Photo by World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Flickr CC

Recently, the Trump administration announced they would continue federal executions this coming year, despite the fact there had been no federal executions in nearly two decades. This announcement comes soon after a recent Supreme Court decision reversing Curtis Flower’s death penalty conviction for racial bias in jury selection by a Mississippi prosecutor. This is not the first case about racial bias that has made it to the Supreme Court (see: Furman v. Georgia, McCleskey v. Kemp), nor will it be the last. Social science research demonstrates racial disparities are common in death penalty cases, but racism is not the only factor.

Racial bias in jury decisions is one way black defendants are disadvantaged in capital punishment cases. Research by Mona Lynch and Craig Haney shows that white male jurors are more likely to sentence black defendants to death than women and jurors of color. These jurors often use emotion-based tactics to sway other jurors to their side — and to racially-biased outcomes.
The race of the victim — perhaps more than the race of the defendant — plays an extremely important role in the probability a defendant will face the death penalty, and the likelihood the defendant will eventually be executed. Research finds that black and Hispanic death row inmates convicted of killing white victims face a higher likelihood they will be executed than others on death row. 
Data comes from the Death Penalty Information Center and the General Social Survey. Click to enlarge
Racist histories — like the presence of lynchings — as well as a higher percentage of blacks living in the area increase the number of death sentences. Beyond race, political factors, like public support for the death penalty and Republican strength, also influence yearly executions. Other factors include national level Republican strength, presidential elections that emphasize law and order, economic inequality, and higher murder rates. Further, the presence of liberal political values may explain the absence of death sentences. 

The death penalty’s role in deterrence is contested, but its racial impact is not. Using research on racial bias, social scientists have helped change death penalty policy in the United States. A report by Katherine Beckett and colleagues played a key role in Washington’s decision to abolish the death penalty in 2018. The report found that prosecutors were significantly more likely to file a death notice in a county with a relatively large black population, and juries were 4.5 times more likely to sentence black defendants to death than defendants of other races. 

You may also be interested in a previous article: Racial and Regional Differences in Support for the Death Penalty.”

For more information and data on the death penalty, check out the Death Penalty Information Center.

Photo by Alan Levine, Flickr CC

Originally posted February 16, 2017.

The narrow confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education has served as a catalyst for renewed conflict over public education in the United States. DeVos is a strong proponent of private education and charter schools, and this concerns supporters of a strong public school system. Social science comparing the two approaches shows distinct benefits of public schools and questions whether more choice in schooling really helps everyone.

The argument for private and charter schooling is based on the benefits of competition: when public schools don’t perform well, offering parents a broader set of choices forces them to compete and improve. While people often worry about public schools “failing,” it turns out that many schools with low standardized test scores actually do fine in terms of learning outcomes and whether learning persists over the summer.
School choice can also reinforce inequality because people in poor and minority communities rarely have a similar set of schools to choose from. Many social scientists have found that the positive outcomes for students in charter schools are often limited to more privileged or affluent children.
Regardless of the possible benefits of competition that supporters of private schools claim, public schools simply do better when they receive more funding — funding that could be at risk if funds and focus are shifted primarily to private schools.

For more, see a previous TROT on charter schools.

Photo by woodleywonderworks, Flickr CC

Originally posted April 26, 2017.

The Trump administration recently announced plans to cut federal public school programs designed to help students who need financial assistance. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney explained that, although programs like free and reduced lunches and after-school activities are supposed to help kids do better in school, “there’s no demonstrable evidence that they’re actually doing that.” Well, social science begs to differ.

To start, research does show that programs providing low-income students with free or reduced-cost lunches have positive impacts, as proper nutrition is essential for academic achievement and educational success. And providing these lunches has been found to lead to a decrease in disruptive behavior. Importantly, research shows that cutting programs like these would mean that the poorest, most at-risk youth would bear the brunt of the blow, losing observed benefits to academic and social skills that subsidized lunches have been shown to provide.
In addition to lunch programs, extracurricular and after-school activities are threatened under the proposed Trump budget. But there is research that finds these programs can be beneficial. Students involved in after-school programs have been found to experience a variety of positive effects, such as increased attendance at school, a jump in reading comprehension, and a drop in disciplinary referrals. Participating in these programs can predict lower disciplinary measures for students, even for students who are at higher-risk for delinquency. Notably, though there is often a narrative that black students in urban environments are the most “at-risk” and in need of such programs, research shows that African-American students are actually more likely to be involved in after-school activities than white students
However, getting at risk-youth to participate in after-school programs is not always easy. There are a wide variety of programs available, but those intended to provide non-delinquent options to at-risk youth often face the greatest uphill battle. Factors determining youth delinquency, such as issues at home, are difficult for extracurriculars to overcome. On a more individual basis, however, extracurricular programs can have meaningful, positive impacts in the long run by giving participants skills, passions, and experiences that prove useful later in life. This complicates the Trump administration’s assertion that  these programs should be cut because they “don’t work.” Rather, paying attention to how they work can lead to more positive impacts and greater availability for America’s students.
Photo of a silhouette of a person holding a rifle.
Photo by Esther Vargas, Flickr CC

