Tag Archives: racism

Teaching Black family history in sociology, student resistance edition

There is an amazing story from a family sociology class at the University of Tennessee. I don’t know the whole chronology of the reports, but I read pieces from As It Happens, BET, the local news. The gist of it is that there was an ambiguous quiz question about Black slave families, and when a Black student named Kayla Renee Parker complained, it led to her making a rebuttal presentation to the class, and then the White instructor, Judy Morelock, going on an abusive, racist social media rant and getting fired.

Before the details, my conclusions:

  • Good test questions are important, and as a teacher it’s OK to admit you’re wrong or there is ambiguity.
  • Two things are true: Black families were devastated by slavery and as a generalization most Black children under slavery lived with both parents.
  • There is a line, but not a straight line, between Black families under slavery and those under today’s system of racial domination.
  • Students who do research, honestly engage the material, and bring passionate or political arguments to class should have their courage and commitment encouraged, not punished.
  • Some White people who say they are against racism, and maybe even are against racism, are also racist and hate students.
  • Social media is public, so expect consequences.

The story, and then my approach, follows.

The quiz

Here is the question at issue:

Historical research on African-American families during slavery shows that:

A) Family ties weren’t important in African cultures where the slaves ancestors originated; consequently, family bonds were never strong among slaves.

B) Two-parent families were extremely rare during the slave period.

C) Black family bonds were destroyed by the abuses of slave owners, who regularly sold off family members to other slave owners.

D) Most slave families were headed by two parents.

Parker chose C, but Morelock said the correct answer is D. In a back and forth that Parker put on her Facebook page, she pointed out that the textbook talked about “disruption of families through sale of family members,” and Morelock countered that “bonds were maintained among family members who were geographically separated” referring to people passing information between plantations. These are long-running and unsettled issues in the historical scholarship. If you revise answer C to read “bonds were often destroyed” then it is obviously true. If you take a legalistic approach you could say, “family bonds were destroyed” means all bonds, so C is incorrect. This is not a good argument for a teacher to have. Correct the ambiguity, figure out how to handle the points, take it as a teaching opportunity, and move on.

In fact, there appears to have been one good outcome, which was Parker making a very good presentation to the class (video in the As It Happens story). If that was the end of it, we never would have heard. Maybe it’s good that it wasn’t the end of it, though, because when Morelock’s Facebook posts came out we might agree it’s just as well that the incident led to her being fired. The posts are in the BET story, and include Morelock calling Parker (thought not naming her), “ignorant simple-minded,” and threatening to ruin her reputation after the end of the semester, specifically saying, “I will post her name, her picture, and her bio on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin. Count on it.” Wow. (She also says Parker was spreading “venomous rumors” about her, which I don’t see reported.)

Many teachers complain about their students on Facebook. If you have reasonable complaints, don’t compromise their identities, don’t reveal or advocate unprofessional or vindictive behavior, and don’t be really racist, I think this is ethically defensible. It’s like a teaching workshop, or talking about your job in the staff lounge. But it’s risky and if you screw up you can get fired (which might or might not be a good thing).

The key thing is always, “If there was a hidden camera here or someone hacked my account, would I be able to defend my behavior?” If the answer is yes, you might still be taking a risk to talk about students, but at least you can live with yourself.

Anyway, as far as what I see in the classroom video and Facebook post of her email exchange, I have nothing but kudos for Parker although I might argue with her a little, too. If she did bad things elsewhere, she shouldn’t have.

Classroom exchange

In Parker’s presentation, she quotes Frederick Douglass saying it was “common custom” where he was born “to part children from their mothers from a very early age.” This is good evidence in favor of Answer C. Obviously experiences varied dramatically across the slave system and over time. Throwing down over a generalization like “most” is not really worth it.

She added, “We continue to see those impacts today and that’s why I believe that family bonds were destroyed.” She says Morelock told her she can’t teach by anecdotes, and she countered that we have to pay attention to the stories of real people affected. This is a really good argument to have, in theory.

Parker recommends The New Jim Crow, and Slavery by Another Name, and she says of the present “it’s by a different name, it’s still slavery in itself. … Slavery is still continuing to destroy the Black family” because of the “prison industrial complex.” She cites an article by Rose Brewer, “Black Families Imperiled by Growth of Nation’s Prisons Industrial Complex.”

