Author Archives: Gwen Sharp, PhD

Tuskegee Syphilis Study Recruitment Letter

Flashback Friday.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is one of the most famous examples of unethical research. The study, funded by the federal government from 1932-1972, looked at the effects of untreated syphilis. In order to do this, a number of Black men in Alabama who had syphilis were misinformed about their illness. They were told they had “bad blood” (which was sometimes a euphemism for syphilis, though not always) and that the government was offering special free treatments for the condition. Here is an example of a letter sent out to the men to recruit them for more examinations:

The “special free treatment” was, in fact, nothing of the sort. The researchers conducted various examinations, including spinal taps, not to treat syphilis but just to see what its effects were. In fact, by the 1950s it was well established that a shot of penicillin would fully cure early-stage syphilis. Not only were the men not offered this life-saving treatment, the researchers conspired to be sure they didn’t find out about it, getting local doctors to agree that if any of the study subjects came in they wouldn’t tell them they had syphilis or that a cure was available.

The abusive nature of this study is obvious (letting men die slow deaths that could have been easily prevented, just for the sake of scientific curiosity) and shows the ways that racism can influence researchers’ evaluations of what is acceptable risk and whose lives matter. The Tuskegee experiment was a major cause for the emergence of human subjects protection requirements and oversight of federally-funded research once the study was exposed in the early 1970s. Some scholars argue that knowledge of the Tuskegee study increased African Americans’ distrust of the medical community, a suspicion that lingers to this day.

In 1997 President Clinton officially apologized for the experiment.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Becoming Wealthy: The Myth of Meritocracy

Flashback Friday. 

How do people in the U.S. become wealthy?  According to the myth of meritocracy, they do so by hard work: blood, sweat, tears, a trace of talent, and a tad bit of luck.  This is the story told in this two-page ad for U.S. Trust in The New Yorker:

On the first page we learn she’s rich, but she’s still a home-town girl at heart. On the second page, we learn a little about how she might have gotten so wealthy:

Note the first few sentences:

Who’s to say how it happened. A big idea. A gutsy work ethic. A lucky break here and there.

Well, uh…what about, “She inherited it”? That’s a pretty common way to end up with a whole bunch of houses and in need of a wealth management team.

The notion that rich people are rich because their parents are rich, however, interrupts the American mystique, the one where we are a country of self-made immigrants who pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps.  People, even people who inherited wealth, like to think that they’re rich because they worked hard.  Hence, the romanticization of the self-made millionaire in the ad and the corresponding invisibility of the inheritance loophole.

On the flipside, this narrative also supports the converse idea that the poor are poor because of their lack of personal efforts and merits.  Perhaps they didn’t have a “big idea’ or the “gutsy work ethic” that enabled them to profit from the lucky break that they inevitably encountered, right?

This ad is just one drop in the sea of propaganda that makes it seem right and normal that a small proportion of our population is able to hoard wealth and property.

This post originally appeared in 2008.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Old “Yellow Peril” Anti-Chinese Propaganda

In the late 1800s, male Chinese immigrants were brought to the U.S. to work on the railroads and as agricultural labor on the West Coast; many also specialized in laundry services. Some came willingly, others were basically kidnapped and brought forcibly.

After the transcontinental railroad was completed, it occurred to white Americans that Chinese workers no longer had jobs. They worried that the Chinese  might compete with them for work. In response, a wave of anti-Chinese (and, eventually, anti-Japanese) sentiment swept the U.S.

Chinese men were stereotyped as degenerate heroin addicts whose presence encouraged prostitution, gambling, and other immoral activities.  A number of cities on the West Coast experienced riots in which Whites attacked Asians and destroyed Chinese sections of town. Riots in Seattle in 1886 resulted in practically the entire Chinese population being rounded up and forcibly sent to San Francisco. Similar situations in other towns encouraged Chinese workers scattered throughout the West to relocate, leading to the growth of Chinatowns in a few larger cities on the West Coast.

The anti-Asian movement led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Gentlemen’s Agreement (with Japan) of 1907, both of which severely limited immigration from Asia.  Support was bolstered with propaganda.

Here is a vintage “Yellow Peril” poster. The white female victim at his feet references the fact that most Chinese in the U.S. were male–women were generally not allowed to immigrate–and this poster poses them as a threat to white women and white men’s entitlement to them:

“Why they can live on 40 cents a day…and they can’t,” this poster says, referring to the fact that white men can’t possibly compete with Chinese workers because they need to support their moral families.  The Chinese, of course, usually didn’t have families because there were almost no Chinese women in the U.S. and white women generally would not marry a Chinese man.

The following images were found at the The History Project at the University of California-Davis.

This is the cover for the song sheet “The Heathen Chinese”:

According to the History Project, this next image was accompanied by the following text:

A judge says to Miss Columbia, “You allowed that boy to come into your school, it would be inhuman to throw him out now — it will be sufficient in the future to keep his brothers out.” Note the ironing board and opium pipe carried by the Chinese. An Irish American holds up a slate with the slogan “Kick the Heathen Out; He’s Got No Vote.”

The following counter-propaganda pointed out how immigrants from other countries were now working to keep Chinese immigrants out. The bricks they’re carrying say things like “fear,” “competition,” “jealousy,” and “non-reciprocity.”

During World War II, attitudes toward the Chinese shifted as they became the “good” Asians as opposed to the “bad” Japanese. However, it wasn’t until the drastic change in immigration policy that occurred in 1965, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, that Asia (and particularly China) re-became a major sending region for immigrants to the U.S.

This post originally appeared in 2008.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Boys Will Be Boys and Moms Will Get Used to It

Flashback Friday.

