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Dualistic Thinking Has Left the U.S. Black & Blue

After a week of violence, Nathan Palmer explains how us-versus-them dualistic thinking both supports the ideologies of oppression and prevents us from thinking critically about violence and policing.

“So is this protest in support of the black men who died or the police killed in Dallas?” My chest tightened. I couldn’t tell if he was giving me debate-eyes. “All of the above.” A smile flashed across my face before my brain kicked in. “It’s a march for peace… and… for justice.” He turned his whole body until he was perpendicular to me and looked at the TV above his fireplace. “It’s called Silent No More. You can find out all about by searching for it on Facebook.” He gave me a nod and a polite neutral smile. “We’re protesting everyone whose life was taken and demanding justice.” A smile snuck onto the side of my mouth; That was what I was trying to say before. Walking toward me he said, ”Well that’s good. I guess." I took the cue and he shut the door behind me as I left.

I scrolled through Facebook as I walked backed to my house. My feed was a scramble of hashtags; #BlackLivesMatter, #AltonSterling, #PrayForDallas, #PhilandoCastile, #BlueLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter. I read that former congressmen Joe Walsh tweeted:

”3 Dallas Cops killed, 7 wounded. This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you."

I read his tweet again hoping it’d make sense the second time. Why was the entire Black Lives Matter movement responsible for the actions of a single person (who wasn’t even a member)? Wars have sides. Why did he place President Obama and Black Lives Matter on one side and “real America” on the other? And, who the hell is real America?

As I put my phone back into my pocket, I saw a connection between my neighbor’s question, Walsh’s racist tweet, and the other social media I saw pitting #BlueLivesMatter against #BlackLivesMatter. All three were based on dualistic thinking.

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Ally Activism: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

Did you know that when Black Lives Matter activist Bree Newsome climbed up the South Carolina capitol to remove the confederate flag, a white man named James Ian Tyson helped her do it? In this post, Kris Macomber explains the important role that ally activists can play in social movements, discusses some unintended consequence of ally activism, and offers tips for how allies can support social change movements without stepping on the toes of the movements’ rightful leaders.

When you picture the activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, do you picture the faces of Black women and men? When you imagine who is at the forefront of feminist activism, do you imagine a multi-cultural group of women?

If you answered “yes,” then you have guessed right. Social change movements are comprised mostly of minority group activists, or what sociologist David Myers (2008) calls beneficiary activists. The term “beneficiary” implies that they are the people directly impacted by the movement’s goals and efforts.

Social change movements aren’t comprised entirely of beneficiary activists, though. In fact, dominant group members often join social movements and advocate on behalf of minority group activists—just like James Ian Tyson. Last year, comedian and actor Aziz Ansari sat on David Letterman’s couch and called himself a feminist and then criticized the gender wage gap. Just this fall, after Jennifer Lawrence’s scathing indictment of sexism in Hollywood, Bradley Cooper demanded salary transparency. These kind of activists are what sociologists call social movement allies.

The Manifest & Latent Functions of Ally Activism

As sociologists, we often raise questions that examine both the manifest (obvious and intended) and latent (non-obvious and un-intended) consequences of social behavior and social organization. Regarding ally activism, we would ask: What are the intended consequences of ally activism? And, what are the un-intended consequences?

Let’s start by considering the manifest function of ally activism. First, social movements can benefit from the endorsement and involvement of dominant group allies because they are the ones who have social, economic, and political power. Allies serve as visible and powerful reminders that “minority issues” deserve widespread attention. White activists in the Black Lives Matter Movement and men in the feminist movement can elevate the importance of minority group issues. Ally activism, then, is strategic and beneficial for social movement organizing.

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“No Justice, No Peace”: Black Lives Matter & Bernie Sanders

In this essay Nathan Palmer uses the recent Black Lives Matter protest at a Bernie Sanders campaign event to discuss how movements choose the tactics they will use to achieve their goals.

On August 9th two women rushed the stage at a campaign event for presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and demanded they be allowed to speak. The two women, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford who are affiliated with the Seattle Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, shouted, “Let her speak!” repeatedly while they struggled with event organizers for control of the microphone. Eventually they were allowed to speak and Johnson addressed the crowd through a chorus of boos and shouting.

After waiting about 20 minutes Sanders tried unsuccessfully to take back the microphone. He then waved goodbye, put his fist in the air, and walked through the crowd as he left the event. Later that day Sanders issued a statement online which read in part, “I am disappointed that two people disrupted a rally attended by thousands at which I was invited to speak about fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare. I was especially disappointed because on criminal justice reform and the need to fight racism there is no other candidate for president who will fight harder than me.”

“Well That Was Rude!”

Almost immediately the internet exploded with reactions to the disruption. Some championed Johnson and Willaford for “shutting down” the Sanders rally. Some chastised them for acting inappropriately. Others were perplexed at their choice of target. Bernie Sanders is arguably the most progressive presidential candidate running and as Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan put it you, “Don’t Piss On Your Best Friend.”

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#BlackLivesMatter & Theories of Crime

If you look hard enough, or get good at it, sociological theory can be found in the everyday. In this post, Ami Stearns explains how audience and panel members at a public forum about crime used language reflecting criminological theory to address issues between the police and the African-American community.

Woman Holding Black Lives Matter Sign

One of the hazards of being a professional sociologist is you can’t stop seeing social theory everywhere you go. For example, I recently attended a #BlackLivesMatter public forum and heard criminology theories in almost everything the panelists and forum attendees said. The forum was a response to the police shooting deaths of unarmed African-American men and the protests that followed in Ferguson and other cities. The discussion quickly turned into a debate on how to best address crime in the African-American community and thereby avoiding conflicts with the police altogether.[1]

By far, the most common theme running through all of the comments were built on a criminological theory called Social Control. This theory, as postulated by Gottfredson and Hirschi in the 1960s, places the responsibility for socially acceptable behavior on parents, teachers, and other authoritative figures. According to Social Control theory, adherence to social norms begins in infancy and childhood and is reinforced through socialization. Here are some Social Control theory examples from the public forum:

  • A self-described former troublemaker said the children in the community suffered from poor morals and had no respect for authority.
  • A single mother said parents should be able to physically discipline their children again (without getting accused of child endangerment) while another audience member talked at length about parents needing to have better control over their children.
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