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By Rahim Kurwa

Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago

“…They came in with shotguns. They came in in vests. They came in in riot gear, and they held guns on us like we were wanted criminals. They surrounded my house… And when I say they looked, they did a massive search on my house. They went in my drawers. They held guns on my kids. They went in my kitchen drawers. In my son’s drawer. They pulled out an I.D. and some money and said bam – threw it across the table at me and said hah, who is this? That’s what the officer said. Yeah. We got her. Who is this?”

Sandra is a black woman living in the Antelope Valley – Los Angeles County’s northernmost suburb. In this quote from my interview with her, Sandra, who uses the Section 8 voucher program to rent her home, describes the experience of a surprise housing inspection. In this case, inspectors thought they had caught her violating the program’s residency rules (which bar unauthorized tenants from living in the home), but she was able to prove that her son had been approved to live there. Had she not, the inspection might have led to her eviction. Stories about inspections like this are a common thread in the interviews I conducted with voucher renters in the Antelope Valley. But how and why did this encounter occur – in a historically white suburb with little history of low-income housing assistance?

The explanation in large part traces back to the Civil Rights Era and the ways that white hostility to black residents has changed over time. The year 1968 produced two major housing landmarks – the passage of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the publication of the Kerner Commission Report. The first barred discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. The second identified racial segregation as foundational to a broader system of racial inequality and urged integrationist housing policy in response.

In the 50 years since, programs like housing vouchers have come to dominate federal low-income housing assistance, on the premise that vouchers could help renters move out of poor and segregated neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, the program tends to generate movement either within South Los Angeles or to far-flung suburbs like the Antelope Valley. But like white residents around the country who generally prefer not to have black neighbors, many in the Antelope Valley have also resisted racial integration.

A map of L.A. County, the Antelope Valley shown in orange. Photo: laedc.org

When I talked to local residents who weren’t using vouchers, I found that two-thirds were opposed to the program, voicing stereotypes and misconceptions about it and its participants that echoed the ideas used to undermine other “social safety net” programs over the past several decades. Some local residents referenced the city’s nuisance code as a tool they could use to exert power over neighbors or get rid of them altogether. They knew, for example, that five calls made about a single rental property could penalize the property owner or landlord, pressuring them to evict the tenant. I think of these practices as a participatory form of policing, illustrating the ways that policing operates outside of the traditional institutions and actors we associate with the term.

Nuisance laws are notoriously vague and subjective. The version employed by the city of Lancaster (one of the Antelope Valley’s largest cities) considers a nuisance to be anything that is “indecent,” “offensive,” or otherwise interferes with “the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.” It isn’t hard to see how these codes can be weaponized against people based on their race, class, or gender. In other cities their applications have had disastrous consequences for tenants. Here, local residents could simply observe unwanted neighbors and then report their perceived infractions to this hotline as a way to trigger fines, inspections, or even evictions. Some proudly admitted to doing so. And while many voucher renters I spoke to were determined to stay, they often knew others who had been evicted or simply decided that their neighborhoods were too hostile to remain in.

50 years after the landmark Fair Housing law that marked the legislative end of the Civil Rights Movement, we can now more clearly see how the attitudes of that time have persisted until today, and how their expression has adapted to changes in our country’s laws. To better combat racial segregation, we must see how policing contributes to it.

 

Rahim Kurwa recently completed his Ph.D. in Sociology at UCLA and will be an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the fall of 2018.

 

By Kayuet Liu

Associate Professor, UCLA Sociology

Affiliate, California Center for Population Research

Medical science presumes biological risks drive disease patterns, but they have a hard time explaining many epidemiological patterns. Social network processes may be the key.

For example: diagnoses of autism – which is supposedly the most genetically determined of all neuropsychiatric disorders – have increased rapidly in the past 3 decades. Yet it takes multiple generations for the human gene pool to demonstrate any fundamental changes. My collaborators and I have researched other factors that might be responsible for the increase, and found that living close to someone with autism increased the chance of an autism diagnosis. After ruling out explanations such as viral transmission and the sorting of similar people into neighborhoods[1], we think that parents learn about autism and diagnostic resources from their neighbors, which has led to an increase in diagnoses.

If the number of autism diagnoses (not the underlying condition) has increased because we learn about it from our neighbors, a proper model of the social processes should be able to predict when and where they will be diagnosed. This is a quintessential test of the potential spread of autism diagnosis through social networks. We built a “synthetic” population of all parents in California that resemble the real population and check if the chance for them to meet another parent with a child with autism matters[2]. Indeed, while a traditional approach would have put the main cluster of autism in San Francisco due to a high concentration of parents at risk (e.g., giving birth when they are older), our model including social interactions correctly put it in Los Angeles. So social, rather than biological, factors are responsible for the spatial patterns of autism.