Finally Parker says Morelock recommended some books, one of which was a 1998 edition of Minority Families in the United States, by Ronald Taylor, which she said was good but should be more current.

It’s really an excellent presentation. If you care about educating students, this would make you happy (again, not knowing what else may have happened off camera). At the end Parker takes questions, and Morelock pipes up, saying in part (my transcript):

I don’t have a lot of recent books, because the publishers just don’t send us books the way they used to. And I’ve been using [Andrew] Cherlin [Public and Private Families] for many, many years, the book you have in this course. He says the same thing, and that book is in its seventh edition. If there had been additional sociological research since he wrote that book I would think that it would appear in it, but it doesn’t. So I have to go by what my discipline shows, and I understand no matter how much I revere and respect a historical figure like Frederick Douglass, who was absolutely one of the bravest, most articulate persons of his generation, and highly respected, I still have to go with what has been done systematically, the kind of systematic methods that did not exist at that time, when sociology was still in its infancy. So, in the 70s, you know, the research that was done, with historical documents, on Black families demonstrated that people forged bonds, this is written by sociologist Ronald Taylor, he also happens to be African American, I don’t think he would try to minimize the effects of slavery, which I never ever ever would myself, and he talks about studies here [she quotes Taylor on the strong bonds in Black families, and how they maintained them even when they were separated] … Nonetheless, as I said, no one has to accept the sociological point of view. All students in my class, as is always the case, are free to make up their own minds, in fact I encourage it, and I always encourage you to do as Kayla did, do more research, find out more information about a topic, and come to your own conclusions.

Aside from the giant red flag of calling Frederick Douglass “articulate,” this is a reasonable argument. Although it’s sad that Morelock doesn’t keep up with the literature, and her reliance on authority rather than reason and analysis is bad, the truth is her facts are pretty current. Even though she’s racist, it’s not her take on the history that makes her racist. The prison industrial complex is important but it’s not the same thing as slavery breaking up families, it’s a different but related thing. (Incidentally, Cherlin has a good newer book about working class families that addresses some of this; my review is here.)

It’s not surprising we’ve been arguing about this for a century or so. It’s complicated. Here is the trend, back to 1880, in the proportion of Black children ages 0-14 living with married parents. There are issues with the data and measurement, but this basic pattern holds: the share of Black children living with two married parents increased after the end of slavery, and fell a lot more later:

black children married parents 1880-2015

Of course, some students would also get mad if you said, “slavery destroyed all Black families,” which isn’t true either. I don’t agree with the first part of the BET headline, “Professor Denies Slavery Destroyed Black Families And Threatens Student Who Called Her Out,” but because the second part is true I have no interest in defending her.

My version

Anyone who teaches this material should wrestle with this. Here’s what I have in the first edition of my book, in the history chapter (there is much more current material in the subsequent chapter on race and ethnicity). I would be happy to hear your response to this:

Families Enslaved

African families had gone through their own transitions, of course, of a particularly devastating nature. From the arrival of the first slaves in Jamestown in 1619 until the mid-1800s, Africans were forcibly removed from their homelands in western and central Africa and subjected to the unspeakable horrors of the Middle Passage aboard slave ships, slave auctions, and ultimately the hardships of plantation labor in the American South (as well as in the Caribbean and South America). Because they were thrown together from diverse backgrounds, and because their own languages and customs were suppressed by slavery, we do not know how much of slave family life was a reflection of African traditions and how much was an adaptation to their conditions and treatment in America (Taylor 2000).

But there is no doubt that family life was one of the victims of the slave system. The histories that have come down to us feature heart-wrenching stories of family separation, including diaries that tell of children literally ripped from their mothers’ arms by slave traders, mothers taking poison to prevent themselves from being sold, and parents enduring barbaric whippings as punishment for trying to keep their families together (Lerner 1973). In fact, most slaves only had a given name with no family name, which made the formation and recognition of family lineages difficult or impossible (Frazier 1930). Slave marriage and parenthood were not legally recognized by the states, and separation was a constant threat. Any joy in having children was tempered by the recognition that those children were the property of the slave owner and could be sold or transferred away forever.

