Photo by torbakhopper, Flickr CC

Originally published July 30, 2019.

As candidates gear up for this week’s democratic debates, constituents continue to voice concerns about the student debt crisis. 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. 

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.
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.

Infographic by snipergirl via Flickr CC.
Infographic by snipergirl via Flickr CC.

Originally posted March 12, 2016.

Last week, a civil judge ruled that singer Kesha must fulfill her music contract despite allegations that her producer sexually assaulted her. While Kesha received an outpouring of support from fellow artists and fans creating the hashtag #FreeKesha, entertainment show host Wendy Williams critiqued the singer for not disclosing the “alleged” rape earlier. The media frequently questions the credibility of women like Kesha and the accusers of famous men like Mike Tyson and Bill Cosby because their stories deviate from what are perceived as “real rape” experiences (those committed by strangers and with a deadly weapon). Social science research helps us sort out how and why institutions risk “revictimizing” survivors as they navigate the criminal justice process.

The majority of victims do not report assaults to police, often because they don’t think they’ll be believed. Unsurprisingly, the cases most reported to police are those perpetrated by strangers and/or involving a weapon—what victims (and police) believe best constitute criminal, “authentic rapes.” Further, police treat victims perceived as “professional” as more credible than prostitutes.
Victims can also be revictimized if they opt to undergo a physical examination. Forensic nurse examiners often prioritize the preservation of forensic evidence while unintentionally neglecting the emotional care of the victim in service to the criminal investigation.
The court process is distinctly difficult for victims, too. They must attempt to satisfy the expectations of prosecutors and withstand cross-examination by defense attorneys. Prosecutors may prepare victims for testimony by encouraging them to use certain vocabulary, dress in a way that suggests they did not “ask for it,” and show emotion to convey the specific feelings expected of a rape survivor. Despite rape shield laws that prohibit attorneys from disclosing a victim’s sexual history, defense attorneys may still question the victim’s morality, interrupt victims, ask confusing questions, and limit their responses in an effort to transform sexual violence into mutual consent in the eyes of a judge and jury.
Photo shows a large sign that reads, Stop Murder by Police, and shows pictures of women and girls killed by police.
Photo by The All-Nite Images, Flickr CC

Earlier this month another Black American, Atatiana Jefferson, was fatally gunned down by a Fort Worth police officer in her own home. In the weeks since her death, community activists and residents have called for law enforcement accountability and reform of the police department’s use of force policies. As the Fort Worth community continues to grieve and fight for justice, Jefferson’s death reminds us Black women must be included in conversations around police violence, reform, and accountability. After a decades long struggle for visibility, Black women activists created the hashtag #SayHerName to bring awareness to the growing number of Black cis- and transgender women killed by law enforcement — a list Jefferson has now joined at just 28-years-old. A small but impressive group of sociological works have highlighted Black women’s experiences with police and the racialized and gendered challenges that lie ahead in developing police-community trust.

Similar to Black men and boys, Black women and girls also hold higher levels of legal cynicism (distrust) in law enforcement than whites. They report being stopped and facing verbal harassment for traffic incidents or, in the case of Black girls, breaking curfew — especially when in the presence of Black male peers. Black women and girls also distrust police due to their unresponsiveness to serious calls involving interpersonal, domestic, and sexual violence. For many Black women and girls living in low-income communities, police violence is simply one form of a larger “matrix of violence,” where they must also navigate interpersonal and neighborhood violence. At times, police are the perpetrators of these gender-specific forms of violence. These matrices remain interconnected, as cynicism towards law enforcement hinders reliance on police to address other forms of violence.
Motherhood also brings distinct challenges that shape Black women’s attitudes towards police. Black women are targeted through “family criminalization,” where they fear law enforcement will target both their children and themselves for being “bad mothers.” Since motherhood places Black women responsible for the safety of their children, they attempt to protect Black youth from police suspicion by sharing cautionary tales, sheltering them, and teaching them to comply with police demands. Black women’s cautionary tales, however, often emphasize the police assaults against Black sons, while treating police violence against Black daughters as improbable and less violent. While Black mothers often view police as illegitimate and unresponsive, they may also use police services to help (mostly male) loved ones when other resources remain scarce.

Among many Minneapolis landmarks lit purple, the Lowry Bridge frames downtown on the night of Prince's death. Tony Webster, Flickr CC.
Among many Minneapolis landmarks lit purple, the Lowry Bridge frames downtown on the night of Prince’s death. Tony Webster, Flickr CC.

