Earlier this year a CBS commentator in a panel with Jay Smooth embarrassingly revealed that she thought he was white (Smooth’s father is black) and this week the internet learned that Rachel Dolezal was white all along (both parents identify as white). The CBS commentator’s mistake and Dolezal’s ability to pass both speak to the strange way we’ve socially constructed blackness in this country.

The truth is that African Americans are essentially all mixed race. From the beginning, enslaved and other Africans had close relationships with poor and indentured servant whites, that’s one reason why so many black people have Irish last names. During slavery, sexual relationships between enslavers and the enslaved, occurring on a range of coercive levels, were routine. Children born to enslaved women from these encounters were identified as “black.” The one-drop rule — you are black if you have one drop of black blood — was an economic tool used to protect the institution of racialized slavery (by preserving the distinction between two increasingly indistinct racial groups) and enrich the individual enslaver (by producing another human being he could own). Those enslaved children grew up and had children with other enslaved people as well as other whites.

In addition to these, of course, voluntary relationships between free black people and white people were occurring all these years as well and they have been happening ever since, both before and after they became legal. And the descendants of those couplings have been having babies all these years, too.

We’re talking about 500 years of mixing between blacks, whites, Native Americans (who gave refuge to escaped slaves), and every other group in America. The continued assumption, then, that a black person is “black” and only “mixed race” if they claim the label reflects the ongoing power of the one-drop rule. It also explains why people with such dramatically varying phenotypes can all be considered black. Consider the image below, a collage of people interviewed and photographed for the (1)ne Drop project; Jay Smooth is in the guy at the bottom left.

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My point is simply that of course Jay Smooth is sometimes mistaken for white and it should be no surprise to learn that it’s easy for a white person — even one with blond hair and green eyes — to pass as black (in fact, it’s a pastime). The racial category is a mixed race one and, more importantly, it’s more social than biological. Structural disadvantage, racism, and colorism are real. The rich cultural forms that people who identify as black have given to America are real. The loving communities people who identify as black create are real. But blackness isn’t, never was, and is now less than ever before.

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.

Lots of time and care consideration goes into the production of new superheroes and the revision of time-honored heroes. Subtle features of outfits aren’t changed by accident and don’t go unnoticed. Skin color also merits careful consideration to ensure that the racial depiction of characters is consistent with their back stories alongside other considerations. A colleague of mine recently shared an interesting analysis of racial depictions by a comic artist, Ronald Wimberly—“Lighten Up.”

“Lighten Up” is a cartoon essay that addresses some of the issues Wimberly struggled with in drawing for a major comic book publisher. NPR ran a story on the essay as well. In short, Wimberly was asked by his editor to “lighten” a characters’ skin tone — a character who is supposed to have a Mexican father and an African American mother.  The essay is about Wimberly’s struggle with the request and his attempt to make sense of how the potentially innocuous-seeming request might be connected with racial inequality.

In the panel of the cartoon reproduced here, you can see Wimberly’s original color swatch for the character alongside the swatch he was instructed to use for the character.

Digitally, colors are handled by what computer programmers refer to as hexadecimal IDs. Every color has a hexademical “color code.” It’s an alphanumeric string of 6 letters and/or numbers preceded by the pound symbol (#).  For example, computers are able to understand the color white with the color code #FFFFFF and the color black with #000000. Hexadecimal IDs are based on binary digits—they’re basically a way of turning colors into code so that computers can understand them. Artists might tell you that there are an infinite number of possibilities for different colors. But on a computer, color combinations are not infinite: there are exactly 16,777,216 possible color combinations. Hexadecimal IDs are an interesting bit of data and I’m not familiar with many social scientists making use of them (but see).

There’s probably more than one way of using color codes as data. But one thought I had was that they could be an interesting way of identifying racialized depictions of comic book characters in a reproducible manner—borrowing from Wimberly’s idea in “Lighten Up.” Some questions might be:

  • Are white characters depicted with the same hexadecimal variation as non-white characters?
  • Or, are women depicted with more or less hexadecimal variation than men?
  • Perhaps white characters are more likely to be depicted in more dramatic and dynamic lighting, causing their skin to be depicted with more variation than non-white characters.

