The Rights Stuff Forum: Backlash

Researching Backlash

Joseph Gerteis, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota

Joseph GerteisJoseph Gerteis is an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota's Department of Sociology, whose recent work has explored how Americans think about diversity in modern America through the lenses of race and religion. Along with University of Minnesota Professor Penny Edgell and Associate Professor Douglas Hartmann, Gerteis has focused on these issues as part of the sociology department's American Mosaic Project. The three-year project is described by the University as an effort "designed to contribute to our understanding of what brings Americans together, what divides us, and the implications of our diversity for our political and civic life." Gerteis shared some of the study's findings in an interview.

Comments from Joseph Gerteis

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Question: Could you tell us a bit more about the Mosaic Project?

Joseph Gerteis: The American Mosaic Project is really about diversity and solidarity in American life. We had a national survey in 2003, and the following summer we had people out in four different field sites across the country, looking at how groups think about the United States as a nation, and how groups are thinking about issues of group interaction. In other words, who is part of the "we" when we talk about America, and who is part of the "them." And how does race and religion play into that.

Has the project reached any conclusions?

One of the things we've been finding is that America doesn't look as strikingly separated as recent events would suggest. When you're looking at the news, you see these protests from selected groups, and so it's hard to gain a sense of what the average American opinion is on some of these questions.

So people who would show up at a protest rally might tend to be those whose opinions are more extreme, on one side or the other, than those of most Americans?


Is the dialog among those with opposing views actually becoming more uncivil — are people angrier than ever before — or does it just seem that way?

It seems worse, probably for two reasons. One is the Internet age, which allows for comments to be made with a degree of anonymity. I really do think that the norms of discussion have changed, so that in the Star Tribune, for example, you see more angry and seemingly unhinged commentary than you would have in past years. That's a manifestation of the anonymity of Internet chat rooms. I also see it in e-mail — not that I get that many angry ones — but the expected civility and formality of written communication is not there anymore, in quite the same way that it was in past years.

But the other thing I thought I should probably talk with you about is this notion of framing, especially in social movements. Protests don't emerge simply because of heightened grievances. It's often the fact that there are organizations or pre-existing networks in place that are helping people to frame the grievances, and then who the enemies are, and then what to do about it. Why weren't there massive civil rights protests before the mid to late 50s? It's not that oppression was any better before then, but rather that there wasn't a set of political opportunities or resources that were helping everyday people to sort out and frame their grievances in the same way.

Are you finding that people are really no more angry than they have ever been, but there are opportunities to express these feelings now?

Right. There are both opportunities and networks.

It's clear that America is changing demographically, and some are worried about these changes. But you seem to suggest that these demographic shifts are not the main reason behind the backlash against certain groups.

I think the racial story may be slightly different. There has been a change, and the big change has been the election of a black president. There are folks who just can't accept that there is a black president, and that might be a moment around which a lot of these underlying claims come to be expressed.

Is it necessarily bad or dangerous for society that some people are angry and want things to be more like they used to be?

Democracy is kind of messy and loud, and not always well reasoned. Some of my previous work was on 19th century populism. There were moments when partisan struggles between political parties were every bit as hot as today. In the election of 1892, there was huge election fraud, and groups were just at each other's throats — there were killings and all sorts of things, neighbor against neighbor's stuff. In a broader sense, these kind of moments cycle through. The 1890s were one moment of that, and to a large extent the 1960s and the early 70s seemed like that sort of cultural moment.

When people are showing up at demonstrations with guns, is there reason to be alarmed?

I'm absolutely alarmed, too. From an academic, ivory tower perspective, I can say that there were moments in the 60s where it seemed every bit as much that the United States was breaking apart and wouldn't hold together. It's just that those moments didn't carry forward — they sometimes had terrible consequences. In the late 60s and early 70s, it was the left that was radicalized, and you had all these fringe movements arming themselves against what they saw as an oppressive state. This seems like the same kind of moment, except for the right. It doesn't mean that those things can't turn violent — those 60s, 70s movements were often violent, and there were deaths involved.

One of the things that may be different now, than in the 60s, is that that the economy is in far worse shape. How does the competition for jobs and resources factor into how groups view one another? Does a bad economy create more backlash?

Yes. There is a lot of research that shows that in times of heightened economic competition, what is seen as racial or religious strife often has an economic component to it. But a bad economy doesn't last forever — it might last for some time, but not forever.

If someone is concerned about lack of civility, backlash, and the potential for violence in our society, what can they do about it?

One thing, which is hard in moments of backlash, is to continue to get involved in organizations that bring people together for local interests, even if their broader political views are opposed. Neighborhood organizations or PTA groups that support a local community around a neighborhood or around a school — that can do good things to support communities and knit people together, even though people might be opposed in lots of other ways.

Is there anything you'd like to add about this phenomenon we've been calling backlash or lack of civility?

I'll tell you what was making me think about this just recently: I was at the University art museum, and it has this display by the artist Robert Rauschenberg, right now. It was 1969 or 70 when he was taking clippings from the paper and doing these kind of collages with them. So there is this whole wall I was just down there looking at — violent, crazy people arrested, things breaking apart — it really seemed like, oh my God, what's going on. But there are often fringe movements that drive the national media and the national discussion. It's not that those movements aren't important, but you have to look at where the average person is. And when you see a broad cross-section of Americans, it doesn't look as polarized and antagonistic as that. And I think civility isn't dead. It might be kind of in abeyance in the public discussions, but it's not dead yet.

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