stepping carefully

Yesterday I had an email exchange with a local conservative politician & blogger. I realized I was concerned to be careful not to say anything that could be pulled out of context. He originally asked (in less than polite language) a not-unreasonable question about whether statements about incarceration rates considered arrest rates, so I sent him the appropriate tables with an offer to explain the data. He responded without even looking at the data with an ill-worded and hostile question asking me to say whether this is all a matter of Black criminality or all a matter of “scapegoating whites.” I responded by complaining about his false dichotomy and inflammatory language and explaining (at length) about the complexity of the issue and the nature of the relevant data. I stressed that assessing the balance of “differential crime” and “unfair treatment” is difficult and that people working on the issue offer proposals both to address the sources of crime and to address the treatment in the system. I got back another less-insulting but still oversimplified dichotomized question about whether it is just a matter of people being punished unfairly or not, so I responded by saying that I believed my previous reply had already addressed that question. I was afraid that any attempt to answer his over-simplified question would just make its way into an ill-informed blog post. Sigh. This whole society has degenerated into slogan-slinging. We’ve reached the point where trying to address issues in a reasoned and nonconfrontational way is, itself, attacked. Ugh.

What makes this so hard is that racism is, of course, one of the central problems. Racism impacts the conditions that foster crime as well as the treatment of people by the criminal justice system. And “crime” is a heterogeneous category. I read the evidence as saying that the racial differences in arrests for serious crimes probably roughly track racial differences in doing the crimes, while there is a huge racial gap in your chances of getting arrested for a drug offense or a lesser crime (like disorderly conduct, vandalism, theft). It is very hard to keep a moral focus about the importance of the issue and the problem of race while also pushing past over-simplified dichotomies about what is going on.

article equivalents

I went to a reception yesterday for outstanding women of color at the university. This was a lovely event except that we all had to stand for an hour of awards presentations and keynote. The award winners had all done jaw-dropping amounts of service. The keynoter was a Native American professor whose first career was in journalism. She used the occasion to criticize the academy for failing to give adequate credit for service. She said that diversity is not just a matter of getting darker skins in the place, it is a matter of getting people from different communities who have different priorities. She was arguing that diversifying the institution must include giving greater weight to service in the tenure process, making the “three legs” of the academic stool (teaching, research, service) more evenly balanced. For her and for most women of color, she said, what you do is not just about yourself but about what you contribute to your community. I was reminded of other things I’ve been reading/hearing that confirm the difference between the individualism of White professionals and the family and community focus of other groups. Few communities of color need another article in a peer reviewed journal, she said. Then she said something like: “Each board or committee or community project or group of students mentored is another article or book chapter you don’t have time to write.” There really is a finite amount of time and if you are doing a lot of service you have less time to do research and write. You cannot really diversity the institution unless you change the reward structure to acknowledge the importance of service.

(This in turn reminded me of a brief conversation I had years ago with a couple of very prominent woman sociologists. People had exchanged information on the order of “I’m dealing with children now, you know how that is,” and grunts of acknowledgment. Then one woman said, “I was talking about this to X [prominent male sociologist] and he said that each child he had cost him an article.” Eye rolling, exasperated sighs. One article, right. We wish. “Five or six articles at least,” muttered one woman.)

To clarify: I don’t think institutions can or should reward time spent in child-rearing, although they should accommodate it. But institutions can and probably should better reward time spent in community service. How to do this is a hard issue.


We are trying to get the task force report done. This is a ton of work. Lots of writing. But the most time-consuming part is the endless pre-meeting meetings and conference calls to discuss what to write, how to hold the meetings. Calls and meetings that seem to resolve nothing. There are some real substantive disagreements about certain key issues. But the biggest problem is language. Statements that seem reasonable and neutral to some of us strike others as strident and offensive. Quotations from public hearing statements by offenders, accused offenders, or the family and friends of offenders about unfair or unreasonable aspects of the criminal justice system are viewed by the system people as unsubstantiated hearsay that should not be included in the report. But the consequence would be to banish entirely the voices of those at the bottom of the system. (I’m going to try to see if we can negotiate language that includes them as perceptions.) Even the claim that a lot of people think the CJ system is unfair or biased is subject to critique — how do we know it is a lot of people? Well, if “people” means “Black people,” you have to be living in a hole not to think a “lot of” people think the CJ system is unfair. But of course the people launching that critique don’t think “people” means “Black people.” Continue reading “negotiations”

data request

It is happening again. Lawyers who don’t know anything about data analysis make a request (often an official open records request) for information from agencies. Because I have gotten a reputation for analyzing public data and making it reveal previously-unseen patterns and I’m part of the commission  or board or task force, they ask me to  analyze it. This time the open records request vaguely asked for information on the racial breakouts of arrests and traffic stops and was sent to the two dozen law enforcement agencies in the county.  Continue reading “data request”

