What Eli Anderson was trying to get across in his chapter, the Black Male
in Public, was simply that we all use shorthand in making sense of events.
And theres a good reason for it you dont want to have
to rethink every situation every time. For example, you walk into this
classroom and you see some guy up front behind the podium waving his arms
and talking passionately about something or another. You dont have
to think, oh, oh , is this a lunatic asylum? No you draw on your experience
and realize its just Hagedorn giving a lecture. This shorthand
some people call them stereotypes is a way we manuever through
In a way, what Eli was talking about when he described the frightened
feelings of that lady to the young black men walking behind her, is what
in criminal justice is called racial profiling. A profile. Shorthand.
A stereotype. These concepts are very similar. For example, you might
be getting on a plane today and, a couple of young, male, Middle Eastern.
males also get on. How many of you would be nervous? Would you at least
think about it? You know in some airports, Middle Eastern men have been
thrown off of planes. Now cant we see from the safety of our classroom
that that is just pure racism? But there are also some powerful emotions
that are clicking in now. People are trying to use shorthand and figure
out whats going on. One method all of us and the authorities
use, is racial profiling. Is that racism? Well, probably. Is it
also based on some real fears? Yes.
Well, this is the definition of prejudice, or pre-judging. But it is also,
my partner Mary Devitt argues, very close to the method of social science.
What did she mean? Social science uses probabilities to make predictions.
And we could ask ourselves are Middle Eastern men today more likely to
hijack planes than white men, black men, or Latinos? We could compute
that realistically, based on the profiles of hijackers in the last few
years and say it is more likely, so there may some reason to be afraid.
Now we also could use the method of social science and say hmm, theres
millions of Middle Eastern men, so how likely is it that these guys would
be hijackers? Pretty small, right? So we can combat one generalization
with another. But neither of those approaches are satisfactory because
were still upset, were still somewhat nervous. Some powerful
stuff has happened in this world and we cant get over it. The stakes
are pretty high. Our outlook, the way we look at life, cannot be reduced
to a single factor racism, or rationality, or even self interest.
There are complex factors in how weve been brought up, how weve
been socialized, our genetics, our experiences, whats weare
feeling on a given day, what weve just seen on TV. All sorts of
things enter into how we look at an event and make choices.
And back to the scenario in Elis chapter; if youre walking
down the street and there are two black men walking behind you, is there
a reason to feel nervous? All men are scum, arent they? Gender,
like race is a master status. Is it completely rational to think that
those two men are likely to assault and rape you? No. Does that mean you
dont feel apprehensive? The stakes are pretty high. Does it mean
that if youre white, you are a racist? Does it mean if youre
a black female walking down the street and youre nervous about those
black guys, youre collaborating in racism? There are all sorts of
complex things that go into your definition of the situation. Some of
which are some pretty ingrained feelings about what Eli calls the master
status of race. Race gets superimposed on that situation. Its not
to say its the whole picture. But its part of the way we look
at it, whether its a Muslim on a plane or two black men on a street.
Part of the way we look at life is conditioned by these master statuses.
And sometimes our emotions and thoughts are hard to disentangle.
Elis chapter really highlights five components of social science
and how it differs from common sense, intuition, religion,
or other approaches.
The first is that you have to recognize the facts no matter how uncomfortable
they are. Gideon Sjoberg argues that one of the assumptions of science
is that truth is superior to ignorance, even when the facts are not comfortable
things to look at. In Milwaukee when I talked about the fact that the
vast the majority of gangs in that city are black, the NAACP and the community
agencies told me that I was being racist. I said I understand what youre
trying to say and its important to deal with the effect of stereotyping,
but the reality is that most gangs are black. What we have to understand
is why it is that most of the gangs today are black, whereas 100 years
ago they were German. Thats the issue to look at, not to deny the
If youre that young woman walking down the street, its a fact
that it might be dangerous. She has an actual basis for being fearful.
So what does she do? She crosses the street. Does that make her a racist
or is she just recognizing some facts?
But heres the second component. Its that you have to look
at the facts from more than one angle. There may be some other facts that
you didnt take into account. Statistically, clearly, those guys
probably arent going to be very harmful. Theres not a big
chance that somethings going to happen. But that may not be a comfort
to you. You may cross the street anyway. But the method of social science,
and I think of any thinking human being, is that at some point, you sit
back and sort out what else is going on here. The lady who crossed the
street may think that she might have been a bit foolish. She may think
about what has happened and wonder about the impact of racial stereotypes
on her thoughts and actions.
