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Blog

Using qualitative research to contest stereotypes

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at www.21stcenturyscholar.org

How are black men portrayed? After Freddie Gray’s death due to the brutality of six Baltimore police officers, newscasts focused on Gray’s criminal record and suspect behavior. When city residents protested, the media became more interested. Reporters searched for provocative stories and trolled for increased viewership. They showed dehumanizing videos of wild mobs looting and rioting.

Mainstream media ignored the peaceful protests of informed residents who understand the intricate factors that contribute to distressed neighborhoods in the city; a city where one out of four individuals live below the poverty line; a city where more than three out of four low-income households are headed by single women; and, a city where nearly one out of three children live below the poverty level. Of course, we know these figures underestimate poverty. Federal poverty lines are notoriously unrealistic. The qualifying amount for a one-person household is $11,770. The amount for a three-person household is $20,090.

I could go on. I could mention that, while most research indicates the multiple benefits of homeownership—from health to upward mobility—nearly eight out of ten low-income families rent, not own. I could talk about the failure to provide living wages, the lack of food security, the disproportionate number of dismal public schools, and a robust school-to-prison pipeline. I could criticize reports about exorbitant amounts of money spent on failed public policies to revitalize Baltimore neighborhoods, reports that imply residents somehow refuse to improve their economic standing despite the good deeds of politicians.

We know that healthy neighborhoods rely on five pillars—quality health, safety, education, employment, and institutions. One-dimensional reforms rarely account for interconnected factors that reproduce concentrated and generational poverty. They disregard a history of corrupt institutions and prejudiced politics, facts that have significant implications for policy implementation. When politicians do introduce comprehensive reforms—think of Promise Neighborhoods—they are woefully under-funded. When they fail, critics use them as evidence to quell future anti-poverty efforts.

Distorted media coverage has wide-ranging effects. It informs public discourse and policy discussions. It’s also divisive. How do reactions while watching the nightly news differ between a middle-class 50-year-old in Loveland, Colorado versus a low-income teenager in Baltimore? I imagine the two might have drastically different interpretations. No one likes to be misrepresented. In this case, news organizations misrepresent entire groups on a national stage.

So, what’s the function of qualitative research? Thoughtful research has the potential to contest negative stereotypes, to show why poverty is rarely a choice, to illustrate how living in poverty is not the same thing as being poor. Skilled ethnographers, for example, have the ability to present the complexities of local conditions and connect them to overarching social and economic conditions. Such insights are critical to creating more productive public dialogue and designing more just social policy.

Indiana, Duke, Yik Yak, and the purpose of education

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at www.21stcenturyscholar.org

The news has been full of lamentable examples of bigotry and discrimination.

The governor of Indiana signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, legislation that permits businesses to discriminate on the basis of religion—a restaurant, for instance, could refuse service to a gay couple. The politician posed the law as a moral argument; and yet, any logical person recognizes how wrong the legislation is. Either he didn’t think or care about the signals such a decision sends to a gay teenager who lives in a small town in Indiana and struggles with identity issues.

At Duke University—just before the men’s basketball team won its fifth national championship—a student hung a noose from a tree. A few weeks earlier, a group of white men shouted racist chants at a black woman as she walked on campus. The examples illustrate that universities are not safe or inclusive places for many students. Would you feel safe as a black woman walking home from class at Duke? 

Sadly, the bigoted and discriminatory acts are occurring on campuses across the country. Yik Yak, a social media platform, permits users within a particular geographic range to post anonymous “Yaks.” Think about a bathroom stall or dormitory bulletin board where anyone can write anything, even the most racist, sexist, and homophobic comments. Only Yik Yak knows the identities of users. Universities have requested the names and emails of offenders; the social media company—citing a privacy policy that guarantees complete anonymity, except for cases that involve the law—has not complied.

The inappropriate uses reveal where we are as a society. Some critics argue platforms like Yik Yak should not be permitted on campuses. I’m not sure censorship addresses the real issue. Bigotry and discrimination, however masked, are insidious. Sure, cyber bullying exists, but what happens in dorms and on campuses everyday. Have you heard the language of some students as they walk to class? Even if the social media platform didn't exist, people would still find venues and ways to express hate speech and commit violent acts, whether physical or symbolic. Duke illustrates that.

What’s the purpose of education? In No Citizen Left Behind, discussing the importance of civic education, Meira Levinson writes, “Part of the beauty of democracy, when it functions effectively and inclusively, is its ability to create aggregate wisdom and good judgment from individual citizens’ necessarily limited knowledge, skills, and viewpoints. To exclude citizens from this process is to diminish the wisdom that the collectivity may create” (p. 49). Examples like Indiana, Duke, and Yik Yak illustrate uncritical and intolerant responses to deeply rooted and complex issues. They are indictments of our current educational system and one-dimensional approaches to reform.

Standards, assessments, and school choice are important issues. We need to improve graduation rates and prepare students for college and career. But, we also have an obligation to nurture young men and women to be caring, healthy, and empowered citizens. That point is too often absent from public discourse. If we are serious about allaying intricate and enduring issues like intolerance and discrimination, policymakers have to widen the scope of educational reforms. Inclusivity is a precondition—not an accidental byproduct—of successful teaching and learning. Otherwise, instances like Indiana, Duke, and Yik Yak will continue.

Re-reading old posts

Randall F. Clemens

I was searching for some articles about Carol Stack's All Our Kin, and I found an old blog I published for www.21stcenturyscholar.org. I started re-reading some of the blogs I wrote during graduate school. As I progress from year to year, the topics become more and more focused on my current research interests. I thought it'd be fun to repost a few.