The New York Times recently ran an  interesting story on prison cemeteries in Texas.  For about $2,000, the state buries about 100 inmates a year. They die of lethal injection, old age, or illness, but they’re all dressed in dark pants, a white shirt, and tie, and are buried with a prayer from the prison chaplain.

When inmates die in custody, their bodies are sometimes unclaimed.  This may be because they have no family at all, or their family members don’t wish to claim the body.   Other times the inmate is cared for by family members who simply can’t afford to bury the person themselves.  So, occasionally the family members will decline to claim the body, but show up on the day of the burial to pay their respects.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

This photograph is of the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, where Hooker Chemical (now Occidental Petroleum Corporation) buried 21,000 tons of toxic, chemical waste:
In 1953, Hooker Chemical sold the land that they had been using for toxic waste disposal to the Niagara Falls School Board for $1. The sale deed contained warnings about the chemical waste and a disclaimer of liability. However, planners hastily built schools and homes on the contaminated land to accommodate the city’s growing postwar population. By the late 1970s, residents were reporting a litany of illnesses and birth defects. Scientists discovered high levels of carcinogens in the soil, groundwater, and air. The community mobilized to bring attention to the situation, and President Carter declared a federal health emergency in the area.
Elizabeth Blum, a professor of history at Troy University, has written about the environmental activism of Love Canal residents. Such activism, called “popular epidemiology,” attempts to link spikes in localized health issues to their origins. Despite such grassroots movements, though, the media tends to show little interest in the causes of cancer and greater interest in finding the cure.

The many “Stand Up to Cancer” ads, for example, urge people to donate money (or just use their credit card for purchases) to help fund the development of cancer treatments:

When media attention is focused on the causes of cancer, it usually takes an individualistic tone. Risk factors (smoking, poor diet, etc.) are blamed for various forms of cancer.

The thing is: there’s no money in prevention.

Mainstream media outlets have a vested interest in not exposing the causes of cancer.  The companies that pay to advertise on their channels, and often their parent companies or subsidiaries, often traffic in known carcinogens. Pharmaceutical companies, likewise, have a perverse incentive. Healthy people make them no money, neither do dead people; sick people though, they’re a goldmine.  Many organizations, including the multi-million dollar Susan G. Komen Foundation, are in the business of raising money “for the cure,” more so than prevention.

The politics of cancer, then suffer from the individualism characteristic of modern American and capitalist imperatives, leaving the causes of the cancer epidemic invisible and, accordingly, the unethical and illegal behavior of companies like Hooker Chemical.

Dan Rose is an assistant professor of sociology at Chattanooga State Community College in Tennessee.  His research focuses on medical sociology and health inequalities in minority neighborhoods.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

When I learned of Whitney Houston’s untimely death, I was in the process of re-reading James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Sonny, like so many entertainers struggled with addiction and the rigors of being an artist. I couldn’t help but think of Whitney. The tragedy of her death has resonated throughout our culture in both artistic and social contexts. It also ripped the curtain off the destructive underbelly of celebrity and its trappings.

We engage in the public consumption of images of the rich and famous as a way of life now. They live under an intensely bright and hot spotlight. Baldwin relates this quite eloquently.  In the process of Sonny’s recovery from heroin addiction, he returns to doing what he loves best –playing jazz piano. Sonny’s older brother agrees to accompany him to one of his performances. The brother, seated in a dark corner of the club, watches Sonny and his band mates prepare to perform. While sitting there he contemplates just how many of them have struggled with addiction like Sonny and how they would negotiate Sonny’s homecoming performance. The narration reads:

Then I watched… while they horsed around, standing just below the bandstand. The light from the bandstand spilled just a little short of them and, watching them laughing and gesturing and moving about, I had the feeling that they, nevertheless, were being most careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly; that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame.

Baldwin provides a powerful metaphor for the dangers of the spotlight and stepping into it too soon. When I read that passage, I thought of this image of Whitney from her 2009 American Music Awards performance. She sang “I Didn’t Know my Own Strength.” It was a “comeback” performance in which Whitney was trying to reclaim her image. She is wearing white, which looks absolutely beautiful against her cinnamon caramel skin. The stage is black and Whitney is lit from the back with a piercingly bright spotlight. In that moment we can see her balancing darkness with light, hope with pain, insularity with exposure.

We loved her voice. We rooted for her comeback. But perhaps she moved into the spotlight too suddenly. Perhaps the flame from the light burned her in places no one could see. As I write this, there have been no rulings on the cause of her death. So I do not want to speculate what contributed to her untimely passing. But I love this image because it is how I would like to remember Whitney. Regal, angelic, light and dark, embodying the very essence of humanity and its many contradictions.


Stacie McCormick, PhD, is a literature scholar whose work focuses primarily on African Diaspora and Women’s literature. Presently she is working on a project exploring the black female body and how it is represented in print and visual culture (photographs, artist renderings, the theatrical stage, etc.).

