The Social Construction and Comfort of Soul Food

Did you know that “gumbo” is “okra” in the Bantu dialect of the peoples in southern and central Africa? That’s just one of the tidbits I learned from this fascinating new documentary which I would encourage university libraries to carry and for faculty to use in the classroom. Soul Food Junkies chronicles the social history and contemporary experience of consuming foods originally created by African Americans from slavery through emancipation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Era through today. It’s a fascinating journey for anyone who learns effectively through visual and experiential means, and it can be an effective tool to help students understand the way race works in the structures of our society both historically and in the present.

Use of food as a way to introduce cultural diversity is more difficult than it sounds. On the surface few would pass up the opportunity to explore new flavors, colorful plates, and unfamiliar ingredients. But the deceptive problem occurs when we leave the discussion of food and culture to our consumptive likes and dislikes. Instead, the use of food needs to be more instructional: what are the origins of these dishes? How is this cuisine tied to the history of the US? How are social structures and inequalities reflected and how are they relevant today?

Soul food is one example of what sociologists describe as material culture, the physical components of a group that signify values, norms, and social conditions of a group. An instructor can help students better understand the impact of migration, the context of reception of new people groups, and how those people groups adapt to their new surroundings. Okra for example was a vegetable common to many Africans who were brought to the US as chattel slaves. Obviously taking what food they could would be a source of comfort during the harrowing journey across the Atlantic and the brutal conditions of slavery in the American South. Through soul food, we can learn that the meals of most slaves consisted of the remainders of crops and the scraps of meat product like chitterlings, a word originating from the European Middle Ages to describe the less desirable parts of pigs consumed by peasants. Given the absence of education for the majority of slaves, it comes as no surprise that this term would eventually be called “chittlins”. More so, the fact of the low quality of the food given to chattel slaves speaks volumes to the value accorded to this people group. What is a source of sustenance for the oppressed is the afterthought of the oppressor.

With emancipation little changed in the dietary patterns of freed blacks due to institutionalized segregation. With little access to the resources of southern whites, southern blacks made do with the foods they were accustomed to prior to their liberation. After the Civil War, African Americans were politically equal to whites, but in the South, state laws, first called the Black Codes, and later the Jim Crow laws defined the social boundaries that ensured that federally protected equality would have no bearing on the day-to-day lives of whites and blacks. Clearly aware of this inequality and their very survival day to day, it should not be a surprise that soul food retained its comfort significance.

The Civil Rights Movement, whose crowning achievement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, augured new hope for African Americans. New hope called for celebration, and a new sense of empowerment and pride in one’s people. “Soul food” received its name around this time when various elements of African American culture suddenly had “soul” attached to it to distinguish itself from the spiritual emptiness of white-dominated mainstream society. But just as progress appeared in the political realm, the economy changed once again, and African American socioeconomic conditions fared no better than before the 1960s. Jobs that required little education were exported to developing nations and were replaced by service sector jobs which paid very little and demanded little physical exertion. The stress of not being able to make ends meet in addition to sedentary work increases the health risk put on by soul food consumption. Moreover as America remains highly segregated spatially, the availability of healthy food options grows scarce where poverty is concentrated. So even as the documentary showed the possibilities of healthier soul food, such potential may only be available to higher income African Americans.

Through the use of the Soul Food Junkies documentary, one can teach about the ways in which social structures in American society have a racial inflection that has had forward repercussions on African Americans today. The meaning of soul food is inextricably tied to the history of African Americans, and thus an important part in the education of all young Americans. With new visual education like Soul Food Junkies and mindful teachers everywhere, we can introduce new students (and not a few older ones too) to the social history of race in US society and what it means for us all today.

Hmong, Indian, What’s the Difference?

