11 posts from June 2008

June 30, 2008

The Gloucester Pregnancy "Pact": When Gossip Goes Global

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Once upon a time, in a land not too far away, when teenagers gossiped about one and other the rumors stayed between teens. Not so today.

Combine a lull in a year of presidential election politics, the start of summer, and a principal’s comment to Time magazine, and voila, a rumor that seventeen pregnant girls from Gloucester, Massachusetts all made a pact to get pregnant and raise their children together spreads under the “breaking news” banner. 

I first heard about this when local radio hosts who usually focus on Hollywood gossip talked about the story, how naïve these girls must have been, and how they probably saw the movie Juno and thought it would be cool to get pregnant. (Of course if you saw the movie it would be hard not to notice how painful and isolating it was to be pregnant in high school, even if Juno did have a sharp wit). No no no, a co-host offered, it’s Jamie Lynn Spears’ fault: she got pregnant at seventeen and because she is famous she made it cool. 

The Gloucester story became a staple on the major networks and cable news outlets, complete with commentators offering their explanations: celebrity clip_image002culture that gushes over any pregnancy, naïve teens who can’t understand the consequences of their actions, and whether or not there is too much/not enough birth control available for teens.

Left out of the story…the teens' thoughts. That is, until one pregnant girl appeared on Good Morning America with the baby’s father. She said she had been taking birth control pills and had not intentionally gotten pregnant, and there was no pact to get pregnant. Instead she told of a pact to help each other out to deal with the challenges that lie ahead—something that indicates an awareness that having a baby was more than just about buying cute little outfits and having baby shower parties.

The principal later stood by his statement to Time, asserting that there really was a pact to get pregnant. I have no inside information on what the pregnant girls may or may not have said to each other. But I have my doubts that the school principal would have been in on this sort of info either.

Pre-pregnancy pact or not, the reality is that many girls did get pregnant. While blaming Juno and Jamie Lynn make for interesting radio talk, sociologists have studied why teens get pregnant, and there are several more compelling explanations. Let’s consider some of them.

  1. Real or perceived lack of opportunity

Yes, it seems counterintuitive, but the less economic opportunity the greater likelihood of early pregnancy. It may appear like an irrational decision, especially since having a child is a pretty expensive endeavor. 

But here’s why lack of opportunity and poverty predicts higher fertility rates in people of all ages (in the U.S. and globally): when people feel as though bearing a child will not jeopardize a clear, concrete, goal they are less likely to take steps to prevent pregnancy from happening. By contrast, when the prospect of attending college seems very likely and a fulfilling, lucrative career will follow, people are more likely to protect those opportunities. clip_image002

When I was in high school, we had counselors cheering us through PSATs, SATs, walking us through the college application process and peers that we saw enter into the nation’s top universities. Most of our parents and other family members went to college and often graduate school in order to become professionals and top earners. Having a baby then would have been a devastating detour away from a path of near-certain upper-middle class status.

By contrast, in some communities counselors are few in number and perhaps only focus on a handful of the top students. I have had my own students tell me of high school counselors that actually dissuaded them from applying to college, suggesting it “wasn’t for them.” Pair that with little information about the all-important tests, how or when to fill out a college application, and not having a family member who ever attended college. Now higher education seems more like a fantasy than reality, especially in communities where they see few upper-middle class professionals in their daily lives. Yes, many people from working-class and low-income communities do go on to college and most do not get pregnant, but the stakes seem lower for them to begin with. Gloucester has traditionally been a working-class fishing community, and it has been struggling economically in recent years. While again this may seem counterintuitive, higher teen pregnancy rates are more likely in a community like this than they are in more affluent areas. 

  1. Overall teen birth rates have been falling

You might have heard about the rise in teen birth rates in 2006. This was a shift from fourteen straight years of decline, but as the Centers for Disease Control(CDC) press release notes, “It’s way too early to know if this is the start of a new trend,” but it of course important to take a look at. 


According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, between 1990 and 2004 the percentage of birth to women fifteen to nineteen dropped from thirty percent of all births to unmarried women to about 23 percent. In 2004 girls under fifteen accounted for .4 percent of all births to unmarried women, down from .9 percent in

1990. By contrast, births to unmarried women in their twenties increased slightly. Between 1990 and 2005 birth rates had fallen by fifty percent for those under fifteen, and by 34 percent for teens fifteen to nineteen. 

The 2006 data tell us that birth rates for those under fifteen continued to decline, and the biggest increase was in births to teens eighteen and nineteen. For fifteen to nineteen-year-olds, the rate rose from 40.5 live births per 1,000 in 2005 to 41.9 births per 1,000 in 2006.

As the CDC notes, “The birth rate for older teens aged 18-19 is 73 births per 1,000 population –- more than three times higher than the rate for teens aged 15-17 clip_image006(22 per 1,000).” As we can see from the table on the right from the CDC, the fifteen- to seventeen-year-old rate was 77 in 1990, and the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old rate was 168, still substantially higher than in 2006. Abortion rates also fell substantially since the late 1980s. The CDC also found that fewer high school students are sexually active now than in the early 1990s: down from 54 percent in 1991 to just under 48 percent in 2007, and that condom use is way up (from 46 to 62 percent). So despite this high-profile case, the news is mostly good.

