Oak Creek Wisconsin’s Gurdwara Shooting and the Influence of (Hate) Music

The horrific crime committed at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in which a gunman opened fire on worshippers, quickly emerged as a hate crime committed by a white supremacist who is the leader of a “hate-rock” band.  Interestingly, I haven’t seen much press speculating about the link between punk,heavy metal, violence, and white supremacy.  On the other hand, many commonly believe that rap music is tied to urban violence and misogyny.  Research done nearly twenty years ago showed that press coverage of black-identified rap music most frequently described it as dangerous to society, while press coverage of white-identified heavy metal music most frequently warned of the dangers to the consumers themselves (presumably, ‘our’ white children).  The case shows that when a crime is committed by a white man, as in the case of the gurdwara shootings, he does not serve to represent his race group (rightly so), even though the crime was highly racialized and linked to an ideology of white supremacy.

Still, lest readers think I believe more should be made of a link between heavy metal, punk, and white supremacist ideology, let me be clear that I feel certain that Wade Page and his kind of rock music is a very small slice of the diversity of heavy metal and punk music and its consumers.  The vast majority of music consumers don’t read much into lyrics.  In my book Balancing Acts, I surveyed and interviewed teenagers and found that most said the music they listen to (mostly hip-hop, in the urban schools I studied) says very little about who they are.  In fact, the most common response was that the music they listen to led people to misunderstand who they are and what they are really like.

The influence of cultural consumption on our behaviors is complex and difficult to assess.  In the case of extreme views and behaviors that are racialized, ideology probably comes first, and leads individuals to consume music associated with their views.  That is, the cultural scripts associated with, for example, white supremacist ideology, include consuming “hate rock”, rather than discovering “hate rock” and the lyrics influencing individuals to violence.

If O.J. had been white…

Last weekend I had the luxury of using a spa gift certificate gifted to me ages ago.  Even better, I got to catch up on my embarrassingly slim knowledge of popular culture–the Kardashians show was on the monitor.  The pedicurist encouraged me to watch the Kardashians, rightfully admonishing that I could not call myself a sociologist–an expert on society–without knowing anything about the Kardashians.  Well, in my defense I already knew that one of them is engaged to Kanye West.

After the show ended I asked my pedicurist what the sisters’ claim to fame was.  She explained that their father was a celebrity defense lawyer, and one of his most famous cases was the defense of O.J. Simpson.  Someone else chimed in, “How could that jury let him go?!  It was obvious he was guilty!!”  I should explain that this was an upscale Boston salon, staffed, from what I saw, exclusively by white women.  The stark difference between black and white Americans’ responses to the trial was noted by many at the time, so the comment didn’t surprise me.  What surprised me was what came next.  “Well, you know that if he was white…”

The suggestion was that, in fact, the opposite of what African Americans feared could happen actually happened–O.J. was acquitted precisely because he was black.  It seemed that even when the evidence was contrary to stereotypes, this African American man was still seen as representative of his race.  We’re used to racial and religious minorities being seen as members of their race when described–for example, we hear about Muslim terrorists but just mentally ill individuals in the Oklahoma City bombings. Examples abound.  In the case of O.J’s trial, one could have imagined a scenario in which he was convicted and consequently many (black) Americans felt that race played a role.  It’s hard to believe that a black man gets the benefit of the doubt in a way that a white man wouldn’t, when so much evidence shows that black men are convicted and incarcerated at alarming rates in the United States.  The comment suggested to me that the woman was employing a frame of reverse discrimination to see any racialized data or interactions, even when they belie the most obvious stereotypes and run against the traditional ways in which we know race plays itself out in the criminal justice system.  The notion that whites experience reverse discrimination–or in this case, that blacks receive undue preference–is powerful.

Why are there more gay parents in private schools than in public schools?

Our fabulous babysitter, an elementary school teacher, made an interesting observation about the parents she has encountered in public versus private school settings. In her work at elite private schools in both New York City and the Boston area she routinely encountered students with gay or lesbian parents. She was surprised when her public school classroom didn’t have any out parents, and all the children were either living with a father and mother (or step-parents) or else a single mom or other female family member. It does seem strange–surely sexual orientation is not linked to social class.

