Hip hop, the boardroom, and the street

What are some of the factors that influence the ideas, values, and models of life of young inner-city African-American men today? There are the everyday conditions of life in the neighborhoods of segregated American cities, which Elijah Anderson considers in Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (link). But there is also the increasingly violent and misogynist output of hip hop music and video. It is apparent that the images, values, and modes of behavior presented in hip hop music and videos find their way back onto the street and into the lives of young black men and women. Hip hop doesn’t simply mirror the street — it helps to create the street. So the content and identities portrayed in the music makes a difference.

Byron Hurt’s very interesting 2006 PBS documentary on violence and sexism in hip hop music and videos, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, addresses these issues. (The video is posted at the top.) Hurt does a great job of reading the role that violence and misogyny play in hip hop lyrics and videos. “Why are so many rappers preoccupied with violence and gunplay” (6:30). The basic idea that he puts forward is that this major aspect of hip hop culture is a commercial exploitation of a cartoonish version of masculinity—hard, tough, unafraid, ready to kill, ready to exploit and sexualize women. (Hurt calls it “hyper-masculinity”.) The representation of women in much of this music is hyper-sexualized and brutalizing. And there is a recurring theme of homophobia and homophobic slurs.

Hurt asks penetrating questions about the relationship between the street, the music industry, and youth culture. The documentary takes on a powerful strand of popular culture and the pop culture industry that creates it and undertakes to piece together an interpretation of the meanings this system of lyrics and images has. Hurt wants to know how this medium influences the young men and women who follow it. But he also asks how the content of the medium itself is shaped by the profit imperatives of the music industry. And it becomes clear that this is a complicated mix of commercial interests and some young men’s distorted ideas of masculinity.

This is real social criticism, in the Frankfurt School sense. The documentary raises a crucial question: Why is it that the music industry gives the lucrative contracts to the most violent, misogynist, and degrading rappers? And why has it been increasingly difficult for more radical and critical rappers to get contracts and distribution in the past fifteen years? A young rapper offers a striking theory: it is preferable for white America to have hip hop music glorifying violence and sex in the hood than the messages of anti-racism and class-sensitized anger that are found in Public Enemy.

And in fact there is a segment of hip hop that has a very different orientation — political rather than violent, expressing strong messages about economic and racial justice, and largely immune from the homophobia and misogyny of mainstream rap. Artists like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, the Coup, the X ClanKRS-ONE, and Digable Planets fall in this category, and The Roots is a more contemporary version. (Thanks, Ahmad!) But here is the key point: this stream of work doesn’t often result in the giant contracts and public acclaim of the other stream, and with a few exceptions the music and videos don’t make it into the mainstream. (Yes, Public Enemy is an exception.)

Hurt asks several other key questions in the video: Why is it that black men are aiming their violence against each other, and overlooking the forces that create the degradation of inner city neighborhoods in the first place? And why is it so hard to find a positive message in hip hop lyrics? One of the on-screen voices places the responsibility squarely on the profit interests of the music industry: “Media and the corporations are defining what hip hop is.” Here is how one of the young rappers puts the point on camera:

That’s nice but nobody wanna hear that right now … They don’t wanna hear that right now … [Narrator: Who’s they?] The industry … they don’t wanna hear that right now. They don’t give us deals when we speak righteously or things of that nature. (40:00)

And this perception is born out by Carmen Ashurst-Watson, former DefJam president: “The time when we switched to gangster music was the same time when the majors bought up all the labels, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence…. The music became less and less conscious” (43:30).

Imani Perry’s Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop is a very thoughtful reflection on hip hop. She is an advocate for hip hop as a cultural expression. But she also feels that it risks being poisoned by the commercial interests of the industry. She writes:

The combination of democracy (“speak your piece”) and meritocracy (“be the best MC”) that exists in hip hop is threatened at every turn. The manipulations of capital, media, and record company distribution, the ruthless promotion of some acts to the disadvantage of often musically superior ones, the commodification of black female bodies, and the grotesque marketing of racist images of black male violence threaten to completely overwhelm the public face of hip hop. (Reunion)

This is a complex set of issues, with causation going in many directions. The commercial interests of the major music companies drive the content of the videos and recordings; the content of the music influences the behavior and practice of young men and women in the neighborhoods; events in the street reflect back into the content of hip hop art; and realities in the neighborhoods are determined by the larger structures of power and race in our society. It is possible to see the formative power of popular culture on behavior; the media on popular culture; the business of music on the content of popular culture; the extreme behaviors that seem to result on the street; and the ideological forces that permeate all of this.

(Here is an interesting piece by Solomon Comissiong that analyzes the music industry and the fate of progressive rappers.)

Guest post by Elizabeth Anderson on race in American politics

Elizabeth Anderson is John Dewey Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author most recently of The Imperative of Integration. This contribution extends a question posed in a recent post on the conservative war on poor people (link). Thanks for contributing, Liz!

American Conservative Politics and the Long Shadow of Slavery

Elizabeth Anderson

An “outright Marxist!”  That’s what Rafael Cruz, Senator Ted Cruz’s father, declared of President Obama on the campaign trail in April 2013.  His accusation is common on the right.  Google “Obama Marxist” and you will get about 4.95 million results.  “Obama communist” yields 40 million.  It’s a strange charge against a man who vigorously supported the bail-out of Wall Street banks as a Senator, and expanded it to other major firms as President.  Yet the charge is nothing new.  Conservatives have long accused anyone to their left of communism or fellow-traveling.  Rick Perlstein traces this practice back to the 1950s.

