Racial categories are not fixed, innate, or rooted in biological categories. At best biology can find commonalities within population clusters which is different from race (or nationality). This makes racial categories a product of the social context and an expression of power. See this earlier post for an examination of how race has changed throughout the history of the US Census and more. See the book Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi for more on the historical construction.

One way to demonstrate the socially constructed nature of race and the problems of the categories is by examining the boundaries. Race is an ascribed status, meaning that it is applied to or given to a person by others. Who is considered White? Who is considered Black? Historically, there was the “one drop rule” that implied that if there was even a single drop of ancestral blood in one’s family tree that was Black, then that person was to be considered Black. Obviously, the enforcement of such an idea required that an observer make a judgment about a person based on their external appearance rather some sort of blood test. The ability to make such a judgment would certainly be highly subjective and contextual.

So, what are the boundaries of each socially constructed racial category? Generally, racial categories are constructed based on superficial biological characteristics of individuals such as skin tone, hair texture and color, eye shape, etc. To argue that the socially constructed racial categories are “natural” means that each category has to have definable boundaries. Instead what we find across the human race is a subtly gradated spectrum. This may not be evident when you compare two individuals at distant points along the spectrum, but when the spectrum is viewed all at once, the absurdity of the idea of distinct boundaries is clearly evident.

Photographer, Angélica Dass has embarked on a project to document every skin color present in humanity. Click on the image below to see more on her website and access her TED talk.

When viewed together, we see that people who may identify as a specific single category, say White, only look similar when compared to someone else far from them on the spectrum. Within “whiteness” there remains a spectrum with no clear boundary.

Even though racial categories are socially constructed, they have very real consequences. They were constructed and are maintained as a tool of power and privilege. There is a hierarchy imbued into the historical and current US racial hierarchy that generates advantages for Whites. White have higher rates of income, wealth, employment, education, and homeownership compared to Blacks in particular. (source NYT)

People that are socially constructed as Whites have longer life expectancy compared to those that are socially constructed as Blacks.

Unarmed whites are less likely to be killed in police encounters compared to unarmed blacks. See more here.

If we understand that race is socially constructed then we can begin to dismantle it.

Teach well, it matters.

I’ll save you the immediate proclamations of my privilege. The rise of such performative proclamations have not made a significant change or moved society along the road towards equity.

What else can I do besides express my own personal outrage about persistent racism, sexism, and other social injustices that are an affront to the principles of universal humanity, democracy, and fairness? This time these questions are inspired by the recent killing of an unarmed black male, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police. While this may appear to be a single act, it is part of a long historical racist system (see my look at more recent data here, others analysis here, and some of this history here and here). My thoughts below are very much inspired by a recent reading of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to be an Antiracist. I recommend it and his other work. What I’ve written below is not a substantially original statement. Others have made similar arguments for a long time. I write this to make visible my own process in hopes that it will make me and others think even harder and actually act. I also hope it will inspire reflection in some others in my network as it has me. I certainly invite comments.

If I want to do more than proclaim my anti-racism what do I do?

While actively educating ourselves throughout our lives is important, that alone will not end racism. The end of racism means the implementation of policies and laws that are antiracist – policies that generate racial equity (again, read Dr. Kendi and others). The end of racism does not come when enough of us proclaim we are not racist on social media. Policies and laws are drafted, voted on, and enforced by people with power. Two primary sources of such power come from being elected to a political office or one’s power in controlling financial resources (CEO, Executive Director, etc.). No matter what I post on social media, my individual voice is not enough to make a significant change toward an antiracist society. So…

STEP 1: If I am serious about working toward the decline of racism, I need to be part of an organization of others pursuing similar goals – policy change for racial equity.

Entrenched power resists political change. Political change comes from political movements. Organized advocacy and disruptive protest can and certainly have influenced electoral politics and powerful organizations throughout US history. These organized processes can move laws and policies toward a more racially equitable society. Legal challenges can also alter laws toward a more racially equal society. Organizations are required for this advocacy and protest to occur. Alone, my letter to a Senator, my vote for a governor, my snarky Tweet targeting the president, or my outrage, does nothing. While it may clear my conscience, I shouldn’t pretend it is actually contributing to the generation of more racially equitable policies and laws. I could also run for a political office but that’s a much larger radical life change than I am currently NOT prepared for.

I will have to do work to figure out which organization(s) to join. Honestly, inertia and a lack of urgency due to my whiteness makes this hard. Fortunately, I can do hard things. You can too. Don’t ask me what the right organizations are for you to become involved in and donate to. Do the work. Figure it out. It obviously depends on where you live. Start from where you are now. Grow. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Just to be clear, these organizations already exist and already have people working there who have dedicated their lives and skills to social change. They do not need a “white savior.”

What does it look like to “join” an organization? That may mean I become a member, go to meetings, volunteer my time, fundraise, and/or recruit more members. Check out the organizations’ web pages. Read their mission statements and other information (like “How to get involved”). Send an email asking if there is a way you can be involved and indicate a willingness to follow their experience and leadership. Follow up on that email. If an organization is not taking or seeking volunteers or members, don’t give up, look for another one. What skills do I have that they can use? What am I willing to learn how to do? How much time can I regularly give? I need to be open to what they need rather than what I want out of it. Some organizing work is boring, some is unrecognized, some is effective and some fails as part of organizational learning. I can do this and give attention to other issues I am concerned about as well… climate justice, etc.

STEP 2: Also, donate to organizations. It is not an either/or.

If I have financial resources, organizations need them to pay staff and rent office space, etc. It takes staff and resources to organize and run campaigns of all sorts. If I want a racially equitable society, I need to donate what I can to organizations doing good work. It is easier for me to think of organizations to donate to than to join.

STEP 3: At the local, state, and national-level, campaign for, donate to, and vote for candidates with explicit antiracist platforms.

Not those candidates that are less racist or lack explicit racism, those that are explicitly anti-racist.

Now, behind the scenes, I need to continue to listen and learn. I need to be reflective and think critically. I need to be open to criticism. I need to not let myself off the hook for this type of work because I have distinguished myself from racists public figures like Trump (and here) or “Karen.” I do need to read and educate myself more. You can easily find hundreds of books on racism. Don’t be lazy. Try this.

