Photo by torbakhopper via Flickr.
Photo by torbakhopper via Flickr.

Despite popular notions that the U.S. is now “post-racial,” numerous recent events (such as the Rachel Dolezal kerfuffle and the Emmanuel AME Church shooting) have clearly showcased how race and racism continue to play a central role in the functioning of contemporary American society. But why is it that public rhetoric is at such odds with social reality?

A qualitative research study by Natasha K. Warikoo and Janine de Novais provides insights. By conducting interviews with 47 white students at two elite US universities, Warikoo and de Novais explore the “lenses through which individuals understand the role of race in society.” Described as race frames, Warikoo and de Novais articulate the manner in which their respondents rely on particular cultural frames in making sense of race and race relations in the U.S.

They label the first of these the colour-blind frame*, a perspective held by respondents that suggests that the U.S. is now a “post-racial” society where race has little social meaning or consequence.

The colour-blind frame is challenged by what Warikoo and de Novais identify as the diversity frame, or the view that race is a “positive cultural identity” and that the incorporation of a multitude of perspectives (also referred to as multiculturalism) is beneficial to all those involved.

Integral to Warikoo and de Novais’ study is the finding that about half of their student respondents simultaneously house both the colour-blind and diversity frames. Of 24 students who held a colour-blind frame, 23 also promoted a diversity frame. Warikoo and de Novais explain this discursive discordance as a product of the environments in which respondents reside: a pre-college environment where race is typically de-emphasized and a college environment that amplifies the importance of diversity and multiculturalism.

Importantly, Warikoo and de Novais argue that the salience of these two co-occurring race frames is significant not only because of their seeming contradictions, but because they share conceptions of race that largely ignore the structural basis of racism and racial inequality in the U.S. Ultimately, Warikoo and de Novais’ findings illustrate the general ambivalence that their white respondents share about race and race-based issues—undoubtedly reflective of the discrepancies concerning race in broader society.

*Spelling from original article.

Gentrification—the process by which poor, urban neighborhoods experience economic reinvestment and an influx of middle- and upper middle-class residents—has been extensively studied by sociologists. And while researchers themselves may know gentrification when they see it, providing generalizable explanations for how and why it occurs has proven far more challenging.

Enter Jackelyn Hwang and Robert J. Sampson. In their new study on urban neighborhoods in Chicago, the two elaborate on the role of perception in influencing a neighborhood’s susceptibility to gentrification. In particular, Hwang and Sampson explore why certain neighborhoods of color gentrify faster than others. Referencing research on the impact of stigma on neighborhood preferences, Hwang and Sampson hypothesize that, among other things, racialized perceptions of disorder and decay attached to predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods make those areas less prone to gentrification.

To test their hypothesis, Hwang and Sampson compare present-day Google Street View images of numerous Chicago city blocks against ground-level images from a Chicago neighborhood study conducted in 1995, looking for visual indicators of gentrification such as new and remodeled structures, beautification efforts, and fewer unkempt buildings, structures, and lots than were noted in ‘95. Though signs of gentrification were more likely to be found in neighborhoods that were predominantly non-white, neighborhoods that had a substantial portion of black and Latino residents, especially those with a black population of over 40% in 1995, were far less likely to have experienced gentrification. These findings correspond with other studies on neighborhood racial preferences that claim urban-dwelling, middle-class whites prefer diverse neighborhoods but avoid those with a high concentration of blacks or Latinos because of the racialized stigmas.

Hwang and Sampson conclude that collective presumptions of disorder regarding neighborhoods with high black and Latino populations deter a neighborhood’s susceptibility to gentrification more than actual, visible signs of disorder. As the nation discusses gentrification and its effects in the outlying ares of cities like St. Louis, MO, these findings provide important insight into the impacts of racial stigma on the creation and perpetuation of (sub)urban “ghettos.”

On the surface, comedy clubs appear to occupy a relatively straightforward niche within nightlife entertainment: they are spaces where stand-up comics perform to a live audience, and where entertainment comes in the form of well-executed jokes. Through his ethnographic examination of a professional comedy club in the Midwest, however, James M. Thomas contends that there is much more to comedy clubs than simply getting a laugh.

