Picture this. Walking down 135th street in Harlem, you spot a park in the distance. As you walk closer, you hear a basketball bouncing and kids yelling. It’s a small, outdoor court, well-maintained with fresh paint and a sturdy chain-link fence surrounding it. The ball is constantly in motion, being passed, dribbled, and shot from all angles. As the game progresses, the excitement draws in more kids around the court. 

New York City is synonymous with basketball. From Harlem to Brooklyn, basketball has been a part of the city’s culture for decades. But why has basketball become such a staple of African American culture in cities? The answer is complex, but the roots of its popularity among minority groups stem from discriminatory practices like redlining and segregation.

A White Man’s Sport

Basketball was originally invented as a white man’s game

  – Micheal Novack, The Joy of Sports (1946)

Basketball was founded in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian physical education instructor seeking a way to keep his students active. By the early 1900s, it was being played in colleges and high schools across the nation. Colleges like Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Princeton began to play games against each other as early as 1901. The first professional basketball league, the National Basketball League (NBL), was founded in 1937. It was later merged with the Basketball Association of America (BAA) to form the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1949. 

The 1950 Minneapolis Lakers basketball team, Wikimedia Commons

For the first 30 years, the majority of participants at the collegiate and professional level were white, as black participants were barred from playing. The first black collegiate player, George Gregory Jr, did not appear until 1928. In the 1949-1950 season Chuck Cooper, Nathaniel Clifton, and Earl Lloyd became the first black players to play professional basketball, breaking the color barrier. Basketball at this time was played mostly at community centers like YMCAs, where white owners refused membership to black people. If black people wanted to play basketball, they would need to build their own. 

NYC’s History Of Racial, Economic, and Athletic Segregation

Redlining and other forms of economic discrimination depressed resources in minority neighborhoods. Redlining is an exclusionary practice that began in 1934 with the implementation of the National Housing Act (NHA). The NHA created government programs such as the Federal Housing Association (FHA) and the HomeOwner Loan Corporation (HOLC) with the intent to improve the housing market. It intended to promote homeownership by providing mortgage insurance to lenders, which would make it easier for people to obtain loans to buy homes. While the FHA improved housing conditions for White people, this support largely excluded black people.

The HOLC wrote dozens of reports to banks which categorized areas with large populations of black residents as “risky” for investors, driving down their property values and scaring off many potential investors. The FHA then used these maps to guide its lending policies, which meant refusing federally insured housing loans for minorities. In addition to this, as more black people began moving to white neighborhoods in northern cities in efforts to escape Jim Crow segregation, white people began to create suburbs outside the city to escape the influx of black people. As more white homeowners fled to the suburbs, the remaining ones agreed to sell their homes at deeper discounts, fearful of falling prices. 

Economic inequality caused by redlining practices also created disparities in the types of sports played by the kids in poorer neighborhoods. Redlined neighborhoods have less green space and have smaller parks on average. According to an analysis by the Trust for Public Land, the average park size is 6.4 acres in poor neighborhoods, compared with 14 acres in wealthy neighborhoods in New York City. 

In addition to available parks, minority children gravitated toward basketball because of the cost of entry barriers that other sports carried. In order to play baseball at a high level, you need money to pay for equipment and travel teams. Basketball did not carry this prerequisite. David C Ogden, a professor at the University of Nebraska who studied race and sport dynamics, wrote that the most common reasons for the lack of racial diversity were the paucity of baseball facilities in Black neighborhoods, and the cost of playing select baseball. As a result:

“More than two-thirds of the 27 coaches said that African-American youth prefer to spend their time on the basketball court rather than on the diamond”

Ogden (2003)

Rise of Black YMCAs

Basketball’s popularity among minority communities flourished because of the development of black YMCA’s. The Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn would be the first fully independent Black basketball team in America in 1907. As more and more YMCA’s appeared in major cities, basketball spread in similar fashion. 

In the last game of the season, the 12th Streeters beat the Smart Set in Brooklyn 20:17 in front of more than 2,000 spectators and in this way directly dethroned the reigning champion.” (Domke 2011)

Edwin Bancroft Henderson, an educator working in Washington D.C., introduced the game of basketball to the Black community. Henderson learned the game during summer sessions at Harvard University, and then introduced the game to young Black men in the Wash. D.C. area. Soon the game would be played across the east coast of the United States, mainly in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.  

Basketball also became a means for economic upward mobility. The Harlem Globetrotters formed in 1926 and became the most renowned basketball team for black basketball players. For black basketball players, the globetrotters provided the best and only way to make a living while playing basketball. 