The Northern Triangle region of Central America — composed of the nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — is considered one of the most violent regions in the world outside of a war zone. In addition to a de facto state of war against highly organized and well-armed nonstate actors, extrajudicial killings by both the police and citizens of local gang members and criminals reveal both the ineffectiveness of state action in preventing violence and the desperation of local communities for security. Research on vigilante forms of justice in the region demonstrates how weak state institutions, like inadequate police forces, inefficient judicial systems, and corruption, can contribute to citizens taking the law into their own hands to provide justice and security in their communities.

Ineffective and inaccessible criminal justice institutions create a void that fosters mob action and vigilante justice. In Latin America, linchamientos, a form of collective vigilantism, reflect communities’ dissatisfaction with state authority and the desire to have autonomy in their own affairs. In rural Guatemala, for example, linchamientos have been considered a legacy of the nation’s brutal civil war (1960-1996). Today, they still function as a form of community justice against local criminals, due to the perceived corruption, inefficiency, and illegitimacy of official police forces.
Widespread political problems generate conditions of ‘statelessness’ in which citizens are more likely to ignore legal avenues of conflict resolution to engage in violent “self‐help.” In Guatemala and Honduras, for instance, conflicts over land have fostered a continuous cycle of violence between peasants and elites. State ineffectiveness not only incentivises citizens to take justice into their own hands, but also enables the expansion of private security, the militarization of police forces, and even alliances between vigilante groups and the state’s armies. In Mexico, when the police have fallen short of providing adequate security in the last decade, organized vigilante groups have battled powerful drug cartels. The Mexican state has assimilated these groups as a way to both expand the fight against crime and keep vigilantes under its control. 
In a number of cases in Latin America, the inability of states to provide social order, security, and justice has led citizens to take up arms and attempt to do it themselves. Just as vigilante justice can challenge the power of the state and support for democratic governance, however, confidence in law enforcement can strengthen democracy by reducing the need for extralegal justice. 
Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun, Flickr CC

This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center.

Technology has its share of perks and benefits. Past articles on The Society Pages demonstrate how artificial intelligence and technology can help enhance journalism and curb trafficking and trolling online — but scholars have also found technology has a dark side. Meredith Broussard calls it, “technochauvinism,” a belief that tech is always the solution to the world’s problems. It is a red flag, she says, because “there has never been, nor will there ever be, a technological innovation that moves us away from the essential problems of human nature.”
One of these problems is unequal access to the internet. On The Society Pages, we highlighted how access to the internet influences activism. Other research shows how access to the internet influences various societal practices including predictive policing, real estate markets, affordable housing, social services and medical care. For example, predictive policing is a developing area of inquiry. This practice has come under scrutiny for its lack of transparency and potential to assign inaccurate risk scores to individuals that may become a victim or offender in a violent crime, which can lead to the overpolicing of already marginalized areas.
Scholars have also discovered that blue-chip companies, including Google, produce search results that marginalize underrepresented populations. Further, there is fear that algorithms are writing people out of jobs. While algorithms do have the potential to write people out of jobs, different fields may experience this to various degrees. This may be true for professions including paralegals: Up to 69 percent of paralegals’ time could be automated. In the journalistic profession, reporters and editors are in better shape due to their ability to animate algorithms to their advantage: As a human-centered process, algorithms have the potential to increase reporting outputs with less human effort. But algorithms aren’t neutral — they are produced by people, and they have the potential to reproduce marginalization.
Photo shows a crowd of people holding signs. The sign in focus is green and says "Missing Murdered" and shows photos of Indigenous women.
Photo by JMacPherson, Flickr CC

A historic inquiry into missing and murdered women in Canada has determined that the nation committed genocide against Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people. The violence stems from a long history of colonial and patriarchal violence, according to the report’s authors. Moreover, they suggest that “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses are the root cause behind Canada’s staggering rates of violence” still today. Recent sociological research shows that the heightened risk of violence faced by Indigenous women in Canada is also deeply entwined with social stigmatization, poverty, and the lingering impacts of reservations on housing and schools.

