Flashback Friday.

Social and biological scientists agree that race and ethnicity are social constructions, not biological categories.  The US government, nonetheless, has an official position on what categories are “real.”  You can find them on the Census (source):


These categories, however real they may seem, are actually the product of a long process. Over time, the official US racial categories have changed in response to politics, economics, conflict, and more. Here’s some highlights.

In the year of the first Census, 1790, the race question looked very different than it does today:

Free white males
Free white females
All other free persons (included Native Americans who paid taxes and free blacks)
And slaves

By 1870 slavery is illegal and the government was newly concerned with keeping track of two new kinds of people: “mulattos” (or people with both black and white ancestors) and Indians:

Indian (Native Americans)

Between 1850 and 1870 6.5 million Europeans had immigrated and 60,000 Chinese.  Chinese and Japanese were added for the 1880 Census.

By 1890, the U.S. government with obsessed with race-mixing.  The race question looked like this:

Black (3/4th or more “black blood”)
Mulatto (3/8th to 5/8th “black blood”)
Quadroons (1/4th “black blood”)
Octoroons (1/8th or any trace of “black blood”)

This year was the only year to include such fine-tuned mixed-race categories, however, because it turned out it wasn’t easy to figure out how to categorize people.

In the next 50 years, the government added and deleted racial categories. There were 10 in 1930 (including “Mexican” and “Hindu”) and 11 in 1940 (introducing “Hawaiian” and “Part Hawaiian”).  In 1970, they added the “origin of descent” question that we still see today.  So people are first asked whether they are “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish” and then asked to choose a race.

You might immediately think, “But what do these words even mean?”  And you’d be right to ask.  “Spanish” refers to Spain; “Latino” refers to Latin America; and “Hispanic” is a totally made up word that was originally designed to mean “people who speak Spanish.”

Part of the reason we have the “Hispanic” ethnicity question is because Mexican Americans fought for it.  They thought it would be advantageous to be categorized as “white” and, so, they fought for an ethnicity category instead of a racial one.

Funny story:  The US once included “South American” as a category in the “origin of descent” question.  That year, over a million residents southern U.S. states, like Alabama and Mississippi checked that box.

2000 was the first year that respondents were allowed to choose more than one race. They considered a couple other changes for that year, but decided against them. Native Hawaiians had been agitating to be considered Native Americans in order to get access to the rights and resources that the US government has promised Native Americans on the mainland. The government considered it for 2000, but decided “no.” And whether or not Arab American should be considered a unique race or an ethnicity was also discussed for that year. They decided to continue to instruct such individuals to choose “white.”

The changing categories in the Census show us that racial and ethnic categories are political categories. They are chosen by government officials who are responding not to biological realities, but to immigration, war, prejudice, and social movements.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

On September 2, the photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish beach circulated internationally on social media. Amid discussions of whether or not it was ethical to post, tweet, and share such a heart-wrenching image, The New York Times rightly noted that the powerful image has spurred international public attention to a crisis that has been ongoing for years. As Anne Barnard and Karam Shoumali said:

“Once again, it is not the sheer size of the catastrophe—millions upon millions forced by war and desperation to leave their homes—but a single tragedy that has clarified the moment.”

The conflict in Syria has lasted almost five years now. With more than half the population forced to leave, the United Nations reported that the Syrian conflict now represents the largest displacement crisis in the world. Over 12 million people require some form of humanitarian assistance. And almost half of those displaced are children. Like Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation that sparked Arab Spring (and, coincidentally, the current civil war in Syria), the image of Aylan, too, has the capacity to change the world. Bouazizi was not the first person to set himself alight in protest, just as Aylan was not the first child to wash ashore on Mediterranean beaches.

Indeed, those who have been following the refugee crisis over the past four years have viewed countless tragic images. But there is — for the moment, at least — something significant about this particular photograph. It could be because the image is deceptively peaceful, failing to reflect the violence that pushed his parents to flee or the family’s terrifying experience at sea that ultimately led to the deaths of Aylan, his brother Galip, and their mother Rehan. It may also be because of his clothing: red shirt, blue shorts, and Velcro sneakers. He could be anyone’s son, brother, nephew.

Aylan’s image has galvanized attention from around the world, especially the West. The public’s concern and outrage after the photo circulated on social media has already had a significant impact on the refugee crisis. This single tragedy has become the symbol of the refugee crisis in the Middle East. The image and subsequent public outcry has led to an increase in charitable donations, impacted election campaigns, and prompted the public to demand more of their governments, resulting in Western nations around the world pledging to increase the number of refugees they will take.

Although it is unfortunate that it takes something as tragic as the body of a boy lying alone on a beach to solidify public resolve, it is also an important reminder that we are, as Goffman suggested, “dangerous giants.” We have the capacity to enact change on a level that is difficult to imagine as an individual.

