race/ethnicity

Many of us know the Officer Friendly story. He epitomizes liberal police virtues. He seeks the public’s respect and willing cooperation to follow the law, and he preserves their favor with lawful enforcement.

Norman Rockwell’s The Runaway, 1958

The Officer Friendly story also inspired contemporary reforms that seek and preserve public favor, including what most people know as Community Policing. Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting is an idealized depiction of this narrative. Officer Friendly sits in full uniform. His blue shirt contrasts sharply with the black boots, gun, and small ticket book that blend together below the lunch counter. He is a paternalistic guardian. The officer’s eyes are fixed on the boy next to him. The lunch counter operator surveying the scene seems to smirk. All of them do, in fact. And all of them are White. The original was painted from the White perspective and highlighted the harmonious relationship between the officer and the boy. But for some it may be easy to imagine a different depiction: a hostile relationship between a boy of color and an officer in the 1950s and a friendly one between a White boy and an officer now.

Desmond Devlin (Writer) and Richard Williams’s (Artist) The Militarization of the Police Department, a painting parody of Rockwell’s The Runaway, 2014

The parody of Rockwell’s painting offers us a visceral depiction of contemporary urban policing. Both pictures depict different historical eras and demonstrate how police have changed. Officer Unfriendly is anonymous, of unknown race, and presumably male. He is prepared for battle, armed with several weapons that extend beyond his imposing frame. Officer Unfriendly is outfitted in tactical military gear with “POLICE” stamped across his back. The images also differ in their depictions of the boy’s race and his relationship to the officer. Officer Unfriendly appears more punitive than paternalistic. He looms over the Black boy sitting on the adjacent stool and peers at him through a tear gas mask. The boy and White lunch counter operator back away in fright. All of the tenderness in the original have given way to hostility in this parody.

Inspired by the critical race tradition, my new project “Officer Friendly’s Adventures in Wonderland: A Counter-Story of Race Riots, Police Reform, and Liberalism” employs composite counter-storytelling to narrate the experiences of young men of color in their explosive encounters with police. Counter-stories force dominant groups to see the world through the “Other’s” (non-White person’s) eyes, thereby challenging their preconceptions. I document the evolution of police-community relations in the last eighty years, and I reflect on the interrupted career of our protagonist, Officer Friendly. He worked with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for several stints primarily between the 1940s and 1990s.

My story focuses on Los Angeles, a city renowned for its police force and riot history. This story is richly informed by ethnographic field data and is further supplemented with archival and secondary historical data. It complicates the nature of so-called race riots, highlights how Officer Friendly was repeatedly evoked in the wake of these incidents, and reveals the pressures on LAPD officials to favor increasingly unfriendly police tactics. More broadly, the story of Officer Friendly’s embattled career raises serious questions about how to achieve racial justice. This work builds on my recently published coauthored book, The Limits of Community Policing, and can shape future critical race scholarship and historical and contemporary studies of police-community relations.

Daniel Gascón is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. For more on his latest work, follow him on Twitter.

Despite calls to physically distance, we are still seeing reports of racially motivated hate crimes in the media. Across the United States, anti-Asian discrimination is rearing its ugly head as people point fingers to blame the global pandemic on a distinct group rather than come to terms with underfunded healthcare systems and poorly-prepared governments.

Governments play a role in creating this rhetoric. Blaming racialized others for major societal problems is a feature of populist governments. One example is Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “Chinese virus” to describe COVID-19. Stirring up racialized resentment is a political tactic used to divert responsibility from the state by blaming racialized members of the community for a global virus. Anti-hate groups are increasingly concerned that the deliberate dehumanization of Asian populations by the President may also fuel hate as extremist groups take this opportunity to create social division.

Unfortunately, this is not new and it is not limited to the United States. During the SARS outbreak there were similar instances of institutional racism inherent in Canadian political and social structures as Chinese, Southeast and East Asian Canadians felt isolated at work, in hospitals, and even on public transportation. As of late May in Vancouver British Columbia Canada, there have been 29 cases of anti-Asian hate crimes.

In this crisis, it is easier for governments to use racialized people as scapegoats than to admit decisions to defund and underfund vital social and healthcare resources. By stoking racist sentiments already entrenched in the Global North, the Trump administration shifts the focus from the harm their policies will inevitably cause, such their willingness to cut funding for the CDC and NIH.

