Yesterday was Super Sunday here in New Orleans, the one day each year that the Mardi Gras Indian tribes come together to be seen by the wider community. The tradition dates back to at least the mid-1800s, belonging to the African American population of New Orleans. Today there are over two dozen Mardi Gras Indian tribes.

Here’s a snippet from my Instagram (click to watch with sound):

A video posted by Lisa Wade (@lisawadephd) on

Indian tribes mask together groups, often family and pseudo-kin. It used to be an all-male activity, but now women are heavily involved (as “big queens” to the male “chiefs”), and children make regular appearances. Their tough faces are part of the performance, as one of the most well-known mottos of the Indians is “Won’t bow, don’t know how.” These are some of my photos:

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Originally the intent was to honor the local Native Americans who took in and rescued escaped slaves in the mid-1700s, though they probably took some inspiration from the “Wild West”-style entertainment that was popular at the time. Until the ’60s, tribes sometimes engaged in violent conflict, but today they encounter each other in order to perform ritualized non-violent conflict resolution, fighting only over who is “prettiest.”

With the exception of Super Sunday, when the Indians go out, it’s not a show. It’s a tradition by and for their own communities and one has to be “in the know” to know where to see them. They’ve been largely left out of tourist attraction-type activities for this reason, and because they’re almost entirely African American and New Orleans has only recently embraced it’s multicultural history and present as part of its appeal.

Still, their elusiveness makes them tourist-resistant and even Super Sunday doesn’t attract many tourists because the event is rescheduled at any hint of rain (because, feathers).


Sociologically speaking, there are lots of fascinating directions to go from here — including the intersection of power, cultural borrowing, and the evolution of artistic vernacular — and I’ll try to get to them in future posts.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

On Mardi Gras mornings before dawn, members of the North Side Skull and Bones Gang prowl the streets. It’s a 200 year old tradition belonging to African American residents of the city. They first prowled in 1819.

Members of the gang dress up like ominous skeletons. At, Sharon Litwin writes:

Because the origins of the Gang were with working class folk who had little money for silks and satins, the skeleton suits are made from everyday items and simple fabrics. Baling wire (to construct the shape of the head) along with flour and water to bind together old newspapers, create the head itself.

Their message is to “warn [people] away from violence” — says the North Side Chief, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes — especially young people, and especially gun and domestic violence. He explains:

The bone gang represents people… waking people up about what they’re doing in life, if they don’t change their lifestyle. You know. We’re like the dead angels. We let you know, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re gonna be with us.

Up before most residents, members of the gang cause a ruckus. They sing songs, bang on doors, and play-threaten their neighbors.

Here’s some footage:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)In 1994, a US immigration judge lifted an order to deport a woman named Lydia Oluloro. Deportation would have forced her to either leave her five- and six-year-old children in America with an abusive father or take them with her to Nigeria. There, they would have been at risk of a genital cutting practice called infibulation, in which the labia majora and minora are trimmed and fused, leaving a small opening for urination and menstruation.

Many Americans will agree that the judge made a good decision, as children shouldn’t be separated from their mothers, left with dangerous family members, or subjected to an unnecessary and irreversible operation that they do not understand. I am among these Americans. However, I am also of the view that Americans who oppose unfamiliar genital cutting practices should think long and hard about how they articulate their opposition.

The judge in the Oluloro case, Kendall Warren, articulated his opposition like this:

This court attempts to respect traditional cultures … but [infibulation] is cruel and serves no known medical purpose. It’s obviously a deeply ingrained cultural tradition going back 1,000 years at least.

Let’s consider the judge’s logic carefully. First, by contrasting the “court” (by which he means America)with “traditional cultures”, the judge is contrasting us (America) with a them (Nigeria). He’s implying that only places like Nigeria are “traditional” — a euphemism for states seen as backward, regressive, and uncivilised — while the US is “modern,” a state conflated with progressiveness and enlightenment.

When he says that the court “attempts to respect traditional cultures,” but cannot in this case, the judge is suggesting that the reason for the disrespect is the fault of the culture itself. In other words, he’s saying “we do our best to respect traditional cultures, but you have pushed us too far.” The reason for this, the judge implies, is that the practices in question have no redeeming value. It “serves no known medical purpose,” and societies which practice it are thus “up to no good” or are not engaging in “rational” action.

