An actual Black Lives Matter protest. Photo by Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr CC

A few weeks ago, Pepsi released an advertisement with Kendall Jenner wherein the young celebrity takes a stroll through a crowded protest, sodas in hand. The commercial received a lot of criticism and was taken off the air almost immediately. In an article in The Ubyssey, University of British Columbia sociologist Rimal Wilkes describes some of the issues with the commercial, particularly how it misrepresents the nature of protests.

To begin with, the commercial sports a diverse set of protesters, but that makes it difficult to imagine what exactly they’re protesting — Racial inequality? Environmental issues? Furthermore, the crowd in the ad looks like people who are quite privileged, which goes against what protest is about. As Wilkes explains, Kendall Jenner—as a famous fashion persona—is unlikely to share in the same risks or dangers associated with protesting or the issues which drive it. Wilkes explains, 

“It’s too overtly politically correct. The diversity doesn’t look right … This ad is about protest as a way of expressing coolness. Those aren’t the people we should be celebrating. We should celebrate the people who are putting in so much work and whose lives are on the line.”

Further, an advertisement like Pepsi’s glorifies a pro-capitalist corporation and ethos, which also goes against most protest and resistance mentalities. Wilkes argues,

“I can’t think of too many [protest] movements that are pro-capitalist. Real young people in a real protest simply wouldn’t rally around a product like the way they do in this ad. Pepsi’s goal, then, is about branding. They want you to think, ‘I’m like these people! I’m young and good looking and cool!’ … This kind of insidious branding is everywhere. This commercial is getting picked on, but there’s an element of randomness to that. This isn’t the first commercial to have problematic representation.”

Photo by Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

Within the last decade, and particularly in the past few months, the Affordable Care Act — dubbed “Obamacare” — has been such a hot topic that it might be running a fever. Interestingly, ever since Trump and congressional Republicans tried — unsuccessfully — to repeal Obamacare and replace it with what commentators have called “GOPcare,” support for Obamacare has been on the rise. But why?

A recent article from CNN suggests that it might have something to do with increased support among working class whites. In the past, especially in Republican attacks directed at former President Obama, the ACA was cast as something pushed by the first president of color to help people of color. Recent media coverage of town halls and debates centering on Obamacare, however, has shown that poor whites are realizing that they would also stand to lose their health care if the ACA is repealed. Howard University sociologist Judy Lubin explains,

“When you see white working-class Americans saying that I’m benefiting and my family is getting help from the Affordable Care Act, you start to hear ‘repair’ not ‘repeal,’ … Whites standing up in support of a policy changes the dynamics of the conversation.”

Photo from the Prison Proliferation Project

Prior to election of Donald Trump, many scholars and policymakers alike were hopeful that America’s “grand social experiment” with mass incarceration was slowly coming to an end. They saw Americans embracing a more pragmatic and rehabilitative approach to punishment and even private prisons were on the decline. However, with the Trump administration’s support for harsher crime and immigration policies, it appears as though the current prison infrastructure will multiply rather than be supplanted. In a recent piece for The Conversation, sociologist John M. Eason discusses the complicated relationship between prison proliferation and rural communities.

As Eason demonstrates, from 1970 to 2000, the number of prisons in the United States more than tripled from 511 to 1,663, the large majority of which were built in rural areas in conservative Southern states. Scholars have argued that this rise in prisons is the result of a prison-industrial complex that exploits minority populations to the benefit of poor, white, rural towns. However, Eason’s research complicates this narrative, pointing to the fact that prisons are more likely to be built in communities with a larger share of black and Hispanic populations, and that minorities are overrepresented among correctional officers in prison facilities.

Eason also discusses his new book Big House on the Prairie, which follows the development of a federal prison in Forrest City, Arkansas. His book uncovers how prisons are more than just about job-creation to the communities in which they are housed, demonstrating that the prison in Forrest City united an entire community as a reputation building project. He concludes that rural communities are marred by many of the same problems associated with low-income urban neighborhoods, and that local prisons help bring a temporary boost to many struggling local economies. These economic incentives are a large factor in why these rural towns are unwilling, and perhaps unable, to support prison downsizing. Eason concludes:

“Weaning rural communities off the prison economy will mean considering alternative investment strategies like green industries. If we do not provide creative alternatives to depressed rural communities, we stand little chance in reducing their over-reliance on prisons.”

