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On Sexism And Sociology: Who Is Dorothy Swaine Thomas?

Most sociologists know the adage that is fundamental to (much of) sociological thought — “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” — the Thomas theorem.  It is so widely known and used that few actually cite the original source, noting simply, “according to W. I. Thomas…”

I looked to formally cite this notion in my dissertation, which meant having to search for the source.  So easily found: The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs (1928) by William Issac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas.

Who Is Dorothy Swaine Thomas?

Wait – what?  Never in my life had I heard of Dorothy Swaine Thomas.  It seemed odd that the second of only two others is rarely, if ever, cited when referencing the Thomas theorem.  Is it really that hard to say “Thomas and Thomas” or “Thomas et al.” or “the Thomases”?  I figured the mystery surrounding author number two had something to do with her being a woman academic in the early twentieth century.

I decided to do some digging to see who Dorothy Swaine Thomas is, and whether others had taken note on the conspicuous absence of her contribution to this important sociological theorem.  I thought others may have been wary of her contribution because she was seen as an assisting author, particularly as William’s wife, than a “legitimate” co-author.  Maybe she is otherwise irrelevant in terms of sociological research, theory, and knowledge.

Simply clicking her name on the Amazon page for The Child in America, I saw that she published upwards to 30 books.  Okay, so she is hardly irrelevant, even by the least generous standards.  (By all means, even co-publishing one pivotal book counts as relevant in my mind, but others may have higher standards of “relevance” to the discipline.)

Digging deeper, I saw that she was actually quite influential in sociology, as well as demography.  She began publishing research as early as age 22, and had her PhD by age 25.  She was the first woman professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  And, she served as the first woman President (and, earlier, Vice President) of the American Sociological Association, and also served as President of the Population Association of American.

Let’s call it what it is: she was an academic badass.  Of special personal interest: “Although Thomas considered herself a social activist, [her adviser William] Ogburn persuaded her to become a ‘scientist,’ which in sociology meant a quantitative, preferably statistical approach to social issues” (from the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology online).

So, I am left wondering why I had never heard or read about Thomas prior to my own search.  Especially because:

Thomas’s contributions to sociology were nonetheless substantial. Her high standards and clear thinking helped professionalize a discipline criticized for its armchair theorizing, jargon, and do-goodism. Despite the controversy that surrounded the Evacuation and Resettlement study, the Supreme Court later accepted it as a major resource in documenting a national wrong perpetrated by the government against its citizens.

The quantitative work Thomas pioneered helped gain sociology foundation support and provided a beachhead for women who might otherwise have been excluded from university positions. For her contributions to demography the University of Pennsylvania awarded Thomas an honorary degree in 1970 (from Blackwell).

On Sexism And Sociology

A good guess would be sexism.  Though she was successful, her career was not without the constraints of sexism:

Job prospects were also not encouraging. Although women of Thomas’s generation were earning doctorates in sociology in increasing, if still relatively small numbers through the late 1920s, these graduates were effectively excluded from jobs in university sociology departments through a pattern of formal rules and informal understandings.

Unfortunately, some of her success came with the dilemma that many women scholars continue to face – the tension between authenticity and success/relevance:

Thomas experienced the pressures of being scrutinized by members of an overwhelming majority, however kindly disposed. As a result, she not only shared the outlook, the professional ethos, and the passion for objectivity of Ogburn and other male objectivists, but was one of the most ardent practitioners of their brand of sociology. Otherwise, she would almost certainly not have realized the success she did.

At the same time, had she not had so constantly to prove her professionalism and objectivity, she might not have remained wedded to so narrow a conception of her discipline, might have produced richer and more valuable insights into human behavior and perhaps even a body of theoretical work more to modern taste. Viewed in this way, Thomas’s sex exacted a toll for the very reasons that she was so eminently successful in overcoming the limitations it imposed.

