COLUMNS ON FEATURED SPEAKERS
A Discussion with Yasser Payne
by Alexis Preskar, CJRC Undergraduate Intern
On March 7th, Dr. Yasser Payne (Associate Professor of Black American Studies - University of Delaware) spoke to CJRC affiliates about his project on structural violence and crime in the largely African-American city of Wilmington, Delaware. Dr. Payne hired research assistants who were residents of the community being studied, therefore they were simultaneously research subjects. This method, called participatory action research or PAR, allows subjects to embrace and enhance the study because of their investment in the work and their interest in the community, Dr. Payne explained.
Since he comes from a similar background to the individuals studied in the research, Dr. Payne said it was easy to relate to and interact with participants. Using interviews, community surveys and field observation, Dr. Payne examined how a lack of opportunities in education and employment (parts of structural violence) led participants in Wilmington to become involved in crime and identify with "the street."
The study showed some disturbing trends. For instance, 70 percent of male residents between 18 to 35 years of age reported being unemployed. Dr. Payne said after the press found this data, it was embarrassing for the city. "We used the power of PAR research to reveal all of that kind of stuff that was so conveniently tucked away," he said. He added that this is what PAR team members enjoyed most about the project - it affirmed the issues they had seen all their lives. Dr. Payne said many respondents reported they felt unheard and so he wanted to compile compelling data that may lead to change. "The project really framed their perspective," he said. "In most instances their point of view is right, but they don't argue it in a way that will be recognized."
The study showed some positive results as well. Even though they were living in poverty, respondents had relatively high levels of psychological and social well-being and reported wanting better education and employment. Dr. Payne explained that many street-identified citizens take personal responsibility very seriously. While they see ways in which institutionalized factors block them from moving up, they also put the onus on themselves to support their families. The majority of respondents answered that they considered themselves useful. While it's not known what "useful" meant to each respondent, Dr. Payne said he believes they all had the same basic idea. "More than likely what they all are saying on some level is that they're not a nobody," he said. Some of those engaged in illegal activity such as drug dealing find ways to give back to their communities in a practice Dr. Payne described as "street love." While these individuals are seen as generous, they still are under scrutiny. "I think it's very difficult for most folks, including those in the community, to see them as 'Robin Hood.' Even the people that they're helping will look at them sideways," he said.
Dr. Payne said he was "obsessed" with understanding street-identified black men because it was a way to understand his own life, and it led him to enter psychology. "I was very angry and confused when I was younger. I always did very well in school and I saw school as a way of coping," he said. In the future he hopes to have a national street PAR project with national headquarters in Harlem, a place he has been connected to since he grew up in the area and most of his family still live there. He said he'd like to see colleges get more involved with "in the streets" research because they have the funds and knowledge to make a real difference. "We don't simply have to be an ivy tower way off yonder," he said. Though he did work to bring the project to life he said it fell in his lap. Now he can't imagine not doing it. "I really feel like if I don't do this, it won't get done," Dr. Payne said.
The most vital component in the project for Dr. Payne was that the effort be respected by residents in the Wilmington community. He said he was monitored a lot while in the field, but he believes he gained their respect by being honest. "As long as I remained transparent, accessible, in the community, on the ground…it made it much easier," Payne explained. He still visits the community and tries to stay connected to the subjects. The residents' important but often misunderstood mindset became obvious while doing field research. "Their value system, their psychology are on par with middle America. They want the same things. They don't want to buck the system. They don't want revolution. They want to find a way to make it here."
A Discussion with David Jacobs
by Alexis Preskar, CJRC Undergraduate Intern
Dr. David Jacobs, a professor in the Department of Sociology, kicked off the CJRC talks in 2013. His presentation focused on socio-economic effects on police force strength and drew a large and excited crowd of students and faculty. The presentation was from a paper with sociology graduate student Jon Dirlam (first author), based in part on Dirlam's M.A. thesis.
Dr. Jacobs' passion for research started to take full force as a graduate student at Vanderbilt, where he was studying political science before switching over to sociology. He said he's not sure why he originally became interested in political sociology, but he said politics has always excited him and continues to do so.
Recently, he has been personally interested in the role of the media in politics. "Politics and ink are kind of intimately related," he said. He said he has been disappointed by journalism in general because oftentimes their conclusions on politics are "not thought through," possibly as a result of tighter deadlines and staff cuts in newsrooms. As an example, Dr. Jacobs said the president is generally given a 3 percent advantage in their second election and Obama won by a little more than this, which is not all that impressive to political scientists. The media, however, called the election "revolutionary."
In his professional work, Dr. Jacobs argues the relationship between police strength and inequality is an important one. For this paper, the intuitive belief was that more affluent areas would demand greater police force and as inequality grew, this trend would also rise. Dirlam and Jacobs found the sway of the affluent was not as strong as previously believed and racial factors were also important. Dr. Jacobs said he wrote a similar paper in 1979, but this one was unique since it included inequality. He said the topic wasn't as important to him as the variable of inequality. "It's a good measure of economic power," he said. "This is the best paper I've done on police," he said. He said a common obstacle is finding data to fit the topic he wants to study. "Data drives what you can do," he said. "You can work with what you can get." Jacobs and Dirlam chose to use the U.S. census data ending in 2000 because it gave the best picture. One issue with this is it didn't capture the truly wealthy since the census income indicator stops at about $250,000. He said he would have liked to use IRS data, but there are issues with that as well. "The trouble is the best statistics on the top incomes exist in the IRS data, but that doesn't capture anybody that doesn't pay taxes," he said. On top of possibly losing the poorer end of the spectrum, he added the IRS data isn't available at the city level.
While he did consider using Micropolitan Statistical Areas, which account for cities and their surrounding neighborhoods, as he did in his previous paper on the subject, this time Dr. Jacobs chose to use city data. MSAs are advantageous because Dr. Jacobs said the very affluent don't live in cities and "criminals don't stop at city lines." The advantage of cities is they are thought of and operate as a political unit, he said.
Dr. Jacobs said he enjoys doing a variety of research and has been able to explore a wide range of topics in his career. He can't pick a favorite topic, but said police are near the top of his list. He added that many of his paper topics have been interrelated. Currently, Dr. Jacobs is working on papers with students focusing on inequality over time and a continuation of a paper on roll call voting in the House of Representatives.
Thanks to Dr. Yasser Payne and Dr. David Jacobs, and to all of you who sent your suggestions and announcements. We encourage you to keep us informed about any events that might be of interest to CJRC participants as well as any suggestions that you have for activities or programs. To contact the newsletter editor, please email Amanda Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to be added to our mailing list, please send Amanda your e-mail address.