Nevertheless, most slaves lived in families for some or all of their lives. Most married (if not legally) and had children in young adulthood, and most children lived with both parents. This was especially the case on larger plantations rather than small farms, because slaves could carve out some protection for community life if they were in larger groups, and husbands and wives were more likely to remain together (Coles 2006). Even if they had families, however, African Americans for the most part were excluded from the emerging modern family practices described in the next section until after slavery ended.

Relevant references:

Coles, Roberta L. Race and Family: A Structural Approach. 2006. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Frazier, E. Franklin. 1930. “The Negro Slave Family.” The Journal of Negro History 15(2):198–259.

Lerner, Gerda. 1973. Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. New York: Vintage Books.

Taylor, Ronald L. 2000. “Diversity within African American Families.” In Handbook of Family Diversity, edited by David H. Demo, Katherine R. Allen, and Mark A. Fine, pp. 232–251. New York: Oxford University Press.

And in our teaching materials, we address it this way, with a multiple choice question:

Most African American slave children lived with: A. grandparents. B. unrelated adults.  C. one parent. D. both parents [D is correct].

And an essay question:

Describe the impact of slavery on the family structure of African Americans throughout U.S. history.

Answer guide: Students should address the lost customs and languages of diverse Africans brought as slaves. Social scientists are often unsure which of the resulting cultural features of African American family life are held over from African traditions and which are adaptations to slavery. Family lineage was difficult or impossible to trace. Separation of parents and children was common. After the Civil War, African American families were legally recognized, and some were reunited. Emerging African American families were more egalitarian in gender roles and had strong extended family and kinship networks.

This story has good lessons about a number of things that scare people who teach family sociology (and lots of other people, too): being wrong, being called racist, and getting fired for saying something on Facebook. Good chance to reflect on teaching, which is hard, but also great.


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Race/ethnicity and slacking at work


From John Henry: An American Legend, by Ezra Jack Keats

I gave some comments to an Economist writer for a story they just published, “New research suggests that effort at work is correlated with race.” They used a snippet of what I said, so I figured I’d dump the rest here (because the piece is not bylined, I’m not using the reporter’s name).

The article is about an NBER working paper (not yet peer reviewed) by, Daniel Hamermesh, Katie Genadek, and Michael Burda. It’s officially here, but I put a copy up in case you don’t have am NBER subscription.) The analysis uses the American Time Use Survey to see whether time at work spent not working varies by race/ethnicity, and they find that it does. The abstract:

Evidence from the American Time Use Survey 2003-12 suggests the existence of small but statistically significant racial/ethnic differences in time spent not working at the workplace. Minorities, especially men, spend a greater fraction of their workdays not working than do white non-Hispanics. These differences are robust to the inclusion of large numbers of demographic, industry, occupation, time and geographic controls. They do not vary by union status, public-private sector attachment, pay method or age; nor do they arise from the effects of equal-employment enforcement or geographic differences in racial/ethnic representation. The findings imply that measures of the adjusted wage disadvantages of minority employees are overstated by about 10 percent.

When the Economist contacted me, I consulted several colleagues for their response. Reeve Vanneman pointed out that minority workers might slack off at work because they are discriminated against, and Liana Sayer pointed out that the activity measures in the ATUS may not be not precise enough to say what if any “non-work” activity is actually contributing to the bottom line – the paper doesn’t detail what these “non-work” activities are. My own critique was that, before we start attributing work behavior to “culture,” we might consider whether work reporting behavior varies by “culture” as well (the ATUS uses self-reported time diaries). The authors did a little monkeying around with the General Social Survey to address that, but I found it unpersuasive.

Anyway, you can read the Economist article yourself. I would have preferred they killed the article, because I don’t think the paper sustains its conclusions, but they did a reasonable job of reporting it. And here are the full comments I sent them:

The analysis in the paper does not support the conclusion that wage disparities between blacks and whites are overstated. There just isn’t enough there to make that claim. As the authors note, the problem of differential reporting is an obvious concern. Their analysis of the “importance of work” questions in the GSS seems immaterial – it’s just not the same question.

This is exacerbated by the problem that they don’t describe the difference between work-related non-work activities and non-work-related non-work activities. We just don’t know enough about what they’re doing to draw the conclusion that the work-related activities are really productivity enhancing while the non-related activities are really not. (Consider trying to parse the effect of eating alone at your desk versus eating with a team-member in the cafeteria. Which is productivity enhancing?) It is always the case that jobs differ between blacks and whites in ways surveys do not capture – that’s the whole question of the wage gap. Controlling for things like industry and occupation helps but it’s the tip of the iceberg. For example, the difference between small and large employers, and between those with formal management procedures and those without, is not captured here.