enforcing immigration policy

As I mentioned in a previous post, there is a concern in my area about ICE (immigration) raids and about the sheriff’s policy of telling ICE about possible illegal immigrants. Stated policy is to send ICE the name and birth date of any non-citizen who has been arrested and is processed into the jail, regardless of reason, even for unpaid parking tickets. People are also being grabbed by ICE when they come to court as witnesses or to collect child support. Our task force had a pretty intense discussion of this the other day. The task force combines “system” people (sheriff, police, district attorney, judges) with community activists and social service providers. Several system people have objected to a draft recommendation to change the policy and to some of the assertions the draft makes about what is happening based on one task force member’s conversations with some bailiffs. We know we don’t agree about what should be done – there are deep social conflicts about the immigration issue itself, and about the proper role of law enforcement. So we have to figure out what the report will say. Continue reading “enforcing immigration policy”

sharing the pain

There’s a lot of dissensus and hard feelings in the interracial task force I’m on right now. Some of it erupted publically the other day at a public hearing (with TV cameras running, no less). Everybody is committed to addressing the issues and cares about them, but this does not take away the divisions among us: divisions by race, class, and  institutional position. We are suspicious of other people’s motives or commitment; irritated what we consider to be their abrasive or insensitive or over-sensitive or authoritarian or disorganized personal style; and tired and frustrated from trying to work on a huge task with too little time while having to put up with our interpersonal differences. We blow things out of proportion and we sit back in sullen silence. Continue reading “sharing the pain”

public sociology in farmtown #9: reflections on the experience

I’m not sure who (if anyone) has stuck with this series, so I’m not sure what your interests are in wrap-up. Drop comments if you want me to address other issues. Here are my thoughts. This was an overwhelming experience in many ways, and there are many threads one could pick up from the things that happened at the conference. I’ll discuss three themes: the content of what people talk about, the importance of listening along with talking, and cultural differences in public talk. I tried to provide a lot of details about what people said and how they said it because I’m very interested in how people talk as well as what they talk about. I have been struck before how the whole tone of interaction shifts when a meeting is dominated by people of color instead of whites. Although the two day conference in Farmtown was a kind of immersion experience, I have had many similar experiences before. As a White person watching the interactions, I’m most struck by how deeply personal and painful these issues are for Black people.* Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown #9: reflections on the experience”

public sociology in farmtown #8: ideas and wrap-up

The final session of the two-day conference I’ve been describing in the “Farmtown” posts is supposed to be reports from the small groups that met in the morning. These reports get longer and the discussion gets more animated with each successive speaker. As with the sermon, I’ve tried to capture the flavor of the longer speeches. Again what interests me is the way people weave different themes together when they talk. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown #8: ideas and wrap-up”

looks like i have to turn off the phone

The reporter from last week just called back.  First, his analysis of disparities in a particular crime revealed no difference, so the story is not going forward.  Just like academics?  Second, he’s got something new going and is asking me questions about how to run his copy of SPSS (!) a program I don’t use although I have in the past, and is sending me his analysis for me to OK.  I am beginning to feel used here, and am thinking about telling him what my hourly rate for consultation is.  I did tell him I wouldn’t look at his file until after dinner, after I got my own work done.  But I’m sufficiently distracted that I’m writing this blog instead of getting back to work.  OK, turn off browser, turn off email.  I’ll add my two cents to the plagiarism thread later.

public sociology in farmtown: #7 inspiration and challenge

(This continues a series. See the earlier posts in the series for background and context.) Our lunch speaker is a Black man I code as about 40 plus or minus 10 years. He has a staff job with a college in another state and is also a Baptist minister. His style is passionate Black ministerial oratory interweaving politics and God, interweaving joking and anger and challenge, ranging broadly across a lot of issues and pulling in quotations from many writers. He says his goal is to challenge and upset people. The talk is free-flowing but planned out; there are extensive quotations from religious and political sources. I’ve tried to capture the feeling of the speech/sermon in my notes.

My goal is to make you upset and angry today. People need to stop being PC and talking about “institutional racism” as a cover and being afraid to call out individual racists. We should demand justice. But instead of demanding, we are sitting complacent and saying we are doing something, but we are not doing something. We should demand drug treatment and job training. Socially responsible businesses should offer training at their own cost, benefits to community. We should go back to Operation Breadbasket, when leaders demanded businesses to sponsor jobs. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown: #7 inspiration and challenge”

public sociology in farmtown: #6 what’s going on?

In this episode: details about problems and programs, some startling facts about returning prisoners, a brief eruption around mistaken racial identity, we talk about mentoring. Again, a mosaic of experiences. Remember, these discussions are not being “performed” for Whites; the point is a group dominated by people of color are trying to understand what is going on and what they can do to contribute to solutions.

