality due to economic constraint (e.g., being born into poverty), like Bourdieu’s taste of necessity, people had no choice but to be frugal, but even as the necessity was now gone, like a type of momentum, some now affluent activists still maintained their frugal habits.

(2) Somewhat connected to necessity but with less economic constraint, there was a frugality that tended toward thrift and cost savings in order to have resources for other purposes. Some activists spoke of conserving money in one area of their lives for the sake of another.

(3) There was a “waste not” frugality; which is a responsibility to conserve for its own sake — a mindfulness/conscientiousness — as if resources were sacrosanct and had their own worth. This was a type of morality, and resources were seen as a common store of goods that other entities (people, animals, or plants) shared. Some interviewees spoke of an obligation to use items to the full extent of their useful life; (they only consume precisely what was needed; or why buy something new when the old one still worked?)

(4) There was a related “waste not” frugality that was repackaged as environmental stewardship; this was a type of moral obligation to walk gently on the earth.

(5) Some respondents said they were cheap — like miserly — and another added a caveat that they just didn’t want to buy what they termed “stupid shit.” Being cheap or miserly is another type of frugality in its own right; however, it was sometimes associated with one of the other frugal motivations like thrift, mindfulness, or environmental stewardship.

(6) There seemed to be two types of oppositional frugality: (a) one that avoided giving money to utilities or corporations who “do just fine.” This type is seemingly motivated by protecting one’s belongings from the manipulative grasp of institutional others; and also (b) a more intense and related rebellious/spiteful frugality: this type is resistant and almost combative at the hint of manipulation or injustice—against consumer culture, corporations, or the human causes of climate change.

(7) One interviewee spoke of a frugality related to some economic downshift movements called degrowth and buen vivir — Spanish for living well. (Demaria et al. 2013; Illich 1973; Latouche 2009, 2014). These movements promote frugality for purposes of environmental preservation and conviviality. The intent is to simplify one’s life —with its multiple benefits — in a tradeoff for time with family and friends. Interestingly, Bourdieu ([1979]1984:179) also theorized a “convivial indulgence” which he attributed to the lower classes and their taste for necessity. Put simply, those of modest means have more social fun.

(8) I also encountered a nostalgic frugality, like the hanging of one’s laundry or wearing tattered clothes reminiscent of childhood. This frugality was deeply meaningful and seemed like something of an animist devotion: an “offering to the gods” of one’s memory. For instance, one respondent expressed what a wonderful experience it was for her to hang her laundry and remember her grandmother while also reducing her carbon footprint.

(9) Similarly, there was frugality for its own sake; a learned frugality that departed from necessity and motives and simply became habit. As one interviewee who still cut her own hair quipped, “It’s an ideology!” She felt locked into certain behaviors and though she had “reasons” for her frugality, her frugality was somehow outside the realm of reason.

(10) Finally, there was a type of playful or competitive frugality; practiced for fun or sport. For instance: who can buy the nicest cheap dress or get the best deal on a shopping item.

Passing It On

The results of the interviews show that frugality is far from simple. It can vary in its causes and motivations — from constraint to habit to nostalgia — and even people of affluence can preserve behaviors that seem to contradict their economic status. Moreover, similar to the way second-generation immigrant children lose their parents’ foreign language skills, frugality — like a dying cultural phenomenon — appears to decline as people become wealthier.

I must reiterate though that only a minority of activists were highly committed to frugality; some even tried to pass it on to their children, who were not always receptive. There were other activists who made fun of frugality; looked down on it, thinking it was silly. This dynamic reveals an interesting tension among affluent climate activists.

They are not a monolithic group, neither in personal habits nor motivations, though they can unite for a common cause. Although I don’t think frugality will necessarily “save the planet,” I don’t see how it can hurt: anything that helps activate people to promote awareness of climate change has got to be a good thing.

References
Bourdieu, Pierre. [1979]1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Harvard University Press.
Demaria, Federico, Francois Schneider, Filka Sekulova, and Joan Martinez-Alier. 2013. “What is degrowth? From an activist slogan to a social movement.” Environmental Values 22(2):191–21.
Illich, Ivan. 1973. Tools for Conviviality. New York: Harper & Row.
Latouche, Serge. 2009. Farewell to Growth. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Latouche, Serge. 2014. Essays on Frugal Abundance: Degrowth: Misinterpretations and Controversies – Part 1 of 4. Simplicity Institute Report 14c.

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Sociology in the District – Interpreting the Name Redskins

By J.L. Johnson

The 2016 season of the National Football League begins with seemingly less talk about the controversy of the name Washington Redskins. In seasons past, whether or not Washington should change its name has been a wedge issue. Opponents of the name have said the label ‘Redskins’ disrespects Native Americans and symbolizes America’s racist history. According to opponents of the name, the name needed to go. Those who preferred keeping the nickname said the label ‘Redskins’ honors Native Americans. The label isn’t racist, and to say otherwise is race-baiting. To proponents, the name needed to stay. And anyway, proponents of the name would tell you, Native Americans themselves do not find the name offensive. The debate raged on cable sports TV. Arguments in sports bars were less politically correct. The team’s owner Dan Snyder famously or infamously, depending on your opinion, refused to ever change it.

In 2004, social scientists at the University of Pennsylvania published results of a survey of Native-Americans that supported claims made by the proponents of the name. A high percentage of surveyed Native-Americans were not offended that Washington’s football team was called the Redskins. That seemed to settle it, until opponents of the name rightly pointed out flaws in the study.

The sample was inaccurate. Americans with tenuous claims to Native Americanness participated. More damaging was that the survey excluded many Native Americans living on reservations. Noting that the matter was not sociologically settled, many sports writers and their editors rebuked Snyder and ceased using ‘Redskins’ in print, unless they were specifically covering the name controversy. Some TV sports commentators followed suit. The debate continued unabated.

Sampling Errors

Quietly, the Washington Post corrected some of University of Pennsylvania’s sampling errors and redid the survey. Researchers took more care to contact Native Americans on reservations, and in May 2016, John Woodrow Cox, Scott Clement, and Theresa Vargas published the findings. The second survey confirmed the results of the first. A very high percentage of Native Americans (90%) were not offended that Washington’s football team is called the Redskins. The findings were a major blow to opponents of the name, as even journalists who refused to use the name in print were forced to admit their concern might be misplaced.

So the Washington Post’s survey results seemed to settle the issue before the 2016 season, quieting the debate, providing ample evidence for the name to stay. What can be said?

