Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rainy Saturday Armchair Sociology: Of Race, Ethnicity, Garbage, and Community Norms

It is yucky, cold, and so blah outside here in Chicago. For those other denizens stuck inside, here is a fun Saturday evening distraction for those so inclined.

This clip from The Howard Stern Show (now re-signed with Sirius for another 5 years) is one of my favorites. His show is consistently one of the few places where honest conversations about race occur on a near daily basis in this country. For example, Stern's Harlem interviews during Barack Obama's presidential campaign remains one of the best demonstrations of the dynamics of mass opinion in the American public that I have ever seen.

The above clip featuring the King of All Blacks (Wack Pack sanitary worker extraordinaire) is also a true gem: Stern and company explore an impolitic but obvious question; what is the relationship between race, ethnicity, and refuse?

As someone who subscribes to the broken windows theory, I believe that neighborhood decline begins with little things. Consequently, the norms of public space resonate quite strongly in my worldview.

Random factoid: My particular data point of interest for measuring the socio-economic trajectory of a community is the care taken in how air conditioners are installed.

Consider the following. How many times have you seen air conditioners precariously hanging out of windows? Cardboard and plastic in the spaces between the air conditioner unit and the window casement? Now ask yourself: Are these communities generally desirable to live in?

I am suspicious of uni-variate explanations of complex social phenomena. Nevertheless, the garbage/race/ethnicity/class puzzle is a fascinating example of applied social science.

What are the little cues that you pick up on when assessing a given neighborhood's standard of living and community norms?


T.R.O.Y. said...

I dunno, man. I feel like this blog is a bit schizophrenic at times, as if you haven't decided whether or not you want it to inspire honest conversations about race or if you just want it to be this publicly cathartic moment where you earn your upwardly mobile stripes by defaming poor black people as broadly and hurtfully as possible. And sometimes I think you're not even aware of the difference.

chaunceydevega said...

You are killing me troy. Poverty has nothing to do with throwing away garbage properly. We need to resist internalizing that black equals poor equal criminal equals dirty and ill-kept.

That is a separate observation from the coordination game that goes on in some neighborhoods where it may not make "rational" sense to not throw garbage on the street because everyone else is doing it.

TROY, I don't come from money. And maybe this is a generational divide but the poor folk in my family were the cleanest as their dignity was very important even if they didn't have money they had self-respect. This is also something I have noticed as well in some 3rd world communities, but that is a story for another time where I have seen people sweep dirt floors.

Maybe blackness itself is schizophrenic and complex? Thus, I hold no adherence to any party line...which is why I laugh when conservatives think I am a crazy liberal and some liberal progressive types think I am some conservative.

Plane Ideas said...

I have little regard for Sterns he is a racist bigot and more so a white jewish racist bigot..He reminds me of many of my jewish associates who want me to chase down the usual WASPS rednecks but not the white jewish rednecks..

My associates got upset when I discovered they were using the yiddish term nigger ( swartza) and I caught them..They were stunned and shocked not at this truth of the rampant racism in white jewish venues but being caught..

I do however like this excercise of garbage profiling and I do like the race forum of Sterns show..I just hate,lol,lol

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Chauncey, I am right with you with your comment. My parents grew up in working class families, and my Dad's was just plain poor. However, his father never missed an opportunity to put on his suit, and he quizzed his children on current events at the dinner table. Both of my grandmothers kept their modest homes spotless. (Although my granddad's old, dead car sat in the back yard.) They never let their economic misfortune erode their dignity. Of course, I should freely admit that white privilege helped give their children (my parents) and grandchildren (me) a leg up in life.

When my favorite cousin married a trashy man, it was a sad moment for my whole family. Luckily she has divorced the drunken, abusive jerk, but it pains me that her children, who study hard in school, have to spend some of their weekends with people whose only ambition is to drink Bud Lite and accumulate and neglect dogs.

Some of my colleagues would think I am blaming poverty on the poor, I'm doing no such thing. It's just an unfortunate fact that those who have fewer advantages in life don't have the luxury to be trashy, which is an adjective that I would apply to many affluent students I've had who will be able to stay upper-middle class despite their laziness. In fact, when I think about the fate of these feckless children of privilege, and compare it to the vast majority of working people I've known in my life, it makes my blood boil.

Anonymous said...

Broken 40 bottles and stray/roaming dogs are my two biggest indicators. Gang tags also although they can seem ubiquitous in Los Angeles. I think these things come before barred windows.

