A recent Winthrop University poll across eleven southern states reveals striking differences between whites and blacks’ attitudes on several social issues. The poll’s methodology is scientific and sound. Of particular interest are questions directed at southerners’ opinions on (1) monuments or memorials to Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War; and (2) statues honoring Confederate war heroes. Continue reading
Category Archives: Sociology
New Book is Out!
I’m late in announcing this, but my latest book, Affective Labour: (Dis)Assembling Distance and Difference (with Jennifer G. Correa) is now available as a hardback, paperback, and e-book. If you buy directly from Rowman and Littlefield, you can use the following promotional code and save 30%: RLI093
Below are some of the reviews:
Thomas and Correa offer an important empirical study of affective labor’s central role in sustaining two pillars of inequality: racial difference and socio-spatial distance. Noteworthy for its comparative and relational approaches, Affective Labour reveals the entwinements between racism and affect in everyday practices and places.
— Paula Ioanide, Associate Professor of Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies, Ithaca College
In this theoretically groundbreaking yet remarkably accessible book, Thomas and Correa establish a strong case for why affect should matter to scholars of race and racism, as well as to activists working for social justice. Affective Labour describes the painstaking work of identification, the crafting of difference, and the production of social distance, in effect asking how forms of violence and exclusion become imaginable or unimaginable. The book takes the reader on an intellectual journey from a college-town bar scene to the US-Mexico border, through the contemporary diversity regimes of predominantly white institutions. The authors then bring the lessons from these case studies to bear on the emergent affective politics of Black Lives Matter and similar radical democratic social movements. In spite of the grimly neoliberal landscapes of difference and inequality it explores, Affective Labour remains optimistic in its evocation of coming into being and the potential for an affect of liberation in progressive politics.
— Rebecca R. Scott, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Missouri-Columbia
Bringing together critical social, cultural and political analysis, phenomenology and original ethnographic research, this book is a must read for anyone interested in the politics of affect. Thomas and Correa provide an imaginative and incisive account of how the manufacturing of gendered, racialised, sexualised, and classed relations of distance and difference is a matter of affective labour. Through a diverse range of in depth examples – from American nightlife cultures, to University diversity-initiatives, to the #BlackLivesMatter movement – the book offers a refreshing and distinctive examination of the affective work of everyday life and its wider critical implications. The analysis offered is at once productively troubling and optimistic: Contemporary forms of affective labour frequently work to reproduce relations of domination, but they also fuel solidarity, resistance and ‘a sense of hope for what can be, despite the reality of what is’.
— Carolyn Pedwell, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies/Cultural Sociology, University of Kent
Thomas and Correa’s expansive research into distance and difference takes us on an immersive journey into configurations of affective subjectivity – from above and below. Carefully crafted case studies of urban nightlife in Columbia, Missouri, ‘War on Terror’ at the US-Mexico border, diversity regimes in higher education, and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, underline why affect should be of critical concern to social, cultural and political theorists. Affective Labour is an original and timely contribution that will have implications for how we approach the politics of difference in the classroom, the polity and on the street.
— Christopher Kyriakides, Associate Professor of Sociology, York University, Canada
Sharp End: The Sorrid History of Race, Space, and Inequality in Columbia, Missouri
**Note: Much of this history has been covered elsewhere, and much more substantively. I’ve provided links to the sources I consulted while writing this piece. For a strong academic treatment of Sharp End, see Jason Jindrich’s 2002 Master’s Thesis for the University of Missouri’s Department of Geography. This thesis serves as the foundation for how local papers and historians discuss Sharp End and the history of racial exclusion in Columbia, Missouri.
With so much coverage over recent racial unrest at my alma mater, the University of Missouri, I thought it would be appropriate to provide a bit more context—historical and geographical—for those interested in understanding the underlying conditions of racial inequality that many students, faculty, and staff are calling attention toward. However, I want to broaden the perspective, and situate the demands for inclusivity and equity within the larger narrative of Columbia, Missouri.
A few days ago, a Facebook friend declared, “Never in our lifetime have we had any real racism that represented a large portion of our society as a whole…I’ve lived in Columbia my entire life and never has there been a real race problem until now.”
This person is near my age (I’m 33), so I was shocked to hear him claim that Columbia is an exemplar for racial tolerance. I’m a three-time alum from the University of Missouri, and spent roughly twelve years living, working, and going to school in the city. My instincts tell me that this friend’s statement is more a reflection of a failure to understand what racism actually is. This wouldn’t be uncommon. Numerous sociological studies show that often, when people discuss racism, they frame it as individual acts of hatred toward members of a racial or ethnic minority group. Shouting racial slurs, or proclaiming your own individual hatred of a certain racial group, are familiar tropes.
