This video was making the rounds last spring. The video maker wants to make two points:

1. Cops are racist. They are respectful of the White guy carrying the AR-15. The Black guy gets less comfortable treatment.

2. The police treatment of the White guy is the proper way for police to deal with someone carrying an assault rifle.

I had two somewhat different reactions.

1. This video was made in Oregon. Under Oregon’s open-carry law, what both the White and Black guy are doing is perfectly legal. And when the White guy refuses to provide ID, that’s legal too. If this had happened in Roseburg, and the carrier had been strolling to Umpqua Community College, there was nothing the police could have legally done, other than what is shown in the video, until the guy walked onto campus, opened fire, and started killing people.

2.  Guns are dangerous, and the police know it. In the second video, the cop assumes that the person carrying an AR-15 is potentially dangerous – very dangerous. The officer’s fear is palpable. He prefers to err on the side of caution – the false positive of thinking someone is dangerous when he is really OK.  The false negative – assuming an armed person is harmless when he is in fact dangerous – could well be the last mistake a cop ever makes.

But the default setting for gun laws in the US is just the opposite – better a false negative. This is especially true in Oregon and states with similar gun laws. These laws assume that people with guns are harmless. In fact, they assume that all people, with a few exceptions, are harmless. Let them buy and carry as much weaponry and ammunition as they like.

Most of the time, that assumption is valid. Most gun owners, at least those who got their guns legitimately, are responsible people. The trouble is that the cost of the rare false negative is very, very high. Lawmakers in these states and in Congress are saying in effect that they are willing to pay that price. Or rather, they are willing to have other people – the students at Umpqua, or Newtown, or Santa Monica, or scores of other places, and their parents – pay that price.

Originally 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.

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.

In the 6-minute video below, Stanford sociologist Aliya Saperstein discusses her research showing that the perception of other peoples’ race is shaped by what we know about them. She uses data collected through a series of in-person interviews in which interviewers sit down with respondents several times over many years, learn about what’s happened and, among other things, make a judgment call as to their race. You may be surprised how often racial designations. In one of her samples, 20% of respondents were inconsistently identified, meaning that they were given different racial classifications by different interviewers at least once.

Saperstein found that a person judged as white in an early interview was more likely to be marked as black in a later interview if they experienced a life event that is stereotypically associated with blackness, like imprisonment or unemployment.

She and some colleagues also did an experiment, asking subjects to indicate whether people with black, white, and ambiguous faces dressed in a suit or a blue work shirt were white or black. Tracing their mouse paths, it was clear that the same face in a suit was more easily categorized as white than the one in a work shirt.


Race is a social construction, not just in the sense that we made it up, but in that it’s flexible and dependent on status as well as phenotype.

She finishes with the observation that, while phenotype definitely impacts a person’s life chances, we also need to be aware that differences in education, income, and imprisonment reflect not only bias against phenotype, but the fact that success begets whiteness. And vice versa.

Watch the whole thing here:

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

From an angry tweet to an actual change.

On September 1st I objected to the description of the Disney movie Pocahontas at Netflix. It read:

An American Indian woman is supposed to marry the village’s best warrior, but she years for something more — and soon meets Capt. John Smith.


I argued that, among other very serious problems with the film itself, this description reads like a porn flick or a bad romance novel. It overly sexualizes the film, and only positions Pocahontas in relation to her romantic options, not as a human being, you know, doing things.

Other Disney lead characters are not at all described this way. Compare the Pocahontas description to the ones for a few other Disney films on Netflix:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “Inspired by Victor Hugo’s novel, this Disney film follows a gentle, crippled bell ringer as he faces prejudice and tries to save the city he loves.”

The Emperor’s New Groove. “In this animated Disney adventure, a South American emperor experiences a reversal of fortune when his power-hungry adviser turns him into a llama.”

Tarzan. After being shipwrecked off the African coast, a lone child grows up in the wild and is destined to become lord of the jungle.”

Hercules. “The heavenly Hercules is stripped of his immortality and raised on earth instead of Olympus, where he’s forced to take on Hades and assorted monsters.”

I picked these four because they have male protagonists and, with the exception of Emperor’s New Groove which has a “South American” lead, the rest are white males. I have problems with the “gentle, crippled” descriptor but, the point is, these movies all have well developed romance plot lines, but their (white, male) protagonists get to save things, fight people, have adventures, and be “lord of the jungle” – they are not defined by their romantic relationships in the film.