The Erasure Of Thomas’s Contributions

These constraints aside — blocked job opportunities, and the way “trading power for patronage” shaped her career — there appears to be some erasure of Thomas’s contribution to sociology.  In a review 244 introductory sociology textbooks (1945-1994) to assess citations of The Child in America, particularly for the Thomas’ theorem, R. S. Smith (1995) noted:

There  I was surprised to discover that W. I. Thomas was not the sole author of [The Child in America]; rather it was co-authored by Dorothy Swaine Thomas..  It was this experience that started me thinking about all the times I had seen [the theorem] quoted but had never once come across Dorothy Swaine Thomas’s name (p12-3).

Most of the textbooks that cited the “Thomas theorem” merely credited W. I. Thomas.  So, why is Dorothy’s work ignored?  Apparently, she was primarily responsible for the book’s data collection and analyses.  But, those parts are central to the book.  While she later penned a letter that suggested William was the “brains” behind the theorem, the letter’s 1991 publication in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences fails to explain why she was rarely credited for the theorem from 1928 through the mid-1970s.

Unfortunately, the erasure of her contributions, as well as those of other women scholars, has a “ripple effect.”  I seriously doubt that my professors fail to credit Dorothy Swaine Thomas intentionally; rather, they failed to teach me about her because they never learned about her.  Her invisibility is further spread through introductory textbooks.  If it were not for accidentally “discovering” her, I, too, would likely perpetuate her erasure by overlooking her work in my classes.

A(nother) Call For The Sociology of Sociology

As I have written in earlier posts, sociology, and academia in general, is not immune to the biases of society.  But, what may have been intentional exclusion or erasure nearly a century ago (and, to be honest, even more recently) continues on as innocent ignorance.  This is inexcusable.

The erasure of “people like us” does marginalized scholars a disservice because it paints the picture that we have had little role in shaping academia and knowledge.  And, many of the names and legacies that have survived efforts to exclude and erase, as well as innocent “amnesia,” are often stripped of personhood.  For example, some sociological “greats” like W. E. B. DuBois are stripped of their activism and radical politics, characterized, instead, as cooperative, mainstream (apolitical) sociologists.

But, for all of academia, this supposed “amnesia” seems like a detriment to the advancement of knowledge.  Whole scholarly contributions have either been outright blocked, or eventually lost over time.  Who knows whether we are “reinventing the wheel,” missing crucial insights that had once been put forth and lost?

Again, I call for a sociology of sociology, where we turn our critical lens back on our field.  In many ways, exclusion and discrimination are still at play.  And, there are whole careers and specific studies, theories, and insights that are lost in the past.  Besides liberating these scholars and their work from academic “amnesia,” it may also be worth revisiting other “classic” work through a contemporary lens.  (Full disclosure, I remain wary of giving full credit to handful of dead middle-class white men to pen the theories of society.)

To be fair, this line of work would still be a bit too “navel-gazey” for my tastes to pursue as my primary research.  But, I remain intrigued enough to do my own homework in my free time (and, obviously blog about it).  If anything, I would like to know the herstory of the field I love, with specific attention to the stories that are not told, and to those scholars who are not celebrated as the “fathers of sociology.”

I certainly encourage others to reflect more on the past (and present) of our discipline and the academy as a whole.  At a minimum, I hope others take from this inspiration to credit the other Thomas (i.e., Dorothy Swaine) for the Thomas theorem.

In Defense Of Femininities — All Of Them

Happy Women’s, Womyn’s, Womanist Herstory Month!  Yep, it is March already.  A time the US has set aside for obligatory celebration of girls and women and their contributions to the world.  Sadly, there is a sense of obligation, with the whisperings of “do we still need this?”

Comprehensive Gender Equality

Yes, we do still need these 31 days — barely 10 percent of the entire year — to reflect on girls, women, feminism, sexism and patriarchy, and gender.  By no means have we achieved gender equality.  And, we are overdue for broadening our vision of gender and equality.

Some time ago, I blogged about the narrow definition of “gender equality.”  In this limited, traditional sense, we are referring to the the equal status and treatment of women and men, still recognized by their gender and presumed sex.  This is certainly the dominant vision of mainstream feminism, or was at least in the days of second wave feminism.

