W.W. Norton and Company

Some people believe we are in a “post-racial” era, especially following the election of President Obama. A recent article in The Atlantic, however, draws on social science research to explain how attempts to be “post-racial” or “race-neutral” can actually exacerbate racial disparities. Article author Adia Harvey Wingfield draws on research from political scientist Ira Katznelson, as well as work by sociologists Leland Saito and Traci Schlesinger, to describe the ways that seemingly neutral economic and criminal justice policies can and do work to maintain systems of racial inequality. 

Katznelson’s book, When Affirmative Action Was White, demonstrates how federal policies like the G.I. bill, which were meant to help all American veterans returning home from World War II, mainly benefited whites. This racial discrimination occurred because it was administered by states, and Southern states distributed the G.I. bill through systems built on segregation. Even outside of the South, the bill’s job training components and affordable home loans were administered discriminatorily. As Wingfield states,

“The end result of all this is what Katznelson describes as affirmative action for whites. This was not because Congress wrote legislation explicitly intended to disenfranchise veterans of color; rather, the G.I. Bill — like many of the other policies Katznelson describes in his book –was written as race-neutral and specifically stated that all veterans were eligible. As Katznelson shows, the law didn’t fully deliver on its promise because it didn’t devote any special attention to the racial dynamics that undergird employment, homeownership, and education.”

Similarly, Saito’s book, The Politics of Exclusiondemonstrates how “race-blind” economic policies in cities can have serious repercussions for communities of color. And Schlesinger’s research shows that criminal justice policies, such as mandatory minimum sentences, are actually applied with significant racial disparities. Wingfield concludes,

“Overall, the work of Saito, Katznelson, and Schlesinger offers a cautionary note about what can happen when those in charge of making policy abandon identity politics and ignore entrenched inequalities based on race, gender, ethnicity, and other categories.”

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The release of the video game Resident Evil 7: Biohazard represents a greater renewed interest in horror media. While horror films are the best return on investment in Hollywood, horror video games have also seen a resurgence in more recent years. The popularity of this gaming genre is explored by sociologist Margee Kerr, as she explains to The Observer:

“If we were really running for our life, we’re not thinking critically … It’s really the ability to know that we’re safe while we’re doing this, we can enjoy these reactions. It feels invigorating — like we’re primal. Like we’re in that animal state again. A good scary game can hit that sweet spot where the stress is advantageous to gameplay. We hyperfocus on the game. It can be really rewarding.”

In other words, we like to be scared in horror games; and more importantly, we like to be scared with others. One of the most popular ways of consuming horror games is with other people, and this is often achieved by watching Let’s Play videos on YouTube. The idea behind these videos is that you’re watching a content creator’s gameplay as they played it — often accompanied with a recording of their face for all of their reactions. It essentially allows people to experience these horror games with other people, regardless of their access to gaming consoles or other players. This fulfills an important aspect of horror games — getting through struggles. As Kerr explains: 

“The goal-directed behavior and having a common goal — we bond closely with others when we’re in stressful situations … We feel more united with people we go through tough times with. I’ve heard from a lot of people that playing a game with someone opens them up. They do end up talking to their friends on a deeper level.”

So next time you pop that disc into your game system, go ahead and invite some people over — you might get more out of it if you share your scare with friends. 

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February is Black History Month (now African-American History Month), a celebration of black Americans and the ways they have shaped American society. But critics have often posed the question, “Why is there no white history month?” Brown University sociologist Daniel Hirschman explains to Vox that this question ignores the already pervasive white privilege in U.S. society. Hirschman states,

“We celebrate whiteness every day. Calls to celebrate whiteness ignore the institutionalized celebration of whiteness that’s built into the very fabric of our day-to-day lives … such calls imply that, absent such a specified month, we would somehow have a state of equality.”

In other words, calling for “White History Month” implies that whites are on the same footing as other ethnic and racial identities that have a specific “history month.” These calls ignore the fact that the vast majority of American history already focuses on white individuals and faces. Furthermore, demands for a “White History Month” work to normalize the idea that whiteness in America is under siege, or that white people are the new target of institutional racism.

However, Hirschman does not think we should stop talking about whiteness. In fact, he praises a “Whiteness History Month” event at Portland Community College which highlighted how race is a social construction and whiteness is tied to particular forms of historical and contemporary racism. After all, race and racism may only be “social constructions,” but their consequences are real when it comes to people’s lives. Unfortunately, ignoring race won’t make it go away, and this goes for whiteness as well. Instead of a “White History Month,” we should talk openly about the historical power of whiteness and ways we can construct a more racially equitable society today.  