While these acts of intolerance are racist in the sense that they articulate a set of beliefs about a particular group’s inferior status based on that group’s racial membership, racism isn’t just a set of beliefs or attitudes. Racism also refers to the actions and practices guided by these beliefs and practices. Ideologies are the cement from which a whole architecture of policies and practices arise. Democracy, for example, isn’t just a belief in representative government, it’s also how that belief is put into practice. Racism, then, is not just a set of beliefs in the inferiority of other racial groups. It also includes practices at the individual and collective levels that flow from those beliefs.
One set of practices that has received incredible attention among scholars and journalists alike is urban renewal, and the displacement of low-income and nonwhite residents that typically follows. Columbia’s history of redevelopment is no different than that of many other cities, yet I’m surprised it has received so little attention by national and local media, who seem to think the recent racial unrest at the University of Missouri is new, and in sharp contrast to the perceived serenity of this popular college town. So, allow me to introduce many of you to a brief history of Sharp End, a once-thriving black business district in the heart of downtown Columbia, that was completely wiped out by Columbia’s first foray into ‘urban redevelopment’ in the mid 1950s.
Sharp End was located within the historic Douglass neighborhood, an area that was once home to Columbia’s business center—Market Square—in what is now the Flat Branch area. Figure 1.1 shows the approximate location of Douglass, marked by the red square. Within the southern border of Douglass is Sharp End, denoted by the smaller black rectangle. The larger, black shape to the south of Douglass and Sharp End is a rough approximation of the University of Missouri (per 2010).
Figure 1.1: Columbia, Missouri 1950
Around the turn of the 20th century, city planners recognized that this bottomland was prone to flooding, and relocated Market Square to present-day 8th and 9th streets in downtown Columbia. Because Columbia was still highly segregated due to Jim Crow laws, free blacks could not live in white neighborhoods, or frequent many white establishments. The newly deserted area in Flat Branch was one of the few areas in the city where free blacks could live. As whites left, free blacks moved in, and began building what would soon become a commercial and cultural hub for black residents. Sharp End was solidified as a black business district sometime after 1910, and over the next forty years was home to a collection of thriving black-owned shops, bars, and restaurants that stretched along Walnut St., and between 4th and 6th streets. During Jim Crow, these were important alternatives to white-owned businesses that blacks were prohibited from patronizing.
Nevertheless, the city’s neglect of the Douglass neighborhood through the first half of the twentieth century was blatant, and had severe consequences. City officials refused to pave or repair roads, and Douglass residents were denied many city services enjoyed by whites. As late as the 1930s, the city was dumping its refuse into Flat Branch creek, which ran through the western edge of Douglass. The city gas plant was also found to have leaked oil into the water of the creek, which accumulated human and livestock waste as it passed between black residences on Park and Ash streets. Finally, intense segregation—both residential and occupational—made for high concentrations of poverty among Columbia’s black residents in the inter-war years.
As a result, many Douglass residences consisted of wooden shacks, often without plumbing or electricity. Few black residents were able to afford city sewage, so their waste from their privies often flowed into the neighborhood creeks. A survey of Columbia’s waste management in 1919 revealed that, city wide, only 5% of black residences were connected to a sewer, compared to 80% of white residences. Landlords often regarded Douglass-area property as a lost cause because it was black-occupied. For example, one landlord is quoted as saying, “Negro property is a fine investment because you don’t have any upkeep expense. All you have to do is pay taxes and insurance, and the taxes are very low on that property. Then besides, the niggers pay their rent, they don’t get behind like other people do.”
As a teaching point, we should recognize that while this landlord’s statement reflects racism, it isn’t racism simply because the landlord uses the word “nigger.” The landlord’s statement, rather, reflects the dominant ideology of the time: blacks are less than human, and therefore do not require humane conditions or treatment. Importantly, this ideology cemented itself through specific actions (or in this case, inaction), resulting in massive racial disparities in the distribution of resources and opportunities. The practice of neglecting predominantly black neighborhoods on account of them being predominantly black—a practice that was institutionalized and supported by local government— is racist with or without the use of a racial epithet.
Importantly, the historical neglect of the Douglass neighborhood by city officials and local realtors alike laid the foundation for justifying the forced removal of its residents and black businesses in the 1950s. Following the 1949 Federal Housing Act, Columbia, like many other cities across the country, took advantage of redevelopment loans and grant programs by the Housing and Home Finance Administrator. Title I of this act authorized local public agencies to purchase or condemn areas of the city deemed “blighted or deteriorating.” Cities were then authorized to clear that land and “make it available, by sale or lease, for private or public redevelopment or development in accordance with predetermined local redevelopment plan for the area.” In the case of Douglass and Sharp End, any ‘blight’ within that neighborhood was a direct consequence of the intentional and explicit denial of basic city services, including proper sewage and road maintenance.
