Pundits regularly bemoan “incivility” in American politics, but the coarseness of political discourse has moved far beyond mere incivility, generally understood as showing lack of respect. The acrimony and intensity of much political speech and behavior today is best understood as outrage talk – political speech that uses theatrical rhetorical tactics such as ad hominem attacks, slippery slope argumentation, belittling, and mockery in an effort to provoke emotional responses from the audience such as anger, fear, and moral indignation.
Americans think of themselves as highly educated, yet more than 37 million adults – more than one in ten – have not earned high school diplomas. This has dramatic implications for individual lives. Less than half of all adults without high school degrees have jobs, compared to 64% of those with such degrees and 88% of adults with college degrees. Even with prior work experience, many employers require proof of a high school diploma for even the most basic positions, even more so since the recent recession. Adults without high school diplomas who are fortunate enough to have jobs can expect to earn nearly $10,000 less per year than those with a high school degree, and are much more likely to live in poverty, experience poor health, and end up in prison.
Any way one looks at the social realities, chances to obtain a high school equivalency degree are critical for adults who did not graduate from high school, if they are to flourish in life. For more than sixty years, the General Education Degree – popularly known as the “GED” – has offered such a chance. But current strategies of education reform are handing the GED program to profit-making corporations, and the effect has been to create new educational obstacles for the predominately low-income Americans who have not graduated from high school.
The American abortion debate features “pro-life” activists wielding pictures of fetuses and “pro-choice” advocates telling horror stories about women forced to travel for hundreds of miles to access safe abortions. The struggle seems an irresolvable moral conflict – and both sides claim to be “pro-women.” Pro-choice organizations advocate that abortion be kept legal and made increasingly accessible because women have the right to privacy in matters of reproduction. Pro-life groups argue that the acceptance of abortion unjustly pits women against their children.
My research takes stock of activists on both sides – and identifies those that focus not just on the moral aspects but also on the socioeconomic context of abortion. In fact, abortion is mainly an issue for less privileged women, and if more pro-life and pro-choice groups recognized the economic realities, there would be possibilities for compromise. more...
Health care providers who perform abortions routinely use ultrasound scans to confirm their patients’ pregnancies, check for multiple gestations, and determine the stage of the pregnancies. But it is far from standard – and not at all medically necessary – for women about to have abortions to view their ultrasounds. Ultrasound viewing by patients has no clinical purpose: it does not affect the woman’s condition or the decisions health providers make. Nevertheless, ultrasound viewing has become central to the hotly contested politics of abortion.
Believing that viewing ultrasounds will change minds, opponents of abortion – spearheaded by the advocacy group Americans United for Life – have pushed for state laws to require such viewing. So far, eighteen states require that women be offered the opportunity to view their pre-abortion ultrasound images, and five states actually go so far as to legally require women to view their ultrasound images before obtaining an abortion (although the women are permitted to avert their eyes). In two of the five states that have passed such mandatory viewing laws, courts have permanently enjoined the laws, keeping them from going into effect.
As the debates continue to rage, both sides assume that what matters for an abortion patient is the content of the ultrasound image. Abortion opponents believe the image will demonstrate to the woman that she is carrying a baby – a revelation they think will make her want to continue her pregnancy. Ironically, supporters of abortion rights also argue that seeing the image of the fetus will make a difference. They say this experience will be emotionally distressing and make abortions more difficult. Paradoxically, such arguments from rights advocates reinforce assumptions that fetuses are persons and perpetuate stigma about abortion procedures. more...
Nearly 175 women ran for House and Senate seats in the 2014 congressional elections, and enough of them won to push women’s ranks to a record high of 104 members in Congress. More women are running for U.S. political offices then at any other time in history, but they remain underrepresented at all levels. Women hold only a fifth of seats in Congress, a quarter of state legislative posts, and six out of fifty gubernatorial seats – and of course no woman has as yet been nominated for the presidency by a major party. Female candidates face many obstacles – including lack of support from party gatekeepers. My research focuses on the role of gender stereotypes as a potential source of bias among voters. more...
In early June 2015, the Missouri state legislature voted to remove thousands of families, including 6,400 children, from the state’s cash assistance program for the poor. The new law reduces the state lifetime limit for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from 60 to 45 months, cuts cash benefits in half for those who do not work, and redirects a significant portion of welfare funds toward programs that encourage marriage and alternatives to abortion.