Sociological research shows how these tactics become more widespread as politicians use social media to communicate directly with citizens. creating instantaneous polarizing content. Research has also shown an association between hate crimes in the United States and anti-Muslim rhetoric expressed by Trump as early as 2015. Racist sentiments expressed by politicians have a major impact on the attitudes of the general population, because they excuse and even promote blame toward racialized people, while absolving blame from governments that have failed to act on social issues.     

Kayla Preston is an incoming PhD student in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto. Her research centers on right-wing extremism and deradicalization.


Because everything is currently terrible, I binge-watched Love is Blind. In case you are planning to do the same, this is a spoiler-free post.

You probably know the premise: contestants in this romantic reality romp go on speed dates in little pods. They can’t see their conversation partners, and at the end of the dates they decide whether to get engaged before seeing each other. The question is whether love can flourish when we cast aside our assumptions about appearances, including race, wealth, and sexuality.1 It is a mess. I couldn’t look away.

What struck me most about the show isn’t actually what unfolded, but instead how it is based on an interesting assumption about the way biases work: if you can’t see anything to make a snap judgment, you have to be genuine and objective, right? This reminded me of how people use the term “colorblind” to signal that they don’t feel racial bias. Scholars are critical of this colorblindness because it suggests that ignoring social differences is the same as reducing biases against those differences.

Does limited information actually make us less likely to make snap judgements? Social science findings are a pretty mixed bag. 

On the one hand, taking information away in some cases has been shown to give people a fair shot. One big example is the “ban the box” movement. This policy reform effort works to remove the initial reporting of felony convictions on applications, based on the fact that people with criminal records often face high rates of discrimination when they try to get jobs or go to school

On the other hand, “blindness” doesn’t necessarily reduce bias. Our brains are pattern-making machines ready to fill in any gaps with our own best guesses. One of the most interesting findings on this is that people who are blind still understand race in visual terms. Experimental studies show that people can “smell” social class, matching perfume scents alone to our assumptions about taste and wealth. Jumping to conclusions is exactly what the mind does when you give it an incomplete picture, and you can see this lead to some particularly cringe-worthy moments early in the show.

Love may be blind, but all our senses give us social signals.

Implicit biases are implicit for a reason: they happen whether or not you are trying to stop them. The important part is to recognize them and consciously work to set them aside, rather than thinking they can be cast out by cutting off your information or attention. Again, avoiding spoilers, I think the most successful couples on the show were self-aware enough to know how much work they would have to put in after leaving the pods. For the couples who thought the experiment made this “meant to be”—that their relationship was somehow special, pre-ordained, or protected by the process—well, we got our fair share of drama.


1 They kept calling the show an “experiment.” The scientist talked about “testing hypotheses.” This irked me, because you know IRB would absolutely freak out if one of us tried to propose this as a study.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

For centuries, nations have expanded geographically and economically by taking land and labor from indigenous people. One of the narratives used to justify this colonialist expansion portrays indigenous land and space as empty, simply there for others to occupy. This narrative is known as indigenous absence.

Kleinman and Kleinman write that this kind of erasure is also applied to indigenous communities and families through the lens of health and suffering. For example, as in this Pulitzer prize-winning photo taken by Kevin Carter for The New York Times, the media often portrays indigenous communities as if they are in a state of constant helpless suffering, leaving any local action, support or voices out of the narrative. This implies that indigenous communities and families cannot adequately help themselves and require outside intervention from a supposedly more qualified source. Colonizers then use this logic to pursue their goals under the guise of providing help.

Chris Sanders’ Lilo & Stitch illustrates the narrative of indigenous absence through its portrayals of Lilo’s family, while using the presence of aliens (and a social worker) to advance this narrative and represent a justified state intervention.

Check out an extended video version of this post by Lena Denbroeder here!