Lauren R. sent in photos of a Mother’s Day card she saw. She says that many of the cards were separated into those from sons or daughters, though the cards didn’t explicitly state that — whether it was from a son or daughter was instead indicated by the images or content of the text.

The particular card that drew her attention was labeled “mom from son funny” and says “Mom, for Mother’s Day I got you a card that’ll remind you of me…”:

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The card then opens on the opposite side you’d expect a card to and inside, on the left instead of the right side, it says, “It doesn’t do what it’s supposed to!”:

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It’s a great example of the construction of boys as naughty. Boys break rules, boys don’t do what they’re told…and even though they may get in trouble for this, boys also often get the message that parents also find it somewhat cute, or at least to be expected — boys will be boys, after all. Acting up sometimes is just what they do, and it’s a sign of their boyish spirit.

It’s hard to imagine a similar card designed to be from a girl. We don’t have similar beliefs that “girls will be girls,” and that you just have to expect that they’ll misbehave sometimes. It’s not that parents don’t know that girls fail to do what they’re told. But it doesn’t fit into cultural notions that girls just can’t help it, or that we should find it somewhat endearing even when we’re frustrated by their behavior. So when girls misbehave, adults generally interpret it as an individual choice on their part, rather than due to their sex (and, thus, not entirely under their control).

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Hermaphroditic Civil War Horse Statue Links Heroism to Maleness

Flashback Friday.

This is a picture of a statue in Lexington, KY, in honor of Civil War general John H. Morgan. It depicts him on his favorite horse, Black Bess. The inscription is “Gen. John H. Morgan and His Bess.”

Here’s what’s interesting about this: Bess, as you might guess, was a mare — a female horse.  The statue, however, has testicles. You can see them in the picture below. The sculptor gave Bess testicles because he considered a mare an unworthy mount for a general — despite the fact that Morgan himself seemed to think she was just fine.

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I found out about this in Lies Across America: What Our Historical Sites Get Wrong by James W. Loewen.  Images borrowed from here and here. This post originally appeared in 2007.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

What Happens to Olympics Infrastructure?

Before the Olympics, we often hear a fair amount about the preparations for the games — how much is being spent, the facilities being built, whether the city will have everything ready in time. But once the Olympics end, we hear very little about what happens to the infrastructure that millions or billions of dollars were spent on.

John Pack and Gary Hustwit’s The Olympic City project documents the life of Olympic infrastructure once all the spectators pack up and go home. As they explain,

Some former Olympic sites are retrofitted and used in ways that belie their grand beginnings; turned into prisons, housing, malls, gyms, churches. Others sit unused for decades and become tragic time capsules, examples of misguided planning and broken promises of the benefits that the Games would bring.

Flavorwire published some of their photos, mostly of sites that have been left to decay, leaving a long-term mark on the landscape of the locations that host the games. Here are just a few of their haunting images posted at Flavorwire.

Beach Volleyball Stadium from 2008 Beijing Olympics:

Ski Jump from 1984 Olympics, Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina:

Train station built for 1972 Olympics, Munich:

Swimming pool at Lake Ahvenisto, Finland, from 1952:

This post originally appeared in 2011.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Shifting Discourses of Motherhood: The Victorian Breastfeeding Photo Fad

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

Last year Lynne Grumet set the internet a-flutter when she appeared on the cover of TIME magazine breastfeeding her toddler. Reactions were largely negative, often reflecting unease at the open display of a sexualized body part being used to feed a child older than the age we generally find acceptable. Others objected to what they saw as the sensationalism of the photo. Grumet later posed on the cover of another magazine in a pose that focused on bonding and intimacy, commonly cited as benefits by breastfeeding advocates. The entire episode tapped into larger cultural anxieties about appropriate mothering.

And as Jill Lepore explains in The Mansion of Happiness, it’s just the latest round in the changing discourse about breastfeeding; in the mid-1800s, images of breastfeeding mothers became a fad in the U.S. The use of wet nurses had never been as common in the U.S. as in Europe, and it became even less popular by the early 1800s; breastfeeding your own child became a central measure of your worth as a mother.  Cultural constructions of femininity became highly centered on motherhood and the special bond between a mother and her children in the Victorian era.

As daguerreotypes became available, women began to pose breastfeeding their infants, capturing them in this most essential of maternal roles:

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Cosetra has created a Pinterest board of vintage photos and paintings of breastfeeding that has more examples.

Within decades, American women suddenly seemed to lose the ability to adequately feed their babies, just as infant formula hit the market. Doctors continued to push breastfeeding, but cultural perceptions changed, and with them the social construction of femininity. Rather than being a symbol of maternalism, breastfeeding seemed incompatible with femininity — or, specifically, with white upper-class femininity. Breastfeeding didn’t mesh well with ideas of delicate, refined white women; it was too animal-like, too uncivilized. As Lepore relates, by the early 1900s, a study in Boston found that 9 out of 10 poor mothers breastfed, but only 17% of wealthy mothers did.

By the 1950s, only 20% of mothers nursed their children. Then, ideas about motherhood changed once again; suddenly comparatively privileged, white women were drawn to movements that advocated breastfeeding. Formula came under increased scrutiny. And so continued the ongoing cultural debate over breastfeeding, motherhood, and proper femininity.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.  Sources: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University (direct link to daguerreotypes here); Marvelous Kiddoliveauctioneers.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Inequality in the U.S.: So Much Worse than We Think

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Earlier this week, Marty posted about the increasingly huge share of income going to the richest Americans. And as we’ve seen in the past, Americans tend to way — way — underestimate how unequal the U.S. is.

This video (via Upworthy) does a great job illustrating the distribution of wealth, and how it compares to Americans’ perceptions of both the real and ideal distribution. Even if you know all this stuff, and can recite the statistics, the visual representation of exactly what that means is still jarring.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.