Photo of an ancestry dna kit. Photo by Lisa Zins, Flickr CC

Earlier this year, Donald Trump pledged to contribute $1 million to a charity of Elizabeth Warren’s choice if she “proved” that she had Native American ancestry. Warren then released results from a DNA test indicating she may have had a Native ancestor six to ten generations ago, bringing controversy about ancestry testing to the forefront once again. The science behind DNA testing is often misunderstood or overstated, and a recent article by Wendy D. Roth and Biörn Ivemark seeks to understand how people internalize their results (or don’t). Ancestry tests use historical migration routes to “geneticize” race and ethnicity, promoting a link between biology and identity while underemphasizing social factors that shape identity categories. Roth and Ivermark examine how personal and social expectations impact consumers’ evaluations of their ancestry test results, complicating the common assumption that genes determine race.

The researchers interviewed 100 American ancestry-test consumers after they had received their results. They asked participants how they identified throughout their lives and if the DNA test altered their identities. Most participants said their identities remained consistent even after the test, but not all. Privately, bias and aspirations shaped how participants responded to their results. For instance, one white woman had previously embraced her family’s supposed Native ancestry, and when the test did not reflect this story, she rejected the test. On the other hand, participants were more likely to incorporate a new identity if they felt positively about a racial or ethnic group reflected in their test results. Publicly, participants used social cues to evaluate whether a new identity would be accepted. The results of one Black participant, for example, indicated that she may have native ancestry. When she tried to embrace this identity by volunteering at a Native community center, she felt unwelcome, and thus decided to dismiss the identity.

However, such internal and social influences aren’t constant — they differ by race.  Black respondents were the least likely to incorporate new identities, while white respondents were the most likely to do so. Black participants often assumed a multi-ethnic identity before taking the test and they generally thought cultural and political differences were more important for shaping their racial or ethnic identities than their DNA. Roth and Ivemark theorize that a desire for uniqueness made whites more eager to embrace trace levels of non-white ancestry, and white respondents were also able to embrace new identities while still retaining the social benefits of their whiteness. Overall, Roth and Ivemark’s work reemphasizes the social factors that shape identity, far beyond the capacity of ancestry tests to unveil historical genetic trends.

Photo of sign with handwritten messages of “why I didn’t report.” Photo by The All-Nite Images, Flickr CC

Emotions ran high across the nation as many of us tuned in to watch Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony of sexual assault by Judge Brett Kavanugh in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Dr. Ford’s public testimony has produced important dialogues regarding why most victims do not report, as seen in the social media hashtag #WhyIDidntReport. New research by Shamus Khan, Jennifer Hirsch, Alexander Wamboldt, and Claude A. Mellins contributes to this growing conversation by exploring the social risks students face in reporting.  

Khan and colleagues draw upon the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) study, which includes 151 interviews, 17 focus groups, 18 months of participant observation, and a random-sample survey of 1,671 college students at Columbia University and Barnard College (a women’s only institution). This study mostly draws from the interviews with college students. Researchers defined incidents of sexual victimization based on legal definitions of sexual assault, rather than incidents that students explicitly labeled as such. According to the authors’ definition, interviews revealed that 66 students recounted 89 incidents of sexual victimization.

For many victims, naming their experiences as sexual assault and telling authorities came with a variety of social risks. For one, students feared association with a stigmatized identity such as “victim” or “survivor.” They often viewed these labels as disempowering and told interviewers they didn’t want to be seen as “that girl” or “that guy.” Some students attempted to claim alternative identities as compassionate students willing to provide second chances to their perpetrators by not reporting.

Second, reporting means students encounter risks to their social networks. For example, students considered how labeling and reporting might hinder their ability to develop or preserve interpersonal relationships, which for some, include relationships with their perpetrator. Lastly, students worried they might lose access to college activities like sports, sororities, fraternities, and other student organizations, which would affect their long-term career goals. Several students discussed how reporting would add stress and take time away from their activities. Men who were intoxicated and Black men in particular expressed concern that they would be the ones accused of assault due to their alcohol intake or lack of racial privilege.

As we continue to address sexual violence in the Me Too era, this work encourages us to look beyond formal reporting policies and work to transform the social and cultural conditions that shape perceptions of risk among sexual assault victims.

Click here for more sociological research and expert insight on sexual violence!

