Photo by Josh Parrish via
Photo by Josh Parrish via

In explaining the purpose of a “whiteness studies” course—the kind offered at dozens of colleges and universities in the United States—Alex P. Kellogg of writes:

The field argues that white privilege still exists, thanks largely to structural and institutional racism, and that the playing field isn’t level… educators teach how people of different races and ethnicities often live very different lives… The field has its roots in the writing of black intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and author James Baldwin.

Still, “In the past, detractors have said the field itself demonizes people who identify as white.” So, then, how did the courses manage to continue, and why are they seemingly on the way out now?

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociologist at Duke and the University of Pennsylvania, tells the reporter:

Having Obama is, in a curious way, putting us behind… You have a growing racial apathy. People are telling you, I don’t want to hear about race, because we’re beyond that… But we still have a white America and a Black America.

Another sociologist, Charles Gallagher of Philadelphia’s La Salle University, said that he still has to convince his students that inequality exists. “Gallagher, whose latest book Retheorizing Race and Whiteness in the 21st Century was published last year,” writes Kellogg, ” is teaching intro to sociology and urban sociology classes this semester, and while neither is strictly about race, he says he will make a point to talk about modern day racism and white privilege.” Still, “he expects his students—and increasingly, some who are black—will be there ready to push back, particularly on the notion that race still determines your lot in life.” Gallagher asks:

How do we talk about race or racism in the United States if people think racism is gone?

The article moves on to discussing whether, rather than being privileged, whites, as some suggest, are actually racially oppressed. Charles Mills, a philosopher at Northwestern, argues, Kellogg says, “that whites in particular have a self-interest in seeing the world as post-racial. In that world, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed… your success in life [is] not determined by race, but by how hard you work.”

Even as classes on whiteness studies instead seem to be dissolving into interdisciplinary race courses which take the time out to discuss persistent white privilege, academics tell that “in the past, conservatives derided whiteness studies as anti-white, but the sharp vitriol against the discipline has largely subsided,” and the field “continues to evolve.” As Kellogg concludes, “While the filed is still little known in some corners, and criticized as being obsolete in others, proponents of… whiteness studies say that’s all part of progress.”

In a brand new piece for Slate, journalist Libby Copeland marshals the social scientific evidence to ask whether, as in so many other areas of social life, looks matter in politics. It’s been, she writes, “conventional wisdom” since the televised Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960 (see clip above) that a candidate in the modern age simply can’t avoid the fact that their very face will affect their polling numbers. Put more provocatively, Copeland asks, “How much does Newt Gingrich’s face hurt him?”

What’s really intriguing here, though, is that the assumption, for the longest time, was that it was attractiveness or beauty that would confer an advantage to the aspiring politico. To be sure, “Attractive people appear to benefit in all sorts of situations, like in the workplace and legal situations. Heck, even babies are predisposed to focus on good-looking faces,” Copeland writes. But 2005 research from Princeton’s Alexander Todorov and other researchers asserted “voters appeared primarily drawn to faces that suggested competence,” not a Crest commercial smile and perfect symmetry. “The competent face shape,” Copeland gleans, “is masculine but approachable, with a square jaw, high cheekbones, and large eyes. When people say Romney just looks presidential, this is the image they’re summoning.”

In follow-up studies, political scientists went on to confirm the Todorov findings, but refined them, pointing out that it was mainly less-informed voters who watched a lot of television who demonstrated the “competent face” effect. Copeland goes on to explore some other studies in psychology and political science which subtly altered the images of real politicians (in one case, even blending it with the study subject’s own photograph—“After all, who’s more competent and trustworthy than you?” the author asks) to consider other ways that looks shape elections. She concludes:

Taken all together, these new studies suggest how a politician’s face appeals to voters, or doesn’t, can’t be boiled down to just one factor. Rather, voters look at a candidate and make a series of instant judgments based on a number of traits. Then… they listen to the candidate, they consider the issues, and they do all the things rational voters are supposed to do. Skin-deep inferences aren’t all that voters rely on, though they may have an outsized effect on the decision-making process.