When we first meet Lilo, she is swimming alone in the ocean, without any supervision. We then learn that Lilo and her older sister Nani’s parents have recently died in a car crash, leaving Nani to care for Lilo. While the film shows their local community in the beginning, this community is absent when it comes to caring for Lilo or Nani.  Nani is also repeatedly portrayed as an incredibly incompetent guardian. Because of this, the family’s biggest threat and the most major plot device is the presence of an evil social worker, who could take Lilo away. Thus, the very premise of the plot depends on the absence of a competent guardian for Lilo, and the fact that her household and community are inadequate and have failed her, creating a supposedly dire need for state intervention– so dire that the social worker identifies himself as “a special classification” that they bring in when “something has gone wrong.”

When Stitch joins the family, he creates chaos and jeopardizes Nani’s job search, all of which make the household appear even more unsuitable for Lilo. Stitch is thus used as a plot point that furthers the narrative of indigenous absence by exacerbating Nani’s caretaking challenges. At the same time, however, we see that Stitch fits in well with the family and is a valuable friend for Lilo when she has no one else. Both Lilo and Stitch are portrayed as unruly and badly behaved. In fact, Lilo fits in so poorly with the white community around her, that the only creature she can befriend is an alien. By choosing not to give Lilo anyone from her own community that she can relate to, the film furthers the notion that the indigenous community is absent and is a space for others to fill. Furthermore, the fact that she is portrayed as so deranged that she can only be expected to befriend an alien emphasizes Lilo’s otherness and implies that Lilo requires correction by an external force.

The most iconic phrase from the film is “Ohana means family,” and it’s marketed as a wholesome Hawaiian phrase. However, for Lilo, “Ohana” is policed and threatened by outsiders throughout the movie—both by a social worker and an invading alien military force; in fact, Lilo can only keep Stitch at the end by invoking state law.

This mirrors a history of state violence against indigenous children in the form of residential schools and forced adoptions, which were justified by the same narratives of safety and health that are used to question Nani’s competence as a guardian. Social workers and child welfare professionals participated in and often facilitated these colonial efforts. Frantz Fanon, referring to health and medicine, explains, “colonization sought a justification for its existence and the legitimization of its persistence….” Thus, the plot of Lilo and Stitch can be viewed as a microcosm of colonialism.

Lena Denbroeder is a recent graduate of Barnard College where she studied economics. Her professional interests include working towards health and housing equity, and approaching healthcare and health policy through a social justice lens.


For More:

Fanon, Frantz. 1982. A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove Press..

Kleinman, Arthur, and Joan Kleinman.
1996. “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations
of Suffering in Our Times.” Daedalus
125 (1): 1–23.

Sanders, Chris. 2002. Lilo & Stitch. Walt Disney Pictures.

Recent estimates indicate that roughly 45 million students in the United States have incurred student loans during college. Democratic candidates like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed legislation to relieve or cancel  this debt burden. Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom’s congressional testimony on behalf of Warren’s student loan relief plan last April reveals the importance of sociological perspectives on the debt crisis. Sociologists have recently documented the conditions driving student loan debt and its impacts across race and gender. 

College debt is the new black.
Photo Credit: Mike Rastiello, Flickr CC

In recent decades, students have enrolled in universities at increasing rates due to the “education gospel,” where college credentials are touted as public goods and career necessities, encouraging students to seek credit. At the same time, student loan debt has rapidly increased, urging students to ask whether the risks of loan debt during early adulthood outweigh the reward of a college degree. Student loan risks include economic hardship, mental health problems, and delayed adult transitions such as starting a family.Individual debt has also led to disparate impacts among students of color, who are more likely to hail from low-income families. Recent evidence suggests that Black students are more likely to drop out of college due to debt and return home after incurring more debt than their white peers. Racial disparities in student loan debt continue into their mid-thirties and impact the white-Black racial wealth gap.

365.75
Photo Credit: Kirstie Warner, Flickr CC

Other work reveals gendered disparities in student debt. One survey found that while women were more likely to incur debt than their male peers, men with higher levels of student debt were more likely to drop out of college than women with similar amounts of debt. The authors suggest that women’s labor market opportunities — often more likely to require college degrees than men’s — may account for these differences. McMillan Cottom’s interviews with 109 students from for-profit colleges uncovers how Black, low-income women in particular bear the burden of student loans. For many of these women, the rewards of college credentials outweigh the risks of high student loan debt.