But perhaps sexual orientation of parents is correlated to their likelihood to opt for a private school if they have the means to do so. It could be the case that gay or lesbian parents worry that their children will be teased or bullied in public schools for their family structure, and hence are more likely to choose private schools. Alternatively, if attitudes toward gay families are more favorable among people with higher incomes (I don’t know if this is the case, but my guess is that is true, especially given that poorer families are more likely to be immigrant families and coming from societies less accepting of alternative sexual identities). This would mean that people who are wealthy enough to send their children to private school are more likely to feel free to form the kind of family structure they want than those with fewer means. This is another form of inequality, related to sexual orientation and family formation.

Or maybe it’s just a coincidence–sampling bias…

The Social Significance of your Taste in Coffee

When we go for our annual family reunion in the countryside in California, my brother-in-law always brings his high-quality espresso machine, along with the requisite freshly ground espresso beans from his favorite San Francisco shop.  He is much like his brother, my husband, who can drive for miles on a camping trip in search of a “decent” latte; instant made over the fire just won’t do.  Yet, we are not your typical upper class family who tastes signify status and, as Pierre Bourdieu argued, serve to exclude those who don’t have the “right” tastes—in this case, for a café latte brewed just so.  My husband’s family, you see, is not a northeast WASP family of the type so disdained by the middle of the country, but rather they are immigrants from Pakistan (perhaps disdained by the middle of the country for other reasons entirely!).  When they were teenagers, they learned to appreciate the sweet, strong, milky tea of South Asia that US coffee shops now call “chai” (and they chuckle when they hear Americans ordering a “chai tea”—which translates to a “tea tea”).

So what should we make of the social significance of tastes in coffee?  Bourdieu argued that elites arbitrarily define certain cultural products as “high quality” in order to maintain their status.  In fact, my brother-in-law’s Bay Area technology firm actually brought in baristas to do 15 minute lessons in how to make a good espresso/latte at his office (this is one of those firms that serves everyone breakfast, lunch, and dinner with an on-site chef).  They seem to be grooming their employees for high social status.  This indeed is how my brother-in-law explains his taste for “good” coffee was cultivated.  Furthermore, according to Bourdieu once the lower classes start to adopt those cultural products elites then change the cultural arbitrary to maintain their status.

Starbucks illustrates this point well.  A few weeks ago I noticed a Starbucks coffee cup sitting next to the driver of a city bus in Cambridge.  Interesting, I thought, that a bus driver is drinking Starbucks, which I associated with “good” coffee.  And, to my pleasant surprise, Starbucks came to the working class town I grew up in a few years ago, and whenever I’ve gone on visits to my parents it is packed.  Then, last week at our family reunion my brother-in-law explained to me that Starbucks coffee is “bad” (they burn the milk, apparently), and no self-respecting San Francisco coffee connoisseur like himself would be caught drinking Starbucks coffee.  Huh, I thought.  The cultural arbitrary has changed. Maybe the Starbucks executives actually tried to make it so, to gain more customers for a product whose price can only go so high.

I think I will stick to my daily PG Tips tea.  What kinds of coffee do you drink, and how have those tastes changed over time?  What led to those changes in taste for you?

Balancing Acts wins book award from International Migration section of the American Sociological Association!

I just found out that my book Balancing Acts: Youth Culture in the Global City won the best book award from the International Migration section of the American Sociological Association!  I am thrilled.  The book is about the cultural lives of children of immigrants at diverse New York and London high schools.  I identify the relationship between teenagers’ cultural lives and their orientations toward school.  All kids — of diverse backgrounds–are attempting to perform balancing acts in high school.  They want to succeed and achieve high status in academics, and they also want to succeed and achieve high status among their peers.  Some are better than others at this balance, and others privilege one side of the scale to the detriment of the other, and despite their best intentions.  I talk in the book about how race, hip-hop, and gender affect these balancing acts.  If you haven’t already, pick up a copy today!  Available in paperback, hardback, or Kindle!