If any of this is true, it might also make an interesting data-based argument to suggest that white characters are featured in more dynamic ways in comic books than are non-white characters. The same could be true of men compared with women.

Just to give this a try, I downloaded a free eye-dropper plug-in that identifies hexadecimal IDs. I used the top 16 images in a Google Image search for Batman (white man), Amazing-man (black man), and Wonder Woman (white woman). Because many images alter skin tone with shadows and light, I tried to use the eye-dropper to select the pixel that appeared most representative of the skin tone of the face of each character depicted.

Here are the images for Batman with a clean swatch of the hexadecimal IDs for the skin tone associated with each image below:

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Below are the images for Amazing-man with swatches of the skin tone color codes beneath:


Finally, here are the images for Wonder Woman with pure samples of the color codes associated with her skin tone for each image below:


Now, perhaps it was unfair to use Batman as a comparison as his character is more often depicted at night than is Wonder Woman—a fact which might mean he is more often depicted in dynamic lighting than she is. But it’s an interesting thought experiment.  Based on this sample, two things that seem immediately apparent:

  • Amazing-man is depicted much darker when his character is drawn angry.
  • And Wonder Woman exhibits the least color variation of the three.

Whether this is representative is beyond the scope of the post.  But, it’s an interesting question.  While we know that there are dramatically fewer women in comic books than men, inequality is not only a matter of numbers.  Portrayal matters a great deal as well, and color codes might be one way of considering getting at this issue in a new and systematic way.

While the hexadecimal ID of an individual pixel of an image is an objective measure of color, it’s also true that color is in the eye of the beholder and we perceive colors differently when they are situated alongside different colors. So, obviously, color alone tells us little about individual perception, and even less about the social and cultural meaning systems tied to different hexadecimal hues. Yet, as Wimberly writes,

In art, this is very important. Art is where associations are made. Art is where we form the narratives of our identity.

Beyond this, art is a powerful cultural arena in which we form narratives about the identities of others.

At any rate, it’s an interesting idea. And I hope someone smarter than me does something with it (or tells me that it’s already been done and I simply wasn’t aware).

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections and Inequality by Interior Design. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard. H/t to Andrea Herrera.

Tristan Bridges is a sociologist of gender and sexuality at the College at Brockport (SUNY).  Dr. Bridges blogs about some of this research and more at Inequality by (Interior) Design.  You can follow him on twitter @tristanbphd.

On average, white and black Americans have different ideas as to what’s behind the recent unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll of 508 adults found that nearly two-thirds of African Americans felt that the unrest reflected “long-standing frustrations about police mistreatment of African Americans,” compared to less than one-third of whites.

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In contrast, among whites, 58% believed that African Americans were just looking for an “excuse to engage in looting and violence.” A quarter of black respondents thought the same.

Though they may see it differently, almost everyone expects the uprising to reach more cities over the summer.

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

Black people in the U.S. vote overwhelmingly Democratic. They also have, compared to Whites, much higher rates of infant mortality and lower life expectancy. Since dead people have lower rates of voting, that higher mortality rate might affect who gets elected. What would happen if Blacks and Whites had equal rates of staying alive?


The above figure is from the recent paper, “Black lives matter: Differential mortality and the racial composition of the U.S. electorate, 1970-2004,” by Javier Rodriguez, Arline Geronimus, John Bound and Danny Dorling.  A summary by Dean Robinson at the The Monkey Cage summarizes the key finding.

between 1970 and 2004, Democrats would have won seven Senate elections and 11 gubernatorial elections were it not for excess mortality among blacks.

At Scatterplot, Dan Hirschman and others have raised some questions about the assumptions in the model. But more important than the methodological difficulties are the political and moral implications of this finding. The Monkey Cage account puts it this way:

given the differences between blacks and whites in their political agendas and policy views, excess black death rates weaken overall support for policies — such as antipoverty programs, public education and job training — that affect the social status (and, therefore, health status) of blacks and many non-blacks, too.