There are at least three aspects of gender inequality that remain in this limited view of gender and gender equality.  First, this vision reinforces the treatment of “woman” as a singular status and “women” as a monolithic group.  The unique experiences and needs of women who are also of color, poor, disabled, lesbian, bisexual, queer, older, immigrant, and so on are overlooked.  Second, this focus fails to address the marginalization of transwomen, and transgender and gender non-conforming people in general.  Finally, while aiming to free women from oppression, certain gender identities and expressions — namely femininities — remain stigmatized and invisible.

Gender Diversity

There is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often overlooked within our society that continues to treat sex and gender as binaries: females and males, women and men.

Women, as a group, come from diverse backgrounds: race, ethnicity, social class, sexual identity, nativity, body size and shape, religion, region, and ability.  It is unsurprising, then, that various branches of feminism — or, more accurately, various feminisms — emerged to counter the exclusive focus of mainstream (second wave) feminism to the lives of US-born white middle-class heterosexual cisgender women.  Some of the prominent feminisms in both activism and academia include Black feminism, Womanism, Chicana feminism, multiracial feminism, Third World feminism, lesbian feminism, and working-class feminism.  Today, feminist advocacy and organizations are now more inclusive, but there is still a strong tendency to slip into “single issue” politics.

Related to this diversity among women is the variation within the category of “woman.”  Just as thinking of gender in binary terms, women and men, a singular view of women misses the existence of trans* and gender non-conforming people, particularly transwomen.  Unfortunately, feminist advocacy and organizations have even excluded transwomen in the past, and many wrestle today with deciding how far their inclusivity should extend (e.g., should women’s organizations serve transmen?).

Beyond diversity in terms of gender identity is the recognition of diverse gender expressions.  In reality, there is no universal femininity.  Rather, there are multiple femininities.  Because of the conflation of sex and gender, we tend to assume that femininity = woman; so the reality that femininity can be expressed through any body, regardless of sex and gender identity, is actively resisted and suppressed.  This means we also overlook the hierarchy of femininities, wherein hyperfemininity in female-bodied individuals is rewarded and valued over other expressions of femininity and its expression in other bodies.

Just to make sure the above discussion is clear, I stress that there is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often ignored or erased.  “Woman” does not imply white, US-born, able-bodied, heterosexual (or even sexual), cisgender, feminine, middle-class, Christian, and thin.  There is no singular status or identity of woman.  As a consequence of overlooking this gender diversity, we also miss the inequality that persists among women and among femininities.

In Defense Of Femininities

Despite the many gains that (cis)women have made, and increasing attention to the lives of transwomen, femininity itself remains stigmatized and devalued.  In fact, I would argue that some of the gains made toward gender equality have come at the expense of femininity.  Indeed, early on, some feminists expressed concern that the elevation of women’s status to that of men’s would largely men that women become men.  You can join the old boys club on the condition that you become a boy.

My discipline (sociology) recently tipped over the threshold of gender parity to become a predominantly-female field.  Though the “glass ceiling” has been cracked, if not completely shattered, in some of the field’s top-departments and leadership positions, feminist sociologists continue to struggle to gain legitimacy in mainstream sociology.

Further, we continue to prioritize and reward masculine (or even masculinist) presentations of self.  On two occasions, I witnessed a woman professor scold women students (in front of a mixed-audience) for appearing to lack confidence and aggressiveness: “don’t do that, that’s girly!”  I, too, was discouraged by a (man) professor from being a “shy guy” during an upcoming talk, which, upon comparing notes with another student, realized was the softened version of “man up!”  (I suppose I was assumed too sensitive or critical for the more direct assault on my gendered presentation of self.)

These interpersonal constraints are compounded by those at the institutional level.  In particular, academic institutions continue to evaluate scholars, particularly for tenure, using standards of the days where (white) male scholars had stay-at-home wives to take care of house and home.  Women who become parents face great professional costs, while women who forgo parenthood are rewarded.  Of course, an ironic twist to this aspect of sexism is that fathers receive a slight boost.

Liberating Femininities

As an optimist, I see liberating girls, women, as well as femininity as beneficial to all members of society, no matter their sex, gender identity, and gender expression.  As a critical scholar, I see this liberation as inherently tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups. Sexism is linked to transphobia is linked to heterosexism is linked to classism is linked to racism is linked to xenophobia is linked to ableism is linked to ageism and so on.