In fact, it goes back a century before.  George Fitzhugh, author of the famous proslavery tract Cannibals All! wrote a letter to William Lloyd Garrison in 1856 declaring that “every theoretical abolitionist at the North is a Socialist or Communist.”  J. H. Thornwell, one of the most distinguished ministers of the antebellum South, delivered a sermon in 1850 on “The Rights and Duties of Masters,” in which he characterized the conflict over slavery as one in which slaveholders, Christians, and the “friends of order and regulated freedom” stood together against “abolitionists, atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, [and] jacobins” who were united on the other side.

This fact about the origins of one aspect of conservative rhetoric opens a window to the larger structure of American conservative thought.  Consider Romney’s notorious 47% speech:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president . . . who are dependent upon government . . . who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing . . . . These are people who pay no income tax . . . . I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

This was spoken by a presidential candidate who supported the Wall Street bailouts, who did not complain about massive state subsidies to wealthy farmers or the oil and coal industries, and who paid 14.1% of his income in federal taxes—less than the 15.3% effective payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare that falls on wage workers, over and above the income tax.  Counting state and local taxes, which are highly regressive, we have good reason to believe that the 47% he resents pay substantially higher total tax rates than the top 1%.

Romney, however, knew his audience. Tax breaks and subsidies for better-off whites are not what most conservatives oppose.  Their core objection is “free stuff” thought to disproportionately benefit blacks, Latinos, immigrants, and other traditionally subordinated groups.  As Lee Atwater explained, the Republican party’s “Southern Strategy” for winning white voters is all about opposing policies that disproportionately help blacks and promoting policies that disproportionately hurt them:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N-ger, n-ger, n-ger.” By 1968 you can’t say “n-ger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

While conservatives, even those belonging to or sympathetic to the Tea Party, support Social Security and Medicare, they condemn programs such as means-tested welfare, which are perceived as disproportionately benefiting blacks and Latinos, whom they see as undeserving.  A key driver of public opinion on domestic policy in the U.S. is racial resentment: in particular, the idea that blacks are too lazy to take responsibility for their lives but want to live off the hard-earned wealth of whites, either through crime or the public dole.

My current research on abolitionism and the struggle for free labor finds that this idea has been a deep theme of American conservative opinion since before the Civil War.  Although in the antebellum era, racists typically supposed that blacks were incapable of taking care of themselves, while today they are thought to be willfully refusing to do so, the complaints about black behavior are remarkably similar.  In response to an emancipation petition submitted to the Virginia legislature, hundreds of citizens submitted proslavery petitions in 1795.  Echoing other petitions, this one from the free whites of Lunenberg County worried that emancipation would bring

Want, Poverty, Distress and ruin to the free Citizen; the Horrors of all the rapes, Robberies, Murders, and Outrages, which an innumerable Host of unprincipled, unpropertied, vindictive and remorseless Banditte are capable of perpetrating; Neglect, famine and Death to the abandoned black Infant, and superannuated Parent; inevitable Bankruptcy to the revenue; Desperation and revolt to the disappointed, oppressed Citizen; and sure and final ruin to this once happy, free, and flourishing Country . . . .

Thomas Dew, in his 1832 article “Abolition of Negro Slavery,” predicted that abolition would lead blacks to idleness, drunkenness, destitution, and thence to crime.  William Harper predicted in Cotton is King, an 1860 compendium of proslavery thought, that emancipation would reduce blacks to paupers and lead them “from petty to greater crimes, until all life and property would be rendered insecure,” and that if they got the vote, they “would be used by unprincipled politicians” to advance dangerous schemes.

White conservatives saw their fears confirmed during Reconstruction.  This cartoon reveals their view of the Freedman’s Bureau, described as “an agency to keep the Negro in idleness at the expense of the white man:

freedmansbureau

Then it was the Freedman’s Bureau.  Today it is food stamps, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

Not only the content, but the style and emotional register of conservative politics have been constant.  The hysteria, apocalyptic sensibility, and intransigence of Tea Party conservatives on full display in the recent government shutdown crisis (complete with a confederate flag) mirrors that of the South in the run-up to the Civil War through the Reconstruction Era.  American conservatism continues to operate under the long shadow of slavery and its legacy.

How to probe public attitudes?

We are almost always interested in knowing how the public thinks and feels about various issues — global warming, race relations, the fairness of rising income inequalities, and the acceptability of same-sex marriage, for example. The public is composed of millions of individuals, and the population can be segmented in a variety of relevant ways — gender, age, race, region, political affiliation, and many other cleavages. So we might want to know how teenagers think about alcohol, and how these attitudes have changed over time, or how attitudes towards the equality of women have evolved since 1960.

What research tools are available to us to investigate public opinion? And how reliable are these tools?

The most immediate answer to this question is survey research. We can formulate a set of survey questions, select a population of respondents, and tabulate the distribution of responses. And if we do this on several occasions over time, we can make some inferences about changes in attitudes over time. There are innumerable examples of these kinds of studies, from the GSS to the euro barometer to the Pugh organization’s frequent polling data. And we seem to learn some important things from studies like these concerning the distribution of attitudes across time and space. Spaniards are less concerned about fair trade produce than Swedes, young people have become more accepting of single-sex marriage, people over 65 are more sympathetic to Tea Party values than people in their thirties.