What’s wrong with proclamations that “I am not a racist”?

I’m a white male. There is a risk that if I believe that I am not racist than I will not pay attention to and work to end the institutional and other racism that still exists. I may also feel that by not being overtly racist, I will feel like I have done all I need to do. “Well, I’m not a member of a white supremacist organization.” I benefit from a system of white privilege (and male, class, etc. privilege). I can opt-in and out of the antiracist movement as I chose. Others are subject to the burdens of racism (individual or systemic) every day. I can’t let myself off the hook because I teach a college course once a year or so on race. The point is, I benefit from a racist system whether I am overtly racist or not.

What’s wrong with proclamations such as “I am outraged by racism”?

Quite simply, as Katy Anthony writes, “telegraphing our disgust with racism encourages white people to see ‘talking about racism’ as on par with ‘engaging in anti-racism,’ and it is not.” Proclaiming disgust is not action. Proclaim disgust AND take action. Individual proclamations alone do not shift the leverage points of power toward antiracism. Such proclamations alone will do little to change structures and systems of racism. Don’t get me wrong, as a sociologist, I know the power of socialization and negative sanctions (like public shaming).

Being a part of the existing organized collective effort to make and enforce policies and laws that deliver racial equity, that is what I (and plenty of others) believe (and what history makes clear) will change our society. That is being antiracist.

FOLLOW-UP: Sept. 4, 2020 – Data collected nearly six months after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, white Americans are the least likely to be engaged in taking some sort of action to better understand racial issues. Click on the image below to go to the full story.

So, who am I?  I am a white, cis-male, tenured sociology professor at a private liberal arts college north of Chicago, Lake Forest College. I teach a class on racism and ethnic relations. As a sociologist, I know that race is socially constructed (and here) but still has powerful social consequences. I teach classes and conduct research on climate justice, globalization, and protest movements. I blog about sociology at SociologyToolbox.com and am working on a site about the sociology of climate change at SociologyofClimateChange.com This web site generates no income and has no affiliate links.

Fine, here are some resources…

Updated June 19, 2020, with data from 2015-2019

Data collected by the Washington Post on the use of lethal force by police officers since 2015 indicate that, relative to the proportion of the population, Blacks are over-represented among all those killed by police. As is evident in the figure below, (looking at the top blue bar) according to the US Census estimates, Blacks made up 12% of the population. However, from 2015 – 2019 they accounted for 26.4% of those that were killed by police under all circumstances. In other words, Blacks were the victims of the lethal use of force by police at nearly twice their rate in the general population. Whites make up the majority of victims of police use of lethal force (50.3%) from 2015 – 2019, BUT they also currently make up the majority of the population (61%). Asians make up about 5% of the US population but just 2% of the victims of the lethal use of force by police. Hispanics make up 18% of the US population and just over 18% of the victims of the use of lethal force by police. Native Americans make up 1% of the US population and 1.7% of the victims of the use of lethal force by police.

One way to think about it is over- or under-representation. All things equal, a socially-constructed racial group should be subject to lethal encounters with the police at a similar rate to their proportion in the population. The figure below shows the over- or under-representation of racial-ethnic groups from 2015 to 2019 comparing the proportion of victims of lethal police encounters to the proportion in the respective annual US population estimates. Data points that are above the 0% line indicate over-representation among victims of police lethal force and data points below 0% indicate under-representation. Since 2015, the earliest year of data collection from this particular source, blacks have been over-represented by around 15%, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians have been roughly similarly represented relative to their proportion in the US population, and whites have been under-represented by around 10%. (Note: At the time of writing, data from 2019 had a larger number of “unknown” racial/ethnic identities of victims, 20% compared to 3-10% in previous years.) The rate of over-representation for blacks is relatively stable from 2015-2018 and shows initial signs of an increasing trend in 2019.

Is that the right comparison? Shouldn’t we compare the percent of those killed by police to the percent of interactions with the police? Even more precise, shouldn’t we compare the percent of those killed by police to those encounters that were actually life-threatening to either the police officers or other people? There are several problems with such comparisons.

First, that data doesn’t exist. There are no national records of the nature of every encounter with police officers. Additionally, the definition of life-threatening encounters is subject to interpretation and video footage by bystanders or CCTV of many instances of the police use of lethal force has shown that what gets defined by officers as dangerous or life-threatening… is not. “Dangerous” is a subjective perception, even for police officers. Perceptions of danger are often tinted if not heavily skewed by explicit or implicit racist views that the black body is more dangerous. For more on the long history of race and policing see the book, Policing Black Bodies by Earl Smith and Angela Hattery, and From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor among many others. See here for scholars responding to the idea that blacks commit more crimes. See here for ideas on improving the research and need for more data. Policing does not occur in an objective social vacuum. The history of policing shows that it has been used to repress and control African American communities and other communities of color (see here and the books mentioned above).

Second, the assumption that police encounters and the occurrence of crime are highly correlated is problematic. Crime statistics are records of policing, not crimes. Records of reported crime are records of victims who contact the police. We cannot assume that existing data on crime is a full account of crime or criminal activity. For decades there was a deliberate effort guided by formal policies that placed a focus of policing on drugs, the so-called War on Drugs. These policies and policing disproportionally targeted people of color resulting in mass incarceration even though whites and blacks report similar rates of drug use (see here and here). Racial profiling has been documented in traffic stops (a.k.a. “driving while black”, stop and frisk enforcement in New York City, and more. Whites conduct disproportionate surveillance of blacks (see here and here). From Mapping Police Violence:

Policing happens in a social context. It is not objective. By comparing the proportions of racial-ethnic groups in the general population to the proportion of those killed by police, we take into account, without measuring directly, all the other social contexts that result in a disproportionate number of black victims of police lethal force. The social contexts of neighborhood segregation, income and wealth inequality, school resource inequality, school-to-prison pipeline processes, white supremacy, “color-blind” racism policy apathy, disproportionate poverty, voter suppression, labor force discrimination, and more.