For example, two groups of oppressed men — Black men and trans, bisexual, and gay men — stand to benefit from the liberation of femininity.  Just as a hierarchy exists for femininities, one exists for the diverse expressions of masculinity, with that of US-born white middle-class able-bodied heterosexual men as the most valued.  Thus, Black masculinity and queer masculinity are devalued, stereotyped, and simultaneously threatened and treated as a threat.  As a result, many queer and Black men devalue femininity in society and particularly among themselves.  (Some rationalize this by asking, “why would you want to be further stigmatized?”)  True racial and sexual equality cannot exist if these men’s gender expressions remain constrained and policed.

It is time, then, to update our feminist vision of the future.  Feminism cannot be limited to the goal of liberating (a “narrow” category of) women.  We must liberate all women, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, race, age, ethnicity, ability, nativity, religion, body size and shape, and social class.  And, we must liberate all expressions of gender, particularly femininities.  For women will never be truly free in a society that oppresses femininity.

Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment

Racism, as a social system, shapes and structures every aspect of society.  As sociologist Eduado Bonilla-Silva argues in his structural perspective of racism (PDF), racism operates as a social structure that has taken on a life of its own, and serves as an “organizing principle of social relations in itself” (page 475).  So, a more appropriate conceptualization of racism reminds us that it operates as a system of oppression, not merely an ideology (i.e., racial prejudice or, the more sanitized reference to “racial attitudes”) nor actions (i.e., interpersonal racial discrimination).  Borrowing from sociologist Barbara Risman‘s thesis of gender (specifically sexism) as a social structure (PDF), we can think of racism as system that operates on multiple levels:

  1. Racialized Individuals: aspects of the self directly related to race (e.g., racial identity, racial attitudes) and consequences of racism (e.g., health, income, education, values, aspirations).
  2. Racialized Interactions: re-creation and reinforcement of racial inequality in interactions between individuals (e.g., racial discrimination; “doing” race and holding one another accountable for “appropriate” performances of our presumed race; immediate, automatic categorization of others by race).
  3. Racialized Institutions: laws, policies, organizational practices, cultural and social norms that re-create and reinforce racial inequality (e.g., racial disparities in the criminal justice system, redlining and other forms of housing discrimination, pay inequality, “professional” standards that privilege white middle-class ways of living and behaving).

When framed this way, our challenge is not to “prove” when race does matter or when racism is at play.  Rather, racism is understood as universally and perpetually relevant, shaping the core of every aspect of social life.  We are hard pressed, then, to prove when race doesn’t mater or when racism isn’t at play.  This puts to rest the misguided and naive discussions about the supposed “post-racial” society.  And, it helps to maintain attention to racial prejudice, while not being completely distracted by playing the “who’s a racist?” game.

Everyday Racism

Even in this modern era — supposedly “post-racial,” or even “post-racist,” — racism operates as a daily burden in the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.  As such, scholars have introduced a fitting concept: everyday racism:

Racism is easily recognized in its extreme forms (e.g., white youth beating up and killing dark-skinned people), or in its overt forms (e.g., throwing bananas at black players on European soccer fields). Everyday racism can be more coded (a white teacher saying to an African-American student: “How come you write so well?”); ingrained in institutional practice (appointing friends of friends for a position, as a result of which the workplace remains white); and not consciously intended (when lunch tables in a canteen or cafeteria are informally racially segregated and the white manager “naturally” joins the table with the white workers where only they will benefit from casually shared, relevant information and networking).

The term is quite apt, first, because of its reference to the daily occurrences of subtle actions, slights, and microaggressions, and second, because it refers to a common, “everyday” feel of the reality of racism.  By attending to the extreme, overt expressions of racism of a few “bad apples,” we miss the widespread existence of minor, subtle expressions of racism.  Though a rare slight here or there has little effect, the everyday exposure to these slights adds up, taking a toll on the health and well-being of each person of color.

