Ann Coulter was right when she said the essence of being a liberal is having one set of rules for oneself and an entirely different set of rules for other people. Similarly, it could be asserted that the essence of liberal arts education is developing one set of theories that apply only to other people. Few better examples can be found than in the case of labeling theory, which derives from the pseudo-science of sociology.
Frank Tannenbaum had a number of valid points when, in the 1930s, he established some basic premises of labeling theory. He argued that, as a juvenile, everyone engages in some form of delinquent behavior. And he correctly pointed out that not everyone who engages in delinquency is caught and, therefore, labeled “delinquent.”
Tannenbaum was also correct in saying that parents, teachers, and peers sometimes over-react to juveniles caught in an act of delinquency. He was again on firm ground in asserting that these occasional over-reactions could actually produce more delinquency.
Surely, those who are labeled delinquent are less likely to be invited to associate with those who haven’t. And ostracism from conformists can lead to delinquent associations where the strengthening of deviant tendencies can occur.
Writing just a few years after Tannenbaum, Edwin Lemert did a lot to shape labeling theory into its present form. It is a form popular with progressives everywhere.
Lemert argued that people can engage in delinquency for any number of biological, sociological, or psychological reasons. Delinquency produced by any of these broad (categories of) factors is called “primary deviance.” But Lemert’s real contribution to various progressive causes (and socialist policies) flows from his explanation of a form of delinquency known as “secondary deviance.”
Lemert believed that if an individual was caught in an act of primary deviance, he was likely to be placed under greater subsequent scrutiny by parents, teachers, and various agents of social control. This, of course, meant the child was more likely to be caught engaging in delinquency again. Adopting Lemert’s premises, it is easy to understand how a vicious cycle could develop.
At some point, of course, the child might internalize the notion that he is a “deviant,” a “delinquent,” or just generally “bad.” This could lead to higher rates of delinquency. When it does, according to Lemert, “secondary deviance” has occurred. Many of us have come to dub this process, perhaps somewhat simplistically, as the “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Notions such as “secondary deviance” and “self-fulfilling prophecy” have done much to undermine the integrity of public education in this country. If you learned to read in first grade in the 1970s, you remember the “yellowbirds,” “redbirds,” and “bluebirds” reading groups. Labeling theorists thought it would be better to call a child a “yellowbird” than to call him “slow.”
(Author’s Note: I was a “yellowbird” in first grade and we all knew we were slow. We just contented ourselves with beating up the “bluebirds” during recess. Fortunately, due to the kindness of my favorite teacher Elsie Stephenson, I eventually became a “redbird.”).
Regrettably, all of this emphasis on self-esteem and negative labeling has resulted in many schools doing away with letter grades altogether. And when the kids play games at recess they are often forbidden from keeping score. They don’t want anyone to suffer the emotional trauma that results from being labeled a “loser” – even if for a day.
Liberal progressives have spent years taking a theory from sociology and applying it increasingly to the field of education. These progressives have shown a clear interest in the question of whether negative labels (e.g., “criminal,” “dumb”) are more frequently applied to blacks and other historically victimized groups.
But, curiously, one area of research remains unexplored: What impact does labeling someone a “racist” have on his self-image – and his propensity for future acts of racism?
Frank Tannenbaum, if he were alive today, might argue that everyone engages in some form of racist behavior. And he might point out that not everyone who engages in racism is caught and labeled “racist.”
Tannenbaum might also say that parents, teachers, and peers sometimes over-react to juveniles caught in an act of racial insensitivity. He would be on firm ground in asserting that these occasional over-reactions could actually produce more racial insensitivity.
Surely, those who are labeled “racist” are less likely to be invited to associate with those who haven’t. And ostracism from non-racists can lead to racist associations where the strengthening of racist tendencies can occur.
Lemert might agree that people can engage in racism for any number of biological, sociological, or psychological reasons. Racism produced by any of these broad (categories of) factors could be called “primary racism.”
Lemert might also agree that if an individual is caught in an act of primary racism, he is likely to be placed under greater subsequent scrutiny by parents, teachers, and various agents of social control. This, of course, means the child is more likely to be caught engaging in racial insensitivity again. Adopting Lemert’s premises, it is easy to understand how a vicious cycle could develop.
At some point, of course, the child might internalize the notion that he is a “racist” or just generally “bigoted.” This could lead to higher rates of bigotry. When it does, one might say that “secondary racism” has occurred. Many of us might call this a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
We all know that liberals often manufacture cases of racism in order to keep liberalism alive. But we need more research in the pseudo-science of sociology in order to determine how reckless accusations of racism are actually creating more real racism in America. The research can be used to test whether liberals really believe in labeling theory and whether they are willing to apply it to their own conduct.
If liberals really do believe in labeling theory, they should reconsider their own careless accusations of racism. If not, they should fess up, assign grades, and let children keep score during recess.