Pandemic, race and moral panic

An Asian woman wears a surgical mask. She's touching her hand to the bottom of her chin as she looks off to the side

Since the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic reached Australia in January 2020, I’ve been working on a couple of COVID-19 research posts for you. I was ready to post one of these on Monday, but I have decided to first address a race and public health response that is presently unfolding.(1)

In the afternoon of 4 July 2020, Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, gave a press conference announcing that two more postcodes are being added to COVID-19 lockdown (making 12 in total) (McMillan & Mannix, 2020). The new postcodes under Stage-3 lockdown are 3031 Flemington and 3051 North Melbourne.

Additionally, the Victorian Government is effectively criminalising the poor: nine public housing towers are being put into complete lockdown. The Premier said: “There’s no reason to leave for five days, effective immediately.” This affects 1,345 public housing units, and approximately 3,000 residents.

Public housing lockdown is made under Public Order laws. Residents will be under police-enforced lockdown for a minimum of five days, and up to 14 days, to enable “everyone to be tested.”

How do we know this public housing order is about criminalising the poor, and driven by race? The discourse that the Premier used to legitimise this decision echoes historical moral panics and paternalistic policies that are harmful.

Let’s take a look at the moral panics over the pandemic in Australia, and how race and class are affecting the policing of “voluntary” testing.

I support continued social distancing, self-isolation for myself and others who can afford to work from home, quarantine for people who are infected so they can get the care they need without infecting others, and widespread testing for affected regions. These outcomes are best achieved through targeted public communication campaigns that address the misconceptions of the pandemic, the benefits of testing for different groups, making clear the support available for people who test positive, and addressing the structural barriers that limit people’s ability to comply with public health measures.

Continue reading Pandemic, race and moral panic

Racist Scaremongering as Social and Political Control

On the 8 August 2018, only four days after I published my last post on the social construction of migrant youth deviance in public spaces (Zevallos 2018a), there was an incident whipping up racist fear of ‘Sudanese gangs’ in the area where I went to school as a youngster. I had flown home for a workshop and then visited my family. They told me how the local gossip grapevine and local media were misreporting the event. Initial word-of-mouth said that between 200 to 300 Sudanese youth gathered at Watergardens Shopping Centre and were starting trouble, throwing rocks at police. While Nine News (2018) reported 20 to 30 kids vandalised property, ABC News (2018) reported up to 50 young people had come for a fight ‘over girlfriends.’ Riot police confronted the youth, and blocked the area. The next day, my family saw police on horses patrolling the Coles supermarket carpark (!).

All of this to stop Black children from gathering together in a public place.

In a week where we saw Nazi language used in the Australian Parliament, let’s delve into the use of scaremongering as a social control mechanism that reinforces political strategy.

Continue reading Racist Scaremongering as Social and Political Control

The Social Construction of Migrant Youth Deviance in Public Spaces

Silhouette of figures wearing baseball caps with the sunset in the background

This cartoon below by Charles Barsotti is a good illustration of the social construction of group deviance in public spaces. This cartoon points out how some social groupings can be given negative labels, such as a “cult.” The beliefs or the practices of particular socio-economic groups can are treated with suspicion by a dominant group where they do not conform to society’s norms, values, behaviour or appearance. Non-conformity can lead to the creation of stereotypes; that is, labels that simplify specific qualities of some people as typical of the group they belong to (hence the cartoon, where one wolf says to another, “We’re a pack, not a cult.”).

In most circumstances crowds that “blend in” and meet society’s standards of “acceptability” escape the stigma of social deviance. Cases where “ordinary” groups might be negatively labelled by authorities might occur during times of civil unrest, such as during political protests, or due to other political cycles, such as the lead up to an election.

Racial minority youth are often labelled as deviant simply for being in public. In the case of Aboriginal youth, even something as routine as being in a shopping centre is mired by harassment by security (Perry 2018: Powell 2018). In another example, Muslim girls have been forced to leave a school excursion at a public exhibition centre because other visitors felt “uncomfortable” (Foster 2017).