Columbia twice failed to pass an ordinance for the creation of a local housing authority in 1952. However, in 1956 voters approved the formation of the Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority, and its first meeting took place that June. Records from the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, housed at the University of Missouri, show the authority had, as its objective, “slum clearance and urban renewal.” The authority selected 126 acres within the Douglass neighborhood for its first project, including within it the Sharp End district. Under the U.S. and Missouri constitutions, the city of Columbia was allowed to condemn Douglass under eminent domain laws. Though the law requires that the taking of private property must be justified for a public purpose, and that property owners must be compensated fairly, this was not the case for black residents and business owners. In 1958, a consultant hired by the LCR Authority had estimated the total worth of the 126 acres at more than $1 million. Yet, the city managed to only pay $591,000 for the land; or, less than 60 cents to the dollar. Residents who refused to sell had their properties condemned under eminent domain, and were forcefully removed.
The Douglas School Urban Renewal Project began in May of 1959, and was completed by July of 1966. When it was finished, more than three hundred structures were completely eradicated, including at least eighty black-owned businesses. A portion of the Douglass neighborhood was rebuilt as public housing. However, many former black homeowners were not eligible for residency. Yet, because they were black, they were unable to secure loans for new homes. Local lenders still operated under revised models of the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and Federal Housing Authority (FHA), which had pioneered a ‘risk rating’ system that incorporated race as a marker of credit-worthiness as well as property value. By the logic of HOLC, and later FHA, black homebuyers ‘invaded’ neighborhoods, and compromised the value of surrounding properties. Realtors and lenders were discouraged from showing black renters and homebuyers potential properties in predominantly white areas, denying even blacks with capital the opportunity to purchase affordable homes that would retain their value over time.
Consider the following racial dot map of Columbia, Missouri in 1970. Just over a decade after the initial razing of Douglass and Sharp End, we can see the extreme residential segregation of black residents in relationship to whites. Each orange dot in the map represents two black residents; each green dot represents two white residents. According to data from the U.S. Census, there were a total of 3,863 blacks living in Columbia in 1970. More than half (~56%) were concentrated in Tract 8, which encompassed the former Douglass neighborhood. Though, as the map shows, the southern edge of Douglass, including Sharp End, were nearly devoid of residents, indicating this land was in the midst of being redeveloped for primarily commercial interests.
Figure 1.2: Racial Dot Map, Columbia, Missouri 1970
By 2013, the former Douglass area had a lower concentration of black residents. However, if we take into account the two neighboring census tracks directly to the north and the tract directly to the west, those four tracts (including the one that encompasses the historic Douglass neighborhood) accounted for nearly 35% of all black residents in Columbia, Missouri (Figure 1.3).
Figure 1.3: Racial Dot Map, Columbia, Missouri 2013
Complimenting the racial dot map is the following map of average gross rent for black-occupied units in Columbia, Missouri, in 1970 (Figure 1.4). As this figure illustrates, blacks were primarily concentrated directly to the west and north of the former Douglass Neighborhood. Because so few blacks were able to rent in any other area of Columbia at the time, there is no available data for the average amount of money black residents paid in rent throughout the rest of Columbia. Average rent for blacks ranged from $74 per month in the former Douglass neighborhood and encompassing census tract, to $153 per month just to its South, where the current University of Missouri campus now extends.
Figure 1.4: Average Gross Monthly Rent, Black-Occupied Units, Columbia, Missouri, 1970
Now, let’s overlay that with the composite gross monthly rent, irrespective of race (Figure 1.5). Here, the story becomes even more interesting. The blue shaded tracts are spaces where blacks’ gross monthly rent exceeded the composite gross monthly rent of that same area. In the tract directly to the north of the former Douglass neighborhood, the average gross monthly rent for blacks was 1.3 times higher than the composite gross monthly rent ($112 to $99). Directly to the south of the former Douglass neighborhood, overlapped by the south side of the present-day campus, monthly rent for blacks was nearly 1.4 times higher than the composite gross monthly rent ($153 to $112). This data suggests that, despite federal laws prohibiting such practices, Columbia realtors and landlords were still engaging in racist rental practices in 1970.
Figure 1.5: Gross Monthly Rent for Blacks vs Composite Gross Monthly Rent, 1970
Finally, let’s look at the median value of homes in these areas. In 1970, the median value of homes in Columbia, Missouri was $21,900. In the areas in which blacks were primarily concentrated, the median value of homes ranged from a low of $10,824 in the former Douglass neighborhood, to a high of $15,627 just to its west (Figure 1.6). Put differently, the median value of homes in neighborhoods in which blacks were primarily concentrated ranged from 49%-71% of the median home value for the rest of the city.
Figure 1.6: Median Home Value, Columbia, Missouri, 1970
By 2013, not much had changed (Figure 1.7). The median value of a home in Columbia, Missouri was $169,800. In the former Douglass neighborhood, it was $101,400 (59% of the median value). Just to the north, it was $66,500 (39%).