As you can see, teen pregnancy is a bit more complicated than a funny movie about it or a profile of a young celebrity would suggest. In addition to socio-economic status, dramatic racial/ethnic differences still persist: African American and Latina fertility rates are higher than that of whites, regardless of age. The reasons for this are complex, and probably related to higher poverty rates of African Americans and Latinos in the population.

And finally, what about the boys (and men) involved? When we talk about teen pregnancy, we often leave them out of the discussion. Despite the reports that practically ignored males, the girls did not get themselves pregnant. But girls are still the ones we gossip about.

June 28, 2008

Colorblindness and the Martin Luther King Jr. Statue

author_cn By C.N. Le

You might remember my previous post that described criticisms over the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. memorial statue in Washington DC. That initial controversy centered on the fact that the sculptor was not African American, or even American -- he was Chinese. Critics charged that King's legacy was being "outsourced" to China.

Well, a new and different controversy about the statue has emerged -- as MSNBC reports, the federal commission that has final approval over the statue now wants the form of the statue changed: the current pose appears too "confrontational" and "totalitarian":

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts thinks "the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that mlk1 has recently been pulled down in other countries," commission secretary Thomas Luebke said in a letter in April. . . .

The centerpiece is to be a 2 1/2 -story sculpture of the civil rights leader carved in a giant chunk of granite. Called the Stone of Hope, it would depict King, standing with his arms folded, looming from the stone. At 28 feet tall, it would be eight feet taller than the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. . . .

Its general design was approved by the seven-member federal commission that year, based on drawings of the Stone of Hope that showed a more subtle image of King, from the waist up, as if he were emerging organically out of the rock, the commission said. . . .

The team wants to hold on "to the power and inspirational image" of the current version, [the memorial's executive architect] said. The sense of confrontation in the sculpture is not a coincidence. "We see him . . . as a warrior," Chaffers said yesterday. 

"We see him as a warrior for peace . . . not as some pacifist, placid, kind of vanilla, but really a man of great conviction and strength."

It should come as no surprise that such national memorials are inherently prone to historical, cultural, and political disagreements and controversy. We only have to remember the initial storm of criticism surrounding Maya Lin's design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

In my previous post, I included a picture of the current sculpture. In my opinion, King’s pose in the statue is certainly serious rather than playful. And it is probably true that a lot of statues of totalitarian leaders through the years also strike a "serious" pose. But for me, that is where the similarities end. Dr. King's pose is a reflection of his legacy -- one of the most inspiring and important leaders in modern American history.

As such, I think it is more than appropriate that his pose symbolize the significance and weight of his accomplishments and the entire Civil Rights Movement. Isn't that one of the main reasons to create this memorial in the first place?

I see this latest controversy about Dr. King’s “warrior” pose as another example of a 21st century American society that is trying to be “colorblind.” As I recently wrote, the dominant discourse in American race relations these days seems to stress the virtues of a "colorblind" Society.

mlk3In theory, it's great to not treat people differently based on their racial/ethnic identity. But in practice, ignoring people's racial identity means ignoring their different histories, characteristics, and community needs and instead, relying on the simplistic idea that we now live in a true meritocracy where racism no longer exists and everyone is on a completely level playing field. 

In that context, I am not surprised that the federal commission (perhaps composed predominantly of whites?) found the current pose too "confrontational." Apparently, they do not want the statue to remind people that the Civil Rights Movement was a struggle and that many people actually died in the process of "confronting" racism.

They would rather pretend that everything is perfectly fine now and that as a "colorblind" society, we don't need to dwell on the past and be reminded that a little over 40 years ago, it was perfectly legal and normal to treat people of color as inferior, subordinate, second-class citizens.

In other words, the commission’s desire that Dr. King's statue look less "confrontational," reflects a desire to avoid confronting the racism that Dr. King fought against and that still subtly pervades the mind set of American society today.

Like I said, that is what it means to be colorblind these days.

June 25, 2008

Marketing Ideas and Fears Through Email: Pass Along Hoaxes and Urban Legends

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I love email! I have been exchanging emails with one aunt in Toronto since 1995—long before most people I knew had email. But what drives me absolutely nuts are forwarded emails designed to scare us. You know the ones that offer safety tips and supposed health information? Very few are true or correct. So why do so many people forward those emails, propelling the crazy ideas even faster around the world? J0283757

Today, it seems that everybody uses the internet. The reality is that there are great disparities in computer use: Europe, North American and Australia/Oceania are the only areas of the world where internet usage has penetrated about half or more of the population. Within these countries who has computer access varies; for example in the U.S. those who are over age 65, have less education, or are African American are less likely to use the internet.

