Who Put the Hate in Hate Crimes?

October 29, 2018

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Once again, the country is shocked and outraged by acts of mass violence. Cesar Sayoc allegedly sent pipe bombs to fourteen prominent Democrats. Robert Bowers allegedly killed eleven people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Both men were troubled loners holding extreme political views.

Once again, we will debate whether the responsibility for these actions lies with the individual perpetrators alone, or whether responsibility is more widely shared. If we do agree that it is shared, we may ask if both sides of the political divide are equally responsible for hatred and violence, or if Donald Trump and his supporters have played a special role in the decline of political civility.

Trump has referred to people like Sayoc and Bowers as “wackos” and “sick, demented people.” He is right to the extent that their actions are far from the general norm. We may reasonably ask what peculiar circumstances and life experiences helped create these mass murderers. Sayoc, for example, was abandoned by his father and apparently desperate for a strong authority figure, which probably contributed to his alleged attraction to Adolph Hitler. Such explanations are only starting points, however, since not every female-headed family produces a budding Nazi.

The sociological point I want to make is that deviations from the norm certainly matter, but the norms themselves matter too. When we normalize hatred by vilifying some out-group, we make it easier for violence-prone individuals to act on their impulses. We tell them who it’s okay to hate. Apparently, Cesar Sayoc had no strong political affiliation until Donald Trump came along. Then Trump became his authoritarian father-figure, and he let Trump define his enemies for him–Obama, the Clintons, immigrants, etc.

Robert Bower hates immigrants too, calling them “invaders that kill our people.” But he has been less supportive of Trump because he doesn’t think Trump goes far enough. Bower focuses his hatred especially on Jews, blaming “the filthy EVIL Jews” for bringing “the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!” One particular object of hostility that Trump, Sayoc and Bowers have in common is global investor and Democratic donor George Soros, who is Jewish. Right-wing conspiracy theorists have been accusing him for months of funding the Steele dossier and immigration caravans, and Trump has also accused him of financing opposition to Brent Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. When Trump attacked globalism the other day in the oval office, his young supporters started chanting “Soros! Soros! Soros!”

Trump himself does not have to be as extreme as Bower or Sayoc to give some comfort to their views. I trust that Trump does not approve of sending pipe bombs to Democrats or murdering Jews in synagogues. But he has vilified immigrants by exaggerating their association with violent crime, attacked the legitimacy of our first black president, and characterized the press and his critics as public enemies. The nationalism he has espoused is widely understood as white, Christian nationalism, since his support comes overwhelmingly from those groups. That helps normalize racial and religious intolerance. It feeds into a narrative of white, Christian victimization that discourages power-sharing and encourages domination.

The Republican Party was already well on its way to becoming the white, Christian party before Trump appeared on the scene. As the Democratic Party became more open to civil rights, religious neutrality, and gender equality, Republican politicians saw an opportunity to gain or hold power with subtle and not-so-subtle appeals to white supremacy, Christian supremacy, and male supremacy. They played on fears that many Americans have of living in a more pluralistic global community. Robert Bowers just takes those fears to an extreme when he says things like “Diversity means chasing down the last white person.” He didn’t develop his hostility to diversity in a political or cultural vacuum. Historically, no political party has had a monopoly on politically-motivated violence. In the 1960s, I saw violent acts by liberal protesters as well as violent attacks on peaceful demonstrators by defenders of the status quo. But currently, I see the greater threat of violence from the political right.

Are Sayoc and Bower gross violators of social norms? Of course they are. But the Party of Trump has also been changing the norms themselves, working harder to antagonize and divide while failing to respect and include. I cannot recall an administration or party as content to govern on behalf of an angry minority and as disinterested in building a larger consensus. Getting rid of any policy associated with Barack Obama has become more important than actually solving social problems. Keeping the base in a state of fear and loathing of anyone or anything new and different has become a way of generating support without actually doing much.

Anxieties about globalization are reasonable. Playing on those anxieties to set one group of Americans against another is not. Progressives can present a more constructive response to global diversity and competition than what the right has to offer. It must be one that challenges individuals to earn status through their accomplishments and social contributions, not demand it on the basis of race, religion or gender. It will also have to challenge social institutions to make the investments in people that help them become as accomplished and socially useful as they can be. I see no other way to build a community in which love trumps hate.