Racism Moves Out,

Not only are we excited to spot Reynolds Farley’s Contexts article “The Waning of American Apartheid?” (Summer 2011) written up in the Emerging Ideas section of the Jan.-Feb. 2012 issue of the Utne Reader, we’re gratified to see the elegant treatment it’s received in this “Citings & Sightings” style piece. Further, the illustration (at left, by Peter Thomas Ryan, wittily gets at the heart of the matter. What more could an editorial team want?

In the piece, the author writes of Farley and his fellow researchers’ extensive longitudinal work:

The stats aren’t evidence of a racial utopia (50 percent of thse respondents hit the edge of their [neighborhood] comfort zone at a 50-50 split in racial composition), but from block to block, there does seem to be slow and steady progress toward a more racially integrated America.

To check out the original article, please visit

jim crow coverAs part of its programming surrounding our national day of remembrance in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., NPR’s Fresh Air brought scholar Michelle Alexander to the airwaves last night for a lengthy, fascinating interview. Alexander is the author of the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (out now in paperback with an introduction by Cornel West), and she argues persuasively that, as NPR puts it, “Jim Crow laws are now off the books [but] millions of blacks… remain marginalized and disenfranchised… denied [the] basic rights and opportunities that would allow them to become productive, law-abiding citizens.”

President Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” was declared, Alexander said, “primarily for reasons of politics—racial politics. … [these] racially coded ‘get-tough’ appeals on issues of crime and welfare appeal to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were resentful of, anxious about, and threatened by many of the gains of African Americans in the civil rights movement.” And so, the war on drugs keeps Jim Crow going:

Today there are more African Americans under correctional control—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. …In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives

In her conversation with Dave Davies, Alexander went on to explain that, while some, like criminologist David Kennedy, believeĀ  anyone who’s spent time with those fighting the “War on Drugs” on the streets (that is, who’ve embedded themselves with beat cops and DEA agents) knows there’s absolutely no racial or class bias in who gets arrested for what, she’s found in her research that, for white, middle and upper-class kids, some crimes are considered rites of passage deserving only a slap on the wrist. Just a few miles away, though, in poorer communities of color, those same crimes (particularly the sale and use of recreational drugs, which Alexander says research has found are no more likely among black adolescents than white nor among poor vs. white kids) relegate young people to a life haunted by the legal system.

This, Alexander goes on, is especially problematic in one under-examined way: the disenfranchisement of convicted felons means that these communities, which are already low in political capital (that is, real political power), don’t even have the ability to go and vote for the politicians (and policies) that might improve their lives. “My experience and research has led me to the regrettable conclusion that our system of mass incarceration functions more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control,” concludes Alexander.

Photo by Amanda Tetrault via Creative Commons
Photo by Amanda Tetrault via Creative Commons

Just before the dawn of the New Year, Marketplace Money’s Eve Troeh hoped to find some silver lining, or at least an optimistic take, on one thing so many Americans now share: the job hunt. What she really seemed to find in her American Public Media report, though, was that unemployment remains as alienating an experience as it is a common one. And, as USC sociologist Karen Sternheimer explained, it’s a cruddy thing for anyone to go through, including the so-called highly-educated unemployed.

“One of the biggest measures of class is something called ‘occupational prestige’,” said Sternheimer. “Part of our status is based not just on how much money we have or make, but on kind of what other people think of what we do.” As Troeh went on, “When professionals lose jobs, then, [Sternheimer] says we’re more likely to blame them—even though we all know that layoffs in recent years happened across the board.”

Echoing Joe Soss’s comments in the Star Tribune, as covered in Citings & Sightings a couple of days ago, Sternheimer affirmed, “There’s still a lot of antipathy towards people who don’t have jobs. The myth of the American Dream says that you’ve either succeeded or failed based on your own merit.” More surprisingly, though, Sternheimer tells Marketplace Money that “her research on the Great Depression shows that in tough times, we cling more closely to that dream, that our own hard work determines our fate, rather than blame bigger economic forces.” This can result in a lot of blame for everyone’s “bad times” being placed on the unemployed themselves. And when you are the unemployed, the depression and alienation compound.