Here, sociologists urge caution, both against despair that the name won’t be changed and against conviction that the name will remain. Sociologists themselves have debates, and one of their more passionate debates is over the pros and cons of the differences between quantitative and qualitative research. Though the arguments grow complex, basically, quantitative survey work is contrasted to the more qualitative approach of spending extended time on reservations, exploring the meaning of race as it emerges in the everyday lives of Native Americans.

Disputes about the Washington Post’s survey tend to be “quant-centric,” meaning fights within the boundaries of doing survey research, like arguing that the Washington Post survey may still include many Americans with tenuous claims to Native Americanness in the same way the University of Pennsylvania survey did. But there is a way to apply the sociological debate about quantitative and qualitative research to the Washington Post’s results.

Washington's football colors in the background of a cartoon football

Source: pixabay.com

 

Everyday Contexts

My home in sociology is the field of symbolic interaction, which focuses our attention on everyday context. We form questions around the problem of interpretation. This doesn’t mean we are uninterested in surveys. We certainly do not reject that 90% of surveyed Native Americans don’t care about the name. Instead, the survey’s findings raise difficult questions about interpretation. How does a name that is offensive to some White Americans, Black Americans and some Native Americans hold a different meaning for 90% of Native Americans? On the very survey questions themselves, many competing levels of interpretation might be in operation. Here’s Herbert Blumer in 1969, on the different meanings that are hidden in quantitative work; (keep in mind that “variable analysis,” means quantitative research):

In my judgement, the crucial limit to the successful application of variable analysis to human group life is set by the process of interpretation or definition that goes on in human groups. This process, which I believe to be the core of human action, gives a character to human group life that seems to be at variance with the logical premises of variable analysis.

One takeaway from this point-of-view is that Native Americans, when hearing a question about the
offensiveness of the name ‘Washington Redskins,’ may rank it low on the list of community issues that concern them. This list isn’t necessarily unaffected by the race relations between White Americans and Native Americans at the heart of the name controversy, though it would take different kinds of concerns and questions to find out if they are.

Relevance of Race

If you are a STEM person, someone who prefers the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, you may be critical of this approach as “soft” science. But it is impossible to deny that the relevance of race varies from person to person. The question of how Native Americans qualitatively experience the nickname ‘Redskins’ can explain how those different meanings form in everyday life. A fuller account of such contexts of meaning must consider whether or not Native Americans have contact with White Americans at football games, obtaining a motif for the nickname. Consider the Native American couple who attended a Redskins game in 1974 and left the game as ardent change-the-name activists. As the wife recalls in Hunter Walker’s 2014 article in Business Insider:

We’re football fans and we can separate the team name from the game, so we went to a game. And we didn’t stay for the game at all, because people started—someone said something, ‘Are you this or that?’ So, we started to answer, then people started like pulling our hair. And they would call us that name and it was very weird for us. So, we just left and never went to another game. That just solidified it for me because it wasn’t just name-calling, it was what the name had promoted. That’s the example of what objectification is. You strip the person of humanity and they’re just an object and you can do anything [to them].

Different Meanings

Of course, people inclined to side with survey findings have a point when they say that the wife’s account magnifies just one personal experience. The story is anecdotal, based on a sample of one, to prove that the name is offensive and therefore should be changed. Again, caution could be exercised. We need to include these accounts of personal experience as dynamic elements of public opinion to tell the fuller story of the Washington Redskins and what the name means to Native Americans, especially because these different experiences cause different meanings.

An either/or approach to the Washington Redskins’ name controversy should be avoided. Forming your opinion by privileging just one approach over the other, survey findings over the valid process of meaning-making or one person’s account over aggregate opinion, is unsatisfactory to both camps in the debate.

A cartoon character peeks out of a circle that has a bunch of words on it such as "I'm ok" and "What if"

Source: pixabay.com

 

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Walls and Emails and a Whole Lot of Outrage

By Maria Valdovinos

Among the many social issues that could have taken front and center stage in this incredibly perplexing election year, these are the first two thoughts that pop into my head: Walls and Emails. Granted, 2016 is not over, and this is not to say that social issues of critical importance have not been addressed on the political stage. They most certainly have.

How far these issues have penetrated into society’s consciousness, however, of this, I am less certain. (I thought to myself; if only societal issues such as eviction were peppered with the same type of conviction that walls and emails have been addressed in this election year’s rhetoric.)

Summer Reading

One of my summer activities was to read Matthew Desmond’s work Evicted: Poverty and Profit in The American City. I set out to read his book not because of any particular interest in the topic of eviction, but rather because I read a number of reviews praising his writing style. When journalists praise the writing style of a sociologist, it must be something to check out!

At around the same time, I came across a Washington Post story by Terrence McCoy titled “As the nation’s capital booms, poor tenants face eviction over as little as $25.” This is a compelling title that stopped me in my tracks. In McCoy’s story we are introduced to Brittany Gray, a resident of Brookland Manor in the District, who was facing eviction for the fifth time since 2014. Each time, the eviction notice was the result of owing less than $50 on her rent.

The Facts

For a lot of us, $50 dollars is the expense of a cheap night out on the town. But for the folks in McCoy’s Washington, DC and Desmond’s Milwaukee, being short on rent is inevitable and often a calculated decision between shelter and food in any particular month. Among the facts and figures reported by Desmond and McCoy are: (1) Rent comprises upwards of 70% of the monthly income of Milwaukee’s poor, making it almost impossible for them to fully pay rent and still have money left over for food and other basic necessities (Desmond 2016). (2) Each eviction leaves a record; much like a criminal record that makes it difficult to secure a job, an eviction record makes it increasingly harder for an individual to secure future housing (Desmond 2016). (3) Washington, DC’s annual census for the homeless in 2016 found that there were more than 4,600 children and parents and approximately 1,000 homeless single adults in the District (Dvorak 2016). (4) There is an exploitative market in private housing for the urban poor (Desmond 2016).

These facts are surprising because eviction and the mechanisms of the private housing market for America’s poor have been largely overlooked in the poverty literature. So has the link between eviction and homelessness, according to Desmond.

Generalizability

In one of his poignant discussions, Desmond ponders the question of generalizability. Researchers put a premium on studies that are generalizable, but in practice what does generalizability really signify? As Desmond notes, generalizability in this case potentially means that evictions related to poverty are happening everywhere and that we should probably pay attention to it.

Perhaps it was Desmond’s intimate way of delving into this problem, depicted in the relationships he describes in his book that drove the point home and was reinforced by Terrence McCoy’s report. I began to wonder, “Where is the societal outrage here?” And whatever happened to the “rent is too damn high” guy. Yes, that guy, Jimmy McMillan of the Rent is Too Damn High Party who ran for governor of New York in 2010. It turns out he retired from politics at the end of last year because he found voters to be ‘brainwashed’ (Howard 2015).