Another research approach takes a more qualitative approach. Researchers sometimes use open-ended interviews and focus groups to learn more directly how various groups and individuals think about certain topics. We may learn more from such studies than we can learn from a mass survey — for example, the interviewer may gain a better understanding of the reasoning that individuals use to reach their beliefs. A survey question may ask whether a consumer is willing to pay 10% more for fair trade bananas, whereas a series of interviews may determine that the “no’s” break into a group who don’t have the discretionary money and another group who oppose fair trade pricing on ideological grounds.

There are more indirect methods for studying public opinion as well. We might examine the comments that are submitted to newspapers on topics of interest and try to quantify over time the “temperature” of those comments — more intolerant, more angry, more reflective. Likewise, we might attempt to quantify the streams of social media — Twitter, Facebook, tumblr — with an eye towards testing the attitudes and emotions of various segments of the public. The vitriol that exploded on twitter following the selection of Miss New York as Miss America a few weeks ago says something about contemporary racism.

Attitudes towards race in America are especially interesting to me. How have Americans changed in the ways they think about race? Have Americans become less racially intolerant since the civil rights movement decade? Survey data seems to give a qualified “yes” to this question. Answers to survey questions that explicitly probe the individual’s level of racial antagonism seem to support the notion that on average, antagonism has declined. But scholars in race studies such as Tyrone Forman and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argue that the survey results are misleading (link). They use a methodology of extended interviews, along with a rigorous way of interpreting the results, which suggests that there is a widening divergence between the responses American college students give to surveys probing their racial attitudes and the values and beliefs that are revealed through extensive open-ended interviews.

In consonance with this new structure, various analysts have pointed out that a new racial ideology has emerged that, in contrast to the Jim Crow racism or the ideology of the color line (Johnson, 1943, 1946; Myrdal, 1944), avoids direct racial discourse but effectively safeguards racial privilege (Bobo et al., 1997; Bonilla-Silva and Lewis, 1999; Essed, 1996; Jackman, 1994; Kovel, 1984). That ideology also shapes the very nature and style of contemporary racial dis-cussions. In fact, in the post civil rights era, overt discussions of racial issues have become so taboo that it has become extremely difficult to assess racial attitudes and behavior using conventional research strategies (Myers, 1993; Van Dijk, 1984, 1987, 1997). Although we agree with those who suggest that there has been a normative change in terms of what is appropriate racial discourse and even racial etiquette (Schuman et al., 1988), we disagree with their interpret-ation of its meaning. Whereas they suggest that there is a ‘mixture of progress and resistance, certainty and ambivalence, striking movement and mere surface change’ (p. 212), we believe (1) that there has been a rearticulation of the domi-nant racial themes (less overt expression of racial resentment about issues anchored in the Jim Crow era such as strict racial segregation in schools, neigh-borhoods, and social life in general, and more resentment on new issues such as affirmative action, government intervention, and welfare) and (2) that a new way of talking about racial issues in public venues – a new racetalk – has emerged. Nonetheless, the new racial ideology continues to help in the reproduction of White supremacy. (52)

They argue that a new “racetalk” has emerged that makes explicitly racist utterances socially unacceptable; but that the underlying attitudes have not changed as much. And this implies that survey research is likely to misrepresent the degree of change in attitudes that has occurred.

Here is a good example of the kind of analysis Forman and Bonilla-Silva provide for transcripts from the open-ended interviews:

The final case is Eric, a student at a large midwestern university , an example of the students who openly expressed serious reservations about interracial mar-riages (category 6). It is significant to point out that even the three students who stated that they would not enter into these relationships, claimed that there was nothing wrong with interracial relationships per se. Below is the exchange between Eric and our interviewer on this matter.

Eric: Uh . . . (sighs) I would say that I agree with that, I guess. I mean . . . I would say that I really don’t have much of a problem with it but when you, ya know, If I were to ask if I had a daughter or something like that, or even one of my sisters, um . . . were to going to get married to a minority or a Black, I . . . I would probably . . . it would probably bother me a little bit just because of what you said . . . Like the children and how it would . . . might do to our family as it is. Um . . . so I mean, just being honest, I guess that’s the way I feel about that. Int.: What would, specifically , if you can, is it . . . would it be the children? And, if it’s the children, what would be the problem with, um . . . uh . . . adjustment, or Eric: For the children, yeah, I think it would just be . . . I guess, through my experience when I was younger and growing up and just . . . ya know, those kids were different. Ya know, they were, as a kid, I guess you don’t think much about why kids are dif-ferent or anything, you just kind of see that they are different and treat them differ-ently . Ya know, because you’re not smart enough to think about it, I guess. And the, the other thing is . . . I don’t know how it might cause problems within our family if it happened within our family, ya know, just . . . from people’s different opinions on some-thing like that. I just don’t think it would be a healthy thing for my family. I really can’t talk about other people. Int.: But would you feel comfortable with it pretty much? Eric: Yeah. Yeah, that’s the way I think, especially , um . . . ya know, grandparents of things like that. Um, right or wrong, I think that’s what would happen. (Interview # 248: 10)

Eric used the apparent admission semantic move (“I would say that I agree with that”) in his reply but could not camouflage very well his true feelings (“If I were to ask if I had a daughter or something like that, or even one of my sisters, um . . . were [sic] to going to get married to a minority or a Black, I . . . I would probably . . . it would probably bother me a little bit”). Interestingly , Eric claimed in the interview that he had been romantically interested in an Asian-Indian woman his first year in college. However, that interest “never turned out to be a real big [deal]” (Interview # 248: 9). Despite Eric’s fleeting attraction to a person of color, his life was racially segregated: no minority friends and no meaningful interaction with any Black person.