In other words, Black people being longer-lived and less poor would be antithetical to the policy preferences of Republicans. The unspoken suggestion is that Republicans know this and will oppose programs that increase Black health and decrease Black poverty in part for the same reasons that they have favored incarceration and permanent disenfranchisement of people convicted of felonies.

That’s a bit extreme.  More stringent requirements for registration and felon disenfranchisement are, like the poll taxes of an earlier era, directly aimed at making it harder for poor and Black people to vote.  But Republican opposition to policies that would  increase the health and well-being of Black people is probably not motivated by a desire for high rates of Black mortality and thus fewer Black voters. After all, Republicans also generally oppose abortion. But, purely in electoral terms, reducing mortality, like reducing incarceration, would not be good for Republicans.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

African Americans are less healthy than their white counterparts. There are lots of causes for this: food deserts, lack of access to healthcare, an absence of recreational opportunities in low income neighborhoods, and more. Arguably, these are indirect effects of racist individuals and institutions, leading to the disinvestment in predominantly black neighborhoods and the economic disempowerment of black people.

This post, though, is about a direct relationship between racism and health mediated by stress. Experiencing discrimination has been shown to have both acute and long-term effects on the body. Being discriminated against changes the biometrics that indicate stress and personal reports of stress (anxiety, depression, and anger). Bad health outcomes are the result.

A new study, published in PLOS One, adds another layer to the accumulating evidence. To get a strong measure of “area racism” — the prevalence of racist beliefs in a specific geographic area — epidemiologist David Chae and his colleagues counted how often internet users searched for the “n-word” on Google (ending in -er or -ers, but not -a or -as). This, they argued, is a good measure of the likelihood that an African American will experience discrimination. Here are their findings for area racism:


They then measured the rate at which black people over 25 in those areas die and the death rate from the four most common causes of death for that population: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. They also included a series of control variables to attempt to isolate the predictive power of area racism.

The resulting data offer support for the idea that area racism increases mortality among African Americans. Chae and his colleagues summarize, saying that areas in which Google searches for the n-word are one standard deviation above the mean have an 8.2% increase in mortality among Blacks. The searches were related, also, to an increase in the rates of cancer, heart disease, and stroke. “This,” they explain, “amounts to over 30,000 [early] deaths among Blacks annually nationwide.”

When they controlled for area level demographics and socioeconomic variables, the magnitude of the effect dropped from 8.2% to 5.7%. But these factors, they argued, “are also influenced by racial prejudice and discrimination and therefore could be on the causal pathway.” In other words, it’s not NOT racism that’s making up that 2.5% difference.

Directly and indirectly, racism kills.

H/t to Philip Cohen for the link. 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.

Sociologists are quite familiar with the combination of marginalized identities that can lead to oppression, inequalities, and “double disadvantages.” But can negative stereotypes actually have positive consequences?

Financial Juneteenth recently highlighted a study showing that gay black men may have better odds of landing a job and higher salaries than their straight, black, male colleagues. Led by sociologist David Pedulla, the data comes from resumes and a job description evaluated by 231 white individuals selected in a national probability sample. The experiment asked them to suggest starting salaries for the position and answer questions about the fictional prospective employee. To suggest race and sexual orientation, resumes included typically raced names (either “Brad Miller” and “Darnell Jackson”) and listed participation in “Gay Student Advisory Council” half the time.

Pedulla found that straight Black men were more likely to be perceived as threatening, measured with answers as to whether the respondent thought the applicant was likely to “break workplace rules,” make “female co-workers feel uncomfortable,’’ or “steal from the workplace.” In contrast, gay Black men were considered by far the least threatening. Gay black men were also judged to be the most feminine, followed by gay white men.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the combination of being gay, Black, and male attracted the highest salaries. Gay Black men were considered the most valuable employee overall. Straight white men were offered slightly lower salaries and gay white men and straight black men were offered lowered salaries still.