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President FDR may have been onto something when he talked about the dangers of fear itself, and he wasn’t the only president to be aware of its effect, either. A recent article in TIME describes the fear that President Trump has spread as a means to justify his political actions. From Trump’s claims of Christians being executed in large numbers in the Middle East, to his assertions that illegal immigrants bring drugs and crime, and even wildly speculating that the murder rate is the highest it’s been in 47 years, Trump and his administration have used fear to galvanize supporters and threaten his critics.

By no means is Trump the first president to use this approach. President Bush used fear as a tool to deploy troops for the war on terrorism, and Clinton capitalized on myths about black delinquents to push his crime bills. In fact, Nixon once uttered the famous lines, “People react to fear, not love.” However, Barry Glassner, sociologist and author of The Culture of Fear, claims that Trump is the best he has ever seen at using fear, saying.

“[Trump’s] created an entire climate of fear through this constant social media work that then creates a feedback loop. He tweets. The media writes about it. Cable TV has a panel that takes it seriously … His formula is very clean and uncomplicated: Be very, very afraid. And I am the cure.” 

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A recent article in the Washington Post points out that Trump’s Cabinet holds fewer advanced degrees than any first-term Cabinet in the last 24 years, and is the least diverse of the last three administrations. Interestingly, the only two minorities that Trump has chosen are more educated than their white counterparts. This a classic example of minorities in America being expected to have more qualifications than whites, as explained by economist Darrick Hamilton, who says,

“Rarely will we find an example of an uncredentialed black person in an elite position … That black person is usually certainly qualified, if not overqualified, with regard to their education.”

Furthermore, education alone is not sufficient. Duke professor of public policy, William Darity, explains that education cannot close the huge wealth or unemployment gap between blacks and whites. Thus, according to sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, “African Americans have to be overeducated to be underemployed.”

During the election, Trump fared well among people without a college education. In fact, Obama’s administration was criticized by conservatives for being full of people with advanced degrees from elite universities, illustrating a negative shift in how people perceive those who are highly educated.  The fact that Trump’s cabinet is one of the least educated is not surprising considering campaign rhetoric and American political attitudes. Cottom continues,

“As higher education has become more accessible to more diverse groups of people, the general population has become more distrustful of education and expertise. They think there must be something suspect about education, because how great can Harvard really be if someone like Barack Obama got there?”

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The first few weeks of the Trump presidency have been eventful, most notably because many of the political actions taken by his administration have been met with widespread protests and marches. With some help from social scientists, a recent article from Vox reviews some of the ways to make protesting more effective.

Though protests can be invigorating, they often fail to influence those in power, says Indiana University sociologist Fabio Rojas. That’s not to say that protesting isn’t worthwhile, however; it just has to be done well. As U-Penn professor Daniel Q. Gillion explains, protest can make a change, but it’s not easy. Some conditions have to be met, including persistence and a significant threshold of people.

First, ensure that that the message is as prominent as possible. The way protests normally go, things can be chaotic or confusing. U-Wisconsin sociologist Pamela E. Oliver states that it’s like having a dozen different sports teams on one field. Research does show, however, that longer and more salient protests predict more change than short-lived and unfocused ones.

Next, try to gather similar causes under one banner. U-Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher describes how the recent Women’s March was not just about women’s issues; many people were there to protest Trump’s comments regarding immigrants or LGBT groups as well. Holding separate protests for each individual issue would dilute their impact, and one large and multifaceted demonstration is more effective. Remember that protesting itself is just a small part of the puzzle. We often turn to the Civil Rights movement as a comparable, historical example of protests in action, but even the Civil Rights movement was about more than protest alone. Boycotting businesses and the bus system was also instrumental in bringing about change, for example, something today’s protestors may want to keep in mind.

Finally, remember that proactive protesting is also important; demonstrating to prevent something from happening is more effective than doing so after the fact. As movements continue to resist discriminatory policies, they would do well to recognize some of these sociological suggestions.   

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Serving in the military can lead to an array of physical injuries or psychological traumas. But the media most often focuses on one particular trauma when veterans commit violent crimes — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Sociologist Ardath Whynackt talked to CBC Radio about how the media’s focus on PTSD can be counterproductive. 