Basketball Today

Now, basketball is an important part of NYC culture, regardless of race. Black participation in basketball has soared in the decades after segregation, and has especially soared in NYC. Every summer, minority communities gather for basketball tournaments held in NYC parks, some that even draw national attention. Nike sponsored “NY vs NY” and Slam magazine’s Summer Classic feature the top ranked high school players and have thousands of fans watching every summer. They both have been held in Dyckman park in Manhattan for the past 5 years.

 Significant changes have occurred  in professional demographics as well. In contrast to 1950, 75 % of the NBA is black, with a bunch of black athletes playing abroad in leagues all over the world. Segregation and redlining stifled black participation in basketball in its early history, but the economic conditions it fostered helped basketball become an enduring staple of the community for generations.

Sharif Nelson ‘26 is a student at Hamilton College studying economics. 

Additional Resources:

Aaronson, D., Faber, J., Hartley, D., Mazumder, B., & Sharkey, P. (2020). The Long-Run Effects of the 1930s HOLC “Redlining” Maps on Place-Based Measures of Economic Opportunity and Socioeconomic Success. The Effects of the 1930s HOLC “Redlining” Mapshttps://doi.org/10.21033/wp-2020-33 

Bowen, F. (2023, April 7). In its early years, NBA blocked black players. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 24, 2023, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/kidspost/in-nbas-early-years-black-players-werent-welcome/2017/02/15/664aa92e-f1fc-11e6-b9c9-e83fce42fb61_story.html

Centopani, P. (2020, February 24). The makings of basketball mecca: Why it will always be New York. FanSided. Retrieved May 1, 2023, from https://fansided.com/2020/02/24/makings-basketball-mecca-will-always-new-york/ 

Domke, M. (2011). Into the vertical: Basketball, urbanization, and African American … Into the Vertical: Basketball, Urbanization, and African American Culture in Early- Twentieth-Century America. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from http://www.aspeers.com/sites/default/files/pdf/domke.pdf

Gay, C. (2022, January 13). The black fives: A history of the era that led to the NBA’s racial integration. Sporting News Canada. Retrieved April 24, 2023, from https://www.sportingnews.com/ca/nba/news/the-black-fives-a-history-of-the-era-that-led-to-the-nbas-racial-integration/8fennuvt00hl1odmregcrbbtj 

Gorey, J. (2022, July 25). How “White flight” segregated American cities and Suburbs. Apartment Therapy. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/white-flight-2-36805862 

Hunt, M. (2022, October 11). What is the National Housing Act? Bankrate. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from https://www.bankrate.com/real-estate/the-national-housing-act/#:~:text=What%20is%20the%20National%20Housing%20Act%20(NHA)%3F,Loan%20Insurance%20Corporation%20(FSLIC).

Hu, W., & Schweber, N. (2020, July 15). New York City has 2,300 parks. but poor neighborhoods lose out. The New York Times. Retrieved April 21, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/15/nyregion/nyc-parks-access-governors-island.html

Ivy league regular season champions, by Year. Coaches Database. (2023, March 5). Retrieved April 24, 2023, from https://www.coachesdatabase.com/ivy-league-regular-season-champions/

McIntosh, K., Moss, E., Nunn, R., & Shambaugh, J. (2022, March 9). Examining the black-white wealth gap. Brookings. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/02/27/examining-the-black-white-wealth-gap/

Ogden, D. C. ., & Hilt, M. L. . (2003). Collective Identity and Basketball: An Explanation for the Decreasing Number of African Americans on America’s Baseball Diamond. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://www.nrpa.org/globalassets/journals/jlr/2003/volume-35/jlr-volume-35-number-2-pp-213-227.pdf

Ortigas, R., Okorom-Achuonyne, B., & Jackson, S. (n.d.). What exactly is redlining? Inequality in NYC. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from https://rayortigas.github.io/cs171-inequality-in-nyc/

Pearson, S. (2022). Basketball origins, growth and history of the game. History of The Game Of Basketball Including The NBA and the NCAA. Retrieved April 24, 2023, from https://www.thepeoplehistory.com/basketballhistory.html 

Robertson, N. M. (1995). [Review of Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852-1946., by N. Mjagkij]. Contemporary Sociology24(2), 192–193. https://doi.org/10.2307/2076853

Townsley, J., Nowlin, M., & Andres, U. M. (2022, August 18). The lasting impacts of segregation and redlining. SAVI. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from https://www.savi.org/2021/06/24/lasting-impacts-of-segregation/

It is good to be a Korean today because the world is fascinated with Koreanness, from K-pop to K-dramas, K-movies, K-food, K-fashion, and K-beauty. It is no exaggeration to say that Korean culture has become synonymous with being cool and being hip. Things were quite different, however, not too long ago.