The more things change, the more kindergarten stays the same

I want to start this post by stating that we have had a wonderful first year of public school.  Our daughter has grown so much and learned a ton.  And we love her teachers, who have crafted such a warm, collaborative, and creative environment that she loves. 

But, I have been surprised at just how much of kindergarten has been familiar to me, from my own experience in a US public school in Pennsylvania, so many years ago.  And, these days I am reading the Ramona and Beezus series to my daughter, and Ramona’s kindergarten experience seems so familiar; which is strange for books written in 1955. This week was the school concert, in which the kindergarteners sang a song I learned as a kid.  Monday is field day, of which I have fond memories of winning a ribbon in fourth grade.  Of course, they are learning to read, write, and add and subtract.  They read in reading groups.  They have worksheets to practice their nascent skills.  Thankfully, the testing fever has not spread to kindergarten, despite its increased prominence in other grades over the past 15ish years. 

Of course, not everything is the same.  My daughter doesn’t walk to school by herself (okay, so Ramona did it in first grade–but we won’t be sending our daughter alone next year either).  Her classroom has group tables rather than individual desks, and there is no concept of ‘copying’, at least not in kindergarten.  Kindergarten is a full day. They have a weekly computer class. 

But still, I am surprised that we haven’t learned more about the fundamentals of how best to learn.  Did we really already have it right fifty years ago?  And, what about whatkids should be learning?  I’m not sure that I have good ideas about changes that should happen, but somehow it seems there.

 What do you think should change about elementary education in the United States? 

Is Supporting a System Ripe for Exploitation Exploitative??

An Indian couple was arrested yesterday on charges of physical and psychological abuse of their 13-year old maid.  It reminded me of my childhood visits to India and the great discomfort I always felt around domestic workers, especially when the workers were my age and, eventually, younger than me.  As far as I saw, my relatives were good to those who worked in their households.  In the case of one girl who seemed a teenager or, at most, a short 18-year old, the women in the family would sit her down for reading lessons every evening after dinner, often to much protest by the girl who wanted to watch television with the other children in the family.  I saw relationships that looked very maternal between the women in a household and the young helpers; and fraternal between children in the household and workers.  Still, although these situations are common and don’t grab headlines, they are wrong. And, of course although the relationships seemed maternal and fraternal, it was clear which child would be doing the cleaning and running errands (often for me, when I asked my aunts and grandmothers for things like toilet paper and my favorite vegetables for dinner)).  The boundaries of work were bright and visible, even if the boundaries of love were more fluid–and I do believe there is genuine love in some of these relationships.

Still, participation in a system that is ripe for abuse seems unethical precisely because it creates a situation that others can then abuse.  It normalizes a situation that others–even if not yourself–can abuse. Surely the growing Indian upper classes can commit to terms of domestic work that do not allow the demons among them to take advantage of fellow humans with lesser means.  This would mean a commitment to shaming friends and relatives who have crossed the boundary of exploitation. A cultural shift that makes obvious the boundaries of ethics in domestic worker employment is urgent.  My American frame as a child–while surely flawed in its black-white view of West-is-Best–at least served me well in making an unjust, terrible system seem morally repugnant.  What would it take for this cultural shift to occur?

Lady Gaga and Oprah on being brave and kind

I braved the snow with baby in tow today for a special event at Harvard–the launch of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way FoundationOprah introduced Lady Gaga, with some inspiring words of her own.  I didn’t expect to be so touched by Oprah’s introductory message of believing in oneself, and teaching kids to believe in themselves, and that they are okay.  She mentioned how in so many interviews she’s done with people from all walks of life–including Beyonce, so many of them ask her afterward, “was that alright?” She said we all need to feel like we are okay, connected, understood–even Beyonce.  Later in the event, Lady Gaga confessed that she’d leaned over to Deepak Chopra and whispered, “am i doing okay?”, before realizing she’d done just what Oprah lamented earlier. There was something surreal about seeing Oprah in real life.  I flashed back to seeing The Color Purple in the movie theater when I was probably too young.