Thomas sees the comedy club as a microcosm of the larger nightlife entertainment culture – a venue where diverse people come together to actively produce cultural arrangements that are in some ways specific to that space, but in other ways reflective of the broader culture it is located within. In the context of Thomas’ comedy club, a triad of unique social actors (the comics, the audience, and the staff) help to (re)create a desire-based hierarchy where specific people – namely those who are white, heterosexual, and attractive – are privileged.

For instance, Thomas reveals how even though the comedy club has open seating, staff members routinely arrange the audience so that the people in the first few rows are comprised of straight, white, affluent-looking couples. Given that these were the only rows visible from the stage, this seating arrangement influences the night’s stand-up routine in ways that reinforce the venue’s desire-based economy. Thomas explains that comics (most of whom were white men) pander to this visible portion of the crowd by applauding them for their attractiveness, or reciting racist and homophobic jokes that they assume will not offend them. Not all comics accepted these arrangements and norms, however. Some made jokes that actively challenged the crowd’s demographic uniformity, forcing a sense of uneasiness upon the audience as they reflected upon this reality.

Taken together, these examples illustrate how cultural meaning can be actively (re)produced (and in some cases dismantled), all within the confines of a comedy club.

Much of the research on race relations in the US and Brazil places the two societies in separate camps. For example, the US is usually understood as a nation with a strict racial hierarchy, where blacks and whites occupy opposite poles. On the contrary, Brazil is conceived of as more of a “racial democracy,” where racial boundaries are blurred and social inequalities are predominantly class-based.

In the most recent issue of Qualitative Sociology, however, Chinyere Osuji adds to the growing body of literature that aims to complicate these simple conceptions of race relations in both countries. Using comparative data from interviews with 87 individuals in black-white relationships, Osuji looks at the lived reality of interracial couples in Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles, exploring how they negotiate racial boundaries through family interactions. Focusing on couples’ interactions with their families, Osuji finds trends that are emblematic of the prominent racial discourses that exist in either society. In the US, for instance, she discovers that families tend to take a “color-blind” approach upon first hearing of an interracial relationship, and do not show more overt displeasure or discouragement until the relationship becomes serious. Brazilian families differ in that many show immediate and open racist opposition to interracial mixing. Even upon the families’ acceptance of the relationship, overt racism often persists through the use of “humor,” something that Osuji argues is representative of the “inclusionary discrimination” in Brazilian race relations.

But not everything is different. In both sites, families are most oppositional to black men in interracial couples. Moreover, white men are often less questioned by their families than white women about their decisions to date interracially. Most importantly, Osuji’s study illustrates how, in light of their supposed differences, families in the US and Brazil continue to police racial boundaries despite the societal prevalence of “color-blind” and “post-racial” rhetorics.

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Since the term stereotype threat was coined by psychologist Claude Steele, its effects on stigmatized groups have been studied and confirmed by numerous researchers across the social sciences. Stereotype threat contributes to lower academic achievement among students from stigmatized groups because they fear perpetuating negative group stereotypes. If this anxiety is heightened enough, it can lead to a psychological process called “disidentification,” in which an individual will drop the stress-inducing act (say, an advanced placement class) to raise self-esteem. Repeat disidentification enough, and it leads to decreased levels of interest, effort, and ultimately, underperformance.

In a recent journal article, sociologists Douglas S. Massey and Jayanti Owens expand on the concept of stereotype threat by exploring how its impact on individuals varies by social context (in this case, by the contexts of specific schools, like whether they’re public or private, highly selective, or emphasize diversity) and personal characteristics (such as the student’s skin color, immigrant background, parental education, etc.). Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF), the authors test to see how the variables affect the GPAs of black students over their undergraduate careers.

The authors find that while institutional factors are surprisingly insignificant in inducing stereotype threat among black students, personal characteristics are significant. Individuals whose “blackness” was in question (for example, because they’d been educated in integrated schools, had a light skin tone, or had a non-black parent) were more likely to be negatively influenced by stereotype threat and to practice disinvestment. The opposite was true for students with stronger markers of “blackness,” who were less likely to practice disinvestment. Massey and Owens conclude that the effects of stereotype threat aren’t consistent across a stigmatized group; they vary systematically by individual traits. In particular, black students with stronger connections to their race/ethnicity are better able to skirt the harmful effects of negative stereotypes.