Wednesday, April 23, 2014

People Tell Me I Don't Look Good With Long Hair

So the other day I was googling my own name. For a specific reason, not just for the novelty of it (specifically, I was working on google-bombing my department website profile to be the first response to my name. It was for work!). But although I had an actual purpose in doing this, it's hard not to get sucked down the rabbit hole of what little bits of ephemera about me have ended up on the ol' interwebs (not to mention the fun of seeing who else has my less-than-conventional name out there in the world).

Clicking around, I eventually ended up on the image results for my name. Why I chose to click on a particular picture of me I have no recollection, but the one I did click on took me to this…uh…unique blog discussing some sort of metaphysical connection between hermaphrodites and…noses? I guess? It's pretty confusing and I didn't really bother reading most of it.

The whole thing is, again, quite odd, but the funniest part is when the author gets to a discussion of President Clinton, and specifically his daughter Chelsea. At that point, the author of this particular post feels it necessary to include a picture of Chelsea, so there's this photo and caption:

Eagle-eyed readers will note that does not appear to be Chelsea Clinton. Readers who know me personally will note that is actually me. I mean, sure, my hair was pretty long when this picture was taken, but do I really look that much like the daughter of our 42nd president? Now that I look at it, I guess maybe? Maybe a little bit?

Like so many things on the internet, this just raises so many questions for me. The biggest of which is: I don't really look that much like Chelsea Clinton do I? I mean, other than the hair, I feel like we don't look that much alike. 

No, actually the biggest question is how whomever wrote that blog got this picture. I've tried to reverse engineer the process by doing an image search for the young Clinton, and as far as I can see, no picture of me ever comes up. So whomever found this had to have been looking through some other source, and then found this picture of me and figured I look close enough to work. But that just raises so many more questions: where and how did they find this particular picture? And then how did they make the leap to thinking it was Chelsea Clinton despite it presumably not being identified as a picture of her, and also presumably being in a context that has nothing to do with the Clintons?

And seriously, I don't look like Chelsea Clinton, do I?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Racial Disparities Are Not Racial Profiling

Teaching criminology courses, and especially police courses, the topic of "racial profiling" comes up a lot. It often surprises my students to hear me, Johnny Long Hair Hippie Professor, say that racial profiling basically doesn't exist. Sure, there are unfortunately plenty of examples of law enforcement who clearly set out to harass people of color. But fortunately, those folks are very much in the minority (pun most definitely not intended).

The real problem is that police are human beings. And like all human beings, they are subject to the social forces that all people are. So in trying to understand why there are huge racial disparities in our criminal justice system (despite there not being huge disparities in who is committing crimes) does not come from a bunch of racist police, prosecutors, judges, etc. setting about to harass and imprison people of color. Rather, it comes from the fact that we live in a racist society, and becoming a criminal justice official doesn't magically make on immune to social forces.

Take this recent study that gave law firm partners identical copies of a memo that contained 22 objective errors in spelling, grammar, and fact. The only difference in the study was that some of the partners were told the memo was written by a white person and some were told the memo was written by a Black person.

Well, as anyone even remotely familiar with American society could have guessed, those who thought they were reviewing the writing of a Black person were far more likely to find more mistakes than those who thought they were reviewing the writing of a white person. On a  subjective scale of how well the partners thought the memo was written, the "Black" memo received an average rating (on a 5-point scale) of 3.2 while the "white" memo averaged 4.1 But more telling, amongst the objective errors (misspelled words and claims that were factually wrong), the reviewers found on average 2.9 mistakes in the "white" memos and 5.8 mistakes in the "Black" memos.

Again, these memos were the exact same thing. The only variable changed was whether the reviewer thought the memo was written by a white or Black person. Then even in things that are objectively either right or wrong, like spelling, the reviewers were much more likely to notice the mistakes in the "Black" memo. This is in line with many previous audit-style studies that have found things such as with identical resumes submitted for a job application, those with white-sounding names are significantly more likely to receive a call back/job offer than those with black-sounding names.

