The KKK's Living Legacy

Americans these days like to think of the Ku Klux Klan—if they think of the KKK at all—as a white supremacist abomination whose time has come and gone. That is, its presence was deplorable but its impact minimal. A new article from Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell paints a different picture, arguing that the very visible demonstrations of the extremist organization have played a lasting role in shaping the American electorate as we know it today.

The 1960s saw a major shift in the Southern United States where mostly white voters, motivated by their opposition to Civil Rights policies, shifted their support from Democrats to Republicans. The authors argue the Klan was a major player in this shift, but not because it recruited a wide swath of voters to their cause. Instead, KKK activism, in its extremism, drew attention to how the civil rights movement was challenging long-held “links between movement goals and positions taken by political candidates” (1148), thus turning white voters against the Democratic party.

McVeigh, Cunningham, and Farrell base their argument on findings from two sets of tests. First, using data from the National Consortium on Violence Research, House UnAmerican Activities Committee data on Klan organization from 1967, they measure Klan activism within counties in ten southern states through the 1960s. Counties marked by KKK activism were significantly more likely to vote for Republican Presidential candidates. And this effect carried past the ‘60s. Repeated tests comparing 1960 to 1972, 1980, 1992, and even 2000 show that the effect holds over time. There is also a geographic effect; counties that bordered centers of Klan activism had weaker, but significant shifts toward Republican voting as well.

A second analysis using 1992 Southern Focus Poll data shows a similar pattern among individual voters. Those more in favor of segregation were more likely to vote Republican; however, this was only if they lived in counties that had documented Klan activism back in the 1960s.

The authors are careful to point out these results do not mean the Klan has directly influenced voters over the last 50 years. Instead, this is a story about the unintended, yet long-lasting consequences of a radical group that “dislodge[s] voters from preexisting party loyalties” and reshapes the field of public opinion (1161). In short, the Klan changed the political culture and produced a system of party allegiances that remained in place long after their activism diminished.

The Social Costs of Punishment, From Prisoners to Pupils

The United States has seen a steady increase in the policing and mass incarceration of its citizens in the last few decades. The increased surveillance and imprisonment, primarily of poor and minority populations, has been called by social scientists a “culture of control.” This culture of control harms not only the individual, but also their community, since highly policed communities have worse health outcomes and less economic stability than their less-policed counterparts. In their study of the effects of out-of-school suspension on academic achievement, Brea Perry and Edward Morris find that the cultural mindset of control—and its consequences— has now found its way into the halls of America’s schools.

Using three years of data from over 15,000 students in a public school district in Kentucky, Perry and Morris report that higher levels of “exclusionary discipline” (out-of-school suspension rates) lead to lower math and science test scores even among non-suspended students. The increased use of suspension as a punishment for individuals, that is, reduces academic achievement outcomes for the student body as a whole.

To test for reverse causation—the possibility that the effects are working in the opposite way—the authors looked at test scores over three years and used suspensions at the beginning of a given semester to predict test scores at the end of that semester. Their analyses confirm that increased suspension leads to lower test scores, rather than lower test scores leading to more suspensions.

Like the destabilizing consequences of mass incarceration for communities, exclusionary discipline in public schools ultimately undermines rather than supports academic performance. Schools with highly punitive environments create anxiety and distrust, heightening tensions for both students and teachers.

The authors emphasize that their findings are presented as an addition to existing critiques of the overuse of exclusion as a means of social control. They conclude, “Punishment is not a discrete response to certain transgressions, but a system of social order that produces wider meanings and consequences.”

Active Learning and STEM Success

Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth, “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014

College teaching has undergone a revolution in recent years. Traditional styles of teaching and lecturing have been supplanted by a more interactive, student-centered approach known as “active learning.” In active learning classrooms, students practice skills, receive feedback from teachers, and then get a chance to implement teachers’ corrections as soon as they are given. While the benefits of active learning for liberal arts fields seem fairly intuitive, it is less obvious whether this approach can be successful in more technical and scientific fields where “knowledge” is seen as more concrete, universal, and fact-based. To find out whether active learning is beneficial in STEM classes, Scott Freeman and his colleagues conducted a metaanalysis of 225 studies comparing the outcomes of different teaching methods.