To start, Whynackt points out that there is no evidence that PTSD makes an individual dangerous, despite the number of movies, TV shows, and characters wherein “PTSD” leads characters to do something crazy. The media’s obsession with PTSD often obscures deeper issues, like the way we socialize men to be aggressive in the first place. For example, news broke in early January that a Canadian veteran murdered his family and committed suicide afterwards; it was later revealed that this man was suffering from PTSD and the media focused solely on that aspect of the case. Whynackt explains,

“When we talk about PTSD and we frame the conversation in really narrow terms around a lack of care for veterans – and I do agree there is a lack of care for veterans and we do need more – but we end up talking only about him as if he wasn’t accountable for his actions … If we want to talk about programs and services to prevent incidents like this, we need to be talking about not only trauma supports for all men, not just veterans, but we also need to be talking about the ways in which we socialize young men to take their distress out on others using anger and violence.”

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American demographics are shifting — in less than 30 years, the majority of Americans will be nonwhite. Much of this shift is due to the influx of Asian and Latin American immigrants, many of whom migrate to traditional gateway cities such as Los Angeles or New York. At the same time, however, many of these immigrants go to smaller urban areas, suburbs, and rural communities. Using an abundance of research by sociologists, including Daniel Lichter, Merlin Chowkwanyun, Maria Krysan, and Samuel Kye, a recent Vox article reports that alongside this increasing diversification in suburbia is a parallel phenomenon: white Americans are beginning to self-segregate.

Lichter’s research indicates that although residential segregation within cities has remained stable for the past 25 years, segregation elsewhere has become increasingly common. Krysan’s findings suggest that white residents move towards less diverse neighborhoods than Hispanic or African American residents. Specifically, white families are moving to gated communities or more predominantly white rural areas, what Licther labels “exburbs.” Krysan states,

“In the last several decades, the demographic characterization is less about the flight — less about whites fleeing a certain type of neighborhood — and more about decisions that people make when looking at where they’re going to move next.”

This most recent iteration of segregation is distinct from the “white flight” out of cities and into the suburbs characteristic of 1960’s residential segregation, and more about neighborhood choice. Rather than simply fleeing from minorities, this new kind of residential self-segregation involves fleeing to a white neighborhood.

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Prospective college students consider a wide variety of factors when deciding on a university. While academics and career opportunities are often high on the list, colleges known as top party schools have a special appeal. Everyone loves a good time, but as Occidental College sociologist Lisa Wade describes in her new book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, this idea of college as “fun” is a fairly recent trend some troubling consequences.

In a feature with Time Magazine, Dr. Wade explains how American universities changed from predominantly strict, formal institutions to environments known for casual hookups and wild parties. Whereas in colonial America, colleges were highly regulated places, as the student body underwent a shift, so did campus culture. Wade explains,

“They [colonial college students] were generally obedient, but as the eighteenth century came to a close, colleges were increasingly filled with wealthy sons of elite families. These young men weren’t as interested in higher education as they were in a diploma that would ratify their families’ hoarding of wealth and power. Predictably, they had a much lower tolerance for submission.”

This rebellious attitude led to widespread expulsions across many elite universities, as well as the early foundations of Greek life. Fraternities became hubs for parties, alcohol, and casual sex, a legacy that still holds strong on many college campuses across the United States. And while the party scene can be tempting for many, American Hookup highlights how this emphasis on noncommittal and unemotional sex also sets the stage for widespread rape and sexual assault.

“Thanks to the last few hundred years, most colleges now offer a very specific kind of nightlife, controlled in part by the same set of privileged students that brought partying to higher education in the first place, and designed to promote, as much as possible, the ‘big four-year org’ that students both desire and dread.”

Photo by Matt Montagne. Flickr CC

“How long do you bake chicken?”

“Do whales sleep?”

“How many yards are in a league?”

The all seeing, all-knowing Google search engine has helped many of us find answers to our many questions. When we need something answered, we simply “Google it.” This popular search engine uses a complicated algorithm to generate results, but last year it’s legitimacy was questioned when it was revealed that the top link provided for the query, “Did the Holocaust happen?” was a neo-Nazi website run by white-supremacists denying its existence.

In a recent article on The Conversation, sociologist Thomas Maher describes the struggle that the Holocaust Museum had to go through in order to combat the false information online generated by the neo-Nazi website. Maher provides insight on how Google’s search engine, which tries to pinpoint the answers users are looking for, can be manipulated to spread false information, especially in the conspiracy theory community.

“(I)t’s clear to me that sites intentionally presenting misinformation and propaganda are preying upon Google’s eagerness to answer questions. These sites, peddling what is sometimes called ‘fake news,’ capitalize on people’s tendency to ask those questions directly on Google.”

Maher suggests that the best way for experts to respond to false information is to participate in public writing and blogging themselves, using relevant and searchable key words and phrases to ensure their research-based writing is seen. Maher points out that this will not stop false information from being presented, but the existence of credible facts alongside misleading information is a start.