With racism and colonization, Indigenous women in Canada have long been labelled as promiscuous, immoral, and sexually available. Today, these stereotypes contribute to victim-blaming and a lack of attention to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people. More specifically, law enforcement regularly dismisses reports of missing women and girls as runaways or partiers and, with the media, use these stereotypes to blame these women for making bad choices that contribute to their own victimization.
Yet many women who hitchhike
do so for social and material reasons. Ever since the creation of reservations, these women face barriers to transportation and mobility. Such challenges are only exacerbated by poverty and homelessness. For Indigenous women and girls in other words, hitchhiking a logical, even necessary form of travel.
Then, there is also the
problem of violence committed by law enforcement officers themselves. Even when publicized (as one egregious such case from 2011 was) police officers rarely face prosecution — further reinforcing the idea that Indigenous women and girls can be exploited with impunity. These abuses of power are part of systemic injustices in the criminal justice system, from denial of medical care while incarcerated to jury acquittals in murder trials

Prime Minister Trudeau has assured the Canadian public that his government will take action in response to this report. But with a history of abuse and broken promises, it should not be surprising that many Indigenous people are skeptical that anything will really change.

For in-depth reporting on more of these cases, listen to the CBC podcast, Missing & Murdered.

LGBT Celebration at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. Photo by Elvert Barnes, Flickr CC

Originally published on June 29, 2018.

In the United States, tension between religious institutions and the LGBT community persists, even after the legalization of same-sex marriage. While some faith groups are becoming open and affirming, the recent Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and stories of LGBTQIA+ exclusion at religiously-affiliated institutions like Hope College and Wheaton College show continued conflict between religion and sexuality, even in an era when Americans have become more accepting of same-sex relationships. Social science research shows that these challenges continue, but it also demonstrates how people don’t always have to choose between faith and being faithful to who they are.

Religious institutions are clearly changing. Even churches without formal welcoming statements often accept LGBT members, sometimes in contrast to the policies of their national organizations. At the same time, queer students are both learning to navigate their identities on religious campuses, and engaging in direct activism to create more welcoming and inclusive organizations.
Some people who are queer and religious experience tension between their identities, especially when they feel family members, faith leaders, or friends want them to choose one or the other. But other people work out all kinds of ways to be both religious and queer at the same time, from different doctrinal interpretations to forging their own communities.
Photo of cricket players in white uniforms holding their arms in the air to signal for an appeal
Players appeal for a wicket. Photo by Nic Redhead, Wikimedia Commons CC

“Kaaaaach it!”
“Bowled ‘im!”
“Wadda wrong’un!”

Americans may scratch their heads at these expressions, but a large body of international sports fans relishes those words. England and Wales are currently hosting the Cricket World Cup, the 12th edition of the tournament that began in 1975; ten national teams who have made it past qualifiers are slogging it out to lift the trophy. Social scientists around the world have studied cricket — as with many sports, a social science perspective on cricket shows that the pitch and stumps reside at a complex intersection of globalization, postcolonialism, boundaries, and identity.

Cricket is a global sport based on institutional and organizational processes as well as broader patterns of cultural and national identity. The centuries-old sport started in the United Kingdom and has since spread into a worldwide, modernized phenomenon, complete with fireworks, cheerleaders, and sophisticated analytics. An international network of cricketing organizations, athletes, broadcasting companies, sponsors, and state actors bring the game to its large, global audience.
In several countries, cricket’s growth has been shaped by the dilemmas, challenges, and sticky wickets of decolonization. In these countries, cricket has played an important role in building new cultural and national identities; social scientists explain that the popularization of cricket is both a cause and consequence of broader change. South Asian nations today are key players and decision-makers in the international cricketing world, which reverse-sweeps conventional logic that white countries hold greater global power.
The cricket field can also tell us a lot about race, belonging, and hierarchy. A classic in the social science of sport, C.L.R. James’ Beyond the Boundary uses his tales playing cricket to highlight status, exclusion, prejudice, and inequality within a social world shaped by racism, colonialism, and resistance. For example, he describes how team selection in cricket was shaped by skin-color rather than skill. Today, James’ ideas still influence scholars who study cricket as relevant to race, group boundaries, and social movements. Some researchers have studied anti-racist activism and the pursuit of equitable cricket representation in countries grappling with racial inequality. Others have shown that cricket offers an avenue of legitimization for marginalized and underrepresented groups in such nations.

