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 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.

Black Lives Matter march for Tania Harris. Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

Research shows that poor communities of color are policed more extensively than other areas, and heavy policing  can substantially alter people’s behavior and identities. Some research indicates that individuals avoid formal institutions (e.g., schools, hospitals), while other research suggests that individuals interpret the increased criminal justice contact as racialized injustice and become more involved in activism. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Heath, Brianna Remster and Rory Kramer investigate community members’ varied responses to police contact.

Remster and Kramer found support for both avoidance of formal institutions and increased activism. People with more contact with the criminal justice system were more likely to avoid institutions — contact decreased the likelihood of receiving medical care and banking for members of all racial groups. Although the avoidance response applied to all races across contexts, avoidance tended to be stronger in predominantly minority communities. The researchers also found support for the activism hypothesis — individuals who had been stopped by police were more likely to take an activist role, which was measured by political rally attendance and whether individuals contacted government officials. In other words, after police contact individuals may withdraw for fear of further criminal justice contact, but they may also be inspired to protest unequal policing practices. 

This research also reveals the far-reaching presence and effects of modern surveillance across many contexts. Although the impacts of aggressive policing may be stronger in some neighborhoods, the impacts were not limited to poor minority communities. People across a variety of contexts respond to increases in criminal justice contact through avoidance and activism. Overall, the findings show that criminal justice contact can alter social life in more than one way beyond the moment of arrest.

Photo of protesters holding a sign that says, “Proud Iranian + Muslim.” Photo by Alisdare Hickson, Flickr CC

Social scientists have long considered how negative stereotypes about racial and ethnic minorities relate to Americans’ opinions about state policies, such as social spending, education, and the criminal justice system. Recent research by Joseph Baker, David Cañarte, and L. Edward Day in The Sociological Quarterly examines a similar but distinct set of attitudes: “xenophobia” — a fear of outsiders or people from different places. This study indicates that xenophobia may be a strong predictor of whether whites support punitiveness in the criminal justice system.

Using data from the Chapman Survey of American Fears, a nationally representative dataset, Baker and colleagues study the relationship between racial attitudes, xenophobia, and attitudes towards punitiveness in the criminal justice system. They measure what participants think of members of specific racial minority groups, as well as several dimensions of anti-immigrant attitudes. In addition, they consider a number of control variables that could affect this relationship, including sociodemographic, political, ideological, and religious characteristics.

Baker and colleagues find that whites’ xenophobic attitudes more strongly predict their punitive attitudes than whites’ attitudes towards blacks or Hispanics. In fact, their analysis suggests that xenophobia is one of the strongest predictors of whites’ punitive attitudes — it even helped explain whites’ punitiveness within categories like political ideology. Furthermore, Baker and colleagues find that the association between xenophobic attitudes and punitiveness is stronger among whites than it is for blacks and Hispanics. Baker and colleagues describe how their results speak to the salience of immigration, anti-immigrant-attitudes, and political ideology in the 2016 presidential election, thus illustrating that a general fear of the “other” affects support for political policies.

Photo by Scripps National Spelling Bee, Flickr CC

Research shows that Asian-American immigrants’ children are often successful in school. Some researchers suggest that Asian-Americans’ cultural or religious beliefs drive this success, while others suggest Asian-American immigrants promote their children’s education because many Asian-American parents themselves are highly educated. There is more to this picture, however. In a recent article in The Sociological Quarterly, Pawan Dhingra explores how Asian-American parents use the need to be competitive and successful in the modern world to frame educational choices. For these Asian-American families, prioritizing educational and extracurricular activities is an active choice made in their children’s interest.

Dhingra uses focus groups and interviews with 60 Indian-American parents who emphasize their children’s education and have experienced economic success in America. He focuses on families “who participate in academic competition (e.g., spelling bees) and after-school mathematics classes, for enrichment.” All participants immigrated to the United States, and had annual family incomes of over $100,000, at least one spouse with a professional degree, and homes located in middle-class and upper-middle class suburbs.

Dhingra asks these parents why they encourage their children to pursue education and participate in extracurriculars. Many highlight the need to be competitive in the modern world, and they state that education is the best way for their children to maximize their chances of success as opposed to other activities, such as arts or sports. Parents stated that while sports might be an option for other families’ children, their own children would be better off focusing on academics. These findings demonstrate that Asian-American immigrants’ emphasis on education cannot be reduced to culture or family education — it is also driven by a conscious awareness of the need to be competitive in today’s world.  