Cartoon person stands next to boarded up house

Source: pixabay.com

 

Transforming the Outrage

I find the political stage and media to be remiss in giving so much attention to walls and emails. Then there’s the question of whose responsibility it is to plug the loopholes that allow such types of structural violence against the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society to continue.

While Desmond wonders whether we must all pay attention to it, in his concluding remarks he does seem to make an appeal to future researchers and sociologists to develop “a robust sociology of housing that reaches beyond a narrow focus on policy and public housing. A new sociology of displacement that documents the prevalence, causes and consequences of eviction. And perhaps most important, a committed sociology of inequality that includes a serious study of exploitation and extractive markets” (p.333).

Robust. New. Committed. These are the words that stand out in our quest to make unique contributions to effect societal change against the many forms of structural violence affecting the most vulnerable among us. Perhaps, we should look critically inward as much as we tend to look critically outward. How do we transform that societal outrage into practical solutions that are robust, new and committed?

References

Desmond, Matthew. 2016. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York: Crown Publishers.
Dvorak, Petula. 2016. “An Invisible Crisis in the Nation’s Capital: 4,600 Homeless Children and Parents Who Need Help.” The Washington Post, May 12. Retrieved September 1, 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/an-invisible-crisis-in-the-nations-capital-4600-homeless-kids-and-parents-who-need-help/2016/05/12/03d4cbc6-1859-11e6-924d-838753295f9a_story.html).
Howard, Adam. 2015. “‘Rent is Too Damn High’ Guy Retires: Jimmy McMillan Faults ‘Brainwashed’ Voters.” MSNBC, December 10. Retrieved September 1, 2016
(http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/rent-too-damn-high-guy-retires-jimmy-mcmillan-faults-brainwashed-voters).
McCoy, Terrance. 2016. “As the Nation’s Capital Booms, Poor Tenants Face Eviction Over as Little as $25.” The Washington Post, August 8. Retrieved August 9, 2016 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/local/wp/2016/08/08/2016/08/08/as-the-nations-capital-booms-poor-tenants-face-eviction-over-as-little-as-25/)

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Ask a Sociologist: What kept us from joining in?

By Carol Petty

Dear Sociologist,
I saw a Black Lives Matter protest at 14th and U Street the other day. A lot of people stopped to watch. I got the feeling we were mostly agreeing with the speakers, but none of us joined them despite their similarity in age to us. So, I am wondering why. What kept us from joining in?
Sincerely,
Inexplicably Reluctant

Dear IR,
Many reasonable concerns can arise in this moment to prevent your participation. Perhaps you will not be received; maybe you don’t belong there. This just isn’t your issue; all manner of vulnerabilities surface.

The moment of decision passes, and courage fails you. Or, perhaps some priority pulls just a bit more forcefully: I’ve got somewhere to be; what if this takes a while? Practical matters and social fears permeate this kind of reluctance. But, at a broader level, social and cultural forces inform reluctance, shaping the content of our priorities and hesitations.

Image of a megaphone

Political Voice. Source: pixabay.com

 

Chief among these is the exercise of political voice and its complicated American backdrop. Attempts to study people’s political lives here have, historically, been met with suspicion and just a tinge of fear. In a 1991 study of political process, researchers Williams and Demerath got surveys back blank, save for terse comments: “the answers to these questions are private” or “my husband said there was no way I should answer this.” And, in popular culture, the lovably exaggerated libertarian Ron Swanson endears viewers with his passion for apathy, virtue in self-interest, and boundless concern for privacy.

Swanson’s worldview, definitions of politics as private, and suspicion regarding political inquiries may appear to the American audience as almost natural.

But, there is nothing timeless or “natural” about the contemporary state of political participation. Influenced by mundane organization, historical antecedent, technological change, the scandalous, the tragic forms of political participation and their contents vary across time and society.

Self-interest and apathy for what does not serve it, concern for privacy, and suspicion of breaching it in our current context shape the styles of political participation that are seen as worthwhile, and inform the contents of political priorities.

What, given this basic backdrop, steers you and your friends away from adding your voices to this political protest? A common place question comes to mind: What good would it do? What good would come of it? A strictly utilitarian, self-interested approach to political participation would say, nothing, and especially nothing if you’re not Black.

Being influenced by this perspective, consciously or unconsciously, doesn’t necessarily mean callousness of personal character. Rather, a utilitarian, practical self-interest permeates American models for political participation. Even early 19th century observations of life in America (Alexis De Tocqueville comes to mind), accentuated the dominance of practical concerns, and disdain for theory in the political consciousness of Americans.

Group of people--silhouettes--holding up signs and flags

Source: pixabay.com

 

From a more theoretical perspective, though, public settings punctuated by a motley of voices, where people deliberate and exercise judgement, especially with regard to difference, constitute democratic life. A society oriented toward a theorized ideal of democracy, for example, would confer priority onto a political protest over an appointment.

Working, instead, from practical and immediate maps, employing vocabularies of motive framed in self-interest, we’re inclined to sift this opportunity into a rubbish bin of frivolous, even risky affairs.

In recent years, the capacity to uncover the political leanings of the everyday person has rapidly expanded through new media. Yet, this form of expression retains a close semblance with privacy. A tweet happens alone. My Facebook Feed impedes the obnoxious. Intimacy and solitude persist.

Wherein lies resistance to making the political public? Nina Eliasoph, in Avoiding Politics, engaged with the peculiar cultural etiquette of political silence in public spaces.

Based on research with volunteers, activists, and community actors, she found that “what marks a context as clearly ‘public’ is often precisely the fact that the talk is so narrow, not at all public-minded. Civic etiquette made imaginative, open-minded, thoughtful conversation rare in public, frontstage settings. The more hidden the context, the more public-spirited conversation was possible. Politics evaporated from public circulation” (Eliasoph 1998:230).

The practice of reserving political, public-oriented discussion for backstage settings creates informal standards and expectations, to which, wittingly or unwittingly, we hold ourselves and others.

Young boy yells into microphone

Source: pixabay.com

 

So, given the narrowness of public talk, jumping in for an afternoon protest about ideas you believe in might just be terribly gauche. Cultural repertoires shepherd us to safe, predictable terrain; saving face outranks political voice, and the priority of practical self-interest works to discredit actions oriented toward the ideal.