Pedulla’s findings have sparked a conversation among scholars and journalists about the complexity of stereotypes surrounding black masculinities and sexualities. Organizational behavior researcher and Huffington Post contributor Jon Fitzgerald Gates also weighed in on the findings, arguing that the effeminate stereotypes of homosexuality may be counteracting the traditional stereotypes of a dangerous and threatening black heterosexual masculinity.

Cross-posted at Citings and Sightings.

Caty Taborda is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Minnesota, where she’s on the Grad Editorial Board for The Society Pages. Her research concerns the intersection of gender, race, health, and the body. You can follow her on twitter.

In the working and middle class neighborhoods of many Southern cities, you fill find rows of “shotgun” houses. These houses are long and narrow, consisting of three or more rooms in a row. Originally, there would have been no indoor plumbing — they date back to the early 1800s in the U.S. — and, so, no bathroom or kitchen.

Here’s a photograph of a shotgun house I took in the 7th ward of New Orleans. It gives you an idea of just how skinny they are.


In a traditional shotgun house, there are no hallways, just doors that take a person from one room to the next. Here’s my rendition of a shotgun floor plan; doors are usually all in a row:


At nola.com, Richard Campanella describes the possible origins and sociological significance of this housing form. He follows folklorist John Michael Vlach, who has argued that shotgun houses are indigenous to Western and Central Africa, arriving in the American South via Haiti. Campella writes:

Vlach hypothesizes that the 1809 exodus of Haitians to New Orleans after the St. Domingue slave insurrection of 1791 to 1803 brought this vernacular house type to the banks of the Mississippi.

In New Orleans, shotgun houses are found in the parts of town originally settled by free people of color, people who would have identified as Creole, and a variety of immigrants. Outside of New Orleans, we tend to see shotgun houses in places with large black populations.

The house, though, doesn’t just represent a building technique, it tells a story about how families were expected to interact. Shotgun houses offer essentially zero privacy. Everyone has to tromp through everyone’s room to get around the house. There’s no expectation that a child won’t just walk into their parents’ room at literally any time, or vice versa. There’s no way around it.

“According to some theories,” then, Campanella says:

…cultures that produced shotgun houses… tended to be more gregarious, or at least unwilling to sacrifice valuable living space for the purpose of occasional passage.

Cultures that valued privacy, on the other hand, were willing to make this trade-off.

Sure enough, in the part of New Orleans settled by people of Anglo-Saxon descent, shotgun houses are much less common and, instead, homes are more “privacy-conscious.”

Over time, as even New Orleans became more and more culturally Anglo-Saxon — and as the housing form increasingly became associated with poverty — shotguns fell out of favor.  They’re enjoying a renaissance today but, as Campanella notes, many renovations of these historic buildings include a fancy, new hallway.

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

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

Studies of Americans’ unconscious beliefs shows that most people — white and black — think black people are dangerous and both average folks and police are quicker to shoot black than white people.

Where does the cognitive belief that black people are dangerous come from?

Partly, it comes from the media. A new study by Color of Change found that, while 51% of the people arrested for violent crime in New York City are black, 75% of the news reports about such arrests highlighted black alleged perpetrators.


Meanwhile, when people of color are arrested, they are more likely to be portrayed in ways that make them seem threatening than white people. This happened this week:


See also, portrayals of Mark Duggan and Mike Brown.

Each time we see a black person on TV who is linked with a violent crime or portrayed as a criminal, the neurons in our brain that link blackness with criminality fire. The same for people of other races. The more often a link is triggered, the stronger it becomes. Disproportionate reporting like the kind captured in this study make the neural links in our brain — it’s actual physical structure — reflect the racism inherent in the reporting itself.

These associations, unfortunately, are pre-conscious. Those neurons fire faster than we can suppress them with our conscious mind. So, even if we believe in our heart-of-hearts that these connections are unfair or untrue, our unconscious is busy making the associations anyway. Biased reporting, in other words, changes the minds of viewers, literally.

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