The point of such studies is to demonstrate that even in completely objective areas, the (perceived) race of the person being evaluated still makes a significant difference. These studies do a good job destroying the "well, if Black people didn't want [x bad thing happening], they shouldn't do [y thing]." But as the writing sample studies shows, Black people would have to be roughly twice as good with spelling as their white counterparts just to be viewed as equal.

So what does this have to do with racial profiling? Because we're all criminals. This is a point I make to my students constantly -- there are so many laws on the books at just the federal level alone that no one actually knows how many laws exist. The most conservative estimates put it at roughly 10,000 laws at the federal level alone. If you actually dig into all the laws on the books, you'll find that you're breaking multiple laws per day without probably even knowing it. For example, in nearly every state it is illegal to have anything hanging from the rear-view mirror of your car, or to have any stickers on any window of your car that were not issues by the state. And yet I know dozens of people who do exactly that.

This becomes a problem for equal enforcement -- if basically everyone is breaking the law at all times, how do you chose who to stop and who to let go? After all, police can neither practically nor politically detain every citizen every time they break the law, or we would all be in jail right now.

So instead, like all human beings, police use context clues to help them distinguish between who to investigate and who to ignore. When you combine that with a society that has an incredibly strong connection between dark skin and the suspicion of criminality, it's not surprising that so many officers would, again not intentionally, end up making people of color their main focus. And since we're all pretty much constantly breaking the law, they will more often than not find people of color doing something illegal, thus justifying their suspicions. Of course, were they to pay the same amount of attention to white citizens they would find the same amount of crime, but that counter-factual rarely enters into most people's thinking.

I really like studies like the writing study up top, because they demonstrate so forcefully how even in rather inconsequential areas of life race is an incredibly strong factor in how people are perceived. Of course in writing samples it may not be the biggest deal in the world, but when such disparities in perception move into the realm of criminal justice, hopefully I don't have to explain why they become much more significant. But more than anything else, they completely destroy the regressive, simplistic, and ultimately racist argument of "Well, if Black people don't want to be arrested so much, they should quite committing so much crime." Because as these studies (and dozens others like them) prove, the real formula there would be "Well, if Black people don't want to be arrested so much, they should quit being Black in public."

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Crime, Memory, and Rape Culture

At last summer's meetings of the American Sociological Association I ended up at a talk discussing a methodological development for getting accurate data regarding people's movements (how or why I was there I don't recall, and I'm too lazy to dig up last year's program and remember who was doing the presenting). The relevant point is that this group of researchers, who if I remember correctly were interested in the daily routines and activities of young people, were trying to get around a classic problem of social research: people don't necessarily have particularly good recall about what has happened to them. It's simply a function of how memory works; there are scores of psychological and sociological studies on how the brain operates, how memory operates, how our brain often fills in missing details with what we think should have happened, etc.

So to get around this problem, they issued every participant in their study a GPS-enabled smart phone that they were to keep on themselves at all times. To show how much more effective and accurate this method was compared to self-reporting, the presenter showed several examples of the GPS-generated maps of people's movements against their self-reported activities.

It turns out the two were often quite different. I remember one example in particular in which someone's self report simply read that they came home from school, then a couple of hours later went to the museum with a friend, and then went home again. But the GPS map showed they ad actually stopped at a corner store on the way home, rode their bike around aimlessly for awhile, went to their friends house before going to the museum, and a few other little trips around the neighborhood.

The point of these examples were to demonstrate how faulty human memory is about most things we do and experience, even events that happened the previous day (think about it yourself: try to list everything you did yesterday. I'm pretty confident you'll find there are rather sizable chunks of time you can't fully account for). And it wasn't like these study participants were intentionally lying; not only was there no discernible motivation for lying about, say, riding your bike around, but when presented with the discrepancies, most participants immediately remembered the events they had forgotten and even apologized to the researchers for their forgetting.