The only remaining explanation for the continuation of the practice, the judge concludes, is cruelty. If the practice is cruel the people who practice it must necessarily also be cruel; capriciously, pointlessly, even frivolously cruel.

To make matters worse, in the eyes of the judge, such cruelty can’t be helped because its perpetrators don’t have free will. The practice, he says, is “deeply ingrained” and has been so for at least 1,000 years. Such cultures cannot be expected to see reason. This is the reason why the court — or America — can and should be compelled to intervene.

In sum, the judge might well have said: “we are a modern, rational, free, good society, and you who practice female genital cutting—you are the opposite of this.”


I’ve published extensively on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa and elsewhere, focusing on the different ways opposition can be articulated and the consequence of those choices. There are many grounds upon which to oppose FGCs: the oppression of women, the repression of sexuality, human rights abuse, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, harm to health, and psychological harm, to name just a few. Nevertheless, Judge Warren, chose to use one of the most common and counterproductive frames available: cultural depravity.

The main source of this frame has been the mass media, which began covering FGCs in the early 1990s. At the time anti-FGC activists were largely using the child abuse frame in their campaigns, yet journalists decided to frame the issue in terms of cultural depravity. This narrative mixed with American ethnocentrism, an obsession with fragile female sexualities, a fear of black men, and a longstanding portrayal of Africa as dark, irrational, and barbaric to make a virulent cocktail of the “African Other.”

The more common word used to describe FGCs — mutilation — is a symbol of this discourse. It perfectly captures Judge Warren’s comment. Mutilation is, perhaps by definition, the opposite of healing and of what physicians are called to do. Defining FGCs this way allows, and even demands, that we wholly condemn the practices, take a zero tolerance stance, and refuse to entertain any other point of view.

Paradoxically, this has been devastating for efforts to reduce genital cutting. People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is more aesthetically pleasing. They largely find the term “mutilation” confusing or offensive. They, like anyone, generally do not appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children.

The zero tolerance demand to end the practices has also failed. Neither foreigners intervening in long-practicing communities, nor top-down laws instituted by local politicians under pressure from Western governments, nor even laws against FGCs in Western countries have successfully stopped genital cutting. They have, however, alienated the very women that activists have tried to help, made women dislike or fear the authorities who may help them, and even increased the rate of FGCs by inspiring backlashes.

In contrast, the provision of resources to communities to achieve whatever goals they desire, and then getting out of the way, has been proven to reduce the frequency of FGCs. The most effective interventions have been village development projects that have no agenda regarding cutting, yet empower women to make choices. When women in a community have the power to do so, they often autonomously decide to abandon FGCs. Who could know better, after all, the real costs of continuing the practice?

Likewise, abandonment of the practice may be typical among immigrants to non-practicing societies. This may be related to fear of prosecution under the law. However, it is more likely the result of a real desire among migrants to fit into their new societies, a lessening of the pressures and incentives to go through with cutting, and mothers’ deep and personal familiarity with the short- and long-term pain that accompanies the practices.

The American conversation about FGCs has been warped by our own biases. As a Hastings Center Report summarizes, those who adopt the cultural depravity frame misrepresent the practices, overstate the negative health consequences, misconstrue the reasons for the practice, silence the first-person accounts of women who have undergone cutting, and ignore indigenous anti-FCG organizing. And, while it has fed into American biases about “dark” Africa and its disempowered women, the discourse of cultural depravity has actually impaired efforts to reduce rates of FGCs and the harm that they can cause.

Originally posted at Open Democracy and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow up on her research about female genital cutting here.

Bentham and Foucault might have been interested in the panopticon but every December we get a view of  true social control in the form of an overweight man at the North Pole. Santa Claus (or Sandy Claws, as he is sometimes called) is just the latest in a long line of beings whose sole purpose is to control children through fear (Krampus is another example, as is the Belsnickel, as Dwight demonstrated on The Office). Recently, though, Santa has been doing his spying by proxy (giving him more time to bully young reindeer).