Photo of the Assembly room in Independence Hall where the U.S. Constitution was signed. Photo by Ken Lund, Flickr CC

Research on racial attitudes finds that a more modern form of racism has emerged since the civil rights movement — people are less likely to assert biological differences between racial groups, but often utter statements that covertly reinforce racial inequality (“I’m not racist, but…” ). A recent study by Kasey Henricks suggests that such covert forms of racism were actually present in the speeches and debates about slavery during the framing of the U.S. Constitution.

Henricks and his research assistants examined over 1,000 pages of an archival collection at the Library of Congress called, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, one of the largest and oldest collections of congressional records. They focus on the three-fifths clause debate, the clause that codified slavery into law, between Northern and Southern framers about how to “properly tax” the human bondage that the United States was built upon, as well as how to count slaves for state representation in Congress.

In these discussions, Henricks finds parallels to many of the same expressions and contradictions we see today. For instance, while many framers lamented that slavery continued to exist, they simultaneously refused to extend the same humanity and rights to slaves as they did to “freepersons.”  Many framers stated their opposition to slavery, but nonetheless provided colorblind justifications for its continued existence. One of these justifications was the idea that slavery should be left up to local governance instead of federal intervention. Slaveholders also tried to distance themselves from any culpability by discussing themselves as “victims of circumstance” to a costly form of labor that made them more deserving of tax breaks. According to Henricks, these findings highlight how core American values were used to justify the continuation of slavery without ever having to explicitly discuss race.

These historical underpinnings of colorblindness illustrate that both our present and past are defined by forms of racism, overt and covert. In our current era, characterized by the reemergence of white supremacist groups and violence at Charlottesville, research must continue to demonstrate the multiple ways racism manifests itself and thus supports persistent inequalities, injustices, and violence.

Photo by Steven Depolo, Flickr CC

Racial diversity within American families has steadily increased since the mid-20th century. But norms are not changing as quickly as demographics. Individuals still question when children do not look like their caretakers (see Babysitting While Black), and suspicious gazes present a chronic annoyance to transracially adopted children. New research by Devon Goss investigates the ways that transracial adoptees and their siblings are incorrectly perceived by others and the strategies they use to respond to mischaracterization.

Goss interviewed 30 adults from across the country — 16 non-white people adopted by white families, and 14 white people with non-white adopted siblings. The interviewees reported being frequently mischaracterized when in public with their different-race siblings. Most commonly people categorized them as a romantic couple, regardless of the gender pairing of the siblings. Goss hypothesizes that a transracial pair exhibiting familial intimacy is unrecognizable to most as a sibling group, so people instead interpret them as sexual partners. She links these misperceptions to racialized stereotypes of sexuality — specifically, that non-whites are more sexually active and deviant than whites. 

The participants in the research used three strategies to challenge these false assumptions. Some openly confronted people about their stereotypical beliefs. Others used subtle conversation cues to indicate their true relationship, such as addressing their sibling as “sis.” Others humorously played along with the mischaracterization to make light of the situation. Each of these strategies represents a form of what sociologists call impression management — an attempt by transracial siblings to redefine public perceptions of them with overt or covert signals. Transracial families in America will continue this awkward exercise until societal norms acknowledge and accept their existence.

Photo of a sign with arrow pointing to
an accessible area in a subway station. Photo by Marcin Wichary, Flickr CC

We hear a lot about the gender pay gap and the racial wealth gap, but rarely about how disability also affects economic security. New research by Michelle Maroto, David Pettinicchio, and Andrew C. Patterson investigates how disability interacts with gender, race, and education level to influence economic stratification in the United States. The researchers analyze data from the 2015 American Community Survey (ACS), focusing on poverty status and total personal income (earnings, governmental income, savings). The ACS identifies people with disabilities as anyone who has cognitive, ambulatory, independent living, self-care, vision, or hearing difficulty. Instead of analyzing race, education, and gender separately, the researchers created 24 different groups where these identities intersect (e.g., black women with a bachelor’s degree, white men without a bachelor’s, Asian Pacific Islander women with a bachelor’s, and so on).

Overall, the effects of disability on poverty were strongest for women, racial minorities, and those with low levels of education. Specifically, disability had the largest effects on poverty for black and Hispanic women with low levels of education. White and Asian men with high levels of education were the least affected. In other words, if individuals already have racial, educational, and gendered privilege, these components may insulate people with disabilities from falling into poverty — in this case, highly educated white and Asian men. On the other hand, women and racial minorities who are already at a greater risk of poverty do not have that insulation.

