Thursday, January 19, 2012

"System D" and the Lack of Sociological Discourse in Popular Media.

Business Insider (BI) published the article "Forget China, 'System D' Is the World's Second Largest Economy", on the worldwide black market, or secondary economy, now dubbed "System D". I am always surprised (although I know I should not be) at how these stories never seem to address the "why" of the secondary economy. The article, and infographic below, frames the discussion through lost tax revenues and "black market entrepreneurs" who have higher profit margins than those in the legitimate economy.

What stories like this fail to look at is why the secondary economy exists. Yes, there are those who are driven by the prospect of high profit margins and are willing to take on the risk associated with large scale black market operations in order to obtain them, but I have no doubt that the majority (of people, not money) do not fall into this category. I think the larger issue is that those who work in the secondary economy  do so to support themselves and their families, because for one reason or another they are not able to within the primary economy. They may be barred by poverty, lack of education, lack of resources, former incarceration, racism, sexism, religious oppression or just plain prejudice.

When we look at countries with the largest black markets (see Shadow Economies all Over the World: New Estimates from 162 Countries from 1991-2007 an updated version of the IMF paper linked to in the article), we see corrupt and poor governments, with even poorer populations. We also see a concentration of brown and black peoples in most of these countries--which historically means countries and peoples who have been mined for resources and left to fend for themselves with alien cultures foist upon them.

If we look at the U.S. and who participates in the secondary economy we see, again, largely black and brown bodies who are barred from participation in the primary economy. We can look at several sociological papers and books written by Waquant, Pitts, Wilson.... and so on which point out that participation in the secondary economy is not usually by choice. Institutional racism has concentrated blacks and other minorities in certain geographic areas and then systematically denied those areas public services such as access to public transit, competitive schools, road repairs, etc. The private sector abandoned these areas as well, despite a real demand in the market for services. These things work in concert to bar involvement in the primary economy and, as if this is not enough, when caught participating in the secondary economy  these individuals are incarcerated. Incarceration, besides the abuse and emotional toll, means that one is further barred from participation in the workforce. It is no wonder the mass incarceration is considered the New Jim Crow.

As I read the comments on the BI article many point to high taxes and the "welfare state" as a reason for the secondary economy, I would have to argue the opposite. It because these governments do not provide basic services to these communities that secondary economy flourishes. The smallest secondary economies exist in countries with higher tax rates. Although I do not have the numbers to back myself up here, I am also willing to bet that the secondary economy in those countries, the U.S. included, are peopled by those segments of the population which fall through the cracks and are not provided their basic needs.

At the end of the day I suppose I am just thankful for my sociological education, that I can supplement popular media claims with sociological research and look at the "why." I just wish that as a society we tried to take a more holistic view of our problems and culture. Hopefully we will get there.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Microsoft’s “Avoid Ghetto” App: Racism Built into Technology- RACISM REVIEW

This is a great post at Racism Review by Dr. Jessie Daniels about the new "Avoid Ghetto" Microsoft GPS app.   She says it all and much better than I could.

Microsoft has developed and filed a patent for a new “Avoid Ghetto” GPS app. The app connects to your smartphone (or dashboard GPS) and let’s you know when you’re getting close to a neighborhood with high rates of (street) crime.
A story about this dreadful new technology appeared in this piece by Ross Kenneth Urken, who talked to a CUNY colleague of mine, Sarah E. Chinn, author of Technology and the Logic of American Racism. Chinn observes:
“It’s pretty appalling. Of course, an application like this defines crime pretty narrowly, since all crimes happen in all kinds of neighborhoods. I can’t imagine that there aren’t perpetrators of domestic violence, petty and insignificant drug possession, fraud, theft, and rape in every area.”
Of course, Sarah’s absolutely right about this. (Strangely, The Root mentions her book, uses the same quote, but totally mangles attribution.)
Here’s the way this app is supposed to work, according to the white-fearful-of-crime-imagination (again from Urken):
On the other hand, consider how this app could potentially help wayward drivers in some cities. In Detroit, for example, the city has a central downtown from General Motors headquarters up Woodward Avenue to Ford Field and Comerica Park where comparatively little crime happens. But just a few blocks outside that area, and a driver can find himself amidst streets of abandoned buildings and street-gang territory.
Although this is speculation, I’m sure this is just what the app developers had envisioned when they created this bit of software.  It’s all very Bonfire of the Vanities, really.  Why if Sherman McCoy had this app, he’d have never gotten into all that trouble in the Bronx. But that’s just it, the app doesn’t track the kind of crimes that are really damaging to society as a whole, say, like bank fraud or subprime mortgage scams by “Masters of the Universe” like McCoy.  No, in this app, crime only happens one way: between dangerous street thugs (read: black and brown people) and drivers (read: white people).
This Way
(Creative Commons License photo credit: dblstripe )
Urken goes on to downplay the racial implications of the “Avoid Ghetto” app, by turning to Roger C. Lanctot, a senior analyst at someplace called “Strategy Analytics,” who views the “Avoid Ghetto” app as potentially useful.  Lanctot asserts that “drivers” should have a right to know when they are passing “high-risk” areas. Here’s what Lanctot had to say:
“We’ve all had that experience when you take the wrong exit and go, ‘Oh shoot,’ because you end up in a neighborhood you shouldn’t be in. Should you look down at the GPS and have a red flag with an exclamation point, ‘Get out!’? I hate to say it because of the racial implication element, but what father wouldn’t want such a capability for their daughter. I’ve seen plenty of dads having their daughters call them every half-hour: ‘Where are you?’ ‘Where are you?’ They would have more piece of mind if they knew their daughters had an app to avoid driving through bad areas.” [emphasis added]
This quote is an interesting rupture in the usually ‘colorblind’ discussions about technology, yet the element of race is so clear, Lanctot wants to distance himself from the implications of what he’s saying.  It some ways it’s also a revealing moment about the white fear of crime (part of the white racial frame) and the construction of so-called ‘bad’ neighborhoods as always black or Latino. The reality is that “high risk” neighborhoods are most dangerous to those who are living in them (that is, predominantly black and brown people), not the white people who are driving through them.                                                 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why is it always Working Mom v. Stay at Home Mom?

