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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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.” 

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 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.

Photo by Rusty Clark, Flickr CC

Photo by Rusty Clark, Flickr CC

Many remain surprised by Donald Trump’s election success, and everyone has their own theory about how he pulled it off. Sociologist Scott Melzer suggests that the answer may be found by looking at the strategy used by the National Rifle Association: mobilize people over what upsets them. Melzer recently spoke to The Trace about how the findings in his 2012 book, Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War, can be used to understand Trump’s presidential victory.

According to Melzer, the NRA garners much of its power due to the fact that the organization is more of a social movement than an interest group. In other words, its large membership base is a stronger influence than its money. He explains,

“Social movements and their bases respond to either fear or hope. The NRA has cranked up the fear meter to 11 and has kept it there for a really long time. Threat is really the strongest source of mobilization.”

Melzer believes that members of the NRA feel as if they are losing their country, not just their guns, and that the NRA capitalizes on this fear by pushing a message of infringement on their member’s way of life. The NRA frames its members as victims of a country that is giving special rights to women, people of color, and LGBT communities, but not gun owners. This explains their emphasis on identity politics and civil rights. Melzer continues,

“The NRA, other social movement organizations, and certainly Donald Trump can get folks to believe messages that they’re victims of this kind of left-wing attack on their values, their livelihoods and ultimately their masculine identities.”

Trump touted a similar message throughout his campaign, empowering the NRA’s large membership base, along with others who were feeling threatened and left behind, to go out and protect a way of life that they believe to be in danger. 

Photo by codepinkphoenix, Flickr CC

Photo by codepinkphoenix, Flickr CC

Despite becoming more unpopular in many other nations, it appears as though the death penalty is alive and well in the United States. During the recent election, voters in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma called upon their governments to strengthen the death penalty. California rejected replacing executions with life sentences and shortened the legal process for executions. Nebraska revoked its 2015 ban on capital punishment, and Oklahoma voters motioned to include it within the state constitution.

In an article with Public Radio International, sociologist Susan Sharp from the University of Oklahoma explains why support for capital punishment is so robust in the United States and not elsewhere. According to Sharp, the U. S. embraces individualism, which allows citizens to ignore the social determinants of crime and perpetuates a “lock em’ up and throw away the key attitude.” Sharp states,

“We don’t look at social conditions and how those impact crime and criminal behavior. If you look at European countries, where there is no death penalty, they also have social service programs far superior to anything we have in this country. They don’t condemn people for needing assistance.”

Illustration by DonkeyHotey, Flickr CC

Illustration by DonkeyHotey, Flickr CC

The continued mass dumping of Hillary Clinton’s personal emails by WikiLeaks makes one wonder about the fine line between transparency in government and violations of privacy. Recently, NPR spoke to UNC sociologist Zeynep Tufekci about this very issue. Tufekci acknowledges the importance of whistle-blowing, saying that items like Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches pass the public interest test. However, she goes on to explain that what is currently being done by WikiLeaks may go beyond simply exposing a politician’s attempt to keep secrets.  She explains,

“[T]here’s a lot of personal information that is being exposed. What this does – and this is what scares me – is that this method is going to be used in the future to any political organization – dissident organizations – that are trying to challenge power. And what they’re going to end up seeing is that their personal information is going to be dumped for the world.”

For Tufekci, it does not have to be all or nothing. Her ideal is that the hacks would go through journalists who could pass on things that are in the interest of the public. This method could help avoid having a flood of distracting information that makes it difficult for people to figure out what is important and what is not. Consider her response to the adage, “Never write an email that you wouldn’t be willing to see on the front page of the New York Times”:

“That, as a warning, strikes me a little bit like you shouldn’t wear miniskirts if you don’t want to be sexually assaulted, to be honest. It might not be – it might be something you take into account. But it doesn’t mean that if the hacking does occur, that it’s all fair game.”

For now, the debate continues — does being a public official mean you are no longer entitled to a private life? And what kinds of information should be deemed public interest and what should be kept private?  

Photo by sashikag, Flickr CC

Photo by sashikag, Flickr CC

Based on the social media reactions to the final presidential debate, it’s safe to assume that most Americans are ready for this election to end. Yet, as we move towards November 8th, it is important to try to understand how Americans ended up with Donald Trump on the ticket of a major party.

Trump reminds many, such as Trevor Noah, of African authoritarian regimes. His love of authoritarian leaders and military generals echoes those of the late Qaddafi and Idi Amin, and his dislike of immigrants sounds eerily like South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. In a recent article in the Pacific Standard, research by Harvard Sociologist Bart Bonikowski and Princeton Sociologist Paul DiMaggio helps explain why the current state of American politics is not an aberration.

Bonikowski and DiMaggio argue that Americans can be divided into four nationalist camps, each with its own differing levels of patriotism and dislike of the “other”: Ardent Nationalists, Creedal Nationalist, Restrictive Nationalists, and The Disengaged. Trump disproportionately draws his support from the “restrictive nationalists.”

Even after taking into account their partisan affiliations, “ardent” and “restrictive” nationalists are both significantly more likely than other Americans to believe immigrants cause crime and take jobs away from Americans. Trump has exploited these beliefs, even as his anti-Muslim (and implicitly anti-semitic) statements have solidified his support with people who equate Americanness with Christianity. The researchers write,

“Trump’s campaign has used a particular vision of the nation that emphasizes the superiority of the American people, the moral corruption of elites, and dire threats posed by immigrants and ethnic, racial, and religious minorities.”

Trump’s rise is a result of his campaign tapping into a vision of nationalism that embraces white, heterosexual Americans’ manifest destiny and presupposed excellence. 

Photo by Gage Skidmore, Flickr CC

Photo by Gage Skidmore, Flickr CC

As the election edges ever closer, the question of how support for such a polarizing figure like Donald Trump even became possible is on many people’s minds.

An article in The New Yorker examines sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s new book “Strangers in their Own Land,” for answers to this Trump phenomenon. Hochschild set out to understand the emotional root of the Tea Party movement and the Trump euphoria. Hochschild spent five years conducting research in rural parts of Southern Louisiana, where the vast majority of the population are poor, uneducated, and white.  She found that Tea Party supporters often described American society with a single narrative of “cheaters” and individuals who “do not want to work.” The New Yorker describes this narrative, below:

“The line-cutters were African-Americans, promoted by affirmative action, she writes, but also ‘women, immigrants, refugees, public-sector workers—where will it end? Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with.'”

Hochschild writes that Trump fuels this perspective, shaming “virtually every line-cutting group” as people who are just eating away at government handouts, but then failing to mention that blue-collar white men benefit from food stamps and Medicaid. 

“‘In this feint’—by making it seem that white people who accept welfare are only taking advantage of what everyone else gets—’Trump solves a white male problem of pride.'”