The graph below shows Twitter activity both before and after the photo of Aylan went viral. Tweet volume about Syria has more than doubled since the world was shown the image.  Tweets welcoming refugees from the region showed and even larger increase. And, although tweets with Aylan’s name appear to have been short-lived, perhaps the international attention they produced can be harnessed as people are forced to learn more about why this tragedy occurred and pledge support.

When we georeference and map tweets containing the hashtags #RefugeesWelcome and #AylanKurdi, we can also see how this unfolded around the world. Twitter is a crude measure of impact.  Yet, just as Barnard and Shoumali suggested, a single tragedy amidst a conflict that has led to the deaths of so many seems to have helped to capture the attention of the world. See the snapshot of Twitter activity around the world using the hashtags #AylanKurdi (green) and #RefugeesWelcome (blue) two days after the photograph went viral (below):

So, can an image of a child change the world? Typically, no. But, a powerful image under the right conditions might have an impact no one could have predicted.

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

Tara Leigh Tober and Tristan Bridges are sociologists at the College at Brockport (SUNY). You can follow them on at @tristanbphd and @tobertara.

The Americans with Disabilities Act turned 25 years old last month. It was enacted by U.S. Congress with the goal of ensuring that people with disabilities had access to “reasonable accommodations” so that they could participate wholly in public life.

Did it work? Consider the New York City subway. SupraStructure featured these two maps. The one on the left is the NYC subway map of the 490 stations in the system; on the right is the accessible subway map, including only the 100 or so accessible stops:


“Essentially the NYC subway system is useless if you use a wheelchair,” writes Bad Cripple about the map. He continues:

Access to mass transportation for a person such as myself that uses a wheelchair is routinely difficult in the extreme. … Wheelchair lifts on buses are somehow broken or the drivers refuse to use the lift often claiming ignorance. Accessible taxis are as rare as diamonds in many cities. Subways in the vast majority of cities are grossly inaccessible. Rental car companies often do not have the car with hand controls rented weeks or days in advance. Shuttle buses at airports are not always accessible. Hotel shuttle buses are also typically not accessible.

He adds that discount travel is “pure folly” and that newer options like AirBnB and Uber seem to have no interest in accommodating people with disabilities. Not to mention the many places he travels that have broken lifts, elevators, and strangely non-accessible “accessible” accommodations.

As with much civil rights legislation, passing the ADA was just the first step in gaining equality. People have often had to sue piecemeal to get accessibility. A person identifies a restaurant without accessible bathrooms, for example, and begins legal proceedings to force the business to comply.  Slowly, little by little — thanks to lawsuits, building codes, and other means — the world is becoming more accessible, though not nearly as quickly as people with disabilities need it to.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

2Killing at the hands of an illegal alien spurs furious debate about closing borders and deporting the undocumented. It is the year before a presidential election and candidates denounce undocumented immigrants as the conveyors of Mexican violence into our country.

When Robert J. Sampson, Harvard sociologist and criminologist, wrote about this news, he was not writing about the death of young Kate Steinle in San Francisco in 2015, but about murders in New Jersey in 2007. And he wrote to say that his research and that of others showed that immigrants are less likely than the native-born to commit murder and “that immigration — even if illegal — is associated with lower crime rates….” He had previously made similar claims in The New York Times and had gotten vituperation in response.

Popular skepticism toward Sampson might be expected given the media coverage of sensational crimes like the one on Pier 14 and of Mexico’s drug wars. But behind the headlines, the daily reality on the streets of the U.S. seems to be that immigrants bring less crime. Indeed, scholars like Sampson have suggested that the surge of Latino immigration, documented and not, may partly explain the great drop in violent crime in American cities since the 1980s.

Now, two presidential cycles since the Sampson article, we have new studies and more technically sophisticated ones on the topic. What do they say about the effects of immigration on crime and violence?

Immigration does not increase crime

The research I reviewed – several recent articles (see bibliography here) – is pretty consistent: Immigrants and concentrations of immigrants are associated with lower rates of crime and homicide. To be more cautious: at minimum, there is no connection between immigration and higher rates of crime.

Studies of individuals show that, as two experts summarize, “immigrants are less, not more, crime prone than their native-born counterparts.” Second- and third-generation immigrants start to look more like many-generation Americans in criminality (much as they do in other ways, such as diet and health behaviors). One study suggests that for adolescents the “protective” effect against criminality of being an immigrant may wear off after four years. But newcomers are notably less likely to commit crime than otherwise similar American-born youth.

Neighborhoods with many immigrants are not higher in crime

Many new studies compare neighborhoods, cities, or counties to assess the relationship between local concentrations of immigrants (or of Latinos) and rates of crime or violence. The general conclusion is that the higher these concentrations in a community, the lower the rates. A couple of studies find that the connection depends on the local context. In more impoverished neighborhoods or in cities with historically larger numbers of immigrants or with immigrant political power, additional immigration seems to push crime down yet more.