Amber Joy is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her current research interests include punishment, policing, victimization, youth, and the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Her dissertation explores youth responses to sexual violence within youth correctional facilities.

Content Note: This post discusses racist memorabilia in sociological context and provides an image of one collection critical of this memorabilia below the page break.

Why do some people collect racist memorabilia and artifacts? Objects depicting African Americans in derogatory and stereotypical ways are commonly referred to as “black memorabilia” or “black Americana,” although scholar Patricia Turner more aptly names them “contemptible collectibles.” 

As documented by David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, these artifacts include everyday objects like toys and games, household items such as cookie jars, and postcards. Although usually associated with the Jim Crow era, many of the items are still produced or reproduced today, and all draw on racial caricatures, such as the “mammy,” “Tom,” “picanniny,” and “brute,” among others. 

Not without controversy, “contemptible collectibles” have different meanings to different people. Some collectors embrace the racist meanings attached to the items. Others buy the objects with the intent of destroying them. Still others hope to “liberate” the artifacts from their previous racist history and hold the objects in “high esteem” instead.

Les Whittington, the grandson of an enslaved person and whose life history is the focus of my recent research, has another reason for collecting. Ignorance or denial of the history of African Americans—especially in Appalachia, where he is from—motivates him to document the existence of slavery and the ensuing Jim Crow era.

Part of Les’s collection includes multiple “mammy” figurines, which he displays in a case, where they look like a small army of racist caricatures. The objects are shocking to see, not just because such iconographic pieces of racist memorabilia are disturbing, but also because seeing so many together is a reminder of the objects’ pervasiveness in the past.

This history may seem long past, but not to Les for whom the legacy of slavery is immediate. His grandfather, “John Myra” Stepp, was enslaved, and died the same year that Les was born.

Les himself grew up in a mostly racially segregated world. Though Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional in 1954, it wasn’t until 1966, when he was in the sixth grade, that Les’s school became the first middle school in his hometown to fully integrate. And another of his relatives, Barbara Hawkins, also one of John Myra’s grandchildren, was one of four Black students to attend the newly integrated high school in 1965.

His family members faced adversity with great resolve, and Les has told me, “And no matter what, they persevered. They were resilient. And they were smart. Because even though they had all those obstacles in front of them, they were still a success.”

But don’t mistake Les’s comments for a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative. Nor should his comments be taken as a way to obscure past or present racism and white supremacy, as Robin Di’Angelo argues is far too common. Instead, as Les has explained to me, his collection is “physical documentation of a lot of hate,” and represents “a history that doesn’t need to be forgotten, [. . .] even though it’s painful to people.” 

Les also acknowledges that the objects are relevant to today, a message repeated by more well-known collectors, such Alan Page (a former NFL player) and his wife Diane Page. Echoing Les’s concerns about the objects, Diane has noted that “contemptible collectibles” are a “constant reminder that we have to be vigilant,” especially because “people have become more comfortable of late expressing racist views publicly.”

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is a professor of sociology at Ripon College. Her teaching and research interests include social inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs and work. 

Black history in Appalachia is largely hidden. Many people think that slavery was largely absent in central and southern Appalachia due to the poverty of the Scots-Irish who frequently settled in the area, and who were purportedly more “ruggedly independent” and pro-abolitionist in their sentiments. Others argue that the mountainous land was not appropriate for plantations, unlike other parts of the South, and so slavery in the area was improbable.

A Sample Slave Schedule
(Wikimedia Commons)

As historian John Inscoe and sociologist Wilma Dunaway show us, this is not the case. According to Inscoe, slavery existed in “every county in Appalachia in 1860.” Dunaway—who collected data from county tax lists, census manuscripts, records from slaveholders, and slave narratives from the area—estimates that 18% of Appalachian households owned slaves, which compares to approximately 29% of Southern families, in general.

While enslaved people in the Appalachian region were less likely to work on large plantations, their experiences were no less harsh. They often tended small farms and livestock, worked in manufacturing and commerce, served tourists, and labored in mining industries. Slave narratives, legal documents, and other records all show that slaves in Appalachia were treated harshly and punitively, despite claims that slavery was more “genteel” in the area than the deep South.