References
De Tocqueville, Alexis. 1838 [2003]. Democracy in America. Penguin Classics.
Eliasoph, Nina. 1998. Avoiding politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life. Cambridge University Press.
Williams, Rhys H. and Nicholas J. Demerath III. 1991. “Religion and Political Process in an American City.” American Sociological Review: 417-431.

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Wearing Gay History: Using T-Shirts as Narratives

An Interview with Eric Nolan Gonzaba by Briana Pocratsky

On September 12, 2016, The Sociologist interviewed Eric Nolan Gonzaba about Wearing Gay History, an online archive that explores lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender identities though material culture. Eric Nolan Gonzaba, Founder and Director of Wearing Gay History, is currently a doctoral student in American history at George Mason University studying 1970s-1980s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) nightlife in the Mid-Atlantic. Gonzaba is a member of the Board of Directors of the Rainbow History Project, which aims to collect and preserve LGBT history in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to OutHistory, a blog that aims to explore LGBT history.

The Wearing Gay History website includes material culture from the past 40 years gathered from archives across the United States. The project uses an everyday item, the t-shirt, to uncover and make available often unknown narratives regarding LGBT history.

According to Gonzaba, each t-shirt tells a story in relationship to specific historical and social locations: “By looking at these diverse shirts, the collections often don’t necessarily deal with the communities that they were a part of and so one of my arguments is how interconnected LGBT communities are during the time they were wearing these t-shirts. From the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s to the present day, you have a communication, if not migration of people, across geographic lines. I think the shirts prove that by having them at different archives and owned by different people at different times, (like going to a Gay Pride March in New York City or going to the March on Washington), people are exchanging ideas and shirts and comingling in a way, and I think the shirts show that.”

Gonzaba explains that Wearing Gay History originally began in 2014 as a small project for a graduate class at George Mason University. For the project, Gonzaba digitized the entire LGBT t-shirt collection in the Chris Gonzalez Library and Archives in Indianapolis, Indiana. From there, Gonzaba continued adding collections from different archives across the country to the online archive, and Wearing Gay History grew into a larger project. To archive the images and make them available to the public, Gonzaba uses Omeka, an open source archival web platform created at George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

Goals of Wearing Gay History

One objective of Wearing Gay History is to challenge the “bicoastal bias” of queer history. Gonzaba elaborates on the bicoastal bias of queer history and how Wearing Gay History addresses this concern: “One of the goals of Wearing Gay History is to uncover LGBT histories, and one of the ways we can do that is to look for sources that are nontraditional. One of the nontraditional sources that I’m most interested in is the idea of material clothing, particularly the t-shirt, which can uncover histories of queer people who aren’t necessarily in San Francisco or New York and combat bicoastal bias of queer history.”

Gonzaba stands next to a shirt that reads "I see gay people."

Eric Nolan Gonzaba at the Gerber/Hart Library and
Archives of Chicago, Illinois. Source: Wearing Gay History.

 

Wearing Gay History includes material culture not just from these two cities often associated with American LGBT culture but also from Philadelphia, Chicago, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and San Antonio. Gonzaba continues to add items from cities across the United States and the world. The project is also designed to uncover the often ignored history of diverse LGBT culture. Gonzaba emphasizes the diversity of LGBT culture, which, he says, is often reduced to an oversimplified conception.

Gonzaba believes that through the digitization of the t-shirts, the diversity of the LGBT community became readily apparent: “Wearing Gay History has taught me about the diversity of queer communities. And you’ll have things like pride shirts, leather shirts, lesbian t-shirts, drag queen and drag king shirts. There are different events, and they deal with topics that are overtly political, like anti-violence projects. But, some t-shirts have nothing to do with politics, like simply a pun. The idea is that these shirts carry diverse meanings to different people. That idea has led me to think about this social movement as diverse and not monolithic.”

Washington, DC and LGBT Culture

Gonzaba notes that many of the t-shirts found in Washington, DC archives or associated with the District tend to be direct and simple: “What’s fascinating to me is that the DC t-shirts will often say something like ‘Gay Pride ’71,’ and it’s just a very simple shirt. But they have the word ‘gay’ and often a lot of shirts don’t have that. The ‘DC Gay Switchboard’ is one of my favorites. It’s a simple shirt with the lambda symbol, which was a symbol of gay politics. The shirt says ‘DC Gay Switchboard’ and has a phone number on it. It is often called a support line, which it was to an extent. But, it was a switchboard that was meant for visitors in town to call and ask for the hours or directions to gay bars. The switchboard became this lifeline in a place when you didn’t have Google. It became a way to connect to a community in a place that you weren’t familiar with or talk about things if you needed support. It was completely volunteer run.”

Gonzaba also adds that many t-shirts that reference Washington, DC are actually found in archives outside of the area.

“The interesting thing about the items involving DC in the collection is that the items aren’t necessarily from the DC archives but from other archives across the United States. They usually involve DC trips, like March on Washington. I say that because one of my favorite shirts is DC-related but not necessarily from DC. My goal was to try to get a shirt from every state, and I have almost all of them. My first Alaska shirt, which is from the 1979 March on Washington, was their delegation shirt for the March. It simply says ‘National March on Washington for Lesbian & Gay Rights.’ Besides the shirt saying ‘Lesbian & Gay Rights,’ there is a penguin on the shirt. Unless you read the shirt, you wouldn’t have any idea it’s connected to gay history or politics. That’s something I like; the simplicity of it and yet it means a lot. You can tell a group from Alaska came all the way to DC for that event.”

T-shirt that reads "Sisterfire : A two-day open air festival of women's culture"

Sisterfire 1984. Source: Wearing Gay History, University
of Southern Maine Special Collections, Portland, Maine.

 

In addition to digitizing material culture from archives and adding them to the online collections, Gonzaba creates exhibits about specific t-shirts as a way to provide context and highlight the t-shirt’s significance. One exhibit on the website, titled “A Lesbian Capital: Odd Girls in Washington DC,” explores lesbian activism, which is largely omitted from American queer history. Gonzaba explains how the exhibit attempts to address this omission: “I created the exhibit because of a recent concern among lesbian activists in DC, especially among social circles on Facebook and Twitter, about the erasure of lesbian spaces in Washington, like the closing of the oldest lesbian bar in all of Washington and all of the country actually. And I wanted a means for these lesbian activists to see their history and possibly explore, negotiate, and engage with it in different ways.” One section of the exhibit, called “Sisterfire,” shows how the DC area specifically played a vital role in the emergence of women and lesbian musicians in the mid-1970s.

