Eli Anderson’s The Black Male in Public,
Terrorism, and the Method of Social Science

John M. Hagedorn
Lecture: 26 Sept. 2001

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 there’s a good reason for it — you don’t 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 don’t have to think, oh, oh , is this a lunatic asylum? No you draw on your experience and realize it’s just Hagedorn giving a lecture. This shorthand — some people call them stereotypes — is a way we manuever through daily life.

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 can’t 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 what’s 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, there’s 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 we’re still upset, we’re still somewhat nervous. Some powerful stuff has happened in this world and we can’t 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 we’ve been brought up, how we’ve been socialized, our genetics, our experiences, what’s we’are feeling on a given day, what we’ve 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 Eli’s chapter; if you’re walking down the street and there are two black men walking behind you, is there a reason to feel nervous? All men are scum, aren’t 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 don’t feel apprehensive? The stakes are pretty high. Does it mean that if you’re white, you are a racist? Does it mean if you’re a black female walking down the street and you’re nervous about those black guys, you’re 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. It’s not to say it’s the whole picture. But it’s part of the way we look at it, whether it’s 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.

Eli’s 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 you’re trying to say and it’s 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. That’s the issue to look at, not to deny the facts.

If you’re that young woman walking down the street, it’s 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 here’s the second component. It’s that you have to look at the facts from more than one angle. There may be some other facts that you didn’t take into account. Statistically, clearly, those guys probably aren’t going to be very harmful. There’s not a big chance that something’s 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 aren’t. 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 they’ve 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 wasn’t saying that she’s a vicious racist or that these guys weren’t 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 don’t 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 it’s hard to think like them because I’m sure there’s nobody here that can imagine doing anything like that. But that’s 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 don’t 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. Eli’s 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 don’t have a chance to think, we just react, and we often react by playing out our deepest prejudices. Things that we don’t 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 don’t 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 we’re not programmed like animals and computers. We can rise above hubris. We’re 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 we’re told “go to war,” we go to war. “ Or if we’re told, “ kill the Jews,” we turn on the gas. We don’t have to follow orders of those in authority. Being human, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, means the possibility of disobedience. We’re human. We’re not animals. We’re 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, that’s the heart of the method of social science, this course, my book, Eli’s chapter, and my outlook on life.