Figure 1.7: Median Home Value, Columbia, Missouri, 2013
My goal with this very brief analysis of the Sharp End District and its demise at the hands of city government is two-fold. First, I want to illustrate that Columbia, Missouri is far from a racial paradise. Like most other cities in the United States, it has a long history of institutionalized racism, clearly identifiable in the local politics and decision-making among city officials, planners, and developers. Second, I hoped to demonstrate with this analysis that the effects of this institutionalized racism do not simply disappear because we wish for it. Without intentional, deliberate anti-racist policies and practices, racism and its effects will continue to fester. In the case of black residents of Columbia, Missouri, a multi-generational community, and its wealth, were nearly eradicated through deliberate practices by local government and developers.
As of 2015, the north side of the former Sharp End district houses the Columbia Post Office. The south side of Sharp End was converted into a parking lot upon the first phase of urban renewal. It remained so for nearly fifty years, until in 2011 it was converted into a ten-deck parking garage.
 Jason Jindrich, “Our Black Children: The Evolution of Black Space in Columbia, Missouri” (M.A. Thesis, University of Missouri, 2002), Microfilm, University of Missouri Libraries.
 All maps and figures derive from data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and were created using Social Explorer.
 August F. Larson, A Housing Survey of Columbia, Missouri (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri, 1919).
 Audrey Nell Kittel, The Negro Community of Columbia, Missouri (University of Missouri, 1938), 44.
 United States Senate, “Housing Act of 1949” (United States Government Printing Office, 1949), 2, https://bulk.resource.org/gao.gov/81-171/00002FD7.pdf.
 Arcenia Harmon, “Columbia’s Sharp End,” Columbia Daily Tribune, April 4, 2004, http://archive.showmenews.com/2004/apr/20040404feat009.asp.
 Phillip Sitter, “Sharp End District Remembered for ‘Togetherness,’” Columbia Missourian, May 19, 2015, http://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/local/sharp-end-district-remembered-for-togetherness/article_cdb41a50-fe83-11e4-83cf-c715d4cd44fe.html.
 Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 92.
 United States Department of Commerce, “1970 Census of Population and Housing, Columbia Missouri, Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce and the Bureau of the Census, 1972).
 United States Bureau of the Census. “American Community Survey, 2009-2013 (5 year estimates.” Washington, DC. 2014. Accessed via Social Explorer.
 United States Department of Commerce, “1970 Census of Population and Housing, Columbia Missouri, Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area.”
An Open Letter to the University of Mississippi Community
I’m very proud to be a part of the University of Mississippi’s Critical Race Studies Group. Below is the link to our open letter to the University concerning Confederate iconography on our campus. Please share widely!
An Open Letter to the University of Mississippi Community On Wednesday, September 30th, 2015, student leaders from the University of Mississippi’s College Democrats and the UM Chapter of the NAACP called, separately, for the disavowal of Confederate iconography across our campus, including, but not limited to, the Mississippi state flag. Evoking the University of Mississippi’s own declaration that the flag and what it represents no longer aligns with our community’s core values, these student leaders showed the courage and conviction required to make this campus safe and inclusive for all students, faculty, and staff.
Since September 30th, many other student organizations have also publicly condemned the display of the Mississippi state flag and other Confederate iconography on campus, including: the Black Student Union, the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the University of Mississippi Pride Network, the University of Mississippi Black Law Students Association, and the International Student Organization. The Critical Race Studies Group, an interdisciplinary body of faculty and staff committed to racial justice and equity, is proud to declare our public support for these and any other student organizations for whom these symbols represent a threat, whether overt or subtle. We are here for you, and we want to work with you.
The near-daily presence of Confederate flags on cars and pick-up trucks parked on campus property, the continued display of Confederate merchandise in faculty and staff offices, the proud display of large Confederate flags in the historic Grove at every home football weekend, the continued playing of “Dixie” by the University band at home sporting events, and the referencing of our University as ‘Ole Miss’ (a term used by slaves to refer to white slaveholding women) over the University of Mississippi (the name of the institution) is not aligned with our institution’s stated commitment to inclusivity. Furthermore, these symbols serve as concrete barriers in our quest to truly transcend our institution’s legacy of racism.
As our state’s flagship public institution of higher education, the University of Mississippi has a unique responsibility to lead proactively on all matters of racial justice. As a leading institution of higher education committed to intellectual debate and discussion, we call on our University administration to show the same courage and conviction as these brave students.
In addition to an immediate disavowal of all Confederate iconography, we ask that our University leadership follow through on the recommendations provided by two outside consultants last year, and the ‘action plan’ from former Chancellor Dan Jones. Taken together, the Critical Race Studies Group asks the University to:
• Discontinue displaying the current state flag on campus.