Remembering Our Dead

Of the thousands of t-shirts that Gonzaba has digitized for Wearing Gay History, there is one in particular that stands out to him: “The one I always come back to is the first transgender shirt that I ever digitized. It was in the Indianapolis archives, and it was a very serious topic, which is violence against trans people. It’s called ‘Remembering Our Dead,’ and what I like about it is even though it’s relatively recent history, (it’s from 2002), it’s completely handmade so it is written by somebody. They list 27 people who have been murdered because of their transgender identity including a couple Hoosiers, people from Indiana. It brings me back to how these shirts can be overtly political, they can deal with issues that are overlooked, and they can be handmade, which I think is amazing. What is great about this is that this shirt meant so much to somebody that they spent a good deal of time writing out very neatly names on it. So, I think it’s a very powerful shirt.”

Image of front and back of shirt. Front reads" 1 Year: 27+ Murdered Transpeople" and "Remembering Our Dead..11/20/02" There is a list of names of trans people who were murdered

Remembering Our Dead. Source: Wearing Gay History,
Chris Gonzalez Library and Archives, Indianapolis, Indiana.

 

The Future of Wearing Gay History

Currently, Wearing Gay History includes 3,352 clothing materials, most of which are t-shirts, from 16 archives across the United States in addition to Canada and South Africa.

Although occupied with dissertation writing, Gonzaba plans to continue working on Wearing Gay History as there are already another 1000 items waiting to be posted on the site.

When asked about his goal for the future, Gonzaba emphasizes the importance of connecting his research to more publics: “My dream is for Wearing Gay History to be connected to different platforms through different means so that it is more accessible to people and not just the researcher. I think if there is a Wearing Gay History 2.0, it’s to make it more accessible by figuring out ways to target even more audiences to get people to use it more, whether that’s through creating interactive timelines or games or focusing on social media aspects. I still am trying to figure out the best way to reach a wider public because the goal of the website is education.”

To learn more about Wearing Gay History and to explore the collections and exhibits, visit http://www.wearinggayhistory.com/

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Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination

By Michèle Lamont

Presidential talk to the District of Columbia Sociological Society, February 11, 2016.

Racism is a common occurrence for members of marginalized groups around the world. Getting Respect1 is a book that illuminates experiences of racism by comparing three countries with enduring group boundaries: the United States, Brazil, and Israel. This book is the result of a multi-year collaboration between sociologists living on three different continents. We joined forces to gain a better understanding of what racial tensions look like at the ground level from the perspective of the stigmatized.

We delve into what kinds of stigmatizing or discriminatory incidents individuals encounter in each country, how they respond to these occurrences, and what they view as the best strategy—whether individually, collectively, through confrontation, or through self-improvement—for dealing with such events. We learned that “exit, voice, and loyalty”2 take different forms across contexts (e.g. African Americans sue more), and this is what we aimed to document and account for.

This deeply collaborative and integrated comparative study draws on more than four hundred in-depth interviews with middle- and working-class men and women residing in and around multiethnic cities—New York City, Rio de Janeiro, and Tel Aviv—to compare the discriminatory experiences of African Americans, Black Brazilians, and Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as Israeli Ethiopian Jews and Mizrahi (Sephardic) Jews. Our detailed analysis reveals significant differences in group behavior: Arab Palestinians frequently remain silent due to resignation and cynicism while Black Brazilians see more stigmatization by class than by race, and African Americans confront situations with less hesitation than do Ethiopian Jews and Mizrahim, who tend to downplay their exclusion.

Groupness

We account for these patterns by considering the extent to which each group is actually a group, the socio-historical context of intergroup conflict, and the national ideologies and other cultural repertoires on which group members rely. For instance, we show how the American Dream, Zionism, and Brazilian racial democracy enable some responses more than others.

We also argue that while racial groupness is more central for African Americans and Arab Palestinians, Mizrahim and Black Brazilians are similarly characterized by a weaker sense of group belonging, which leads them to interpret incidents quite differently than the previous two groups. Finally, we consider similarities and differences between men and women, as well as the middle class and the working class, to capture the extent to which racial identity overshadows the daily experiences of stigmatized groups across contexts.

The broader challenge that motivated the study is to gain a better understanding of how the excluded gain recognition and cultural membership: the quality of societies is measured not only by questions of distribution (who gets what and how much) but also by questions of recognition, inclusion, and voice. While political philosophers Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth have alerted us to the importance of recognition,3 sociological analyses of the process by which groups become less stigmatized remain few. 4

Societies offer different scaffoldings for gaining recognition—for instance in the form of cultural repertoires that are more or less effective in promoting diversity and enabling social resilience for a large number of individuals.5 While reading this book, the reader moves from a general framework about how the five groups coalesce differently to specific cases.

We highlight cross-group variations on the basis of similarity within groups (phenotype, nationality, ethnicity) as well as the varying strengths of groupness.

The United States

The reader comes to understand how this framework animates our empirical analysis of the United States, as well as how we mobilize different explanatory elements to account for the patterns we identify (for instance, the high salience of confrontation and of individualized responses in the United States). Here the reader learns to think about the challenges African Americans meet through new questions and different frames.

The analysis highlights the centrality of stigmatization (feeling underestimated, ignored, and misunderstood) over discrimination (being deprived of resources) and demonstrates why “management of the self” figures prominently in responses from the middle class and working class alike.

It also shows that collective responses to racism are subordinated to individualist responses to racism (i.e., demonstrating hard work and gaining education) as African Americans face the accusation of reverse racism.

Brazil

Brazil plays a very different role in the analysis. Here we add a layer of complexity by deploying the same analytical tools and revisiting the same set of questions, but we do so in a very different context, one where group boundaries are not as sharp despite a clear sense of racial identification among Black Brazilians and the acknowledgement of white privilege.

We argue that this different type of groupness influences how Black Brazilians identify ethnoracial exclusion (largely through the conflation of race and class) and how they respond to it (avoiding aggressive confrontation and more commonly defending colorblind strategies of redistribution).

Thus, we shed new light on a well-developed comparative topic, that of race relations and racial identity in the United States and Brazil.

Israel

We add new layers to the argument in our discussion of Israel by introducing three groups who are stigmatized differently than African Americans and Black Brazilians.

It is in this chapter that the fruitfulness of our comparative framework becomes fully realized, as we mobilize our analytical approach to capture and explain the configurations of groupness, experiences, and responses that are characteristic of Arab Palestinians (our primary concern), but also of Ethiopian and Mizrahi Jews.