In fact, the health consequence of everyday racial discrimination is comparable to, and may even exceed, those of major events of discrimination, like being unfairly fired or denied a job.  This is, in part, due to the heavy cognitive and emotional toll of processing — “was that discrimination?  was that because I’m Latina?”  Despite the stereotype that people of color are quick to “play the race card,” to assume unsatisfactory or differential outcomes are the result of discrimination, most probably go through a series of steps in their heads before concluding racism may have been at play.  That represents a lot of used up mental and emotional energy, on top of all of the other stressors everyone experiences regardless of race, as well as those disproportionately faced by people of color (e.g., poverty, barriers to important institutions like education, health care, etc.).

Ironically, because of accusations of hypersensitivity or that one is “playing the race card,” people of color face even greater pressure to process potentially racist events before making such conclusions.  Yet, one still faces the risk of having one’s claims of victimization denied or dismissed.  This, then, could lead one to doubt or question their own experiences, or feel that white people — even those who proclaim to be allies, liberal, anti-racist, or “color-blind” — just don’t “get” it and thus aren’t worth speaking with about issues related to race and racism.

Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment

I will say up front that this may be my own, personal burden: daily disappointment.  It may come as a surprise that I am stubbornly optimistic.  I have chosen to devote my life’s work to challenging inequality, prejudice and discrimination, and exclusion, and promoting equality, acceptance, and diversity because I have high hopes that such change can (continue to) occur.  And, though a product of their time and social context, humans are capable of good, humanity, and peace.  So, despite the crappy things that I may experience, witness, or read or hear about today, I will sleep tonight and wake tomorrow with replenished hope for peace and justice.

My optimism is a gift.  And, it is often a curse, leaving me open to constant disappointment.  An example:

I spent my first Christmas with my partner a couple of months ago.  Deciding against participating in the capitalist take-over of the holiday, we spent the day together as our “gifts” to each other.  I decided to take a brief walk to get some fresh air, and used getting sodas from the local gas station as a fine excuse.  (There wasn’t much else open on the holiday.)  I walked to the store jamming to Shangela’s “Werqin’ Girl,” and feeling great (I’m digging songs by drag queens these days).  I headed to the back toward the coolers, and two women entered the store after me.  With sodas in hand, I got in line to check out.  Two people were ahead of me in line.  I watched as the cashier told one customer (a young white man), “you’re coming back later?  Oh, you can pay for this then.”  Such trust.  And, sadly, my first thought was, “there is no way this white cashier would trust me to pay for something later, no matter how many times he sees me as a customer here.”  It is what it is in this racist country.

Then, another customer (a white woman) cut in front of me in line.  I thought many things in that moment: maybe she hasn’t seen me yet; maybe she is planning to get behind me once we move forward; maybe she is with this other (white woman) customer.  Maybe there is some logical reason for her otherwise rude behavior.  The other customer began checking out.  The person who cut in line did not check out with her.  She did not move behind me upon seeing me.  I became angry.  “Should I tell her, politely, that I was next in line?”  I decided to let it go, albeit unsuccessfully.  My anger started to beat out my logic.  I moved closer, attempting to rely on her presumed fear of me as a large brown man to get her attention.  Nothing.  With her purse on the counter, partially open, I rested my hand close to it, trying harder to make her uncomfortable.  Nothing.  She checked out.  I checked out.

Outside, I noticed the two white women were together, though they did not check out their purchases within the same transaction.  I walked out toward the street, putting my headphones back on.  I noticed the two women pull up behind me in their van.  An opportunity for revenge!  I stood in the way of their exit.  I looked both ways before crossing the street: once, twice, three times.  When it was obvious that the street was safe to cross, and had been for more time than presumably necessary, I looked back at the woman who cut in front of me in line.  Then, I looked her up and down, and proceeded to cross the street.

The entire event disappointed me.  Can’t I go one day — even Christmas day — without being forced to think about racism?  And, my own (constrained) actions disappointed me.  Wasn’t there a better way to handle the situation?  But, unfortunately, people of color are constantly placed in these situations to process, to weigh appropriate courses of action (or inaction).  We are placed in situations in which we are forced to ask, “was that about race?”  And, no matter our response, we are left thinking about it days, months, or years later, while it never develops into a significant memory in the minds of our privileged counterparts.