Photo Credit:

On Anderson today there was a segment inspired by a recent article that claims working mothers are happier than stay-at-home mothers (read the BBC story here). The description of the show reads:
Anderson is joined by a panel of moms who discuss the controversial new study that says moms with jobs outside the home are healthier and happier, and debate the issue of who is actually happier. Also, Anderson speaks with a mom who works outside the home who shares her extreme point of view, claiming that moms who stay at home are “lazy.” (Read more and see clips here)
I think that shows which frame the discussion of motherhood and work outside the home in the manner of working mothers versus at-home mothers do a disservice to both. In watching the segment it quickly became apparent that it was preying upon the insecurities of both populations--working mothers are bad mothers and stay-at-home mothers are lazy and unfulfilled. It only serves to further segment the female population, rather than focusing on the real issues surround work and motherhood.

  • First, women are supposed to do it all. "You can have the career, family and time for yourself--and it's easy!" It sells magazines, but the truth is no one is perfect and at one time or another all of these areas will feel as though they are lacking. 
  • Second, generations of women have fought for equality, which means a choice. To simply label one choice socially unfavorable is to discount their struggle. For many single and low-income mothers there is no choice in the matter. Work or your family starves. Likewise, many low-income families find that the cost of childcare is greater than their second salary, usually the mother's salary, and she is forced to stay home. 
  • Third, there is a larger issue concerning the value of work in the home. Study after study show that women--regardless of their employment status--do the majority of work in the home. These are services that have real value, as anyone with an au pair, nanny, housekeeper, laundry service and/or personal assistant can attest. Why are they discounted simply because they are performed by a household member? If, in a "typical" (read stereotypical) husband/father in a relationship is only expected to have one job, why should the wife/mother be held to a different standard?

The is fact that the workplace is not built for women, in fact it is not even built for men who want to be more involved with the upbringing of their children. It is based on an old patriarchal system which does not work for most households. What we need to do instead of placing blame and accusations is fight for real change to the larger institutions. We need to learn to appreciate work done in the home, regardless of who does it--be it a stay-at-home mother, father or caregiver. We need to push for family flex time for all members of the family, in straight and same-sex households so that we do not have to choose between income and family. Foremost we need to remember why we work to begin with, for sustenance, personal fulfillment and to find happiness, regardless of where it lies.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Rosie Show

A few months ago I found myself flipping through channels, and I landed on the OWN show "Rosie." I did not even know we had the channel. I have always been a fan of Rosie O'Donnell, not just for her talent, but also for her GBLT activism and breast cancer awareness work, so I decided to watch. Apparently, I was watching a rerun. She mentioned that she had received a lot of fan feedback asking, "Why so much gay stuff?" She then showed a short clip of all the mentions of the word gay (a few jokes, mentions of her S.O. and some audience/guest banter) and basically said, sorry, but I am just living my life. I watched the rest of the show and could not get the "feedback" out of my head.

"Why so much gay stuff?" I think a better question is: "Why so much straight stuff?"

Our society is built for heterosexuals (forgive me for the lack of intersectionalism in this post). When a straight woman discusses her upcoming plans for her wedding in Illinois, which does not allow gay marriage, is she told to knock it off with the straight stuff? When a man discusses an argument he had with his wife is he asked to tone down his heterosexuality?

Most Americans consider heterosexuality to be normal and, therefore, any other sexuality becomes "othered"--meaning that it is seen as abnormal. It is a sign of the privilege associated with heterosexuality. I can discuss my life with my husband without being told I am shoving my "lifestyle" down anyone's throat; yet replace the word husband with partner or wife and I am suddenly pushy and overly focused on sexuality.

The "gay stuff" questioned by O'Donnell's fans is just her life--discussing her significant other or sharing a common experience with another person. These are simple things that heterosexuals often discuss and take for granted, but that many in the GLBTQ community are unable to share with others out of fear of rejection, alienation and possibly violence. Everyone deserves the right to live their life without that kind of fear.

One often hears people state that having so many openly gay celebrities on television or in movies is a sign of how far our society has come, but the question "why so much gay stuff" is a sign of how far we have left to go. When will have reached equality? I think it is when everyone can go about their daily lives without being labeled an activist or extremist for doing so.

"It's okay to be gay."