• Give faculty, staff and students the option to use um.edu instead of olemiss.edu
• Take an active and public role in supporting the efforts of Mississippi legislators, including House Speaker Phillip Gunn, U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, and U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, who are demanding the removal of the battle flag emblem from the state flag.
• Reinterpret and modify our physical landscape to accurately reflect our institution’s historic involvement with slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the University’s challenges and achievements in the post-Civil Rights era.
• Make a tangible investment on the part of University leadership into ongoing research by faculty on matters related to race and racism.
• Catalogue and promote all past and present race- and racism-related research conducted at the University
• Condemn publicly and officially the use of all Confederate symbols on university property, including their display in faculty and staff offices, in the Grove, and on vehicles parked on campus property
• Organize a public forum to allow for a debate on the merits of these symbols on our own campus. Such a conversation should be the hallmark of a leading liberal arts institution.
By confronting openly the presence of emblems of the Confederacy and white supremacy on our campus, we would be acting in concert with other leading public institutions such as Clemson University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Texas at Austin. The above changes, when combined, help tangibly demonstrate an ongoing, public recommitment to end the legacy of white supremacy on our campus.
After the Civil War, prominent Mississippi segregationists such as L.C.Q. Lamar and James K. Vardaman, both of whom have campus buildings named in their honor, continued to reinforce white supremacy. A critical rethinking of who and what we want to represent may help the campus community address how our racist past continues to affect campus life today. We recognize that these small changes alone will not disestablish the legacy of white supremacy on our campus. However, they are necessary first steps in moving towards a more inclusive, respectful, and enriching university community.
The Critical Race Studies Group
University of Mississippi
The Critical Race Studies Group is an interdisciplinary group of scholars and staff dedicated to the identifying and dismantling of racial and other inequalities at the University of Mississippi and elsewhere. For more information, see http://socanth.olemiss.edu/critical-race-studies-group/
Posted by University of Mississippi Critical Race Studies Group on Thursday, October 15, 2015
The Disappearance of Kinloch, Missouri
I’ve been in the early stages of planning a new project, with colleague and friend Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl. We’re interested in collecting and analyzing the narratives of displacement resulting from urban gentrification.
One of the sites we’re interested in studying is Kinloch, Missouri. Kinloch was, for several decades, a vibrant and flourishing (nearly) all-black township in the northwest part of St. Louis County, Missouri. However, in the 1980s, the city of St. Louis began to buy up surrounding property for the future development of Lambert International Airport, and, as consequence, most of the black residents were displaced.
I got to playing around with census data from Social Explorer in order to map this shift over time, from 1940 through 2013. 1940 was the first decade in which census tracts were used for measurement in St. Louis, so I’m unable to show what Kinloch looked like prior to this period. Click on the link below to view the map.
Excerpt from Ch.2, Working to Laugh (2015)
Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book, Working to Laugh (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015)
[Chapter 2: Into the Field, p.33-36]
Along the central avenue running east and west, and cutting through the heart of The District, is Helter Skelter. A self-described punk/rock/sci-fi/horror bar, Helter Skelter is perhaps the most culturally eclectic and unique of all of Collegetown’s nightlife venues. The large building that houses Helter Skelter was once the original location of several independent movie theater venues. The first theater opened in 1907, with just over one thousand seats for predominantly viewing silent films. In 1929, a large fire destroyed this theater. It was eventually restored, exchanged owners, and from 1935 to 1985, the building operated as a movie house under several different names, the last one being the most popular. In the early years following its restoration, the theater was ‘invitation only.’ This designation allowed the theater to deny entry to men and women of color during legalized racial segregation, though by the time the theater closed in 1986 both white and nonwhite residents frequented the venue. Unique to the restoration of the theater in 1935 was the inclusion of a balcony, and the only theater in Collegetown at the time used exclusively for feature-length film viewing. The other three downtown venues at the time featured vaudeville acts and other live, performance arts, though they also showcased feature-length films.
Though it may appear odd that a town with a relatively small population at the time would have three theater venues, the context of this period in American popular culture history indicates otherwise. The pre- and post-World War II eras of U.S. history precluded the era of theatre mega-plexes like the now popular Cinemark and Hollywood Movie chains. In 1922, the film industry was the fourth-largest in the nation. By the end of the 1920s, over fifty million people were attending movies each week in the United States, at a time when the nation’s population was only 115 million.[i] These smaller theaters, then, were necessary to meet the public’s increasing demand for film entertainment.
Helter Skelter first opened in 1997 (under a different name) in a small portion of the old theater’s space, with the rest of the building occupied by a sandwich shop and a vintage video-game trading store. The owner/operator of Helter Skelter is Santino, a New Jersey transplant to Collegetown. A self-described ‘wild kid’ growing up, Santino worked as a pipefitter in New York City in his early adulthood. In the late 1990s, opportunities for work as a union pipefitter in New York City became scarce, and Santino relocated to Collegetown, taking a union job at the major University’s power plant. Having a long-held desire to one day run his own bar and tavern, but with overhead costs too expensive on the East Coast, Santino found Collegetown’s relatively cheap real estate market encouraging. He soon quit his job at the power plant to open his dream adult nightlife hangout.