The insult to the injury of these events of everyday racism are the responses that belittle our experiences: “are you sure that was about race?”; “maybe you’re overreacting”; “maybe…” [some other “logical” explanation]; “just try to forget about it.”  Upon facing some subtle, minor, and presumably “innocent” incident, we are then told by a group who are not faced with such a burden that our reaction, how we feel, think, or act, is inappropriate or excessive.  Figuratively speaking, you are punched in the gut and then asked why you are curled over and groaning.

I suppose I could avoid these daily disappointments by assuming the worst in people.  But, disappointed or not, I am inclined to continue to see the potential for good and kindness in every person.  I can’t imagine that great leaders of yesterday and today would be as strong in their conviction if they had little hope for humanity.

“Stop-And-Frisk”: Legalized Racist, Homophobic, And Transphobic Discrimination

New York City’s unpopular, but supposedly “effective” crime-reducing program, “Stop, Question, and Frisk” or (“Stop-and-Frisk” for short), was ruled unconstitutional on Tuesday.  The program entails the following: “a police officer who reasonably suspects a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony or a Penal Law misdemeanor, stops and questions that person, and, if the officer reasonably suspects he or she is in danger of physical injury, frisks the person stopped for weapons.”

The judge, Shira A. Scheindlin of Federal District Court in Manhattan, ruled that NYC police officers were systematically stopping people with little cause for suspicion.  (In this particular case, police officers were stopping individuals thought to be trespassing on a Bronx apartment complex property.)  In reviewing police training, she further noted that this evidence “strengthens the conclusion that the N.Y.P.D.’s inaccurate training has taught officers the following lesson: Stop and question first, develop reasonable suspicion later.”

“Because any member of the public could conceivably find herself outside a TAP building in the Bronx, the public at large has a liberty and dignity interest in bringing an end to the practice of unconstitutional stops at issue in this case,” the judge wrote.

In a way, this is exactly what NYC major Michael Bloomberg and other advocates of the “stop-and-frisk” program call for.  In exchange for the universal possibility of being stopped by a police officer, residents of NYC see a significant reduction in crime and gun possession.  While there have been notable declines in the crime rate (but few seizures of guns), many have argued that this purported exchange is not enjoyed universally.  Rather, an overwhelming majority of those stopped by police over the past two years were Black and Latino men.  Judge Scheindlin took note of one role of race (and racism) in her decision:

As a person exits a building, the ruling said, “the police suddenly materialize, stop the person, demand identification, and question the person about where he or she is coming from and what he or she is doing.”

The decision continued: “Attempts at explanation are met with hostility; especially if the person is a young black man, he is frisked, which often involves an invasive search of his pockets; in some cases the officers then detain the person in a police van.”

Legalized Racism

Many civil rights and anti-racist activists have criticized the “stop-and-frisk” program due to the overrepresentation of men of color in police stops.  Indeed, in practice, the program is a form of institutional discrimination — in this case, as disparate impact discrimination.  That is, while the program does not target a particular disadvantaged group — men of color — by design, it does, in practice, disproportionately burden them.

Typically, disparate impact discrimination is deemed otherwise innocent in terms of intention or bias; these are merely programs or policies that have been unfair in practice.  Yet “stop-and-frisk” actually operates as a legal door for racial profiling by both those unintentionally and those intentionally targeting Black and Latino men.  Some say the racial and ethnic imbalance is merely a product of geography: greater surveillance of predominantly black and brown areas of the city (this, of course, is problematic, too!).  In light of stories of being stopped many times in one’s life, others suggest the “stop-and-frisk” program legally allows police to use one’s blackness/brownness as suspect.  “You’re Black/Latino, so you must be up to no good!”

Even if police stops were equally burdensome for every racial group (and police were evenly hostile to “suspicious” people), the experience of being stopped, questioned, and searched by police is fundamentally racialized.  Given the history of racism, including racist violence and harassment by police or by others yet ignored by police, no white person can ever fully experience the feelings of anger, humiliation, and powerlessness that follow being targeted by police as a person of color.

Further, programs like this one, Arizona’s “show-me-your-papers” law that unfairly targets Latina/o people, among others are just the tip of the racist iceberg of the US criminal justice system.  From interaction with the police, to arrest, to court, to prison, racial inequality exists at every step and every facet of law enforcement and criminal justice.  Unfortunately, the narrow view of the law cannot handle the reality that racism shapes the core and operation of every social system and institution, including law enforcement.

