White Cops and Black Cops in the ’Hood

February 26, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the early years of this blog, I wrote a post ( here) with the title “Racism Without Racists.” (I don’t think I originated the phrase, though I still don’t know who to credit it to.) The point was that racially discriminatory outcomes can result even when the people producing those outcomes are not racists.

That post looked at data showing that LAPD car stops, Blacks and Latinos, compared with Whites, were more likely to be ordered out of the car, frisked, ask to consent to a search, and arrested. The chief of police, Bill Bratton, insisted that the department did not have a policy of racial profiling. My guess was that you could get these racially skewed outcome even without a profiling policy and even if no cops harbored racist attitudes. Instead, it could result from our inability to “read” people of a different race.

That was car stops and searches. What about shootings?

For their recent NBER paper, Mark Hoekstra and Carly Will Sloan sifted through 2 million 911 calls in two cities in order to compare shootings by White and Black cops. The paper is behind a paywall at NBER, but here’s the key sentence from the abstract.

While white and black officers use gun force at similar rates in white and racially mixed neighborhoods, white officers are five times as likely to use gun force in predominantly black neighborhoods.

White cops in Black areas — five times more likely to shoot than are Black cops. In part, that’s because White cops are generally more violent (“white officers use force 60 percent more than black officers, and use gun force twice as often.”) But they may also perceive situations differently. Just as our cross-race readings of individuals is unreliable, so too may be our reading of cross-race social settings, especially in tense situations that require very quick decisions.White cops in Black neighborhoods may read a situation as extreme danger where Black cops see it as less threatening and less urgent

Trump — Working the Crowd, Working the Refs

February 25, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

When people criticize or oppose Trump, or even provide information that contradicts him, his main strategy is to try to discredit them, to challenge their legitimacy. They are, he claims, unfair and biased against him. So when Justice Sotomayor noted the unprecedented number of cases where the Court’s conservative majority had acceded to Trump administration requests to fast-track cases, Trump, unsurprisingly, issued a typical tweet. I found it in this NPR story today.

(Click on an image for a larger version.)

Here Trump was trying to discredit specific judges. He has done it before. But many on the left fear that Trump is also trying to discredit American institutions. That’s because he often puts it that way. He attacks not just this or that journalist but “the fake-news media,” by which he means all media except Fox News. He attacks not just a judge but entire courts. “The 9th Circuit is a complete & total disaster.”   

Is the Trump strategy is having the effect that progressives fear? It’s hard to know. The GSS shows a decline in confidence in the courts in 2018, but since the previous rates are from 2008, we can’t know when that change occurred.

The Gallup Poll finds a small decrease in 2018 for confidence in the Supreme Court, but generally the percent of those who have great confidence in SCOTUS has not changed much in the last decade, fluctuating between 30% and 40%.  Before that, going back to 1973, confidence in SCOTUS stayed above 40%.

Last May, I posted an audio clip from an interview with Michael Lewis, who had just launched a podcast about attacks on the legitimacy of all kinds of judges, not just those in courtrooms. Here is the relevant excerpt from that blogpost. (The entire post is here.)

Lewis says that one inspiration for the series was what happened after a close play at home in a softball game played by nine-year old girls. It happened ten years earlier. But it can easily be an allegory for tactics and a tactician of the present moment.

The story continues (to hear the rest of it, get the entire episode and push the slider to about 12:40), but the excerpt here is sufficient. It shows a winning-obsessed and angry man using his position of power to bully an impartial judge. I chose to end the clip at the point where the angry bully says, “You’re fired.” (We’re not long on subtlety here at the Socioblog.)

The Times Wedding Announcements They Are a-Changin’

February 21, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here are some more trends dredged up from Wedding Crunchers, the New York Times corpus of words in its wedding announcements. As I noted in the previous post about brides keeping or changing their name (here), these announcements are not a representative sample of couples. And while they are not even representative of couples in the Times’s corner of US society, I think they point to some general trends in that elitish slice of the world.

