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.”

Photo by Sɨℓνεя Sɦɨɳε, Flickr CC

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.  

Photo by Logan Ingalls, Flickr CC

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?”

Photo by Mobilus In Mobili, Flickr CC

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.   

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr CC

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.

Photo by Dean Hochman, Flickr CC

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 Tim Sackton, Flickr CC.

Photo by Tim Sackton, Flickr CC.

Sociology thoroughly embraces the “social construction” of race — that the ways we see, interpret, and act upon people’s “race” are actually created and maintained because of social norms. This line of thinking hasn’t caught on everywhere and medicine — especially since the completion of the Human Genome Project — often treats race as a biological, scientific category. This misunderstanding of race can have detrimental consequences, particularly when medical students are taught to use race as a shortcut for diagnosis.

Law and sociology professor Dorothy Roberts described this problem to Stat News:

“Right now, students are learning an inaccurate and unscientific definition of race. It’s simply not true that human beings are naturally divided into genetically distinct races. So it is not good medical practice to treat patients that way.”

She goes on to explain the relationship between race and health:

“It’s not that race is irrelevant to health, but it’s not relevant to health because of innate differences. It’s relevant because racism affects people’s health.”

Sociologist and physician Brooke Cunningham has taken a hands-on approach, giving lectures to first-year students at the University of Minnesota Medical School about race. She says, 

“People have been talking about race as a social construction for years and years and years and years and years and years and years. But there’s been a slow uptake of that understanding in medicine.”

Cunningham teaches students about the history of racial categories, which have changed drastically over time and space, and she describes how stereotypes and misunderstandings of race have influenced medicine over time. With the lack of understanding regarding the social construction of race in the medical profession, lectures like Cunningham’s provide a key intervention in the future of health care and the treatment of patients of all races.

Photo by 401(K) 2012, Filckr CC

Photo by 401(K) 2012, Filckr CC

Although industrialized nations are believed to have better health care, fewer health risks, and longer life expectancy, a recent report from the National Center For Health Statistics reports that life expectancy actually dropped in the United States for the first time in two decades. Chief among the causes of this shift is an increase in death due to diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

Numerically speaking, the drop in life expectancy was small – in 2014 the life expectancy was 78.9 years, compared to 78.8 in 2015.  Nevertheless, it is rather alarming, especially when comparing it to the World Health Organization report, which stated an increase in global life expectancy by five years since 2000. Whereas the rest of the world is, on average, living longer, this trend doesn’t hold in the U.S., particularly among white males, white females, and black males

The Huffington Post talked to Jarron Saint Onge, professor of sociology at Kansas University, about these findings. Saint Onge said that this drop in life expectancy challenges the very idea of what it means to be an advanced society. Saint Onge believes that the effects are most notable in poorer communities, saying, “It has to do with smoking, obesity, lack of quality diets and exercise, which are really responses to poverty.” 

Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann

Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann, Flickr CC

Originally published Sept. 28, 2016

Arlie Russell Hochschild, professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, spent five years in Louisiana to explore why many Americans with lower incomes, in states receiving more government funding than most, embrace politicians pledging to cut that funding. It’s called “the red-state paradox,” and Louisiana is a prime example. It’s one of the poorest states, receives 44% of its funding from the government, and it supported Donald Trump in the primary.

Hochschild recently talked with Wisconsin Public Radio, detailing her findings that, for many Louisiana conservatives, policies bringing the disadvantaged forward often make them feel like they are being pushed back. Hochschild uses a metaphor of waiting in a long line winding up a steep hill, saying,

“You have worked your butt off. And you’re waiting in line for this American dream, and you notice suddenly that somebody is butting in front.”

Those who are suspicious of government policies like affirmative action see minorities, women, immigrants, and refugees as being permitted to cut in line by President Obama himself. For someone in an impoverished state, sending their children to some of the worst schools in the nation, and facing an incredibly low life expectancy, this doesn’t look like progress. The government is not seen as their ally, nor are the folks calling them “uneducated ignorant southerners” when they protest. Listening to their real stories, rather than leaning on such stereotypes, is how Hochschild crosses an “empathy bridge” in order to understand those supporting the controversial candidate.

In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana and her parents can only dream of opening a restaurant.

In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana and her parents can only dream of opening a restaurant.

Originally published March 30, 2016

Disney movies get a lot of flack for promoting unrealistic gender expectations, especially for young girls. But kids are getting messages about more than just gender. A recent article in New York Magazine featured a study helmed by sociologist Jessi Streib that revealed that successful G-rated movies, including many Disney films, communicate unrealistic depictions of social class.

In over half of the 32 films they studied, the main characters were upper- or the upper middle-class, clearly misrepresenting the distribution of wealth both in the U.S. and the world. In addition, many downplayed or even romanticized the hardships of lower-class status. For instance, in Aladdin, wealth and poverty are depicted as two sides of the same coin with each equally constraining individuals’ lives. Unlike in adult films where working class characters tend to be portrayed as irresponsible, in G-rated films, working-class characters are shown as warm members of a tight-knit community. In fact, in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, it is the lower-class characters who teach their upper-class characters about humanity, empathy, and love:

The key takeaway, from the authors’ point of view, is that these films legitimize and reinforce class structures. Middle-class and poor people are de-emphasized, as are the difficulties associated with not having enough money. Moreover, climbing the class ladder isn’t presented as particularly difficult.