Why Variance Matters: Race, Education, and Income

Aug 13 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She blogs every day at Sociological Images.

Kelsey C. sent in a some great data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that helps illustrate why variance matters as much as a measure of the average.  The figure shows the median income by race and education level, as well as the typical earnings of each group’s members in the third quartile (or the 75th percentile) and first quartile (or the 25th percentile).  What you see is that the median earnings across these groups is different, but also that the amount of inequality within each group isn’t consistent.  That is, some groups have a wider range of income than others:


So, Asians are the most economically advantaged of all groups included, but they also have the widest range of income.  This means that some Asians do extremely well, better than many whites, but many Asians are really struggling.  In comparison, among Blacks and Hispanics, the range is smaller.  So the highest earning Blacks and Hispanics don’t do as well relative to the groups median as do Whites and Asians.

Likewise, dropping out of high school seems to put a cap on how much you can earn; as education increases it raises the floor, but it also raises the variance in income. This means that someone with a bachelors degree doesn’t necessarily make craploads of money, but they might.

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Fox Calls Obama's Birthday Party a "Hip Hop BBQ"

Aug 07 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She blogs every day at Sociological Images.

So it’s racist, right, to say that the presence of a handful of black people makes a BBQ a “hip-hop BBQ”?  Yes.  And yet that is exactly what the folks at Fox Nation, a Fox-affiliated content-aggregator, did on Friday.

So… let’s see… Obama has a birthday party and invites a whole lotta people — mostly white people but, like, some black people too  – and Fox Nation calls it a “hip hop BBQ.”  As Salon put it: “Black people! Hip-hop!”  They listened to MUSIC! From, like, the United States Marine Band and Stevie Wonder.

In addition to the bold-faced racism (“err, it’s so weird to have black people there; I bet they’re doin’ scary black stuff!”), this tactic is outright deceptive.  Back in 2009, Media Matters’ John Delicath wrote that Fox Nation “craft[s] inflammatory and widely misleading headlines for links to articles by news organizations whose content contradicts the Fox headline.”  Indeed. None of the stories that are linked to in this post — from Politico, theChicago Sun Times, and ABC — are stories about how Obama’s party was over-run by blackness.  But by linking to these sources with an invented headline, Fox Nation attempts to borrow their authoritativeness for its own nefarious project.  If nothing else, it suggests a degree of contempt for their readers, who they either think are just as racist as they are, or aren’t smart enough to read past the picture.

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Erasing the City of Nairobi

Aug 04 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She blogs every day at Sociological Images.

Sadie M. sent in an example of the reproduction of the idea that “Africa” is an arid, desolate place where nature still dominates civilization.  The snapshot Sadie sent in was of Nairobi.  Nairobi is the 12th largest city on the continent of Africa with a population of over 3 million in the city and its surrounding suburbs.  It is the capital of Kenya and an economic, political, and financial hub in the region.

This is Nairobi on Google maps:

This is what comes up if you Google image Nairobi:

Nairobi is also not a desert plain.  The name, in Maasai, translates into ”the place of cool waters” and it is popularly known as “Green City in the Sun” (wikipedia).

Despite all of this, Sadie’s snapshot shows that an in flight magazine depicted Nairobi as a savanna full of elephants and bereft of people.  The other two destinations featured – New York and Sydney — are pictured as they are.

So there we have it: Another piece of advertising erasing the bustling, successful economies of Africa, and instead reproducing the idea that the entire continent is an uncivilized desert full of exotic animals.


See also: How Not to Write about Africa and The Single Story of “Africa.”

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Tragedy at Red River: Race, Privilege, and Learning to Swim

Aug 03 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She blogs every day at Sociological Images.

One year ago today six black teenagers died in the Louisiana Red River.  They were wading in waist deep water when one, 15-year-old DeKendrix Warner, fell off an underwater ledge.  He struggled to swim and, one by one, six of his cousins and friends jumped in to help him and each other.  Warner was the only survivor.  The family members of the children watched in horror; none of them knew how to swim.

This draws attention to a rarely discussed and deadly disparity between blacks and whites.  Black people, especially black women, are much less likely than white people to know how to swim.  And, among children, 70% have no or low ability to swim.  The figure below, from the International Swimming Hall of Fame, shows that 77% of black women and 44% of black men say that they don’t know how to swim.  White women are as likely as black men, but much less likely than black women to report that they can’t swim.  White men are the most confident in their swimming ability.

This translates into real tragedy.  Black people are significantly more likely to die from drowning than white people (number of drownings out of 100,000):

Why are black people less likely to learn to swim than whites?  Dr. Caroline Heldman, at FemmePolitical, argues that learning to swim is a class privilege.  To learn to swim, it is helpful to have access to a swimming pool.  Because a disproportionate number of blacks are working class or poor means that they don’t have backyard swimming pools; while residential segregation and economic disinvestment in poor and minority neighborhoods means that many black children don’t have access to community swimming pools.  Or, if they do, they sometimes face racism when they try to access them.

Even if all of these things are in place, however, learning to swim is facilitated by lessons.  If parents don’t know how to swim, they can’t teach their kids.  And if they don’t have the money to pay someone else, their kids may not learn.

I wonder, too, if the disparity between black women and men is due, in part, to the stigma of “black hair.”   Because we have racist standards of beauty, some women invest significant amounts of time and money on their hair in an effort to make it straight or wavy and long.  Getting their hair wet often means undoing this effort.  Then again, there is a gap between white men and white women too, so perhaps there is a more complicated gender story here.

These are my initial guesses at explaining the disparities.  Your thoughts?

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Racist Color-Blind Dress Codes

Aug 02 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She blogs every day at Sociological Images.

Several years ago I took this photo of the posted dress code for Brothers Bar in Madison, Wisconsin.   As an alumnus, I can tell you that the relationship between the college community and the community at large was strained, as it is in many college towns.  The college community was, on average, better off economically than much of the non-college community, with greater (potential) educational achievement, and overwhelmingly white.  There was less mingling between the “town” and “gown” than we might expect by random chance, and some businesses tried to attract the latter exclusively.

This was the case with Brothers Bar. Brothers sits within a block of campus, they wanted to attract the college students but push away young “townies,” as they were derogatorily called.  Of course, it’s illegal to say “Poor Black people keep out,” so, instead, they use symbolic codes to warn especially Black members of the non-college community that they’re not welcome: no crooked hats, no skullcaps, headbands, or bandanas, and no sports jerseys.

An enterprising journalist sat outside Brothers Bar to see just how the dress code was enforced.  Not “strictly,” it turned out.  The people who were turned away were overwhelmingly Black.  Meanwhile, they let in students wearing UW sports jerseys and other Bucky the Badger-themed “athletic wear.”  So much for color-blindness, this was a racist dress code with no reference to color at all.

I was reminded of this incident when Stephen Wilson sent in photo of a similar dress code taken at Kelly’s in Kansas City.  Again we see racially-coded restrictions: the same no crooked hats rule, doo rags and bandanas are disallowed, as are hoods actually worn on the head (but not the preppy hoodies apparently), and “excessively” baggy clothes.

So, sure, Black people are allowed in these establishments, just not Black people “of a certain type.”  If they want to enter, they have to assimilate to white culture.  These dress codes seem to say:

Turn those hats on straight forward or straight back, pull up those pants, and take off whatever’s on your head!  It’s not that we don’t like Black people, we just prefer our Black people to defer to white standards.  See?  Not racist at all!  Cheers!

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