In Santa’s place are his elves on the shelves, a team of small elves who began taking up residence in people’s homes in 2005. These elves observe the behavior of children and then fly back to the North Pole to report their observations to Santa each night. The magical ability to do so begins when the elves are named (before this point they are apparently in some sort of coma during which they can be sealed in boxes and sent to stores around the country) but the elves are in danger of losing their magic if touched. Upon returning each night, the elves hide in a new place and children delight in finding them each morning. Apparently, some of the elves also like to get into mischief, making them both spies and hypocrites.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

If you have continued reading, prepare yourself for a shock. The elves are actually inanimate objects with neither magic nor the ability to report to Santa Claus each night. Instead, adults in each household are responsible for moving the elves around (thus touching them and ruining any magical potential that they may have had). As you can imagine, this creates quite a bit of work for these adults, to the point that there are posts dedicated to dealing with the fact that they forgot to move the elves. The elves have also been copied in various ways. Telling children that Santa can see them when they’re sleeping and knows when they’re awake and knows if they’ve been bad or good seems much easier, especially since adults are likely to run out of creative places to hide the elf after about the third day.

Assuming that the intention of Santa, Krampus, the Belsnickel, and the elves on the shelves is social control, it seems that the elves would be both the least effective and the biggest pain in the ass. Imagine if the prison designed by Bentham made it possible that prisoners could be observed at any time unless they touched the prison wall, in which case a door came down that cut off the potential view of the guards. There might be no escaping Santa’s creepy spying or the Belsnickel’s judgment, but if I was a kid and I wanted to get away with bad behavior you can bet that the first thing I would do is touch the damn elf.

John is a pseudonymous assistant professor at a small liberal arts college (SLAC).  He finished his Ph.D. at a top-25 sociology program in the summer of 2009. He blogs at Memoirs of a SLACer, where this post originally appeared.

Flashback Friday.

A study by doctor Ruchi Gupta and colleagues mapped rates of asthma among children in Chicago, revealing that they are closely correlated with race and income. The overall U.S. rate of childhood asthma is about 10%, but evidence indicates that asthma is very unevenly distributed. Their visuals show that there are huge variations in the rates of childhood asthma among different neighborhoods:


The researchers looked at how the racial/ethnic composition of neighborhoods is associated with childhood asthma. They defined a neighborhood’s racial make-up by looking at those that were over 67% White, Black, or Hispanic. This graph shows the percent of such neighborhoods that fall into three categories of rates of asthma: low (less than 10% of children have asthma), medium (10-20% of children have it), and high (over 20% of kids are affected). While 95% of White neighborhoods have low or medium rates, 56% of Hispanic neighborhoods have medium or high rates. However, the really striking finding is for Black neighborhoods; 94% have medium or high prevalence. And the racial clustering is even more pronounced if we look only at the high category, where only a tiny proportion (6%) of White neighborhoods fall but nearly half of Black ones do…a nearly mirror image of what we see for the low category:


Rates of asthma and racial/ethnic composition (the color of the circles) mapped onto Chicago neighborhoods (background color represents prevalence of asthma):


Asthma rates don’t seem to be highly clustered by education, but are highly correlated with overall neighborhood incomes:


It’s hard to know exactly what causes higher rates of asthma in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods than in White ones. It could be differences in access to medical care. The researchers found that asthma rates are also higher in neighborhoods that have high rates of violence. Perhaps stress from living in neighborhoods with a lot of violence is leading to more asthma. The authors of the study suggest that parents might keep their children inside more to protect them from violence, leading to more exposure to second-hand smoke and other indoor pollutants (off-gassing from certain types of paints or construction materials, for instance).

Other studies suggest that poorer neighborhoods have worse outdoor environmental conditions, particularly exposure to industries that release toxic air pollutants or store toxic waste, which increase the risk of asthma. Having a parent with asthma increases the chances of having it as well, though the connection there is equally unsure–is there a genetic factor, or does it simply indicate that parents and children are likely to grow up in neighborhoods with similar conditions?

Regardless, it’s clear that some communities — often those with the fewest resources to deal with it — are bearing the brunt of whatever conditions cause childhood asthma.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

I don’t have much to add on the “consensus plan” on poverty and mobility produced by the Brookings and American Enterprise institutes, referred to in their launch event as being on “different ends of the ideological spectrum” (can you imagine?). In addition to the report, you might consider the comments byJeff Spross, Brad DeLong, or the three-part series by Matt Bruenig.