Data come from the 2015 American Community Survey, adults age 18 and older, N = 2,490,616. Estimates refer to the percentage of persons with income at or below 100% of the federal poverty line after accounting for several control variables.

In terms of total income, disability had the largest negative effect on the most advantaged groups, particularly for men with higher levels of education. But even though more advantaged men with disabilities took the greatest hit in terms of income, they still averaged more total income — about $63,000 per year — than other groups. Less-educated women with disabilities overall earned only about $28,000 per year and women of color in this category earned even less. In other words, those with more markers of privilege have more to lose, but the more disadvantaged groups still end up at the bottom. This research shows that disability disadvantages all groups economically, but the ways it combines with other social statuses influences how groups experience economic insecurity or privilege.

Photo of a protest sign that reads, “ningún ser humano es ilegal” or no human being is illegal. Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

Recent politics on immigration reflect understandings of citizenship and ideas of what types of groups “belong” in American society. Even if immigrants have legal residency status, they may still be perceived as “illegal.” These perceptions of illegality are shaped by an individual’s ethnicity, language, economic status, and a number of cultural factors. Recent research by René D. Flores and Ariela Schachter identifies factors affecting perceptions of illegal status.

The study used survey data from 1,515 non-Hispanic white respondents across the nation. They reviewed hypothetical profiles of immigrants that included traits such as the region or length of time in a country, type of employment, national origin, education level, criminal history, language abilities, and use of government services. Respondents then rated whether the profiles were of documented or undocumented immigrants. Some of the most salient traits that influenced perceptions of legality/illegality included:

  • National Origin. In comparison to 16 other national groups, Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Syrians were most likely to be perceived as illegal; Europeans and Asians drew the least amount of suspicion.
  • Criminal Background. Individuals with criminal backgrounds were more likely to be perceived as illegal, especially in cases of violent crime like murder or sexual assault.
  • Locality. The localities of the immigrants in different scenarios — such as if they were applying to a respondent’s place of work or walking in her/his neighborhood — affected the likelihood a respondent would report an immigrant to the police to investigate their legal status.
  • Receiving Government Benefits. Whether or not respondents perceived a profile including “receiving government benefits” as undocumented varied by political party. For Republican respondents, suspicions grew when the individuals in question were receiving benefits, whereas with Democrats this had the opposite effect.

This study links current political debates and discourse to perceptions of illegality. Some of its findings echo current Republican rhetoric that labels undocumented immigrants as heinous criminals or abusers of federal government benefits. How we perceive immigrants in different social spaces affects our treatment of them, and the likelihood of branding them as criminal, cultural, economic, or social threats. For immigrants, in other words, these perceptions have real consequences and outcomes.

Photo of a police SUV. Photo by Raymond Wambsgans, Flickr CC

Researchers have documented racial inequality in a variety of social spaces, finding that blacks and whites face different experiences in domains such as education, employment, and the criminal justice system. Such research often sorts people into uniform racial categories such as “black” and “white.” New directions in this research, however, consider the spectrum of skin color alongside racial identity, assessing whether and how skin shade impacts life chances and social inequalities. A recent study by Ellis Monk describes how skin color relates to policing and punishment, demonstrating there are penalties associated with darker skin.

Monk draws on data from the National Survey of American Life, a nationally representative in-person survey that asks participants about their lives. During this process, interviewers noted participants’ racial identity and the darkness of their skin. Monk then used these variables to determine whether skin color or racial identity predicts participants’ arrests or incarceration. He also considered a variety of other factors, such as participants’ age, education, marital status, poverty, employment, region, history of drug use, and hometown characteristics, to better test whether skin color relates to contact with the criminal justice system.

For black Americans, darker skin color is strongly associated with being incarcerated and/or arrested, even considering all of the factors above. In fact, the penalties that darker-skinned blacks face in comparison to light-skinned blacks are comparable to the penalties that blacks as a whole face in comparison to whites. This research highlights how traditional approaches to studying racial inequality can benefit from considering how variations in skin color affect life chances in education, employment, and the criminal justice system.

Photo of a portable structure labeled, “drug testing office.” Photo by Phil! Gold, Flickr CC

For a long time, individuals and organizations have drawn stark lines between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. Over the past 40 years, these distinctions have been used to justify cutting or limiting social safety net programs, leading to a decline in cash welfare programs and other parts of social assistance programs that working-age, able-bodied, poor adults are eligible for. Furthermore, researchers have shown that welfare recipients are subject to a growing list of limits, conditions, and expectations. In a recent study, Eric Bjorklund, Andrew P. Davis, and Jessica Pfaffendorf continue such research by examining states’ efforts to implement drug testing for applicants to “Temporary Aid to Needy Families” (TANF), a flagship national welfare program.