Finally, consider the possibility of reverse-causality. What if blacks are discriminated against and paid less than whites for the same level of productivity – or treated poorly in other ways – a very reasonable hypothesis? Might that not lead those black workers to be less devoted to their employers, and spend more time on other things when no one is looking? I wouldn’t blame them.

In short, the paper uses a lot of ambiguous information, which is interesting and suggestive, to draw a conclusion that is not warranted. It’s part of a tradition in economics of assuming there must be some rational basis for pay disparities, and looking really hard to find it, rather than treating employer motivations more skeptically and trusting the voluminous evidence of racist bias in the labor market.

In the email exchange, they asked for followup on the evidence of racial bias, so I added this:

The best evidence of discrimination is from audit studies. This is one of the best. That author, Michael  Gaddis at Penn State, can talk much more about it, but the point is that even when you can’t identify an individual act of racism, in the aggregate employer behavior shows a preference for whites — as we can tell by imposing experimental conditions in which the only thing different between resumes is the names. Other approaches include studying disparities in performance evaluation (e.g., this [by Marta Elvira and Robert Town]), or analyzing discrimination case files directly (e.g., this [by Ryan Light, Vincent Roscigno, and Alexandra Kalev]).

That all got reduced to this, in the article: “Worse treatment by managers of minority workers may itself encourage slacking, says Philip Cohen.” (Though they went on to cite evidence that workers work less when their managers are biased against them.)

On the other hand

As I think about it more, there is another important angle on this, which goes back to Reeve’s comment, and also something in the conclusion to the Economist article:

Within hours of publication, Mr Hamermesh received vitriolic messages and was labelled a racist in an online forum popular among economists. Mr Hamermesh, an avowed progressive, who refers to Donald Trump only by amusing nicknames and resigned from a post at the University of Texas over a state law permitting the open carrying of firearms, finds this unfair. He notes that Americans work too much. His preferred solution would not be for some groups to work more, but for others to work less.

There is an understandable anti-racist tendency to want to avoid a story of minority workers as lazy and shiftless – which is a character flaw. But there is a resistance story to tell as well, and the liberal anti-racist approach papers it over. For this, we need historian Robin D. G. Kelley, who wrote a brilliant paper called, “‘We Are Not What We Seem’: Rethinking Black Working-Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South” (free copy here). Here’s a relevant excerpt, in which he cites W. E. B. Du Bois:

Part of the reason [labor historians have not written more about workplace theft and sabotage by Southern Blacks], I think, lies in southern labor historians’ noble quest to redeem the black working class from racist stereotypes. In addition, company personnel records, police reports, mainstream white newspaper accounts, and correspondence have left us with a somewhat serene portrait of black folks who only occasionally deviate from what I like to call the “cult of true Sambohood.” The safety and ideological security of the South required that pilfering, slowdowns, absenteeism, tool breaking, and other acts of black working-class resistance be turned into ineptitude, laziness, shiftlessness, and immorality. But rather than reinterpret these descriptions of black working-class behavior, sympathetic labor historians are often too quick to invert the images, remaking the black proletariat into the hardest working, thriftiest, most efficient labor force around. Historians too readily naturalize the Protestant work ethic and project onto black working people as a whole the ideologies of middle-class and prominent working-class blacks. But if we regard most work as alienating, especially work done amid racist and sexist oppression, then a crucial aspect of black working-class struggle is to minimize labor with as little economic loss as possible. Let us recall one of Du Bois’s many beautiful passages from Black Reconstruction: “All observers spoke of the fact that the slaves were slow and churlish; that they wasted material and malingered at their work. Of course they did. This was not racial but economic. It was the answer of any group of laborers forced down to the last ditch. They might be made to work continuously but no power could make them work well.”

Working hard for the man’s benefit is not the only way to build character.


Filed under Uncategorized

Racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic jokes in Trump land

This post contains racist language.

Updated: See comment note and data caution at the end.

This is purely observational, not causal. People Google for racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic jokes more in states that are more favorable toward Trump in the presidential election.

