Three Soc 101 concepts illustrated on Big Brother

Many television shows could (and have) been mined for sociological content. Big Brother is no different. Here are three concepts:

https://www.cbs.com/shows/big_brother/
  1. Houseguests talk about having “a social game.” This roughly means having good interactions with everyone. A more sociological term for this might be looking to accrue social capital. With so many players at the beginning, this might be hard: simply making connections, talking to a variety of people, discussing strategy, contribute positively to house life. But, this social capital can pay off as the numbers dwindle, people show their different capabilities, and the competition heats up. It could also be described as the ability to manipulate or coerce people without others hating you, particularly when it comes down to the jury selecting the winner among the final two.
  2. Connected to the importance of social capital are the numerous social networks that develop quickly and can carry players to the end. The social networks can be larger or smaller (ranging from two people up to 6 or more), some people are in multiple networks (more central) while others may be in just one or none (less central), and the ties within networks can be very strong or relatively weak. At some point in a season, the overlapping or competing networks come into conflict and houseguests have to make decisions about which network commitments to honor – or reject.
  3. There are plenty of instances where race, class, and gender and other social markers matter. A typical season has a mix of people. Relationships and alliances/networks can be built along certain lines. Competitions can highlight differences between people. The everyday interactions – or lack of interaction between certain people – can lead to harmony or tension. Some people may be more open about their backgrounds outside the house, others are quieter. With viewers selecting America’s Favorite Houseguest, there is also an opportunity to appeal to the public.

There is more that could be said here and in more depth. Indeed, a quick search of Google Scholar suggests a number of academics have studied the show. Yet, television shows are accessible to many and applying sociological concepts can be a good exercise for building up a sociological perspective. Even if the world does not operate like “Big Brother,” this does not mean that aspects of the show do not mirror social realities.

Using public art to promote diversity in Naperville

Naperville is more diverse today than in past decades, it has a history of promoting public art in its downtown and along the Riverwalk, and it was home in recent years to multiple incidents of racism. Put this all together and a recently formed group just completed a new art installation:

https://www.napervilleart.org/

In part, this is a response to a downtown mural commissioned in 2014 that featured little diversity.

Three thoughts:

  1. Using public art, an already accepted medium in downtown Naperville, to make a new statement seems like it could be effective. At the same time, having more art that promotes diversity in the community in more prominent locations also matters.
  2. How much room is there in downtown Naperville to do different kinds of art? At this point, there are a number of murals, statues, and sculptures. How varied could future works in these formats be and what new formats might be included? More artistic freedom and new aesthetics – downtown Naperville generally has a red brick, several story building look – could also contribute to a sense of diversity.
  3. The conversation about art gets at larger questions about race and ethnicity in Naperville. Although it is more diverse than in the past, is it welcoming to all people? Do all residents feel comfortable in the downtown and in other local institutions? How does the community tell its own history? What is the vision for the future?

Housing appraisals reflect existing racial inequalities in housing

A new published sociology study connects housing appraisals and race:

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

For decades, research has shown that houses in predominantly Black neighborhoods have been generally appraised at lower values than houses in majority-white neighborhoods. This is true even when comparing housing stocks that have the same characteristics (age, square footage, number of rooms, etc.) and neighborhoods of equal socioeconomic status.

The new study finds that the racial composition of a neighborhood was an even “stronger determinant” of a home’s appraised value in 2015 than it was in 1980, to Black homeowners’ increasing disadvantage. Analyzing reported home values, Howell and Korver-Glenn found that the race appraisal gap has doubled since 1980: The difference in average home appraisals between neighborhoods that are majority-white and those that are predominantly Black and Latina was $164,000 in 2015, up from about $86,000 in 1980.

Rather than explaining the racial inequity as a vestige of historic segregation, the study finds more culpability in a method used to calculate appraisals today, the “sales comparison approach,” which determines a home’s appraised value by looking at the prices of other similar homes that were recently sold from the same neighborhood. The real estate industry sees this as a race-neutral way of appraising homes so that it doesn’t run afoul of fair housing laws, and it is one of the key criteria used for determining property values. But what makes this method problematic, according to the study, is that it basically grandfathers in racist home pricing that existed before fair housing legislation.