Etiquette, in fact, is where the radio story ended: “Etiquette expert Peter Post at the Emily Post Institute says relationships get ruined over a job loss. Even generous offers have to be made carefully.” This is to say, just as talking salary isn’t usually palatable for Americans, talking no salary is touchy, too. For more tips and/or commiseration, be sure to check out the full report, available online at American Public Media.

Great Depression Bread Line
Photo by April and Randy via

The University of Minnesota’s Joe Soss, recently interviewed for the Office Hours podcast about his new book Discliplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, was featured in the Star Tribune thoughtfully explaining the lessons of his research for the Lori Sturdevant article “It’s Rarely a Luxury to Be in Need of Charity.” As Soss put it, “Our notions about who’s deserving of help and who isn’t are rooted in notions about individual effort and individual success or failure.” But, he told Sturdevant, “It’s become almost a Catch-22… You’re undeserving if you haven’t worked hard enough to lift yourself out of poverty. If you had worked hard, you wouldn’t be poor. So if you’re poor, you must be undeserving.”

And, the columnist relates, maybe, “In frontier Minnesota, hard work could rather reliably produce self-sufficiency. Suspicion of the poor as lazy or profligate arose easily when land was cheap or free, the population was exploding, and harvests of timber, grain and, eventually, iron ore were abundant beyond imagining.” Now that hard times are upon so many, it’s harder to write off the jobless or the poor as deserving of their fate. In this way, the Great Recession may also become something of a Great Equalizer, “opening eyes to to a new reality about work in America,” writes Sturdevant. As Joe Soss said, “Tougher times make people more likely to understand that poverty isn’t just about individual choices.”

Marie Claire January 12 CoverEven in a publication seemingly devoted to the cultivation of erotic capital, you hardly expect to find the term bandied about—but there it is, on p. 75 of the January 2012 issue of Marie Claire magazine. In an article called “Celebrity Mistresses: The New Deal” (which bears the lede, “Meet the young generation of entrepreneurial ‘other women.’ They’re not ashamed, they’re not sorry, and they’re cashing in”) author Kiri Blakely compares celebrity dalliances of the past and present.

Blakely writes:

In the past, celebrity mistresses seemed less eager for the public’s attention. If their ultimate goal was fame and a payday, they were far more subtle about it… Back when mistresses could be depended on for discretion, famous cheaters had the upper hand. They got an extramarital roll in the sack, and, with their lovers hidden from view, they could still preserve their images as upstanding married men.

But, she goes on, “Today’s ‘other women’ know how to get media outlets on the line, lawyer up, and negotiate like fortune 500 CEOs… You have to wonder: who is using whom in these affairs?”

Blakely closes her article with a quick summary of one of the mechanisms at work in these high-profile romps:

If, as sociologist Catherin Hakim writes in her book Erotic Capital, men and feminists have conspired to trick women into giving away their sexuality for free, then these women have renegotiated the payoff. And stars like Kutcher are left with the consequences.

As it turns out, other “lady mags” have taken up the topic of erotic capital (look no further than Elle [“Eros in the Office,” June 2011]), but so have the “lad mags” (see Men’s Health’s Spark Her Sex Drive,” which tries to help readers “invest in” and “bank” their own erotic capital). No matter how it’s being used, it’s always interesting to watch a piece of a academic jargon make its way into the mainstream. Perhaps it’s just a faster process when the term’s a bit titillating!

Photo from Seattle Municipal Archives via flickr

Talk about a chronic condition! According to new research from the European Journal of Public Health, higher rates of poor health among women aren’t just the result of reporting bias, but higher actual rates of chronic health problems.’s “Vitals” section (via MyHealthNews Daily) covers the research, which included interviews and medical records data from over 29,000 Spaniards, and reports:

…when the researchers matched up the number of chronic conditions each person had with his or her health rating, the gender difference disappeared. Having a higher number of chronic conditions correlated with poorer self-rated health to the same degree in both genders.

For men and women with the same conditions, or the same number of conditions, women were no more likely to claim poorer health.