Recent news on the higher education scene has turned attention to the Asian American case, or cases we should say. A team of education researchers led by Dr. Robert Teranishi used data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the University of California higher education system to make the case that Asian American ethnic groups are not all performing in the “model minority” way. As some readers know, Asian Americans tend to be grouped together as if they were a racial equivalent to “white” “black” and sometimes “Hispanic.” When this kind of grouping occurs, scholars and interested citizens look for similarities and differences between racial groups on outcomes like educational attainment, household income, poverty levels, health etc. From this classification approach Asian Americans tend to appear exemplary on a number of outcomes. Take for example, last year’s Pew report on Asian Americans. Using the American Community Survey, Pew shows an aggregate figure for bachelor’s degree attainment and median household income in 2010 for Asian Americans. As the title of their figure states “Asian Americans Lead Others in Education, Income.”


Teranishi and colleagues’ report disaggregates, that is, splits into smaller groups, the Asian American classification using the same data, and this is what they find. In this first graph we see bachelor’s degree attainment across multiple Asian American groups and we find surprising differences across the board. At the one end, Taiwanese and Asian Indian Americans report over 71% within each group with a bachelor’s degree. At the other end, about 12% of Laotian and 15% of Hmong Americans claim the same educational attainment. So while it is the case that Asian Americans as a group appear to have a lot of education, the reality is that only certain groups are showing this level attainment.

Now let’s look at household income. Using the median household income ($66,000 according to the Pew report) for all Asian Americans, Teranishi et al. disaggregate that figure and show the following.

As you can see, at one extreme, Asian Indian Americans exceed the Asian American household income mean by over $21,000 on average. Hmong Americans are below that same mean by almost the same amount. In fact 9 out of the 15 groups are below the Asian American mean. And 7 of these groups are lower than the white American average.

What this suggests is that Asian Americans are highly diverse socioeconomically. To the extent that the model minority myth is applied to this collection of SES-diverse groups, it masks the evident differences among them. Read the full report here to find out more about the benefits of disaggregation especially in higher education within the University of California system. Similar kinds of analyses were conducted by Dr. Paul Ong and associates who disaggregated homeownership and cash public assistance rates across Asian ethnic groups in several different areas of the US. The slide show report on some of their findings is here, and the regional reports are here. Like Teranishi et al.’s report, disaggregation of Asian American homeownership, other assets and public assistance shows that the rates of these socioeconomic patterns vary a lot by Asian ethnic group.

Some might ask: then why is the overall Asian American average so high to begin with. The answer is a matter of population size. Look back at the disaggregated figures. Pick out these groups: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese. These groups take up 83% of all Asian Americans. Statistically, the other groups are not numerically large enough to alter the educational attainment or household income average of the largest six groups since they take up a greater share of the population. We should remember too, sizable numbers of Asian Americans in the larger groups do not share in the picture of “success” that their same-ethnic peers experience.

In our racialized society, we like our groups to be simple; we prefer to ignore the diverse realities within the groupings we create. By using “Asian American” as shorthand for “the successful minority” we mask major differences in the outcomes that presumably all Asian Americans share. Notably, our social programs often utilize this assumption and give next to nothing for vulnerable Asian Americans. This in turn makes Asian American inequalities invisible.

Hopefully more leaders and concerned citizens will grow aware of the problem we create when we use the stereotype of “the high –achieving, hard-working minority.” Reports and studies, like the one produced by Dr. Teranishi that disaggregate the Asian American data story expand our own understanding that this story is not just diverse culturally, but socioeconomically as well.

Dialect Maps, Race and Immigration

News items are useful for teaching but they can sometimes provoke new research investigations. For example

I recently found this item on my Facebook newsfeed (I created an interest page and jammed together all of the major news and national group organizations into a single feed; it’s fairly efficient most of the time). It illustrates the rough contours of the various dialects of English spoken around the US, and brought to mind my previous post on race, immigration and region and linguistic code-switching.

It was interesting to me that the author, Rick Aschmann, was not a social scientist; he claims that this is his hobby! . Given my training, my impulse was to find more sources that might match or improve upon Mr. Ashmann’s assessment. A hobby is one thing, doing it from scholarly expertise is another. Further, I wound up turning this into a social science exercise.