In other words, if an appraiser is calculating  the value of a home in a Black neighborhood by comparing it to houses recently sold around it, then chances are she is comparing it to other Black-owned houses that, because of the legacy of segregation, have handicapped values in the market compared to similar homes in white communities appraised at higher prices. The unfairly valued prices of homes in Black neighborhoods before the 1970s thus serves as the baseline for how homes are appraised and priced today. While the Fair Housing Act and Community Reinvestment Act forbade practices like redlining and denying mortgage loans based on race, they did nothing to readjust housing prices in segregated neighborhoods after they were passed.

In other words, past decisions and actions valued homes in white neighborhoods more than homes in black neighborhoods because of racism. Today, appraisals that typically compare homes in like neighborhoods perpetuate those different homes values. The system carries on these inequities even if no appraiser is intentionally racist; the way things are done continues the patterns set decades before.

There is another question here as well: what exactly are appraisals and housing values based on if they contingent on factors like race and not just on the characteristics of the home? Is there inherent value in a particular configuration of home traits – say a three bedroom, two bedroom home with a two car garage – or is the value completely dependent on what society says it is? I know the market is involved and the head of an international appraisal association is quoted later in the article cited above talking about supply and demand. But, if supply and demand says some homes are worth more because of the people who own them and the people in the neighborhood, this does not exactly sound like a desirable “free market.”

Where will people move to if the suburbs are “abolished”?

With President Trump’s claims that Democrats want to abolish the suburbs, we can ask this: where will people move to instead of the suburbs or where will suburbanites end up? A few thoughts:

  1. This reminds me of the first and only homeowners association meeting we attended when we moved back to Illinois. The board and attendees discussed efforts to combat some vandalism of association property, mainly some signs at the playground in the middle of our neighborhood as well as on a bridge over a creek. One attendee stood up and told this story (and I’m doing my best to paraphrase: “Any time my family and I move somewhere, we stay until there is crime. And then we move further away from the city until there is no crime and try again. If the vandalism issue is not dealt with, there will soon be babies shot in the street.” The suburb we lived in is rather small and sleepy but I would not be surprised if many people share a similar mindset (given what I see on social media about reactions to local crime).
  2. Those with resources will likely always try to find ways to create protected suburban communities. Depending on what regulations could come down regarding affordable housing, some will try to find loopholes and some might just defy the regulations and fight in court. (Another option: some might move to upscale urban neighborhoods.)
  3. An easy answer might be to embrace telecommuting and working from home and move to more rural locations. Yet, this negates some of the advantages suburbs offer including access to amenities of the city (including cultural institutions, major airports and transportation options) and job centers in the suburbs and cities. How many people truly want small town life (rural, tight local networks, few local options for shopping, dining, entertainment) versus wanting a suburb that straddles urban options and lower density?
  4. What does this do to our understanding of white flight and related phenomena? As it stands, historians, sociologists, and others largely talk about white flight as a process that occurred after World War II as whites left urban neighborhoods for suburbs and black residents moved in. If the suburbs are more open to all (and they already are much more diverse compared to the postwar era), will white flight come to include whites moving from suburbs to more protected suburbs and/or more rural areas?
  5. At the same time, Americans are less mobile than they been in the past. Would a threat to the suburbs actually prompt people to move or would they “shelter in place” or fight in place?

Collect better data on whether Chicagoans are leaving the city

Even as there are claims 500,000 New Yorkers have left the city, a new article suggests “some” Chicago residents are leaving. The evidence:

Incidents of widespread looting and soaring homicide figures in Chicago have made national news during an already tumultuous year. As a result, some say residents in affluent neighborhoods downtown, and on the North Side, no longer feel safe in the city’s epicenter and are looking to move away. Aldermen say they see their constituents leaving the city, and it’s a concern echoed by some real estate agents and the head of a sizable property management firm.