Freeman’s team found that undergraduates enrolled in STEM lecture courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail than those who took courses with elements of active learning. Students in active learning sections got higher exam scores (by 6%) and their vocabulary scores rose. The results held across STEM disciplines class sizes, although the greatest benefits were seen in classes with fewer than 50 students.

Carl Wieman, the 2001 Nobel Prize winner for Physics, is among a group of experts who also believe that active learning is the most effective instruction style for STEM. In an interview with Anna Kuchment for Scientific American, Wieman states that active learning works because it teaches students to think like scientists in the field, moving from background reading to applied work with targeted feedback and revision. In other words, active learning is a direct application of what cognitive psychology tells us about how we learn: by practicing, with feedback from an expert about what we’re doing right and wrong and how to get better.

Wieman believes that if future elementary and high school STEM teachers are taught with active learning, they could, in turn, potentially develop a much higher level of content mastery among their students. Wieman says, “[K-12 students] really require more subject expertise from the instructor than a lecture,” and these teachers will be better able to pass expertise on to their students.

Finally, better teaching and learning is expected to help attract and retain undergraduates in STEM majors. Because STEM degrees continue to be in high demand among employers, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has now set a goal of increasing the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded each year by 33%. Adopting empirically validated teaching practices like active learning may be the best bet for meeting this objective while improving K-12 STEM education to boot.

Gay Marriage and God’s Gender

Although public support for same-sex marriage has expanded, many Americans still oppose it. Religious beliefs and gender traditionalism are often cited as main reasons for the persistent opposition: many people interpret religious texts as condemning homosexual relationships, while others believe that traditional gender roles are central to the social fabric and that same-sex marriage undermines those roles. Yet many other contemporary behaviors, like divorce, transgress religious ideas and gender roles without generating nearly as much opposition. Why?

A new study by Andrew Whitehead in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion may help explain. Whitehead shows that being highly religious and preferring traditional gender roles are only associated with opposition to gay partnerships among those who see God as male. People who with no particular ideas about God’s gender are likely to support gay marriage, but those who view God as masculine and use male pronouns to refer to God are highly likely to oppose it. Other common views of God, such as seeing a creator as angry or as active in humans’ affairs, do not predict opposition to gay marriage. This finding indicates that religious belief does not determine opposition to gay marriage, but fits into a broader gendered understanding of social relationships. Same-sex marriage, for some, goes beyond the fulfillment of “proper” gender roles of men and women.

Religion matters, and so does gender traditionalism, but what’s really important is how religion and gender intersect to create culturally specific ways of understanding the world. For people who see God as masculine, opposing gay marriage is less an active political choice than a logical extension of deeply held beliefs in a gendered social reality.  

Individualism Increases Religious Pluralism

The last 30 years have seen a massive change in the American religious landscape: more and more people are deciding not to affiliate with any particular religion at all. What’s changed? Answers range from claims that religion is slowly dying out to listless and wandering millennials having no clear value system. When sociologists study these opinions over time, however, they find a number of changes and consistencies that might point to a more precise explanation.

In 2002, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer published a paper showing that the growth in religiously-unaffiliated Americans actually didn’t have much to do with individuals’ religious beliefs. Instead, political views and changes between generations had more of an impact on whether respondents identified with a religion. Now, about a decade later and with new data from the General Social Survey, they update their findings with some new trends. First, the growth in religious disaffiliation has remained steady since the late 1980s; while this group was only 8% of the population in 1990, it has since increased to 20% in 2012. At the group level, this is primarily due to young generations replacing older cohorts. But while the trend includes adults born in the 1960s, the authors emphasize that “young people who have become adults since 2000 express even less religious preference than any of the previous cohorts.”.

Using a new panel component to the GSS which tracked the same respondents over time, Hout and Fischer go on to show that respondents who shift towards liberal political views are more likely to drop a religious affiliation (and those who lean conservative are less likely to disaffiliate). The political effect dovetails with younger generations’ preferences for autonomy—the belief that it is important for individuals to think for themselves rather than obey traditional authorities. Hout and Fischer argue that growing up in a generation that values autonomy and codes conservative politics as “religious” is the best predictor of religious disaffiliation. Further, the authors emphasize that they do not see large spikes in atheism or other changes in beliefs. Rather, the most common belief among these younger generations is that there is truth in many religious traditions.