Here is a specific example of how the level of policing does not correlate to the level of crime but rather the rate of the black population. In 2019, Lance Hannon and Aaron Siegel examined the police service areas of Philadelphia. In those areas where blacks make up less than 50% of the population, the correlation between police frisking people during traffic stops and the violent crime rate of the area is positive. Meaning that police are more attuned to the high rate of violent crime in some areas and are subsequently more likely to frisk people. We can see how that logic is reasonable for officers to engage. See that relationship illustrated below in the figure from their article in the sociology journal Contexts.

However, in police service areas of Philadelphia that are more than 50% black, the relationship between frisking and the rate of violent crime disappears. Traffic stops in these areas result in police frisking the drivers no matter the rate of violent crime. This relationship is evident in the figure below.


As the authors state, “One potential explanation for these trends is that police officers may not perceive differences in levels of dangerousness among Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia. As is evident in our graphic, majority Black areas tend to have higher average violent crime rates than other spaces. Yet it is also true that many predominately Black places have violent crime rates significantly below the city’s average. Consider the case on the far left in Panel B. It has a violent crime rate that is only one third of the city’s average, but a frisk rate that is three times that of the comparable low-crime places in Panel A (places that are not predominately Black). It is possible that low-crime Black areas end up being painted with the same brush as high-crime Black areas due to neighborhood-level racial stereotypes.”

The incidents that drive the protests and organization of Black Lives Matter are largely focused on the police use of lethal force on unarmed blacks. See some of the stories behind the data and headlines here. The figure below shows the total annual number of unarmed people of all races, genders, and ethnicities killed by police from 2015 to 2019. Since 2015, the number of unarmed people killed by police has clearly declined.

We can look at the distribution of race and ethnicity among those that were killed by police while unarmed in a couple of different ways. The first is to look at all those who were unarmed when killed and, within that group of victims, examine the racial and ethnic distribution. The figure below does this. Each bar represents 100% of the people who were unarmed when killed by police that particular year. Each bar is then proportionally divided by race-ethnicity. In 2015, 34% of those who were unarmed when killed by police were white, 40% black, and 20% Hispanic. The percentage of whites among this group of unarmed victims increases to nearly 49% by 2018 while the portion of blacks decreases to 36% and Hispanics to just under 15%. Again, 2019 data should be approached with caution due to the dramatic increase in victims in the database with “unknown” race or ethnicity. Just as with the ratio of all those killed to the proportion of the US population, while whites make up the highest percentage of those that were unarmed when killed by police, blacks remain overrepresented in the group relative to their proportion with the US population. Whites and Hispanics remain underrepresented among the victims. I focus on these three racial-ethnic groups because combined they account for nearly all those killed by police while unarmed.

The other way to examine the distribution of race and ethnicity in relation to the police use of lethal force on those that were unarmed at the time is by looking at the proportion of all those that were killed by police by race and then look at the proportion of each race that was unarmed when killed. The figure below does just that for whites, blacks, and Hispanics. Each line represents the percentage of victims of that particular race-ethnicity that were unarmed when killed. So, in 2015, about 15% of blacks that were killed by police were unarmed. About 11% of whites killed by police were unarmed and a bit more than 6% of Hispanics killed by police were unarmed. In 2016 and subsequent years, there is a visible decline in the percentage of victims of each race-ethnicity that were unarmed when killed by police. 2019 appears to show near equal percentages of each group being unarmed when killed by police. Counts rather than percentages show that in 2019, 9 blacks, 19 whites, and 6 Hispanics were unarmed when killed by police. In 2015, 38 blacks, 32 whites, and 19 Hispanics were unarmed when killed by police.

Mapping Police Violence puts it this way (using their similar but not exactly the same data):

In sum, the number of unarmed people killed by police declined after 2015. Arguably, with a well-trained police force, this number should be zero. While whites constitute both the highest number and percentage of those killed by police and those unarmed when killed by police, they also make up a majority of the population in the US (~60% non-Hispanic white in 2019). Blacks are disproportionately impacted by the use of lethal force by the police relative to the general population. Blacks continue to make up a disproportionate number of all those killed by police and the number of those that were unarmed when killed by police. If we look at the victims of police lethal force by race in 2019, a similar proportion of the whites, blacks, and Hispanics killed by police were unarmed when killed.

While this is not the only issue that The Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter focuses on, it is key. Their efforts (organizing, protesting, advocating, etc.) have driven some policymakers and some police departments to take note and take (some but not enough) action to reduce the use of lethal force. While the data indicates that the problem of police lethal force clearly remains racialized, there are signs that incidents of lethal force by police are decreasing for those that are unarmed.

Teach well, it matters.

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A video by sociologist, Rashawn Ray, from the Brookings Institute.
How can we improve police accountability in the US?

Other excellent resources on the topic:

Click on the images below to be redirected to web pages or articles.

Search a specific police department on Mapping Police Violence‘s tool:

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Here is an attempt at documenting all the unarmed people of color killed by police from 1999-2014

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Also, see some of my other related posts on this topic (click on the titles below to go to the full post):

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Click on the image below to go to the full story and polling data

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A recent study arguing that the militarization of the police helps neither them nor the community’s view of the police. Read more here

A recent article on the predictors of Black Lives Matter protests. Click on the image to link to the full article.

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“A review of the shootings of unarmed people shows that officers were reported to be under physical attack in about 40 percent of the cases. The remaining 60 percent involved a variety of circumstances, including individuals’ making provocative movements or verbal threats (31 percent) or fleeing, or being shot unintentionally or in undetermined circumstances, according to a review of news reports and video of the incidents. The news accounts cited in the Post database are typically summaries based on information provided by police at the time of each event.”

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“Instead of making officers more accountable and transparent to the public, body cameras may be making officers and departments more powerful than they were before.  …  First, many officers are (either earnestly or conveniently) forgetting to activate their cameras when they’re supposed to. Take the case of Terrence Sterling, an unarmed 31-year-old black man who was fatally shot this month by local police officers in Washington, D.C., after his motorcycle crashed into their car. Contrary to District of Columbia policy, no officer at the scene activated their body camera until after the shooting. The city released footage of Sterling’s final moments this week—but that video begins more than a minute after shots were fired. …. The third threat is that many states have introduced or passed new laws that restrict public access to footage while preserving police access.”

