Originally published March 15, 2016

Race is a socially constructed system of classification often conceptualized as different tones of skin color, and it’s easy to see how people may conflate the two. Interestingly enough, however, skin color can have distinct impacts, including tangible ones like differences in paychecks. A recent Sociology of Race & Ethnicity article explains.

Alexis Rosenblum, William Darity Jr., Angel L. Harris, and Tod G. Hamilton draw on the New Immigrant Survey, a nationally representative study sampling over 8,000 permanent-resident immigrants. Other scholars had already conducted some analyses on the NIS, but Rosenblum and her coauthors provide a vital intervention: describing how color variation predicts immigrant wages by home geographic region, disaggregating data previously studied as composite.

Their findings show that, overall, there is a negative relationship between skin color and wages—darker immigrants are paid less. Further exploration goes further to show that immigrants from of European, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries do not contribute to this overall finding: only darker-skinned immigrants from Latin American or Sub-Saharan-African countries are penalized on payday.

The new work also makes it plain that skin shade matters more than race among respondents from Latin American or Caribbean nations. “Light” or “dark” skin color predicted wages in these groups better than “white” or “black” racial identity. The opposite held true for Sub-Saharan respondents, among whom being identified as “black” was a better predictor of lower wages than darker skin. As scholars tackle questions about assimilation, integration, and ethnic diversity, findings like these make us all remember that race and color have important effects, especially when considering how each intersects with class.

See also Ellis P. Monk’s AJS findings that skin tone corresponds to unequal health outcomes, covered on TSP by Amber Joy Powell.

Photo by Keoni Cabral, Flickr CC https://flic.kr/p/8UwScV
Photo by Keoni Cabral, Flickr CC

More people are talking about the dangers of lead poisoning public water systems—and children. Public water systems are not the only way to be exposed to lead poisoning, however; the human body can ingest lead through paint chips, gasoline exhaust, and industrial processes. Previous research on environmental health hazards has illustrated that a person’s neighborhood (a product of class factors) best predicts their risk of being exposed to these dangers. Studies also show that predominantly black or white neighborhoods experience different levels of environmental health hazards. Now, writing in the Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, Heather Moody, Joe T. Darden, and Bruce William Pigozzi demonstrate the significance of class and race in black-white gaps in childhood blood-lead-levels (BLLs).

The authors use Census data from the Detroit metropolitan area alongside Michigan Medicaid data to examine black and white childhood BLLs. Drawing on a sample of over 160,000 children, the authors compare BLLs between black and white children of the same age across socioeconomic positions. As expected, children of all races had lower BLLs the higher their class. Unexpectedly, however, the authors find gaps in BLLS by race that grow with class. The gap between black and white childhood BLLs is very low among the poorest, but rises in more affluent neighborhoods.

Some ideas to explain this paradox include the possibility that black families may be relegated to older or less desirable houses within wealthier neighborhoods (infamous historical “redlining” comes to mind). Thus, even though class is a strong predictor of your risk for lead exposure, race still plays an important role. These findings also challenge assumptions that class mobility can erase racial inequality absent other interventions.

Image via FoxFilm.com
Image via FoxFilm.com

It isn’t every day that scientific research involves a bloody cage match, but that’s the life of a sociologist. In his Social Problems article, UCLA graduate student Neil Gong reports on his observations in a no-holds-barred fighting and weapons group, a club where there are no rules to maintain order or safety in the ring. The group’s only decree is that fighters should remain “friends at the end of the day.” After observing bouts and participating, Gong describes how fighters create and follow unofficial rules. He details three ways in which the participants regulate happenings in the arena.

First, the participants cultivate a code of honor, including shared, core understandings of “dirty” or dishonorable moves in the ring. Second, Gong finds that hesitation helps maintain order; since the fighters rely on rules and regulations in the rest of their lives, hesitation about how to handle unexpected moments in the ring tend to keep things in check. And third, rules external to the club, such as self-defense laws in general society, quietly enter these spaces, helping to shape the tools and tactics participants are willing to use.

In essence, even when there are no official “rules,” people in social contexts stick to a general set of norms and ideas for maintaining order. Gong’s hard-hitting research highlights how there are always rules… even when there aren’t.