The point of the exercise, as suggested by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz in a 2012 paper published here and discuss here, was to look for population traits that might skew votes in ways the polls did not predict. If people were racist, maybe they would not admit they opposed Obama, but they would still Google “nigger jokes” in their spare time. We don’t yet know whether the polls will accurately capture the vote outcome this year, but I’m interested in the underlying patterns anyway.

I use state data from Google Trends, which coughed up relative search frequencies for the past fives years by state. Each search term is scaled from 100 in the state with the highest search frequency of the term to zero for the lowest (except they don’t go down to zero). For example, West Virginia scores 100 on searches for “nigger jokes” and Oregon scores 17 (the lowest score). Trends does not report the actual number of searches, and some small states are not reported for some jokes, presumably because the data are too sparse.

So here I compare search frequencies for three offensive kinds of jokes, “blonde jokes” (N=48), “nigger jokes” (N=38), and “holocaust jokes” (N=29), with controls for two kinds of innocuous jokes “puns” (favored by Clinton supporting-states) and “knock knock jokes” (favored in Trump states). This might capture the general tendency to Google for jokes. I compared these relative search frequencies to the state polling summary from FiveThirtyEight, which has the Clinton lead from +32.8 in Hawaii to -30.4 in Wyoming (DC is not included here).

The bivariate correlations with the Clinton lead are -.67 for “blonde jokes,” -.61 for “nigger jokes,” and -.48 for “holocaust jokes.” Here are the scatters (click to enlarge):

Again, nothing causal claimed here. Just accounting for other joke telling (which is interesting in itself, here are the multivariate results:


Blonde provides the best fit but they all are still pretty good with the innocuous jokes controlled.

Incidentally, “puns” has no bivariate correlation with Clinton lead, but with “knock knock” controlled it’s very strong. Go figure!

OK, there you have it. Deplorable joke behavior is strongly correlated with Trump support. Nothing causal claimed here.

I put the data and Stata code, including code for the figures, on the Open Science Framework here.

For other relevant posts follow the Google tag and the Trump tag.


Thanks to the efforts of University of Wisconsin graduate student Nathan Seltzer (see the comment below), it’s come to my attention that the “past five years”data is unstable. Looking just at the “holocaust jokes” data, s/he found non-trivial noise comparing the downloads just a few hours apart. To check this, I just went and repeated the search: “holocaust jokes” for “past five years,” and this is that I got:


Yuck. Thanks for the free data, Google! I’m thankful for Nathan pointing this out. Good lesson in the benefits of sharing data so we can find problems like this — and the trouble with counting on non-open, private data providers like Google. When they’re good, they’re good, but they’re non-transparent and unaccountable when they’re not. It would be great if Google figured out what’s going on and fixed their public access tool. If anyone else can explain this I would be interested to hear.


Filed under Politics

Don’t think economic anxiety is rational and racial anxiety is not


Photo by Patrick Feller (and check out his essay about it: https://flic.kr/p/6voQ7g)

Here’s a very quick thought, over which I’m happy to hear objections.

You know how people say “inner city” or “urban” or “low-income” instead of Black because they don’t want to seem racist by mentioning race? This debate over whether Trump supporters are motivated by economic anxiety or racism reminds me of that.*

The debate seems to divide class leftists from race leftists. Some class leftists want to emphasize the economic anxieties of racist Whites (with which they are sympathetic), and the race leftists want to emphasize the racism of economically anxious Whites (which they want to expose). In the regular liberal media, at the same time, there is the common tendency to treat class anxiety as rational and material while any racial motivations are by definition irrational and emotional (which makes “I don’t see race” a moral high ground.)

But Whites losing their race privilege is a real, material concern. And losing class privilege motivates ugly hatred and animosity too. What if “China” threatens your jobs, and your emotional response is to support a dictator who opposes imports and immigration (which will do nothing for you economically)? What if a Black president and anti-discrimination laws threaten your privileged access to relatively high status social recognition, and your rational response is to support school segregation and oppose affirmative action (which might actually protect your privileged status)?

Of course, defense of both class or race privilege can be emotional and ugly and vitriolic, and they always are coming from the mouths of Trump supporters. And you could reasonably argue that all people would be better off embracing a more open and inclusive politics even if it cost them some ill-gotten gain. But those defenses can also be rational and material, and the privileges they protect may need to be forcefully degraded rather than just reasoned away.