Let’s take a look at this problem of stereotyping racial minority youth in public spaces, focusing specifically today on migrant minorities. We’ll examine how labelling these youth as “deviant” keeps society from paying attention to pressing social problems, such as structural inequality and interpersonal gender violence.

Continue reading The Social Construction of Migrant Youth Deviance in Public Spaces

Racist Moral Panic

I’ve seen a few “progressive” White people sharing a newstory about the newly established African-Australian community taskforce, without recognising that this is giving in to scaremongering. Yet White people feel comforted by the idea that “African community leaders” are doing “the right thing” to keep people safe (read: White people). The nation must critically examine how Whiteness drives these responses. There’s increased policing of South Sudanese-Australian groups not because there’s a specific problem – data show that the majority of youth crime is committed by White youth. The motivation to criminalise African-Australians coincides with the election year. 

Migrants are forced to publicly comply with racist agendas because of the increased stigma to their communities. There are many videos, accounts and police reports of people from various African backgrounds being attacked by White people for simply being Black, emboldened by politicians and the moral panic of “good” White people. So where’s the White crime taskforce?  Continue reading Racist Moral Panic

Science Media Hype: Scaremongering Over Viral Research

I first wrote this post for Science on Google+ and the response has been highly emotional and very far removed from the evidence presented. My interest in this story is on the epidemiology of disease, given my work on the sociology of health. Misinformation on the spread and management of infection can severely impede public health campaigns. While bioethics is an important issue to openly debate, the fact is that this particular story about virology research has been hyped up by journalists. The media created a moral panic using doomsday scenarios about what might happen if this research “escaped the lab,” without seriously reviewing the researcher’s body of work, as discussed in the post below. 

I’ve previously written that when people think about scientific risks regarding a topic they are uninformed about, they are less likely to support such risks if they have vested interests such as political or personal biases. I’ve also shown how public trust in science is also influenced by education and belief systems. Bad science reporting only serves to complicate things by presenting sensationalist views (see my post here).

Continue reading Science Media Hype: Scaremongering Over Viral Research

Moral Panic Over Technology

This comic by xkcd is a great conversation starter for the sociology of moral panics. In 1871, Sunday Magazine lamented the lost art of letter writing. They bemoan the fact that as it becomes cheaper to write and send letters, people value “quality” letter writing less. This is seen to be to the detriment of society. The proliferation of letter writing evolves as new technologies make paper, ink and postal services more available to the masses.

The rest of the comic charts excellent examples from prestigious books, journals and professionals fretting about how technology changes the quality of human communication. We see these arguments continue today as some traditional media owners and some intellectuals decry the advent of social media and blogging, as well as how the internet in general supposedly ruins our collective intelligence. A couple of years a go, I wrote about how philosopher Edward De Bono said social media causes laziness.

What is at play behind these arguments is actually a moral panic about the control of cultural capital: technologies shift power over who controls information (in Marxist terms, the owners of the means of production). Technology doesn’t drive social change as it’s not some overpowering social force that we accept mindlessly. Instead, social relations change in response to people finding new uses for technology, and this is a feed back loop that pushes innovation in communications.

Take a look at the expanded comic and see what you think.

Cyclical Moral Panic Time: Attacks on Same-Sex Families Defy Science

By Zuleyka Zevallos

One of the most frustrating and circular arguments in the history of modern families rears its ugly head yet again in Australia. The Australian Senate has received a submission by 150 medical professionals. These medical doctors have misused scientific studies to argue that children raised in same-sex families are worse-off than kids who are raised by heterosexual parents. This argument has been refuted by robust empirical studies within sociology and other social sciences for the past couple of decades.

The Australian Psychological Association has refuted the claims made in the Senate submission, arguing that the most comprehensive, longitudinal data show that children raised in same-sex families are not disadvantaged due to their parents’ sexual orientation. In some cases, the data show the opposite – and it all goes back to the economic and social resources available to parents. This includes emotional support from supportive networks. The biggest disadvantage to children raised in lesbian, gay, transsexual, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) families relates to how societies or communities fail to accept and integrate the diverse reality of modern families.

Same sex families.jpg

Continue reading Cyclical Moral Panic Time: Attacks on Same-Sex Families Defy Science