Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Football Fantasy: Sociological Reflections on Race and the Uneven Playing Field

Imagine playing football on a field where the home team has the advantage of playing on a downhill slope, and with the wind and sun at their backs, and where the visiting team’s side of the field is marked in twenty yard increments rather than ten, so that they must move the ball twice the distance of the home field to score a touchdown. Would you say this game is being played on a level playing field with fair rules?

Obviously, players in such a game would not have equal chances to succeed, but what if the home team was also unaware of their unfair advantages? What if the game was being played on a foggy day and the home team could not see the unequal slope of the field, or feel the surging winds blowing in the face of their opponent? Would players on this team feel as proud of their victory under such conditions?

Imagining a football game being played this way, under these unfair conditions, is difficult for most of us because we expect fair play when we compete, and we are surprised to learn that such unfair conditions could even exist because we have not played such a game before. But some Americans are quite familiar with these rules and, even though they play anyway, they might harbor a certain resentment toward the rule makers, or even the opposing team’s players who had no part in making those rules, especially when the home team players claim that the game was fair all along. 

Now imagine that the home team’s referee wants the home team to win, so she calls more penalties on the visiting team to keep them from scoring. Which team would be more upset about those bad calls on the field? If you found yourself on the visiting team forced to play this unfair game, who would you resent more, the referee for making bad calls on the field, the rule makers for creating a game with such unequal advantage, or the home field players for not acknowledging their advantage when they win a game that’s been fixed?

Or would you just be pissed at Colin Kaepernick and the Millikin football team for the manner in which they brought the issue to your attention? 

We need to remember that the whole point of these demonstrations is to raise awareness about all the unfair, discriminatory types of racism in the criminal justice system toward African-Americans, including police brutality. In a country that prides itself on freedom of expression, why are we obsessing over the form of that expression rather than the issue at hand? We seem to have forgotten the most basic civil right that formed the foundation of our national heritage - the freedom to protest peacefully. Instead, we seem to have adopted a form of Nazi patriotism, where flag waving is mandatory, and where one person (or one team) is condemned for exercising their American right to peacefully dissent in whatever way they choose. Isn’t this ideal the very right our soldiers have fought and died for? Isn’t this why this ideal was established in the FIRST amendment, and not the second or twelfth? Sadly, some have succumbed to conservative political correctness over America’s proud heritage of freedom of speech, in a country that been a beacon of openness to ideas, including those ideas that sometime offend us.

The “controversy” over Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem exposes our nation’s ignorance of the game itself, more than it does his audacity to do so. The negative reaction to our own Big Blue football team to remain in the locker room during the national anthem, showing respect through individual silent reflection (or one player’s decision to stand), likewise underscores our national deflection of the real issue of racial inequality more than it does the Fox News narrative that Millikin must hate America and its soldiers.

Like many of you, I found myself having to defend Millikin’s decision to support the team, after the social media blitz that followed soon after Fox News and other conservative media outlets sacked us for doing it. On Facebook, for example, I was scolded for working at such an unpatriotic school, and “one of the most black and liberal colleges around”. I mean, just read the comments underneath the original article from Fox News and you’ll see the outrage of some voices in conservative, white America over everything except what the demonstrations of Kaepernick and our football team are all about. They are way out of bounds in this regard. Across the country, and across most sports, athletes are expressing their concern over racial injustice in the criminal justice system. Even superstars like women’s soccer phenom (and former sociology major of mine at the University of Portland :), Megan Rapinoe, who continues her solo demonstration. Listen to her defend her anthem-kneeling here.  

So let’s get back in the game. Let’s talk about the central issue - the unjust system of criminal justice in this country – the racially systemic problems inherent in our system that the Black Lives Matter movement has been so successful at elevating to a national conversation (and why police departments across the country are currently reforming their police conduct practices following federal investigations by the Department of Justice in both Ferguson and Baltimore after the BLM outcry). And let’s talk about the reasons why Kaepernick’s mere kneeling, or our school’s support of our team’s decision to offer our players the freedom to express themselves how they wish, has agitated so many people around the country. A sociological perspective can help us better understand the game we are really playing here.