Legalized Homophobia And Transphobia

It may have come as a surprise to some that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups joined the chorus of anti-racist and civil rights organizations that rallied against the “stop-and-frisk” program.  Beyond advocating for racial equality, these groups took issue with the disproportionate number of LGBT people of color who have been stopped by police.  Often, young Black and Latino LGBT people are stopped as suspects for sexual crimes (e.g., public sex, sex work).  In these stops, many are sexually harassed or assaulted by police.

Parallel to blackness and brownness as suspect, LGBT people are legally targeted through the “stop-and-frisk” program often because of their gender expression.  LGBT people, especially transgender and gender non-conforming people, are deemed suspicious because their “appearance transgresses gender norms embraced by mainstream society.”  It turns out that stops based on suspicion of sexual crimes has already been deemed illegal, again by the same judge:

In 2010, in a decision dripping with outrage, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin held New York City in contempt for failing to end enforcement of loitering laws held unconstitutional decades before. One of the laws at issue was the “loitering for sex” statute that Lambda Legal had succeeded in getting struck down in 1983 by New York’s highest court, shortly after it threw out the state’s sodomy law.

“The human toll, of course, has been borne by the tens of thousands of individuals who have, at once, had their constitutional rights violated and been swept into the penal system,” Scheindlin wrote. “More disturbing still, it appears that the laws — which target panhandling, remaining in a bus or train station, and ‘cruising’ for sex — have been enforced particularly against the poor and gay men.”

Missing The Complex Reality Of Discrimination Today

The above discussion points to the inability for the law, in its present state, to fully appreciate the complex reality of discrimination today.  One challenge is to prove that a law or program — instances of institutional discrimination — disproportionately affect a particular group (without just cause).  This sidesteps the matter of proving biased or prejudiced intentions, a matter central to cases of unfair treatment; however, the narrow view of the law fails to account for the systemic, wide-reaching influence of systems of oppression such as racism, homophobia, and transphobia.  Indeed, it can be argued that discrimination within one institution (e.g., criminal justice) mutually reinforces discrimination in other systems (e.g., education).  The true challenge, then, is proving when discrimination is not at play, at least indirectly.

The other important matter that is systematically overlooked is the simultaneous, interconnected operation of multiple systems of oppression.  “Stop-and-frisk” reflects the practice of both racism and homophobia/transphobia by police and the criminal justice system.  What, on the surface, appears to be a matter of racial inequality has turned out to disproportionately affect Black and Latina/o queer people.  Another instance of legalized discrimination, the US military’s “Don’ Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, had its greatest effect on Black women.  And, given the greater number of Black same-gender couples who have children, Black LGBT people hold a greater share of the burden created by laws that prohibit or hinder same-gender marriage and adoption.

Of course, greater attention should be paid to the reality that some people are victimized by multiple forms of discrimination (e.g., racist and sexist discrimination).  Yet, discrimination cases that pursue such claims are ultimately less successful in court, probably because the court is unable to apprehend this level of complexity.

The days of explicit, unapologetic racist discrimination are (mostly) gone, and great progress has been made toward equality for LGBT people.  Yet, the task remains to better understand prejudice and discrimination in the new millennium.  There is a great deal of complexity to discrimination that we consistently miss when attending to the discriminatory actions of a few bigoted apples.  We will never achieve full equality, whether in opportunities or outcomes, without an appropriately comprehensive understanding of what discrimination is, how it operates, and how to prevent it.

Race Matters, Even In Academia

Let’s start with something that is of critical importance, but very embarrassing to admit: I was surprised that the realities of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism exist in academia, just like the rest of society.  I can recall instances of prejudice, discrimination, invisibility, tokenism, invalidation, and so forth within the walls of the ivory tower that are very similar to those I experience outside of it.  Just as higher education as an institution is not immune to prejudice and discrimination, neither are academics.  The extremely embarrassing part of this self-disclosure is that I continue to be surprised with every new encounter of stereotypes, hostility, denials of opportunity, and so forth.  I suppose my blessing is also my curse: seeing the potential for good, kindness, and justice in all people.