clip_image002Email is the number one internet activity in which we engage. On a typical day in 2004, 58 million people in the U.S. alone used email. Ever think about how many people receive the same loopy emails that crowd your inbox? In 2001, MIT graduate student Jonah Peretti, sent an email to 12 friends about his attempts to personalize his Nike shoes with the word “sweatshop”. The email made its way around the world and into international media; the story was profiled in large media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and NBC’s Today Show. In less than a three-month period, Peretti received 3,655 inquiries about his email! He got responses from every continent, and his email was translated into several languages. As Peretti writes: “You send an email to 10 friends, and each friend forwards the email to 10 of their friends. If this process continues just 6 steps the message will reach a million people. After 10 steps, the message would hypothetically reach more people than the total population of the earth.”

clip_image005Emails help us maintain social networks and build social capital. They allow us to stay in contact with ever growing networks. As people’s networks grow it becomes increasingly difficult for them to stay in contact, except with the use of emails. With email, people are able to stay in contact with more people, more easily. Forwards are one way that people do this. We can forward one note to many people, therefore staying in touch with that many people all at once.

I really like the terms that researchers have come up with to describe some of this: “viral marketing” and “viral consumers”. Business researchers examine the ways that consumers become marketers of products and services through the use of emails to spread—hence the term viral—information to friends and family. Avoiding these forwards feels a lot like I’m dodging a real virus! They are the marketing of ideas and fears through email. How does this happen? One aspect of this phenomenon is that we do not automatically delete forwarded emails from people we know, although we might do so very easily with notes from strangers. Emails from people we know are more persuasive than those from strangers. Many forwarded emails take a dash of truth and embellish the core with scary details, add names and places, along with an emotional aspect guaranteed to scare us. These urban legends and hoaxes often include details that are possible, but highly unlikely. The details make the claims appear legitimate. 

clip_image007Further, email is quick, and cheap or free. Those passing them along don’t have to write or type anything. They simply hit the forward button. The fact that those forwarding emails mostly don’t write anything means that the messages are passed on unchanged, unlike the “telephone game”. Sometimes there are versions of the same forward, so there is “tampering” at some point. However, because we don’t think of our friends or relatives as note originators, they may appear more authentic. It is not Aunt Mary who said this; it’s some really knowledgeable, albeit unknown, person. We know the immediate sources of these emails—the people who send them to us—and we assume that if someone we know sends a note, it must be okay. People may not realize that they can check the veracity of emails at websites such as Snopes and figure they are doing more good than harm passing on warnings. None of this is a recipe to discontinue the practice of passing along emails. Indeed, researchers found people pass along emails to be altruistic, and to share what seems to be good information regarding warnings about health and safety. There may also be a degree of impression management in passing along forwards; it is a chance to subtly convey to others what we know, and presumably, they do not. J0288908

June 22, 2008

Global Poverty for Sale

author_karen By Karen Sternheimerinspiration

Do you ever get unsolicited catalogs in the mail? I occasionally get them from “upscale” stores featuring high-priced designer brands.  This makes me laugh because I am an outlet mall shopper at heart, and the thought of spending thousands for a dress or a pair of shoes or a handbag never crosses my mind. I suspect that since many affluent people live in my zip code I am mistaken for one of “them.” 


These catalogs usually go right into the recycling bin, but occasionally I give them a look for a good mock now and clip_image004then. A recent catalog seemed ripe for a laugh, with its extra-thick paper attempting to lure me to shop at South Coast Plaza, the largest mall in Orange County, California, which according to Mapquest is exactly 53.15 miles from my home (for point of reference, Rodeo Drive is less than ten miles away, so if I wanted to spend ridiculous amounts of money I could do so much closer to home). 


But leafing through the catalog was not so funny. The high-fashion shots featured models in their over-priced designer clothes against the backdrop of global poverty. The motorcycle pictured on the left features a license plate that reveals that the shoot took place in the Dominican Republic, a Caribbean island where approximately thirty percent of the population lives in poverty. In 2000, their per capita income was about $2,326.


But poverty is apparently chic, at least when it can add some element of authenticity to the new spring fashion line. As you can see from the ad copy on the right, words like “exotic,” “primitive” and “tribal colors” provide “inspiration” for “new designs.”



Yes, infant mortality rates in the Dominican are 47 per 1,000 live births, more than seven times the U.S. rate of 6.3 per 1,000, and 2.5 percent of the adult population is HIV positive, but they provide us with “simple shapes” and “vivid scenery.”clip_image008


I found this ad for the green Dolce & Gabbana dress particularly interesting. The dress is nice, but the background is what is really interesting: the crumbling shack to the left and people adding “local color” in the far right. While I could not find the price for this particular dress, D & G dresses typically range from $1,500-$2,800 each. In other words, just about the annual income of an average Dominican.


The Quiksilver ad on the right offers a more up-close view of the “vivid scenery.” Here we have decidedly unhappy locals leaning against a house resting on crumbling concrete. Note that only the white model smiles. While his outfit probably cost under $150, much less than the D & G dress, his casual attire contrasts with the shabbier clothes of the others in the picture, particularly the boy with holes in his rolled-up jeans.