Take grade inflation. This well-documented trend is reflected in Times weddings as well.

 (Click on an image to enlarge it.)
From 1981 to 2019, the proportion of announcements with a summa more than doubles (from 4% to 10%) as does the magna rate (9% to 19%). It’s possible, though unlikely, that Times has raised its bar for putting your announcement in the paper. Or maybe today’s couples really were better students in their college days. We do know that more of them are going on to post-BA programs. But which?

In the 1980s, we saw the rise of the MBA, the Wall Street “masters of the universe” in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, or in real life the recently pardoned Michael Milken (MBA Wharton 1979, Pleasanton Federal Prison 1993). The 1990s was for lawyers. (I recall a New Yorker cartoon, which I cannot now find online, which shows a young woman and man at a cocktail party. She is saying, “How did I know you’re a lawyer? Everyone’s a lawyer.”)

As we head to the 21st century, two other phrases start turning up —  “hedge fund” and “start up.”

The numbers are small, never more than one announcement in 25 including either of them, but starting about ten years ago, start ups began to replace hedge funds as the choice of the adventurous and ambitious (and perhaps avaricious).

The other newcomer to the these pages is the dating app. The steep increase starts in 2013 or 2014. In only 5-6 years, about 20% of the wedding couples announce that they met via a dating app.

Finally, remarriage in the Times seems to run parallel with national trends.

The US divorce rate peaked in 1980, and since the most remarriages occur on average 5 years after divorce, we should expect the downward slope that begins in 1984. More curious are the upward trend 1996 - 2004 and the decline after that. Of course, remarriage in the Times is somewhat rare — the rate ranges from about 7% to 13% — so maybe we shouldn’t make too much of these fluctuations.

If you’re curious and what to explore your own key words, go to weddingcrunchers.com.

Brides and Names, New York Times Edition

February 20, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“She’s keeping her name,” a friend said the other day. We were talking about a girl we know who got married last year. Is that still a thing, I wondered, keeping your name. What I really meant was: how much of a thing is it? Then I remembered Wedding Crunchers, the corpus of all words in New York Times wedding announcements — sort of like Google nGrams but with a much narrower focus and far fewer filters for researchers. 

Unfortunately, the database goes back only to 1981, so we can’t know when the name-keeping trend started. It was underway by the eighties. By 2000, more than 20% of Times brides announced that they were keeping their names, so many that several of those who were changing their names felt it necessary to proclaim their traditionalism in the announcement.

(Click for a larger view.)

I’m not sure what happened in 2015. Maybe that was the year that the Times instituted the current policy, which finesses the politically tinged proclamations of the keepers and the changers. Instead, the Times puts the maiden name in the headline and the married name in the text. Finding out who’s keeping and who’s changing requires a closer reading, but those who are interested will figure it out.
Here are two weddings from Sunday’s paper. (I edited out the photos to save space.)

(Click for a larger and clearer view.)

Adrienne is becoming Mrs. Adams. Elle will remain Ms. O’Sullivan.

There’s another change in the language, though you have to go back to the eighties to see it. Adrienne graduated from UNM, Elle from UCSB. In fact all brides and grooms these days “graduate from” their schools. But in the old days, a student “was graduated from” the school. The Times, and many of the people whose wedding announcements they accepted were traditionalists.

Even as late as 1980, nearly 60% of the wedding announcements included someone who “was graduated from” a school.*

The wedding announcements in the New York Times are hardly a representative sample of anything, But they do offer a glimpse into the world of the elite. For more on that, see Todd Schneider’s excellent post from 2013. As for those at the other end of the social spectrum, graduating from college is not so much an issue, and as marriage rates decline, neither are wedding announcements in the newspaper or the question of whose name to use.

*Nowadays, you sometimes hear, “I graduated college in 2015,” much to the dismay of language prescriptivists, who insist that the correct expression is, “I graduated from college.” They don’t realize that their presciptivist counterparts of 150 years ago would have been just as appalled and in despair for the language because people were not saying, “I was graduated from college.”