Why has Missouri made these changes now? Since the U.S. Congress acted in 1996 to change welfare funding rules and give states greater discretion, many states have taken steps similar to Missouri. My research suggests that racial dynamics drive these cutbacks – but not in ways many suppose. Demography and attitudes are insufficient explanations; the political context matters.
Race and Welfare Policymaking
Why have some states imposed welfare restrictions in recent years while others have retained more generous programs? Previous studies reveal a clear pattern: the higher the proportion of African Americans receiving cash welfare benefits, the more likely states are to adopt restrictive welfare policies. But not all racially diverse states have adopted punitive reforms and some predominantly white states have taken very restrictive approaches to welfare. Race clearly influences welfare politics, but how?
To answer this question, I examined the policy decisions that state legislatures made immediately after the 1996 national reforms transformed American anti-poverty policy. That law imposed new time limits, work requirements, and penalties on recipients of welfare benefits. After Congress gave states new flexibility to design their own programs, some states adopted the most generous policies allowed by federal law, while others imposed far more restrictive policies. To understand the decision-making processes better, I closely examined a number of states which had large minority populations at the time.
What I found was surprising: Legislators’ decisions about welfare policy were heavily influenced by the political debates simultaneously raging in their states. When these other debates were rife with racial tensions, legislators enacted punitive welfare reforms. But when coterminous debates were not racialized, lawmakers tended to adopt more generous welfare programs. In other words, lawmakers used restrictive welfare changes as a strategy to appease white voters who felt threatened by other racial conflicts happening in the same period. more...
Ten years ago, the state of Florida beefed up its “stand your ground” law – a law allowing a person who harms or kills another, often with a gun, to escape prosecution by claiming that he or she felt threatened and acted in self-defense. In other words, Florida’s law – and many others like it – lets assailants go free merely by asserting their belief that the use of force was necessary to prevent serious harm or death to themselves or bystanders. Those who assert such beliefs become according to Florida law “immune from criminal prosecution and civil action.” Prosecutions are not entirely ruled out, but authorities must meet very difficult standards to pursue cases.
Since 2005, about half of all U.S. states have passed Florida-style laws, or very similar ones. The National Rifle Association has led the charge, arguing that stand your ground laws will improve public safety and protect honest citizens.
By now, however, there is clear and compelling evidence that such laws have failed to improve public safety – and have encouraged mayhem reminiscent of America’s old Wild West. Laws allowing claims of self-defense have existed for over a century, but Florida’s new law and its imitators dramatically alter the law enforcement equation. According to David LaBahn of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, investigations of civilian killings are now often hamstrung by legal protections greater than those afforded police officers who use lethal force.
The Florida Experience
Florida’s 2005 law was invoked in nearly 200 shooting cases through 2012 – a majority of them involving fatalities. The cases were documented by the Tampa Bay Times:
- The Florida law’s chief beneficiaries were “those with records of crime and violence.” Nearly 60 percent of those making self-defense claims after killing someone had been arrested at least once before; a third had been accused of violent crimes or drug offenses; and over one-third had illegally carried guns or had threatened others with guns.
- In seven of every ten stand your ground cases, the person killed was unarmed – and in 79 percent of the cases, the assailant could have retreated to avoid the confrontation.
- Shooters who invoked stand your ground claims under Florida’s 2005 law succeeded in escaping prosecution two-thirds of the time.
Moving beyond Florida alone, other studies have documented equally worrisome trends:
- Reporters at the Wall Street Journal studied “justifiable homicides” nationwide from 2000 to 2010. They found that such killings increased by 85 percent in states with Florida-style laws (even though some states have more limited versions of stand your ground rules on the books). The increase occurred even though overall killings, adjusted for population growth, declined during this same period. According to the Journal investigation, more than 80 percent of the “justifiable” killings involved guns, compared with 65 percent of other killings where claims of justification were not made.
- For the same period, researchers at Texas A&M University found no evidence in data from the Federal Bureau of Investigations that stand your ground laws deterred crimes, including burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault. Instead, in states with newly buttressed stand your ground laws on the books, the homicide rate increased by eight percent – which in human terms added up to about 600 additional homicides annually.
