As I am a sociologist of inequality, the recent discussion of the privileged slate of keynotes at the upcoming ESS 2018 meeting caught my attention. Here, delivered somewhat in the style of Emily Post but derived from my own observations and experiences, is a brief primer on checking your elite privilege.
SCENARIO 1: You are faculty at Ivy U, and it’s the first organizing meeting of your research workshop. You look around the table at your colleagues and grad students.
||You ask the assembled group, “Who should we invite this year?” People suggest names of friends and colleagues from other elite institutions (e.g. “I think Professor EveryoneKnows at OtherIvy U is working on something new, I could ask him”) and the list is made.
||In advance, you send an email to workshop attendees. It reads, “For our planning meeting, please bring in the names of at least 3 scholars who are doing interesting, innovative work and prepare a couple of sentences about why their work will be of interest to this workshop. We are going to invite a balanced slate of visitors this year – balanced on the basis of rank, gender, race and institutional standing – so make sure that your list reflects this diversity.”
SCENARIO 2: You receive a request to blurb a book/review a proposal or manuscript/write a tenure letter/consider an employment application from someone you have never met/whose work you’ve never read/who comes from an institution that is not in your network.
||You decline because, “If I haven’t heard of them, they must not be any good” or “If they were doing good work, they wouldn’t be in that department.”
||Apply some of your service to breaking down the caste-barriers in sociology. You can do this by reading the work of people outside your network, citing it, and including those scholars in your by-invitation-only events. You could even hire outside your network. Your departmental rankings can probably withstand an occasional out-of-caste hire.
SCENARIO 3: You would like to include faculty from non-elite institutions, but it never works out because, let’s face it, they just don’t have the publication record or the public profile that designates them as leaders of the discipline. Often they can’t make it to campus and, when they do, it’s hard because their academic experiences, concerns, goals, vocabularies, and frameworks can be so different. And, anyway, WTF? What you do is hard work and life at an elite institution isn’t just cupcakes and puppies. You deserve your accolades.
||Just stick to your network. When you need a change of scene, signal to your pals at OtherIvy U that you’d be happy to move to their faculty.
||Acknowledge that grad students and faculty at elite departments benefit from a host of advantages and your personal achievements aren’t attributable to your hard work alone. Your success is enabled by institutional funding (e.g. faculty development funds), time and resources devoted to research (advantageous teaching loads, funded graduate student assistants), and institutional resources (library access to most recent issues of sociological journals, faculty support services). However, you also benefit from symbolic privileges – a priori recognition as someone whose work matters and must be funded, published, read and cited, and presented in keynote addresses at conferences; and placement in the position of gatekeeper in the discipline and in your subdiscipline. You could use that power to create greater equality in the social world – and you could do that work in your disciplinary home.
So, apparently, there is this thing going on where folks are wearing safety pins to demonstrate that they are allies. Word is that this idea originated in Britain post Brexit.
What does it mean to be an ally? I’ve been through my fair share of anti-racist training and I think my accounting of what it means to be an ally is fairly representative of what I learned:
- Allies exist in the moment. You are only an ally when you are actively being an ally. You don’t get to count yourself as an ally because of that one time you told off your cousin for telling a racist joke or even if you routinely engage in justice work but just aren’t doing so right now.
- Begging forgiveness from POC doesn’t count as ally behavior. Isn’t it enough to deal with white racism without also having to minister to the pain of white people who feel bad about racism?
- Allies don’t take the moral high ground or foist the blame for racism on other white people. Every aspect of your life is inseparable from the fact of your racial advantage.
- Allies need to take the fight to their own group. You can attend all the #BLM actions that you want if you remain silent when you are surrounded by white folks asserting that “all lives matter.” You need to work for a change in your own group.
- Ultimately, you don’t get to decide if you are an ally. Maybe, if you work hard, someday someone will say that they value the work you have done for social justice, but probably many more days you will be confronted with all of the ways in which you might have done more. So it goes.
When I learned about this safety pin movement, instantly I didn’t feel right about it and I think that has to do with my understanding of what it means to be an ally. Here are the key problems.
- There is nothing particularly active or effortful about donning a safety pin.
- It feels a bit like the point of the safety pin, seeing as there is nothing active about it, is to signal that we are not the kind of people who would condone racism, heterosexism, sexism, Islamophobia, etc, and nor would we vote for someone who had done so. It may be that such a signal can be a source of comfort to POC but it seems more likely to me that it is a source of comfort to ourselves because it allows us to repair at the individual level the impression that came across loud and clear on 11/9 – the US is a racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and sexist nation.
- And this issue, the bad impression American whites collectively made on 11/9 gets me to my key objection to the safety pin. That safety pin is safe for one person: the person wearing it. If you want the woman in hijab who is being harassed on the subway to know you are an ally, she won’t need to see your safety pin if you stand up and confront the person harassing her. Being willing to take on some of the hostility and stand up against your fellow white people isn’t easy, but that is what is needed.
- But, you say, there are actually really few opportunities to confront racist, sexist, heterosexist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic behavior, can’t I just don the safety pin so POC know that I would step up if I had the opportunity? To this I have two responses: 1. Look harder because you’re missing lots of opportunities to intervene. 2. Why not take a real stand, one that isn’t quiet and safe but instead takes the fight to your fellow white folks? Go to the places where folks express their bigotry in comfort and safety and challenge them. Turn to your fellow white people and talk about the role of bigotry in American politics and society. At the very least, why don’t you try pinning on these pins?
That first morning I gave my 11 year old a pocket copy of the US Constitution. “Any president is just one person in a whole system of governance,” I said. I encouraged her to familiarize herself with the structure of government and the mutual rights and obligations that bind us together. I assured her that we will not rest in holding our government accountable to this founding document. Then I talked my 9 year old through her fear that after she went to school Trump would start WWIII and she would never get home to us. My extremely reassuring reply was, “He won’t be president for a couple of months.” Then on the way to work I has a good cry in the car as I thought of all the people who availed themselves of DACA (Obama’s program for undocumented immigrants) and as a result of their participation will be known to Trump. I cried for the impending devastation of our already strained planet. I cried for the millions who will lose their health insurance when the Affordable Care Act is repealed. I cried for all the people of color and Muslims who were not surprised by the depth of American racism and bigotry because they live that shit every day. I cried for myself and other women who learned again that, for all the progress we’ve made, assault is still acceptable and we will still be judged first by who we are to men.
But then, a calm, cold hardness took the place of that anger and fear and sadness. In truth, I was never a Clinton fan. I had prepared myself to value her presidency as the least terrible alternative. I was excited by the prospect of a woman president, but I didn’t believe her militaristic neo-liberalism was the right thing for the country. Suddenly I realized that I was freed from the charade of trying to fit my left-leaning self into the Clintonian pantsuit – of pretending to be satisfied with the so-called democratic party. Now, the situation is clear. Trump, apparently humbled by his own unexpected success, sounded contrite and meek in his acceptance speech. No matter, we have seen what else he is capable of. I hope I am not alone when I say that I will spend the next four years (because, make no mistake, there will be no second term) denouncing every caustic word, working against every hateful policy, and returning the democratic party to the people.
Let’s start today.
No more politics as usual. No more comfortable and moneyed coalitions left over from the politics of the past. We demand truly representative political leadership that, at all levels of government, embodies the race and ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, and age distributions of our country. We will work for universal healthcare, not a requirement that we give our money to insurance companies who seek to make a profit by denying us access to the very care we have paid for. We will demand free college tuition for everyone – all residents of the United States. We will have 18 months paid parental leave to be split by both parents (if applicable). We require high quality childcare and public schools that insure all children have the opportunity to realize their potential and follow their interests. We will be represented by a government that acknowledges that, in a world where computers and automation eliminate so much of the need for physical labor, the solution to inequality is not “good jobs.” Instead the largess of modern efficiency should be redistributed through shortened work weeks and a universal minimum income. We will work to the benefit of our societies and fulfill our desire to contribute, not out of fear and a pressing need to meet our basic needs.
I’m scrappy. I’m angry. I’m fired up. I’m ready to go.
on 11/4, this post was composed and shared on Facebook.
I’ve been quiet on politics for months and will resume my silent observation of this unfolding disaster after this diatribe: If Donald Trump wins, I hold the democratic party establishment and its loyalists singularly responsible for his victory. From the beginning it was clear that at best a Hillary Clinton presidency was going to face debilitating lawsuits resulting from decades of political entanglements. “Shut up and fall in line” was the refrain when we pointed out that Bernie was polling better against Trump. “Pipe down. You’re just looking to cause trouble” came the response when it was pointed out that Hillary’s strongholds were in “red states” (which is why there is a strong possibility she will win the popular vote but lose the electoral college). Other establishment candidates with cleaner records cleared the field for Hillary. The DNC actively thwarted Bernie’s chances. On the democratic side, there has been little democracy in the presidential contest. As a result, we are faced with a dangerous Republican candidate who represents all the basest elements of conservative populism and a militaristic, right-of-center career politician surrounded by a closed cadre of bureaucrats who evince the basest elements of corruption, insider dealing, and pay-to-play politics. So many of us, disheartened by what we have learned about our failing democracy, quietly fell in line and kept our heads down, hoping that our misgivings about Clinton’s likely defeat are wrong, and praying that we can use her time in office to push for reforms that reinstate truly democratic politics. With dread, I see even that meager hope for a more democratic future fading. To figure out why, we need look no further than the democratic party’s despicable anti-democratic operation.
That day we were all at the ASA crammed into Alice Goffman’s author meets critics session, a battle was raging in Ferguson. The battle, erupting after Michael’s Brown’s death at the hands of the law enforcement of Ferguson, arose because the Ferguson Police Department was capricious, heavy-handed, and bigoted in their treatment of black residents. Further insuring the systematic discrimination against African Americans, the municipal courts worked in tandem with police by reserving harsher treatment for blacks with citations for minor offenses. Long after Goffman’s Author Meets Critics had concluded and just before dissemination of an anonymous critique opened the door to an over-long, high profile, multi-disciplinary controversy about Goffman’s research, a U.S. Department of Justice Investigation into the situation in Ferguson “revealed a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct within the Ferguson Police Department that violates the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and federal statutory law.” The US DOJ concluded that the rights of Ferguson’s black residents were violated on account of discriminatory intent and the intentional use of the law enforcement and the courts to increase city revenue through the imposition and collection of fines and fees. [insert your favorite Sheriff of Nottingham image here]
The DOJ findings provide chilling evidence corroborating the work of a growing number of scholars who have examined overpolicing and its alternatives; the school to prison pipeline in which institutional linkages such as having parole officers offering anger management as one the few extra curricular activities available to students has cemented the path from failing schools to penal institutions; the rise of the “new Jim Crow” – an exploitative social system that targets African Americans, denies their constitutional rights, and keeps them economically subservient; and an inside look at the violence and destruction characterizing the “criminal life course” adopted by a minority of the people coming up in communities that are groaning under the weight of a racist society. These stellar academic treatments of contemporary American racism and its impacts are crucial reading for anyone who really cares about the ongoing crisis of mass incarceration, the racist impact of broken windows policing, the continued gap between national ideals of equality and a brutally unequal reality, the 1138 people killed by police in 2015, or the 21 million black boys in the juvenile justice system in 2014.
But, such heady subjects and so many pages of reading! Perhaps it would be easier if we keep talking about Alice Goffman as she continues to upstage her research subjects – the people, to quote her words from this most recent press coverage “who are written off and delegitimated” and denied the opportunity to “describe their own lives and to speak for themselves about the reality they face.”
Pleased to announce the publication of my article,
Multiculturalism as the Normative Context of Immigrant Reception: Somali Immigrant Inclusion in Lewiston, Maine
Drawing on data gathered through ethnographic fieldwork, I examine the process of normative incorporation as it occurs through the establishment of group recognition and representation among a new immigrant group settling in a new immigrant destination. I argue that Somali immigrant incorporation in the small, white American, new destination city of Lewiston, Maine was characterised by (1) the recognition of and partnership with Somali organisations and individuals who might represent the Somali community; (2) tensions between the assumed homogeneity of the Somali community and the reality of limited group cohesiveness; and (3) declining concerns about the authentic leadership position of representative organisations and increasing interest in working with an organisation that embodied the ideals of multiculturalism. I show that these organisational struggles shaped the development of a public, secular Somaliness that fit the parameters of the mainstream and undercut attention to practical challenges of Somali immigrant incorporation. My observations provide insight into the multicultural context of immigrant reception in other locations and among other immigrant groups.