When music icon Prince died on April 21st, it affected millions of fans around the world. Famous and non-famous alike flooded social media, expressing their shock at the tragic loss of a superstar, while thousands gathered at the gates of Prince’s home and recording studio, Paisley Park, in suburban Minneapolis and in front of First Avenue in downtown, where many memorable scenes in “Purple Rain” were filmed. Some left purple flowers, letters, and stuffed animals, while others danced and sang. Similar worldwide rituals followed the passings of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and David Bowie, despite most celebrants never having known them personally.

Death and loss are difficult experiences for the loved ones of the deceased. These losses may be compounded by ambiguous losses—those without closure—thought to delay the grieving process and strain the everyday lives of loved ones. Mourning, however, is not restricted to those we know personally. Masses mourned England’s Princess Diana, because they felt they knew her on a personal level, writing condolences such as “I feel as though I’ve lost a dear sister.” People also mourn the death of celebrities who hold connections to emotional events; that is, people do not solely grieve the loss of that celebrity, but also the loss of the memories associated with that celebrity.
Death and grief are private events as well as social rituals. Mass media and technology have helped increase such public mourning: many first hear about the death of celebrities via television, the Internet, and social media, and they often respond with online tributes. Not all celebrity deaths are equal, however: the extent to which the public mourns is an indication celebrity’s status.


Zoe Saldana, left, and Nine Simone, right. Image via ABC News Entertainment.
Zoe Saldana, left, and Nine Simone, right. Image via ABC News Entertainment.

Zoe Saldana’s portrayal of singer and activist Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic has proven controversial, even before the film’s premiere. In press photos, Saldana, a light-skinned woman of color, is clearly wearing dark makeup and a prosthetic nose to appear more like the late singer. Some argue using “blackface” in order to cast Saldana is particularly troubling considering Nina Simone’s own life-long dedication to encouraging the acceptance and embrace of dark skin tones. It also ignores the realities of colorism, which reproduces social inequalities and hierarchies among people of color.

Several studies address the benefits that accrue to light-skinned women. Employers, for example, often evaluate women applicants on physical attractiveness, regardless of job skills. This includes privileging physical features that suggest lighter-skinned women are friendlier and more intelligent. Lighter skin tones also make their female bearers more likely to marry spouses with higher incomes, report less perceived job discrimination, and earn a higher income. In schools, studies find that teachers expect their lighter-skinned students to display better behavior and higher intelligence than their darker peers, and public health research shows lower rates of mental and physical health problems among lighter-skinned blacks.
Colorism may provide socioeconomic, educational, and health benefits to light-skinned women, but it also challenges their identity as black women. Other blacks may perceive them as not “black enough,” assuming that they are more assimilated into white culture and lack awareness of black struggles. Those with lighter skin may feel isolated as members of their ethic group openly question their authenticity and belonging.

Job application via
Job application via

Conservative and liberal legislators alike are calling for criminal justice reform. Last November, President Obama proposed a “ban the box” initiative that prevents federal agencies from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history during the initial stages of the hiring process. The plan mirrors similar policies in over 100 U.S. cities that seek to reduce employment discrimination against people with criminal records and alleviate the socioeconomic burdens they often face as they reenter the job market. Social science highlights the scope of this problem and how ban the box policies may help.

Employers often dismiss applicants with criminal records, which disproportionately affects black men. A Milwaukee study revealed employers contacted only 5% of black men who disclosed a record; even black men without a criminal record were less likely to receive a callback than their white male peers with a criminal record. Thus, even in the absence of criminal background checks, employers may use racial indicators, education levels, and gaps in employment to evaluate potential criminality among job applicants.
Among candidates with a record, employers may consider the severity of the crime, the time since the crime was committed, and the outcome of the crime. Felony crimes and convictions appear to create the most barriers, while job applicants with misdemeanor arrests face lower hurdles. Since interviews with employers show that making personal contact with job applicants can help overcome the negative effects of a criminal record, “ban the box” measures that delay consideration of the criminal record until the interview process could make a real difference in individuals’ job prospects.

Coates' latest book reflects on race and the justice system. Click for publisher site.
Coates’ latest book reflects on race and the justice system. Click for publisher site.

In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” details the historical development of the carceral state, its consequences on current and formerly imprisoned black Americans, and the unique challenges families face during their absences and returns. Coates cites and interviews several prominent sociologists for their insight into the carceral state’s repercussions for black Americans specifically. We rounded up some of their best work on the topic.

The 1970s saw increasing unemployment and concentrated poverty. Legislators developed “tough on crime” policies that resulted in the start of a massive increase in the number of incarcerated individuals in jails and prisons. Increases in incarceration, however, do not appear to have had a significant effect on decreasing crime rates.
Mass imprisonment has a wide range of collateral consequences. Those who serve time face health risks, familial struggles, and barriers to employment before and after they are released.