In these photos, the people of the Dominican Republic are mere props. Adding to a backdrop of what the ad describes as “exotic,” is the man riding a donkey pulling a cart on the left, and the young boys staring at the model on the right as she poses. 


clip_image012Both of the women’s poses are interesting in light of the persistence of the global sex trade in developing nations. According to a 1997 Miami Herald article, prostitution is a particularly bad problem in the Dominican, with its high poverty rate and increase in international tourism. The majority of women working as prostitutes are mothers trying to support their children; and as with other poor countries, children themselves often end up ensnared in global sex tourism.


clip_image016Yet the images of children in the ads are highly sentimental, enabling us to overlook some of the serious challenges children in “exotic places” confront. In the Dominican Republic, school children must wear uniforms, like the kids in these pictures, although no funding is provided for them. The girls in the ad on the right in the front are dressed in the American store’s clothes, in contrast with their uniformed peers. All stand in rubble but appear happy. clip_image014


The white model to the left, posed as “teacher,” appears pregnant herself, and it is interesting to think about the different life chances that child likely will have compared with children in developing countries. Adding to the “local color,” the book she holds “Incas, Mayas, y Aztecas,” recalls other colonized peoples in a crumbling classroom.


clip_image018Finally, nature itself becomes commodified in these ads. This Jimmy Choo handbag, pictured with a hay-thatched hut in the background, retails for $3,050, more than the average annual income of a Dominican citizen. 


And this necklace pictured on the right turns being green on its head. While the ad copy shown above details the “vivid scenery” and “colors inspired by nature,” this picture seems to suggest clip_image019that nature itself needs adornment.


Advertising may not make us more likely to buy any of this stuff, but it is loaded with interesting sociological components. Here we see issues of the environment, race, socioeconomic status, and globalization embedded into a series of ads. They (probably unintentionally) help us see some of the contrasts between the materialism of the wealthy in industrialized nations and the extreme poor of developing countries. What do you see?

June 19, 2008

Girls, Boys, and Violence: Who's Really at Risk?

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

I was in a hotel elevator recently, heading down for breakfast. The doors opened on a floor and there were two women and about eight girls who looked to be around the ages of seven or eight. To the side was a man who gestured them to enter the elevator and follow them in. The women declined his offer and gestured for him to go ahead and one said that they would catch the next elevator. He continued to gesture them towards the elevator, the women did their best to stop the girls from entering and said very politely to him, “No, you go ahead.” 

Eventually he laughed and said as he continued to gesture, “Hey, I’m not one of those, I’m not one of those guys on the post office wall, I’m OK! Really, I’m an OK guy!” 

When he said this, the girls seemed oblivious to his meaning but the women recoiled and put their arms around the girls and pulled them back while the one woman said louder and with emphasis, “No, really, you go ahead, we’re fine.”

He got on the elevator, the group of girls did not, and we rode down to the ground floor. 

I was a bit creeped out by his response and turned to look out the elevator windows and away from him. Later I asked my spouse, who was with me for that exchange, if he had noticed it and thought anything about it. He hadn’t really paid attention to the content of the interaction, since he was ready to get breakfast and didn’t care who got on the elevator as long as someone did! (He’s not a sociologist although he has developed a sociological imagination from clip_image002living with me for the last 24 years!)

Later at the family gathering we were attending, I asked my relatives their opinion about the exchange. All the women were as appalled as I was at the man’s comments. 

Our reactions had strong commonalities: why did the man choose to define himself as a non-predator? Why did his mind go there so fast when there were a myriad of other things he could have said? And, why was he laughing about such a premise, when his comments had made the women visibly uncomfortable?

In our society, we socialize women to be aware of threats, especially from strangers. Girls are kept closer than boys when they are playing outside. Women don’t tend to go out alone at night, and there are a host of other protective behaviors that constrain what they do on a daily basis. We are taught these things to stay safe. In general, men don’t learn these things and they don’t grow up thinking about how safe they are at any given moment.

Whether or not there are real threats, girls and women often assume that we must not trust strangers and not expose ourselves to outside dangers, especially when we’re young.

Let’s look at the data on violence and assault to see if these protective behaviors are useful for women and girls. The National Violence against Women Survey, published in 2000 and sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, validates what we know from other studies on these issues.


In Exhibit 12, from the NIJ/CDC study, among those victimized as a minor, physical assault by a caretaker is the most likely threat for both gender groups while rape (by any perpetrator) is slightly more likely for women compared to men. This data show that 40% of women and 53.8% of men have been physically assaulted by a caretaker before they were eighteen; 9% of women and 1.9% of men were raped before they were eighteen.


Exhibit 14 illustrates that relatives and acquaintances are the most likely perpetrator of rape for both men and women prior to the age of eighteen. Stranger rape accounts for a smaller portion of rapes for females than for males.


If you’re wondering about the age distribution of rape victims, Exhibit 13 shows us that 21.6% of female victims and 48.0% of male victims are less than 12 years old. Note how the pattern is different for females and males: rape becomes less likely for males as they get older while for females, there is a more gradual distribution and the most prevalent ages are 12-17 years old and 18-24. 

clip_image008Exhibit 21 illustrates the adult victimization types and shows that, compared to childhood and adolescence, the rates of physical assault decline for both men and women while the stalking threat increases along with the rape risk for men – and only slightly for women. 