We Were Eight Years in Power (part 2)

March 22, 2018

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My favorite essay from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s collection is “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” which he wrote in the seventh year of the Obama presidency. Here Coates insightfully connects two social developments–a policy debate over black families that started in the mid-1960s, and a dramatic increase in incarceration that started in the mid-1970s. He says he was excited about this story because “I believed that ‘family’ had been ceded to moral scolds who cared more about shaming people than actually helping families.”

Redefining the problem

Coates begins his story with the failure of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s liberal vision for black family progress. Moynihan, who worked in both the Johnson and Nixon administrations before becoming a US Senator, wanted to go beyond civil rights legislation to help undo the damage to families resulting from centuries of racism and discrimination. In his own words, “Family as an issue raised the possibility of enlisting the support of conservative groups for quite radical social programs,” such as a guaranteed minimum income for every family. That turned out to be overly optimistic.

The so-called “Moynihan Report,” whose real title was “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” was originally intended for internal government discussion, but soon became public. Moynihan described the problem not just as poverty and discrimination, but as the “matriarchal” family structure that resulted from a shortage of successful male breadwinners. For him, achieving “family stability” was as important as achieving economic justice.

For conservatives, however, the report served as a golden opportunity to shift the blame for the plight of black families from racism and discrimination to their own family behaviors, such as bearing children outside of marriage. It didn’t help, I would add, that Moynihan had overstated the case by exaggerating the stability of white families, just at a time when the sexual and gender revolutions were starting to challenge conventional norms there too. Moynihan was surprised when civil rights advocates accused him of racism for contributing to a pejorative stereotype of black families.

As for the guaranteed minimum income idea, President Nixon proposed a modest one in his Family Assistance Plan, but it failed to pass Congress. Coates does not mention what I have read elsewhere, that Moynihan eventually soured on his own proposal when a pilot study found a higher rate of marital breakup for recipients of a guaranteed income than in a control group of non-recipients. Moynihan, whose own childhood Coates describes as “a tangle of poverty, remarriage, relocation, and single motherhood,” saw family stability as the key indicator of policy success. He was not prepared for the possibility that some individuals would take the opportunity provided by a guaranteed income to leave unsatisfying relationships.

Black vilification, then and now

The critique of black family “pathology” became part of a long history of black vilification. Earlier in the book, Coates defines black enslavement as a twofold problem:

First there is the actual enslavement and all that has followed from it, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. But then there was the manufactured story that was told to ennoble and sanctify that enslavement.

Racial domination has always been accompanied by stories that serve to explain and justify it. The common theme in these stories is that something is wrong with the oppressed people themselves, rendering them unfit for independence and equality.

Based on my teaching experience, I would add that these stories have changed in some important ways over the years. Almost never did I hear from my white students an explicit assertion of African racial inferiority. On the contrary, they much preferred a story of equal opportunity but individual failure. Now that anti-discrimination laws have been passed and racism is on the decline, the story goes, doors that were closed are now open. The corollary is that people who still don’t get through those doors have less reason to blame white society and more reason to blame themselves. The family and personal problems that Moynihan saw as effects of racial inequality can be interpreted as causes of inequality. Black people would be successful if they would just live right, not dropping out of school, getting in trouble with the law, or having children they aren’t ready to support. What is strongly implied if not explicitly stated is that there must be something wrong with these people after all. The critique of black family instability by Mohnihan and others helped reinforce those attitudes.

The Republican philosophy of limited government is not in itself racist. But its surge in popularity among whites during the Nixon and Reagan presidencies is at the very least somewhat suspicious. After the Democrats embraced civil rights and the War on Poverty, whites turned Republican by the millions, turning what had been the Democratic “Solid South” into the essential core of the Republican base. Coates quotes Nixon’s domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman as later admitting that “subliminal appeal to the antiblack voter was always in Nixon’s statements and speeches….” At the same time, public policy turned away from the War on Poverty to the War on Crime.