This is an important argument within race studies. But it also serves as an important caution about uncritical reliance on survey research as an indicator of public attitudes and thinking.

The March on Washington, August, 1963

African-American citizens and a host of supporters made some of this country’s most important history fifty years ago in the mobilization that resulted in the March on Washington in August, 1963.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his most famous speech on the occasion, and many of us are remembering Dr. King’s legacy today on the fiftieth anniversary of this occasion.

The civil rights movement created deep and permanent changes in our country, and they were hard won. And what is clear today is the depth of change that was needed — not at the margin, not gradually, but at the core and rapidly. The attitudes and structures that constituted racial inequality and racism in this country in the 1950s and 1960s were a profound, coercive social reality. Only a concerted, courageous, and sustained social movement involving millions of people could have broken the roots of that system of thought and power. (Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer and Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 provide vivid narratives of the depth of these challenges and responses.)

It is hard to think of many historical social movements that had as much impact and success as the U.S. civil rights movement.  Its objective was not to change a temporary situation — a war, a military occupation, an egregious dictatorship, or a famine — but to create a thorough change in attitudes, ideas, and institutions; and to do that in a nation in which racism was organic.  Laws, public schools, housing, jobs, universities, hospitals, and transportation — all were racialized, all demanded change.  And then to create a movement that deliberately worked through nonviolent change — this was exceptional.

A rich tradition of leadership within the black community is one part of the story of success of this struggle for equality.  Of course many of the leaders and agents of change of that movement are now household names — Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy. But many other key figures are not so well remembered. One man in particular deserves recognition, Bayard Rustin.  Rustin was a civil rights activist throughout the 1940s and 1950s.  He was one of the earliest organizers of what became known as the Freedom Rides, and he served 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violation of segregation laws in transportation in 1947.  (He also was sentenced in 1944 to two years in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary for violations of the Selective Service Act as a Quaker pacifist and war resister.)

Rustin was the key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and he was an invaluable strategist for Dr. King.  But because of his open homosexuality he kept his visible role in the mobilization of the March on Washington to a minimum.  Numerous participants credit his organizational abilities and acute perception of what the moment required as crucial to the success of the March and what followed from it.  He went on to become an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian rights in the 1980s. Rustin is a great example of the persistence and courage shown by so many civil rights activists and leaders throughout America’s struggles.  (Here is some basic information about Rustin’s biography.  Here is a film based on Rustin’s life.)

Rustin stands out as a particularly vivid example of a kind of leader who was common throughout the early decades of the modern civil rights movement: articulate, smart, passionate, committed, and courageous in the face of prejudice and threat.  And there were hundreds of such men and women.  For example, Doug McAdam provides an appendix in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 listing well over 150 leaders from churches, NAACP local chapter, independents, and students who were important protest leaders during the late 1950s.  And the networks and organizational capabilities of these men and women translated into successful mobilizations throughout the South.

McAdam’s account of the rise of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s also gives particular emphasis to the organizations that existed within African-American society, and the millions of people who supported those organizations.  Particularly important were the churches, the local NAACP chapters, and the universities.  “Perhaps the most important resource supplied by these institutions was a potentially mobilizable body of participants.  By virtue of their integration into the most organized segments of the black community, the students, church members, and NAACP personnel were readily available for recruitment into the movement” (128).  The movement was successful in the face of often violent opposition, because hundreds of thousands of African-American people supported its efforts with courage and tenacity.

As we reflect on the legacy of the March on Washington, it is crucial to remember how steep the challenges were and how much we all owe to the activists and followers who joined with King and brought us closer to a society embodying racial justice and equality.  And as an observation about history, we can marvel at the magnitude of change that these men and women brought about.

Friedman on racial discrimination

It is interesting to re-read Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom some fifty years after its original publication. There are many aspects of the book that are likely to catch a contemporary reader’s attention, but mine was drawn to Friedman’s analysis of racial discrimination. In general, Friedman believes that capitalism is fundamentally good for promoting categorical equality.

It is a striking historical fact that the development of capitalism has been accompanied by a major reduction in the extent to which particular religious, racial, or social groups have operated under special handicaps in respect of their economic activities; have, as the saying goes, been discriminated against. (108)

More specifically, Friedman argues that racial discrimination in employment (and housing as well, it would seem) is essentially impossible within a market economy.

We have already seen how a free market separates economic efficiency from irrelevant characteristics. As noted in chapter i, the purchaser of bread does not know whether it was made from wheat grown by a white man or a Negro, by a Christian or a Jew. In consequence, the producer of wheat is in a position to use resources as effectively as he can, regardless of what the attitudes of the community may be toward the color, the religion, or other characteristics of the people he hires. (109)

So self interest on the part of employers will induce them to make hiring decisions that are category-blind: the most productive and least costly worker will be hired. A rational business or corporation has powerful incentives not to discriminate.

In fact, Friedman expresses skepticism about whether the concept of “discrimination” even makes sense within a market economy.