Photo by momo, Flickr CC

In America, conventional wisdom has long stated that hard work is the most important ingredient in the formula for success. Many social scientists, however, have discussed how systematic and institutional practices mean that this age-old adage is often more idealistic than reality, and this particularly comes into play when explaining underprivilege and disadvantage. Though “hard work” gives you a chance at climbing up the ladder, the way the ladder is designed plays a big part as well, making it harder for some people than others. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Brandeis University professor of law and sociology Tom Shapiro discusses how these processes are extremely pronounced for people of color due to historical and contemporary policy norms.

From the GI bill to the implementation of social security, African-Americans were disadvantaged the most in the mid-20th century as the American social state expanded but excluded people of color. Today, even though opportunities for African-Americans increased near the end of the 20th century, black-middle class families still live in worse neighborhoods and have lower amounts of family wealth than their white middle-class counterparts. This means that economic mobility—the concept of families and their children advancing up the economic ladder—becomes much harder for black families. Shapiro explains that a large part of the solution to this will be convincing the white working class to work with, not against, communities of color. Shapiro concludes: 

“Part of the challenge is helping the white working class — if I can use that generic phrase — to understand how economic pain is felt elsewhere, by people who may or may not be similarly situated. And, yeah, your sense of status might be changing, but the pain is much more widespread, and surely deeper in communities of color. Which is not to say you don’t count. But if you’re not in this together, the divide and conquer strategy will be successful.

You can read more about these phenomena in Dr. Shapiro’s book Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens our Future.  

Photo by Mariana Amaro, Flickr CC

Chants and songs are common in sports, but where do these chants and songs come from? A recent article in the New York Times explores how an African-American spiritual that illustrates the evils of slavery became a sports anthem for the English Rugby Team.

The song in question is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which has become a sporting, drinking anthem that unites the English in the world of rugby.  The song can be traced back to a famous comeback victory against Ireland in 1988 where the fans joyfully sang the song to celebrate the performance of Chris Oti, the first black rugby player to represent England in almost a century.

Scholars in African-American studies have mixed feelings about this appropriation. For example, Josephine Wright, a professor at College of Wooster in Ohio, believes that there is a complete lack of understanding regarding the complex history of “Swing Low.” In England, there are a fair amount of writers who have discussed putting an end to singing the song in rugby contexts. Wright explains,

“Such cross-cultural appropriations of U.S. slave songs betray a total lack of understanding of the historical context in which those songs were created by the American slave.”

However, John M. Williams, the director of the center for the Sociology of Sport at the University of Leicester, doesn’t think that telling people the song is American will change very many minds. He explains,

“The typical crowd that goes to watch the English national rugby team is not likely to be an audience that’s going to think hard about these types of questions or spend much time worrying about political correctness.”

James W. Cook, a historian at University of Michigan, noted that the United States has a long history of this kind of cultural exportation. He argued that it is often accompanied by a “historical amnesia” in which the history or cultural contexts of a song are forgotten. And while he thinks more education around “Swing Low” would be great, he admits that it may not change any minds. He states,

“When there’s any kind of boundary policing, that’s not a realistic understanding of how these cultural products move and adapt and morph as they move from place to place.”

Trump received more support from white men than any other group in the presidential election, but this was expected, at least according to sociologist Michael Kimmel. His research is part of the new but growing field of “masculinity studies,” and in a recent interview with The Guardian, he talks about his book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. His research specifically looks at how people join, and leave, white-supremacist or neo-Nazi groups, and he states that masculinity is an important part of the process.

Kimmel talks at length about many parts of this picture, including the men’s rights movement on the Internet, the role of testosterone (or the lack thereof) when it comes to men being disproportionately aggressive, and why “men are naturally aggressive” is a poor argument to defend domestic abuse.

In the interview, Kimmel explains how feelings of “aggrieved entitlement,” a sense of a loss for masculine power and tradition, can stimulate feelings of humiliation. In turn, this can drive men to join local neo-Nazi groups. There, the camaraderie and sense of community can validate a neophyte’s masculinity, convincing him to stay. In essence, masculinity is very tied up in how people join and leave hate groups and extremist enclaves. As Kimmel states,

“The camaraderie of the community validates their masculinity, and – even more importantly than that – gives them a sacred mission. That is really powerful for these guys … If you ignore masculinity in understanding how these guys get into these movements, you will not be able to help them get out.”

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.