Next up is a panel of six people from Unitown, all in their thirties to sixties. None were here yesterday for the first day of the conference. They are a White woman who runs a faith-based nonprofit with a significant prisoner reentry project; an Asian woman community organizer; a Black man who has been a local politician and is head of Unitown’s office of equal opportunity; a Black man who is a former prisoner who is now the head of a returning prisoner’s organization, and a Black married couple (both professionals) who have been involved in a lot of different activist projects; she is now chair of Unitown’s Equal Opportunity Commission. I know five of them from the various groups I’ve worked in and have heard much of what they say before. My notes are details that caught my attention. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown: #6 what’s going on?”

public sociology in farmtown: #5 about the children

(This is the next in a series about a two-day conference I attended on racial disparities in education and criminal justice. I was the first speaker. After that, I attended, listened, and learned. This picks up on day two, after a night spent in a dorm room.) After a buffet breakfast, the morning speaker is a Black educational researcher who does qualitative research on children’s and families’ perceptions of schools, stressing the importance of talking to the people being “served” by institutions. One project involved asking children what their sources of support were and then asking teachers what the children’s supports were; in general the teachers did not know. Children often viewed their families as supportive while the teachers saw the same families as unsupportive or problematic. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown: #5 about the children”

public sociology in farmtown: extracts from #4 white supremacy

I will get back to finish the Farmtown series.* As my last post in the series (#4, White Supremacy) was characterized by one friend as “the world’s longest blog,” by my spouse as “I know I said I liked the longer posts, but . . . ” and by another friend as “you don’t write blogs, you write articles,” I thought I’d pull out the incidents that I most wanted to share with others. If you waded through the long post, there is nothing new here.

A Black professor in his sixties gives a lecture whose point is to explain how simple differences become schisms between people because of inequality. He then develops an example using the two white police officers sitting next to me that is an extended tale about what if you (white man) were always knocked down by her (white woman) every time she saw you, what would you do? The white man says “lash out” (most don’t hear him say it) but the speaker says that you’d just lie down to avoid being knocked down, and then goes on to say that you’d teach your children to just lie down and avoid the woman and her children, and the children would do it even if they did not know why. And, he says, the woman’s children would expect the other people to lie down, but not know why they are doing it. I find these different perceptions of how people respond to oppression to be important and telling. I think lashing out is what most whites do think the most common response to oppression is, not having actually experienced it. And even as much as I teach this stuff, I am struck by the speaker’s emphasis that you lie down to avoid being knocked down, and that you can teach that to the next generation. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown: extracts from #4 white supremacy”

public sociology in farmtown (4): white supremacy

It is important to place this discussion in the context of the whole conference, so it you are new to this series, please check out the previous post.  For a quick recap, I’m writing about a two-day conference on racial disparities in incarceration and education at a university in a rural area I call Farmtown.  The previous post focused the first half of the first day and the ways information was brought into the group.  This post focuses on the second part of the first day, which ran from 3:15 – 9pm.

Two Farmtown professors do the short version of a workshop they’ve done often before for white faculty at their institution on the ideology of white supremacy.  The black social science professor goes first, and it is relevant to note that he is older, in his sixties.  His title is “isms and schisms.”  The point is about how demographic differences become structures of inequality.  He talks about how people respond to experiences of discrimination and then asks people what they see when the imagine pictures of powerful groups (i.e. Congress, Supreme Court).   We are supposed to say “white male.”  I hear one of the officers next to me say something like “mostly white males with some women and a few blacks and latinos” to Congress, and for the Supreme Court says “mostly white men and a woman and a black man.”   At the end of this exercise, he requires the white man to answer his “what do you see?” question, and the answer is “mostly white men.”  I’m glad I’m not put on the spot like that.  I learn later that the speaker always forces a white person to answer this question.  Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown (4): white supremacy”

public sociology in farmtown (3): getting information

My in-house editorial advisor says he likes the longer posts better, that the shorter posts seem like wind-up and no pitch, so I’m going to do this in somewhat bigger lumps.  To recap posts 1 and 2, I’m writing about a conference of 35-45 participants on racial disparities in incarceration and education being put on at a university in a rural area (Farmtown) that is organized by faculty and staff of color whose attendees are predominantly people of color, roughly half from the hosting university and the others from the metropolitan areas in the state, which include the state capital with the  main university campus I call Unitown, the big city I call Segtown, and other urban areas in the swath between Segtown and BigCity in the next state over.  I wanted to write about partly because interactions in a conference that is mostly people of color are different from those in a white-dominated setting and are different from what many whites think they would be.  And partly just to give the flavor of a real conference in all its complexity.

This is an ambitious and even exhausting conference.  Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown (3): getting information”