The man who exercises discrimination pays a price for doing so. He is, as it were, “buying” what he regards as a “product.” It is hard to see that discrimination can have any meaning other than a “taste” of others that one does not share. We do not regard it as “discrimination” — or at least not in the same invidious sense — if an individual is willing to pay a higher price to listen to one singer than to another, although we do if he is willing to pay a higher price to have services rendered to him by a person of one color than by a person of another. The difference between the two cases is that in the one case we share the taste, and in the other we do not. (110)

It is hard to square these observations with the rigid segregation and discrimination that was taking place at the same time in the Jim Crow South. For that matter, the facts of racial discrimination in housing and employment that have characterized American society since emancipation were perfectly visible in Friedman’s own city of Chicago in 1962. So all Friedman needed to do was to look around him on Chicago’s South Side.

Friedman draws a logical conclusion from his set of assumptions about markets and discrimination: fair employment practices legislation is wrong. “Such legislation clearly involves interference with the freedom of individuals to enter into voluntary contracts with one another…. Thus it is directly an interference with freedom of the kind that we would object to in most other contexts” (111).

So taking steps through legislation to reduce the harmful effects of racial discrimination in hiring (and presumably in housing) is an illegitimate use of the force of government, according to Friedman. In fact, he compares efforts to do so to the Hitler Nuremberg laws (111).

These are stunning conclusions, now that we have lived through the Civil Rights movement and have seen the coercive practices that provided the architecture of the American racial system. What it suggests is that Friedman saw the social reality around him through the spectacles of an idealized form of pure market society, in which transactions occur between purely rational individuals and lead collectively to beneficent outcomes. But that was not the reality of the United States, then or now.
We don’t need to assume that this particular economist was racist; one doesn’t know. In fact, Friedman asserts the opposite:

I believe strongly that the color of a man’s skin or the religion of his parents is, by itself, no reason to treat him differently; that a man should be judged by what he is and what he does and not by these external characteristics. I deplore what seem to me the prejudice and narrowness of outlook of those whose tastes differ from mine in this respect and I think the less of them for it. But in a society based on free discussion, the appropriate recourse is for me to seek to persuade them that their tastes are bad and that they should change their views and their behavior, not to use coercive power to enforce my tastes and my attitudes on others. (111)

(Is anti-racism just a “taste”?)

In fact, Friedman’s views throughout this chapter illustrate a different deficiency.  His analysis of racial discrimination is a striking example of the ways in which adherence to a theory can blind a person to the patent social realities around him or her. And once we see the realities of how racial discrimination and coercion worked in America, it is incumbent upon us as a society to put aside our stylized theories and attack the problem.

Here are a few earlier posts on the Jim Crow system (link, link).

The street and the ring

Loïc Wacquant offers a fascinating piece of urban ethnography in Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. It is his account of his three-year experience while a sociology graduate student at the University of Chicago of participating in the Woodlawn Boys and Girls Club, a boxing club for young men who are serious about the sport of boxing on the South Side of Chicago. Wacquant takes the “participant-observer” method seriously — he trains for a Chicago Golden Gloves match, while developing intense relationships with the young black men who do their training at the club and the older experts like DeeDee who coach them.

One thing that is interesting about the book is that it brings together two fairly separate subjects of sociological interest — the social lives of underclass black men, and the “sociology of the body” that focuses on the ways in which skill, dexterity, and persistence interweave with the sport of boxing.  There is an alliance  in both topics with the thinking of Bourdieu.

Here is something of the project of understanding marginalized black Chicago through participation:

Could I grasp and explain social relations in the black ghetto based on my embeddedness in that particular location? My long-term immersion in that little boxing gym and my intensive participation in the exchanges it supported day-to-day have allowed me — in my eyes at least, but the reader can judge for herself on the evidence — to reconstruct root and branch my understanding of what a ghetto is in general, and my analysis of the structure and functioning of Chicago’s black ghetto in post-Fordist and post-Keynesian America at the end of the twentieth century in particular, as well as to better discern what distinguishes this terra non grata from the neighborhoods of relegation of other advanced societies. (x-xi)

Here is how Wacquant thinks about the task of making sociological sense of the sport:

[A sociology of boxing] must instead grasp boxing through its least known and least spectacular side: the drab and obsessive routine of the gym workout, of the endless and thankless preparation, inseparably physical and moral, that preludes the all-too-brief appearances in the limelight, the minute and mundane rites of daily life in the gym that produce and reproduce the belief feeding this very peculiar corporeal, material, and symbolic economy that is the pugilistic world. (6)

And here is a bit of the sociology of the body that Wacquant offers — the phenomenology of being a boxer in training.

To work on the bag is to craft a product, as you would on a lathe, with the crude tools that are gloved as weapon, shield, and target. Finding your distance, breathing, feinting (with your eyes, your shoulders, your hands, your feet), sliding one step to the side to let the bag swing by, catching it again on the fly with a left hook right to the midsection. Not too high and not too wide, so the move can’t be seen coming. Double it up, to the head, with a short, sharp movement. Follow up with a straight right, taking care to turn the wrist over like a screwdriver in order to align your knuckles horizontally at the precise moment of impact. (237-238)

Wacquant finds that immersion in the fight club allowed entry into the social world of marginalized Chicago that is otherwise highly racialized: white observers do not cross easily into the world of marginalized black men.

