Monday, September 22, 2014

Context is Everything!

There's a kind of running joke in my field that the sociologist's correct answer to everything is summed up as "well, it depends on the context." Hell, the American Sociological Association even publishes a journal titled Contexts. But like many cliches, it persists because it's basically true; no action happens in a vacuum, and the social reality surrounding any event can dramatically shape how even the same activity is coed and received (simple example: think of the reaction to a Black person using that most pernicious of racial slurs compared to a white person using the exact same word).

Few things are more infuriating to a sociologist than when people completely ignore any concern of context to announce what should be done by some other person, or what they would do were they in that person's shoes. To take one especially egregious example, lets look to that graveyard of irony, Forbes, and an editorial they published a few years back entitled "If I Were A Poor Black Kid." It's such a picture perfect example of the specious reasoning employed in the great SMBC comic depicted here.

To save you a reading of the article, it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect: well-to-do white guy explains to poor people of color how despite the institutionalized racism and classism they face every day, it's really quite a simple fix. But the conceptual problems of this guy's tone deaf writings are the two-fold assumptions that if he were a poor Black kid he would somehow have the knowledge and experience of a middle-aged, middle-class white guy AND that people would treat him with the deference and respect our society reserves for middle-aged, middle-class white guys.

To pick just one idiotic example, he exhorts these youngsters (who I'm sure are just eagerly reading Forbes every issue) that they should invest in their education, but take advantage of free education resources, such as Google Scholar. But this assumes someone is teaching poor Black kids what google scholar and these other free education resources are in the first place. This is not something that is intrinsic knowledge, this is something that has to be taught. Hell, I have grad students who aren't aware of the existence of Google Scholar. And yet he's somehow assuming that the crumbling schools serving our nation's poor Black youth are spending a great deal of time teaching them about academic research search engines.

He goes on to lecture these hypothetical kids about financial literacy, which is even more tone-deaf than lecturing them about various research software. Because again, financial literacy is not innate knowledge; at some point, it has to be taught to you. Most schools do not teach meaningful financial literacy, which means it's obviously up to other sources. But what if you don't have any of these other sources in your life? Instead, he's acting exactly as the old man in the comic is -- assuming he just magically knew this stuff as a kid and the reason the hypothetical kids he's lecturing don't know this is because they either weren't paying attention or refused to heed his lessons. Not that, you know, they've simply never been taught this stuff.

Of course, none of this is to mention that all the financial literacy in the world wouldn't do these kids much good without his standing as a middle-aged, middle-class white guy to employ them. Because to assume it's that simple is to ignore the wealth of evidence showing employers are less likely to hire Black people, lenders routinely push Black applicants into worse loan rates, realtors refuse to show Black clients houses in many neighborhoods, police are far more likely to arrest Black people for the same crimes as white people...basically, the entirety of our knowledge about how racism operates in contemporary America.

In essence, this is just a greatly distilled version of white privilege, which is ultimately the ability to ignore context and assume the rules that govern your life apply to all. Which, as the comic so deftly announces, is probably the bitterest pill of them all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

When Profit ExcusesEverything

Long break between posts, sorry about that. Beginning of the semester and whatnot. As a bit of warning, I spilled a beer on my keyboard, and now my D key often doesn't work. I've spellchecked as thoroughly as I can, but it gets tiring, so that's my excuse for missing Ds in this post (and all future posts until I break down and buy a new keyboard).

Anyway, unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Adrian Peterson (a/k/a Purple Jesus, though I think we'll be resigning that nickname fairly soon) has been indicted on charges stemming from beating one of his sons with a switch. First the Vikings suspended him for a game, then reinstated him, then suspended him infinitely after hotel chain Radisson pulled its sponsorship from the Vikes.

It's that last part that I've been ruminating on the past several days. Much as Ray Rice was not infinitely suspended until the video of his crime became public, AP was not in any danger of missing much more playing time until sponsors began to get uncomfortable. In a wider parallel, the NFL is seriously working on some issues now that Anheuser-Busch, the NFL's biggest marking partner, has indicated it ain't too happy with what's been going on. Most interestingly, A-B didn't threaten to pull funding or rescind their partnership, just pointed out a lot more needs to be done. As opposed to their tone-deaf replies to an angered public, the NFL responded publicly to A-B within the hour.

This is both a heartening and entirely dispiriting development. On the one hand, as many have pointed out, the NFL was never going to make any real changes until sponsors started leaving. So in that sense, this is a positive development, as it may actually lead the NFL to making some real changes. But on the other hand, why is it that gigantic public outcry (as well as what is obviously morally right) have no effect at all? It's quite disappointing that one milquetoast public statement from an international beverage conglomerate has exponentially more effect than the outrage of thousands (millions?) of citizens. Not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless.

It reminded me especially of this interesting think piece by Albert Burneko, explaining why the owner of the Atlanta Hawks super racist email was indeed super racist. It's well worth a read, but the tl;dr version is that his plan was to court the theoretical higher spending of white bigots by actively discouraging the current real spending of Black people on his team and at his arena. As Burneko points out, it's pretty much the definition of racism to view the actual spending of Black people as literally worth less than the hypothetical spending of hypothetical white people.

Most depressing about the piece, though, is that the comments section is filled to the brim with people saying some variation of "well, white people do have more money in America. It's not racist to go after them to the exclusion of Black people, it's just smart business." But as Burneko himself pointed out in the article (again, well worth a read), something can be both good business and racist at the same time, with the fact that it may be good business (though he also does a great job of explicating why it is not good business in this case), that doesn't make it any less racist.

But clearly to many, the fact that you may make more money by catering to bigots is completely fine, because after all, it might make you more money. No matter how cynical I get about the nature of capitalism, this line of thinking never ceases to amaze and astound me. Something that is as unequivocally racist as "we need less Black people allowed to spend none on our business" is wiped away as just smart business. The magic of American business worship is that as soon as something is justified as good for business, it automatically can not be wrong.

As I often ask my students when we're discussing white collar crime, though -- why can't businesses produce and sell crack? After all, it's highly profitable, has a wide-spread and readily available market, pre-existing distribution network, etc. Eventually the students settle on it not being allowed because crack is bad both for the individual and the community. So I use that opportunity to point out we're obviously willing to draw some lines around business practices and proclaim them a step too far.

So why does racism not rise to the level of business practice we're willing to condemn? Simply put, because most white Americans don't see racism as a problem. So it's much easier to hide behind the mantle of "it's just good business!" because it's not really about the business, it's about not caring about racism. People are genuinely afraid of the dangers of crack, so even Good Business™is not an excuse for it. But something as piddling as racism? Well, we're not going to let that get in the way of making money!

The process is exactly the same as how the Vikings handled Peterson's case. After quickly reinstating him, their best player, their excuse was that they needed to let due process work itself out. Which, on its face, is a reasonable decision. Except for the fact that in that past 2 years, the have cut three people for being charged with, not prosecuted of, various crimes of a similar level offense as Peterson. The difference, of course, is that AP is one of the all-time greats and those guys were replaceable cogs. So much like "good business,"due process is simply being used a smoke screen for the actual attitude of "sure, he may beat the shit out of his kids, but have you seen him make a cut in the open field?!?"

Again, not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless. But hey, at least we've gotten to a point in society in which viciously beating your partner and/or small child is becoming something that is not good business, so we may actually start doing something about it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why "Black-on-Black" Crime is Irrelevant (To Mike Brown's death, and pretty much everything else) and Why Black Lives Matter

Anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to the murder of Mike Brown and subsequent mass demonstrations for justice has undoubtedly heard by now, most Black murder victims were killed by a Black person. This is undisputedly true. You know what else is true? Most white murder victims were killed by white people (and yet during the OJ trial, I don't remember leaders of the white community speaking out against white-on-white crime; why is it they only care about dead white people when they can blame Black people, to paraphrase the entire Fox News network). You see crime, like nearly everything else in American society, is incredibly segregated. In general, Black people rob Black people, white people rob white people, etc.

Obviously the fact the Black people have killed Black people before has nothing at all to do with the murder of Mike Brown. As Jon Stewart so aptly notes, to bring it up means to not only ignore the fact that plenty of Black people do care about, and are doing plenty to combat. Black-on-Black crime (just because you don't bother to look for something doesn't mean it doesn't exist), it also means you can't see the difference between someone being murdered by a gang member and someone being murdered by a uniformed law enforcement officer who has sworn to protect the citizens of their town. Now, gangs and police forces actually share quite a few similarities in both organization and culture, but I think it's pretty uncontroversial to suggest that police should probably be held to a bit higher standard than gang members.