We cannot divorce the description of Pocahontas from it’s context. We live in a society that sexualizes Native women: it paints us as sexually available, free for the taking, and conquerable – an extension of the lands that we occupy. The statistics for violence against Native women are staggeringly high, and this is all connected.

NPR Codeswitch recently posted a piece about how watching positive representations of “others” (LGBT, POC) on TV leads to more positive associations with the group overall, and can reduce prejudice and racism. This is awesome, but what if the only representations are not positive? In the case of Native peoples, the reverse is true – seeing stereotypical imagery, or in the case of Native women, overly sexualized imagery, contributes to the racism and sexual violence we experience. The research shows that these seemingly benign, “funny” shows on TV deeply effect real life outcomes, so I think we can safely say that a Disney movie (and its description) matters.

So, my point was not to criticize the film, which I can save for another time, but to draw attention to the importance of the words we use, and the ways that insidious stereotypes and harmful representations sneak in to our everyday lives.

In any case, I expressed my objection to the description on Twitter and was joined by hundreds of people. And… one week later, I received an email from Netflix:

Dear Dr. Keene,

Thanks for bringing attention to this synopsis. We do our best to accurately portray the plot and tone of the content we’re presenting, and in this case you were right to point out that we could do better. The synopsis has been updated to better reflect Pocahontas’ active role and to remove the suggestion that John Smith was her ultimate goal.


<netflix employee>



A young American Indian girl tries to follow her heart and protect her tribe when settlers arrive and threaten the land she loves.

Sometimes I’m still amazed by the power of the internet.

Adrienne Keene, EdD is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is now a postdoctoral fellow in Native American studies at Brown University. She blogs at Native Appropriations, where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

In this 6 minute video, Col. Ty Seidule, head of the department of history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, takes on the claim that the Civil War was about something other than slavery. He begins:

Was the American Civil War fought because of slavery. More than 150 years later, this remains a controversial question. Why? Because many people don’t want to believe that the citizens of the southern states were willing to fight and die to preserve a morally repugnant institution. “There has to be another reason,” we are told. Well, there isn’t.

He goes on to use strong logic and documentation — speeches, secession documents, the Emancipation Proclamation, and more — to make a convincing case that the Civil War was about “slavery and just slavery.”  He finishes:

Slavery is the great shame of America’s history. No one denies that. But it’s to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery. As a soldier, I am proud that the United States army — my army — defeated the confederates. In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform, almost 200,000 of them former slaves themselves, destroyed chattel slavery; freed four million men, women, and children from human bondage; and saved the United States of America.


Watch it all:

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

Flashback Friday.

Vintage Ads put up this advertisement in which a collection of “Chinese” bemoan the invention of the compact washer/dryer (text below):

Selected text:

If you know a little Chinese, you might sense these aren’t the kindest words you’ve seen.

Some of our Chinese laundrymen friends have decided to throw in the towel.

It seems this new intruder is quickly becoming a hit with quite a few apartment dwellers, mobile homers, bacherlors, and working girls–their usual clientele.

It’s the new compact Hoover Washer. That spin-drys too.

This stereotype–that Chinese men were professional launderers–is still around today (e.g., the U-Washee laundromat and the shoe company and restuarant called “Chinese Laundry”), but it may be unfamiliar to some.

Many Chinese men ran laundry businesses between the late 19th century and the end of World War II.  They turned to laundry because they were shut out of other types of work (such as mining, fishing, farming, and manufacturing) and didn’t have the English skills or capital to make other choices.  Washing and ironing was considered women’s work, so it was low status and also posed no threat to white, male workers.

Drawing of an 1881 Chinese laundry in San Francisco (source):

According to sources cited in Wikipedia, “Around 1900, one in four ethnic Chinese men in the U.S. worked in a laundry, typically working 10 to 16 hours a day.”  John Jung, who grew up behind a Chinese laundry and wrote a book about the business, explains that “New York City [alone] had an estimated 3,550 Chinese laundries at the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s.”

As the vintage ad suggests, the Chinese laundry disappeared into history not because discrimination disappeared, but because of technological innovation.

Originally posted 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.

The one-year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death passed a little more than a year ago. Before Garner’s death, I had never heard of Tompkinsville, the Staten Island neighborhood where Garner regularly hung out, near the busy intersection of Victory Boulevard and Bay Street.