Why should Trump supporters motivated by economic anxiety be any more deserving of respect than those motivated by racial anxiety? That’s the politics of our time; don’t treat it as fixed or essential.

Now, you wouldn’t excuse rich bankers supporting a dictator because they had anxiety about their economic position, even though they might really have a lot of economic anxiety. So Why would you excuse White working-class people from supporting a dictator because of their economic anxieties? Is it because they’re actually poor or economically insecure? Well, they’re poorer and more economically insecure than the people having this conversation, but not compared with actual poor people in this country or — shudder — in most of the world that disgusts them.

It is an empirical question whether the anxieties around race are more or less rational than the anxieties around economics for White working-class Americans. Losing your race privilege might mean getting worse service from schools and emergency services and police, and not seeing your people in high status and visible cultural positions, and not hearing your music all the time, and so on and on. These are all the things minorities want. Of course I don’t feel sorry for people losing them like I do for people who never had them, but the issues are the same. You can’t say minorities are rational for demanding these things and then say Whites are irrational for trying to hold onto them. You could (and should) argue it’s not a zero-sum game, of course, but that’s an empirical question and a matter to be worked out through politics and cultural change.

People who support Trump definitely are anxious about losing things of value as the world changes, and their response is deplorable and must be opposed — regardless of the relative mix of economic and racial components in their minds.

* Not doing a full lit review, but to get a sense of it, read and follow the links in pieces by Dylan Matthews, Mike Konczal, Derek Thompson, or Michael Tesler, Brian Beutler, and there must be some other White men I’m missing. Feel free to recommend readings you prefer in the comments.


Filed under Politics

Black men raping White women: BJS’s Table 42 problem

I’ve been putting off writing this post because I wanted to do more justice both to the history of the Black-men-raping-White-women charge and the survey methods questions. Instead I’m just going to lay this here and hope it helps someone who is more engaged than I am at the moment. I’m sorry this post isn’t higher quality.

Obviously, this post includes extremely racist and misogynist content, which I am showing you to explain why it’s bad.

This is about this very racist meme, which is extremely popular among extreme racists.


The modern racist uses statistics, data, and even math. They use citations. And I think it takes actually engaging with this stuff to stop it (this is untested, though, as I have no real evidence that facts help). That means anti-racists need to learn some demography and survey methods, and practice them in public. I was prompted to finally write on this by a David Duke video streamed on Facebook, in which he used exaggerated versions of these numbers, and the good Samaritans arguing with him did not really know how to respond.

For completely inadequate context: For a very long time, Black men raping White women has been White supremacists’ single favorite thing. This was the most common justification for lynching, and for many of the legal executions of Black men throughout the 20th century. From 1930 to 1994 there were 455 people executed for rape in the U.S., and 89% of them were Black (from the 1996 Statistical Abstract):


For some people, this is all they need to know about how bad the problem of Blacks raping Whites is. For better informed people, it’s the basis for a great lesson in how the actions of the justice system are not good measures of the crimes it’s supposed to address.

Good data gone wrong

Which is one reason the government collects the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), a large sample survey of about 90,000 households with 160,000 people. In it they ask about crimes against the people surveyed, and the answers the survey yields are usually pretty different from what’s in the crime report statistics – and even further from the statistics on things like convictions and incarceration. It’s supposed to be a survey of crime as experienced, not as reported or punished.

It’s an important survey that yields a lot of good information. But in this case the Bureau of Justice Statistics is doing a serious disservice in the way they are reporting the results, and they should do something about it. I hope they will consider it.

Like many surveys, the NCVS is weighted to produce estimates that are supposed to reflect the general population. In a nutshell, that means, for example, that they treat each of the 158,000 people (over age 12) covered in 2014 as about 1,700 people. So if one person said, “I was raped,” they would say, “1700 people in the US say they were raped.” This is how sampling works. In fact, they tweak it much more than that, to make the numbers add up according to population distributions of variables like age, sex, race, and region – and non-response, so that if a certain group (say Black women) has a low response rate, their responses get goosed even more. This is reasonable and good, but it requires care in reporting to the general public.