If our main question is the source of the threat and from whom should be protecting ourselves, let’s take one more look at the data: what are the victim-perpetrator relationship patterns for adults?

Exhibit 27 shows that once we are adults, the source of the greatest threat changes-- although the most radical change is for men. Adult males are much more likely to be raped or assaulted by strangers while women’s threat comes primarily from their intimate partners.

clip_image010Considering this data, do we socialize men and women appropriately? 

If we socialize girls and women to suspect strangers and people outside their families, does that work effectively to protect them since most of the real threat comes from people they know?

If we socialize boys and men to assume they are safe from outside threats, are they adequately prepared to protect themselves in childhood and adolescence from people they know and from strangers when they are adults? 

In any case, should we be socializing people at all to be fearful of attack? If we do that consistently, what might happen to the fabric of our society? Will we retreat from social life, as we fear people we know and those we don’t?

It is not effective to teach people to fear those who are less threatening and to trust those who could be a threat, but this is exactly what we socialize women to do. It is also not effective to teach people they are not at risk and can do just about anything they want, yet this is how we socialize men. 

If you were crafting a social policy and educational plan to effectively reduce violent behavior, what would you focus on?

June 16, 2008

The Economics of Selling Drugs

author_brad By Bradley Wright

One of the joys of doing social research is the constant exposure to empirical data. I can’t count the number of times that I was sure that the world worked in one way only to be corrected by data (and sometimes my research corrects others’ misperceptions).

Here’s a great example of how actual data about a topic can correct prevailing misconceptions. I think that most people in society would view drug dealing as a fairly lucrative business. Illegal drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, are bought from growers and resold at a substantial mark-up. Somebody has to be making lots of money, no? Stories of drug busts often emphasize the enormous amounts of money involved. In movies and television, drug dealers usually seem to live on yachts and have private airplanes and waiting, chauffeured cars. 

Well, it turns out that once social scientists actually measured how much money that drug dealers were making, the results suggested that most dealers work for close to minimum wage. That’s right—that make about as much money selling drugs as if they were working at McDonalds or at the mall.

The best known study of the drug dealers’ finances was conducted by Levitt and Venkatesh. While they published it as an academic article, it is best known from a chapter in their best-selling book Freakonomics. What’s unique about this research is its data. Venkatesh, a sociologist, spent years living with a crack-dealing gang in Chicago.

(Check out the video clip of Venkatesh describing some of his work on the right.)

In the process of getting to know the gang members, Venkatesh was given financial records covering four years of the gang’s activities. These were the accounting books of the gang—the amount of drugs sold, expenses, and the pay given to each member of the gang. This remarkable data gave insight to the inside workings of a drug-dealing street gang.

The data indicated that the gang received its money from selling drugs, collecting dues from its members, and extorting individuals and companies doing business in the gang’s turf. The majority of money came from selling drugs. The gang’s expenses went to buying the drugs, hiring mercenary fighters, giving money to the gang hierarchy, paying for funerals for its members, buying weapons, and paying its members.

The picture that emerged from the wage data was one very similar to a conventional corporation. A few members made lots of money, but the majority made barely enough to live on; in fact, some of the dealers had to live with their mothers because they couldn’t afford to move out. The actual hourly wage earned by a gang’s foot soldier—the person on the street making the sales—ranged from $2.50 to $7.10 an hour (in 1995 dollars). That’s not much money at all. The gang leaders or “officers” did much better. They earned from $32 to $97 dollars an hour. These are data for one local gang. The central gang, which oversaw the local gangs much like a company would oversee its franchises, made substantially more money. As with a regular, legal corporation, the low-level workers of the gang did most of the work but the high-level members received most the pay. 

An interesting question arises from these data: Why do foot soldiers sell drugs for so little money? Any job has its potential costs—a worker at McDonalds might get sore feet, occasional grease burns, and probably some weight gain—but selling drugs is extraordinarily dangerous. The death rates in Venkatesh and Levitt’s sample was 7% annually. That means that, on average, about 1 in 14 gang members was killed. Why would anyone risk so much for so little?

A standard sociological answer would hold that the gang members had few opportunities for legitimate wages. In addition, the sample members spoke of being foot soldiers as a way of stepping up to becoming an officer of the gang and make much better money. Just as a college student might work in the mail room of a large corporation, in order to start climbing the ladder, these gang members started with selling drugs on the street for near minimum wage pay.

Despite the considerably different cultural context between gangs and corporate America, it seems that they share a lot of similarities. Both have hierarchical pay scales that represent inequality, and both have individuals willing to suffer through the lower ranks in hopes of getting to the higher ranks.

Who would have thought? 

Want to learn more? Here’s a presentation by Steven Levitt about this research.

June 13, 2008

Racial Tensions and Living In a Colorblind Society

author_cn By C.N. Le

In many ways, Asian Americans have achieved notable levels of socioeconomic mobility and success in American society. Nonetheless, despite (or perhaps because of) these successes, Asian Americans still confront ongoing instances of hostility, exclusion, and discrimination.