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr CC
Photo by Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr CC

Many factors predict rates of gun ownership, including race, education and income levels, political-party affiliation, and local crime rates. But what about legislation and statements from local politicians and media? Do these factors also influence gun sales? University of Washington professor (and current Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar in Health Policy at the University of Michigan) Rene D. Floresresearch explores the relationship between the two.

Flores tests whether an increase in anti-immigration ordinances or arguments predicts an increase in gun sales within twenty-four Pennsylvania counties. Using administrative data from the countries themselves, he shows how proposed anti-immigrant laws, such as increased deportation power or English-only mandates, predicts an increased sale of handguns. Even after controlling for other factors that predict gun ownership, proposed anti-immigrant ordinances and rates of gun sales track each other closely. Flores also finds a similar link between anti-immigrant-ordinances and subsequent handgun purchases in South Carolina.

Flores suggests the relationship springs from the rhetoric used by politicians and media outlets that describes immigrants as criminal, violent, and dangerous. When immigrants or other populations are portrayed negatively in this way, social anxiety can catch fire in native populations. He tests this claim by examining how, after anti-immigrant ordinances are proposed in Pennsylvania counties, local media run more stories linking immigrants to crime and violence. He suggests that these stories either cause or reflect a change in local attitudes toward immigration—one that results in increased anti-immigration sentiment and gun sales. In short, anti-immigration legislation and rhetoric can shape public attitudes, and social anxiety can predict the likelihood that locals “lock and load.”

George Wilson, Vincent J. Roscigno, Matt Huffman, “Racial Income Inequality and Public Sector Privatization,” Social Problems, 2015
Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr CC
Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr CC

Public sector jobs, like those in the military, education, and prisons, have long been seen as increasing racial equality; they’re often service-oriented and secure, providing seniority, benefits, and paths to promotion. But as “new governance,” described by George Wilson, Vincent J. Roscigno, and Huffman’s new Social Problems research, and privatization make the public sector look more like the private sector, racial wage parity erodes. In exploring their findings, the authors challenge scholarship on institutions and inequality that has assumed that, over time, “social change and associated structural transformations will reduce… inequalities”—that organizational and bureaucratic forces will lead, inevitably, to drops in racism and discrimination.

Using two datasets, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID2012) and the Integrated Public Use Data Series (IPUMS), Wilson, Roscigno, and Huffamn compare wage discrepancies between black and white employees across time and “new governance,” controlling for factors such as work ethic, education, physical health, gender, age, and unionization. The authors show that, with privatization, wage discrepancies by race grow within and beyond the public sector; this change is not explained by other variables.

New governance means both private and public sectors operate, increasingly, under business models, complete with managerial discretion and market principles. Thus, public jobs start to look more like private ones and rather than continuing a legacy of increased equality, both sectors see more inequality over time.

Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr.
Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr.

In Social Forces, Megan Andrew examines how being held back in grade school affects kids’ high-school completion, college entry, and college completion. Students can be held back for a variety of reasons, many of which are well intentioned. But as Andrew shows, such jarring incidents and processes can be “scarring,” leaving lasting impacts on young people’s lives, moreso depending on its timing.

Andrew uses two national, longitudinal studies in her work: the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and the National Educational Longitudinal Study 1988. Each consists of repeated surveys of thousands of students from grade-school into adult life. Even when she uses a method called “sibling fixed-effects” to control for family, birth-cohort, and demographic characteristics within families, retention still has clear consequences for high-school completion. Andrew finds that any grade-school retention greatly decreases a child’s odds of high school completion; however, the effect is dampened when the retention occurs earlier rather than later. That is, repeating the second grade isn’t as harmful as being held back in the eighth grade. Luckily, once Andrew controls for high school completion, the scarring effect seems to go down; if kids graduate high school, a past retention has less impact on their college entry and completion.

Drawing on sociological understandings of performance and self-esteem, Andrew theorizes that stigma and students’ doubts about their capabilities (raised by being held back) explain the scarring effects. So when educators and parents hope to better prepare students for transitions to junior high or high school with an extra year of grade school, the move can paradoxically lower a child’s chances of educational success. Now teachers and parents can better address children’s needs with the knowledge that, if it is necessary to hold a child back in school, it’s far better to do so earlier rather than later in the educational process.