My comment is about the increasingly (to me) frustrating description of poverty as something beyond simple comprehension and unreachable by mortal policy. It’s just not. The whole child poverty problem, for example, amounts to $62 billion dollars per year. There are certainly important details to be worked out in how to eliminate it, but the basic idea is pretty clear — you give poor people money. We have plenty of it.

This was obvious yet amazingly not remarked upon in the first 40 minutes of the launch event (which is all I watched). In the opening presentation, by Ron Haskins — for whom I have a well-documented distaste — started with this simple chart of official poverty rates:


He started with the blue line, poverty for elderly people, and said:

The blue line is probably the nation’s greatest success against poverty. It’s the elderly. And it basically has declined pretty much all the time. It has no relationship to the economy, and there is good research that shows that its cause at least 90% by Social Security. So, government did it, and so Social Security is the reason we’re able to be successful to reduce poverty among the elderly.

And then everyone proceeded to ignore the obvious implication of that: when you give people money, they aren’t poor anymore. The most unintentionally hilarious illustration of this was in the keynote (why?) address from David Brooks (who has definitely been working on relaxing lately, especially when it comes to preparing keynote puff-pieces). He said this, according to my unofficial transcript:

Poverty is a cloud problem and not a clock problem. This is a Karl Popper distinction. He said some problems are clock problems – you can take them apart into individual pieces and fix them. Some problems are cloud problems. You can’t take a cloud apart. It’s a dynamic system that is always interspersed. And Popper said we have a tendency to try to take cloud problems and turn them into clock problems, because it’s just easier for us to think about. But poverty is a cloud problem. … A problem like poverty is too complicated to be contained by any one political philosophy. … So we have to be humble, because it’s so gloomy and so complicated and so cloud-like.

The good news is that for all the complexity of poverty, and all the way it’s a cloud, it offers a political opportunity, especially in a polarized era, because it’s not an either/or issue. … Poverty is an and/and issue, because it takes a zillion things to address it, and some of those things are going to come from the left, and some are going to come from the right. … And if poverty is this mysterious, unknowable, negative spiral-loop that some people find themselves in, then surely the solution is to throw everything we think works at the problem simultaneously, and try in ways we will never understand, to have a positive virtuous cycle. And so there’s not a lot of tradeoffs, there’s just a lot of throwing stuff in. And social science, which is so prevalent in this report, is so valuable in proving what works, but ultimately it has to bow down to human realities – to psychology, to emotion, to reality, and to just the way an emergent system works.

Poverty is only a “mysterious, unknowable, negative spiral-loop” if you specifically ignore the lack of money that is its proximate cause. Sure, spend your whole life wondering about the mysteries of human variation — but could we agree to do that after taking care of people’s basic needs?

I wonder if poverty among the elderly once seemed like a weird, amorphous, confusing problem. I doubt it. But it probably would if we had assumed that the only way to solve elderly poverty was to get children to give their parents more money. Then we would have to worry about the market position of their children, the timing of their births, the complexity of their motivations and relationships, the vagaries of the market, and the folly of youth. Instead, we gave old people money. And now elderly poverty “has declined pretty much all the time” and “it has no relationship to the economy.”

Imagine that.

Originally posted at Family Inequality; re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Philip N. Cohen, PhD is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of The Family, a sociology of family textbook, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

I recently moved to a neighborhood that people routinely describe as “bad.” It’s my first time living in such a place. I’ve lived in working class neighborhoods, but never poor ones. I’ve been lucky.

This neighborhood — one, to be clear, that I had the privilege to choose to live in — is genuinely dangerous. There have been 42 shootings within one mile of my house in the last year. Often in broad daylight. Once the murderers fled down my street, careening by my front door in an SUV. One week there were six rapes by strangers — in the street and after home invasions — in seven days. People are robbed, which makes sense to me because people have to eat, but with a level of violence that I find confusing. An 11-year-old was recently arrested for pulling a gun on someone. A man was beaten until he was a quadriplegic. One day 16 people were shot in a park nearby after a parade.