The standard story, then, is backwards. For younger generations, religious identities don’t determine values; they are an outcome of political beliefs. Thus, young people haven’t lost the faith—they have simply learned to express their values in voting booths instead of pews.

Shared Values and Common Dreams

From civil rights to environmentalism, movements for social change have relied on coalitions that bring together diverse groups to increase their influence and resources. Yet, building and sustaining these coalitions is no easy task: it requires people and organizations take action on issues beyond their primary interests and create alliances across racial, class, and national lines.

To understand how these coalitions are created and sustained in day to day interactions, UCLA sociologist Laura Enriquez examined the contemporary immigrant rights movement and, in particular, a Southern Califonria, university-based coalition formed to help pass the DREAM Act (a federal law providing undocumented youth a path to citizenship). Enriquez found that having shared political beliefs and values motivated people to join the coalition and sustained collaboration and open discussion as the organization matured.

Enriquez found that the DREAM coalition was successful in navigating social, class, gender, and nationality-based tensions by emphasizing a common commitment to social justice rather than trying to create a single unified identity amongst the diverse group. Focusing on shared beliefs quickly mobilized people’s commitment – 25 student organizations joined the coalition in a few weeks – and provided a way for people to take on roles and tasks based on their individual identities. Thus, undocumented students often provided public emotional and personal appeals for the DREAM Act, while citizen students leveraged their voting power.

Coalitions are important. They provide a venue for sharing ideas and working through problems. Members of the DREAM coalition actively addressed social privilege and power within the group, which helped them rise above imbalances between documented and undocumented students and turn different legal statuses into an asset for the movement. Maintaining the coalition depended on having a space for sustained discussion and day-to-day interactions that helped participants overcome stereotypes and assumptions and reflect on their own privileges.

First Comes Love, Then Comes…Union Membership?

The decline in marriage in the United States over the past five decades is well documented. Young people marry at later ages than they used to, and many more people will never marry. This can worsen existing inequalities because more advantaged people (whites, those with higher education) are more likely to marry and gain the health and wealth benefits of marriage. Over a similar period of time, labor union membership has also declined dramatically, especially among American men. Might the decline in marriage be partially caused by the decline in union representation?

Daniel Schneider and Adam Reich decided to find out. In their article, they ask whether union membership is related to first marriage for a group of men and women who were ages 14 to 22 in 1979 and have been followed since then. They found that men in a job covered by a collective bargaining agreement were more likely to get married, but women’s odds of marriage did not differ by their labor union status. Both men and women with health insurance coverage were more likely to marry in this cohort (although that may change for future cohorts due to the Affordable Care Act).

What is it about union membership that makes men more likely to marry? Is it that union jobs tend to pay more and have better benefits now? Or is having a union job a signal of job stability and future income? Schneider and Reich argue that it is largely present job stability and benefits that make men in union jobs more likely to get married, rather than union membership as a signal of future benefits.

The decline in the availability of good jobs, especially for those without a college degree, over the past 50 years may have contributed to the decline in marriage. It has certainly contributed to increasing economic inequality. In the U.S., new union jobs may support families with two markers of stability: marriage and steady income.

Seeing Gentrification using Google Street View

Gentrification—the process by which poor, urban neighborhoods experience economic reinvestment and an influx of middle- and upper middle-class residents—has been extensively studied by sociologists. And while researchers themselves may know gentrification when they see it, providing generalizable explanations for how and why it occurs has proven far more challenging.

Enter Jackelyn Hwang and Robert J. Sampson. In their new study on urban neighborhoods in Chicago, the two elaborate on the role of perception in influencing a neighborhood’s susceptibility to gentrification. In particular, Hwang and Sampson explore why certain neighborhoods of color gentrify faster than others. Referencing research on the impact of stigma on neighborhood preferences, Hwang and Sampson hypothesize that, among other things, racialized perceptions of disorder and decay attached to predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods make those areas less prone to gentrification.

To test their hypothesis, Hwang and Sampson compare present-day Google Street View images of numerous Chicago city blocks against ground-level images from a Chicago neighborhood study conducted in 1995, looking for visual indicators of gentrification such as new and remodeled structures, beautification efforts, and fewer unkempt buildings, structures, and lots than were noted in ‘95. Though signs of gentrification were more likely to be found in neighborhoods that were predominantly non-white, neighborhoods that had a substantial portion of black and Latino residents, especially those with a black population of over 40% in 1995, were far less likely to have experienced gentrification. These findings correspond with other studies on neighborhood racial preferences that claim urban-dwelling, middle-class whites prefer diverse neighborhoods but avoid those with a high concentration of blacks or Latinos because of the racialized stigmas.