I've previously written about how Asian American students continue to face various obstacles in being treated fairly and justly on college campuses, whether it relates to dealing offensive "satire" or being violently attacked.

Some might be tempted to say that these were isolated incidents but as New American Media summarizes, these kinds of incidents are actually quite commonplace on college campuses around the country:

In recent months, incidents have proven this is not the tolerant and highly-evolved society we thought. Hate crimes against Asian students, racial remarks masked under the term “satire,” and institutional discrimination — are just a few causes triggering racial tension on college campuses. . . .

On Jan. 21, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Kyle Descher, a Korean American, headed out to a bar with his roommate after a Washington State University football victory over Oregon. Minutes after hearing a racial slur from one of three unknown men, Descher is “sucker-punched” in an unprovoked attack. Doctors add three titanium plates to Descher’s broken jaw and it’s wired shut. . . .

In [UPenn's quarterly student magazine "The Punch Bowl" winter 2008 edition's] “Where Asians Don’t Belong” section, staffers listed Math 104, in a panties drawer, on the basketball court, at a frat party, and behind the wheel. Imagine why the staff didn’t make jokes with the same glee for all the places African Americans “don’t belong.” In their defense, “Punch Bowl” editors said some of the writers of the “satirical” issue were Asian Americans themselves, even posing in photos poking fun at APIs.

The article goes on to list several other racially-charged incidents around the country involving a broad range of groups of color.color3 

It would be great if I could just focus on discussing the positive aspects of how American institutions such as higher education have made progress in alleviating racial inequality. Alas, these incidents only highlight what many scholars have been saying all along -- as we move forward into the 21st century, racism and racial prejudice are still alive and well in American society.

One difference between its nature today versus that of one hundred years ago is that in many ways, racism is now expressed in "colorblind" terms. That is, racists now apparently think that racial equality has been achieved (they'll point to Asian American socioeconomic achievements as one example), so it's perfectly fine to make fun of Asian Americans and other groups because we're all equal now -- we're all on a level playing field nowadays, so everybody is fair game.

In other words, this is what it means to live in a colorblind society these days-- historical legacies of systematic racism are completely ignored or "whitewashed" and we all pretend that all racial groups are perfectly equal. Or alternatively, racists act on their resentment that minorities have apparently achieved "equality" and physically attack those minorities.color4 

Unfortunately, I predict that this climate of "colorblind" prejudice will get worse before it gets better, especially as globalization continues to reshape the American society, the American economy, and as a result, the assumption of American superiority around the world.

As Americans, particularly many white Americans, continue to economically struggle as we enter a recession, and as demographic and cultural shifts take place all around them, their fears, frustrations, and anger will inevitably boil over. It’s likely that verbal and physical attacks on convenient scapegoats such as Asian Americans will continue.

I want to be optimistic and hopefully I'm wrong, but as these recent incidents show, racial tensions seem to be on the rise, not on the decline.

June 10, 2008

Wombs for Sale? Gestational and Genetic Mothering

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I used to think that there are several things we must do ourselves. You know, like die. Even if I wanted to, regardless of how wealthy I may become, I can’t pay someone to do that for me. And what about the basic bathroom functions? Same thing; must do those ourselves, right? 

But what about being pregnant and giving birth? I thought that those were on the “must do it yourself” list with no chance of changing. Having recently seen the film Baby Mama and a few recent news stories on surrogate mothers, I have to rethink my list ofJ0234700 “must do yourself” things. 

A surrogate mother is a woman who becomes pregnant with a child to whom she may or may not be genetically related, with the  intention of turning the baby over at birth to others for rearing. A surrogate mother may have sperm or an embryo implanted into her uterus which means she may or may not be genetically related to the baby she carries. 

The first time that I remember hearing about surrogacy was when the Baby M case made headlines in 1986. In that instance, a couple—the Sterns—hired Mary Beth Whitehead to be clip_image003artificially inseminated with the husband’s sperm. Whitehead was to carry the child, give birth to her and then hand the baby over to the Sterns. In other words, Whitehead was acting as a substitute for Mrs. Stern who had health issues that might be complicated by bearing and birthing a child. Whitehead had a change of heart about the arrangement after she gave birth which led to a contentious legal battle. Eventually, Mr. Stern was granted custody of the baby and Whitehead was granted visitation rights. 

Flash forward to another case in which the surrogate mother, Stephanie Eckard provided the egg; Eckard changed her mind about handing over the baby but in this case the judge ruled against the couple who hired Eckard and gave custody of the baby to the surrogate. Another noteworthy case on surrogacy is the 1990 case of Mark and Crispina Calvert. The fertilized embryo of the Calverts was implanted into the womb of Anna Johnson. Johnson was paid $10,000 to hand over the baby to the Calverts at his birth, but she too had a change of heart and wanted to keep the baby boy. In deciding this case, the court essentially looked at whose idea it was to have the child and gave custody of the boy to the Calverts. 