This was Garner’s spot.  He played checkers and chess there, bought kids ice cream, earned the reputation of a “peacemaker” among his peers, and, yes, routinely sold untaxed “loose” cigarettes.

This was also the spot were Eric Garner was died.

Over the past year, despite the substantial media attention devoted to Garner’s death and the subsequent grand jury inquiry into the responsibility for his death, I didn’t hear or read much about Tompkinsville.

The lack of attention to the neighborhood in which Garner lived and died is strange given that the NYPD’s initial encounter with Garner was ostensibly motivated by the Broken Windows theory of crime causation.  According to the theory, “disorder” in any given neighborhood, if “left unchecked,” will result in ever greater levels of disorder, which, in turn, will ultimately result in higher rates of serious crime.  This is the justification for approaching and penalizing people like Garner who are engaged in non-violent, misdemeanors.

Based on my own research in Jersey City, New Jersey (approximately six miles, as the crow flies, from Tompkinsville), I’ve come to the conclusion that Broken Windows is more of a slogan than a theory and, when it comes down to it, morally and empirically wrong. As I wrote at City Limits:

The question that begs addressing is why the police or anyone else should ever aggressively police the likes of people who not only are “down and out,” but are doing nothing to directly harm others? Why create a situation of humiliation, tension, and hostility—the very kind of situation that led to Garner’s death—unless it is truly necessary? If only in one in a thousand instances, the circumstances are such that in such degrading and antagonistic encounters they result in death or serious injury, is that not one time too many? Or if all that results is humiliation and hostility, don’t these costs alone outweigh whatever benefits might conceivably come from cracking down on offenses like selling loosies?

In the three years of ethnographic work I did in Jersey City, I saw plenty of disorder, but this didn’t translate into serious crime:

Much as many people may not like who or what they see in the square, it is undoubtedly a safe space. I know this from experience and it is also borne out in the city’s official crime statistics.

Of course, one case doesn’t definitively show that high disorder never leads to high crime, but it does suggest that it doesn’t necessarily do so.  In any case, there has been no definitive science supporting the Broken Windows theory.

On the same logic, the case of Tompkinsville further undermines the theory that disorder leads to serious crime. According to official data, rates of serious crime in and around Tompkinsville have long been relatively low, even during the years when the NYPD was not employing the Broken Windows strategy.  This suggests that, however “disorderly” Tompkinsville may have been at times, the recent implementation of Broken Windows was, and remains, a solution in search of a problem.

Upon realizing the possibility that Tompkinsville might be another example of a high disorder/low crime space, I decided it was time to visit the neighborhood.  I made the trip twice and I did not encounter what appeared to me to be a dangerous neighborhood or a neighborhood on the verge of becoming dangerous anytime soon.

Here is the part of town where Garner lived out his days:


While this part of town didn’t strike me as “bad,” it is a far cry from the Tompkinsville that sits just a short walk away, separated only by a concrete path. Much of Tompkinsville is actually rather well-to-do:


The socioeconomic disparity on display in Tompkinsville illustrates how policing and punishment are but one part of a much larger, far more complex, and deeply-rooted equation of inequality in America. Perhaps if Garner’s part of the neighborhood had been farther from the kind of real estate that developers and wealthy residents value, a little disorder would have been a little more tolerable.

I’m more convinced than ever that Garner’s death was a gross injustice and the consequence, not just of the actions of a single individual, but of a deeply misguided policy and theory. As Jesse Myerson and Mychal Denzel Smith poignantly argued in The Nation (in the wake of a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer whose chokehold certainly, at the very least, served as the but-for cause of Garner’s death), neither black lives, nor many other lives besides, will likely matter much unless, in addition to urgently-needed criminal justice reforms, something is done to seriously address the roots of poverty and inequality in America.

Mike Rowan is an assistant professor in the Sociology Department at John Jay College. His book in progress examines how a population of chronically homeless, jobless men and women were policed in a neighborhood of Jersey City. Dr. Rowan is also a member of the Executive Board for the Hudson County Alliance to End Homelessness, the director of the CUNY Service Corps’ Homeless Outreach and Advocacy Project, and a contributor to the Punishment to Public Health Initiative at John Jay.

1 (3)

Today marks ten years to the day that Hurricane Katrina flooded the city of New Orleans and devastated the Gulf Coast.   These posts are from our archives:

Was Hurricane Katrina a “Natural” Disaster?

Racism and Neglect

Disaster and Discourse

Devastation and Rebuilding

10 Years Later and Beyond

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