My own research, which focuses on the life experiences of Leslie [“Les”] Whittington, whose grandfather was enslaved, helps to document the presence of slavery in Appalachia and the consequences that exploitative system had for African Americans in the region. Les’s grandfather, John Myra, was owned by Joseph Stepp, who lived in Western North Carolina. Census records show that Joseph Stepp owned seven slaves in 1850, five women and two men, who together ranged from one to 32 years of age. Ten years later, in 1860, schedules show Stepp owned 21 slaves, making him one of the wealthiest property owners in Buncombe County, the county in which he and John Myra lived.

Joseph Stepp was not unique. According to Dunaway, slave owners in Appalachia “monopolized a much higher proportion of their communities’ land and wealth” compared to those outside the area, driving wealth inequality in the region. Part of the legacy of slavery, these inequities remained in place after the Civil War, reinforced by Jim Crow legislation that subjugated African Americans socially, culturally, and politically. Sociologist Karida Brown explains how Jim Crow Laws led approximately six million African Americans to migrate from the South to the North between 1910 and 1970.

Poverty Rates in Appalachia by Race (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).
Click to view report
Graphic by Evan Stewart

Those who stayed in Appalachia, such as John Myra and his descendants, faced continued restrictions, like living in racially segregated neighborhoods, having limited employment opportunities, and not being able to attend racially integrated schools. Such systematic forms of discrimination explain why racial disparities continue to exist today, even within a region where poverty among whites remains above the national average. To understand these existing inequities, we must document the past accurately.

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is a professor of sociology at Ripon College. Her teaching and research interests include social inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs and work. 

In February of 1926, Carter G. Woodson helped establish “Negro History Week” to educate teachers, students, and community members about the accomplishments and experiences of Blacks in the United States. A native of Virginia, and the son of formerly enslaved parents, Woodson earned a PhD in history from Harvard University, and dedicated much of his life to writing and teaching about information largely omitted from textbooks and other historical accounts. Although Woodson died in 1950, his legacy continues, as “Negro History Week” eventually became “Black History Month” in 1976.

Nearly a century later, Black History is still at risk of erasure, especially in (once) geographically isolated areas, like Appalachia. The standard narrative that Scots-Irish “settled” Appalachia starting in the 18th century hides the fact that there were often violent interactions between European immigrants and indigenous people in the region. Even in the 1960s when authors like Michael Harrington and Harry Caudill reported on Appalachian mountain folk, the people were depicted as Scots-Irish descendants, known for being poor, lazy, and backward, representations that are reinforced in contemporary accounts of the region, such as J. D. Vance’s wildly popular memoir Hillbilly Elegy.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Accounts like these offer stereotypical understandings of poor Appalachian whites, and at the same time, they ignore the presence and experiences of Blacks in the region. Work by social scientists William Turner and Edward Cabell, as well as “Affrilachia” poet Frank X. Walker, and historian Elizabeth Catte attempts to remedy this problem, but the dominant narrative of the region centers still on poor whites and their lives.

Work I have been doing documenting the life experiences of Leslie [“Les”] Whittington, a native of Western North Carolina and a descendent of a formerly enslaved people, has opened my eyes to a historical narrative I never fully knew. African Americans, for instance, accounted for approximately 10% of the Appalachian region’s population by 1860, and many were enslaved, including Les’ grandfather, John Myra Stepp. Yet, their stories are glaringly missing from the dominant narrative of the region.

Source: Appalachian Regional Commission Census Data Overview

So too are the stories of Blacks living in Appalachia today. Even though the number of African American residents has increased in some parts of  Appalachia, while the white population has decreased, little is formally documented about their lives. That absence has led scholar William Turner, to refer to Blacks in Appalachia as a “racial minority within a cultural minority.” Not only does erasing African Americans from the past and present of Appalachia provide an inaccurate view of the region, but it also minimizes the suffering of poor Blacks, who relative to their white counterparts, are and have been the poorest of an impoverished population.

Woodson established “Negro History Week” to document and share the history of Blacks in the United States, recognizing that, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” The history of African Americans in the Appalachian region is largely absent from the area’s official record, and without making it part of the dominant narrative, we risk losing that history.

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is a professor of sociology at Ripon College. Her teaching and research interests include social inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs and work.