Photo of a U.S. census envelope. Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr CC

Racial categories are often imposed or assigned, and one’s race tends to be thought of as an immutable quality. One’s ethnic identity, on the other hand, is more likely to be a chosen identity — related to cultural factors, traditions, and family history — but is sometimes conflated with race. When multiracial identities are involved, racial and ethnic categories are especially malleable, and many population surveys like the U.S. Census do not allow for this complexity. A recent NBC News article draws from sociological research to argue that the 2020 census should capture racial and ethnic identities for a more accurate picture of the Latino population.

Sociologist Richard Alba argues that the current U.S. Census divides America into two groups: white and non-white. Of the non-white population, the current largest group are individuals with mixed Hispanic and white European ancestry. However, prior censuses — based on the two-question format on ethnicity and race — do not reflect or allow for ambiguities and realities of mixed racial and ethnic identities for Latinos in the United States. Children of these mixed-race families, even though they have a white parent, are counted as non-white, and this obscures the blending and racial change for some parts of the Latino and Asian populations in the United States.

How we see ourselves racially is not always what race others may ascribe to us. In his 2015 study, sociologist Nicholas Vargas found that 42 percent of Hispanics identified as white, but only 6 percent were perceived as white by other Americans. This highlights the importance of differentiating between assigned racial identities and proclaimed ones.  

Some researchers do not believe the U.S. Census is an effective tool to measure racial identity. In her book, Manifest Destinies, Laura Gómez writes:

“the [Census] has to look beyond racial categories of being white and nonwhite — which reflects more the historic attitudes imposed by society on different groups than the mixed reality of modern-day America — and make it more inclusive to encourage greater participation and accuracy.”

However, the 2020 Census will keep the same formatting, going against a decade of research on Latino identities — identities that do not rely solely on skin color or racial descent. As census-takers grapple with the constrictive format for questions that measure racial and ethnic identity, these problems of accurate representation will remain.

Photo of a gate in front of a synagogue in Poland. Photo by Emmanuel DYAN, Flickr CC

On November 9th, 1938, thousands of Jewish stores, homes, and places of worship across Nazi Germany were destroyed by extremist mobs. During Kristallnacht, or “The Night of Broken Glass,” dozens of Jews were murdered and another 30,000 were sent to concentration camps in this crucial shift from anti-Semitic language to physical violence. This year’s commemoration of Kristallnacht comes in the aftermath of the shooting of 11 Jewish congregants in a Pittsburgh synagogue. In recent years, ideologically motivated violence has been increasing against religious minorities. Jewish and Muslim congregations have heightened their security measures in the face of such threats. In a new article in The Conversation, Christopher Scheitle and Jeffery Ulmer analyze these increased protections and the heightened fear among many religious minorities in their spaces of worship.

Using surveys and interviews, Scheitle and Ulmer conducted a study of over 1,300 congregations to examine crime and security in religious spaces. While many congregations experienced vandalism or theft regardless of religion,  synagogues and mosques experienced threats of violence at much higher rates:

“Crimes, most commonly vandalism and theft, were committed at about 40 percent of congregations in the year prior to the survey. This overall percentage was not significantly different across religious traditions. When we dug deeper, though, we found that synagogues and mosques deal with crime-related problems that are much different than the average church. Our survey found, for instance, that synagogues and mosques were three times more likely than congregations overall to have received an explicit threat in the prior year.”

Many synagogues and mosques have sought to respond to these threats through increased security. In comparison to other religions, Jewish and Muslim congregations have incorporated many more security cameras and guards. However, these implementations are not without cost:

“Our interviews found that most places of worship have a hard time implementing security. Some of this is simply not enough money. Larger and wealthier congregations tend to have more security in place. Beyond resources, our interviews consistently found that places of worship view security measures as a potential threat to their mission of creating a sacred space that is open to their communities.”

Scheitle and Ulmer suggest that congregations can better protect themselves through cost free measures, like limiting entrances to places of worship, and through community partnerships. A knowledge of the legacies of anti-Semitism and other forms of religious discrimination also emphasizes the need for compassion and concern in the wake of such tragedies.

Photo of Star of David on a Jewish Synagogue. Photo by Patrick Lentz, Flickr CC

The mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue has been characterized as the deadliest attack on Jewish people in U.S. history, and mourning services continued last week and over the weekend for the shooting victims. In a recent article for The Conversation, Jeff Gruenewald and William Parkin discuss how the recent rise in violence against religious minority communities is often tied to far-right extremist conspiracies and ideological beliefs.