It’s still too soon to get an accurate measure of an actual shift in population, and such a change could be driven by a number of factors — from restless residents looking for more spacious homes in the suburbs due to COVID-19, to remote work allowing more employees to live anywhere they please…

The day after looting broke out two weeks ago, a Tribune columnist strolled through Gold Coast and Streeterville. Residents of the swanky Near North Side told him they’d be moving “as soon as we can get out.” Others expressed fear of returning downtown in the future.

Rafael Murillo, a licensed real estate broker at Compass whose primary market is downtown high-rises, said he has seen a trend of city dwellers looking to move to the suburbs sooner than initially planned, due in part to the recent unrest in the city.

Three pieces of data I see i this story: aldermen reporting on actions in their districts; journalists talking to some people; and comments from people in the real estate industry. This is not that different than what is being said in New York City (plus information from moving companies).

The caveat that leads the second paragraph above – we do not have an accurate measure yet – may be correct but then it is difficult to square with the rest of the story that suggests “some” people are leaving. What we want to know is the size of this trend. Is this a trickle of people in a city that has been losing people or a recent flood? And if the numbers are larger, what exactly are the motivations of people for leaving (being pushed over the edge, fear, housing values, etc.)?

Someone could find some more certain data. Work with the local utilities to look at usage (or nonusage in units)? Traffic counts? Post office address changes? Triangulate with more data sources? If this is indeed a trend, it is an important one to highlight, explain, and discuss. But, without better data, it is hard to know what to make of it.

Sundown towns receiving attention through show “Lovecraft Country”

A new HBO show highlights the little-known but widespread phenomena of sundown towns in Northern states:

“The first thing you need to know about sundown towns, and what Lovecraft Country gets right, is it’s not a Southern phenomenon,” Loewen tells Yahoo Life. “They’re all over the place.”

In his book, he writes, “Between 1890 and 1960, thousands of towns across the United States drove out their black populations or took steps to forbid African-Americans from living in them, creating ‘sundown towns,’” explaining that these towns “are (or were) all white by design,” and adding that, at least in part, “these facts remained hidden because of our cultural tendency to connect extreme racism with the South.”

In 2019, Heather O’Connell published a paper in the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity called “Historical Shadows: The Links between Sundown Towns and Contemporary Black-White Inequality.” In it, she wrote that “sundown towns are a key, yet often invisible, piece of our history that reshaped dramatically the social and demographic landscape of the United States,” and argued that these towns are “(primarily) a thing of the past.” But just last month, author Morgan Jerkins wrote regarding sundown towns, “With the rise of hangings of Black men across the nation this summer, I’m not so sure anymore.”…

Loewen says that although Black people are beginning to live in areas that were once sundown towns, they still suffer from the residual effects of such violent segregation, which he calls “second-generation sundown towns.” He notes that some of their key characteristics are “an overwhelmingly white police force that engages in [Driving While Black] policing and an overwhelmingly white teaching staff,” and names Ferguson, Mo., where Black teenager Michael Brown was killed in 2014, as one of these.

Loewen found most of these communities did not have formal signs or regulations that told non-whites that had to be out of town after dark. As I noted in a recent post, making certain forms of discrimination illegal does not necessarily lead to whites wanting to live near other people or even come into contact with others as there are other means of keeping people out.

The article above also hints at how places today understand or enact these past sundown policies. My research on suburban communities suggests a past sundown status could be unknown. This makes sense: some communities would not want to broadcast this today and local histories tend to emphasize positive moments in a community’s history. Perhaps more local residents will work to make these histories known. Even if better-off suburbs today have goals and/or means to keep certain people out, it would not be said so brazenly as that might threaten their status.

More broadly, Loewen’s work focuses on portions of Americans history regularly ignored or intentionally covered up. With his work on textbooks, monuments, and sundown towns, Loewen was ahead of his time in pointing out how Americans do not cover issues of race as well as other ignoble parts of the past.