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The federal government will soon require police departments and law enforcement agencies to report information on the deaths of any citizens when interacting with police – during a traffic stop, after an arrest, in jail, etc. The data will be gathered quarterly and will hopefully address any gaps in the data that others, like the Guardian above, have tried to fill.

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Also from last year, an article exploring the weakness in the FBI data on civilians killed by police. Click on the image to be linked to the full article.

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“With increasing use of police body cameras come new tests of transparency and trust. This half-hour documentary looks at the consequences for law enforcement and communities, from the rollout to the courtroom.”

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Updated August 1, 2018

As the annual job market season rapidly approaches for sociology, you may be wondering if you want (to apply for) a job at a liberal arts college. None of us earn our PhDs at liberal arts colleges and if you did not attend one for undergrad you may just be relying on myths about what it means to be a liberal arts professor. Some of those myths may come from people who don’t know much about liberal arts colleges either or want you to only apply to large research institutions.

Like so-called R1 institutions, professors at liberal arts colleges are responsible for and assessed based on their research, teaching, and service, but at liberal arts colleges, the emphasis is different. The best way I have heard it said is that at R1s when you are evaluated (possibly for tenure) they start by looking at your research. If that is not up to their standards, they don’t care how good you are as a classroom instructor. At a liberal arts college, they first evaluate your teaching. If your teaching does not reach high standards, they don’t really care if you are a rock star researcher. Occasionally, you will see a news story of students at an R1 in an uproar because their favorite professor was denied tenure, even though they were incredibly engaging and inspiring, readily available for advising in office hours, and taught them how to think critically unlike anyone else.

This doesn’t mean that you are free to completely focus on teaching at a liberal arts college.

Most liberal arts colleges that hire tenure-track positions still want/require you to be engaged in your field of research. However, this may mean they expect that you will publish 2-5 articles or a single book before tenure (applied for in year six), not per year. Additionally, some R1 departments have expectations that your work will be published in a very limited number of top-tier journals (AJS, ASR, etc.). Liberal arts colleges want you to publish your work in double-blind, peer-reviewed journals, but many will provide much more leeway regarding the journal’s rank.

Some liberal arts colleges are better at facilitating research than others. What is the teaching load? Are you required to teach two, three or four classes a semester? If you teach a 2:2 you should have ample time to also engage in more research and you will likely be expected to produce more. A 3:3 load? Well, you can crunch things out in the summer. A 4:4 load? Forget it. Does the college provide a pre-tenure research leave or course reduction? Some now give tenure-track faculty a semester without teaching responsibilities in their fourth or fifth year. This can be a huge help in getting new projects underway or finalizing revise and resubmits. Are there internal research funds available? Can you hire students as RAs? When considering these jobs, look for the signals the liberal arts colleges are sending regarding the importance of your research. Are they setting you up for success? Do the resources they provide align with their expectations of productivity? Hopefully, the Dean of Faculty is professional and clear regarding their expectations. I was fortunate enough to have a very clear picture from a Dean of what was expected of me to increase my chances of tenure (a ballpark number of articles, positive or improving course evaluations, and being an engaged member of the faculty/campus community). I know of others who are not as fortunate. Sometimes a new Dean wants to raise the ranking of the college and places the responsibility on the faculty to publish in the highest ranking journals, even though there is no other institutional support to help you make that happen. Others I have talked to get only vague, even opaque responses when asking about the expectations for tenure and one colleague even said her Dean wouldn’t count publications from her dissertation!? Of course, the Dean of Faculty is not the only one contributing to that decision, but can certainly be a hurdle.

Thinking about the tenure process, they are offering you a job for life. They likely want to make sure you are not a “one-hit wonder” in regards to your research. Did you squeeze a book or a few articles out of your dissertation? Great. That’s definitely the first step, but then before tenure, your department and if you have a promotion committee will want to see that you have at least taken the initial steps in establishing another line of research. What else can they expect from you?

In the past six years at a liberal arts college, I have had numerous research assistants (paid for by the college), received money from the college to help collect survey data and travel to distant research sites, and had a semester free of teaching to work on new projects and wrap up articles from my dissertation. This institutional support matches their expectations that I publish from my dissertation and begin new projects.

At a liberal arts college, you will need to take teaching seriously.

They want you to do more than give a multiple-choice midterm and final exam. You will spend a lot of time grading paper assignments, essay exams, and other more engaging assessment tools. You will not be able to use TAs to help you grade. Fortunately, your class size at a liberal arts college is typically much smaller than what you have seen or experienced at an R1. Introductory courses may be as many as 30 students but advanced undergraduate classes may only have 10-12 students. I typically run upper-level undergrad courses more like a graduate seminar with lots of discussion, more extensive research papers, and, at least in part, the direction of the course led by student’s particular interest in the topic. Faculty at R1s that teach undergrad courses with hundreds of students are understandably limited in their pedagogical choices.

Service at a small liberal arts college is also more extensive than at an R1. Many liberal arts colleges are extensively faculty governed.

Our entire faculty, of the college, not just the department, meet once a month to go over policies and other college business. Depending on the size of your department, you will also likely serve as the advisor to at least a dozen, maybe several dozen students. Other examples among the numerous committees include a sustainability committee, human subjects research committee (in lieu of a full IRB), disciplinary judicial committee, curriculum committees, and MANY more. Expect to spend more time in meetings as part of being a liberal arts professor. Committees I am on meet once a week throughout the entire school year.

What are the students like?

Coming into the job, I held onto the myth every student at a liberal arts college was well-prepared, dedicated, and politically engaged. Nope. I have both amazing students and I have some that are clearly still not sure they want to be there. I have some that are intellectually curious and some that the class assignments are a low priority on their long list of things to do. My point is, just like the R1 students you may have served as a TA for, at liberal arts colleges there is a mix of students. A professor from Northwestern University once told me that he thinks that the top students at every college are fairly similar, there are just more of them at elite institutions.