The original Helter Skelter had a much more sinister sounding name. However, local scrutiny of the establishment was often based on perceptions of the original name, with many locals believing it to be connected to the occult, to criminal activities, and to other less-than desirable subcultures. These perceptions led Santino to eventually change the name of his establishment to its current title. Helter Skelter, according to Santino, was inspired by three themes that had a huge influence on his teenage years and through his early adulthood: horror, science fiction, and rock music. Posters of Star Wars and cult-classic B-movies adorn the walls. Novelty skulls and graphics of flames accompany them. Halloween rubber masks are juxtaposed with metal-rock memorabilia, and, in the early 2000s, there was even a life-sized cardboard cutout of Darth Vader stuck to the bar’s door. In an interview with the local paper shortly after Helter Skelter opened, Santino recounted his inspiration for his establishment’s design:
In my childhood, one of the best ways to relax were horror and sci-fi movies…It was kind of escapism. A fantasy world…What seems strange or grotesque to others seems quite normal to me.
Along the shelves above the booths inside of Helter Skelter are dolls and figurines from popular, American horror films: Chucky from Child’s Play, Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street films, Jason from the Friday the 13th franchise, Pinhead from the Hellraiser series, and Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise. Along the ceiling, the large HVAC system is painted in the image of a giant squid, and the air ducts extending out from it are painted to resemble large tentacles gripping the ceiling. The wall above the front of the bar is painted in the caricature of a nude female demon, complete with a long tail and a sexually suggestive pose. Near the pool table in the back of the bar hangs a large poster from the Rob Zombie-directed The Devil’s Rejects.
In August of 2001, Santino opened a second venue across the street from Helter Skelter, aptly titled Helter Skelter Live. A concert hall meant to be an extension of its sibling, Santino intended to use Helter Skelter Live to showcase the musical underground of bigger cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, and Houston. Like Helter Skelter, the rock/sci-fi/horror theme resonated in the room. A life-sized doll of Frankenstein’s monster and a vampire-toothed skull were just some of the venue’s décor. However, in just over a year, Helter Skelter Live closed down. A sprinkler system had gone off during a live show, a symptom of the interior deterioration within the building. With little capital or time to invest in repairs, Santino closed the doors to Helter Skelter Live, and instead turned his complete attention to his original bar and tavern across the street. With a desire to continue with live rock music shows, Santino began to devote his weekends to hosting similar bands to the ones he had been bringing in during the fifteen months his live venue was open. Some of the musical acts that have played live at Helter Skelter include: The Misfits, the late Joe Strummer (of the Clash), and Marky Ramone. Santino proudly boasts that even Sebastian Bach, lead singer of hair-metal band, Skid Row, came in one night just to hang out after playing a concert at another venue in The District.
Currently, Helter Skelter serves a rather eclectic demographic, no doubt influenced by its décor and its weekly rotation of thematic entertainment. Monday nights are ‘Geek Night’, with free pool, darts, and board games offered to customers. Tuesday nights are designated for the amateur comedy show that was the focus of my research. Wednesday night is ‘Trivia Night’, and Thursday night is advertised as Collegetown’s ‘biggest and best karaoke night.’ Comics from Tuesday’s live show often frequent Helter Skelter on Wednesday and Thursday to participate in the bar’s activities. Friday night is themed, ‘Dirty Disco’, a mix of 1970s disco music with punk, horror, and sci-fi themed attire worn by customers. Finally, Saturday night is, with few exceptions, reserved for live musical performances by local, regional, and national acts, fulfilling Santino’s desire to provide Collegetown with a taste of the musical underground of larger, urban nightlife.
Though the eclectic nature of Helter Skelter’s weekly offerings would appear to make it difficult to attract and keep a regular crowd, it actually has the opposite effect. Patrons who frequent Helter Skelter state they do so because it is not like the dozens of other bars and nightlife venues within The District. While many of these other venues attempt to cater to the dominant college-aged demographic – White, heterosexual, upper-middle to upper-class, and of similar mainstream cultural tastes – Helter Skelter makes no such efforts. Specials on mainstream beer products like Budweiser, Miller, and Coors are not offered at Helter Skelter, whereas they are prevalent at all of the other nightlife venues in The District. Instead, Pabst and Stag products are offered at similar, or cheaper, price points.[ii] The patrons who frequent Helter Skelter on a given night are highly unlikely to frequent the more mainstream venues of The District, precisely because Helter Skelter’s patrons do not identify with mainstream Collegetown culture.