To put these numbers into some context, reporter Sarah C.P. Williams sought out British sociologist Ellen Annandale, who studies the connections between gender and health. Dr. Annandale confirmed the long-standing notion that women simply communicate better and more often with their doctors, but don’t actually experience worse health outcomes than men—but said this new research upends that idea and offers clues to better medical treatment for people of all genders:

“Gender influences that way that people are treated and diagnosed in health systems,” Annandale said. “It influences the kind of health conditions that men and women suffer from, the way people relate to their own bodies, and what kind of access to health care they have.”

Understanding gender differences in health can help scientists and doctors find ways to better treat patients, she said.

“Women generally live longer than men, but in many countries that gap in life expectancy has been decreasing over time. One of the reasons for that is thought to be that men’s health is improving, but women’s is not.”

In an interview discussing whether teen sleepovers can actually prevent teen pregnancy, CNN’s Ali Velshi says flatly, “This is a little bit counter-intuitive.” But as his interviewee, UMass sociologist Amy Schalet (who wrote on this subject in Contexts in “Sex, Love, and Autonomy in the Teenage Sleepover” in the Summer of 2010), explains, “Let me clarify: it’s not a situation where everything goes… It’s definitely older teenage couples who have established relationships and whose parents have talked about contraception.” Which is to say, as Velshi puts it, sex and sex education in countries like the Netherlands, in which parents are more permissive—or as Schalet says, “parents are more connected with their kids”—about allowing boyfriends and girlfriends to sleep over, take “a holistic approach.”

Schalet’s research, explored more deeply in her new University of Chicago book Not Under My Roof, takes a look at American parenting practices surrounding teen sex and the practices of parents in other countries. Using in-depth interviews with parents and teens and a host of other data, she finds:

The takeaway for American parents… isn’t necessarily “You must permit sleepovers.” Many parents are going to say, “Not under my roof!” That’s why it’s the title of my book. The takeaway is that you can have more open conversations—you should probably have more open conversations—about what’s a good relationship, sex and contraception should go together, what does it mean to be “ready,” how to get rid of some of these damaging stereotypes (gender stereotypes). Those are all things that are going to help promote teenage health and better relationships between parents and kids.

Schalet is clear that parental approaches are nowhere near the only factor in the stark differences in teen pregnancy rates between the U.S. and the Netherlands, but says they are, in fact, particularly important. “Kids are having sex, clearly,” Velshi says. And that’s precisely the point, no matter whether parents believe their kids should be able to have sex in their own homes, Schalet believes: “I think what you emphasize is that, above all, the conversation is important, and the conversation itself does not make kids have sex.” Ideally, she points out, that conversation will take place at home with parents, but a holistic talk about sexuality, relationships, and health can also take place in schools, with clergy, and in many other locations.

It’d be easy to think that Georg Simmel hasn’t been the talk of the town since he took on Kant, but there he is, resplendent in the New Yorker’s front section in its December 5, 2011 issue.

The topic at hand is actually the naming of personal wireless networks in reporter Lauren Collins’s “Brave New World: The Tao of Wifi.” In the article, readers are introduced to Alexandra Janelli, an environmental consultant with an accidental interest in the names of the wifi networks she encounters as she and her iPhone wander New York City. Janelli’s website,, catalogs and considers the names, which Collins says range from “passive aggressive messages to neighbors (Stop Cooking Indian!!!)” to “names [that] are poetry (Dumpling Manor, More Cowbell).”

To get a little more background on this unique form of self-expression, the New Yorker’s author sought out Elihu Rubin, a professor of urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture. It was Rubin who brought Simmel into the discussion:

He wrote [in “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” 1903] about the difficulty in asserting individual personality within the dimensions of metropolitan life. One solution was to adopt “tendentious peculiarities,” mannerisms (of dress, speech, etc.) or other extravagances to attract attention and thus bolster self-esteem.

Rubin muses that “the wireless network name is one such peculiarity,” and comments on how such names give anonymous writers “an open, uncensored forum for personal mantras and other compact philosophies.” It’s nice to see that, nearly a century later, Simmel is still helping everyone ask “What is Society?”