And then Lady Gaga took to the stage and implored everyone to support youth to be brave and supportive of one another.  She emphasized that her foundation is one that is focused on bravery and empowerment, rather than bullying, because she wants to focus on the positive rather than negative.  She suggested that whenever there is an argument, or someone is difficult, this has to do with wanting to be heard and understood.  She implored kids, especially, to be brave and step in when a peer is bullied, to tell a peer that they are okay, and to be themselves and be kind.

I tend to think about inequality in terms of SES, race, and gender.  But, the event today made me understand that there are psychological ways in which kids are affected that are not necessarily tied to SES, race and gender (although these do often trigger bullying, insecurity, and more).

I’m looking forward to seeing what the Foundation’s work ends up being.  I am sure it will be interesting and important work.  I am humbled and inspired by these two amazing women, who are passionately advocating for what they believe will make for a better life for young people.

Elite Public Education and Race: Why is Stuyvesant 73% Asian?

The New York Times yesterday did a profile of a black student at New York City’s elite public high school, Stuyvesant.  She is one of just 40 black students in a school of over three thousand students.  To get into Stuyvesant, students take an exam, and the top scorers get in–with an admit rate of under 5%, which makes it more competitive than Harvard to get in.

The interesting and important question, in my mind, is why there are so few black (and Latino) students prepared well enough to pass the exam.  The article suggests what the research in the study of US-born children of immigrants in New York City shows, which is that Asian families (in the study, Chinese) avail of the elite public system the most.  They are connected to social networks that provide information on which public schools are high-quality, and how to prepare for the entrance exam for the specialized high schools.  And, they often attend classes from an early age that prepare them for the exam, all through the ethnic network.  The study, whose book has the wonderful title Inheriting the City, explains that Dominican families, unlike Chinese families, exit the neighborhood school system most frequently by sending their children to Catholic schools when they can afford them.  The problem is that the socioeconomic outcomes for those attending the specialized high schools are better than the outcomes associated with attending NYC Catholic schools; and, of course, only those who can afford it can send their children to Catholic school (and when a family experiences economic setbacks they may have to withdraw their children from Catholic school).

It would be easy to conclude, as some do, that black and Latino students are lazy, lack the drive to pass the entrance exam, or just don’t care enough about their education–just see the comments below the NY Times article.  But, this would be a woefully inadequate and dangerous conclusion to draw, and not backed by evidence.  Instead, a close look at families’ social networks and information flows explains more thoroughly why Stuyvesant is 73% Asian.

Do elite universities encourage students to go to Wall Street and TFA, by default??

I read an interesting article by Ezra Klein today that suggests that the lack of career discussion and direction at elite universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton leads a large number of their students to go into finance (at Harvard, 17% of 2011 graduates).  He makes the case that part of the financial industry’s success at elite universities is that they set up a familiar competition for undergrads, much like the undergraduate admissions process.  They take applications up to a set deadline, they interview on campus, they have a set date to give decisions, etc.

Interestingly, he compares this process to the one done by Teach for America.  Here’s where it gets interesting.  I once heard that up to 50% of graduates at Harvard apply to TFA.  It used to baffle me that TFA had such a low admit rate, given the demand for teachers (at least up to the past few years) and its assumption that students from elite universities need to be recruited into teaching more.  Then, I realized that actually part of the reason TFA is so successful is precisely because it’s competitive.  Undergrads at elite universities are used to a competition, and they like them because they’ve generally been successful at them–especially at the most important one of college admissions.  So, a higher success rate for TFA might actually end up counterproductive for the organization!  This is similar to elite university admissions–every year universities boast of decreasing admit rates, which i always find perverse and harsh, especially to those 90+% of applicants who are rejected.

The TFA comparison leads me (and Klein) to the conclusion that it’s not just high pay that is leading so many elite undergraduates into finance.  It’s the competition.  So, if you want to get undergrads from elite universities on board for something, create a scarce opportunity and then have them compete for it!