The typical crowd at Helter Skelter is almost exclusively White, but unlike other venues, many of the patrons at Helter Skelter both talk and perform working-class identities. These identities come through in the style of clothing worn, the topics of conversation, and the affinity for the aforementioned Pabst and Stag beer products over the more common Budweiser, Miller, and Coors products, as a matter of working-class performance. Meaning, drinking a Pabst or Stag communicates to others that Helter Skelter is ‘your kind of place’. In addition, staff at Helter Skelter participate in working-class performativity through their verbal shaming of customers who do order mainstream products, including what staff refer to as ‘girlie drinks.’ Young men, in particular, are quickly made aware that, while in Helter Skelter, they should drink generic beers like Pabst and Stag, or whiskey, either neat or mixed with soda.
[i] For an excellent edited volume on American film history, see The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film (Wiley Blackwell, 2011), edited by Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, and Art Simon. This four-volume set covers the origins of American film through the contemporary period, with essays by a number of cultural historians, anthropologists, and other scholars of popular culture.
[ii] I found it quite funny when it was pointed out to me by a colleague that the ‘daily specials’ advertised on the drinks board behind Helter Skelter’s bar were, in fact, not ‘specials’ at all. They are the normal prices, but are simply rotated on a nightly basis. So, Tuesday Nights were “$5 Whiskey doubles”, but this was actually the normal price throughout the rest of the week.
On the Problems with the “Write Clearly” Campaign
I’ve been going back and forth about writing this post for several weeks. Last month, I came across the following tweet from Syed Ali, co-editor of the sociological magazine, Contexts:
What words in academic writing do you abhor? Will collect and put in @contextsmag. I’ll start. Lived experience, interrogate. #writeclearly
— syed ali (@skyedali) January 21, 2015
Before going further, let me be clear: I don’t know Syed well, having only met him once. I do sit on the editorial board of Contexts, but since we only meet once a year at the American Sociological Association meetings, I don’t have much personal interaction with the magazine’s leadership. The one time I met him, he was polite and collegial. In addition, Syed has posted a nice essay on the Contexts website explaining what kinds of writing the magazine is interested in, so that more sociologists can adapt their work to the magazine’s conventions.
Syed’s essay, and tweet, are part of a more general movement taking place within sociology, and many other social sciences. I call this movement the “Write Clearly Campaign.” The campaign’s goals are admirable: in the spirit of wanting a stronger and more direct impact on public discourse, certain circles within sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics have encouraged a form of academic writing that is less “jargon-y”, and more accessible to a general, nonacademic readership. The magazine, Contexts, for example, is explicit in its aim is to make “cutting-edge social research accessible to general readers.” In general, this is a great goal for the social sciences, especially given recent debate in The Chronicle of Higher Education on our role (or lack thereof) in public debate and policy discussion. Making our scholarship more widely available, and understandable, to a nonexpert audience has the potential to influence public opinions on a number of important social issues.
Nevertheless, I found Syed’s tweet incredibly naive, especially concerning the line he, and others, draw between “jargon” and “clear writing.” As someone embedded within the larger intellectual tradition from which “lived experience” is located, I feel it’s necessary to explain why this term is far from “jargon”, and how reducing it to just jargon illustrates a serious problem within the Write Clearly Campaign–an underlying assumption that all social science derives from the same epistemological position.
Epistemology, of course, refers to the study of knowledge–how we know what we know, including how that knowledge is produced and distributed and what conditions constrain and enable its production and distribution. The term “lived experience” derives from a specific epistemological position–that there is a complex relationship between our bodies and our awareness of our bodies and our surroundings. Some of this tradition date back to Spinoza’s counterclaim to Descartes classic Mind/Body dualism, but I find aspects of Spinoza’s monist position (i.e. the mind and body are of the same substance) equally troubling. A more contemporary understanding of “lived experience”, I believe, is found in the phenomenological tradition–a tradition extremely influential in the development of sociology, particularly the interpretivist vein which focuses on how social actors make meaning from their experiences. Phenomenological thinkers like Edmund Husserl and Alfred Schutz, for example, have greatly influenced interpretive sociology for several decades. Though they and others have used the term “lived experience” in different ways, my own understanding and use of the term reflects that of the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty understood our bodies as the sites from which our social experiences unfold. He described that our bodies are used for all sorts of things, from the mundane (e.g. sit, stand, walk) to the complex (e.g. create, destroy, and govern). In doing these things, we bring our bodies into relationships with our worlds, and through this encounter, our experiences become meaningful–literally, full of meaning. Our bodies, then, are not merely ‘objects’, in the Cartesian sense. Our bodies, rather, are our point of view in the world–the vessels through which we interpret what it means to sit, stand, walk, create, destroy, and govern.