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

If you’re looking for basic global demographic information, World Health Rankings provides a great overview, using World Health Organization, World Bank, UNESCO, and other data. The website allows you to select a country, then provides a detailed breakdown of many demographic details, such as population pyramids (you can select different years in the past, or look at predictions for the future), leading causes of death, etc. Here’s the 2010 population pyramid for the U.S.:

You can also easily access all the age pyramids here. The 2020 projections for Brazil show the changing demographics due to the dramatic decrease in the fertility rate, which Lisa posted about this weekend:

There’s an interactive map of the top 15 causes of death in the U.S., allowing you to look at variations by county. Here’s the map of deaths due to heart disease, with Clark County, Nevada, highlighted:

You can also look at life expectancy for different nations for every decade between 1960 and 20101, a “real-time” clock that tracks global deaths (you can look at how many have died in the last year or month, or you can click “now” and reset the clock and watch as the clock estimate how many people die of various causes of death worldwide), and maps showing the prevalence of various causes of death around the world. Lots of neat representations of rather depressing information.

Also, as I wrote this post I realized that now every time I see a population pyramid of the U.S., Community‘s song “Baby Boomer Santa” is going to play through my head.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality.

Americans about my age and older all seem to have stories about how we survived our school playgrounds without today’s cushy soft surfaces, safety-oriented climbing structures, and running water.

Here is a picture of the playground at my elementary school. I myself survived a fall off one of those seesaws onto the broken-glass-strewn asphalt, with nothing but a scrape to show for it (attended to by the school secretary — there was no “school nurse” back then either).

In the safety craze in recent decades, sadly, real seesaws were one of the first things to go.

Go back another few generations, and you’ll find stories like this — about 200 children killed in the streets of New York in 1910 (from the NYT Jan. 1, 1911):

Most of those kids weren’t in cars or wagons; they were playing in the streets, doing work for their families, or just wandering around unattended — there were no public playgrounds. In contrast, in 2009 there were about 10 pedestrian or cycling children killed by vehicles in New York City. Ah, the good old days.*


As things have gotten safer for America’s children, of course, parents have become ever more concerned with their safety, as well as with their learning and development. Somewhere in America on a Sunday a few weeks ago, in an affluent community, a public playground was bubbling with activity. Every child seemed to be enjoying a rollicking good time on the latest safety-designed play equipment, cushioned by a luxuriously deep bed of mulch.

Also, each child seemed to be within a few feet of a parent or other adult caretaker — coaching, encouraging, spotting, supervising.

In recent years, concern about the physical fitness of children has increased, especially among poor children. Some researchers have asked whether the proximity of safe neighborhood playgrounds is one cause of the social class disparity in obesity rates. That would make sense because obesity rates are lower among children who play outdoors. But the relationship between social class and playing outdoors is not clear at all. Rich children have more access to some kinds of facilities, but poor children have more free time — and, where there is public housing, it usually includes playgrounds, like this one photographed in the 1960s:

In Annette Lareau’s analysis of family life and social class, Unequal Childhoods, children of middle class and richer parents spend more time in organized activities, and poorer kids spend more time in unstructured time (including play and TV). But as these pictures show, there’s play and there’s play. Are middle class parents hovering more than poorer parents do, and with what effect?

Consider a recent article by Myron Floyd and colleagues (covered here), which attempted to assess the level of physical activity among children in public parks by observing 2,700 children in 20 public parks in Durham, NC:

[The] presence of parental supervision was the strongest negative correlate of children’s activity… the presence of adults appears to inadvertently suppress park-based physical activity in the current study, particularly among younger children… This result should be used to encourage park designers to create play environments conducive to feelings of safety and security that would encourage rather than discourage active park use among children. For example, blending natural landscapes, manufactured play structures, and fencing in close intimate settings can be used to create comfortable environments for children and families. Such design strategies could encourage parents to allow their children to freely explore their surroundings, providing more opportunities for physical activity.

Interestingly, park in the pictured above has a fence around it so that parents can hang around at a distance with little fear for their children.

Under social pressure

In Under Pressure, one of many books bemoaning the excesses of over-parenting, Carl Honoré wrote:

Even when we poke fun at overzealous parenting… part of us wonders, What if they’re right? What if I’m letting my children down by not parenting harder? Racked by guilt and terrified of doing the wrong thing, we end up copying the alpha parent in the playground.

The point is not just that some parents have overzealous supervisory ambitions, driven by unequal investments in children and a threateningly competitive future. I think there is a supervision ratchet that feeds on the interaction between parents. In an article called “Playground Panopticism,” Holly Blackford summarized her observations:

The mothers in the ring of park benches symbolize the suggestion of surveillance, which Foucault describes as the technology of disciplinary power under liberal ideals of governance. However, the panoptic force of the mothers around the suburban playground becomes a community that gazes at the children only to ultimately gaze at one another, seeing reflected in the children the parenting abilities of one another.

This plays out in everyday interaction, whether one wants to engage it or not. If everyone else’s kid is closely supervised while yours is running around bonkers on her own, what is a parent to do? If the other parents insist that their kids not go “up the slide” and yours just scrambles past them, you feel the pressure. (You also put the other parent in the position of violating another taboo — supervising someone else’s child.) So it’s not just fear of underparenting that drives parents to hover — it’s also the cross-parent interactions. These are the moments when contagious parenting behavior spreads.