Punk pop-art. Photo by Mihai Bojin, Flickr CC

Counter-culture movements like punk have gone global, but that doesn’t mean they look the same across the world. Bands like the Ramones long defined the U.S. punk scene, while recent scholarly work documented the emergence of Muslim punk rock. In new research, Paula Guerra investigates the distinct, local elements of of the punk movement in Portugal by examining the DIY (do-it-yourself) elements of Portuguese punk, which emphasize small-scale or handmade production of fashion and merchandise. These elements show how the rise of Portuguese punk included both participation in an interconnected “world culture” after years of isolation, as well as a youth counterculture resistance to the growth of capitalism.

In Portugal, the punk movement caught steam in the 1970s during a democratic shift that followed decades of fascism. Guerra conducted interviews with individuals who participated in this punk movement, speaking with over 200 fans, musicians, and producers or distributors of music, art, and clothing. Guerra then assessed what punk meant to the participants. Most commonly, they saw punk as resistance. Others desired to move past resistance into the reconstruction of society entirely. In this sense, DIY serves as a physical example of their desire to create a new, more authentic world. The production of punk products, like homemade belts or band merchandise, physically represents their counter-culture, anti-capitalist message.

Guerra’s findings about Portuguese punk provide deeper insight into a post-revolutionary context while challenging assumptions about counterculture. Local manufacturing of punk merchandise helped industry grow after decades of fascist isolationist policy, while also serving as a way to resist capitalism as economic systems shifted. In other words, Guerra captures how movements are simultaneously global and local — though they might appear to be primarily global at first — emphasizing the need for comparative understandings to expose unique, localized elements of resistance.

Headstones in a Cemetery. Photo by Bart Everson, Flickr CC

The expansion of the U.S. criminal justice system is often justified in the name of public safety. While incarceration does have crime-reducing capabilities, it also has numerous negative effects, such as decreased likelihood of employment and other “collateral consequences” for those incarcerated. Thus, it’s hard to say whether incarceration does more good than harm. This is a tricky question to answer, as the outcomes of incarceration are often hard to compare. However, Michael Light and Joey Marshall use a bevy of administrative panel data to compare whether incarceration saves more lives through reducing homicides than it costs lives through increases in infant mortality.

Overall, they find that the incarceration rate both decreases the homicide rate and also increases the infant mortality rate. The authors estimate that the “net benefit” of incarceration is much smaller when the mortality costs are taken into account. In other words, there seems to be a very weak or even non-existent return on incarceration when considering mortality. Thus, while it appears that incarceration does indeed “save lives,” incarceration also causes deaths, muddying the picture of the benefits of imprisonment. This research challenges claims that increased imprisonment will greatly enhance public safety and human well-being, and gives a glimpse into the varying effects the criminal justice system can have.

Graffiti on a dumpster in Minneapolis, MN. Photo by De Andre’ T. Beadle

Graffiti is common in urban spaces. Some city residents view it as art, many are apathetic, and others think it as a major nuisance that must be dealt with. Researchers often frame graffiti as either a form of vandalism that facilitates more disorder and crime or as acts of resistance. In recent research, however, Theo Kindynis argues that graffiti is a much more complex subculture, and graffiti creation is a social and symbolic practice that both shapes and is shaped by urban spaces.

Kindynis draws from three years of ethnographic research among graffiti writers in London. Most of his participants identified as “bombers,” and many were well known to local authorities as “serious graffiti vandals.” Some had even served jail time for graffiti writing. Graffiti writers’ main goal is to achieve subcultural status by “getting their name up” throughout the city, by placing their graffiti in every district and public transit line in the metro. The most important form of graffiti to writers is the “tag” or the bombers’ personal signature of letters, often alongside other embellishments like arrows, crowns, or RIP in remembrance of a deceased writer. The bombers in Kindynis’ research see their work as much more than simply “scribbles and scrawls.” According to one participant, writing often has “energy” or “presence” that is representative of each writer’s personal style and background. In other words, tags and other forms of graffiti are important subcultural symbols.

Tracks, and especially subway cars, are the most prized canvas for bombers in London, and the British Transport Police (BTP) respond by cracking down on graffiti crews there. Kindynis argues that this tough approach had some unintended consequences, and actually led to more destructive practices when graffiti writers retaliated with practices like etching, scratching, and using paint thinner. So on one hand, graffiti offers bombers a new way of envisioning their social surroundings — including their own language and alternative histories of urban space development and transformation, while on the other hand, graffiti tends to be at odds with social control in urban spaces and thus faces constant threat.