Hwang and Sampson conclude that collective presumptions of disorder regarding neighborhoods with high black and Latino populations deter a neighborhood’s susceptibility to gentrification more than actual, visible signs of disorder. As the nation discusses gentrification and its effects in the outlying ares of cities like St. Louis, MO, these findings provide important insight into the impacts of racial stigma on the creation and perpetuation of (sub)urban “ghettos.”

Praying Away Group Difference

We often think of prayer as a practice that is private, insular, and personal. But new research demonstrates that prayer can also help to break down cultural barriers and create political synergy. In a recent article in the American Sociological Review, Ruth Braunstein, Richard Wood, and Brad Fulton show how racially and socioeconomically diverse interfaith groups—groups that focus on developing members’ abilities to identify community problems and hold leaders accountable through public actions—use prayer to build the kinds of collective identities that transcend differences.

When social justice organizations mobilize in political debates, they need to build bridges  across diverse constituencies and interests. The authors show that people from diverse racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds can channel group differences into energy for social justice through their common commitment to prayer. The authors recount, for instance, how “an Italian American priest called everyone to prayer: ‘if you are Jewish, stand for Adonai. If you are Muslim, stand for Allah. If you are Christian, like me, stand for Jesus.” In another setting, a Muslim leader said a prayer in which he alternated references to Allah and to God, in order to make the prayer accessible to all in attendance while also remaining true to his own faith. Such practices, the authors argue, become “opportunities for everyone to enact their shared commitment to being open-minded people,” cementing a collective sense of purpose.

The authors also find that the more diverse an interfaith group is, the more important prayer becomes for developing collective identities. Interfaith organizations that talk about race frequently, for instance, are twice as likely to use prayer as a bridging practice than groups for which race is not an issue. The effect is even stronger when for class and economics. Groups who talk a lot about economic inequality are three times more likely to build bridges with prayer than organizations that don’t focus on class. The more difficult and controversial the issues a group wants to address, the more important collective identities become, and the more useful prayer is in creating them.

The experiences of faith-based community organizations across the country suggests that diversity can be a benefit, but only if the cultural challenges of difference can be collectively embraced and directed. This study shows how prayer, when used to emphasize the social justice values that different faiths share, can create synergy between people of very different race, class, and faith backgrounds. One wonders what other cultural practices—religious or otherwise—might have similar effects.

Race and Citizenship: The Effects of Immigrant Status on Rates of Incarceration

Racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to be incarcerated and are given longer sentences relative to majority groups. However, to what extent are non citizens punished differently than citizens? Michael Light, Michael Massoglia, and Ryan King, using federal court data from the United States Sentencing Commission, find that some of the incarceration disparity attributed to ethnicity/race is due to citizenship status.

Controlling for numerous factors, such as criminal history and offense type, the researchers find that “noncitizen offenders are over four times more likely to be incarcerated,” and that noncitizens receive roughly an additional 3.5 months of additional prison time.  Further, the effect of citizenship on incarceration is larger than other factors such as race, offense type, and gender. The researchers also find that while the odds of incarceration for both documented and undocumented immigrants are raised, it is the undocumented individuals who are at a higher odds of being imprisoned relative to documented immigrants. The effect of citizenship on incarceration has in fact increased steadily from 1992-2008, which was a time of heavy immigration into the United States.

So noncitizens are more likely to be incarcerated and for longer periods when they are indeed convicted. But why? The authors suggest a few reasons – First, legal officials often have limited time and imperfect knowledge surrounding a case, and may resort to factors such as citizenship  to aid in their decision making process. Second, less integrated groups, like immigrants, have less knowledge and power when it comes to navigating America’s social structures and are more prone to disparate treatment by institutions. Finally, the dominant group (legal citizens) may perceive minority groups (immigrants) as a threat to their superior social position, and incarceration is used as a strategy to keep immigrants in a powerless position. Overall, the research here highlights how citizenship proves to be an important factor in incarceration decisions, above and beyond the usual suspects of race and ethnicity.