Another example: gangs are a major presence in both Milwaukee and Chicago.
Both cities have also witnessed massive de-industrialization and hundreds
of thousands of good jobs are gone. Maybe these things are related, maybe
they arent. Social science may not be too helpful if you encounter
some guys hanging on a corner, but the method of social science, and of
any thinking human being, is to try to understand the wider relationships,
how and why gangs have developed, and how theyve changed today.
Our public response to social problems ought to be based on something
more than fear on a street corner.
And that brings us to the third point: to truly understand someone else,
whether a gang member of a corporate executive, we need to be able to
put ourselves in the place of the other. How do those guys looking at
that young lady walking the streets look at her? Maybe they have dangerous,
sexual thoughts, maybe not. But what Eli was doing was going through their
heads, and her head, and pointed out that here are two different definitions
of the situation. And Eli as a great social scientist was viewing the
world from more than one point of view. He wasnt saying that shes
a vicious racist or that these guys werent thinking what a pretty
so and so she is. You know, they might have been. There might be more
to the picture of their thoughts than Eli laid out.
My book, People and Folks, is trying to look at the world from the perspective
of kids in the street. Not advocate. I dont look at the world like
the gang kids I studied. But I try and understand how they look at it.
And if you want to understand a problem and figure out what to do, you
have to understand not just your own point of view, but other ones. And
yes, today that means sometimes you have to think like a terrorist. These
guys that flew a plane into a building what in the world could
have motivated them to have done something like that? And its hard
to think like them because Im sure theres nobody here that
can imagine doing anything like that. But thats the challenge of
the kind of social science I advocate, to try to sit back and look at
the world from angles that are inconceivable and even repugnant.
Fourth, we need to understand that irrationality, or things that dont
make sense, are built in to all of us racism, sexism, the fear
of heights, all sorts of feelings and emotions. Everybody has them.
you, me, George Bush, everybody , has these non-rational feelings that
sometimes govern action. Elis point in the book is that race as
a master status is one of those things. Racial feelings are pretty deeply
ingrained in us from long experience. We have only to look at the Middle
East, at 4000 years of battles over Jerusalem . Are those things rational?
Strong feelings have dictated action for centuries.
These irrational feelings are what is most sensitive to images on TV.
A TV image on the news lasts an average only 3 to 4 seconds. We dont
have a chance to think, we just react, and we often react by playing out
our deepest prejudices. Things that we dont want to admit are there.
For example, the racist attacks on Arab-Americans around this country
are often spontaneous reactions. Some guy in Milwaukee was interviewed
on TV because the day after the Trade Towers went down, he went through
the phonebook and found a Muslim school and called them up and threatened
the revenge of America. And I think he gave his name, so they
arrested him. He told the TV reporter that it was just frustration and
he wanted to let it out. The TV interview even showed a touch of sympathy
and understanding with his frustration. Well, I also understand his frustration
I can look at the world like he does. But why would his feeling trigger
a reaction of threatening the lives of Muslim children? Well he was carried
away by the emotion of the moment. When you see the towers fall and you
see all this carnage, sometimes you dont think, you react. Images
play on your emotions, what is irrational. And racial feelings are one
of the prime irrationalities of life. A master status.
Finally, social science, and I think the essence of what it means to
be human, is that were not programmed like animals and computers.
We can rise above hubris. Were not governed by the emotions we feel,
like anger at the Trade Center horror. We can stop ourselves before we
threaten a Muslim school. We put ourselves in their place, look at the
broader context. We might even think about US foreign policy and its complicity
in the situation.
Nor is our action absolutely determined by rules and regulation, so that,
like in Nazi Germany, if were told go to war, we go
to war. Or if were told, kill the Jews, we turn
on the gas. We dont have to follow orders of those in authority.
Being human, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, means the possibility
of disobedience. Were human. Were not animals. Were
not a computer program. Being human means we rise above both the irrationalties
of emotion as well as the rationalities of amoral bureaucracies and States.
Fundamentally, a social science that contributes to humanity must be able
to understand the rational and non rational barriers to empathy. And to
me, our duty as social scientists and human beings is to work to reduce
those barriers. So in short, thats the heart of the method of social
science, this course, my book, Elis chapter, and my outlook on life.