In the tense racial and economic climate following Obama’s 2008 election, Arizona became the first state to introduce a policy restricting access to cash welfare for applicants based on drug test results. Since then, 15 states followed by passing drug test policies for recipients of TANF. To understand how the states that passed welfare drug testing policies potentially differ from states that did not, Bjorklund and colleagues looked for patterns in the years leading up to the implementation of the policy. They examined factors such as states’ government ideology, whether a Republican governor ousted a Democrat, the proportion of nonwhites in the population, and the white employment rate. 

Both decreases in white labor force participation and having a Republican governor were associated with a state’s implementation of a drug testing policy. The authors rely on social context to explain this finding — specifically, these policies were implemented during the economic recession following Obama’s 2008 election as the first African American President of the United States. Given the importance of the white employment rate, the authors speculate that whites may have held a zero-sum belief that economic gains by people of color would entail losses for whites. Whites’ racialized economic fears may have led them to support restrictive policies framed as “correcting” the behavior of certain “morally compromised” groups, thus prompting politicians and legislators to tighten access to welfare programs by excluding those who failed a drug test. In short, this research highlights the ways social assistance programs can be shaped by public perceptions about who deserves assistance and who doesn’t.

Photo of a Chicago public housing building. Photo by TheeErin, Flickr CC

Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed legislation that would significantly raise rents for people who rely on subsidized housing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In addition to concerns about an increase in homelessness, new research by Andrew Fenelon, Natalie Slopen, Michael Boudreaux, and Sandra Newman shows that this policy may also have a detrimental effect on children’s mental health.

Fenelon and colleagues used housing assistance records from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to compare 1,967 children currently receiving housing assistance — either living in public housing, multifamily housing, or using housing vouchers — to those set to receive housing assistance in the next two years. This setup allowed researchers to compare children receiving housing assistance with others in similar socioeconomic situations. Researchers then linked this data to measures of children’s mental health, specifically whether children likely had any socioemotional problems over the past six months. 

The study found that children currently receiving housing assistance had better mental health outcomes than those on the waiting list. However, this was only the case for children living in public housing, not those living in multifamily housing or using housing vouchers. While the researchers did not specifically study why this is the case, they suggest public housing may provide social stability for children by giving families greater access to social ties and networks. In other words, both stability and community may be necessary to support children’s mental health.

Photo of three children sitting around a circular table using laptops. Photo by Independence Learning Commons, Flickr CC

Missing the school bus is a familiar nightmare for parents everywhere. But for families in school districts with school choice policies there is a bigger timing concern: registering for the school lottery. School choice policies, such as charter schools or open enrollment, allow families to select a school that is different than their traditional neighborhood school, but all of these policies require that families navigate a selection process. New research from Kelley Fong and Sarah Faude finds that missing initial registration deadlines is common and closely linked to race and class, making the timing of registration a key part of educational inequality under school choice.  

Fong and Faude worked with Boston Public Schools, which no longer has traditional neighborhood schools. Instead BPS uses a “compulsory choice policy” that requires new families to register and rank schools in person at a registration center. School registration and assignment for new families begins in January, and families that wait to register later are limited to schools that still have availability — which means that they cannot access top-ranked schools. Administrative data from the district revealed clear race and class stratification in registration timelines. During 2015 and 2016, 83% of white kindergarteners registered in the first round, compared with only 53% of black kindergarteners. Additionally, almost half of kindergarteners in lower-income neighborhoods missed the January deadline.   

The authors conducted a survey of families who registered in the summer (those who missed all of the school lottery deadlines and must register for remaining spots on a first-come, first-serve basis) and interviews with selected summer registrants. They found that family instability and complex bureaucratic procedures were the most common reasons for late summer registration. Half of the summer registrants indicated a recent move, while others indicated a change in child custody arrangements, changes in family finances, unfamiliarity with the system, and navigating multiple school systems. Instead of compulsory choice opening paths to desired schools, a mismatch between family circumstances and bureaucratic processes meant that many families were effectively shut out of the best schools. This research shows that when and how families register for schools is a major concern for those interested in educational equity.