Additionally, like larger R1 classrooms, your students will come to college with a wide range of educational experiences. Some will have attended college prep high schools and be ready to write a research paper from day one, others will not have been exposed to or given the opportunity to develop the skills needed to succeed in the college classroom. Be prepared to spend some time teaching writing, reading, and critical thinking skills.

What kind of colleague do you need to be?

At a liberal arts college, you will likely be in a small department, sometimes VERY small. In my department, there are four other faculty members. Collegiality serves a prominent role in such a small group. You don’t need to be best friends with everyone, but you need to be professional and expect to see plenty of your colleagues. You will likely be THE expert in your subfield. Nobody else in my department teaches (or does research on) globalization, environmental sociology, or social movements. My colleagues are engaged scholars and can often offer a completely different angle in discussing my work with me, but if I want to get into the nitty gritty depths of ecosocialism or world society theory, I need to reach outside of the college and stay in touch with others by attending national and regional conferences.

What can you do now to qualify yourself to be a professor at a liberal arts college?

You need to teach. A CV without ANY teaching experience will get quickly passed over as an applicant. If you have the opportunity, teach as many different classes as possible while in graduate school. Yes, course prep is difficult and takes time away from your dissertation, but you need to show how you will contribute to a small department. This may be contradictory advice from what you receive from your advisor who wants you to focus on research. In just my first four years as a faculty member, I taught 9 different courses! You will be expected to teach foundational required courses like Introduction to Sociology (and maybe anthropology) and maybe a methods or theory course.

Additionally, you can’t just teach the same elective course over and over every semester. You can’t just be an instructor of a single subfield. Electives may rotate back into the schedule in a small department only every three years. I teach three courses a semester. Every spring I teach Survey Methods and Analysis with a lab, and I usually teach one, maybe two sections of Introduction to Sociology and Anthropology every year. That leaves me as many as three other courses per year. So, for example, since leaving graduate school, I added Race and Ethnicity to my repertoire of courses and developed a first-year studies class on climate change. I also regularly teach Environmental Sociology, Social Movements, and Globalization.

If you have limited opportunities to teach during graduate school, you can show that you take teaching seriously in other ways.

For your application to a liberal arts college, prepare a few additional course syllabi for classes you are prepared to teach, even if you have never taught them. This demonstrates that you are thinking about teaching. Additionally, you can attend teaching related sessions at ASA and indicate that on your CV. If your university has a Preparing Future Faculty Program, participate in the seminars. Find a liberal arts college near you and approach a faculty member about being a mentor or shadowing them so you can say that you have a good understanding of what it means to be a professor at a liberal arts college. While I was at IU, I shadowed someone from DePauw and went to IU’s PFF conference every year. You should also customize your CV and cover letters to each school. When applying to liberal arts colleges, be sure you talk about teaching first in your cover letter and do not bury any teaching experience deep in your CV. I usually list it very early – right after my educational credentials.

Teach well, it matters.









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Additional resources (click on the images below to be redirected to the site):


As a new semester is about to begin, here are some of my most popular and effective tools for teaching the early-semester topic in most Introduction to Sociology courses, the sociological imagination.

This first one compares marriage in other cultures in order to help students practice using their sociological imagination. Marriage is a topic that many students may fall into the “trap” of thinking there is something “natural” about it or that the form it takes is a highly individualized one.

The second one examines higher education and the act of deciding to come to college through a sociological lens. Many students in intro courses are first-year students, so this one resonates particularly well with them.

During the spring semester, I help students understand the sociological imagination by analyzing the Super Bowl through this lens. While certainly not all students are interested in professional concussions football, the pop culture and social event of the Super Bowl at least grabs their attention.

The last tool that I use to get their attention and teach them about the sociological imagination is the nipple. Yes, the nipple… and the social construction of the body. Nothing like talking about this topic on the very first day of class to get their attention.

Finally, here are two other tools that you may find helpful. The first is a series of questions to get students thinking critically about any topic. I make it available to my students as a tool to refer back to throughout the semester.

The second explains the system I have developed to grade student participation.

Teach well, it matters

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For tools beyond the intro classroom or for topics other than the sociological imagination, see here.

Climate change is not just an environmental issue, it is an issue of inequality, environmental justice, globalization, and consumption – it is an issue of climate justice.

How can we teach others about global warming through the lens of climate justice? Here are some resources:

One of my previous posts explores the variation in the causes and consequences of climate change. Below, the emissions of select nations on a per capita basis from 1960 to 2013 are updated. Click on the image to go to the Google public data tool.

Here you can see that among the dominant economies of the US, Germany, the UK, and China and especially compared to a few developing countries, like India, Bangladesh, and Kenya, the US emits the greatest amount of per capita greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide and others that contribute to global warming. We see that different nations have contributed different levels of emissions to the problems we currently face and will continue to deal with for at least the rest of this century. Click here to read that full post and see other ways that we can consider nation’s contribution to the problem. This is the foundation of the arguments of climate justice.

There is vast inequality in the CAUSES  of the problem of climate change.

I also recently did a TEDx talk on climate justice that provides a brief overview of climate justice. Click on the image below to be directed to an embedded link.

If we look at climate change emissions from a per capita basis we see that it takes two people from China, the UK, or Germany to generate the same emissions of the average person in the US.

Per capita, in 2014, it took six people from Brazil, nine from India, or thirteen from Honduras to emit the same level of emissions as the per capita emissions of a single person in the US.

For the small island nation of Kiribati, which is already being inundated by rising seas and in the coming decades will have to move its people and culture elsewhere, it would take 30 of their citizens to emit the same per capita emissions as a single person from the US. It takes 50 Kenyans or 56 Nepalese to emit the same level of emissions as a single person from the US from an annual per capita basis!


For a basic introduction to the issue, you can also use this analogy that I created to help students understand the perspective of developing countries that have contributed little to the problem.

Read the full post here.

Many doubt the US commitment to address climate change.

Survey research I have done with the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) shows that civil society actors throughout Africa had little trust in the US to fulfill its emissions reductions commitments. Even before the election of Trump and the appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, members of PACJA doubted that the US would reduce their emissions, provide sufficient finance or transfer sufficient technology.

Click here to read the full post and see more figures of the results.

It is not just in the causes of climate change that we see inequality, but also in the consequences.