It's important to remember these omissions happened during normal days in which nothing extraordinary happened to these folks. So what does this have to do with crime and rape culture? Well, I was reading a piece the other day on the on-going, mistake-filled investigation of sexual assault charges against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. For those of you not familiar, it appears by all accounts to be a classic case of multiple levels of university and public officials looking the other way when a famous athlete has been charged with rape (as the article linked to points out, at this point the only options are that the University and local PD had either intentionally covered this up/dragged their feet on the investigation OR they are so incompetent as to force the question of why any of them are still employed).

But Winston's defenders, who are quick to flood the comments section of any article on the subject, continually point to the fact that the victim's story has changed some from when it was first reported to the police. Granted, these people are pretty clearly folks who already don't believe Winston's accuser  and are working backwards to find socially acceptable reasons as to why (most such comments I've read go on to accuse the woman of being a gold-digger, which is not only patently offensive on it's own, but makes zero sense. In all my years studying the criminal justice system, I've never once heard of someone being ordered to pay financial restitution to a person they are convicted of sexually assaulting).

But as the research above (and a giant line of research before it) makes painfully clear is that human memory doesn't work like that. After all, if people have difficulty remembering what happened to them on a normal day, it's not too big of a stretch to say people who have just experienced a traumatic event in which they were possibly drugged would have an even harder time.

But a rational human being who doesn't start from the position that all women are jezebel whores who deserve whatever happens to them doesn't even need the piles and piles of empirical evidence proving human memory does not work like that. Because again, you can try it yourself: the next time you have a night out at the bar, wake yourself up at 4 a.m. and then immediately state every detail of the previous night. Unless you have a photographic memory, I guarantee you will not be able to account for every minute of the evening. And then I further guarantee that if you were to come back to that account a few days later, you will probably have had time to remember some other things that happened, or forget details of things you previously remembered. Now imagine reporting that story to an officer that openly lets you know they don't believe you and being fully aware that any small mistake you make will result in thousands of shit heads calling you a gold-digging whore online and in real life...


Monday, March 31, 2014

#CancelColbert, Offense, and Proper Reactions

Late last week, Stephen Colbert had a bit mocking Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington professional football team (you know, the one with a racial slur for a team name). As you may have heard, Snyder has established the Original Americans Foundation, one of the most blatant PR moves in history, in which he's supplied some coats and the portion of the cost of one backhoe, to a few tribal groups in order to try to paper over the fact his team is named a racial slur (note: the charity is not named the Redskins Foundation, almost as if Snyder understands it's not a word one should be using).

In his patented way, Colbert mocked this by doing his own faux-racist schtick, claiming to start the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever (go watch the clip for why this makes sense in context -- in fact, the context is extremely, extremely important).

The bit was classic Colbert -- taking a ridiculous position and pushing it only slightly further to demonstrate how incredibly stupid that position is. Having watched the clip as it first aired, it could not have been more obvious the butt of the joke was Snyder and his hypocritical cashing in on a racist slur while trying to buy his way out of it. It was similarly obvious that Asian people were not being made fun of, but merely serving as a contrast to show how we wouldn't accept Snyder's racist shenanigans with any other ethnic group (why we accept it against natives is an entirely different post).

The problem came when the show's official twitter feed (not run by Colbert or anyone working on the show) tweeted out the name of the satirical foundation completely out of context. And out of context, it does seem pretty damn offensive. This led noted twitter activist Suey Park to call for the cancellation of the Colbert Report and made the hashtag #cancelcolbert trend.

And that, as this excellent commentary notes, is when the shit hit the fan. Especially as a number of people who had no idea of the context of the joke hopped on the bandwagon.

And here's where things get thorny for me. I'm very much of the school that holds it's condescending and basically an asshole move to tell someone they have no right to be offended by something (especially when you add the layer of race in, as a white dude I have no place telling a person of color something isn't racist and they should't be offended by it). This is both because a) emotions themselves are never "wrong," it's how you react to them, but more importantly 2) the thornier issues of status and privilege and all that.