The juxtaposition of these three cases shows how one national context shapes ethnoracial exclusion differently for each group, depending on how their stigmatized characteristics fit in national history and in the Zionist political project.

The inclusion of Ethiopian Jews, a phenotypically black group, sheds new light on the African American and Black Brazilian cases and reveals how and why blackness functions differently as a driver of exclusion across national contexts. Finally, the cases of Arab Palestinians and Mizrahim (respectively the least and one of the most socially integrated groups in Israel) add another dimension to our analysis by focusing on how the understandings of their place in the present and future of their society generates hope and powerlessness and different responses to stigmatization.

Trade-offs

Thus, through our three country chapters, the book evolves in several directions as we add elements of complexity and analysis in transversal comparisons (across chapters) as well as within each country case study.

Although each study could have been developed as a self-standing book, we believe the analytical payoff is in the somewhat unusual juxtaposition of cases. But it will be for the reader to tell.

Notes

  1. Michèle Lamont, Graziella Moraes Silva, Jessica Welburn, Joshua Guetzkow, Nissim Mizrachi, Hannah Herzog, and Elisa Reis. Forthcoming. Getting Respect Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel. Princeton University Press, August 2016.
  2. Albert Hirschman. 1970. Exit, Voice and Loyalty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Nancy Fraser, and Axel Honneth. 2003. Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange. London: Verso.
  4. Matthew Clair, Caitlin Daniel, and Michèle Lamont. Forthcoming. “Destigmatization and Health: Cultural Constructions and the Long-Term Reduction of Stigma.” Social Science and Medicine.
  5. Peter A. Hall, and Michèle Lamont, eds. 2012. Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Two hands participating in a handshake

Source https://pixabay.com.

 

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A Washington Life: the Sociology of Anna Julia Cooper

By Patricia Lengermann and Gillian Niebrugge

In 1887, at age 29, Anna Julia Cooper arrived in Washington D.C. She would—with only a brief hiatus—live here for the rest of her long and productive life, and the structures, rhythms, and relational patterns of the city would permeate the writing and activism that made her a local prominence in her time and a significant presence in the theoretical canon of classical sociology in our own.  But in 1934, when the District of Columbia Sociological Society (DCSS) held its formative meetings, Cooper, then President of Frelinghuysen University, was a non-presence, not even conspicuous by her absence.

This situation—of a blankness or vacuum about a major social theorist who developed her ideas against the backdrop of Washington, D.C.—reveals how much DCSS itself was an unwitting product of the society its members attempted to study, a society with a long and still unresolved history of racial and gender injustice. This article, part of a series on the history of sociology in the DCSS area, introduces Anna Julia Cooper with an emphasis on the ways living in Washington, D.C. influenced her social theory and her social activism.

Biography

Cooper’s remarkable life is told in some detail by nearly every scholar who touches her work, e.g. Hutchinson (1981), Lemert and Bahn (1998), Lengermann and Niebrugge (1998/2007), Baker-Fletcher (1994), and Washington (1988).   She was born around 1858 into slavery, in Raleigh, North Carolina, with no possessions save the love and example of her mother and her own prodigious intelligence.  At every turn of her life, she faced the challenge of being both “self-supporting” and the support for many relatives.   Her intelligence, coupled with a firm discipline, let her make her way through St. Augustine Normal School and Collegiate Institution, a freedmen’s school in Raleigh, to Oberlin College and on, in 1887, to a highly successful teaching career in Washington, D.C. at the prestigious “M” Street School.

During the early Washington, D.C. years, she established a formidable reputation within the African American community and beyond as a scholar, orator and community activist.

Her teaching career in Washington, D.C. was interrupted by a controversy over the course of African American education that forced her to leave the District for four years. Returning to teaching in the District in 1910, she won a kind of vindication by earning her Ph.D. from the Sorbonne in 1925 when she was 67 years old. In the 1930s, she served as President of Frelinghuysen University, a school founded on the principle of providing education and job training for what its founders termed “the unreached.”

Photograph f a house with a tree to its left

Anna Julia Cooper’s home at 201 “T” Street N.W. Source:http://househistoryman.blogspot.com/2012/02/anna-julia-cooper-frelinghuysen.html.

 

She lived to see Brown v. Board of Education and the March on Washington.    She died in 1964 in the stately home on “T” Street, N.W. that she had bought for herself out of a teacher’s salary in order to properly execute one of the many duties of service she assumed in her life, the raising of her deceased brother’s five orphaned grandchildren.

Social Theory

During her early years teaching in Washington, D.C. Cooper wrote what remains her major achievement in social theory, A Voice from the South, published in 1892, one year before Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in SocietyVoice was critically well-received in its own day and then, as the DCSS episode shows, forgotten; it has taken the historic intersection of the Modern African American Civil Rights Movement and the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement to bring this significant work of theory once more into the academic discourse across multiple disciplines, Black Studies, Women’s Studies, philosophy, theology.  In sociology the recovery, beginning with Lemert’s pioneering recognition (1995) has been slower and remains part of the “still unfinished feminist revolution.”

Four points in Voice may be of special interest in an introduction to sociologists:   Cooper’s development of the concepts of standpoint and intersectionality, her outline of an American theory of conflict and power, and her case for justice as the project of social science. Titling her introduction, “Our Raison D’Être,” Cooper first argues that she writes because all standpoints need to be heard in adjudicating conflicts in social life and the debate about race relations and the nature and fate of the Negro cannot yet be concluded:

Attorneys for the plaintiff and attorneys for the defendant, with bungling gaucherie have analyzed and dissected, theorized and synthesized with sublime ignorance or pathetic misapprehension of counsel from the black client. One important witness has not yet been heard from. The summing up of the evidence deposed, and the charge to the jury have been made–but no word from the Black Woman. . . . (i-ii).

Second, as her language above indicates, Cooper’s social theory is based in a quest for justice for the silent and unconsulted “defendant,” here the “black client,” in the ongoing national trial over race relations.

She purposely distinguishes her position from the value neutrality—or “scepticism” —advocated in the positivism of Comte and Spencer, describing her own stance in the “eternal verities . . . The great, the fundamental need of any nation, any race, is for heroism, devotion, sacrifice; and there cannot be heroism, devotion, or sacrifice in a primarily skeptical spirit” (297).

Third, Cooper joins other African American thinkers in laying the groundwork for an American conflict theory that sees the essential dynamic in society as interaction among groups seeking to achieve their own place in the world.

Within this interaction, there will be differences and conflict—what matters are the ways this conflict is carried out and resolved:  “There are two kinds of peace in this world. The one produced by suppression, which is the passivity of death; the other brought about by a proper adjustment of living, acting forces.