I poked around on the web to see if there were more scientifically based treatments of his accent mapping. In my quick check, it looks like this was quite the hot topic in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard by William Labov and associates (Penn) and Bert Vaux (Harvard then, currently at King’s College)  seemed to garner the quickest hits for dialect mapping. Interestingly there are a lot of different ways in which dialects are identified and it’s fairly challenging to determine the boundaries of where one dialect ends and another begins. Some areas, according to Aschmann, contain a wide range of dialects, chief among these being Pennsylvania.

But as the other studies and their accompanying maps show, there are different ways of classifying dialects which consequently changes the location of the boundaries. Here is Labov’s version of the same area:

This is important sociologically on two different but related grounds. One is race. While I don’t have systematic evidence for this (that would be an empirical linguistic studies project I think), members of different racial groups might share some dialect patterns in common while at the same time share patterns across racial groups in the same area. So we might ask: to the extent that African Americans are more populous in the South, to what extent are Southern dialects a function of African Americans pronouncing English, and to what extent is it defined by Southern whites pronouncing English? Are regional dialects shared equally across racial groups and do they in some ways reveal commonalities between racial groups or persistent distance? For instance, if two African American families, one with a “Northern” dialect and one with a “South Midland” dialect arrived in Atlanta looking for work, would a white employer’s judgment be affected by the dialect in speech?

The second is immigrant and second-generation adaptation. Immigrants these days are usually drawn more from non-English-dominant environments. How might they relate to the linguistic differences in the environments in which they migrate? Since they were socialized in non-English environments, we would expect that they would have an evident disadvantage in trying to adapt to the local dialect. However, their children might not have this hurdle. So what might the English dialect of the second-generation sound like based on region? Let’s take second-generation Korean Americans (SGKA for short) for example. The ones in California where a large fraction of SGKAs reside might exhibit a Western dialect whereas the ones in Philadelphia and New York might pick up an Atlantic Midland or Greater New York City dialect. This too is complicated by the degree to which their linguistic exposure at home is entirely in the native language of their immigrant parents or that amazing mashup we call Konglish.

So I started to think about whether dialect discrimination might also play a role in unequal job hirings. Do employers hire those who sound like them over whether someone looks like them. Sociologists note that there is often a lot of subjectivity in job placement, and in many cases identically-skilled candidates might be differentiated on grounds like “fit” etc. So I hypothesized a few possibilities on what might happen in an experiment that tries to determine dialect or racial discrimination:

-H0: Irrelevant. Hiring a worker is completely unaffected by hearing dialect differences. This is what social scientists call the null hypothesis.

-H1: If race matters more, differences in dialect will not affect hiring of a worker.

-H2: If regional dialect matters more, proximal dialect similarity to the employer will favor one worker over another.

If I could imagine this experiment, you would need 4 types of applicants (all with equivalent credentials so basically they are all the same on paper), two who are white, two who are black. One interviewee from each race exhibits the “Inland South” accent and one interviewee from each race has the “Atlantic Midland” dialect. We need employers that meet the same criteria: 1 set who are white with an Inland South dialect, 1 set of white employers with an Atlantic Midland dialect. Ideally, we would have African American employers in both of these categories too, but they may be harder to find. Since dialects are a function of location, the interviewees need to visit these employers from both parts of the country. If we had a lot of funding, we could replicate this experiment and bring in second-generation Asian and Latino Americans with these same dialects to determine racial versus dialect bias. This is something like an audit study which has been done several times in demonstrating subjective evaluations in hiring decisions.

A study like this could help reveal new complexities in our diversifying environment.

Faith and Ethnicity in West, TX

Despite nine years in residence here in central TX, I still feel like a Philadelphian exploring this new place. It’s probably why I remain fascinated by the many sociological and demographic curiosities here. In a recent post I mentioned some of the similarities between second-generation Americans and young white central Texans today. Both struggle with adapting and conforming to the Anglo northern upper class mainstream, and this is evidenced by their efforts at code-switching and minimizing any hint of an accent that might suggest southern provincialism. These surprising similarities help me to better contextualize the kinds of patterns I see among Asian Americans by looking at other Americans by way of analogy.