Being the only white member in the club … could have constituted a serious obstacle to my integration and thus amputated my capacity to penetrate the social world of the boxer, if not for the conjugated action of three compensating factors. First of all, the egalitarian ethos and pronounced color-blindness of pugilistic culture are such that everyone is fully accepted into it so long as he submits to the common discipline and “pays his dues” in the ring. Next, my French nationality granted me a sort of statutory exteriority with respect to the structures of relations of exploitation, contempt, misunderstanding, and mutual mistrust that oppose blacks and whites in America…. Finally, my total “surrender” to the exigencies of the field, and especially the fact that I regularly put the gloves on with them, earned me the esteem of my club-mates, as attested by the term of address “brother Louis” and the collection of affectionate nicknames they bestowed upo me over the months: “Busy Louis,” my ring moniker, but also “Bad Dude,” “The French Bomber,” “The French Hammer” …, and “The Black Frenchman.” (10-11)

The gym is a haven for the young black men who work out there — a place where the dangers and disorder of the surrounding neighborhood are kept at bay.

In this cutthroat neighborhood, where handguns and other weapons are commonplace and “everyone” — according to DeeDee, the club’s head trainer — is walking around with a can of Mace in their pocket for self-defense, purse-snatchings, muggings, battery, homicides, and lesser crimes of all kinds are part of the everyday routine and create a climate of pervasive fear, if not terror, that undermines interpersonal relationships and distorts all the activities of daily life. (22)

Here is a bit of ethnographic description that captures one incident on one day in September, 1990:

Today Tony called the gym from the hospital. Two members of a rival gang shot him on the street not far from here, on the other side of Cottage Grove. Luckily he saw them coming and took off running, but a bullet pierced his calf. He hobbled behind an abandoned building, pulled out his own gun from his gym bag, and opened fire on his two attackers, forcing them to retreat. He says he’d better get out of the hospital real quick because they’re probably out looking for him now. I ask DeeDee if they shot him in the leg as a warning. “Shiit, Louie.! They don’ shoot to injure no leg, they shoot to kill you. If Tony don’ have his gun with him and pull it, they’dave track him down an’ kill him, yeah: he be dead now.” (25)

This could be a scene in The Wire — for example, an ambush planned by two of Avon’s gang members but foiled by Omar:

Two things seem particularly noteworthy in reading Body and Soul. First, the experiences of the three years that Wacquant spent in the Woodlawn Boys and Girls Club clearly helped to develop his own knowledge of the social reality of marginalized Chicago. There is a world of difference between reading theoretical and empirical studies of urban life, and finding ways of seriously immersing oneself in an urban environment. Wacquant is a better urban sociologist and theorist for the experiences he describes here.

Second, it seems clear that some specific insights into daily life in marginalized black neighborhoods in Chicago emerge from this experience. The prevalence of violence on the street, the strategies people arrive at to avoid being victims of violence, the social distance that exists between 63rd Street and Michigan Avenue — these are all valuable insights that contribute to a better sociological understanding of the city.

Alford Young on race and sociology

Alford Young is professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and an expert on the life experience of inner-city African-American men. He is also chair of the department of sociology at Michigan. His 2006 book, The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances, is based on several dozen interviews in Chicago of young men in one of the most segregated parts of the city.

Professor Young’s research falls within “cultural sociology,” and is an effort to gain more nuanced understandings of the mentalities and thinking of one segment of America’s racialized society. Young is unambiguous in endorsing the value of qualitative methods in sociology, although he observes late in the interview that his conversations with young black men are always set in the context of a set of structures of race, economy, and opportunity that need to be investigated through other methods as well.

Young has some boundary-breaking ideas about how urban sociology can be pursued, and his research is an important contribution to contemporary sociology. Here is an earlier post on Young’s work; link.

This month Young agreed to participate with me in a wide-ranging discussion about the content and aims of his research and the ways that it relates to his own early experiences as an African-American young man growing up in East Harlem. The discussion ranges over a number of topics of interest to anyone wanting to understand contemporary sociology better. He talks about the methods and content of his research (wide-ranging, intensive conversations with young inner-city men); some of the surprises this research leads to; the importance of this kind of research as an antidote to the stereotypes that white Americans and commentators often share about inner-city youth; and the question of how these qualitative interviews contribute to a level of generalization about contemporary inner-city experience.

Another important thread in the conversation has to do with Young’s own childhood and adolescence in Harlem, and the ways in which his family’s status in the world of African-Americans professionals in New York intersected with his residential experience in one of the most segregated and impoverished parts of the city. This duality of experience gave Young a cultural fluency that allow him to navigate both worlds as a social science researcher.

Young also talks about the importance that specific role models played for him in the formation of his own career goals and intellectual values: exposure to African-American civil rights lawyers as a high school student and exposure to a charismatic African-American professor in college. The professor served as a mentor to Young, permitting him to gain an appetite for a career as a researcher and teacher in the university.

Young’s work focuses on the experience of young African-American men in segregated American cities. But the insights and approach are equally relevant to a very wide range of subjects, both domestically and internationally. How do Chinese migrant workers perceive the choices open to them and the working conditions they find in Chinese cities? What is the worldview of young immigrant men and women in Stockholm, and how does that fit into the outbreak of extended rioting there in the past month? How do homeless people in Boston or Chicago think about their situations and the choices available to them? Everywhere there are distinctive human communities and bodies of experience that are worth knowing more about, and almost always the preliminary stereotypes we have about those communities are wrong or seriously incomplete. So the kind of qualitative cultural sociology to which Al Young has contributed is an important addition to sociology that can be extended in many different ways.