Mass incarceration

Coates says, “One does not build a safety net for a race of predators. One builds a cage.” Stories of black inferiority and failure have always implied a need for strong social control, but the forms of control have varied. In the early twentieth century:

…Jim Crow applied the control in the South. Mass incarceration did it in the North. After the civil rights movement triumphed in the 1960s and toppled Jim Crow laws, the South adopted the tactics of the North, and its rates of imprisonment surged far past the North’s.

Since 1970, the number of people in prisons and jails increased seven-fold, from about 300,000 to 2.2 million. (Adjusted for population growth, that was still a five-fold increase.) The United States leads the world in incarceration rate, with Putin’s Russia a distant second. “The United States now accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s inhabitants–and about 25 percent of its incarcerated inhabitants.” For males age 20-40, the black incarceration rate is ten times the white rate.

The rising incarceration rate is partly a response to an increase in crime that occurred after 1970. To see it as only that, however, overlooks some other considerations:

  • After the 1980s, rates of violent crime fell but rates of incarceration continued to rise.
  • Other countries also experienced a rise and fall in crime rates, but came through it without such a large increase in incarceration.
  • Who we imprison depends on what we choose to criminalize and where we choose to look for offenders. “Surveys have concluded that blacks and whites use drugs at roughly the same rates,” but arrests for drug possession are much higher for blacks.
  • A large proportion of the imprisoned are mentally ill, functionally illiterate, addicted and/or impoverished, suggesting that the U.S. relies on imprisonment to address social problems that would better be handled in the community.
  • Imprisonment has additional economic functions such as providing jobs for whites in rurally-located correctional institutions, and disguising our black unemployment problem. People in prison aren’t counted as unemployed because they’re not in the labor force.

Coates’s main point is that resources that could have been used to uplift and integrate black people were used instead to stigmatize and exclude them.

Criminal justice reform

Shrinking the prison population will require a lot more than just shorter sentences or earlier parole. We will need to think about what we define as crime, how else we might address social problems of mental illness, under-education, drug abuse and poverty; and how to reduce racial bias in arrests, prosecutions and sentencing.

Coates also points out that a smaller correctional system is not necessarily a fairer one. Among states, Minnesota has one of the lowest rates of incarceration, but one of the highest disparities between black and white incarceration. He ends by saying that we cannot pretend “that one can extract the thread of mass incarceration from the larger tapestry of racist American policy.”


On the Run (part 2)

February 15, 2016

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Alice Goffman’s book has created some controversy not only because of her concerns about over-policing and mass incarceration, but because of her research methods and decisions. She began the project as an undergraduate in an urban ethnography class. An urban ethnographer studies a city much as an anthropologist would study a native village, using participant observation to share people’s lives–learning their language, studying their traditions, understanding their beliefs, and so forth. For Goffman it meant living in a black Philadelphia neighborhood, hanging out with her main informant “Mike” and his friends (she also took him in as a roommate for a time), and observing their many interactions with the police and the courts.

Readers who have never attempted such a thing may have trouble appreciating the difficulty of the task. It means maintaining a delicate balance between participating and observing, becoming an insider and remaining a detached observer. One has to participate authentically enough to be accepted and trusted, but retain enough detachment to ask questions insiders might not ask, take voluminous field notes, and interpret what one observes in the light of a broader sociological perspective. There is also an ethical challenge: maintaining one’s own moral compass rather than thoughtlessly conforming to the expectations of one’s subjects.

Becoming accepted into an urban subculture can be every bit as challenging as immersing oneself in a foreign culture. At first, Goffman had trouble understanding what her subjects were talking about, since they were referencing experiences she hadn’t had, using words in unfamiliar ways. In order to hang out with them, she had not only to learn their language, but also to construct a role for herself within their world. She had to distinguish the things she would do, like drive guys places or visit them in jail, from the things she wouldn’t, like smoke dope or become romantically involved with her subjects. As a privileged white female, she couldn’t entirely play the role of an underprivileged black male, but in many situations she could act almost as if she were such a person.