A nation or an individual may be at peace because all opponents have been killed or crushed; or, nation as well as individual may have found the secret of true harmony in the determination to live and let live” (149).  Cooper argues that in suppression, one group has sufficient power to always get its way while in equilibrium groups are balanced enough in power resources that they must interact through compromise.

Cooper describes four major power resources, some standard in sociology, but others, a reconfiguration: material production, ideas, manners, and passion. She is particularly interested in the control of ideas, especially the use and misuse of history and the methodological strategies the oppressed must use to argue their standpoint; the ways manners, especially the manners of segregation, are used to replicate the experience of domination in daily life; and the presence among Anglo Saxons, in particular, of a passion for domination.

Fourth, Cooper offers the pre-eminent evocation of what Collins (1998) will name “intersectionality”;  a society patterned by interactions among multiple and unequally empowered groups produces a constant experience in the individual life of vectors of oppression and privilege which Cooper most famously captures in her account of a moment on a railway trip in the South: “And when . . . our train stops at a dilapidated station, . . . ; and when, looking a little more closely, I see two dingy little rooms with, “FOR LADIES” swinging over one and “FOR COLORED PEOPLE” over the other; while wondering under which head I come. . .”(96).

The Washington Context

The experience of living in a segregated society, a society organized by domination, Cooper could have had to some degree  anywhere  in  the  United States  but Washington, D.C. presented a very particular case, the parameters of which are well summarized by Hutchinson (1881:94):

While the District’s Territorial Government (1871-1874) had passed anti-discrimination laws (not enforced until the 1950s) that outlawed segregation in places of public accommodation, Washington was still a Southern town and displayed attitudes that demanded the separation of the two races. While some wish to believe that women like Anna Cooper, because of culture, educational attainment, or positions in the community, were accorded better treatment than the masses of blacks, such was not the case.

Further Cooper seems to have stood firmly on the principle of not accepting “special favoritism, whether of sex, race, country, or condition.”  Thus, one reading of Cooper’s life is that, although lived in Washington, D.C. it did not escape the fate the unnamed narrator’s Southern grandfather assigns to all African Americans in Invisible Man (Ellison 1952) “our life is a war.”

At the same time, and partly as a result of reaction against a hostile white-dominated world, Cooper became part of a close-knit and actively engaged Black community in Washington, D.C.

At a micro level, her own memoirs joyously recall evenings with Francis and Charlotte Forten Grimké and other friends:

“I wish I could find in the English language a word to express the rest, the stimulating, eager sense of pleasurable growth of those days—eight to ten P.M. Fridays regularly at Corcoran Street [the Grimkés] Sundays at “1706” [17th Street, Cooper’s] the same hours” (Cooper [1951]/1998: 310-311).

It was in group life like this that Cooper must have validated her sense of the significance of the group as a place of renewal and confirmation of identity, founded in part in a communal vantage point constituted out of shared experiences of a segregated world.

Washington, D.C. provided Cooper with both concrete examples of injustice in individual lives and access to the national political dialogue around the social practice of injustice.  The Voice chapter “Woman versus Indian” is very much a Washington story, despite its wide-ranging subject matter.

Inspired by an 1891 Washington speech by suffragist Anna Howard Shaw that Cooper could either have attended or read of in The Evening Star, it is illustrated in part with stories of discrimination in Washington landmark settings like the Corcoran and its satire of Southern use of “the bloody flag” mirrors the tone and language of the daily press.

Cooper’s Washington
Map of Washington, DC


1.
St. Luke’s Episcopal, 15th and Church Street. Church of Andrew Crummel with whose family Cooper stayed on first arrival in Washington, D.C. 1887. 

2. 1706 17th Street NW.  Cooper’s first home in the District, scene of her Sunday evening events with the Grimkés and others.

3. First location of the Colored High School,  later the “M” Street School, where Cooper first taught in the District, was located in the Miner Building, named in honor of Myrtilla Miner,  abolitionist who worked on behalf of African Americans.

4. The Grimké home 1608 “R”—Cooper refers to it as on “Corcoran.”

5. The “M” Street School, 17th and “M” Street.

6. Dunbar High School today. 101 “N” Street NW.                                                             

7. Corcora Museum, mentioned in “Woman versus Indian”  for refusing to admit a black woman who wished to take drawing classes there. 500 17th Street.

8. Albaugh’s Opera House, Pershing Park, site of meetings of National Council of Women  and National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1891;  unclear if Cooper attended any of these meetings or read reports in local papers.                                                   

9. 201 “T” Street—site of Cooper’s final home.

10. Howard University—Rankin Chapel was site of the conferring of Cooper’s doctorate from the Sorbonne, 1925.

11. Frelinghuysen University main administrative building 1800 Vermont NW.

12. Anna Julia Cooper Circle—2nd and “T” Street NW.

13. Admiral Inn—1640 Rhode Island Avenue— site of organizing meetings for DCSS 1934.

 

It concludes with Cooper’s answer to Shaw on the role of women in the race problem:

Why should woman become plaintiff in a suit versus the Indian, or the Negro or any other race or class who have been crushed under the iron heel of Anglo-Saxon power and selfishness? . . .   If woman’s own happiness has been ignored or misunderstood in our country’s legislating . . . let her rest her plea, not on Indian inferiority, nor on Negro depravity, but on the obligation of legislators to do for her as they would have others do for them were relations reversed. Let her try to teach her country that every interest in this world is entitled at least to a respectful hearing, that every sentiency is worthy of its own gratification, that a helpless cause should not be trampled down, nor a bruised reed broken . . .(123-124)

Her position at the “M” Street School, as a teacher (1887-1901) and then as principal (1902-1906) put her in the center of the battle between the visions of African American education represented by W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.

As early as 1892, Cooper wrestled with the problems suggested by this debate. In the Voice chapter “What Are We Worth?” she argues that a solid material base is necessary for any group’s empowerment, the precondition for its collective intellectual achievements:  “Wealth must pave the way for learning. Intellect, whether of races or individuals, cannot soar . . . while . . . burdened with ‘what shall we eat, what shall we drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed.’ Work must first create wealth, and wealth leisure . . . but it is leisure . . ., which must furnish room, opportunity, possibility…”(261).

But despite adhering to this theoretical position, she was not rehired in 1906, a casualty of the bitterness between partisans of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington and of enmity from her white supervisor, a result of racial tension and bureaucratic in-fighting.