As white people we don’t readily see our advantages, and we are often perplexed by the visiting team’s outrage over injustice on the field of play because we do not suffer those injustices nearly as often. Have you ever watched a tight game with a friend who roots for the other team, and noticed how much more upset he gets when the referee fails to drop a flag for defensive pass interference when your team just scored on that play? It’s kinda like that.

Maybe it’s just easier to blame the game’s losers. As Michelle Alexander points out in her recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, we throw far more penalty flags at African-Americans than Whites for similar infractions, disproportionately targeting one team over another, resulting in systemic disadvantages that keep one team from winning, an intentional function of the modern criminal justice system. If you happen to have been born on the winning team, and fail to see the advantages your team has been given, you might take the time to read her book, or consider the volumes of scholarship on the subject of racial injustice in our criminal justice system, such as these several hundred, peer-reviewed studies that say the same thing.  Or you could listen to the voices of history that remind us of the true nature and scope of persistent racism in America, voices largely absent in traditional history classes, such as Frederick Douglass who said in 1853:

“A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our White countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to our principles and ideals that guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as a characterless and purposeless people and, hence, we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nations’ scorn and contempt.”

And finally, if you are a visual learner, I implore you to watch a new documentary on Netflix entitled, “13th for a powerful, eye-opening examination of racism in the criminal justice system, where reputable experts in the field examine this form of institutional racism with a historical lens.

Ironically, most of those who should probably educate themselves on these facts won’t bother with it, exercising their privilege to ignore the facts about that very privilege. They don’t need to bother with trying to understand how American life is experienced differently by Black men and women in America because they have never really felt this experience, and because they feel they are not directly affected by it. This is one form of white privilege: the privilege of not having to educate yourself about the minority experience in America. It is the privilege of ignorance.

Instead, as white Americans, we use our privilege to deflect the national conversation from these uncomfortable facts toward a tangential conversation about patriotism and how it ought to be publicly displayed, uniformly. Of course, we should be proud to be Americans, but our national pride should not discourage outrage over injustice no matter how we choose to voice it. So, for example, instead of acknowledging the anger expressed by a student like LeRyan Wolfe, who has written several heart-felt essays on the subject of white privilege recently, we can avoid facing it by slamming him for the “offensive” words he’s used to call out the uncomfortable subject of racism, or by dismissing his opinion as just that of another “angry Black man”, which is another form of privileged deflection. He’s just being a bad sport about it, complaining about the rules of the game. That’s what “people like that” do.

But what LeRyan is really trying to do is to call a foul in a game being played on an uneven playing field, with referees who are paid by the home team. The referees in this game are the police officers patrolling the streets of our community, and the uneven field we are playing on is our criminal justice system. So even though the referees are not to blame for the rules of the game, we can understand why the visiting team might be angry with them for favoring their home team – as misplaced as that anger may be - because they represent this historical injustice. And as spectators we should at least be honest enough to recognize our team’s unfair advantage when the referees make bad calls that cause the other team to lose.

And we shouldn’t be so vexed when the other team takes a knee.

Kenneth Laundra, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology
Department of Sociology & Organizational Leadership


Friday, July 22, 2016

Ground Rules: Starting a Climate Change Debate

Kenneth H. Laundra, Ph.D.