I’ve lived here for a short time and — being white, middle-aged, middle class, and female — I am on the margins of the violence in my streets, and yet I have never been so constantly and excruciatingly aware of my mortality. I feel less of a hold on life itself. It feels so much more fragile, like it could be taken away from me at any time. I am acutely aware that my skin is but paper, my bones brittle, my skull just a shell ripe for bashing. I imagine a bullet sheering through me like I am nothing. That robustness that life used to have, the feeling that it is resilient and that I can count on it to be there for me, that feeling is going away.

So, when I saw the results of a new study showing that only 50% of African American teenagers believe that they will reach 35 years of age, I understood better than I have understood before. Just a tiny — a teeny, teeny, tiny — bit better.


I have heard this idea before. A friend who grew up the child of Mexican immigrants in a sketchy urban neighborhood told me that he, as a teenager, didn’t believe he’d make it to 18. I nodded my head and thought “wow,”‘ but I did not understand even a little bit. He would be between the first and second column from the right: 54% of 2nd generation Mexican immigrants expect that they may very well die before 35. I understand him now a tiny — a teeny, teeny tiny — bit better.

Sociologists Tara Warner and Raymond Swisher, the authors of the study, make clear that the consequences of this fatalism are far reaching. If a child does not believe that they might live to see another day, what motivation can there possibly be for investing in the future, for caring for one’s body, for avoiding harmful habits or dangerous activities? Why study? Why bother to see a doctor? Why not do drugs? Why avoid breaking the law?

Why wouldn’t a person put their future at risk — indeed, their very life — if they do not believe in that future, that life, at all?

If we really want to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in our country, we cannot allow them to live in neighborhoods where desperation is so high that people turn to violence. Dangerous environments breed fatalism, rationally so. And once our children have given up on their own futures, no teachers’ encouragement, no promise that things will get better if they are good, no “up by your bootstraps” rhetoric will make a difference. They think they’re going to be dead, literally.

We need to boost these families with generous economic help, real opportunities, and investment in neighborhood infrastructure and schools. I think we don’t because the people with the power to do so don’t understand — even a teeny, teeny tiny bit — what it feels like to grow up thinking you’ll never grow up. Until they do, and until we decide that this is a form of cruelty that we cannot tolerate, I am sad to say that I feel pretty fatalistic about these children’s futures, too.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

This November, a wave of student activism drew attention to the problem of racism at colleges and universities in the US.  Sparked by protests at the University of Missouri, nicknamed Mizzou, we saw actions at dozens of colleges. It was a spectacular show of strength and solidarity and activists have won many concessions, including new funding, resignations, and promises to rename buildings.

Activists’ grievances are structural — aimed at how colleges are organized and who is in charge, what colleges teach and who does the teaching, and what values are centered and where they come from — but they are also interpersonal. Student activists of color talked about being subject to overtly racist behavior from others and being on the receiving end of microaggressions, seemingly innocuous commentary from others that remind them that they do not, as a Claremont McKenna dean so poorly put it, “fit the mold.” That dean lost her job after that comment. Many student activists seem to embrace the policing of offensive speech, both the hateful and the ignorant kind.

Negative reactions to this activism was immediate and widespread. Much of it served only to affirm the students’ claims: that we are still a racist society and that we, at best, tolerate our young people of color only if they stay “in their place.” Other times, it was confusion about the kind of world these young people seemed to want to live in. Why, some people asked, would anyone — especially a member of a marginalized population — want to shut down free speech?

Well, it may be that the American love of free speech is waning. The Pew Research Center released data measuring attitudes about censorship. They asked Americans whether they thought the government should be able to prevent people from saying things that are “offensive to minorities.” Millennials — that is, today’s college students — are significantly more likely than any other generation to say that they should.

In fact, the data show a steady decrease in the proportion of Americans who are eager to defend speech that is offensive to minorities. Only 12% of the Silent generation is in favor of censorship, compared to 24% of the Baby Boomers, 27% of Gen X, and 40% of Millennials. Notably, women, Democrats, and non-whites are all more likely than their counterparts to be willing to tolerate government control of speech.


Americans still stand out among their national peers. Among European Union countries, 49% of citizens are in favor of censorship, compared to 28% of Americans. If the Millennials have anything to say about it, though, that might be changing. Assuming this is a cohort effect and not an age effect (that is, assuming they won’t change their minds as they age), and with the demographic changes this country will see in the next few decades, we may  very soon look more like Europe on this issue than we do now.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.