- Drawing on different data, a 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research study found Florida-type laws associated with a 6.8 percent increase in homicides.
- An Urban Institute study found significant racial disparities in “justified” killings between 2005 and 2010. In states without stand your ground laws, killings were ruled justified in 29 percent of instances where the shooter was white and the victim was black (with much lower rates of justification for white on white, black on white, and black on black killings). By contrast, in states with stand your ground laws on the books, white on black killings were accepted as justified 36 percent of the time (with more modest upticks in findings of justification for the other kinds of cases).
Time to Rethink Laws Undermining Public Safety
The evidence is clear: Expanded stand your ground laws combined with more gun-carrying increases unnecessary violent confrontations and deaths. With more than 11 million Americans now licensed to carry guns, we need policies to defuse or avert public confrontations – and police and prosecutors must be able to conduct full investigations when incidents occur. A February 2015 American Bar Association report urges states to scale back legal immunity and restore the “safe retreat” standard in public places – a standard that requires people who feel threatened to avoid confrontation if they can do so safely. Since the beginning of 2015, legislators in ten states, including Florida, have introduced such measures. But many reform proposals are stalled, and 13 states are actually deliberating bills that would fortify stand your ground practices.
Long ago, Americans north and south acted to contain the dangers of open gun-toting and free-wheeling confrontations. As early as 1686, New Jersey enacted a law against wearing weapons because they induced “great Fear and Quarrels.” In the 1700s, three states passed no-carry laws. In the 1800s, as interpersonal violence and gun carrying spread, 37 states joined the list of those enacting restrictions. Alabama’s 1839 law was titled, “An Act to Suppress the Evil Practice of Carrying Weapons Secretly.” This history makes the current popularity of gun-carrying and stand your ground laws all the more mystifying. Apparently, twenty-first century Americans must now re-learn lessons their ancestors took to heart long ago.
In recent decades, the United States has seen a spectacular rise in deportations, with local police forces authorized by the federal government to identify undocumented immigrants for summary removal. More than 11 million undocumented people across the country – including up to one in ten adult workers in the state of California – faced this threat in their daily lives.
To assuage the human costs, President Barack Obama outlined a plan in November 2014 to provide temporary protection to many undocumented migrants. Building on his earlier efforts to set priorities, the President specified that officials would henceforth seek to deport “felons, not families,” “criminals, not children,” “gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.” In short, under the new policy, various kinds of immigrants deemed good would be protected from deportation. Well-intentioned city leaders, bureaucrats, and police would need to sort out the good immigrants from those vilified as criminals.
These well-intended steps are meant to alleviate the trauma that the threat of deportation has imposed on millions of law-abiding migrants. But how do the binary divisions work out in practice? My research, based on a year of observations in southern California plus 75 in-depth interviews with undocumented Mexican migrants, suggests that efforts to divide good from bad people in migrant communities can have pernicious as well as helpful effects.more...
Latinos living in the United States comprise the largest number of immigrants of any racial or ethnic group – and for this reason, many Americans presume that immigration is the issue that matters most to Latino citizens and residents. But is that true? Do Latinos themselves view immigration as their top concern, and if not what other issues are high on their political agenda? My research tackles this question, which is important for understanding the potential political influence of the largest and fastest growing minority group in the United States. more...
Environmental problems create especially heavy burdens for poor and minority communities. As three decades of research have shown, these communities host a disproportionate number of landfills, contaminated properties, incinerators, and other polluting facilities, many of which can cause serious health problems. Epidemiological research on health risks reveals that low-income and minority groups have higher rates of asthma, impaired lung function and other respiratory ailments as well as cardiovascular disease. All of these adverse health conditions are caused or exacerbated by exposure to pollution. Underprivileged communities can also be at greater risk from severe weather developments, which are expected to increase with climate change.
The Pursuit of Environmental Justice
Environmental justice has been on the federal government’s agenda now for twenty years, in no small measure due to effective advocacy by grassroots organizations and scholar-activists who have pushed since the 1980s for fairness in environmental protection. The federal government responded with new policy mandates, administrative reorganization, research and data collection programs, enhanced outreach and efforts to build community capacity – and, most notably, with a presidential executive order on environmental justice. Signed by President Bill Clinton on February 11, 1994, Executive Order 12898 called on each federal agency to “make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.” more...