Conversations about climate change are too often reduced to ideological arguments, ending in fractured feelings and indignant stances that harden over time.  Just when we need to talk about solutions to the crisis, we find ourselves mired in the quicksand of rhetoric and political innuendo. Try talking to a climate change denier about climate change and soon you’ll be talking about “climate gate”, Benghazi or Obamacare, instead of talking about advances in clean energy technology that can save us from pending environmental calamity. For the deniers, climate change is simply a political issue, so you’ll fail to convince that person that it is real and imminent. Since it is merely a political issue, like with religion, the subject of climate change has become too sensitive for polite conversation, and even taboo in mixed social settings (like the 2008 Presidential election).
So here we are. At the precise moment in time when humanity should be sounding the alarm on climate change, and working to offset the effects with a myriad of technological and social solutions now available, we are instead choosing to ignore the reality of our situation on this planet, which is, according to the brightest brains using the rigor of scientific methodology, quite dire. Unfortunately, the political schism that has deepened in this country has also co-opted any rational discussion of climate change, resulting in ideological dismissals on both sides that stifle any meaningful conversation about it, typically reduced to emotional outbursts instead of understanding. So we watch the glaciers melt faster than our frosty opinions, because we too often hold our convictions closer to our hearts than we do the facts. So how do we overcome this rhetorical obstacle to climate change awareness? Given the current ideological divide, I think we need to first talk about how we are going to talk about it.

In order to have a meaningful conversation like this, you must first agree to use a common language. We talk with words, which represent specific ideas. So, if two people are using the same words, but those words have different meanings, then you are not talking with that person, you are just talking to that person. They don’t understand what you’re saying. Worse than that, they think they understand what you’re saying because the words you’ve used mean something else to that person. You are not standing on the same conceptual ground, and you misunderstand each other.
Establishing the ground rules – the rules by which your conversation will stand on – is imperative for having a meaningful conversation. This means agreeing on a common language and, in the context of climate change, it means agreement on what form(s) of knowledge are within range and, in turn, what forms of knowledge are out of range. In the case of climate change, the universal language we must all use is the language of science. It is simply the most rigorous and reliable source of knowledge on the matter, so we have to collectively agree to base our opinions on it, even if it rubs up against other beliefs or ideologies we may hold dear. And to be a good scientist, you must also be willing to change your mind. If you can’t entertain the possibility that an objective conversation on climate change might change your mind, then you shouldn’t bother in the first place, because the goal of this particular conversation is to find consensus on what to do, if anything, about climate change; and this is not merely an academic or philosophical debate, because we are ultimately debating future action which will rely on consensus-building, and this will ultimately require somebody to change their mind.

Unfortunately, as the so-called “national debate” over climate change ensues, it is largely driven by a politically-minded, profit-driven media that are more than happy to over-hype straw man positions on the subject, using purposely opaque and passing reference to the actual knowledge base, and panel discussion among experts of disrepute in formats that pass as real news. So no incentive even exists for consensus-building around the scientific evidence, or for changing minds. This is a troubling stalemate because, if we accept science as our common language in this debate, we are running out of time.

As an example, allow me to collapse a number of conversations I’ve had over this issue with colleagues, students, friends and family into a single, prototypical one. You may find this conversation familiar to you. It goes like this:

CLIMATE CHANGE DENIER: “I think global warming is real, but I’m not sure it’s entirely a man-made thing, and I’m not sure there’s even anything we can do about it. I mean, the science isn’t settled yet. There is honest disagreement among the experts. We should wait before we take any big action, until we know more about it.”
CLIMATE CHANGE BELIEVER: “Actually, there IS consensus among most of the scientists that climate change is real, that it is man-made, and that the problem is becoming increasingly perilous to life on this planet, in a way never before experienced by humankind.”
CLIMATE CHANGE DENIER: “Well, you don’t know that for sure. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”

After somewhere between twenty seconds and two hours of back and forth, the parties agree to disagree. Stalemate.

Been there?

It’s as if we’re talking about a moral, philosophical or spiritual issue, like abortion, socialism, or god in government. But we are not talking about those things. We are talking about climate change, a subject that is inherently and necessarily grounded in the scientific method, which is the most trustworthy form of knowledge we have devised as a species and, in this case, the form of knowledge having the only true bearing on any conversation over climate change. Climate change is a scientific issue, not a moral or political issue, and this deserves to be emphasized.