School Structure and Superficial Friendships — Russia and the US

February 16, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

American schools teach kids the ideal of universalism. Treating everyone equally without favoritism squares perfectly with our value on equality. But then what about unique personal relationships? If you treat everyone alike, no one can be special. That was the gist of the previous post about the superficiality of American friendships, at least as non-Americans perceive them, and the rules of Valentine’s Day in American classrooms.

Two days after posting that, I happened to listen to a conversation from last August between American economist Tyler Cowen and Masha Gessen, a journalist who came to the US from Russia at age 14, lived here for ten years and then returned to Russia. In 2013, she moved back to the US because of the threat that the government might take her adopted son from her because she is gay. (The full podcast is here.)

Cowen asks two questions, one right after the other, the first about friendships, the second about schools. He doesn’t explicitly say that one affects the other. Neither does Gessen. Maybe they don’t see the connection.

Cowen asks, “Why do Russians purge their own friends so often?” He  Cowen refers to “loyalty cycles.” Gessen is puzzled, maybe because of the words purge and loyalty. Cowen explains that Russian friendships end in total breaks “whereas Americans will drift apart.”   

Gessen answer that if Cowen is right (and she seems not totally convinced that he is), it’s because friendships between Russians are much more profound.   

Here is slightly edited transcript: 

Russian friendships are much more emotional and intense than American friendships. When I moved back to this country five and a half years ago, it was like a sense of whiplash, because I had friend here, I had lived her for twenty years. And I would get together with my friends, and then two hours later the get-together would be over. And [I would think]What was the point of that? Was that just to let each other know that we still exist?

Because you don’t really get into a conversation till about four hours in, right?, and a number of bottles of alcohol. If you’re going to really get down, it’s a 3 a.m., 4 a.m. proposition. You can’t just have dinner and go home.

Maybe you’re just referring to the intensity of Russian friendship. It’s like lovers, even in this country, don’t drift apart usually. You have to break up. You can’t really just stop calling. You can’t go from talking every day to talking every few weeks and then forget about each other’s existence.

Cowen’s next question is about the way Russian schools group children.

COWEN: Russian grade school – you sit in the same seats and next to the same people year after year after year. Is that a good system or a bad system?

GESSEN: My older kids were educated partly in Russia and partly here, and my youngest son is now in elementary school here. I find it disorienting that every year Americans shuffle their classes and put kids in a new social situation. 

There’s something amazing to having gone through life from the time you’re six or seven with the same people. I think it can foster really incredible friendships. It can also foster awful dynamics obviously.

Gessen’s answers suggest a strong relation between the personal (friendships) and the structural (classroom groupings). Oddly, neither Gessen nor Cowen mentions the possible link between the two. But even if they did see that sociological connection, they would see it from different sides of the table. Cowen is saying, in effect, “Russia takes away a kid’s choice over who to associate with. As a result, they wind up with these screwed-up friendships so that the Russian word for “friend” is “future enemy.”

From Gessen’s point of view, it’s not that America our way of friendship is the right and normal way. Instead she sees American friendships as superficial (What’s the point?). After all, when the group of kids a child sees everyday lasts only nine or ten months, when kids are forced to form new relationships every year, you really can’t expect them to develop deep and long-lasting friendships when they’re older.The Russian system can produce friendships that are “incredible” and “amazing.”

Valentine’s Day the American Way

February 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Foreigners often comment that while Americans are generally very friendly and open, friendships are often superficial, especially compared with friendships in their home countries. In class, I would use the example of the elementary school version of Valentine’s Day. (The picture below turned up in my Twitter feed today. I have edited out the personal information.)

In the US, universalism rules. A Valentine’s card denotes affection and friendship, but American kids  have to treat all their classmates alike — no special preferences lest any kid feel left out. You have to extend this token of friendship to every kid in the class.

I’ve never been near a French primary school on February 14th, but I doubt that they follow this custom. I would imagine that if French kids give Valentine cards, they do so on the basis of particularism. It matters very much who the other person is, and for each kid, the number of those special friendships is small.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all readers of the SocioBlog.