*I started looking at this after reading about it in Viviana Zelizer’s Pricing the Priceless Child, in which she writes, “The case of children’s accidental death provides empirical evidence of the new meanings of child life in twentieth-century America.”

Reminder: This blog post does not constitute research, but rather commentary, observation and recommendations for reading and discussion. The description of my childhood playground, and of one recent afternoon at one park, are anecdotes, something that stimulates reflection on wider issues, not empirical evidence or data.

With all the emphasis on Halloween, you may or may not have heard that this year, October 31st was noteworthy for another reason: according to the United Nations, that’s the day the global population hit 7 billion. The UN has set up a website to provide information about population trends and estimates for the future. Here’s the current world population, by region:

The map is interactive, so you can click on a region to find out its population, as well as its percentage of the total world population.

You can also estimate the population through 2100 based on various fertility scenarios. In the default medium scenario, fertility is expected to follow past trends, leveling out at a little over 10 billion by 2100:

On the other hand, if we saw no further reductions in global fertility, the 2100 population would be over 26.8 billion:

There’s an enormous amount of data available at the site. For instance, if you select the Births tab, you can click on either a region or a specific country and find out what percent of births are to women in different age groups. Here’s the % of all births to women aged 15-19, by country:

And the chart showing the total age breakdown for Finland (at the site you can hover over the graph to get the actual %):

A chart of deaths by age and sex, illustrating the continued high mortality in infancy and early childhood:

There’s also a section of the site where you can enter information about your own date and place of birth and then get a snapshot of what the global population was when you were born. Since I entered the world:

Overall, it’s a pretty great resource, and another one of those websites that can easily eat up a significant amount of your time without you realizing it.

Cross-posted at Scientopia.

One year ago today six black teenagers died in the Louisiana Red River.  They were wading in waist deep water when one, 15-year-old DeKendrix Warner, fell off an underwater ledge.  He struggled to swim and, one by one, six of his cousins and friends jumped in to help him and each other.  Warner was the only survivor.  The family members of the children watched in horror; none of them knew how to swim.

This draws attention to a rarely discussed and deadly disparity between blacks and whites.  Black people, especially black women, are much less likely than white people to know how to swim.  And, among children, 70% have no or low ability to swim.  The figure below, from the International Swimming Hall of Fame, shows that 77% of black women and 44% of black men say that they don’t know how to swim.  White women are as likely as black men, but much less likely than black women to report that they can’t swim.  White men are the most confident in their swimming ability.

This translates into real tragedy.  Black people are significantly more likely to die from drowning than white people (number of drownings out of 100,000):

Why are black people less likely to learn to swim than whites?  Dr. Caroline Heldman, at FemmePolitical, argues that learning to swim is a class privilege.  To learn to swim, it is helpful to have access to a swimming pool.  Because a disproportionate number of blacks are working class or poor means that they don’t have backyard swimming pools; while residential segregation and economic disinvestment in poor and minority neighborhoods means that many black children don’t have access to community swimming pools.  Or, if they do, they sometimes face racism when they try to access them.

Even if all of these things are in place, however, learning to swim is facilitated by lessons.  If parents don’t know how to swim, they can’t teach their kids.  And if they don’t have the money to pay someone else, their kids may not learn.

I wonder, too, if the disparity between black women and men is due, in part, to the stigma of “black hair.”   Because we have racist standards of beauty, some women invest significant amounts of time and money on their hair in an effort to make it straight or wavy and long.  Getting their hair wet often means undoing this effort.  Then again, there is a gap between white men and white women too, so perhaps there is a more complicated gender story here.

These are my initial guesses at explaining the disparities.  Your thoughts?

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

The College Board has released data from an initiative with the aim of better understanding the educational pathways of men of color.  Their site includes testimonials from many of these men, in addition to the data below.  And they included Native American men, a group almost always left out of quantitative data analysis because they are such a small percent of total Americans (in a profound and tragic irony).  Here’s the data on what each group of men are doing after high school.

About 1/3 of African American and Hispanic men are enrolling in some sort of college, another 34 and 47%, respectively, face unemployment.  A significant proportion go straight into work.  The 5% incarceration rate for Hispanics, and the 10% rate for Blacks, is a sad testimony to the over-policing of poor, urban neighborhoods, racial profiling, and emphasis on prosecuting the crimes of the poor.

Native American men are significantly less likely than Black men to go to college or vocational school.  They are most likely to straight into a job or be unemployed.  While not all all Native American men live on reservations — not by a long shot, those that do are more likely to be unemployed because of the dismal economic profiles of many of these regions.

Asian men are more likely to enter postsecondary education than either Native American or Black men, but the 61% is balanced by a good 30% ending up unemployed.  This reflects the diversity of the Asian community.  Some Asian groups do very well in the U.S. — e.g., Japanese and Asian Indians — others are still struggling — e.g., Hmong and the Vietnamese.

The charts below compare men and women in each group.  Each, with the exception of Native Americans, reveals the feminization of postsecondary education and the relative advantage women see in the market (mostly because we’ve got a strong service economy that hires women disproportionately).

Hat tip to Sociology Lens.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.