The recent explosion at a fertilizer plant in West TX (about 20 miles north of Waco) brought central TX back to my mind. Nothing would have prepared any of us for the strange alignment in time between the Boston Marathon bombing (and for those who are into other coincidences in time, note that 66 years earlier on nearly the same day (April 16, 1947 compared to April 17, 2013), over 580 people perished in an industrial explosion in Texas City with thousands more injured. And, 20 years ago, in Elk TX, just 9 miles outside of Waco, the standoff between a small religious group called the Branch Davidians and the combined forces of the ATF Bureau and FBI ended, leaving 86 dead (including 76 adults and children of that religious group).

As I wrote some of this, a memorial service was taking place at my university’s basketball auditorium to honor the first responders who perished in their efforts to bring others to safety. The death toll brings to mind some important demographic realities as one friend of mine mentioned in Facebook. He wrote:

Perspective: West only has a population of 2,800. 15 or more people were killed with more than 160 injured. If something of the same magnitude happened in the metropolitan population Waco, the count would have been 1,255 dead, and 13,390 injured, which is almost unimaginable. But I imagine that is just how those in West feel now. The numbers may sound small compared to some disasters, but in perspective, it is unbelievable.

Indeed. The lives lost as a proportion of the population of the affected area changes the significance of the impact. In reflecting on this incident I thought about the ethnic population of West. Numerous friends on Facebook changed their background images to the current Czech flag to show solidarity with the people there like the image shown above. If you drive through the city there’s clearly a strong Czech influence at least in name’s like Czech Bakery, Czech Inn, Czech Stop. In fact my wife and I attended the annual WestFest which not surprisingly featured a great deal of Czech culture:

  According to the 2009 Census information, Czech Americans number around 1.9 million about the number of Korean Americans depending on whether one includes anyone with some Korean heritage (1.7 million) or exclusively Korean heritage (1.4 million). Like many ethnic groups in the US, historical migration and settlement resulted in specific geographic concentrations of Czechs. Given the importance of farming as a part of the Czech identity, it comes as no surprise that the largest numerical presence is in Texas where affordable land was plentiful. And as it turns out, West contains the largest concentration of Czechs in the US at about 41 percent.

But apart from this figure, the Czech people of West are not otherwise remarkable demographically. Today’s immigrant Czechs reside in other communities such as Massaryktown, FL, and Mifflinville, PA. The highest percentage of Czechs is actually in Nebraska where 5 percent of the state claims this heritage. Texas by contrast is 0.5 percent Czech. It is perhaps this ordinariness that makes this extraordinary tragedy stand out as it does.

Throughout the memorial family and other loved ones often spoke of the faith of the first responders. This was notable to me when I discovered that religion is not a significant feature in today’s Czech Republic. According to the Pew study of religion around the world, 76 percent of Czechs are unaffiliated, and another 23 percent are Christian.

Given the size of the population, we cannot estimate the religious demography of Czech Americans but it’s a fair guess that they are much more religious, and more Christian than their counterparts in the old country. This difference may be a recent trend but it may also reflect the pro-Christian migration to the US that historians and sociologists have pointed out. Perhaps too, the heightened religious sensibilities of Texans motivate some Czechs to consider religion more intentionally than they might otherwise. I wonder too if in some way being part of a Czech community helps preserve ethnicity in the way that second-generation Korean and Chinese Protestants hold on to their ethnicity through a faith community. Who knows, perhaps what we see in the Czech religious communities might reflect what we will see among Asian American Christians a few generations later.

Central Texas continues to have these surprises, and I become aware of them through events both tragic and inspiring. For those who would still like to send aid and support to the community, click on this page for a list of organizations that are receiving donations and other support for the people of West, TX.