(A follow-up about Russian and US schools and friendships is here.)

Ya Got Trouble, My Friends

February 11, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Attorney General of the US, when he isn’t using his office to make sure Trump remains in power, tells us that the country is going to hell in a handbasket. In a speech at Notre Dame last year, he claimed that  “Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.”

He’s wrong, of course. Most of those measures show that things are getting better, though there are some troubling numbers (suicide, drug addiction and overdose).  Claude Fischer has the data  at his Made In America blog. He also looks at Barr’s explanation for the nonexistent downward trend — “the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system.” That trend too, says Fischer, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  We’re not losing our religion, and certainly not our religiousness; we’re losing our church affiliations.

Barr might also be wrong about the effects of religion or its absence. Fischer’s data seems to suggest that when it comes to social pathology, losing our religion might not be such a bad thing. States with higher levels of “religiosity” also tend to have higher levels of pathologies — things like violence and sexually transmitted disease. Even drug overdoses, historically the province of more urbanized and less religious states, have now become a big problem in the religious heartland.

(Click for a larger view.)

Of the variables in the graph, the one that stands out is Incarceration. Tell me what proportion of a state’s population is in jail, and I can make a very good guess as to how religious it is. But that doesn’t mean that religious states have more crime and criminals. It does mean that their laws and policies are more punitive. They favor harsh punishment for people who have broken the law. Not all laws and not all people, just those who by their actions and personal characteristics can be judged as outside the society — as not one of Us.

This preference for punishment is especially popular among fundamentalists and other religiously conservative Protestants. It is that same kind of fundamentalism that underlies Barr’s view of social problems. His speech reads like a sermon from a fire-and-brimstone revival preacher. (Barr’s actual delivery from the podium may have been different in style.) The odd thing is that Barr himself is a Catholic and he was speaking at Catholic university. This seeming contradiction puzzled Fischer too.

The speech sounds much more like one of the jeremiads Puritan ministers unleashed on their congregants centuries ago than it does like a Catholicism traditionally more tolerant of human failing. The underlying individualism in Barr’s account is also very Puritan Protestant. Social ills emerge from individual willfulness. The role of the community is to instill fear of God to check that willfulness

In this way, Barr is one more data point in a historical narrowing of differences between Protestants and Catholics. As Catholics became more similar to Protestant, as the social, economic, and geographic spaces they occupied grew more diverse, their views on social and political issues also became more varied. So it’s not surprising that in the 21st century we have a Catholic attorney general channeling Cotton Mather.*

* In the 1980s, another Catholic cabinet member, Education Secretary William Bennett, made similar noises. Like Prof. Harold Hill in “The Music Man” (and like Barr), Bennett told us, “Ya Got Trouble.” Hill blamed the pool table, Barr blamed secularism, and Bennett blamed the decline of virtue. That was convenient since he then went on to sell his Book of Virtues for parents to read to their kids just as Harold Hill sold trombones. Right now the only thing Barr seems to be selling is Donald Trump.

UPDATE: As I said in the fourth paragraph above, moralizers like Barr are especially fond of punishment when the offender is one of The Others. When the offender is One of Us, their sternness melts into compassion. Later in the day I wrote this, Mr. Barr’s justice department recommended a lighter sentence for Roger Stone, a friend of Trump, who had been convicted on a variety of charges. In doing so, DOJ was tearing up the recommendations of longer sentence from the prosecutors who worked on the case.

Uncut Gems Gamblers

February 6, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

As I sat through the movie “Uncut Gems,” (see the previous post) I kept thinking of the compulsive gamblers I studied hung around with decades ago. I had gone to the movie thinking that it would provide an inside view of the 47th St. diamond district, a business world that is probably not much different from what it was a century ago.  It has not been taken over by  private equity and MBAs with spreadsheets. If you’re looking for modern, rationalized corporate structures and procedures, go elsewhere. Here, personal relationships count for much; deals are sealed with a handshake, not a contract

That was the movie I wanted to see. After all, the Safdie brothers, who made the film, had grown up hearing diamond district stories from their father, who worked there. But intead of showing us that world, the film focuses relentlessly on a single figure, Howard Ratner played by Adam Sandler. And although Ratner may not be typical of jewelry merchants, he is typical of gamblers, especially compulsive gamblers, though with Ratner the more appropriate adjective would be impulsive gambler..