These cases are all of surrogate mothers in the U.S. but many Americans are turning to India for their surrogacy needs. Why? The almighty dollar! It’s cheaper. 

According to this MSNBC story, hiring a woman in India to act as a surrogate is almost a third cheaper than it is in the U.S.—about $30,000 compared to about $80,000 in the U.S.. Another reason to choose a surrogate in India: Indian women have no legal right to change their minds about babies they carry because they sign documents giving up their rights to the children. The U.S. has no across the board legal stand on this issue – some states have legalized surrogacy, others have outlawed it, while others refuse to recognize surrogacy contracts.

If the “commodity” under discussion was not such an emotional one, it might be reasonable to ignore emotions. But it is not. Can carrying a child simply be a transaction? 

Apparently, Whitehead’s contract specified that she would “form no ‘parent-child relationship’ with the baby. But doesn’t carrying a child constitute some form of parenting? If I raise a baby I adopted the question of motherhood—when asked of me and the birth mother—may be clearer. But at the time of birth in the surrogacy cases, it’s hard to imagine who else could have had a greater impact on the baby than the surrogate. This conclusion, assumes that nurture trumps nature even when the surrogate is unrelated to the baby.

Is surrogacy a version of asking my girlfriend to hold my purse while I go to the bathroom? (“Hold my baby until he’s born”). Is it reasonable to expect that a clip_image006woman can carry a child—even if she is not genetically related to that child—and simply hand that child over and feel no bond? (Women who decide to give their babies up for adoption have described the difficulty some of them feel in giving up their babies, and some change their minds and keep their babies.)

Surrogate mothering is unique in that unlike other kinds of mothering, surrogate mothers exist to allow another woman to be a mother. So is that mothering at all or merely renting a womb? What else would we call this “service”?

Surrogacy forces us to think about what parenting is and about what we should be able to buy and sell. Should genetics trump gestation? Does gestation hold a superior claim to parenthood that genetics can’t touch? What principles do you think should decide these issues?

June 07, 2008

How Old is Old?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

A student of mine had a birthday this week. “How old are you?” a classmate asked.

“Old,” he told her. He had just turned 22.

The other students who had not reached the 21 year milestone agreed. Twenty-two is old.clip_image002

I listened on, as someone with only faint memories of being that age myself. Surely someone in their late thirties like me would seem elderly to this group.

“Old” is of course relative. In my first year away at college, a friend of mine had a roommate who was 22. “She’s 22, can you believe it? She’s already had her own apartment and everything,” my friend whispered, so nobody would hear of the wizened woman she had been assigned to live with in the dorm. At eighteen, 22 seemed very worldly. And now many years later, my own perception of “old” continually gets older, and my expectations for what chronological age means shift as I pass through many previously “old” years myself.

We have been hearing the “how old is old” question a lot lately about presidential candidate John McCain. Although he is a long-time player on the national political stage, I never heard any reference to his age before this year. If you follow political news even a little, you have probably heard commentators note that if elected, he will be the oldest president to enter the White House at 72. This possibility has led to debate amongst the pundits—and jokes from late-night comics—about whether McCain is too old.

And while there have been many issues about sexism and racism that have arisen through the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, leading to discussions about both race and gender, I haven't heard any critical discussion about ageism. 

In a Pew Research Center poll conducted in February 2008, 32 percent of respondents thought that McCain was too old to be president, and when asked what adjectives first came to mind to describe him, the leading answer was “old.” By contrast, when former Senator Bob Dole ran for president in 1996 at age 73, 34 percent thought he was too old. Not much change in a dozen years.

Representative John Murtha, 75, has publicly stated that he thinks McCain is too old for the job. The AARP (formerly known as the American Association for Retired Persons) criticized Murtha for making this statement, but ironically, older Americans like Murtha are more likely to think McCain’s age is a problem, according to a May 2008 Pew Research Center poll. In contrast to registered voters 18-34, of whom 24 percent said his age is an issue, forty percent of registered voters 65 and older thought McCain was too old to be president. Why the big difference?

Getting back to the idea that age is relative, being over seventy carries different meaning today than it did a half century ago, when McCain and his cohort were in their twenties. A white male born in 2004 has an average life expectancy of 78.3, according to the 2008 Statistical Abstract of the United States. By contrast, when McCain was born in 1936, the average life expectancy for white males was 58.0 (up from 46.6 in 1900). So what would have been an elderly age clip_image002decades ago has mutated into late middle age today. 

Other factors make age even more relative. Having long-lived family members is one indicator of longevity (McCain’s mother is 96), as is having access to quality health care, living and working in a safe and healthy environment, and having a positive outlook. Other lifestyle factors—such as not smoking and exercising regularly also extend one’s life span. 

Stress is another important issue. People who have jobs with a great deal of instability, little autonomy, and significant potential danger (such as in mining, construction, and driving a cab) also tend to have decreased life expectancy. While the president makes a decent salary—$400,000—and has arguably the best health care of any person in the world, the job is incredibly stressful. Even in the best of times, twenty to thirty percent of your constituents won’t like you. Lunatics making death threats require you to have a full-time cadre of bodyguards (four of your predecessors have been assassinated, four others have died of other causes; that means that nearly one in five haven't made it out of this job alive). And if you are vain about your appearance, this is the wrong job for you. Check out this ABC News slide show of before and after pictures to see how the presidency has aged presidents in recent years.