It was around 2018 at a local supermarket in Kansas when I realized that K-culture was becoming the mainstream in the U.S. I uncovered a stack of gochujang, Korean red chili pepper paste, on the shelf. This was way before the success of the movie Parasite, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2020, or 2021 Netflix’s Squid Game, which became Netflix’s biggest debut hit by reaching 111 million viewers. Of course, some Korean cuisine like kimchi, bibimbap, bulgogi, and kalbi were already in American’s food lexicon. However, I did not expect to see a pile of gochujang boxes at a local grocery store.

The picture I took when I found gochujang at a local supermarket in 2018

As I stood in front of this stack of red containers, I felt happy and crying at the same time. I was elated that I found my food at an American supermarket, and I was sad that it took more than two decades for me to find my food at an American supermarket. It was an indicator of acceptance and normality. It seemed to be telling me that the flavor of gochujang is not either exotic or foreign any more.

I thought, this must be the same feeling for those who came to the U.S. before me when they found sesame oil at local American supermarkets around the 2000s. When sesame oil was foreign and exotic, these immigrants had to travel to Asian markets in big cities for five to seven hours. I used to travel an hour and a half just to buy gochujang in Kansas City.

Gochujang is a key ingredient in cooking Korean food, and it can be very versatile. It is used to make various stew and soup, or can be mixed with rice. In the 1990s, gochujang was a must-item for young Korean backpackers for traveling Europe. Many young students carried gochujang to Europe so they could eat it with breads. I am sure that this was a way to prevent craving for a taste of home while traveling. As a matter of fact, that was how I survived my two-month backpacking back in 1995. It is also a cultural touchstone. In the 2021 movie Minari, grandmother Soon-ja (played by Youn Yuh-Jung) travels to the U.S. to see her daughter. She brings many Korean food items including chili powder, which can be used to make gochujang. In the 1980s, finding gochujang in a small town was virtually impossible in the U.S.

Screenshots from the movie Minari

Like sesame oil, the flavor of gochujang has not changed over the years. It is the people who have changed. Americans do not see gochujang foreign or exotic taste anymore. This is consistent with other immigrant food trends like pizza, kimchi, and hummus. The other day I had a brief talk with a young lady, who was holding a container of gochujang at a local store. She said, “I love gochujang. I use gochujang a lot. And I even add gochujang to my Shin-Ramen.” It was a refreshing moment to realize how far gochujang has come.

At the same time, the wide popularity of K-culture has not translated into reduced racism toward Asian Americans. A recent report found that there is a sharp rise in racism and harassment toward Asian Americans, especially Asian women. For example, there were over 9,000 incident reports between March 2020 and June 2021. This bleak reality led a movement like #stopAAPIhate and #stopAsianhate during the Covid-19 pandemic and eventually pushed President Biden sign a bipartisan legislation to stop the hatred and the bias against Asian Americans in 2021. I completed this post during the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta Spa Shooting.

In 2018, whenever I visited the supermarket, I bought a couple of gochujang even though I did not need them. I was so desperate to keep them on the shelf, thinking that if they were not popular they might not return to the store again. Today, I see even more Korean foods like mandu (Korean dumpling), Korean fried chicken, and a wide range of Korean ramen at American supermarkets. Now I notice that gochujang is a staple – there are even different varieties on the shelf. I hope that the U.S. is more willing to embrace people like me in the way they have welcomed my food. I am still crying today because we still encounter racism and bias.

Dr. Sangyoub Park is an associate professor of sociology at Washburn University, teaching Food & Culture, K-Pop & Beyond, Japan & East Asia, Social Class in the U.S., and The Family.

“W. E. B. Du Bois and his Atlanta School of Sociology pioneered scientific sociology in the United States.”

– Dr. Aldon Morris

I had the good fortune to see Dr. Morris give a version of this talk a few years ago, and it is one of my favorites. If you haven’t seen it before, take a few minutes today and check it out.

Also, go check out the #DuBoisChallenge on Twitter! Data visualization nerds are re-making Du Bois’ pioneering charts and graphs on race and inequality in the United States.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow his work at his website, on Twitter, or on BlueSky.

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 his work at his website, on Twitter, or on BlueSky.

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.

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.