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...