Consider how bizarre it would be for me to approach my mom or brother, who have both owned and operated a steel construction company for decades, suggesting to them that the buildings they construct might be stronger if they used wood or plastic instead of steel. I would immediately be dismissed as ignorant (or insane) because, to be honest, I don’t know the first thing about steel construction companies or how to make strong buildings. But I did recently see an article online that described a new plastic polymer that is said to be stronger than steel, so I know that my opinion is based, in fact, in fact. In fact is it. Not knowing much else about steel construction, I am not swayed by their further criticism of my claim, involving something about architectural integrity, capital cost incursions, international market prices, and OSHA standards (this is, by the way, a total guess).
Now imagine if I renounce their informed skepticism about my idea by saying, “well, you don’t know that for sure. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”

You can see how obviously wrong I would be. In fact, it would be weird and kinda creepy. This is because I am offering an uninformed opinion based in a way of knowing that is not relevant to the issue at hand. My assumption that my uninformed opinion based in limited knowledge about steel construction should carry the same weight as one who occupies the field and who has a more complete, comprehensive understanding of the forces at play in the construction business – that it should actually have equal merit – is a faulty one. To further cloud our opinionate debates, particularly one like climate change, we have to also understand that our brains are biased toward what we already believe, due to our neuro-psychological tendencies to absorb information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and values, what cognitive psychologists call a confirmation bias (one of many biases that color our worldview).  As Michael Shermer puts it, “Belief comes first. Evidence for belief comes second.”

In this way, we believe our opinion is equally valid because I believe opinions that draw on evidence are as equally valid as those opinions from anyone else who makes an evidence-based claim. But evidence does not equal fact, and a fact is only as good as the manner by which it arrives. And this is how climate change conversations usually go astray. We conflate various forms of evidence as equally true. We assign equal value to any claim that references a “fact”, regardless of how that fact comes to us.

In our technopoly, this modern information age we live in, facts are cheap and they enter our consciousness from all directions in rapid-fire succession. Most of these facts come at us filtered through an institutional agenda, such as the facts surrounding a woman’s biological capacity to “ward off” rape sperm to avoid pregnancy, the facts surrounding violence and guns in America, or the facts surrounding job growth under President Obama. But some of these facts come at us from more rigorous scientific inquiry via the established ground rules for discovery based in the scientific method. This is a very different way of fact-finding and, although science itself can be filtered through an institutional agenda as well, the knowledge attained through this method is still, by far, the most precise and useful way to know something in order to solve a complex global problem like climate change. When it comes to understanding the real, physical world in which we actually live, it is this method that gave us the gift of an evolved awareness of our place in the universe (e.g. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein) and beyond (e.g. quantum physics), and which now gives us the gift of our more Earthy awareness about climate change.

This is not to say that science is always right (my brother reminded me that scientists once thought the Earth was flat, and that some still do). But science is also a method by which we discovered we were wrong and, because it is a method for understanding something, it is the reason why we continue to find truth through the mist of myth and superstition that have fogged our past – like the myth we shouldn’t take action to reduce greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere because we still don’t know enough about it, or because god will take care of it somehow.

You can form your opinion on climate change by citing a filtered fact, or you can form it by citing the sources of fact, which in this case is the congruent evidence that comes to us via the scientific method employed in climatology, Earth science, geology, physics, anthropology, sociology, history and many other divergent studies – all of which derive conclusions grounded in the scientific procedure, and all of which agree that, as a matter of species survival, we better get on top of this thing.

To do this, we must not allow biased claims funded by the very multinational corporations who will suffer from any redirection of current energy policy, or by those with the loudest voices who simply scream through their media megaphones, to carry the same weight as hard science. This would be equivalent to giving a sociologist’s opinion on how to run a steel business the same weight as that of the owner of that steel business. This would be obviously absurd because the sociologist does not understand the language of the steel business, and vice versa. In a very real sense, they speak a different language, so it becomes impossible to find common ground for consensus.

So with climate change, we need to start speaking the same language, the language of science. Until we agree to talk in words we can all agree on, words that have the same meaning to everyone, how can we agree on anything? After all, when was the last time you changed your mind about something after listening to someone speak in a language you could not understand? So let me end with this:

я верю в науку

You believe it too, don’t you?