Though while I'm never comfortable telling someone they should not be offended, I also have a problem with the blanket assumption that one's offense trumps all else (again, I'm typically on board with that position, just not as an absolute). Because this situation reminds me a great deal of a time I was googling around to see if there were any fun, short readings from popular media about the police subculture for a class I was teaching. There ended up being a link for a policeone message board, which are always humorous, so I decided to check it out (policeone is a news and quasi-social media site for law enforcement).

Anyway, someone had posted a message asking if anyone on there had good info on the police subculture for a continuing ed course they were taking. Another poster took extreme offense to this, writing something to the effect of "How dare you say the police are a subculture? We're not sub anything! Why don't you take your hatred of law enforcement elsewhere!"

So obviously that person was offended, but this starts to veer into the territory where they were empirically wrong to be offended. Because for the two of you out there who don't know the term, "subculture" is not a term that implies any judgement (positive or negative). It simply refers to a smaller culture that exists within a larger culture. Not only does the "sub" mean "smaller than" not "lesser than," but it's also a pretty widespread term that any American adult should have heard of and know. So while we may not be able to say that person was wrong to be offended, it's also pretty clear that person was in the wrong -- not only was no offensive thing actually written, but even a cursory google search for the meaning of the term would have let that person know what they were interpreting as offensive was actually a completely value-free term applied to widely disparate groups.

Where it gets tricky is that exact last point -- what responsibility does the offended party have? To bring it back to the Colbert example (which is admittedly much thornier than someone not knowing what the word subculture means), Park mentioned in her initial tweet that she was a fan of Colbert. Which means she has to be aware that his whole schtick is playing a clueless right-wing extremist in the mold of the Limbaughs and O'Reillys of the world. So seeing that (admittedly much more offensive out of context) tweet, she could have easily surmised that rather than Colbert suddenly turning unapologetically racist, maybe there was some context to what was going on (as if the "or whatever" at the end of it didn't indicate this was satire). And if you actually do watch the clip in context, it was so clear the butt of the joke is Snyder and the racism of the team name that they may as well have been running a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen reading "WARNING: this is satire. Obviously no one here believes these derogatory stereotypes of Asians. They are being deployed to illustrate how unacceptable racism against Natives is." But obviously Park (nor the many others making the hashtag trend) bothered to check in on that context. Context which completely changes the joke.

But this just brings us back to the beginning and how hard these things are to weigh -- is it me being a clueless white guy saying "no, person of color, you don't get to be offended by what the white guy said," or is it an example of someone almost willfully ignoring the context of what was said, taking offense at something clearly not doing what they claim it to be (that is, mocking Asian people)? Or can it be both?

To quote the authors of the commentary linked to above (who, like Park, both happen to be Americans of Korean descent), Park's reading of this "flattens out all meaning and pretends, in effect, that there is no ironic distance between Jonathan Swift's satire and actual cannibalism." I like that comparison quite a bit -- obviously Swift was not at all advocating the eating of Irish babies. But not being Irish myself, were I to happen upon an Irish person who found Swift incredibly offensive for suggesting such a ghastly act, would/could/should I point out it really seems they're really misinterpreting the story?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Because You Need This

From our friends at Slate, here is every hairstyle Prince has had from 1978 to 2013.

This, my friends, is why the internet exists.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dog Whistle Racism Explained By An Insider

On the heels of writing about racial coding and dog whistle racism in America, I happened to read this article about Paul Ryan trying to backtrack from his assertion that all poverty stems from Black people being lazy (or something like that, it's kind of hard to follow his logic).