Complex statistical work suggests that this correlation reflects a causal connection: more immigrants arrive and violent crime fades. Why would that be so?

Sampson and others suggest that Latino immigrants have stronger families and community institutions, such as churches, than do the native-born. These provide more social control over youth. Researchers also propose that immigration has helped economically revitalize many U.S. cities and driven down crime that way, too.

Whatever the explanation, the general pattern is the reverse of the heated rhetoric: Overall, immigration goes with less criminal violence.

Claude Fischer is a sociologist at UC Berkeley and is the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. This post originally appeared at his blog, Made in America, and was re-posted on the Berkeley Blog.

When one thinks of American Chinatowns, they usually think of San Francisco and New York, but at one time the third largest Chinatown in the U.S. was in Louisiana. It’s story is an example of how economics and geopolitics shape the growth of ethnic enclaves.

After the American Civil War ended legalized slavery in the U.S., Southern planters faced the challenge of finding labor to work their crops. It was common to employ the same black men and women who had been enslaved, now as sharecroppers or wage laborers, but the planters were interested in other sources of labor as well.

At nola.com, Richard Campanella describes how some planters in Louisiana turned to Chinese laborers. Ultimately, they hired about 1,600 Chinese people, recruited directly from China and also from California.

This would be a doomed experiment. The Chinese workers demanded better working conditions and pay then the Louisiana planters wanted to give. There was a general stalemate and many of the Chinese workers migrated to the city.

By 1871, there was a small, bustling Chinatown just outside of the French quarter and, by the late 1930s, two blocks of Bourbon St. were dominated by Chinese businesses: import shops, laundries, restaurants, narcotics, and cigar stores (some of the migrants had come to the U.S. via Cuba). Campanella quotes the New Orleans Bee:

A year ago we had no Chinese among us, we now see them everywhere… This looks, indeed, like business.

Big Gee and Lee Sing, New Orleans 1937 (photo courtesy of nola.com):


Other residents, it seemed, welcomed the way the Chinese added color and texture to the city. Campanella writes that “New Orleanians of all backgrounds also patronized Chinatown.” Louis Armstrong, who was born in 1901, talked of going “down in China Town [and] hav[ing] a Chinese meal for a change.” Jelly Roll Morton mentioned dropping by to pick up drugs for the sex workers employed in the nearby red light district.

A strip club now inhabits the old Chinese laundry; none of the original Chinatown businesses remain. But it held on a long time, with a few businesses lasting until the 1990s. All that’s left today is a hand-painted sign for the On Leong Merchants Association at 530 1/2 Bourbon St.


For more, get Richard Campanella’s book, Geographies of New Orleans.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

14By Tom Gauld.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

At Everyday Sociology, sociologist Karen Sternheimer made a nice observation about the problem of teen drinking. It’s not our biggest alcohol problem.

According to the CDC, the age group most likely to die from binge drinking is people 35-64 years old. In fact, three out of every four alcohol poisoning deaths are in this age group — 4.5 out of a total of 6 a day — and 76% of them are men, especially ones who earn over $70,000 a year.777

So why all the PSAs aimed at teens?

Sternheimer argues that the focus on teens has to do with who what groups are identified as problematic populations. In the 1800s and early 1900s, she points out, laws were passed in several states making it illegal for African Americans and Native Americans to drink alcohol. Immigrants were also targeted.

Young people weren’t targeted until the student rebellions of the 1960s and ’70s. Like the “protest psychosis” attributed to black Civil Rights activists, the anti-establishment activism of young people was partly blamed on drug and alcohol use.

Today, she observes, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism focuses its attention on young people, minorities, women, and people with HIV.

It’s about power. She writes:

White, middle-class men over thirty typically have more social power than the groups commonly targeted as problems. They also vote, and no sane politician is going to campaign warning of the danger some of these men cause and how we can control them.

Not to mention, she says, how the alcohol industry would feel about the government telling their richest customers to curb their drinking. They much prefer that PSAs focus on young people. “This industry can well afford the much-touted ‘We Card’ programs,” says Sternheimer, “because teens usually don’t have the money for the expensive stuff that their parents can buy.”

The industry’s marketing to wealthy, white men, then, goes unchecked.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

If you are worried about the abuse and exploitation of non-human animals, you can become a vegetarian or a vegan. But if you worry about the abuse and exploitation of humans, there is no morally upright consumer choice you can make, short of growing 100% of your food yourself.

This is the main message of journalist Eric Schlosser in this 4min video produced by BigThink. In it, he summarizes the extent of the exploitation of poor people, mostly immigrants, in the restaurant industry, the meatpacking industry, and the production of fresh fruits and vegetables in the U.S.

Especially for the people who pick our produce, he insists, the working conditions “are more reminiscent of the mid-nineteenth century than they are with the twenty-first century.” It is “literally slavery.”

Watch here:

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.