But arguing all the specific points of why shouting "Black-on-Black crime also exists!" every time a white supremacist murders a Black child is pointless; I have a hard time believing the people making that argument actually think it's a realistic rebuttal to such stark evidence of institutional racism. Instead it's just a classic derailing tactic designed to push the conversation to all those horrible things Black people have done, conveniently leaving behind the murder of an innocent Black child by someone who has yet to be arrested or even investigated for their blatant crime.

Ultimately bringing up Black-on-Black Crime™ simply reveals how profoundly racist the person mentioning it is. Not just for the reason explicated above (and much more eloquently by thousands of of other outlets), but because it's essential premise is "There's another dead Black kid. Who gives a shit who killed them? They're all violent criminals who are going to die young anyway." Because the only reason completely unrelated murders become relevant to the case of Mike Brown (or Eric Gardner, or Amadou Diallo, or Sean Bell, or Trayvon Martin, or the hundreds of others) is if you think Black lives have no value, so the specific cause of their death is a pointless concern.

If you doubt me, spend a few minutes researching the media's response to literally any non-Black murder victim. Simply put, you will never find an article wondering why white people don't spend more time worrying about white-on-white violence, why gay people don't spend more time worrying about gay-on-gay violence, while women don't spend more time worrying about women-on-women violence, etc. (Obviously Black people can be gay and/or women as well, but in the question of whether a murder victim deserves any sympathy, Blackness seems to trump all else).

Why don't we ever find these things? Well, it could potentially be many reasons. But if the aftermath of Mike Brown's murder (and so many others like it) has taught us anything, it's that these non-Black lives have value to us. It's that we as a nation assume Black people had it coming, whether for something they did at that moment or something they did years earlier. And the only reason to feel that way would be because you feel Black lives have no value. After all, there may be a reason why this has become one of the central rallying slogans in the wake of Brown's murder:


Monday, August 25, 2014

Say Nice Things To The People You Like

My high school vocal coach passed away this past weekend, far too young. It got me thinking, as such things tend to do, and I had the supremely trite realization I should be better about telling people what they mean to me. According to her obituary in the ol' hometown newspaper, she died in hospice, so I'm guessing she had some sort of serious terminal disease, though the fact that I have no idea what it was is probably a good indication of how frequently Julie and I have spoken over the past several years.

Losing touch with someone is not a particularly novel or malicious thing, as pretty much all human beings can attest. This specific case was not unlike most every other person I've lost touch with; I moved away to college and then grad school, she moved to the West coast for a job, I moved out to the East Coast, etc. and somewhere along the way we just quit contacting each other as we took smaller and smaller roles in each other's life.

But she was one of the most formative educators I've ever had. I started taking lessons from Julie when I was a freshman in high school and continued through most of college, and over time her house became not just the studio, but a second home, to me and countless other students of hers. She was the first teacher/mentor in my life (as I imagine she was for a lot of others) that treated me like an adult, and her life advice was just as good as her voice instruction. I could go on, but the simple point is that she was hugely influential in my life.

And of course I never told her this. I imagine she was probably plenty aware of how much she touched the lives of those around her, but at the same time, I doubt anyone would mind hearing in detail how profound a positive contribution they've made to the lives of others. But I never told her anything of the sort, and now she's passed away.

I've got nothing revelatory or insightful to add. There's a reason things become cliches, etc. But every once in awhile life reminds you that you should probably let the people you love know you love them. So go do that right now.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

It Begins...

I've made no secret of my love for The Simpsons on this blog and in real life, so it should surprise exactly no one that I'm insanely pumped for the start of FXX's "just hook it o my veins!" marathon. Starting 15 minutes ago, the far-flung cable channel will be playing every Simpsons episode ever, in order. In light of the horrible cep going on in our world in that past few weeks, it's a nice break. For once I can watch tv without being sent into a blinding rage (that is until they start getting to season 15 or so).

I thought about composing some sort of long-winded post about how much The Simpsons have meant to me over the years, but I'll save that for 2037 when the show is finally canceled. Instead I'll just muse on the fact that back in junior high my friends and I had this plan of taping every episode that aired so we could have a whole catalogue of the show. Little did we know at the time it would require roughly 8,000 or so VHS tapes, or that DVDs would make the entire enterprise pointless, or that someday a cable channel spun off of another cable channel would play the whole damn thing straight through.

Unfortunately, to remain gainfully employed, I cannot watch the entire run. I have, however, vowed to keep my tv on and tuned to FXX for the entirety of the run. That way, no matter what I'm doing or where I am in the house, the sweet sound of the Simpsons will be with me. What more could a fella want?