But more to the point, the piece uses a fantastic quote I'd been trying to dig up for a while from Alexander P. Lamis' book "The Two-Party South." At the time the book was published (1984) the quote was simply from an anonymous source identified as a Reagan confident, but is now known to be famed conservative operative Lee Atwater. It's especially important because often people who discuss racial coding are accused of reading too much into the words used, or projecting their own ideas on to the speaker.

But this quote from Atwater is not someone interpreting his words, or projecting words on to him, it's just him straight-up explaining exactly how Republicans have intentionally used racially coded language to make racist appeals to their white, Souther voting base while maintaining the plausible deniability of supposedly not talking about race.

But enough with the set up, here's Atwater in his own words:
"You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N—-r, n—-r, n—-r.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n—-r’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N—-r, n—-r.'"

So no, when Ryan and his ilk talk of "inner city laziness" and the need to stop "fostering dependance on government assistance," social scientists are not "reading too much into it" when we note that these are obviously racist statements designed to rile up racist white voters. All we're doing is saying in public what Atwater was more than comfortable admitting behind closed doors...

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

I often joke that you can tell when a conservative is discussing the Middle East, because they suddenly turn into radical feminists. Sure, they hate abortion, pass restrictive legislation limiting access to birth control, underfund women's health initiatives, mock rape victims, and generally believe women to be sub-human baby incubators. But when discussion turns to anywhere the people are brown, all of a sudden we Have to Save the Women™!

Of course, they don't care about Middle Eastern women (or men or children), but it's become unacceptable to publicly say they're a worthless people and we can kill them and take over their nations anytime we like. So instead, suddenly these folks are really concerned about women's rights (but only over there).

corollary to that joke is that anytime a conservative invokes Freedom of Speech™, it is a very safe bet some prominent conservative has just been fired for saying something incredibly racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.

Which brings me to this picture currently floating around the interwebs:

It's a picture of a bunch of supposed historical re-enactors, dressed up like Nazis, having a dinner party in a private room of Minneapolis restaurant Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit, complete with Nazi banners and other regalia strewn about (on MLK day, for an added bonus).

I'm not even going to touch how idiotic that is, as any functioning human adult can immediately understand why this is a terrible idea. Rather, I want to focus on the comments of the owner of the restaurant (which have been echoed by several of the Nazis in the photo) aimed at the people criticizing him for hosting the event:

"We live in a free country...but from the comments I see, a lot of people they don’t see what freedom is."

Except…no. The constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech specifically prevents the government (or more specifically, anyone acting on behalf of the government) to censor one's speech or activities without compelling reason. Since not a single one of the people in this photo, in the group, or employed by the restaurant has been subject to any government action as a result of this, it means their freedoms are perfectly intact.

So repeat it with me kids: freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.

So while no one has the right to prevent you from being the kind of fucking moron who thinks dressing up and playing Nazi is a fun thing to do, everyone has the complete right to tell you you're a fucking jackass for doing so. That's not them imposing limits on your freedom of speech, that's them exercising their freedom of speech.

A violation of your free speech would be if the police had prevented the dinner in the first place, or arrested them all afterward. And if that happened, as much as I loathe these people, I'd be first in line to defend them. But that didn't happen; they are all currently walking about freely with no chance of criminal conviction stemming from this. That is why I'm also happy to be right in line to tell them they are horrible people who need to seriously re-evaluate their life choices.

But whether it be dressing up like Nazis, or telling a national publication that Black people were happier under segregation and gay people are an abomination, conservatives seem to believe that any criticism of their words or actions is automatically illegal censorship (quite ironic given their love for censorship in every other arena, but that's another topic for another day). Apparently, to them, freedom of speech means everyone not only has to let you speak, they have to listen to you speak, and have to then agree with whatever you said.

But that's not how it works. You've got your freedom of speech to dress up like the people who slaughtered at least 6 million human beings and have a grand ol' time being a giant asshole. But everyone else has the freedom to tell you you're a giant asshole.

I'll let the last word go to Dr. Degrasse Tyson. While it's on a different subject, the general principle remains the same: