Tag: Baltimore

On Maintaining Ideological Purity: Thomas Sowell, Ferguson, Baltimore, and McKinney

SowellI used to have a lot of respect for Thomas Sowell. I didn’t agree with him but I felt he was consistent with the framework of his economic argument.

My social media feed has been directing me to articles Sowell wrote for the National Review Online that speak to the unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere over the past ten months. When I carefully read those articles, I don’t see argument based on conservative economic principles. What I see is distortion and misrepresentation of the circumstances on the ground in service of a dominant ideology.

It seems that maintaining ideological purity in the face of difficult social situations requires cherry picking and reinterpreting circumstances. This saddens me for two reasons: it fails to advance needed conversations as a society and it shows what extreme partisanship does to academics.

The positions Sowell espouses are supported by some isolated statistics which gives them the air of academic strength. But they are far too careless with details, as just a little research would show.

Consider the article titled The “Disparate Impact” Racket written in March after the Department of Justice released their reports on Ferguson.  The first report showed that there was no evidence that Michael Brown had been shot in the back or had his hands raised when shot. While that report didn’t “clear” Darren Wilson, it did show that original eyewitness testimony had been wrong (and there has been interesting commentary from social psychologists why this happens in bystander testimony). If you know a little about criminal justice, this isn’t surprising.

Why, then, is it necessary to ascribe negative motives to what is essentially a cognition problem? Sowell writes:

The bottom line is that all this hard evidence, and more, shows what a complete lie was behind all the stories of Michael Brown’s being shot in the back or while raising his hands in surrender. Yet that lie was repeated, and dramatized in demonstrations and riots, from coast to coast, as well as in the media and even in the halls of Congress.

Sowell’s choice of the word LIE acribes something duplicitous in those concerned with the shooting. It also detracts the reader’s attention from the tragedy of the shooting to the “hands up don’t shoot” claim. As if finding that the latter was false means that the former is as well.

The second report from the Department of Justice was about the actions of the Ferguson authorities in terms of “disparate intent” — the ways that traffic stops and minor arrests were a source of the frustrations underlying the protests in Ferguson.

Like many other uses of “disparate impact” statistics, the Justice Department’s evidence against the Ferguson police department consists of numbers showing that the percentage of people stopped by police or fined in court who are black is larger than the percentage of blacks in the local population.

The implicit assumption is that without “discriminatory intent,” these statistics would reflect the percentages of people in the population. But no matter how plausible that outcome might seem on the surface, it is seldom found in real life, and those who use this standard are seldom, if ever, asked to produce hard evidence that it is factually correct, as distinct from politically correct.

The DOJ report focused on the ways in which Ferguson used traffic stops, warrants, and fines to operate the city budget. This relied disproportionately on those who had the most difficulty making it to court, paying fines, keeping their car up to date on license and inspections. Sowell’s use of air quotes around disparate impact serves to minimize and even ridicule the claims.

While on the road this weekend, we listened to a Ferguson town hall meeting hosted by NPR’s Michel Martin two weeks after the Brown shooting.  It was clear from the comments and questions that three issues were central to the audience: disparate impact, leaving Brown’s body on the ground for 4.5 hours, and why the mayor didn’t take responsibility for the escalation from law enforcement (which, he claimed, was not from Ferguson officers).

I don’t expect Sowell to adopt an anti-Ferguson demeanor or start attaching #blacklivesmatter to every tweet. But I think it is reasonable to expect him to deal with the substance of the issues in Ferguson and not dismiss them. You can still make your claims about cultural impact without denying structural factors.

In this post-Baltimore piece last month titled The Inconvenient Truth About Ghetto Communities Social Breakdown, Sowell begins in the same place he was two month earlier:

Among the many painful ironies in the current racial turmoil is that communities scattered across the country were disrupted by riots and looting because of the demonstrable lie that Michael Brown was shot in the back by a white policeman in Missouri — but there was not nearly as much turmoil created by the demonstrable fact that a fleeing black man was shot dead by a white policeman in South Carolina.

Again, to represent issues in Baltimore as riots and not protests (followed by vandalism) is to mis-tell the story. And it’s not clear how the Brown shooting was related or that everything was about the act of shooting. The issues remain about ongoing structural discrimination.

But Sowell recasts the concerns about ongoing structural discrimination as a “legacy of slavery”:

The “legacy of slavery” argument is not just an excuse for inexcusable behavior in the ghettos. In a larger sense, it is an evasion of responsibility for the disastrous consequences of the prevailing social vision of our times, and the political policies based on that vision, over the past half century.

Anyone who is serious about evidence need only compare black communities as they evolved in the first 100 years after slavery with black communities as they evolved in the first 50 years after the explosive growth of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s.

To sustain this argument, we need to ignore all of the post-Baltimore stories that focused on covenant agreements in 1910 up to subprime loans in 2005. The structural discrimination concern isn’t about feeling bad over slavery but about ongoing issues in the fabric of society itself. We need to ignore the data suggesting that blacks paid $16,000 more than whites for equivalent mortgages during the housing crisis.

We must also ignore the work of Michelle Alexander and Heather Thompson, who have been demonstrating the structural contributions to our heavily incarcerated society that limits job prospects, damages family structures, and impacts our politics. On the road trip I listened to a speech Michelle gave summarizing The New Jim Crow. I also listened to a lecture from Heather Thompson on how incarceration impacts voting practice. (Shocking finding: incarcerated inmates are counted in the census figures and impact district lines based on where they are incarcerated while they are barred from voting in the place where they actually live.)

Furthermore, to blame the welfare state as an alternative to institutional racism requires a standard slight of hand move: that racism existed in past days but the welfare state was expected to fix this.

I don’t know why this is a standard conservative pundit move. As a sociologist, I expect that the injustices within the society will get written into the bureaucratic rules of our institutional structures. Therefore, the structural inequality evidenced in housing and criminal justice will also be evident in welfare and food stamp policies. A more robust vision of the forces we’re up against is necessary if we are to make progress.

This month, in a piece titled The Steep Cost of Politicians Scapegoating the Police Sowell offers up a defense of law enforcement:

Baltimore is now paying the price for irresponsible words and actions, not only by young thugs in the streets, but also by its mayor and the state prosecutor, both of whom threw the police to the wolves, in order to curry favor with local voters.

He argues that black leaders, including the justice department, have been drumming up angst. The result, he claims, is “anti-police mob rampages from coast to coast that the media sanitize as ‘protests’.”

He goes on to argue that the Department of Justice “presume the police to be guilty…even after grand juries have gone over all the facts and acquitted the police.” First of all, he must be talking about Ferguson because there was a grand jury indictment in both Baltimore and South Carolina. Second, grand juries don’t acquit — they decide not to charge. It’s an important distinction.

This isn’t nitpicking. It’s central to the argument. An academic, even writing in partisan press, has a responsibility for nuance and care in looking at the complexities involved. Public figures should play a role in illumining the key questions before us as a society.

Unless they are being partisan figures first and foremost. I can agree with Sowell on this point, one he’d do well to revisit:

Racial demagoguery gains votes for politicians, money for race-hustling lawyers, and a combination of money, power, and notoriety for armies of professional activists, ideologues, and shakedown artists.

In light of yesterday’s events in McKinney, Texas, we simply can’t afford such one-sided refusal to deal with real issues confronting us in racially contested society. It’s possible to argue that this “wasn’t about race” but only if you can ignore the sight of the police having African-American kids sit on the grass and be treated as suspects while everyone else milled around. To focus on the alleged wrongdoing of some does not excuse the behavior that followed — which brings us back to the source of the protest and media outrage.

To be fair, I haven’t seen Sowell write anything yet about McKinney. But I’m not optimistic.

It’s not about “the lie” that someone intentionally did something.  It’s about the ways the aftermath illustrated that something is clearly wrong. Demagoguery only makes things worse.

Why We Can’t Have Serious Conversations About Situations Like Baltimore

http://baltimorepostexaminer.com/wp-content/uploads/Slums-of-Baltimore.jpg
http://baltimorepostexaminer.com/wp-content/uploads/Slums-of-Baltimore.jpg
deltaskymag.delta.com
deltaskymag.delta.com

These two pictures illustrate a couple of the answers to my title question.  In searching for a picture to accompany this post, I went to Google Images and simply typed in “Baltimore”. The first 57 pictures were images like the bottom one — the skyline and the inner harbor. Only then did I get to the picture on top. Not only are these two images of Baltimore both accurate, but it is essential to understand how the two images are related.

The title of this post comes from a series of things I posted on Facebook earlier this week. Far too many stories came across my social media feed which seemed to inhibit dialogue rather than invite it. This morning I receive a message from a Spring Arbor graduate who is interning with IJM in Asia and had been in my race and ethnic class. Watching all of this from afar, she wrote:

I’ve been recently becoming more and more frustrated by humanity’s apparent inability to have conversations about things like this. People seem to prefer choosing sides and having a screaming match instead of trying to come to a reasonable conclusion. Judging from your Facebook posts (and your class discussions) this is something that frustrates you as well.

Here are my answers to her very good question.

1. We Don’t Know How to Think about Structural Inequality

As I’ve written, last month I finished The Long Shadow, a book by Johns Hopkins sociologists examining two decades of life in Baltimore. It reports on a panel study that followed children starting public school through age 28. I shared their findings in our social stratification class yesterday (I summarized their mobility data in the post last month.) I gave the students this chart.

Long Shadow

I wrote in that other post that this is a Chi-Square test.For those who don’t know Chi-Square, it’s a test of independence. The “expected count” shows what you’d have if there was no relationship between the variables. While we can never “prove” a relationship, we wind up determining that the relationship is statistically significant (meaning the odds of this being a chance pattern are very small).There are four degrees of freedom in a three by three table and the Chi-Square value for a 1% chance of error is 13.27. For yesterday’s class I tested the probability of finding this result. The Chi-Square value for the table above came in at 126. When I plugged that figure into a Chi-Square calculator, I learned that the odds of finding this pattern rests at 1 out of 100,000.

What this chart tells us, as does Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, is that there is much more to intergenerational inheritance than we’ve been willing to admit. Advantage begets advantage. Disadvantage limits mobility. Of course it is true that individuals can rise about their circumstances through discipline and hard work. It is true that children of advantage can lose ground. But as the chart shows, these are the anomaly not the general pattern. Without something shifting trajectory, the likely outcome is class replacement.

Our focus on mobility and the American Dream blinds us to this basic sociological reality. To admit that some people seem trapped by their circumstances somehow runs the risk of determinism. So we try to generalize from the exception rather than looking at the common patterns.

2. We fail to understand the implications of past public policy decisions

As tempting as it is for some critics to simply blame Baltimore Uprising on partisan politics or racial insensitivity, the actual picture is more complicated. Emily Badger wrote a fascinating account in Wednesday’s Washington Post detailing the public policy history of Baltimore. It’s a harsh history. This passage summarizes things very well.

And the really terrible irony — which brings us back to Baltimore today — is that each of these shocks further diminished the capacity of low-income urban black communities to recover from the one that came next. It’s an irony, a fundamental urban inequality, created over the years by active decisions and government policies that have undermined the same people and sapped them of their ability to rebuild, that have again and again dismantled the same communities, each time making them socially, economically, and politically weaker.

Suburbanization led to White Flight. White Flight led to a declining city tax base. Urban redevelopment displaced powerless populations so that we could gentrify the neighborhoods to revitalize the downtown. Rundown areas became havens for crime. Crime-ridden neighborhoods required a regular police presence. Those who could flee the inner city did, leaving behind those with few other options.

I’d like to believe that these were all unintended consequences of misguided public policy. But I fear that there were those who manipulated these policies as economic incentives. Those who targeted West Baltimore for subprime mortgages didn’t do that by accident.

I could write an entire post on the ways in which our short-sighted policy decisions have contributed to the realities we face today. But until we recognize that this isn’t about welfare dependency or drug trafficking but is about a national policy that favored economic interests and upper-middle class enclaves, we can’t have a real conversation about why there are two Baltimores.

3. We are unable to take the role of the other

It’s easy to blame this on the media — they make it so easy. Jon Stewart did a great video montage this week of Wolf Blitzer claiming that he “couldn’t believe these things happen in America”. First, Wolf needs to get out more and talk way less. But more importantly, it reflected a blindness to the ongoing situations on the ground. Many people rightly observe that media coverage of the Baltimore protests was minimal and sporadic until the CVS store was burned. Suddenly, we denounce the looters and decry the sad state of our culture.

Two things needs to be said. First, I heard a long-term law enforcement officer on NPR this week (I can’t find the link) comment that Monday’s riot was nothing compared to what happened to Baltimore in 1968. Today we have 24 hour news channels and roving reporters demanding to know why rioting is happening. Second, the media coverage follows a pattern of finding the most egregious example and using that as the key talking point.

This story by Lonnae O’Neal does an excellent job of trying to walk in the shoes of those who actually experience West Baltimore. Perhaps if we had more sociological imagination we could begin to know what that’s like.

In a strange way, comments by law enforcement officials following the indictment of the six officers for the death of Freddie Gray provide a starting point for empathy. NPR had a story yesterday about fears those in law enforcement that included the following:

“The specter of criminal charges being filed against police officers I believe is going to send reverberations across the nation,” says Sue Rahr, a former sheriff who now runs the police academy in Washington state.

Rahr is reform-minded, having served on President Obama’s task force on 21st Century Policing. But she’s also worried that public opinion is becoming too slanted against police.

“What gets played in the media is the most extreme cases — the cases that represent an anomaly,” she says. “Because those are played over and over again, people get the perception that that’s happening all the time and that’s the norm.”

It almost sounds like she’s concerned that police would be blindly assumed of wrongdoing. What would be next? Randomly stopping innocent police officers and demanding that they explain their presence in the neighborhood? That they could be harassed just because of their physical appearance?

Yet that kind of cross-over of viewpoint is necessary if we are to break out of our echo chambers. Otherwise, we keep talking to people who already agree with us about how bad THEY are.

4. We won’t abandon chicken-and-egg issues about culture and structure

It’s amazing how much is written about issues of culture versus issues of structural inequality. Yesterday, David Brooks wrote an essay about The Nature of Poverty. He says that we have spent great sums of money on programs and yet don’t seem to make a difference (to his credit, he doesn’t begrudge those attempts). He concludes his piece as follows:

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

As a social psychologist, this is frustrating. The relationship between belief and behavior is a reflexive phenomenon. Our beliefs influence our behaviors and our experiences modify our beliefs. As I told the stratification class yesterday, it may be that not caring in school is a remarkable rational response to lack of opportunity or the difficulty of overcoming a brush with the law.

The only viable policy response is for us to consider how to support students who care about school while simultaneously addressing issues that make it worth their while to care. It is to consider how our drug policies have impacted family dynamics while we find ways of strengthening family and extra-family bonds (and be willing to support even those that don’t involve marriage).

As long as we simply pick a side and say that nothing can happen until we resolve this issue (joblessness or criminality), nothing will happen.

5. We lack a theology that confronts inequality

I just finished an excellent little book on Wesleyan Political Theology. It is Greg Coates Master’s thesis from Duke and explores how Free Methodist founder B.T. Roberts built on John Wesley’s theology to engage political and economic conditions in 19th century America. Deeply embedded in American populism and the pursuit of the Imago Dei, Roberts worked vociferously for social change. Not as an addendum to his theological commitments but as a direct expression of them. Coates contrasts Wesley’s views of the monarchy and the government in England with Roberts’ views of economic exploitation and structural inequality in America. He concludes that Roberts grasps an underdeveloped component of Wesleyan theology; that individual AND structures are being redeemed.

Yet a Wesleyan approach to politics is rooted in the primary truth that all people are created in the image of God and that all of creation is intended to reflect the community of the holy Triune God, with whom we will one day be united after having been sanctified through the power of the Spirit. This means that first and foremost our political theology must be people-centric, not issue-centric.

Because Roberts wasn’t interested in premillennialism, he didn’t see the world as something to be abandoned. He recognized that somehow we are co-participants in God’s Kingdom and responsible to and for all those who live in it.

Maybe if we could take this last point seriously, the other issues would begin to be addressed.

Structural Inequality Three: Unequal Outcomes

                             usatoday.com
usatoday.com

The day the NCAA brackets were announced, I wrote this post on the nature of structural inequality. I argued that even though we like underdogs and upsets, the odds favored the turnout we expected from the beginning. As it turned out, three of the final four teams had been designated #1 seeds before the tournament (Go State!). This is probably as it should be — the best teams (at least as determined by the seeding committee) get to play in the Big Game.

Wisconsin has been in three final fours and won the whole thing in 1941. Duke has been in fifteen final fours and has four championships, the most recent in 2010.

This echoes one on the basic ideas in stratification: past benefits accrue over time.

This weekend I finished the two books I’ve been reading on the nature of inequality in America. As I’ve written, one is Our Kids by Robert Putnam and the other is The Long Shadow by a team of sociologists from Johns Hopkins. Reading them in tandem was enlightening.

Putnam’s book is full of site-specific case studies contrasting successful kids and challenged kids. Whether in Ohio, Oregon, Atlanta, or Orange County, similar patterns emerge. Each chapter fleshes out the case studies with national census-type data.

The Hopkins book also uses a site-specific comparison with some incredible data following the same set of kids from 6 to 28. The authors look at neighborhood characteristics, family dynamics, school conditions, and economic concerns. Where Putnam relies on story, the Hopkins folks end up doing some high level regression to look at how status is transferred (or not) across generations.

One of the curious things about the books is that they don’t work with the normal journalistic 1%-99% comparisons. Half of Putnam’s families are upper-middle class but nobody has a yacht. The Hopkins book focuses on families in the Baltimore Public Schools, so they don’t pick up those who moved to more affluent suburbs.

This is important. The inequality characterized in the books is not the story of rich people. It’s about “normal” people and those who have somehow been left behind (usually through no fault of their own).

Both books wind up telling exactly the same story. There is a significant difference in access to the very things that contribute to intergenerational success. Those who have resources use those to achieve. Those who don’t find themselves falling further behind.

Here’s a chart from The Long Shadow (page 124, picture from my Iphone).

Long Shadow

My stats students will recognize this as a Chi Square table. The rows represent the social class of origin. The columns represent the social class at age 28. The expected values tell us what we’d expect to find if there was no relationship (as one would expect in a meritocracy).

As the table shows, those who start out lower SES half are still lower class at about 1.5 times expected. They are less than half as likely to be upper SES at 28 as expected. At the other end, the upper SES kids who were lower class was only 1/4 of what would be expected but more than twice as likely to be upper SES at 28.

This remarkable stability of structural inequality is shocking, even to us social scientists. Here’s Putnam’s reflection:

Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives. So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids. Before I began this research, I was like that. I’ve worked hard, I thought, to rise from a modest background in Port Clinton— much of the time heedless of how much my good fortune depended on family and community and public institutions in that more communitarian and egalitarian age. If I and my classmates could climb the ladder, I assumed, so could kids from modest backgrounds today. Having finished this research, I know better.

What factors explain these differences? Both books illustrate the patterns of family life beginning prior to the beginning of school. Those who have advantages are able to start strong and have school work for them. Those who don’t begin behind and have family or community disruptions that inhibit the expected school to college to occupation pipeline.

There are differences in school quality and neighborhood safety. But these pale in comparison to family struggles.

It is unreasonable to simply suggest that the disadvantaged should care more about school or have better marriages or take their kids to church. It’s not all economic but it is largely structural. Moving forward in the ways we seem to expect as a society may seem self-evident, but we have to address that fact that some people are starting significantly behind.

Furthermore, the Hopkins book demonstrates that those gaps widen over time. Differences in resources when kids start school play out in differences in resources throughout the elementary grades. Differences in elementary grades expand when kids get to junior high and really take off at high school. (Putnam’s book is full of stories of disadvantaged kids having a caring teacher in early grades who isn’t replaced as they move through their educational journey.)

This is why Putnam’s book ends with some specific recommendations that our policy makers should act upon. Enhanced Earned Income Tax Credits, better child care supports, teacher incentives to poor schools, changes in sentencing and reentry policies. These will all cost money in a time when we seem unwilling to do so. But we will pay much higher costs downstream.

If we can grasp Putnam’s understanding that these are in fact Our Kids we might see that such investments are not only feasible but mandatory in modern society.

Who Sinned, the Child or the Parents? Inherited Inequality

This is the second post in my series on structural inequality.

As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9: 1-3)

As I’ve been working through my study of the structures of inequality, this passage from John kept ringing through my head. All of the talk of the 47%, of takers, of those who don’t have proper work ethic, seems to be designed to draw a direct cause-effect relationship between individual choices and the impacts of poverty.

It is no surprise that Robert Putnam’s book is titled Our Kids. It’s a very interesting rhetorical move. We look at children with less opportunities and we can ask a question similar to what the disciples asked: who sinned? Was it this child’s fault or her parents?

It is a provocative question the disciples asked because of what it implies about next steps.

If, we would assume, the blindness is the result of this man’s actions and choices, then we could be freed from responsibility to act. If, on the other hand, it is the byproduct of choices made in earlier generations, it’s hard to know how to undo those past actions without a Tardis. Again, we are freed from responsibility.

So it is with the children in Putnam’s book or in the Hopkins study of Baltimore (The Long Shadow). I’m still working through both books, but it is clear to me that we can either look at poor choices made by a young tough in New Orleans or we can see how family disruption and parental drug issues hampered a young woman in Oregon.

What do we do now?

In the Baltimore study, they were looking at the situation of students starting public school in Baltimore in 1982. One of the chapters looks specifically at the family background of those six-year-olds. I took this picture of the Table (even if it is a little crooked):

Baltimore FamiliesThe researchers first broke the data by socioeconomic status and then, within lower SES, by race. This data shows the kinds of statistics that people like to toss around when critiquing inequality: single-parenthood, early pregnancy, lack of educational achievement. There are stark differences present in these columns. Note, for example, that in over a third of the families the mother had never married. The breakdown by class and race shows a 42% gap between the higher SES families (which were only high within Baltimore standards), and the lower-SES African American families.

But these demographics mask deeper, family system issues. Sometimes those relate to lack of job opportunities in the city. Incarceration is a factor as well. So are issues of drug and alcohol addiction.

Consider the story of Bess, one of those kids who started first grade in the early 1980s. Here is her situation as an adult as reported by the interviewers:

Bess, who grew up in what she described as a chaotic family environment, had her first baby at age fourteen in the summer of eighth grade, then a second in tenth grade. She tried to finish high school, indeed worked hard at it, but was unable to trust her mother to watch her first baby and eventually gave up. Bess would call home from school, she told us, and her mother would not be there; she would come home to find her baby soiled and unfed. “If I had somebody to watch who I knew, you know, was a good person to watch and I knew she was gonna’ be alright, then, you know, I woulda’ stayed [in school].” Bess was surrounded by an abundance of family — a cousin who supported a drug habit by prostituting herself and her mother, who, according to Bess, was drunk “morning to night.” Bess is one of the Youth Panel’s permanent dropouts, a victim, she says, of a neglectful mother and extended family disruption (2014, 48).

“Who sinned”, they asked, “this girl or her mother?”

Frankly, Jesus’ response is hard to figure out. He seems to suggest that the man is born blind “for such a moment as this”.

I prefer to take Jesus to be saying, “Your question is irrelevant. What is important is how God’s work can be done.”

Both of the books I’m reading share this common sentiment. Somehow, the children are suffering from the situations in which they grow up. Or at least some of them are. Putnam has a regular series of what he calls scissor graphs, which show advantages accruing to upper class families (because they have time for summer enrichment and organized sports) while disadvantages deepen for lower class families (because life circumstances set them farther and farther behind).

We wrestle with an appropriate response to inequality in the same way the disciples did.

We want to celebrate “good families” and don’t want to legitimize family dysfunction. We can argue that having two parents in the household, in their first marriage, who spent time interacting with their children yields the best outcomes for those children. This is demonstrably true.

But we can’t actually say to Bess’ mother, “you should marry the father, clean up your life, read to your children, and take the family to church.” Or more correctly, the only reason to say so is to ease our conscience about our own families.

Maybe we’d be better able to address issues of inequality if we saw Bess’ situation as a way to see God’s work displayed.

We’d worry less about affixing blame and show compassion on the young girl in a remarkably difficult circumstance.