The authors argue that while violent crimes targeting religious minorities and institutions have been on the rise in recent years, it’s nothing new. Far-right extremism has existed in the United States for more than a century and motivated many of these crimes. Gruenewald and Parkin explain further:

“Unfortunately, it’s not new for far-right extremists to vilify non-white, non-Anglo-Saxon and non-Protestant religions. Judaism has endured most of their ideological rage and conspiratorial paranoia…Their dogma claims, falsely, that globalist Jews have infiltrated the government and other U.S. institutions, and that Jews and non-whites pose an existential threat to the white race.”

Using data from the U.S. Extremist Crime Database, they demonstrate that since 1990, far-right extremists have commited 217 ideologically motivated homicides, nineteen of which targeted religious institutions or individuals. While there are many examples of far-right extremist violence that have not been religiously motivated, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the authors indicate that far-right extremist violence against religious minorities — especially places of worship — appears to be on the rise since 2010. And beyond these cases,there is evidence of over 100 failed or foiled plots against Jewish institutions or individuals between 1990 and 2014.

While mass shootings and extremist violence are rare events, Gruenewald and Parkin’s research demonstrates that there are some disturbing patterns in far-right extremism and its connections to mass violence. The authors conclude with the need to prevent far-right radicalization,

“We believe countering divisive narratives with different viewpoints informed by evidence on what works to prevent radicalization is more productive than aggravating wounds with politicized rhetoric. As Americans, we must speak openly about the perils of white supremacy, anti-Semitism and both the rhetorical and real dehumanization of those we perceive as unlike us. Those wielding political power and influence need to publicly and clearly condemn acts of violence by extreme far-rightists and the ideologies underpinning this form of domestic terrorism.”

Photo of a person sitting at a coffee shop table with a mug and a laptop. Photo by veganstraightedge, Flickr CC

Hate ordering a coffee and a scone, laptop in tow, only to find out that all the good tables next to the outlets are taken? Coworking spaces seem to be the affordable solution. Upscale urban restaurants –looking to make money during morning and afternoon off-hours — have started partnering with coworking startups to provide affordable workspaces with power strips, fast wifi, and bottomless coffee and tea. In a recent Vox article, Gaby DelValle calls upon the work of sociologist Dalton Conley to describe this latest trend in ‘weisure.’

“In his 2009 book Elsewhere, USA, Princeton University sociologist Dalton Conley referred to this as ‘weisure,’ or the merging of work and leisure. This breakdown of the boundary between labor and enjoyment, Conley wrote, is ultimately destructive, even if it’s disguised as a boon for both employee and employer.”

Coworking spaces, like Spacious in New York City, are expanding as more workers turn to freelancing or telecommuting. Having the freedom to work from anywhere may eliminate some of the role conflict experienced by people trying to juggle work, family, and their social life, but it also means they need a place to work from. Many workers find coworking spaces preferable to coffee shops because of the amenities and the camaraderie of working among other people. Yet, Conley explains, the shift to coworking also has less desirable consequences.

“This work-and-play blurring ends up enhancing [their] sense of alienation,” he wrote. “It’s not just that they feel like they need to be working when they are ostensibly supposed to be having fun or, conversely, that they should stop working and be there for their kids, spouse, or friends. It’s not just that [they] need to be everywhere at once. It’s that once disparate spheres have now collided and interpenetrated each other, creating a sense of ‘elsewhere’ at all time. … Home is more like work and work is more like home and the private and public spheres are indistinguishable from each other.”

As Conley explains, coworking is part of a larger trend of blurring distinctions in the social world: home–office, work–leisure, public–private, and even self–other. The result for many is a sense of alienation: No matter where we are, we’re always wondering where we should be and where we need to be. When we participate in ‘weisure,’ we feel that we should be ‘elsewhere.’

Photo of people protesting student debt. Photo by Tom Woodward, Flickr CC

While considerable media attention has been paid to the student debt crisis in the United States, few stories have detailed how this burden falls disproportionately on Black borrowers. Recently, CNBC interviewed Jason Houle about how student loans contribute to the racial wealth gap.

In their research, Houle and his co-author found that Black Americans accumulate nearly twice as much debt as their white counterparts by graduation. This disparity grows through adulthood as Black borrowers pay their loans at a slower rate than whites (4% per year vs. 10% per year). Fifteen years after college, Black borrowers hold 185% more student debt than whites. Houle contends that “the racial wealth gap is both the biggest and has grown the fastest among those with a college education,” and that student loans are a primary reason for this trend. In fact, student loans explain roughly 25% of the total racial wealth gap by age 30.