Suburban opposition to apartments has a long exclusionary history

When the McCloskeys of St. Louis spoke at the Republican National Convention about their fears that suburbs would be abolished, what they said specifically would change in suburbs continues a long-standing argument:

They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning. This forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighborhoods.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIL4dft8VNw&feature=youtu.be

What is so important about single-family homes and keeping out apartments? Here are at least three reasons why wealthier suburbs look to avoid most apartments:

  1. A change in aesthetics and character. Single-family homes are emblematic of people who have made it or successful suburbanites. The bigger and nicer the homes, the better off or the higher status the community. Single-family homes are also more spread out while apartments lend themselves to more density. Bigger lots equals higher status.
  2. The contrast between homeowners and apartment dwellers is thought to be stark. Homeowners care about their property and their community. Because their property values are at stake, they will put effort and money into their home and land. In contrast, apartment residents are thought to transient, not interested in the community, and less invested in their property.
  3. Exclusion. Apartments are not just an eyesore and problems for building community; they attract different kinds of residents than wealthy homeowners. In particular, they are connected to lower-income residents, non-white residents, and/or criminal elements. And if a suburb avoids building apartments (or only ends up with more expensive apartments or rental units), certain groups of people are excluded.

Two quick historical examples come to mind.

-My research on the suburban development of Naperville, West Chicago, and Wheaton showed that the subject of apartments was an important one. In my 2013 article “Not All Suburbs are the Same,” I provide some details of fights over apartments in Naperville and Wheaton. In both well-off suburbs, the communities decided not to pursue apartment growth.

The Mount Laurel case in suburban New Jersey involved efforts by long-time black residents to relocate to apartments. The denial of the apartments from the municipality led to a long court battle.

In sum, the argument from the McCloskeys is not just about a change in density; it is also about local control and the ability to keep (stereotyped) apartment dwellers out.

(Update: I have read other commentary that analyzes the coded language used by the McCloskeys. My primary focus in this post is about the mention of apartments: this is a common form of development that wealthier communities often look to limit because they view them as gateways to particular people in a community.)

Historian Thomas Sugrue on the complex suburbia of today

In an interview, historian Thomas Sugrue discusses what the suburbs are today:

exterior of cozy house in evening

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

That said, while in the aggregate, suburbs are more diverse, the distribution of nonwhites isn’t random. Metropolitan America is not a place of free housing choice. It’s still very much shaped by deep patterns of racial inequality and a maldistribution of resources. A lot of the nonwhite newcomers to suburbia live in what I call “secondhand suburbs” — places that have become increasingly unfashionable for whites, often older suburbs closer to central cities, with declining business districts and decaying housing stock.

And just as the distribution of minority groups across suburbia is not random, the distribution of whites across suburbia has really significant political implications. We’re seeing a suburban political divide quite different from the one that played out after World War II, when well-to-do, middle-class and even some working-class whites living in suburbia found common ground by looking through their rearview mirrors with horror at the cities they were fleeing. By the early 2000s, you have growing divisions among white suburbanites. The whitest suburban places are often at the suburban-exurban fringes — places where middle-class whites who are attempting to flee the growing racial diversity of cities and nearby suburbs are moving. By contrast, many of the older suburbs, particularly those with late 19th-, early 20th-century charming housing and excellent schools, have been attracting well-to-do and highly educated whites…

But suburbs didn’t freeze in time circa 1950 or 1960; they continued to evolve and transform. And those transformations were largely overlooked by political commentators, journalists, social scientists, novelists and pop culture. You saw, for example, beginning in the 1960s and expanding in the ’70s and ’80s, the emergence of clusters of multifamily housing — apartments, townhouses and condominiums — in suburban places. And as the housing market opened, a lot of new immigrants chose suburban places as points of settlement because suburbs offered access to jobs. In the post-WWII period up to the present day, most American job growth has been in suburban places — office parks, industrial parks, shopping malls, stores, restaurants, the construction industry, all sorts of service jobs. And those changes are crucial to understanding the remapping of metropolitan America. They capture a more complex reality than the post-WWII image of the suburbs….

One of the consequences of that are the fierce battles over even modest or token efforts to bring diversity to predominantly white suburban school districts, and really significant opposition to the construction of multifamily housing. And it’s not even couched in the rhetoric of class. It’s not, “I don’t want multifamily housing in my neighborhood because I don’t want lower-class people living here.” Instead, it’s, “This is going to change the character of the neighborhood,” or “It’s going to jeopardize my property values,” or “It’s going to bring congestion.”