Racial And Ethnic Differences Among Sociology PhD Students

I find comfort and discomfort in the findings of a recent survey of 685 doctoral students in sociology graduate programs in the United States.  This survey was presented at August’s annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, entitled, ““Diversity and Its Discontents”:  A Report on Graduate Student Experiences in PhD-Granting Institutions.”  (Download the Powerpoint presentation online here.)  A few interesting findings from the survey:

  • Top 3 reasons students go to Grad School: [African Americans] 1) Contribute to advancement of minorities, 2) grow intellectually, 3) improve occupational mobility; [Latina/os] 1) Grow intellectually, 2) contribute to my community, 3) contribute to advancement of minorities; [whites] 1) Grow intellectually, 2) improve occupational mobility, 3) make a contribute to the field.  Notice overlap in wanting to grow intellectually, but contributing to social change and social justice is top 3 priority for whites to attend graduate school.
  • White students are least likely of the three groups to consider the racial and ethnic diversity of a PhD program when considering where to go for graduate school.
  • Black and Latina/o students are more likely than whites to note an advantage for white students in their department; whites are more likely than students of color to perceive an advantage for people of color in their department.  (It’s striking that even among sociologists, some whites believe that there are advantages afforded to people of color!)  These two sets of perceived inequality predict less satisfaction with the climate among fellow PhD students.

I want to emphasize that first finding again.  Here’s the slide that demonstrates the rank ordering of the top three reasons why white, Black, and Latina/o people decide to go to graduate school (in sociology):

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School

Though the placement differs slightly, all three racial and ethnic groups note wanting to grow intellectually.  That makes sense.  It would seem strange to embark on an intense educational training for 4-8 years (sometimes more) simply to advance one’s job prospects.  But, that is a reasonable priority, hence whites’ and Blacks’ mention of improving their occupational mobility (e.g., getting a better job).  But, what stands out most to me is that the #1 reason for Blacks to pursue a PhD in sociology is to contribute to the advancement of racial minorities, and reasons #2 and #3 for Latina/os are similar (minority advancement AND to contribute to one’s community).  Instead of a similar or parallel reason, a desire to contribute to the field of sociology ranks as the #3 reason for whites to attend graduate school.

Why Does It Matter?

Let me say up front that the reasons offered are all important and noble.  I don’t mean to suggest that any of these reasons are bad or selfish.  But, what I wish to illuminate is that whites in sociology and, arguably even more so in other disciplines, may not list as a top career priority to contribute to the advancement of racial and ethnic minorities.  This means that Black and Latina/o sociologists work with, and are even trained by, white sociologists who may not be interested in the same goals of racial equality and social justice more broadly.

I speak from personal experience that it is often frustrating to have what feels like “shop talk” about race and racism with a white sociologist, while each conversation about race for me feels like the difference between life or death.  I am sometimes confused why I feel such urgency to convey that race shapes almost every aspect of our lives and literally structures society, yet a white colleague I may be speaking with seems light in mood, with the ability to easily change the subject to who won American Idol.  Unfortunately, it often leaves me and other academics of color questioning whether we are in the right field to work for social justice and equality.  (Of course, it is the right field for me, given my interest in research, teaching, and serving both the academic and broader communities; but, I had not anticipated as a naive undergrad that I would have to convince fellow academics to care that inequality persists.)

A Caveat

You don’t have to worry that I’ve prepared a case for radically altering the academy, or restructuring graduate training programs.  I realize that this is only one survey, and it may not accurately reflect the experiences of every student of every race and ethnicity in every academic program.  But, it does offer a sense that I am not alone in my experiences as a PhD student of color.  One further concern that causes me to hesitate in my read of this survey is that other dimensions of difference and inequality — namely gender, social class, and sexual orientation — were not considered.  As a group whites may not rank a commitment to racial justice as a top reason for pursuing a PhD in sociology.  However, we don’t know how many white women, working-class whites, and white lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have pursued or are pursuing PhDs in sociology, women’s studies, ethnic studies, LGBT/sexuality studies, and so forth with the intention of fighting sexism, heterosexism, and classism in society.