Here is a link to the interview.

 

Urban futures

I recently spent a half day visiting Detroit with some very perceptive university colleagues. We visited the university’s center on Woodward Avenue, the Riverfront Conservancy, and the Madison Building — all places where exciting signs of change are underway. Along the way we heard a lot of enthusiasm about the progress Detroit is making: more professional jobs downtown, residential and commercial real estate at 95%+ occupancy, entrepreneurial companies, $75 million invested in a spectacular river walk along the Detroit River, some very talented high school students coming out of several of Detroit’s best high schools.

The most common reaction in the group to what we saw was a positive one. Detroit is better off than the media portrays it. There are powerful processes of renewal underway that will change the future of the city for all its inhabitants for the better. The reinfusion of businesses and middle-class residents will improve the tax base and the city’s fiscal sustainability. And somehow these benefits will trickle out to the neighborhoods.

Or not. Like others, several of us noticed that these developments in downtown Detroit (Campus Martius, the Woodward Corridor) have had very little effect on the neighborhoods where 80-90% of the city lives. The sports, arts, and dining destinations are great — but they don’t have much to do with Detroit’s blighted neighborhoods. Unemployed high school dropouts aren’t going to be offered jobs in the high tech startups.

So what is the future for the impoverished and undereducated youth of this city? The theory I was testing in my mind was Loic Wacqant’s concept in Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality of fundamental marginalization–a sub-population of people with no avenues of opportunity and no hope for the future (link). This view implies that the segregated urban enclaves of American cities like Chicago, Washington, or Detroit offer virtually no prospect of social mobility for the young men and women who grow up there. Is that too bleak? Does it overlook or underestimate pathways of mobility that can bring substantial improvement for life expectations for this community after all? Or is permanent impacted poverty and disaffection the more likely outcome?

I talked with two other participants in this visit who disagreed with the “permanent marginalization” view in interesting ways. Both of these people were African-American men who had grown up in metro Detroit. One, born in 1970, took issue with the youth-hopelessness part of the picture. His view is that Detroit is significantly different from Chicago (the city Wacquant studied most closely), because Detroit is a majority black city. So he thinks teenagers in Detroit have an optimism their counterparts in Chicago lack. He also thinks the lower residential density of Detroit is an advantage. Young people are less oppressed by racism because they are part of a population that governs the city. By contrast, he argues that the black population of Chicago looks at the city as a white city and they feel powerless. So urban despair is deeper in Chicago.

The other person in the conversation had what is in someways a view even bleaker than mine. He is a distinguished social scientist born in 1940. He too grew up in the Detroit metro area. He commented that the developers’ vision is really a picture of a white city. “This is a white vision of Detroit’s future.” He predicted that in 25 years the black population of Detroit will be largely gone, replaced by a more affluent white population. Wow!

One thing that came out of the evening is an intriguing idea: invite a group of Detroit 18-year-olds, some in high school and some dropouts, to have a conversation about the future of their neighborhoods and their city, and what they think about their own futures. These are the kinds of conversations Al Young reports in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances. This would shed some light on all the major theories of urban futures. And conversations like these would be an important reality check for people who think that there is a general process of improvement that is going to bring everyone up through some kind of hidden-hand process of market successes.

The “permanent marginalization” view is a dark one, but it is not passive. Rather, it undergirds the idea that the structures of race and segregation still present in our society have embodied enduring and intractable inequalities, and only deliberate, sustained, and committed efforts will allow us to resolve these problems. Our cities need structural change and substantial public investment, deliberately aimed at breaking the circles of poverty, race, inferior education, and disaffection, and sustained over decades rather than years.

The developments we looked at during our visit are certainly important steps forward for the city. And the business leaders who are stimulating these developments are committed to improving Detroit’s future. But I’m not yet convinced that these developments can lead by themselves to the transformation of the lives of the whole population of the city, black and white, without other initiatives that are directly aimed at breaking down the barriers of race and poverty that imprison so many of Detroit’s young people.

(“Imprison” is probably the right word in this context, given the epidemic of incarceration our cities have witnessed in the past thirty years. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness documents the harm done to urban communities by the mass incarceration of young black men.)

Urban marginality

If you live within the reach of a major American city — and most Americans do — then you know what “marginality” is. It is the sizable sub-population of metropolitan America of young men and women who have been locked out of what we think of as the indispensable mechanisms of social mobility: decent education, healthcare resources, job opportunities, and safe neighborhoods. It is the young people of inner-city Baltimore depicted by The Wire. (Take a look at Richard Florida’s detailed analysis of the spatial class structure of Detroit and a number of other cities; link.) The facts of compacted poverty and lack of opportunity, and the disaffection of young people that goes along with these absences, represent one of the most pressing social problems we face.

How should we go about studying and changing this appalling social reality? Alford Young’s The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances is one striking approach, using extended interviews to gain insight into the minds, worldviews, and social realities of some of these young people. (Here is an earlier discussion of Young’s work; link.) Another approach is the large body of mainstream poverty research in the social sciences and policy studies. (Here is a penetrating critique of some of the assumptions of this research by Alice O’Connor; Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History.) But an important and original voice on these issues is that of Loïc Wacquant, and particularly important is Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (2008).