Wealthy, developed nations have the resources and infrastructure to better buffer the negative consequences of climate change (see my TEDx talk above for some examples). So while the US has been the primary contributor to climate change, it will also be able to avoid, delay, or dampen the severity of many consequences of climate change, while developing nations (that contributed little to the current problem) are already suffering life threatening consequences.

Teach well, it matters.

. . .

The current administration is reportedly going to take action targeting affirmative action programs in college admissions.

What better time to teach the issue of race and affirmative action from a sociological point of view?


The New York Times reports, “The Trump administration is preparing to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants, according to a document obtained by The New York Times.”

Here’s an assignment that I created to help students engage in the topic of affirmative action in college admissions. It is also available on ASA’s TRAILS  teaching resource site.

You can download a Word document of the assignment instructions and rubric HERE from a shared Dropbox folder.


You will be able to customize it for your needs and I and highlighted the areas in the text that you will need to add specifics.

I have the students read the ASA’s Amicus Brief to the Supreme Court of the United States in the case challenging the affirmative action policies of the Michigan Law School. This document provides an excellent summary of the sociological research on educational inequalities and racial inequalities that impact the educational experience and subsequently one’s application to college.

The students are asked to summarize the key findings of the brief and take a stance of their own regarding affirmative action policies in college admissions. I reassure them that their grade is not impacted by which stance they take on affirmative action, but rather by the thoroughness of their argument. Depending on which side they take, they then have to make an argument either for how racial inequalities in access to higher education will be overcome (if they argue that affirmative action should not apply)or how affirmative action policies would be implemented in admissions decision policy (if they argue that affirmative action should apply).

This assignment has an additional element to it, that is peer grading. Students learn from each other during class discussion or formal class presentations and they get feedback from professors on their papers, but they never really get an opportunity to read each other’s written work. In this assignment, I collect the physical papers and anonymize them and hand them back out for peer grading. This reinforces learning, as the students need to be really sure they know the material to grade someone else’s work. Additionally, they get to compare their writing to someone else’s. It is all done anonymously and I have the final say on all the grades. I have found that students typically end up grading their peers with very high standards. Peer grading can also expose students to an opposing argument. After the process is complete, there is ample opportunity and material to generate discussion in class. I also use it as an opportunity to discuss the double-blind peer review process of academic research.

You could also add a counter argument against affirmative action in college admissions decisions with articles such as these:

Or you could have students research their own.

I have found that engaging students in issues in the news or in public debate helps the become more engaged and learn to see issues from a sociological perspective. Apparently, the current justice department wants to revisit the issue of affirmative action.

Below see some additional resources for your use in classes about affirmative action in education. Click on the select images to be redirected to the full article.

Teach well, it matters

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Updated April 25th, 2017

In the fall of 2014, the largest climate protest to date occurred at the People’s Climate March in New York City. An estimated 400,000 people marched demanding action on global warming. On April 29th, 2017 Washington, DC and dozens of other cities around the country and world will host the second People’s Climate March: March for Climate, Jobs and Justice.

See the celebratory video of the 2014 New York People’s Climate March by clicking on the image below.

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 1.33.44 PMWhile the march was declared a success by the organizers, questions remain about whether the climate change movement is successfully overcoming past criticism that the mainstream environmental movement is too white, too wealthy, and too male.

Various media outposts have pointed out that the environmental movement, in general, is lacking diversity, that is, it is too white. In particular, Brentin Mock wrote about it extensively as a columnist for Grist (he recently moved to The Atlantic).

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This is far from a new issue, but rather is something that organizations have supposedly been working on since at least the 1970s.

This lack of diversity has also been documented by several academics, most notably Dr. Dorceta Taylor at the University Michigan. Her 2014 report, The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations, examines mainstream environmental NGOS, foundations, and government agencies for their degree of diversity of race/ethnicity, class, and gender.

The trends in Taylor’s data show that the percentage of minorities in leadership position in the environmental movement have increased since the 1990s but may have plateaued at a rate lower than the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in the US population. See a key figure from her report below:

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However, the report focuses on the organizations’ leadership, not the members.

Concerns about the diversity of the environmental movement more broadly continue as we head into the People’s Climate March in DC.

According to Lindsey McDougle, “The number of environmental groups has increased in recent years, growing nearly 20 percent from 11,233 in 2003 to 13,283 in 2013. Despite this growth, people from communities of color engage in environmental volunteerism at lower rates than whites, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2015, for instance, 3.1 percent of white Americans volunteered for green causes, while only 1.6 percent of Latinos and 1 percent of black Americans did so.”

Others have been critical of Earth Day, as lacking an appropriate edge, based on the current state of the planet. Emily Atkin writes in the New Republic, “Why is Earth Day so benign and toothless when the immediate threats to the planet—particularly to its most vulnerable populations—are so severe?”

Previously, in response to Trump’s executive orders and proposed budget decimating the EPA, she wrote, “Largely missing from [the] attacks were fears about how Trump’s executive order could disproportionately hurt people living in low-income, minority, and indigenous communities. Environmental justice advocates say they’re used to this issue being overlooked. And perhaps there is some logic to the broader focus on global warming; after all, if the planet gets too hot, we’re all doomed.


What about the people who are being mobilized in the streets demanding action on climate change. Who’s voices are these?

Are organizations doing enough to ensure the movement represents the increasing racial and gender diversity of US society? As income inequality grows in our society, is the climate change movement an income-diverse movement or is it the wealthier voices that are being heard?


With the help of a team of nearly 20 research assistants I collected just over 1,000 surveys from a random sample of protestors at the 2014 People’s Climate March. Anecdotally, looking at the crowd that was in New York City that day it was diverse in a number of ways: race, gender, issue orientation, and age. However, random sample survey data provides more accurate information than one’s individual observations.

The general population of the US is a majority white (at least for another decade or two), so we would expect that whites are still the most predominant in number at such an event. However, we can look at the proportions of different races and ethnicities in the US as a whole and compare that to the proportions at the 2014 People’s Climate March to examine the level of diversity at the march.