Ratner and the gamblers I knew had two important things in common.. First, their lives are centered around the problem of getting money — a lot of it and quickly. And second, their relationships with family are thin and brittle. That’s not surprising. Since their money problems crowd out other matters, close relationships are at best a distraction or an interference, at worst a threat. And yet, Ratner, like many of the gamblers I knew, still thinks of himself as a good husband and father, and he remains blissfully unaware of how he is seen by the people whose needs he is slighting.

He even thinks that his wife, who is divorcing him, might reconsider.She clarifies her position (“If I  had my way, I would never see you again”), and Ratner still doesn’t get it.

(She actually does convincingly fake a punch, hence the noise and laughter in the final seconds of this clip.)

There’s an old gamblers’ joke, about the horseplayer who, like Sandler lives on Long Island. That’s great for horseplayers, because Aqueduct and Belmont are not far. But in August, New York racing moves up to Saratoga.

The horseplayer complains to a friend. “It’s terrible. I have to get up before six to get the train in to Grand Central, get over to Penn Station to get the bus by nine so I can get to the track in time for the daily double. The races end at 5:30 or 6, and then I gotta do the same thing in reverse. I don’t get back to the house around eleven and get right to bed so I can get up the next morning.”
“You know what you should do,” says the friend, “Rent a room in Saratoga Springs. You’ll be near the track, you can sleep late. . . .”

“What?” says the horseplayer, “And neglect my family??”

OK. Jokes are not evidence. But blogposts are not journal articles. And the joke does capture the gambler’s distorted picture of domestic tranquility.

“Uncut Gems”

February 1, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw “Uncut Gems” last week. It does not pass the Bechdel test. It does not have
  • two women who . . .
  • have a conversation . . .
  • about something other than a man.
The film doesn’t even have a conversation between two men who are not Adam Sandler (Howard Ratner). He is there in nearly every scene. Nor does it have a conversation about something other than money.
Even “conversation” is misleading. Usually, the men shout. The camera is in tight on most shots, so you feel as though the film is grabbing you by the lapels, pushing its face into yours, and shouting about money. Also, th men say fuck, fucked, and fucking a lot, never in the literal sense.

“Uncut Gems” is basically an action movie, a film where the protagonist struggles against threatening forces in his quest for some tangible goal. It’s all problem-solving. Thoughtful introspection is out of the picture. Ratner thinks only about money. He needs money to pay his gambling debts (he’s a sports bettor), and he needs money to gamble still more. That’s what the film is about.

As a motivation, this obsession with money can lead to complicated actions, but as psychology, it couldn’t be simpler. Ratner and the movie itself see all problems as external. Or really, there’s only one problem — how to get money. All relationships with other people, including family, are purely instrumental — how to use them to get money or avoid them if they are trying to get their money back. The film even has the cliche scene where the parent goes to see his kid in the school play but has to leave in the middle. In this case, Ratner has to duck out to deal with his own money-based problems.

People interested in non-money relationships might as well be speaking a foreign language which Ratner does not understand and does not see the point in learning. As adept as he is at knowing what will motivate Kevin Garnet to have a great game, he is utterly unaware of what his own wife is thinking or how she sees him. They are getting a divorce, but Ratner still thinks it’s possible that she might scrap that idea. With a twinkle in his eye, he suggests that they might stay together. Her response: “I think you are the most annoying person I have ever met. I hate being with you. I hate looking at you. And if I had my way, I would never see you again.”

It’s not too much of a spoiler to note that in the end, she gets her way.

(A follow-up to this post is here.)