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.

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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!

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.

Undergraduate Interracial Interactions: “It wasn’t about race,” but…

As I read through the data for my project on students attending elite universities in the United States and Britain, I am struck by how much race continues to play a role in the lives of American undergraduates. They speak of formative experiences marked by race, and they are deeply affected by some interactions in which they are racialized, and others in which others accuse them of racism. On the other hand, American students in other ways believe we live in a post-racial society—President Obama was elected when they were in high school, after all—and often talk about interracial experiences as “not about race”. There seems to be a strong desire to deny or minimize the salience of race in interracial experiences. I’m not suggesting that every interaction between individuals of different backgrounds is marked most significantly by those differences. But, I am struck by the repeated articulation that “the interaction wasn’t about race”, when the interviewer has not suggested as much. Students idealize a post-racial society, even if the reality in which they live is far from it.

The Post-9/11 Generation

This week the cover story of People magazine is “The Children of 9/11”, a story about children born to mothers who lost their husbands in 9/11. The children are approaching 10 years old. It reminded me that the cohort of students who have just started college in the US were just eight years old when the September 11th tragedy took place. The Bush presidency started when they were just old enough to understand what the President’s role is, and ended when they were 15—formative years, for sure. How does this affect their perspective on the urgent problems of the world and the United States today?

College students’ responses to the death of Osama bin Laden provide a glimpse of an answer. I was baffled in May when, after the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, spontaneous student celebrations erupted in Harvard Square. I was surprised by the students’ unabashed joy in another person’s death, however terrible that person was. But then, I realized that these students had grown up with the specter of 9/11, and the War on Terror; bin Laden’s death in this context must have seemed a victory over the anxieties of their childhoods, perhaps akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall for my own childhood’s Soviet threat.

In my project on students attending elite universities, I’ve similarly been surprised by the lack of complex discussion of or sympathy for racial inequality. Many students like the fact that affirmative action brings diverse perspectives to their classrooms—in fact, this is the leading reason that they give in support for race-based affirmative action (and many if not most of them do support it). But, I then remember that this is the post-post-Civil Rights generation, and might even be characterized as the War on Terror generation, or the post-racial generation. They haven’t heard about or experienced the angst that I and my peers did as college students in a society where the entire political landscape was changing because of changing racial politics. If the Soviet threat and desegregation hovered over my childhood, then bin Laden and Obama’s election hovered over theirs. One of my earliest memories is of the day before of the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan; children in school were chanting “Rea—gan!! Rea—gan!! Rea—gan!!” in my school, where most of the population came from working class white families. They were Reagan Democrats, lured to the Republican party in part due to racial resentment. So I am trying to understand how children of the War on Terror make sense of diversity in society, when many of them truly believe they are living in a post-racial society, most obviously defined by the election of President Obama while they were in high school. I am starting to realize just how long ago I myself was a college student!

What’s race got to do with it?

On August 4th, British police shot Mark Duggan, a black British criminal suspect, in Tottenham, London.  A peaceful demonstration of Duggan’s supporters demanding to know just what happened and why policed fired at him quickly turned into violence and looting that spread to all major cities of England.  Much of the media coverage of the events in Britain and abroad suggested that race was driving the malaise felt by looters and rioters across the country.  However, soon writers could not ignore the diverse faces of rioters and looters on the streets of London and beyond, most obviously demonstrated by the London Metropolitan Police’s flickr.com site devoted to identifying criminals caught on camera.  In a twist on the recognition of the multiracial nature of the 2011 riots, British historian David Starkey, in an interview aired on BBC, suggested that “the whites have become black”, attributing a negative, anti-society culture to black Britons that is now spreading to the white working class.  Although Starkey’s racist comments were simplistic and offensive, they demonstrate that those on the left and right in Britain now understand that conflicts between police and young men in Britain are not limited to or even preponderant among black young men.

Aside from socioeconomic conditions, repeated police encounters like Duggan’s anger young men.  However, in contrast to the United States, young white working class men in Britain also frequently experience random “stop and searches”.  In my research with teens attending diverse secondary schools I found that both Afro-Caribbean and white working class young men in London were frequently stopped by police.  In Chapter 4 of Balancing Acts: Youth Culture in the Global City, I describe how these encounters usually happened on the student’s public housing complex, and students perceived that their style—especially hoodies—had something to do with police perceptions.  This finding contrasted with what I heard in New York, where black young men were overwhelmingly more likely to have been stopped by the police than their white and Asian peers.

The politics of race in Britain and the United States differ sharply, and those differences come into sharp relief in Balancing Acts.  I found that students at a New York high school were much more racially divided than Londoners.  They identified their school’s social groups by race and ethnicity, they were more likely to share friendships and date in-group peers, and they identified who they were comfortable with and uncomfortable with in racial and ethnic terms.  Londoners, in contrast, were more likely to think about race-based styles and tastes. For example, one young woman in London told me this about the social groups at her school:

It’s like, there is all black in my group…There is one mixed race person and there is one white person, but the white person…she is more, like, you know, black.  The way she behaves is like a black person, and she likes black things….And then you have the all white girls group.  It’s mixed—it’s got, oh you might get a one black girl in it.  She behaves like more like a white girl….

Race absolutely matters in Britain, and has played a role in social exclusion, for sure.  But, it doesn’t always explain social phenomena the way we think it would from the vantage point of the United States.