Just look at how much Captain Wacky has changed...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ferguson, The Commonality of the Police Riot, and the Long Road to Justice


This exists. We should all be incredibly ashamed.
If you're reading this, you've no doubt been following the horrific events unfolding in Ferguson. Touched off by the murder of an innocent child by an as-of-yet unnamed police officer, the town has become a virtual war zone (to the point where citizens of Gaza are tweeting the citizens of Ferguson helpful info on how to avoid tear gas and random beatings). There are so many horrible things Ferguson demonstrates about the current state of America, from the devaluing of Black lives (especially of young Black men), to the fealty of our major media (who ignored the tragic murder until social media forced the issue), to our depressing fondness for victim blaming (sure, an innocent child was murdered, but maybe he once did something bad?). I don't study those issues, so I'll leave all those points to others who can speak to them more eloquently (I highly recommend Greg Howard's piece America is Not For Black People). But I do study policing and actually have some expertise in that area, so this is what I can offer.

But before I begin anything, let me make one thing crystal clear: the death of Mike Brown is inarguably murder. Even if the current (albeit rapidly changing) story of the police (which just happens to contradict every eye witness) is perfectly true to what transpired, there is no legal justification for shooting an unarmed teenager who is several dozen feet away from oneself. The Tennessee v. Garner ruling clearly and unambiguously holds that the only time an officer of the law may use lethal force is in the immediate protection of life. That is, unless someone is directly presenting the ability to seriously harm another human being, police are not allowed to shoot to kill. By even the police's own account, Brown did not pose any immediate danger to anyone. This is not a justified use of force, this is not an accident, this is the illegal taking of a human life, which we colloquially and legally refer to as murder. But back to what I actually want to talk about...

My very first ever academic publication was on the subject of police riots, situations in which law enforcement officers are the principle (often only) perpetrators of violence and disorder. Developed by Rodney Stark in the late 60s, the concept still holds as the best way to understand what police in Ferguson are doing right now, as the extreme militarization of our police has only made such riots more common. In fact, Ferguson right now is almost the platonic ideal of a police riot.

Police riots typically follow six steps: some type of incident (say, the murder of an innocent child) leads to a convergence of people. The police do not like people looking at what they're doing, especially when they are committing blatant crimes (which would be why they are currently arresting journalists in Ferguson without even bothering to make up criminal charges), so this leads to some sort of confrontation. In the third step, police demand the dispersal of everyone, often demanding they return home.

This is the step when a riot is imminent; often crowds cannot disperse and go home because they are already home. This is happening on the streets in front of their houses. The people of Ferguson have no other "home" to go to. Or, as is very often the case, the orders are contradictory. Police are rarely trained in any meaningful way for these types of situations, and communication between law enforcement when order breaks down is spotty at best, often non-existent. So it's quite typical that people actually trying to do what the police tell them cannot; a famous incident from the limited police riot at the 2008 RNC in St. Paul illustrates this: police on one side of a long bridge told everyone they had to exit the other side of the bridge, while police on the opposite side said the mirror opposite, leaving no legal way to leave. So the crowd does not disperse and police begin to use force and arrested everyone on the bridge for failure to disperse (check out the not-that-greatly edited but containing awesome raw footage documentary "Terrorizing Dissent" which covers the incident). The point is that crowd had no way to legally disperse, so the use of force will not "help" them disperse, it will just inflict pain upon them for no reason.

It's also important to remember that the riot gear police wear in preparation for such situations (which in itself is incredibly provocative) typically obscures the officer's face and all identifying information. You probably can guess what happens when you give a bunch of people in a tense situation a lot of firepower and the knowledge no one will ever know who they are, virtually guaranteeing a lack of consequences for their actions.

This leads to a limited riot in which police use force indiscriminately and arrest without provocation or cause (witness the WashPo reporter who was arrested and taken to jail, then released not only without charges, but no paperwork of any kind). Multiple reports and videos show that the Ferguson police last night simply went throughout town gassing journalist and even tossing tear gas into people's back yards. At this point, we have reached full police riot.

I'll take a quick moment to address the inevitable "what about the looters?!?!?!?!?!?" argument people make as if that somehow absolves the scores of egregious police abuses. Even ignoring the fact that the looting was limited to a small number of people in a neighborhood nowhere near the demonstrations and lasted for all of a few minutes, pointing to that as any justification for the actions of the Ferguson PD has the merit of arguing "It all started when he hit me back!" And as this great piece in the Jacobin points out, if you are systematically denied your rights in every avenue of life to the point where police feel fine murdering your children and leaving their dead bodies in the middle of the street to serve as a general warning to the community, what choice is there beyond the riot?