Questions about McCain’s age may seem legitimate and jokes just in good fun, but age discrimination exists in many forms, and has very real consequences for people who need to work for a living. As many people struggle economically, they will need to work longer. Federal legislation, first passed in 1967 and amended in 1986, bans age limits for most jobs, but that doesn’t stop employers from refusing to hire people looking for work. These are the issues we need to seriously consider as our population ages, especially since our society increasingly worships looking young and pathologizes the aging process.

June 04, 2008

Free to Marry

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

The May 2008 California Supreme Court decision effectively adds a second state to the (short) list of states that do not prohibit marriage for consenting adults of the same gender. The ruling reflects the result of many years of social change that has pressured our country to live up to its ideals of freedom, equality, and justice for all. The Civil Rights Movement was the most visible event in recent history, as many radical changes occurred in a relatively short period of time. At that time, we effectively identified how race, ethnicity, and gender issues are rife with inequality and thus problematic for our country.

Social change does not move quickly or steadily. In stops and starts, forward towards new practices and backward to known traditions, society resists change at every step. Some refer to this dynamic as a dialectic process in which whatever exists creates its own contradictions, creating struggles which eventually “resolve” or morph into a new reality. Marx described the life span of capitalism as a dialectic process, for example. 

clip_image002While societies do not change quickly, they are always changing. Things today are certainly not the same as they were fifty years ago, or even five years ago. With technological changes and resource pressures, the way we live our lives has changed and will continue to change. Younger generations grow up in altogether different circumstances than previous generations thus their ways of thinking and expressing themselves sets them apart from others.

With regard to marriage laws, it is clear that we have seen some changes and we’ll continue to do so.

Marriage has long been a relationship defined by property and resources. Marriage based on love, emotional ties, and individual choice is a relatively recent social invention. That notwithstanding, marriage still is a legal contract that involves ownership and property rights. At the same time marriage effectively gives people license to have sex – although that, too, is tied to ownership and property since our societal norms of marital sex assume subsequent procreation and offspring – with appropriate naming and rights of inheritance. 

Our heterosexual norms are tied to male dominance – clearly seen when looking at marital laws. Historically, brides are women or property transferred from fathers to husbands. One look at a traditional marriage ceremony confirms this symbolism when the parents hand over the bride to the groom at the start of the ritual. 

Since men marry women – and give them their name (identifying one’s property!) – the power relations are clearly defined. Men had not been able to marry other men (and women to marry women) because that would tamper with the power structure based on gender. Homophobia helps to maintain this structure since it makes people afraid of both the idea of and the people who may be participating in same-sex couplings. 

Seen in this light, allowing same-sex marriage is progress towards gender equality.

American society’s marriage laws have always reflected its evolving attitudes toward race, ethnicity, sex/gender, and sexual orientation.

Prior to the civil rights era, anti-miscegenation laws outlawed marriage between white and non-white people thus protecting the property rights and inheritance patterns that kept the dominant group white and all other groups, well, not-white. 

While the U.S. Supreme Court deemed those laws unconstitutional in the late 1960s, it took until 1999 for all fifty states to vote those laws off their books. After being sued by inter-racial couples having trouble getting the paperwork to legally wed, Alabama finally asked their voters in 1999 to weigh in on eliminating or keeping their state anti-miscegenation laws, even as the law had been unconstitutional for over thirty years. (It passed, 60/40.)

clip_image002[5]While most marriages are still endogamous – people still tend to marry people like themselves – in contemporary American society we have the right to marry whomever we choose no matter their ethnicity or racial identity—as long as they are they opposite sex ( unless you live in California or Massachusetts).

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only two percent of marriage partnerships are inter-racial. This does vary by state and region, of course, but nationwide it is only two percent. In spite of the Supreme Court decision, most marriages are intra-racial. 

This is all part of the inevitable social changes that come about since we live in a country with an elective affinity between love-based marriages and a strong belief in individual freedoms. We socialize people to grow up and fall in love, marry their sweetheart, and settle down to create a family. Those norms have long been informed by norms of heterosexuality and cultural heterogeneity although the latter is not as strong a norm as it once was.

When states make their marriage laws based on sex or gender definitions, they often complicate things further. For example, Texas defines their marriage laws on chromosomes, thus an XX female can marry an XY female because they do have the expected chromosomal pairing. One wonders if someone with X0 and other variations can marry in Texas at all!

Add to this transgender issues and we see that our culture has some distance to travel before we really do embrace equality and justice for all. It’s not just a matter of saying that people should be able to love whomever they want. It’s more a matter of equalizing our social categories and dismantling the privileges and barriers based on sex, gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

From the 1960s U.S. Supreme Court to the 2008 California State Supreme Court decisions, the highest bodies in our legal system have so far demonstrated that we still do strive for these goals.

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