Social Issues in the News
“Lessons from Charlie Howard’s Death,” the headline of the op-ed column said. On July 7, 2009, Bangor, Maine, marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Charlie Howard, an openly gay, 23-year-old man who was beaten and thrown off a bridge into a river by three teenagers on July 7, 1984. Howard could not swim and drowned. His three assailants eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to a juvenile correction center. One of the lessons of his death, wrote the columnist, a theology professor, is the need to challenge the hateful mindset that underlies homophobia. “The three youth who killed Charlie Howard were not social rebels acting out against societal norms and values,” he wrote, but instead “were social conformists who thought they would be rewarded for acting in conformity to this community’s norms. In fact, when the three boys returned to Bangor High School, they were cheered as heroes by their peers and some adults.” (Ellison, 2009)
Why did three teenagers in a small town beat a gay man and hurl him to his death a quarter-century ago? We may never know, but it seems obvious that they had learned to hate gays from community norms back then and perhaps also from some of the many people with whom they interacted every day. This was not the first hate crime against a gay man or other individual, nor was it the last, but it nonetheless illustrates one of the ugly aspects of the many things we learn from our culture and from the people around us. We learn many good things, all necessary to have a society, but we can also learn to accept some very harmful beliefs and to practice very harmful behaviors.
The stories of Sarah Patton Boyle and Lillian Smith illustrate this all too well. Sarah Patton Boyle was born in 1906 to one of the leading families of Virginia. A great-grandfather had been a prominent attorney and acting governor of the state; both her grandfathers led illustrious military careers; her father was a respected Episcopalian minister. She was raised on the plantation on which her ancestors had once owned slaves, and her family employed several African American servants.
It was in this setting that little Sarah learned to be racially prejudiced. She was forbidden to visit the servants’ rooms, which, she was told, were filthy and ridden with disease. The servants themselves were not allowed to use the family’s bathroom or china, lest they spread disease from the germs they were assumed to harbor. Sarah’s mother loved her servants the same way she loved the family’s pets, “without the slightest feeling that they were much like herself,” and taught Sarah that African Americans “belonged to a lower order of man than we” (Boyle, 1962, p. 14). When Sarah turned 12, she was told to stop playing with the servants’ children because she was now too old to be “familiar” with black youngsters, and she then endured a “dreadful training period” in which she was scolded if she forgot her new, standoffish role. She was socialized during the next few years to treat whites better than blacks. When Sarah’s adolescence ended, she was “as close to a typical Southern lady as anyone ever is to a typical anything” (Boyle, 1962, pp. 14, 29). Her racial views stayed with her for many years.
Lillian Smith learned similar beliefs after her birth, a few years before Sarah’s, to a wealthy family in Florida. She learned about taboos and manners in race relations just as she learned her games, prayers, and other childhood practices. A central lesson was that “I was better than a Negro, that all black folks have their place and must be kept in it…that a terrifying disaster would befall the South if ever I treated a Negro as my social equal” (Smith, 1949, p. 17). Her parents played a prime role in this learning process: “The mother who taught me what I know of tenderness and love and compassion taught me also the bleak rituals of keeping Negroes in their place. The father who…reminding me that ‘all men are brothers,’ trained me in the steel-rigid decorums I must demand of every colored male. They…taught me also to split my conscience from my acts and Christianity from Southern tradition” (Smith, 1949, pp. 17–18). These racial views also stayed with her for many years.
Thanks to the civil rights movement, the South is much different, of course, from when Sarah Patton Boyle and Lillian Smith were growing up, but their poignant descriptions and Charlie Howard’s death remind us that children and adolescents learn all sorts of things, good or bad, without formal instruction. They learn these things from their parents, their friends, and other parts of their social environment. The things they learn constitute their culture: norms, values, and symbols. Socialization is the term sociologists use to describe the process by which people learn their culture. Socialization occurs in societies big and small, simple and complex, preindustrial and industrial. It happens in the United States, in Brazil, in Saudi Arabia, and in Indonesia. Without socialization we would not learn our culture, and, as Chapter 3 “Culture” indicated, without culture we could not have a society. Socialization, then, is an essential process for any society to be possible.
This chapter examines several aspects of socialization. In so doing, it continues developing the sociological perspective addressed by the previous chapters, as we will again see the ways in which our social environment shapes our thoughts, actions, and life chances.
Boyle, S. P. (1962). The desegregated heart: A Virginian’s stand in time of transition. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Ellison, M. M. (2009, July 7). Lessons from Charlie Howard’s death. Bangor Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.bangordailynews.com/detail/110121.html.
Smith, L. (1949). Killers of the dream. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.