For truly the most important thing to remember about police riots is that the only factor distinguishing them from every day police practices are the size and scope. Police are not ashamed of the use of violence against innocent citizens, they often enjoy it greatly:


This is a t-shirt produced by the Denver FOP after the repeated beatings of innocent citizens during the demonstrations against the DNC. Take whatever stance you will on the merit of the demonstrators, but they unequivocally have the constitutional right to gather, air their grievances, and, you know, not be savagely beaten for it. But this is exactly the point I'm trying to make about police violence: it is not an aberration of which police are ashamed, but the kind of thing they make "hilarious" fundraising t-shirts out of.

Finally, I imagine/hope people are wondering what we can do to stop this sort of thing. Like all forms of social change, there are no quick fixes. Obviously identifying and fully prosecuting the officer(s) responsible would be a tiny first step to some form of justice. Furthermore, identifying and prosecuting the many officers who have been involved in the obvious beginnings of a cover up would help, too.

But to prevent the murder of innocent citizens and the indiscriminate use of force by police that turns our cities into grotesque parodies of war zones (I once spent 3 solid months spending every afternoon at major, volatile demonstrations in Iraq during the war, and the police used more restraint. Let that sink in for a few minutes) requires some massive changes. It requires us to value the lives of citizens, to recognize the inherent humanity of people of color, to resist the urge to arm our police to the teeth as if they're trying to overthrow a nation, to not place our trust in an obviously corrupt institution which does incredible harm to the communities it is supposed to be protecting. It requires fundamentally reorganizing not only our police (and courts, and prisons), but reorganizing the very concepts we have of crime and especially what we think constitutes "justice."

And if you've got any idea how to make that happen, trust me, I am all ears...

R.I.P. Mike Brown.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Anybody Have $200 They Want To Lend Me?


If you're not currently watching Nathan For You, you need to remedy that situation post haste. It's one of those shows where the premise sounds terrible, but it's only because all of the comedy comes from the execution. The short version is the show is centered around Nathan Fielder, whom the show's intro assures us graduated from a top Canadian business school with really good grades. As such, Nathan For You is a show about him going to struggling small businesses and reinventing them a la all those reality shows with that exact premise. The hook is that Nathan's advice is uniformly terrible, typically involving incredibly outlandish schemes that result in no business. The humor comes from the time worn observation that people are significantly more willing to do what you tell them, even if it makes no sense, if you have a camera crew with you. Witness last night's genius episode in which a lawyer, ostensibly believing this is just all for the cameras, signs a waiver without reading it, only to be told a short time later he has just signed a legally-binding contract in which he assumes all legal responsibility for anything the show may do (the scene of an actual, accredited lawyer realizing what he's done and physically fighting to get the contract from Nathan is hilarious).

Actually, last night's episodes may have been one of the best half hours of television I've ever watched in my life, which is saying quite a bit given the inordinate amount of time I spend watching television. Last night's episode was the payoff to a bit that captivated the news cycle and internet for a day or two this past year: Dumb Starbucks. It turns out Dumb Starbucks was an idea to drum up business for a struggling local coffee shop by exploiting a loophole in parody law that allows one to use corporate logos as long as they're being made fun of (essentially...I presume the actual law is slightly more complicated than that).

I don't want to spoil too much of what happens, because you should seriously go watch the damn episode this very second. But one small part I will reveal is that Nathan is advised by the hapless lawyer that he has a much stronger claim to parody with Dumb Starbucks if he establishes himself as a parody artist (the logic being people would associate him with parody, thus making his claim of parody in court much more plausible. Kinda like how no one is going to assume Pharrell is the one ripping off Weird Al).

So amongst the many things he does to establish himself as a parody artist, Nathan rents out a space and has an art show of his parody art. Which mostly consists of terrible puns on corporate logos. And now those pieces are up for sale on ebay with the proceeds going to a non-profit that provides education for homeless youth.

Perhaps you're interested in a beautiful TGIFart sign?


Or perhaps a disturbing advertisement for 1906 Flags theme park?


But to me, the piece to win them all, and with the bidding at a mere $177.50 as of this writing, would be the cups and kippas combo of Jamba Jews:


There are very few things a fella actually needs, but I think I may have just found one of them...