Wacquant’s Ph.D. work was done at the University of Chicago (like Young’s), and he too immersed himself in the street-level realities of segregated, impoverished Chicago. Wacquant’s approach was a novel one: he took up boxing in an inner city boxing club to gain access to the ordinary lives of the young men of the neighborhoods. His ethnography of this experience was published in the fascinating book, Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer.

Wacquant is French and comparativist; he is interested in investigating the experience of marginality in the United States and comparing it with equally marginalized neighborhoods in France, the banlieue of Paris. (Here is an earlier post on the banlieue and the sociological research of Didier Lapeyronnie’s Ghetto urbain; ségrégation, violence, pauvreté en France aujourd’hui.) In each instance modern cities are found to have large populations of apparently permanently marginalized under-class people. Here is how Wacquant frames the issue in “The Rise of Advanced Marginality: Notes on its Nature and Implications” (link) (1996):

The resurgence of extreme poverty and destitution, ethnoracial divisions (linked to the colonial past) and public violence, and their accumulation in the same distressed urban areas, suggest that the metropolis is the site and fount of novel forms of exclusionary social closure in advanced societies. (121)

But Wacquant’s summary finding is perhaps a surprising one: he finds that the “Black Belt” in Chicago and the “Red Belt” of Paris are substantially different social phenomena. Rather than a homogeneous social reality of “ghetto” extending from Chicago to London to Amsterdam to Paris, he finds a differentiated social reality:

A paired comparison between neighborhoods of relegation in Chicago’s ‘Black Belt’ and the Parisian ‘Red Belt’ shows that the declining French metropolitan periphery and the Afro-American ghetto remain two sharply distinct sociospatial constellations. And for good reason: they are heirs to different urban legacies, produced by different logics of segregation and aggregation, and inserted in different welfare state and market frameworks, all of which result in markedly higher levels of blight, segregation, isolation, and distress in the US ghetto. (122)

Wacquant introduces the idea of “advanced marginality” to describe the social reality of isolation and deprivation created by advanced capitalism in the rich cities of the North. Here are the criteria he offers for a social system embedding advanced marginality:

  • the growing internal heterogeneity and desocialization of labor,
  • the functional disconnection of neighborhood conditions from macro-economic trends;
  • territorial fixation and stigmatization; spatial alienation and the dissolution of place;
  • the loss of a viable hinterland; and
  • the symbolic fragmentation of marginalized population (121)

An element that Wacquant finds to be in common across advanced marginality in modern cities is what he calls “territorial fixation” — the confinement of the marginal in specific neighborhoods of the city.

Rather than being diffused throughout working class areas, advanced marginality tends to concentrate in well-identified, bounded, and increasingly isolated territories viewed by both outsiders and insiders as social purgatories, urban hellholes where only the refuse of society would accept to dwell. (125)

In Urban Outcasts Wacquant provides a much more developed comparative sociology of marginalized urban populations. It is significant that he begins his treatment of marginality with the topic of riot and uprising — a recurring social reality in the United States (Chicago, Watts, Detroit, …), London, Strasbourg, and Paris. This seems significant, because it seems like a logical correlate with the deprivation and stigmatization associated with advanced marginality.

Most of the disorders, big and small, that have shaken up the French working-class banlieues, the British inner city and adjacent barrios of North American have involved chiefly the youths of impoverished, segregated and often dilapidated urban neighbourhoods caught in a spiral of decline; they appear to have been fuelled by growing ethnoracial tensions in and around those areas. (20)

And Wacquant thinks these uprisings stem from three large social causes: mass unemployment, relegation to decaying neighbourhoods, and heightened stigmatization in daily life of the marginalized young people (25). He quotes a young man from Bristol:

I don’t have a job and I’ll never have one. Nobody wants to help us get out of this shit. If the government can spend so much money to build a nuclear submarine, why not for the inner cities? If fighting cops is the only way to get heard, then we’ll fight them. (31)

This is a superb piece of sociology, making use of multiple means of inquiry (ethnographic, comparison, statistical) to arrive at credible theories of the causes of urban marginality. And, contrary to the critique offered by O’Connor of mainstream poverty studies, there is not an ounce of “blaming the poor” in this study. Wacquant wants to understand the social processes that create and reproduce the urban spatial reality of marginality. And in doing this, he aims to provide some of the understanding we will need to begin to take this system apart.

Excerpt The Wire

Remembering the civil rights struggle

We celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on January 21. Here is a curated set of film clips that serve to recall the major challenges of inequality, segregation, and violence that faced the African American community in the Jim Crow racial system of the 1940s and 1950s.  These videos capture some of the signal moments in that struggle through the 1960s. Dr. King’s contribution to American history is truly pivotal in this “second American revolution”. 

Dr. King on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955

 
  
Little Rock Nine, 1957

 Freedom Riders, 1961 video


The integration of Ole Miss 1962



Voter registration in Mississippi, 1963


The March on Washington 1963


The Birmingham Church Bombing 1963

  

The murder of Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner 1964 [1:22]

 
  
Dr King in Selma, 1965

 

  
Dr King in Montgomery, 1965


Bloody Sunday, Selma 1965

Martin Luther King, I’m tired of violence, Yazoo, 1966


Martin Luther King, Montgomery to Memphis 1965 documentary
(with video of “I have a dream” speech” at the end)

Here is a Prezi version of this collection; link.