It’s important to note that, while these discussions were originally matters of philosophical debate and discussion, they are now grounded across several disciplines, including sociology of course, but also anthropology, political science, and cognitive neuroscience. So when one uses a term like “lived experience”, it’s not a “jargon-y” way of saying “experience”, as if all experience is lived therefore it’s unnecessary to specify. It’s demonstrating–clearly, I might add, for those embedded within the phenomenological canon–that (1) our discipline, along with many others, has not always recognized the inherent problems in Cartesian duality and (2) those of us who use the term write from an epistemology that examines embodiment as subjectivity-in-action/practice.
Is phenomenology complex? Absolutely. Within the canon, there is much debate about the specific relationship between embodied habits and practices and how we make sense of those things. Nevertheless, it’s a significant branch of sociology, and one in which concepts like “lived experience” have great currency. Dismissing it as something to “abhor” fails to recognize this concept, and others, on their own terms. Importantly, it draws poorly thought-out lines between sociology worth bringing to a wider audience, and sociology worth keeping insulated. Look, I’m all for making the knowledge we produce as sociologists more accessible to a non-specialized audience. However, if the Write Clearly Campaign is saying there is no room in their movement for complex discussions on how knowledge is produced and/or situated, then we’re doing a disservice to our potentially broader audience.
Laugh Through It: Assembling Difference in an American Stand-Up Comedy Club
Check out my newest article, ‘Laugh Through it,’ available online first through the journal, Ethnography
Through an examination of a Midwestern professional comedy club, this article theorizes stand-up comedy as part of the broader affective-cultural assemblage that is nightlife entertainment. Using the Deleuzian notion of assemblage, this analysis builds on poststructural accounts of the dynamic and transient properties of culture, and the relationship between space, culture, and affect. As a specific affective-cultural assemblage, stand-up comedy operates as both constrainer and enabler of racial and heteronormative order through the bringing together of a variety of diverse logics and practices. I argue that stand-up comedy should no longer be thought of strictly in discursive or symbolic-interactionist terms that over-determine the roles of particular agents (i.e. comics). Instead, when described as emergent, transient, and fundamentally affective, stand-up comedy and other cultural forms can be seen for their openness and multiplicity, both contributing to racial and heteronormative order as well as upending it.
What Ought To Be Considered for P&T
I remember from my time as a graduate student instructor the horror stories concerning teaching evaluations. Many of these stories, often second-hand, suggested that just one negative student evaluation could be the difference between getting a job and not getting a job in what is an extremely constricted and competitive academic job market. Even now as junior faculty, I occasionally come across an article reporting that a faculty member was denied tenure, or had a difficult time getting tenure, because of negative student evaluations. Student evaluations certainly matter, but the degree to which they matter varies from institution to institution. Even at institutions where student evaluations may be weighted equally for promotion and tenure, how we are evaluated as faculty varies considerably.
I say all of this to suggest we, as faculty members, consider other determinants of our impact on students, and how best to demonstrate this impact when it’s time to go up for promotion. I recently received a very kind note from a former student who sought my help in preparing for her Americorps interview. Having worked for one United Way chapter, and now a board member at another, I had a pretty good idea of what kinds of questions she might be asked, and how she could best demonstrate her fit with a nonprofit, service-oriented organization like Americorps. We scheduled a mock interview, and I prepared around a dozen different questions I thought might be asked of her. After our mock interview, we reviewed her responses, and I made some suggestions on how she could rephrase some of them in order to illuminate her skill set, and the contributions she could make as an Americorps member.
A few days later, after her interview, I received the following email:
Thank you so much for your help before my interview. Your practice questions were almost identical to what they asked me during the Skype interview and I felt much more confident having already prepared answers and questions of my own. I referenced your class a lot, which they were very impressed with as its so relevant to their cause. Mentioning books we were assigned to read that piqued my interest in youth education and outreach was one of the strongest points of the interview and they even wrote down the names of the books to suggest them to their team. Thank you again for all your help, I couldn’t have done it without you!
Later that same day, I received a handwritten thank-you note from this same student, which I took a picture of and placed end of this post. My point here is not to toot my own horn (though I have no qualms about owning my achievements). Rather, it’s to suggest, as my dissertation adviser wrote:
When you care enough to put in special extra effort and attention to a students success that won’t help a vita line but is morally important and of significant importance to the student, it often is a more important thing in their lives than we sometimes realize. Turning points matter and the multiple seemingly little things you do to go an extra mile to help students, such as a mock interview, are not actually in the end little at all.
How my former student was impacted by our mock interview is something that may not make it into a P&T file, but it should. The current model of likert scales and brief, qualitative summations of our courses as ‘really hard’ or ‘really cool’ simply don’t convey how much we can, and do, impact our students’ lives both in and outside of the classroom. We, as faculty members, then, need to take it upon ourselves to catalog these experiences and interactions. Maybe in the process we can take back some degree of ownership in how we are evaluated, and help determine what should count.