Despite the awareness that the environmental movement has historically lacked diversity, the People’s Climate March was still disproportionally white. In 2014, whites (according to US Census estimates) represented 62% of the population as a whole, yet they were over-represented as 71% of the protesters at the People’s Climate March. Hispanic and Latinos were well underrepresented as they make up 17% of the US population but only 7% of the protesters that day in New York City. Blacks made up only 7% of the People’s Climate March activists, while making up 13% of the total population in 2014. Native Americans were also underrepresented as only 0.5% of the marchers but 1.2% of the US population. Asians were slightly over-represented as 6% of the marchers and 5% of the overall population. The “other” category represents bi-racial identities and (in the data below) Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders.

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It is not just racial and ethnic diversity that is of concern, but also economic diversity. Is the climate change movement, like the mainstream environmental movement, disproportionally upper-middle and upper class? One way of measuring the income distribution is dividing the population by five, or into clusters of 20% of the population (quintiles). The survey data indicates that participants in the 2014 People’s Climate March disproportionally fell into the upper two quintile income brackets in the US. The income ranges in the figure below each represent 20% of the US population. If the protesters were evenly distributed across incomes, each of the bars in the figure below would be at 20%. Instead, the data shows that just over 50% of the protesters were from the top two US income quintiles in the US. Just 32% of the protesters were from the bottom two quintiles.

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Lastly, the gender distribution within environmental organizations has also been criticized as disproportionally male. Dorceta Taylor’s research shows that the boards of organizations remain disproportionally male, while the staff are disproportionally female, as seen in her charts below.

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The participants in the historical 2014 People’s Climate March were split in roughly the same gender proportions as the US population (see the figure below). The gender distribution of marchers shows greater equality than either the race/ethnicity or income distribution.

Regarding leadership, 350.org is the main organizer of the People’s Climate March both in 2014 and 2017. A quick count of the staff listed on 350.org’s web page (as of October 2015) indicates that 57% of their global staff are women. Of their seven board members, four are women.

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 10.05.12 AM

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Climate organizations need to make a greater and continued effort to ensure that all the communities being negatively impacted by climate change have a voice and are present in the mass mobilizations. We continue to live in a racialized society (see my previous posts if in doubt, here, here and here among others) and overcoming that will take intentional effort, reaching out to minority groups with specific rather than open invitations, and ensuring that they are part of the planning not just invited at the last minute. As Naomi Klein, prominent author and board member of 350.org writes in the article linked to below:

“What does #BlackLivesMatter, and the unshakable moral principle that it represents, have to do with climate change? Everything. Because we can be quite sure that if wealthy white Americans had been the ones left without food and water for days in a giant sports stadium after Hurricane Katrina, even George W. Bush would have gotten serious about climate change. Similarly, if Australia were at risk of disappearing, and not large parts of Bangladesh, Prime Minister Tony Abbott would be a lot less likely to publicly celebrate the burning of coal as “good for humanity,” as he did on the occasion of the opening of a vast new coal mine. And if my own city of Toronto were being battered, year after year, by historic typhoons demanding mass evacuations, and not Tacloban in the Philippines, we can also be sure that Canada would not have made building tar sands pipelines the centerpiece of its foreign policy.”

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This piece has focused on the movement in the US and around one particular mass mobilization. It is important to remember that the lack of diversity at the People’s Climate March was not because the working class and racial minorities don’t care about the issue (nor was it that the organizers did not care about diversity). The NAACP has a campaign called the Climate Justice Initiative that “works at addressing the many practices that are harming communities nationwide and worldwide and the policies needed to rectify these impacts.” Nations of the Global South, predominantly not white and less developed than the advanced industrialized Western nations (read greenhouse gas emitters) have been mobilizing against climate change for some time now. On the African continent, there is the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA). Others include Focus on the Global South, La Via Campesina, and many others. See some survey data on the views of organizational members of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance here.

The US climate movement must stay focused on the principles of climate justice if it wants to be inclusive and not just the mass mobilization of wealthy, white, males. While improvements in this area have been made, much remains to be done.

I’ll have another research team collecting survey data at the 2017 march in both DC and Chicago. Watch for updated data as those results come in. See you at the protest!


Teach well, it matters.

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A couple of “thinking critically” caveats about the data that need to be considered. First, in conjunction with the main event, the People’s Climate March in New York City, there were a few hundred other smaller protests held in cities throughout the country and world. My data is limited to the New York City event. While we could speculate that these other events may have been more racially and economically diverse (but we have to reason to believe so), the bulk of the organizing efforts seemed to go into the march in New York City. The main march, with an estimated 400,000 people is the event that received the media attention, the primary purpose of the event. So, even if the smaller, more local events were of greater diversity, they were peripheral.

Secondly, the event was held in New York City and the income distribution within the metropolitan area is skewed slightly upward relative to the nation as a whole. While the organizers made a herculean effort to bring in people from all over the country, there is a still a chance that the crowd was predominantly from New York City. If we only considered the income distribution in NYC, this would likely result in a more even distribution among income quintiles.

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When students participate in classroom discussion, they learn more than when they just listen. Students should leave any college having learned the ability to not only write well, but also to speak well in front of their peers.

But how do we get students to participate?

In larger sized classes, the sheer number of students generates a free-rider problem, where each individual student can assume that someone else will do the talking and they will not be called out. There must be an inverse relationship between the number of students and the rate of participation. If you don’t even know all their names, it will be difficult to grade participation. You’ve likely had classes where there is rich participation, but it is only a handful of students who do all the talking. You’ve also likely had classes where you feel like you’re are pulling teeth trying generate participation. What to do?

If you have a very large, lecture-hall-filled kind of class, it may seem like an impossible task that you wrote off long ago. The most innovative way I have seen this handled was when I was a TA for Professor Melissa Wilde, then at IU, now at UPenn. She taught an introduction to sociology course of about 400 students! On the first day of class she handed out 4-6 different colored index cards. Each student took 4 of the same colored card, wrote their name on them and then stored them away in their notebooks. Each day the class met, a different group of students, based on the color of the index cards, was given the opportunity to participate. When a student did, they would hand in their card with their name on it to be recorded as part of the course grade. Now, this required Professor Wilde to navigate the lecture hall with a microphone like a talk show, but that kept things lively and the student engaged. Of course, this is not the depth of discussion that you would hope for in a class of 20, but we shouldn’t ignore opportunities to generate even a little engagement.