In this vein, Goffman describes how she handled the issue of gender. As a participant observer of primarily male subjects, she didn’t want to play a conventional female role, since “the world of women was a separate sphere from the life of the street.” Her solution was to present a more ambiguous image:

Though I came to 6th Street as a young blond woman, my body, speech, clothing, and general personality marked me as somewhat strange and unappealing. After spending a few months with Mike and his friends, I moved even further away from their ideals of beauty or femininity, in part as a strategy to conduct the fieldwork, and in part because I was, as a participant observer, adopting their male attitudes, dress, habits, and even language.

Goffman was so successful immersing herself in the world of 6th Street that she began to have some problems with the other side of her life, the life of a sociology student. She was missing appointments with professors and getting failing grades in some classes. Her close association with men on the run was also bringing her under suspicion by the police, who sometimes threatened to arrest her “for harboring fugitives, or interfering with an arrest, or holding drugs in the apartment.” Goffman doesn’t try to establish whether or not her behavior would actually justify such accusations, but she does remark that “the likelihood that I’d soon go to prison seemed about equal to the chance I would make it to graduate school.” In fact, however, she managed to save her academic career by gaining early acceptance to Princeton.

While in graduate school, Goffman continued to live in Philadelphia but commute two or three times a week to Princeton. She reports experiencing a kind of reverse culture shock when she had to adapt to the world of graduate school after living so long around 6th Street. Because she had come to share the black male’s fear of the police, she found herself uncomfortable with any white man who looked young and fit enough to be a cop. She also reports some confusion about her gender and sexual identities: “After spending six years in a Black neighborhood, hanging out with young men, I’d come to feel almost asexual. During college, I dated no one; I’d sometimes feel surprise when a mirror returned the image of a young woman.”

Goffman ends her methodological appendix with her most troubling suggestion, that she may have been damaged by some of her experiences. When Mike’s close friend Chuck was murdered, she acknowledges that she wanted Chuck’s killer to die, although she also says that “at the time and certainly in retrospect, my desire for vengeance scared me.” Goffman is hardly alone in having experienced such a desire, but as a participant observer she was in a position to act on it. On one occasion when Mike went looking for Chuck’s killer with a gun, she drove him. And when Mike got out to confront the possible killer, “I waited in the car with the engine running, ready to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside.” Fortunately, Mike decided he didn’t have the right man, or Goffman could easily have wound up being an accessory to murder.

Some reviewers seem eager to discredit the whole book on ethical grounds, condemning Goffman as well as the people she studied. But maybe that is another way of dissociating ourselves from a social scene whose dangers repel us. The alternative is once again to learn how easily ordinary people can get caught up in bad behavior if they find themselves in bad situations. Goffman’s larger point remains valid, that many social forces and policies have contributed to making those bad situations what they are. For me, she is a courageous young woman who sacrificed a lot in order to bridge a racial divide and enhance understanding of a social problem.


On the Run

February 10, 2016

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Alice Goffman. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Picador: Kindle Edition, 2015.

Alice Goffman contributes some remarkable firsthand observations to the growing debate over the American criminal justice system. She adds her voice to those who suggest that the costs to society of extremely high arrest and imprisonment rates may be outweighing the benefits. Locking up so many people is not only costing a lot of money, but it is deepening social divisions and aggravating economic and racial inequalities.

A sociological perspective

As a sociologist, Goffman appreciates how powerfully human activity is shaped by social interaction and social organization. (She is, by the way, the daughter of renowned sociologist Erving Goffman, although he died when she was very young.) If there’s one thing that sociologists stress, it is that individuals don’t devise their beliefs and behaviors all by themselves. That applies to the behaviors we call criminal too, although thinking sociologically is especially challenging in that area. Sociology goes against the understandable tendency to dissociate ourselves from behavior we don’t like, to regard it simply as a product of bad individuals, having little to do with people like us, our beliefs, practices or social policies.

But if crime were nothing but individual pathology, what would we make of our country’s exceptional rates of incarceration?

The United States currently imprisons five to nine times more people than western European nations, and significantly more than China and Russia. Roughly 3 percent of adults in the nation are now under correctional supervision: 2.2 million people in prisons and jails, and an additional 4.8 million on probation or parole. In modern history, only the forced labor camps of the former USSR under Stalin approached these levels of penal confinement.