Unfortunately, many issues of exclusion and marginalization still exist in the cricketing world today, both within and across different nations. As cricket continues to grow, globalize, and gather, such issues will hopefully be firmly driven outta here from the middle of the bat.

For an explanation of cricket terms, visit this ESPN glossary.

Photo by Fred:, Flickr CC

Originally published June 22, 2018.

The 2017 critically-acclaimed documentary Check It depicts the lives of a group gay and transgender youth from Washington D.C., who create a gang to help protect themselves from bullying and violence in their community. Although the film claims that the Check It group is “the only gay gang documented in America, maybe even the world,” evidence suggests that gay gang members may be more common. While research on crime typically portrays gang members as predominantly heterosexual men of color, such visions of gang life have overlooked the experiences of gay gang members. Recent scholarship attempts to incorporate LGBT voices into our understandings of gangs and violence, and move past the often one-sided depictions of LGBT people as victims of hate crimes.

Although researchers have been studying the hate crime victimization of gay men, and to a lesser extent other LGBT identities, they often limit queer experiences as passive or lacking agency. Evidence suggests that various intersections of a LGBT person’s identity including race, class, and gender identity, influence both their likelihood of being victims of hate crimes and their perceptions of the harmful impacts of the victimization experience itself. Scholars also critique hate crime politics and legislation for treating queer violence as individualized and abnormal, rather than highlighting the systematic ways that LGBT people are oppressed and excluded in mainstream society that facilitates this violence.
We know far less about how LGBTQ individuals participate in gang activity and violence. New investigations into gay gang members challenges heteronormative assumptions about participation in violent crime. This work, spearheaded by sociologist Vanessa R. Panfil, demonstrates how these gay men must reconcile their sexuality in an overtly masculine and homophobic gang culture. Panfil shows that while some of her participants participated in predominantly straight or mixed-sexuality gangs, others were part of queer friendship networks that created their own — and self-defined as — “gangs” in order to protect themselves from discrimination, bullying, and violence in their neighborhoods, much like the friends in Check It.

“Queering” criminal behavior breaks down inaccurate understandings of how violence operates. Among gay gang members, it isn’t just about untethered masculinity. LGBT perspectives highlight how binaries such as “victim” and “perpetrator,” and even the very idea of what constitutes a “gang,”  are often superfluous, inaccurate, and stigmatizing. Incorporating queer voices into studies of criminal behavior and punishment helps to disentangle how the various intersections of identities shape criminal behavior and criminalization.

A brown hand holds a pipe with a clear liquid flowing from it.
Photo by CIAT, Flickr CC

Research on “environmental racism” discusses how non-white communities more frequently reside in areas that are environmentally unclean, polluted, or hazardous — often a direct consequence of other racial inequalities. We at The SocietyPages have written about this phenomenon before, but recent research shows that the consequences of climate change have added new dimensions to these dynamics.

Climate change and shifting weather patterns pose issues at large, but racial minorities are more likely to bear the brunt of adverse effects related to climate change. As existing racial inequalities are often linked to neighborhood and place, climate change threatens those who are already at risk of adverse health outcomes due to discrepancies in income, education, and more. In essence, the impacts of climate change are more likely to be felt among poorer, non-white communities.
Internationally, climate change has greatly impacted farming, fishing, and other economic activities in developing countries. This has particularly affected poorer, disadvantaged communities in non-white countries, that are more at risk for weakening agricultural yields and devastating super-storms linked to climate change. Researchers now use terms like, “environmental migration” or “climate change induced migration,” to capture the ways migration becomes the best adaptive strategy to the changing climate. Unfortunately, the places they move to are sometimes far from welcoming; racism and prejudice often shape their new lives after climate change induced migration.

Climate change thus poses greater challenges for poorer, non-white communities both in the United States and globally. As adverse environmental factors continue, it is important to think about how the intersection of social and natural forces “turns up the heat” on racial inequality.