On her return to Washington, D.C. as a teacher, Cooper would help the M Street School’s transition to “Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School” which many credit her with naming and would write the lyrics for what remains to this moment the school’s alma mater.

With no position of real authority after her principalship, with no support save her own earnings as a school teacher, and with foster and adopted children to care for, Cooper nevertheless maintained a life of active community service in Washington, D.C. helping to found and/or maintain the Colored Women’s League, the Colored Social Settlement, the Colored YWCA, the Washington Negro Folklore Society, and the Bethel Literary and Historical Society, Frelinghuysen University, and the Hannah Stanley Opportunity School, in memory of her mother.

Her legacy continues in the District and beyond as an educator, a feminist, and a Black Studies scholar, with a feast day (February 28) in the Episcopal Church, and a passage, the only one by a woman, in the U.S. Passport, a circle in LeDroit Park named after her, a marker on her “T” Street home, and a 1981 Smithsonian Exhibit at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum.

But still missing is a memorial to her as a social theorist—DCSS has the opportunity to correct this oversight by working for a plaque in Anna Julia Cooper Circle inscribed with passages from her work.

Black and white photograph of Ann Julia Cooper in academic dress

Anna Julia Cooper c. 1923. Source http://www.npr.org.

 

References

Baker-Fletcher, Karen. 1994.  A Singing Something:  Womanist Reflections on Anna Julia Cooper. New York: Crossroad.

Cooper, Anna Julia. 1892 A Voice from the South by a Black Woman from the  South.  Xenia, Ohio:  Aldine.

Hutchinson, Louise Daniel. 1981     Anna J. Cooper:  A Voice from the South. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Lemert, Charles. 1995. Sociology After the Crisis.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Lemert, Charles and Esme Bahn. 1998. The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper.  Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield.

Lengermann, Patricia and Gillian Niebrugge.1998/2007 The Women Founders: Sociology and Social Theory, 1830-1930.  Long Grove, IL.:Waveland Press.

Washington, Mary Helen. 1988. “Introduction to A Voice from the South by Anna Julia Cooper in the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers.” New York:  Oxford University Press.

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Truth about the Past, Justice in the Present

An interview with James W. Loewen

On February 4, 2016, The Sociologist (TS) interviewed Professor James W. Loewen about his scholarship on American history and race relations. Professor James W. Loewen is the bestselling author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, Lies Across America, and Sundown Towns. He is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont. He is visiting professor at Catholic University of America. Below are excerpts from the interview.

TS: Why did slavery become associated with race?

James Loewen: There were two key developments in European history that caused slavery to gradually become racial slavery.  The first was the Portuguese put together inventions:  gunpowder, cannons, ships with lateen sails, and military force—soldiers on board— and proceeded to make their way down the western coast of Africa.

The Portuguese used that force, and they also made deals with the coastal African peoples, gave them guns, liquor, and other Western products in return for people, in particular slaves from the tribes inland. The result was, pretty soon, most of the people who are enslaved in Europe are black and most of the people who are black in Europe are enslaved. And so there becomes an identity between those two groups.

The combination of the ability to enslave masses of people in western African and the economic situation that you could make a fortune of the unrequited labor in the Western Hemisphere led to the expansion of racially based slavery. It is important to teach this to K-12 students. Otherwise people wind up believing that racism is “natural” or that “whites are always racist.”

TS: The Africans were not obliged to sell slaves to the Portuguese, white racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, what created this culture of racism?

James Loewen: There is plenty of guilt to go around in terms of the original Africa to America slave trade. The coastal tribes are definitely involved and in fact, when I was at two of the embarkation points in Ghana in 2003, I found that Ghana did a pretty good job of not letting themselves off the hook. A better job really than, at that time, the Unites States did in discussing the slave trade. However, just in the last five years or so, there are some places in the United States that are facing up to our participation in the slave trade more honestly. The immorality of slavery, racial slavery is apparent. So, how then is the dominant group, in this case, of course, the white group, to assert to itself that they are good people?

Everyone wants to think of himself/herself as a good person. Well, the answer has to be racism. These people are different from us, they are inferior to us. I quote a famous French philosopher who says, ironically, “they must be inferior else we cannot be Christian.” So, that rationale grows during the 1700s and continued growing pretty much until 1860.

TS: What is the role of the African slave trader in contributing to the superstructure of racism?

James Loewen:  Well, I am sure they did not think they were contributing to the superstructure of racism. Because, after all, they are black and they are dealing with Europeans on a level of equality. Now, of course, the Europeans are perhaps feigning this.  But in a given situation, people make choices and they are choices that may be in their short-term interest and not in their long-term interest. The coastal peoples who made these deals with the Portuguese and later the British and other slave traders did ok economically. So, this trading by the African coastal peoples was in their short-term interest but not in their long-term interest.

In the United States, the ideology of slavery—that is racial inferiority—was stronger in 1860 than at any previous point.  And it just doesn’t disappear in 1865. It of course does weaken during the Civil War and Reconstruction in the North as well as in the South, but it then comes back full force in 1890, because between 1890 and 1940, we grow more racist in our thinking than at any other point. And by “we” I mean white Americans. In 1859/1860, no white supremacist, no matter how racist, could say that slavery was an equal opportunity employer—that it is possible for black folks to get out of slavery and they had failed because they were inferior. But by 1910 or 1920, you could tell yourself that America is an equal opportunity country, and we are still telling ourselves that. And so, it is their own fault that they are so poor. So this is the era of 1890-1940, when Sundown Towns spring up all across the United States, and if these people are so inferior, why then would we allow them in our towns?

TS: Who are the Neo-Confederates?

James Loewen: They want to think well of their ancestors. Surely all of us want to think well of our ancestors. It is hard to think that your ancestors sacrificed their life in a war to justify slavery or racial inferiority. The other answer is white supremacy. Every time that the Confederate flag is waved among large groups of people, white supremacy is usually lurking in the back there. There is a sort of identification that cannot be gainsaid.

TS:  Where do you think this is going?

James Loewen: I think the present era is a very exciting time for racial relations.  I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna optimist. One example is the reaction to the horrific murders committed by Dylann Roof in Charleston which led to the take-down of the flag in South Carolina, which led to questioning of all Confederate monuments in the United States—that movement is ongoing. We haven’t seen the last of it. Also, BLM, Black Lives Matter, is another reason. I think we are moving to a place where we eventually will be post-racial. I think in the next, maybe 50 years, we will be much closer to that than we were during Reconstruction. Reconstruction was a very interesting time to be alive in America, and so it is today.

Yin and Yang Image

Source https://pixabay.com.

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