some of us are brave

The Article That Shut Me Up: Making Strange the Familiarity of White Violence

That’s harder than it sounds. I’d tell you not to comment but I’ll be so busy having a conversation in my mind that it won’t matter if you do.

This week that mental conversation will be thinking a great deal about white violence and black (anti) wealth creation.

Look, I teach stratification and race and organizations. And, I have the worst superpower ever: I figure out almost every movie, book, and rhetorical performance about two and half minutes in. It’s a game I play, which is rather perverse seeing as I live for not guessing the next rhetorical flourish, dramatic turn or character development. But, its precisely because I love the unexpected so much that I spend an inordinate amount of time ruining it.

Taken together, It’s hard to stump me on some novel way human beings screw something up or screw people over. Oh, you say the NSA is reading your emails before you write them? Yeah, I can see it. Oh, wait, schools are taking lunches away from hungry children? Of course they are. The police beat people up and lie about it? You don’t say. There is no mechanism of inequality that doesn’t, at first blush, sound perfectly possible to me.

So, when I read Lisa D Cook’s latest paper on how white racial violence counteracted the development of black patents I was stunned because it had not only not ever occurred to me but for a brief second I thought, “nahhh…oh wait! of course!” It’s like when Keyser Söze turns out to be…well, nevermind.

Cook’s paper, “Violence and Economic Activity: Evidence from African American Patents, 1870 to 1940” is a rigorous, creative academic paper thereby proving that such a thing is not an oxymoron. That a creative paper is coming from econ is, again, right up there with Keyser Söze. The argument worked for me on many levels.

To be clear, it isn’t that I do not know that white violence suppressed black economic activity. There is a reason that so many white riots occurred on “black wall streets”. The violence was (in part) a capitalist tool that was taken up by white proletariat because the utility of whiteness masks labor conflict by design.

No, that didn’t stun me.

And sure I don’t often think of patents or patent law but that they would be in the sphere of economic activity also isn’t so far-fetched as to shock me. Instead, Cook’s framing begins with evidence that black patent activity was countercyclical to innovation-economic growth cycles.

There’s an economic definition of cycles. But a sociological approach is to think of them as normative. A pattern becomes a ‘cycle’ by assuming a taken-for-grantedness that is entirely about normative beliefs. So a ‘countercycle’ is, by design, abnormal. Cooper says:

Figure 1 shows that, before the early 1900s, patenting rates among African Americans
followed a pattern increasingly similar to that of the larger inventor population, albeit at a much
lower level. Like overall patent rates, African American patent rates were procyclical, increasing with
economic booms.17 Black patent activity became countercyclical at the turn of the century. As Figure
2 suggests, black inventors began responding to incentives or conditions that did not affect other
inventors. Specifically, a rise in race-related violence coincided with greater divergence in patenting
rates between black and white inventors.

That’s when I got stunned.

Something about the longitudinal patterns of countercyclicality communicated something about normal, abnormal, and violence as being both respective to social locations. That kind of woke me up.

Cook uses a novel dataset. There’s a survey of African American inventors from the early 20th century. Cook augments that partial data set with exhaustive matching of inventions, inventors and Census data. On twitter Cook told me that the entire project took her ten years.

Not to get all technical but Cook merges state and federal data on measures of control and authority. Basically, did State responses to white riot waves signal to both blacks and whites that the federal government was unlikely to intervene on behalf of black interests? State control, for black people, can be understood here as a rough proxy for systematic white violence and brutality (for very good reason).

When blacks understood that the federal government had no intention of preventing mob rule, they may have been less likely to pursue legal protections for the intellectual capital. But, more importantly, when whites understood the same reality they used violence and state subjugation to deny black inventors ownership and profit through patent protection. A footnote mentions that:

Suing a white person was one of the offenses reported for victims in the HAL lynching data set. Also, anecdotal evidence suggests that abrogation of intellectual property rights was not unusual.

And although Cook is clear that she finds little systematic evidence of differences by race in bureaucratic processing of patent applications, in her final analysis there is a relationship between lynching measures and black patent activity:

A 1% increase in the growth rate of lynchings per capita is associated with 0.9% lower growth rate in black patent activity, and major riots are associated with 13% to 14% lower rate of growth in black patent activity.

As a teacher I spend a lot of time trying to connect the dots between contemporary stratification and historical stratification for my students. It’s not the easiest part of my job. Americans don’t do history and we don’t do history differently by group interests.

Just last week I was commiserating with Jamelle Bouie on twitter about an article in which some white South Carolinians are angry that the state is erecting a statue of Denmark Vessey. They called the abolitionist a terrorist because he planned to use violence. More specifically he planned to use violence against whites because, as data show, violence against blacks is a different moral matter. A white person is quoted in the story as insisting that Vessey should have just held a march instead of resorting to violent intent.

Slaves should have held a march.

That’s the kind of historical defamiliarization that we do. Slavery becomes something one can get a street license to march against. Making strange the false familiarity of U.S. slavery obscures what Cooper lays bear in estimation models and effect sizes: there was nothing polite about slavery (and it’s effects) that more black politeness would have ever fixed.

It is both an intellectual treat and an emotional gut-punch to consider the historical ramifications of white violence, institutional racism, and innovation in Cook’s framework.

3 comments on “The Article That Shut Me Up: Making Strange the Familiarity of White Violence

  1. Hana
    March 3, 2014

    Wonderful information. Our whole education system (particularly public) is designed to perpetuate the status quo (with wealthy white males at the top of the power structure, creating laws that benefit themselves). How in the world could we all be brainwashed to believe that we are the free-est country on earth, that we stand for freedom, when we began by killing off the “American” Indians and enslaving / brutalizing blacks. And the signers of the Declaration were all on-board with that. “Oh, just a minor detail, let’s overlook that, shall we?” (!) When mainstream America catches on to that, it will be a wonderful day. However, most are still invested in the status quo, so it will be a while before people give a darn about the whitewashing of US history to favor white America.

    • fluidimagery
      March 6, 2014

      Hana, I agree wholeheartedly, and as a public school educator it is hard to watch the systemic denial of what really happened/happens/and is happening to us as a race. When black history month comes around I cringe as the truth will NEVER be told as the status quo has to be upheld and the students are too young/excitable/etc to hear and understand the truth ( or that is the “reason” for not teaching the truth”) As for mainstream America catching on to what our beloved United States REALLY is I won’t hold my breath. As you stated “most are still invested in the status quo, but I wonder if they really know what it is and what is at stake or if they really care.

  2. nicoleandmaggie
    March 2, 2014

    I remember when she was starting that project! But man those results are depressing.

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This entry was posted on March 2, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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