An unintended consequence of the autism epidemic is the current wave of vaccine hesitancy. My former graduate student Ashley Gromis (now a post-doc at Princeton) and I are now using a large computational model to figure out how much more likely we are to see an outbreak of measles due to geographic pockets of vaccination exemptions. What we found is that effective vaccination rates in these pockets actually decrease by a few percentage points. A few percentage points may seem not much, but our results show that it is enough to put the whole community, including areas with high vaccination rates, at risk. Thus we need interventions not only to maintain vaccination levels, but also to make sure the exemptions do not concentrate in certain areas.

 

Dr. Ka-Yuet Liu conducts research on social networks and health, micro-macro links, and the diffusion of non-contagious conditions. Dr. Liu argues that networks are crucial to solving epidemiological puzzles.  Her research has appeared in American Journal of Sociology, Demography, Social Forces, International Journal of Epidemiology, and other journals. Dr. Liu teaches courses on quantitative research methods and network analysis. 

 

[1] Liu K, King M, & Bearman PS (2010) “Social Influence and the Autism Epidemic.” American Journal of Sociology 115(5):1387-1434.

[2] Liu K & Bearman PS (2015) “Focal Points, Endogenous Processes, and Exogenous Shocks in the Autism Epidemic.” Sociological Methods & Research 44(2):272-305.

UCLA

Dr. Luft co-authored a blog piece for The Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage.  This powerful piece discusses how dehumanizing discourse can prepare the way for violence over time.  The authors cite important social science research regarding the subject.  To read it, click HERE.

Aliza Luft is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at UCLA, and her research focuses on ethnic, racial, and religious boundary processes, gender, high-risk mobilization, and the causes and consequences of violence.

 

By Abigail C. Saguy

Professor of Sociology, UCLA

In late 2017, over 30 women accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault or rape. Shortly after—following the lead of actress Alyssa Milano—millions of women began posting “#MeToo” on Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and other social media platforms, effectively “coming out” as victims of sexual harassment, assault or rape. As Milano acknowledges, “Me Too” isn’t new: African American activist Tarana Burke first used “Me Too” in 2007 as part of an offline campaign to let sex abuse survivors–especially young women of color—know that they were not alone. Milano says she hopes the social media campaign will shift the focus from Weinstein to victims and “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

The #MeToo movement underscores the power of collective mobilization. It also shows how suddenly the status quo can shift. Despite having studied sexual harassment in the United States and France for almost 30 years – and publishing a book and several articles on the topic[1] – even I did not see this coming.

Recently, I have been studying how people “come out” to resist stigma and mobilize for social change. As I show in a series of articles and a forthcoming book with Oxford University Press titled Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are: Identity Politics in the 21st Century, the concept of coming out—first developed by the gay rights movement in the 1970s—has expanded well beyond lesbians and gay men. The undocumented movement, fat rights movement, and Mormon fundamentalist polygamists—to name a few—all now use “coming out” politics to make real changes to laws, public opinion, interpersonal relationships and to claim their civil rights.

Notably, the #MeToo movement embraces not just the politics of “coming out” as a victim of sexual harassment or assault, but also the “outing” of harassers, assaulters and rapists. “Outing”—another term coined and developed by the gay rights movement in the 1980s and 1990s—originally referred to the act of disclosing a politician or celebrity’s homosexuality, typically because they publicly opposed gay rights or promoted heteronormativity (i.e. the idea that everyone is heterosexual) by “passing” as straight.

#MeToo has already led to significant change in the culture around sexual harassment and assault. Many of the men recently “outed” as sexual offenders have lost their jobs and, in some cases, faced criminal prosecution. Some have argued that employers and authors may now take women who claim to have been assaulted or harassed more seriously. The movement may bring real systemic changes to how employers and courts address sexual harassment.

Exactly what will come of the #MeToo movement remains to be seen, but this movement—and the others of which it is both a product and a part—are a reminder that the social life of humans is fluid and deserving of true inquiry by social scientists.

Abigail Saguy is a UCLA Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies and author of What is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne (California, 2003), What’s Wrong with Fat (Oxford, 2013), Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are: Identity Politics in the 21st Century, over 30 scientific journal articles and several op-eds published in leading news outlets. You can see more of her work at www.abigailsaguy.com and https://soc.ucla.edu/faculty/abigail-saguy.

Footnotes

[1] Abigail C. Saguy, What Is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press., 2003); “Employment Discrimination or Sexual Violence?: Defining Sexual Harassment in American, and French Law,” Law & Society Review 34, no. 4 (2000); “Europeanization or National Specificity? Legal Approaches to Sexual Harassment in France, 2002-2012,” Law & Society Review 52, no. 1 (2018).