Resources and the Construction of Race

June 19, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Race is a social construction. That’s the truism you find in just about any sociology course. But if you want a great example, take eight minutes and watch this video. 

As you can see in the freeze frame below, the speaker, Corey Quinlan Taylor, is obviously Black. He’s certainly not White. Well, maybe not to you or me, but listen to his story.


Spoiler Alert. If you haven’t watched the video,  what I’m about to point out may spoil it.

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First, Taylor’s story is yet another illustration that the same person may be Black in one context and White in another. The race depends on who is doing the classifying. Second, different societies have different categories of race, different bins to sort people into.  These two observations summarize the basic Soc 101 lesson.

The third lesson in Taylor’s micro-social world is that these categories do not change all by themselves. Sometimes the change starts with a small number people (in this case, one) making a conscious effort to instill new ways of thinking. But once set in motion, the change can spread through processes of social influence that are invisible both to those being influenced and those doing the influencing.

And sometimes, the process can be accelerated by those with greater resources — power and institutional position, social capital, cultural capital, or confectionary capital.

Pittsburgh’s Other Mister Rogers

June 15, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Rob Rogers is was the political cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  The paper just fired him.

Here are some of his recent cartoons.

(Click for a larger view.)

The Post-Gazette is the only print daily left in Pittsburgh. The others that I grew up with, the Press and the Sun-Telegraph, were eroded by the demographic, economic, and technological changes. So it goes.

The paper is owned by Block Communications, which combined the Post-Gazette’s editorial pages with that of its other paper, the Toledo Blade. The Blade’s editorial director, Keith Burris, took over the Post-Gazette as well. Block and Burris are conservative. Burris had been killing Rogers cartoons on a regular basis, though they ran in syndication.

This does not seem like a complicated story. If you have enough money to buy up newspapers, you can hire editors to publish ideas that you like and to get rid of people who express ideas you don’t like.

Of course, Burris doesn’t think he was telling Rogers what to put in the cartoons. It was merely a matter of “collaboration.”             

“We never said he should do no more Trump cartoons or do pro-Trump cartoons,” said Mr. Burris. “For an in-house staff cartoonist, editing is part of it. Rob’s view was, ‘Take it or leave it.’”

[Burris] said he did not “suppress” Mr. Rogers’ cartoons but that Mr. Rogers was unwilling to “collaborate” with him about his work and ideas. [from the Post-Gazette’s story on the firing, here.]

Maybe Jeff Bezos should collaborate more with George Will.

The more media outlets a corporation can buy up, the more it can control what people see and hear. Block Communications is not Sinclair, with its 200 (and counting) radio stations. But it does control 100% of the daily press in Pittsburgh. For Rob Rogers and Pittsburghers, today is not a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Blaming the Baby — The Language of Medical Infallibility

June 11, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a recent article at Vox (here), Julia Belluz says, “Only 4 percent of women give birth on their estimated delivery date. . . Medicine is surprisingly bad at measuring the precise age of a fetus or how far along a woman is into her pregnancy.” The rest of the article explains why doctors suck at predicting the date of delivery.

But that’s not the way we talk about it. We don’t say, “The doctor was wrong.” We don’t say, “The doctor made a really bad prediction.” Instead we blame the woman. We say she was “late.”  She “missed her due date,” as though childbirth was something akin to a term paper. I guess if she provides a good excuse, we’ll give her an extension till Friday. 

Or we blame the baby. Look at the opening sentence of the article, “A pregnant friend of mine is due to give birth on Saturday, but as she told me this week, she really has no idea if the baby will come on time, or two weeks from now.” [emphasis added.]
The kid is still in the womb, and already we are taking him or her to task for not arriving “on time.”  

It’s not just obstetrics. Talk related to most other areas of medicine also rests on the same charitable assumption of doctor infallibility, especially when the ones doing the talking are doctors. The patient “failed to respond to treatment,” not “the treatment we used didn’t work.”

I caught on to this trick long ago, when I was reviewing the literature on compulsive gamblers. There wasn’t much to review, and most of those accounts were from psychiatrists. One of them said that treating compulsive gamblers was difficult because they “do not make good patients.” At first, that tallied with what I had found. Many of the compulsive gamblers I was listening to had tried psychotherapy without much success. It took me a while see that if you translate this idea out of the language of psychiatric infallibility, it sounds very different: “We psychiatrists have no idea how to cure these guys.”

This way of speaking — the one we frequently use — places the blame for failure on the patient, not the doctor. Those compulsive gamblers don’t make good patients. And babies — don’t get me started. Totally unreliable. They just have no sense of punctuality.

A Class of Rich People — Gallup Goes Marxist

June 10, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Gallup asked “Do You Think the United States Benefits From Having a Class of Rich People, or Not?” Here are the results.

Gallup’s lede is that Democrats have grown more skeptical about the rich while Independents and Republicans haven’t changed their views. The other obvious conclusions from the survey is that Republicans think far more favorably of the rich and that Independents are closer to Democrats than to Republicans. (The Gallup summary is here.)

What surprised me is that Republicans would agree to even answer the question given that it was about “a class of rich people.” The true conservative would tell the Gallup interviewer, “There are no classes in America. We have only individuals; some of them get rich.” But overall, only 3% of the 1500 people surveyed refused to answer, though Gallup does not provide data on the political affiliation of these refuseniks.

Most of the time, when Americans talk about “class” they really mean “social status” – a scale based mostly on money which, therefore, has infinite gradations. A person with $100,000 is higher on the scale than is a person with $90,000. But “class” in the Gallup question implies a more Marxian definition — a group of people who share common economic interests and who act to secure those interests against the interests of other classes.

Unfortunately, we don’t know what Gallup’s respondents had in mind when they heard the question. Maybe Republicans, Independents, and Democrats interpreted the question differently.

What else could Gallup have asked?

“Does the US benefit from policies that allow some people to get very rich?” frames wealth as an individual matter with America as the land of unlimited opportunity.  A question like this would probably draw higher rates of agreement across the board.

“Do Americans in general benefit from policies that benefit the rich?” treats the rich more as a true class. It implies that some policies benefit one class, the rich, even though they might not benefit most people. This question might have fewer people agreeing.

I wonder what the results would be if Gallup asked both these questions.