Particularly troubling are the disproportionate imprisonment rates of young black men, one out of nine compared to about one out of fifty young white men. The cumulative effect is even more startling: “One in four Black children born in 1990 had an imprisoned father by the time he or she turned fourteen.” Such statistics call out for a systemic explanation:

In a community where only few young men end up in prison, we might speak of bad apples or of people who have fallen through the cracks. Given the unprecedented levels of policing and imprisonment in poor Black communities today, these individual explanations make less sense. We begin to see a more deliberate social policy at work.

Goffman herself is a white person from a fairly privileged background, but her sociological perspective will be challenging for white readers who want to dissociate themselves from black problems. I would suggest that this dissociation can have racist implications, since one is likely to think that there must be something seriously wrong with a group of people who generate such high rates of imprisonment all by themselves. But that’s exactly what sociology questions. Sociology does not require us to do a 180-degree turn, believing that the people society calls guilty are really innocent, although that is true in some cases. It does require us to acknowledge that the unresolved conflicts of our society, especially conflicts of class and race, help produce both crime itself and society’s response to crime. It helps us see that overly punitive responses can become part of the problem by further marginalizing the most disadvantaged among us. Goffman observes that it is the poorer young men who tend to get caught up in the criminal justice system, “though the crimes that start them off in the penal system are often crimes of which richer young men, both Black and white, are also guilty: fighting, drug possession, and the like.” Criminalization is a joint product of patterns of behavior and patterns of enforcement, both of which are affected by race and class.

The setting

Goffman served as a participant-observer in a Philadelphia neighborhood she calls “6th Street.” It consisted of five residential blocks at the south end of a commercial avenue. In the 1950s and 60s, it was a middle-class Jewish neighborhood, but it began to open to middle-class Blacks in the 1970s. By the 1980s, the area had changed economically as well as racially, as all the white families had moved out and developers had started targeting the neighborhood for low-income housing. Although it was not the poorest or most dangerous of Philadelphia neighborhoods, job opportunities were limited, and young men often turned to illegal ways of making money, especially dealing drugs. For several years, Goffman lived in the community and hung out with its residents, especially young men who had run-ins with the law.

Goffman reports, “For many decades, the Philadelphia police had turned a fairly blind eye to the prostitution, drug dealing and gambling that went on in poor Black communities.” But by the 1980s, police were becoming less receptive to payoffs and more vigorous in enforcing the laws. In the same era, society responded to high crime rates by imposing harsher penalties for both violent and nonviolent crimes. These policies continued even as many forms of crime declined in the 1990s. While the doors of opportunity were opening for some Blacks as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, prison doors were closing on a remarkable number of others.

As a participant-observer, Goffman is in a position to make a unique contribution to our understanding by seeing what the community looks like from the residents’ perspective. That contribution may not be appreciated by those who would rather just distance themselves from people and behaviors they dislike. For them, Goffman may appear too sympathetic to her subjects and even complicit in their crimes. I will have more to say about the author’s methods and the ethical challenges they entailed in my next post.

A community of suspects and fugitives

Goffman’s main thesis is that “historically high imprisonment rates and the intensive policing and surveillance that have accompanied them are transforming poor Black neighborhoods into communities of suspects and fugitives.” Each resident’s legal status becomes a “central social fact” around which social identity and lifestyle are organized. “Those who have no pending legal entanglements or who can successfully get through a police stop, a court hearing, or a probation meeting are known as clean. Those likely to be arrested should the authorities stop them, run their names, or search them are known as dirty.”

How easy it is to go from clean to dirty is illustrated by the case of a high school student Goffman calls “Chuck”. He was a senior in good standing when he got into a school yard fight. “According to the police report, Chuck didn’t hurt the other guy much, only pushed his face into the snow, but the school cops charged him with aggravated assault.” He spent some time in jail before the charges were dismissed, and he was refused readmission to his high school because he had now turned nineteen. A judge ordered him rearrested for failing to pay $225 in court fees. “By the time many young men in the neighborhood have entered their late teens or early twenties, the penal system has largely replaced the educational system as the key setting of young adulthood.”