Houle offers several explanations for this gap. Black students on average have less financial capacity to pay for college than whites, causing them to pursue more loans. Additionally, Black students are more likely to attend expensive for-profit colleges and use private loans, both of which offer fewer protections to consumers. Houle uses the phrase “predatory inclusion” to describe this phenomenon, remarking that expanded access to higher education for Black Americans has also expanded opportunities for financial institutions to exploit them. These findings have made Houle rethink the metaphor of higher education as an engine of upward mobility: 

“In a world where we have rising college costs and rising student debt, it raises questions about whether or not that engine may be sputtering out.”

Photo of emergency worker on a street responding to a release of mercury. Photo by Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection, Flickr CC

Gentrification is rapidly transforming once-industrial cities into trendy urban neighborhoods.  However, the dangers that lie below the surface – “hundreds of millions of pounds” of hazardous wastes released by small and large businesses each year – fail to be addressed at the same rate. In a recent interview in The Guardian, sociologists Scott Frickel and James R. Elliot discuss findings from their book about the limitations of current data on environmental hazards and how gentrification has diversified the types of people at risk of exposure to toxic waste.

Frickel and Elliot explain that government databases on hazardous sites only appeared in mid 1980s, and databases often exclude manufacturers that have few employees or release under a specified threshold of pollutants. Reporting is also completely voluntary, meaning the databases only contain the information facilities choose to report. In their research, Frickel and Elliot use old manufacturing directories to address these limitations by creating their own database. They found manufacturing to be heavily concentrated in certain “legacy sites,” or areas where you would expect to find heavy industry with large concentrations of factories or other facilities. However, these site boundaries also spread out slowly over time, and so too did the hazardous wastes. While disadvantaged social groups are more typically exposed to these pollutants, gentrification has disrupted this to some extent.  Elliot explains,

“We do also find things that we’ve come to unfortunately expect from the vast research on environmental injustices… These larger facilities are opening up and disproportionately concentrating in areas of ethnic minority and low-income settlement. But when we begin to consider the spread and the accumulation across cities as land uses change, that picture also changes. We begin to see, as one of our colleagues put it, that we’re all in this together. Many different types of neighborhoods are exposed.”

To remedy this exposure to hazardous materials, Frickel suggests that urban planners seriously consider the history of pollutants that exist below our cities when addressing sustainability. It remains to be seen how gentrification will impact citizens’ ability to hold businesses and government officials accountable for these environmental hazards, but recent events such as the water crisis in Flint should serve as a key example of how far we have left to go to address toxic hazards. 

Photo of two people walking through rows of large columns. Photo by Roman Boed, Flickr CC

Despite the longevity signified by the phrase, “till death do us part,” many American marriages are not so permanent. The statistic that half of marriages end in divorce has been cited for decades, but research by Philip Cohen shows that divorce rates have been falling for the last few years, even after accounting for demographic changes over that time. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Andrew Cherlin provides an unromantic explanation for the recent trend: “In order to get divorced, you have to get married first.”

In other words, declines in divorce are more driven by who is getting married than increased marital stability. Historically, divorce rates have been highest among Americans without a college degree. However, this group is now more likely to delay or forego marriage than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Victor Chen suggests that one factor responsible for marriage declines among people without a college degree is lack of jobs. Well-paying jobs for the less educated have become sparse as the American economy has transitioned away from manufacturing. Without stable employment, it is harder to maintain long-term romantic partnerships.

Another factor could be a rising acceptance of cohabitation, which has decreased the pressure for couples in their 20s to marry. Delaying marriage has benefits for marital quality. Cherlin explains:

“If you’re older, you’re more mature … you probably have a better job, and those things make it less likely that you’ll get into arguments with your spouse.”

However, declines in marriage do not necessarily mean that Americans are getting better at long-term partnership. Rather, relationship volatility is moving from the context of marriage to cohabitation, where it is harder to measure. These falling marriage rates among the less-educated parallel a growing gap between the richest Americans and everyone else. College graduates, who are more likely to marry, are better positioned to endure economic uncertainty and build wealth through their pooled incomes. This leads Cohen to conclude that marriage is “an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.” In other words, while declining divorce may look like a positive trend at first glance, it may speak more to growing inequality than it does enduring love.

Graffiti image of Angela Davis. Photo by mike krzeszak, Flickr CC

The contemporary Afro hairstyle has a particular history in the United States that signifies political, cultural, and social resistance. For one, it is a symbol of resistance against white cultural notions of what types of hairstyles and clothing are “aesthetically pleasing.” It also represents a global movement. However, the Afro’s use in popular culture and the media sometimes contradicts the goals of social resistance. A recent article in The Atlantic by Saida Grundy documents how modern uses of the hairstyle can both further ideas of resistance and reduce the Afro to merely a media commodity.