So, how is the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) reporting method contributing to the racist meme above? The racists love to cite Table 42 of this report, which last came out for the 2008 survey. This is the source for David Duke’s rant, and the many, many memes about this. The results of Google image search gives you a sense of how many websites are distributing this:


Here is Table 42, with my explanation below:


What this shows is that, based on their sample, BJS extrapolates an estimate of 117,640 White women who say they were sexually assaulted, or threatened with sexual assault, in 2008 (in the red box). Of those, 16.4% described their assailant as Black (the blue highlight). That works out to 19,293 White women sexually assaulted or threatened by Black men in one year – White supremacists do math. In the 2005 version of the table these numbers were 111,490 and 33.6%, for 37,460 White women sexually assaulted or threatened by Black men, or:


Now, go back to the structure of the survey. If each respondent in the survey counts for about 1,700 people, then the survey in 2008 would have found 69 White women who were sexually assaulted or threatened, 11 of whom said their assailant was Black (117,640/1,700). Actually, though, we know it was less than 11, because the asterisk on the table takes you to the footnote below which says it was based on 10 or fewer sample cases. In comparison, the survey may have found 27 Black women who said they were sexually assaulted or threatened (46,580/1,700), none of whom said their attacker was White, which is why the second blue box shows 0.0. However, it actually looks like the weights are bigger for Black women, because the figure for the percentage assaulted or threatened by Black attackers, 74.8%, has the asterisk that indicates 10 or fewer cases. If there were 27 Black women in this category, then 74.8% of them would be 20. So this whole Black women victim sample might be as little as 13, with bigger weights applied (because, say, Black women had a lower response rate). If in fact Black women are just as likely to be attacked or assaulted by White men as the reverse, 16%, you might only expect 2 of those 13 to be White, and so finding a sample 0 is not very surprising. The actual weighting scheme is clearly much more complicated, and I don’t know the unweighted counts, as they are not reported here (and I didn’t analyze the individual-level data).

I can’t believe we’re talking about this. The most important bottom line is that the BJS should not report extrapolations to the whole population from samples this small. These population numbers should not be on this table. At best these numbers are estimated with very large standard errors. (Using a standard confident interval calculator, that 16% of White women, based on a sample of 69, yields a confidence interval of +/- 9%.) It’s irresponsible, and it’s inadvertently (I assume) feeding White supremacist propaganda.

Rape and sexual assault are very disturbingly common, although not as common as they were a few decades ago, by conventional measures. But it’s a big country, and I don’t doubt lots of Black men sexual assault or threaten White women, and that White men sexually assault or threaten Black women a lot, too – certainly more than never. If we knew the true numbers, they would be bad. But we don’t.

A couple more issues to consider. Most sexual assault happens within relationships, and Black women have interracial relationships at very low rates. In round numbers (based on marriages), 2% of White women are with Black men, and 5% of Black women are with White men, which – because of population sizes – means there are more than twice as many couples with Black-man/White-woman than the reverse. At very small sample sizes, this matters a lot. But we would expect there to be more Black-White rape than the reverse based on this pattern alone. Consider further that the NCVS is a household sample, which means that if any Black women are sexually assaulted by White men in prison, it wouldn’t be included. Based on a 2011-2012 survey of prison and jail inmates, 3,500 women per year are the victim of staff sexual misconduct, and Black women inmates were about 50% more likely to report this than White women. So I’m guessing the true number of Black women sexually assaulted by White men is somewhat greater than zero, and that’s just in prisons and jails.

The BJS seems to have stopped releasing this form of the report, with Table 42, maybe because of this kind of problem, which would be great. In that case they just need to put out a statement clarifying and correcting the old reports – which they should still do, because they are out there. (The more recent reports are skimpier, and don’t get into this much detail [e.g., 2014] – and their custom table tool doesn’t allow you to specify the perceived race of the offender).

So, next time you’re arguing with David Duke, the simplest response to this is that the numbers he’s talking about are based on very small samples, and the asterisk means he shouldn’t use the number. The racists won’t take your advice, but it’s good for everyone else to know.


Filed under In the news

Racist pile on, Storified

I made a Storify story out of a Twitter conversation I had with a bunch of racist Trump supporters yesterday. Here it is: Racist pile on. I can’t embed it here, probably just as well because a lot of readers probably don’t want to read Nazi propaganda, racial slurs, and gas chamber references.

This was the only thing they gave me that I actually laughed at.