Even in small classes, without some sort of accountability, it can be hard to get all but the most confident extroverted students to participate. Over the years, I have come to realize that, in many ways, students are like faculty: they have too many demands on their time and subsequently are going to focus on fulfilling the tasks that those above them have deemed important. As faculty, we signal to students what we believe to be important by the portion of the course grade we assign. Without being held accountable by a grade, students will turn their attention to another task, possibly in another class that is making more graded demands of them.

Using grading as a more immediate feedback tool

When I first started awarding points for participation, I  had just one grade that was awarded at the end of the semester. This was quickly abandoned because of the flurry of shallow efforts to participate at the end of the semester. I then switched to awarding grades three different times evenly spaced throughout the semester. Each of the three sections is graded independently in order to reward consistency.

My most recent iteration is to continue with the three sections but at the beginning of each one, everyone is awarded a zero and must earn their way up.


This way they do not think they will get a C (or even 50%) just for being present. At the end of every couple weeks or so, I update their grade in an online grade book they have access to as an indicator of where they stand. This allows them to alter their level and depth of participation until the grades are finalized on the posted date. This serves as a signal to them of my expectations for a less quantifiable expectation.

This has resulted in increased student understanding of my expectations, a more reflexive awareness of their contribution, and higher rates of participation. It has not resulted in full participation. Some students are more than happy to ride out that zero, despite office hour suggestions of how they participate more/at all.

Even within this structure, I think it remains important to be a creative facilitator. A lesson I learned from one of my teaching mentors, Professor Brian Powell at IU, was to ask, “What questions do you have?” This sets the expectation that there are questions and it is perfectly normal as a student to ask them. Additionally, the most basic exercise to let students who are more reflective have time to think is to give the class the question(s), ask them to take a minute or two and jot down notes, and then call on people. You can also give the class a minute to talk to their neighbor before asking someone to speak alone before their peers. This gives students who are nervous a dry run to compose their thoughts and gain more confidence.

You can also provide students with the discussion questions as a prelude to the next class. That way, as they do the reading, they can write reflective notes that might facilitate their participation in the next class. See my previous post for critical thinking questions that will help prompt participation.

Teach well, it matters.

In the early and mid-70s the then newly established US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hired a couple dozen freelance photographers to document environmental problems in the US for a project they called Documerica. These 15,000 images are now part of the national archives and available here. As the EPA budget, staff, and regulations are being severely slashed by Trump and the Republican controlled House and Senate, it is worth reflecting on some of the problems that the EPA has served to address to make our air, land and water cleaner and safer for humans and other species.

Below is a selection of illustrative images from the collection.

Original Caption: Mary Workman Holds A Jar of Undrinkable Water That Comes from Her Well, and Has Filed A Damage Suit Against the Hanna Coal Company. She Has to Transport Water from A Well Many Miles Away. Although the Coal Company Owns All the Land Around Her, and Many Roads Are Closed, She Refuses to Sell. 10/1973

Original Caption: There Is Some Local Opposition to Stripping the Land in Southeastern Ohio. Most People, However, Are Employed by the Coal Companies and Are Afraid Any Demands for Reform Will Cost Them Their Jobs. Off Route 800. 10/1973

Original Caption: Loaded Coal Cars Sit in the Rail Yards at Danville, West Virginia, near Charleston. Awaiting Shipment to Customers. It Is One of the Largest Transshipment Points for Coal in the World. A Constant Stream of Rail Cars Is Moved in and Out of the Small Town 04/1974

Original Caption: The Atlas Chemical Company Belches Smoke across Pasture Land in Foreground. The Plant Is Referred to as “Old Darky” in the Community Because Black Soot from the Plant Covers Everything Near-By. One Farmer Claims He Lost Several Cows Due to Soot and Chemicals from Atlas, 06/1972

Original Caption: Exhibit at the First Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development Held at the Marriott Motor Inn, Ann Arbor Vehicles and Hardware Were Assembled at the EPA Ann Arbor Laboratory. Part of the Exhibit Was Held in the Motel Parking Lot General Motors Urban Electric Car Gets Battery Charge. in the Background (Left) Is the Ebs Electric “Sundancer” 10/1973

Original Caption: Miner Wayne Gipson, 39, with His Daughter Tabitha, 3. He Has Just Gotten Home From His Job as a Conveyor Belt Operator in a Non-Union Mine. as Soon as He Arrives He Takes a Shower and Changes Into Clothes to Do Livestock Chores with His Two Sons. Gipson Was Born and Raised in Palmer, Tennessee, But Now Lives with His Family near Gruetli, near Chattanooga. He Moved North to Work and Married There, But Returned Because He and His Wife Think It Is a Better Place to Live 12/1974

Original Caption: Children Play in Yard of Ruston Home, While Tacoma Smelter Stack Showers Area with Arsenic and Lead Residue, 08/1972.

Original Caption: Trash and Old Tires Litter the Shore at the Middle Branch of Baltimore Harbor, 01/1973.

Original Caption: The Goergetown Gap, Through Which Raw Sewage Flows into the Potomac. Watergate Complex in the Rear, 04/1973.

Original Caption: Illegal Dumping Area off the New Jersey Turnpike, Facing Manhattan Across the Hudson River. Nearby, to the South, Is the Landfill Area of the Proposed Liberty State Park, 03/1973.

Original Caption: Dead fish at Pahranagat Lake, a wildlife refuge, May 1972

Original Caption: Decker Coal Company strip mine, 06/1973

Original Caption: Sign in a restroom along Interstate 25 south of Colorado Springs, Colorado, warns that water is undrinkable, 04/1974

Original Caption: Polluted Androscoggin River in the “Shelburne Birches” Area near the Maine – New Hampshire Boundary 06/1973

Original Caption: Outfall from Berlin’s Industries Produces Islands of Foam in the Androscoggin River 06/1973


Original Caption: Open Garbage Dump on Highway 112, North of San Sebastian 02/1973


Teach well, it matters.