Grundy argues the use of the Afro by Colin Kaepernick in a recent Nike ad campaign has turned a symbol of resistance — made famous during the Black Power movement by people like Angela Davis and other revolutionaries — into a retail commodity. Davis also faced this issue. She was troubled by the way her activism and scholarly work was reduced to an iconic image sold on various merchandise. In a similar way, the branding of Kaepernick’s racial politics risks undermining his intention of highlighting egregious racial disparities in the United States. According to Grundy, Kaepernick has no control of how his message will be received by Nike consumers. Instead,

“He is a proxy—a window-dressing model for the larger project of packaging Black Power images, which is jarringly similar to the cultural reimagining that deemed Davis’s style and the black leather jackets and berets of her contemporaries irresistibly and undeniably cool.”

In short, using symbols of Black resistance in consumer culture can be a double-edged sword. While the use of these symbols can further the movement’s publicity and longevity (as represented by the longtime symbolism of the Afro), it also runs the risk of reducing its message to something that can be easily bought or sold.

Protestors holding up letters that spell, “liar.” Photo by Mobilus in Mobili, Flickr CC

Vox writer Zack Beauchamp, among many other cultural critics and journalists, became “obsessed” with the question of why Kavanaugh supporters appear unfazed by potentially false claims during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Beauchamp’s article on the subject relied extensively upon an American Sociological Review article (and an extensive tweet thread from one of the authors) to explain why this might be the case.

According to research from Oliver Hahl, Minjae Kim, and Ezra Zuckerman-Sivan, voters can recognize that a politician is lying but still consider them authentic. Their study includes analysis of President Trump’s claim during the 2016 campaign that global warming is a hoax developed by China, which most of the participants labeled as “highly false.” The authors found that,

“Trump voters were significantly more likely to justify the lie as a form of symbolic protest…[and they were] much more likely to think the statement ‘was his way of challenging the elite establishment’ than to see the statement as true.”

To test these findings further, Hahl and colleagues conducted an experiment that involved a simulated college election where the main issue was the imposition of a campus alcohol ban (which would threaten campus traditions). Participants who were assigned the traditionalist group and led to believe that the establishment was treating them unfairly supported a candidate who used clearly false data because they viewed the candidate as speaking toward a deeper truth. As demonstrated by the research, the election, and Kavanaugh’s hearings, there must be some sort of legitimacy crisis — either a corrupt establishment or unfair favoring of an upstart group — in order to set up an environment where lies resonate with a sense of truth for an aggrieved group. Beauchamp expands further,

“As with Trump, the deeper truth is that a particular group is treated unfairly by the establishment (recall Kavanaugh’s opening),” Zuckerman-Sivan wrote in a Twitter thread. “So long as the obvious lies can be framed as serving that larger truth, the liar can present himself as the group’s ‘authentic champion.’”

Importantly, Hahl and colleagues find that individuals from all across the political spectrum were susceptible to “the appeal of the lying demagogue” — making lies in search of a larger truth a more common occurrence than just in the last election.

Photo by USAG- Humphreys, Flickr CC

All parents want the best for their children, but what happens when the best for their own child means disadvantaging many more? In an article recently published in The Atlantic, sociologist Margaret Hagerman shares the story behind her new book, White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege in a Racially Divided America. She spent two years interviewing and observing upper-middle-class suburban white families in a midwestern city in the United States with one goal: to find out how white children learn about race. Hagerman spent a significant amount of time with 36 children between the ages of 10 and 13, and analyzed how homework, games, and conversations with friends and family members influenced their interpretations of race. Hagerman says,

“One of the things I was really struck by was how frequently some of these children used the phrase That’s racist or You’re racist. They were using this word in contexts that had nothing to do with race: They were playing chess, and they would talk about what color chess pieces they wanted to have, and then one of them would say, “Oh, that’s racist”—so things that had to do with colors, but also sometimes just out of the blue, instead of saying, “That’s stupid.” These kids have taken this phrase, That’s racist, and inverted it in a way such that it’s become meaningless.”

Hagerman also observed affluent parents calling schools to demand the best teachers in certain topics and pulling their students out of a public school to enroll them in a private one after a “racist incident.” These actions serve as reinforcing agents, propagating the idea that “your own child is the most important thing”a belief that Hagerman thinks should be reconsidered by all.

“When affluent white parents are making these decisions about parenting, they could consider in some way at least how their decisions will affect not only their kid, but other kids. This might mean a parent votes for policies that would lead to the best possible outcome for as many kids as possible, but might be less advantageous for their own child…I don’t have any grand answer, but I think people could think in bigger ways about what it means to care about one another and what it means to actually have a society that cares about kids.”