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 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 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 Nate Croft, Flickr CC

Photo by Nate Croft, Flickr CC

In the weeks following Trump’s election and the growing visibility of white nationalism, people of color have received a barrage of unsolicited Tweets and emails asking them to weigh in. These inquiries often come from white people who, in their attempts to be good allies, seek people of colors’ perspectives and analyses regarding tough issues. Such action is often well-intentioned, but it can be taxing on those constantly being asked their take, and it can leave some people feeling cornered into playing a “race ambassador role.  In a candid conversation with Slate, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom describes the emotional labor that these interactions demand from people of color. She said,

“Black people have one primary job: to manage white people’s emotions. Their emotions are high right now and we’re being overtaxed with it. And our various levels of individual privilege circumscribe how much we can push back on managing their emotions.”

Many of the inquiries she and other black women receive come from liberal white women reeling in disbelief over the high proportion of white female voters who supported Trump. Being put in this situation by white friends is a common occurrence for many people of color, and for black women especially. As Cottom describes,

“The emails I get from people are epic. It has the extra gendered dynamic of expecting black women to midwife white women in crisis.”

Photo by USDA, Flickr CC

Photo by USDA, Flickr CC

Supermarket accessibility is a common marker of  community health, especially in terms of transportation, housing, and employment. Houston, TX has recently become one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the U.S. due to its flourishing Hispanic population, but a recent article in Rivard Report details a new study that reveals unequal access to supermarkets in this major Texas city. 

The research team, including Heather O’Connell, Jenifer Bratter, and Lester King, found that supermarket access is lowest in Houston neighborhoods with the largest black populations. This relationship remained even when accounting for median income, the percentage of the population with college degrees and retail jobs, and population density.

The neighborhoods with the highest supermarket accessibility were majority White-Asian, Hispanic-Asian, and those with no majority. Those on the bottom-tier in accessibility were black-Hispanic, white-black, and black-white communities. Labeling this as a “tri-racial system of social stratification,” the researchers found that if a neighborhood has a majority of white or Asian inhabitants, it will likely have a supermarket within a half-mile, but in neighborhoods with a white majority and a sizable black population, the likelihood of a nearby supermarket is extremely diminished. The researchers explain,

“This clustering leaves some areas of the city with relatively less investment, particularly when comparing the southern and northeastern portions of the city with the northwestern corner of the city … What this tri-racial system tells us is that social stratification is happening along multiple racial and ethnic lines and to somewhat differing degrees depending on the group.”

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.'”

911 Call Center in Seattle. Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives, Flickr CC

911 Call Center in Seattle. Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives, Flickr CC

The relationship between communities and police officers is getting an increasing amount of attention, particularly the effect police violence has on communities. The Atlantic recently reported on a new study by sociologists Matthew Desmond, Andrew Papachristos, and David Kirk that explores how trust in the police often decreases after a community experiences police violence. After analyzing 911 calls made in Milwaukee from 2004 to 2010, the researchers found that instances of police violence had an impact on the number of 911 calls being placed.

The study began after the highly publicized beating of Frank Jude by police officers in Milwaukee in 2004, after which the authors found that 22,000 fewer calls were placed to 911. They discovered a similar pattern following the killing of Sean Bell in Queens, New York in 2006, and the assault of Danyall Simpson in Milwaukee in 2007. The researchers concluded that instances of police violence, both locally and nationally, have lasting effects on African American communities as whole. David Kirk says,

“Once the story of Frank Jude’s beating appeared in the press, Milwaukee residents, especially people in black neighborhoods, were less likely to call the police, including to report violent crime. This means that publicized cases of police violence can have a community-wide impact on crime reporting that transcends individual encounters.”

Papachristos added in a statement,

“Police departments and city politicians often frame a publicized case of police violence as an ‘isolated incident’ … No act of police violence is an isolated incident, in both cause and consequence. Seemingly isolated incidents of police violence are layered upon a history of unequal policing in cities.”