It is not just incarceration that disrupts young lives, but the conditions of parole or probation:

The supervisory restrictions of probation and parole bar these men from going out at night, driving a car, crossing state lines, drinking alcohol, seeing their friends, and visiting certain areas in the city. Coupled with an intense policing climate, these restrictions mean that encounters with the authorities are highly likely, and may result in a violation of the terms of release and a swift return to jail or prison.

Young men with legal entanglements learn to fear and avoid the police. They don’t call the police when they themselves are victimized. They fly under the radar by not seeking formal employment. They avoid places where police keep a watchful eye, such as hospitals (even when their child is being born or they require medical attention) and funerals (where on many different occasions Goffman observed the police filming mourners as they entered the church).

Police often pressure women to inform on their husbands, boyfriends or sons. They may threaten women with arrest, loss of child custody, or eviction from their apartments. In some police raids, they destroy property and even physically abuse women. Women go back and forth between succumbing to such pressure and trying to repair the damage their collaboration with the authorities inflicts upon relationships. “The police’s strategy of arresting large numbers of young men by turning their mothers and girlfriends against them goes far in creating a culture of fear and suspicion, overturning women’s basic understandings of themselves as good people and their lives as reasonably secure, and destroying familial and romantic relationships that are often quite fragile to begin with.”

Goffman describes a special kind of black market that develops to serve the needs of legally troubled men. An enterprising young man makes over $100 a week doing telephone impersonations of men on probation or parole, so that officers will think they are at home. A supervisor in an overcrowded halfway house takes money in return for letting residents sneak out at night, justifying it as a humane response to an inhumane system (“Each night I give a man is a night he remembers he’s a human being, not an animal”).

From these and many other observations, Goffman draws a general conclusion:

Thus, the great paradox of a highly punitive approach to crime control is that it winds up criminalizing so much of daily life as to foster widespread illegality as people work to circumvent it. Intensive policing and the crime it intends to control become mutually reinforcing. The extent to which crime elicits harsh policing, or policing itself contributes to a climate of violence and illegality, becomes impossible to sort out.

Historical oppression continued?

Some sociologists have compared today’s disproportionate incarceration of racial and ethnic minorities to earlier systems of racial oppression. Historically, the criminal justice system played a major role in enforcing slavery and Jim Crow. Blacks who tried to escape their subservient roles became fugitives subject to criminalization, whether runaway slaves, sharecroppers who couldn’t leave the land without running out on debts to landowners, or “vagrants” without acceptable employment. What is being imposed today is more subtle, confinement to a standard of living far below that of the surrounding society, enforced by the threat of worse confinement within a greatly expanded penal system.

One thing that distinguishes the current system from past forms of oppression is that it is not based on race alone. The United States today is officially a more racially equal society. Aggressive policing and large-scale incarceration are reserved primarily for low-income, high-crime neighborhoods. A small black middle class has been able to move to more affluent, integrated neighborhoods where criminalization is less likely. That is a mixed blessing, however, since it has enabled so many whites to deny that the country still has a race problem. What racist country would elect a black president, people ask? But the problem of race will persist as long as the extreme disparities in income and economic opportunity remain correlated with race. Society’s responses to the problems associated with poverty will primarily target black neighborhoods.  Inevitably, much popular resentment will also be directed toward those neighborhoods, in reaction either to the problems themselves or to the tax dollars that are spent to address them.

So what is oppressive today is America’s peculiar intersection of race and class. The fact that so many black people are poor helps white people develop negative stereotypes about them, while racial stereotyping and discrimination (including racial profiling) help keep people poor.

Goffman concludes:

We might understand the US ghetto as one of the last repressive regimes of the age: one that operates within our liberal democracy, yet unbeknownst to many living only a few blocks away. In a nation that has officially rid itself of a racial caste system, and has elected and reelected a Black president, we are simultaneously deploying a large number of criminal justice personnel at great taxpayer cost to visit an intensely punitive regime upon poor Black men and women living in our cities’ segregated neighborhoods.

Once we see the problem is such systemic terms, we can also see that it isn’t enough to blame the police, as Goffman acknowledges. They cannot solve America’s socioeconomic problems with arrest and imprisonment alone. And as long as we expect them to, we will only perpetuate and even aggravate those problems.