@T.R.O.Y. I would guess you're under 25 years old and thereby don't know shit. Howard Stern has been around for a long time and has a long track record of standing up for people regardless of race. I'd also venture you're white and thereby don't know shit for no other reason then you've never had your back against the proverbial wall. I'm white and over 25 and yes I don't know shit either, "But I'm trying Ringo, I'm trying real hard" do some listening before you talk.


chaunceydevega said...


Stern a bigot? On what criteria? He does real talk and is more comfortable with black people than most whites I have seen--this based on his public persona. Now some say honest, direct, un pc talk is racist. I have found it refreshing for at least I know where folks are coming from.

Read his books and check out his life story coming out of Roosevelt, Queens. I know he gets that label by some, esp. Robin as a "mammie" but I wonder how many have religiously followed him over 20 plus years (as I have, and others even longer).

Moreover, check out his analysis of the tea parties and white opposition to Obama, he was calling b.s. long before many others.

@Anon--I get you on both counts. I remember in my neighborhood at present being really surprised and troubled by how folks throw garbage everywhere. Quite literally, I saw a nice car stop, the door open,the person clean the car by throwing all manner of garbage in the street. This is where Obama lives and I almost wanted to ask them "can't you do better? the President lives down the street."

I wonder where these norms come from. But as they say only human beings and owl soil their own nests.

Plane Ideas said...


I don't need to spent time with a bigot for any length of time to know who is a bigot or not..I have listened to Sterns for decades as well and my views on him have not changed one laugh or skit...BTW recognizing the bs of the tea party and related white folks with issues re: Obama is no brainer not a ticket to hood party...You like him I don't nothing to lose sleep over:-)

chaunceydevega said...

@Thrasher--isn't that part of Stern's genius? Even those who don't like him, will compulsively listen. For example, I can't do that with Limbaugh and his ilk, he sickens me, but I am sure there is no small part of that audience (and Beck too) that watch for the car accident.

fred c said...

"Community Norms" must include interpersonal characteristics. As a very young newlywed I carried the mail in Jamaica, Queens, out of a big office that covered a prosperous White neighborhood (the people were aristocratic and hostile); a working class White neighborhood (aloof and unhelpful); and a huge Black neighborhood, most of which was a ruin (people were friendly and helpful).

We carried on our backs in those days, and I had no vehicle, so there were times in the New York summers that I would be near heat exhaustion. Sometimes I'd ring a house bell and ask for a drink of water. In the White neighborhoods all I ever got was suspicious looks through the drapes. In the Black neighborhood, every time, I was invited in, a cool soft drink was pressed on me, and I was offered the use of the bathroom. The houses, by the way, were spotless. So the community norm was: working man needs a hand; hand extended.

That the neighborhoods, including many of the front yards, were in ruins, consider this. When times are stressful, the circle of what you can do, what you can control, shrinks. No one could make the whole neighborhood spotless, that ship had sailed (many blocks were better than others). The house though, that we can do. And God bless them, they were gracious and wonderful to a freaky, long-haired White boy too.

Incidently, the provision of public services was lavish in the White neighborhoods and grudgingly minimal in the Black neighborhoods. And let's not even bring up police "protection."

Plane Ideas said...


True Dat but I broke the spell years ago..As I commented earlier I have a problem with white jews like Sterns and others who want Black folks to indict and chase white rednecks but want Black folks to ignore and give them a pass on racism in white jewish venues....

I don't like being called a nigger in yiddish...


chaunceydevega said...

@Fred--aren't norms of shared empathy something else? Funny how for some of us we can imagine being "the other person" and thus reach out, some seem incapable of doing that these days. How did we become so hardened?

fred c said...

Yes, Professor, it is different, but that's my point of view. As Brother Terry explained to me long ago, dangling me by my coat, lovingly, I can never really understand Blackness. I am blissfully innocent of any academic understanding of racial dynamics. But it is my advised opinion, and I think I'm right, that we are all brothers, and we owe each other a duty of love. I am horrified at the current state of this dream, confused, angry and horrified. I take great pride in the accomplishments of Black Americans, mostly that they have stayed in the game for centuries, with no money, no backers, and never getting the good cards, while contributing way out of proportion to their number to the richness of American life, and the fact that so few people "like me" seem to understand this is profoundly disappointing to me.

People are susceptible to flattery, and there is the tendency to remember the past being much better than it actually was, and fear often denies people access to whatever powers of reason they may possess in better times. So we have this mess.

There are at work, however, powers for good, and this blog is one of them, for which I am grateful.