A few quick thoughts:

  1. For a definitive history of white flight as it played out in Detroit (and contributed to the current landscape), read Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.
  2. See earlier posts on complex suburbia, the various visions Americans today have of suburbs., and suburban NIMBY arguments.
  3. This reminds me that the image of 1950s suburbia is so pervasive as part of the American Dream and yet it has only some connections to current realities. Why does this image live on? It was incredibly powerful (postwar success, baby boomers, tremendous growth and sprawl), repeated and critiqued endlessly (numerous cultural products on both sides for decades), and some would like to continue or recreate what happened then. History rarely works this way; even if it were possible to recreate similar conditions, people are now different and society has changed.
  4. There is a lot more here for academics and others to explore about desirable and undesirable suburbs. Now that suburbs are more diverse in race, ethnicity, and class, the sorting within suburbs is a powerful force. Do wealthier people primarily select places through personal networks? How do residents of a metropolitan region come to know about and regard other communities (and how do communities try to “subtly” signal what they are)?

Rasmussen poll finds few Americans want the federal gov’t involved in deciding where people live

New poll data from Rasmussen suggests Americans would prefer the federal government not be involved in where people can live:

photo of houses during daytime

Photo by Curtis Adams on Pexels.com

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that 83% of Likely U.S. Voters say the federal government should not play a role in deciding where people can live. Just 10% disagree. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

Sixty-five percent (65%) still say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods in America so that people of different income levels live together. But that’s down from 83% when Rasmussen Reports first asked this question in mid-2015 as the Obama administration prepared to release its new housing regulations. Twenty-three percent (23%) now say that diversifying neighborhoods is a government role, up from eight percent (8%) five years ago…

Twenty percent (20%) of blacks and 21% of other minority voters feel the federal government should play a role in deciding where people can live, but just six percent (6%) of whites agree. Seventy-one percent (71%) of whites say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods, compared to 52% of blacks and 53% of other minority voters.

Interestingly, voters who earn $100,000 or more a year are more supportive of government neighborhood diversity efforts than those who earn less.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I do not know the accuracy of this data. I do not think this is a survey question that is regularly asked of a national population.

2. That said regarding #1, it does seem to align with patterns in the United States. Housing is a very localized issue and involvement from the federal government is not often viewed favorably. Part of the appeal of suburbs is local control and exclusion. A diverse vision of suburbia may not catch on.

3. As I argued earlier in the week, even though attitudes may have improved regarding outright housing discrimination, this does not mean there are not ways to keep people out of communities or neighborhoods.

4. It is a little strange that Rasmussen asked directly about different income levels living together and not also about different racial and ethnic groups living together.

5. If we cannot tackle the issue of residential segregation – which is an outcome of the attitudes in the poll – it will be very difficult to address race.

Community disparities in COVID-19 cases mean districts and schools will need to respond differently

Given disparities in who is more at risk for COVID-19 (higher proportions of Blacks and Latinos, differences across suburban communities), school districts and possibly even schools within districts might need different plans to address the situation. In the Chicago suburbs, many districts have already announced plans for the start of school.

interior of abandoned building

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Yet, what the plans are and in which communities is interesting to observe. Approaches can vary quite a bit with some opting for all remote learning to start, others going with a hybrid model (alternating attendance), and a few considering more in-person instruction. Wealthier communities that go for remote options may have more flexibility: parents and families can provide for childcare or have adults who can work from home and technology is plentiful. Furthermore, some communities appear to have a lower risk of COVID-19 compared to other places where people work in different kinds of jobs and households are larger. And larger school districts that encompass pockets of residents from different social classes and racial and ethnic groups could have very different situations within their schools. To some degree, this is nothing new: outcomes can vary for students within schools and districts. At the same time, COVID-19 (and other crises) help expose inequalities already present and may exacerbate them further.

That said, it might difficult to develop one-size-fits-all options even at the district level, let alone among county education boards or state education boards, unless there is a lot of homogeneity. The residential segregation common in the United States which then affects who attends what schools as well as  COVID-19 cases means addressing learning and safety together could require flexibility across schools.