It sums up the power theory of racism nicely. But you have to stop to think about it. That’s not really how it happens, two innocent kids saying the same thing. In real life it’s more like Black Lives Matter saying “We like to be Black, and I don’t want our people to be killed for it,” and a mob of DavidDuke/Trump supporters burning a cross and yelling back at them, “White power!”

But anyway, interested to hear what you think if you go read the Storify thing.


Filed under Me @ work, Uncategorized

Civility in the swelter (Hershey Park edition)

This post combines my love of vacations (context), my habit of taking pictures of people in public places (data)*, and my sociological tendency to invent big conclusions from minor events (theory). As with last year’s selfie post , I hope you don’t take from this that I don’t really love vacations.

With 3.2 million annual visitors, Hershey Park is barely in the top 20 amusement/theme parks in the country. And unlike the top draws, all Disney properties, I reckon Hershey mostly draws a local and regional crowd, which means they’re not as rich as the average Disney visitor.


What interests me is the way this lower-middle amusement park creates the context for civility in a very diverse environment, even as racial and ethnic conflagration seems to be breaking out all over.

It’s very racially and ethnically diverse, and most of the Whites either aren’t rich or they’re hiding their wealth well.



Why didn’t Charles Murray, in his obnoxious “do you live in a bubble” quiz, which is supposed to test your exposure to and familiarity with working-class White culture (yes, just White culture, though the PBS promoters of the quiz only mentioned that after people complained), ask about amusement parks, where White working class people spend their vacations mingling with — or at least in close proximity with — racial minorities?



Including in the historically-fraught pool.


Some may be merely standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people from different races. But I saw more interracial couples and families than I usually see in my diverse suburb.


Are they just tolerating each other, or are they really getting along? Of course, I’m White and rich and blind to all sorts of things, but I’m not stupid. I have no doubt there were slights and insults and aggressions going on outside of my perception (though I was looking for them). But there were also the kind of casual moments of “us just getting along” that usually go unremarked, like when parents enjoy watching their kids having fun together.


I’m not making an argument about the relative racism apparent across classes. I know your feed today is probably awash in racist stuff coming from all over the social spectrum. I’m more interested in what the social context does to interpersonal interaction. The park is very leveling, economically. The poorest people are obviously excluded, and the richest aren’t interested. And then most people buy tickets before they arrive, and it’s in a remote place, so there is no one visible who can’t get in, no obvious fast lane for rich people (even at the rides, unlike Disney). We all ride the same tram from the parking lot to the gate, so the car interaction is minimized. We go through the same giant line to enter, and then wait in the same lines to ride the same rides and eat the same food once inside.


There are ways to spend more money conspicuously, buying extra crap, but there is less of that than I’ve seen at Disney or Universal Studios (have you priced a genuine Princess dress lately?). In short, it brings out what a lot of different Americans have in common: overpaying for entertainment, overeating greasy food, and alternately yelling at and loving on their children.

I’m reminded of two things. One is that there is less racial conflict and violence in the U.S. than there was in the past (dating the data trends here is obviously debatable). The level of racism — structurally and interpersonally — is still way too high, of course. But it partly stands out now because we have more casual, positive interaction, than we did in the past. Social movement scholars will tell you that periods of improving relations are ripe for upheaval and unrest, because expectations are raised and subordinate groups are empowered. Don’t draw from the level of conscious resistance we see now the conclusion that conditions are worse than ever, because that’s not how it works.

Two is that civility can be engineered. In 2002 my friend Jennifer Lee wrote of the “important untold story [of] the mostly quotidian nature of commercial life in neighborhoods like New York’s Harlem and West Philadelphia,” areas at the time experiencing racial tension erupting in occasional violence around the issue of ethnic turf and racism in retail spaces. This Civility in the City was partly the product of deliberate, conscious effort by store owners and employees to preserve it. The level of interpersonal conflict and expression of animosity is not determined by structural inequalities alone. That deep inequality remains the defining American problem of our time. I don’t know how the level of interpersonal conflict plays into our ability to confront and address that inequality — and I’m not saying we should settle for civility over equality — but I’m sure it’s somehow relevant.

* This is ethical and legal as long as I’m not trying to harm anyone – millions of people do it every day. If you happen to be in one of these pictures and want me to take them down I will happily oblige. Before you get mad about me using these pictures, close your eyes and think of all the pictures you’ve seen just this week of strangers who did not consent to have their pictures taken.


Filed under Me @ work