Photo by Mike Baird, Flickr CC

The recent treatment of superstar tennis player Serena Williams provides plenty for discussions of discrimination against women of color in sports and more broadly, in public. Even before this most recent incident involving her technical violations for supposedly “aggressive” behavior against the match’s umpire, Williams received a violation in the French Open for her black athletic catsuit, despite numerous instances of white players sporting similar wear at the French Open in prior years. Serena Williams’ experience is not only familiar to adult women of color, but also to girls of color. Social science research highlights how enduring patterns of policing and regulating racial minorities begins at an early age — often within educational institutions

Schools have long served as sites for social control and discipline that hinder the educational attainment of minority youth. Girls of color experience a unique set of institutional discriminatory practices that are coded in both racialized and gendered controlling images. All too often, these images depict girls of color as overly aggressive, hypersexual, and too adult-like. One two-year ethnographic study showed that while some teachers appreciated Black girls’ assertiveness in the classroom, by and large, teachers and administrators discouraged Black girls from talking in “loud” or aggressive manners, especially when such behaviors threatened teachers’ authority. They attempted to incentive Black girls into more quiet and docile behavior in order to achieve status as young “ladies” — a status shrouded in ideals of white female innocence.
Dress code enforcement serves as one of the primary ways educational institutions police girls of color. In one study, girls were told, “Don’t come in here with no hoochie-mama dress all tight up on your butt!” Similar remarks demanded that girls “Close [their] legs” and act like ladies. At times, girls resisted these policies and the racialized and gendered stereotypes that emerged alongside them. Still, girls also participated in the regulation of their female peers’ clothing by degrading those who wore “sleazy clothes.” Such policies and practices reinforce educational institutions as sites that perpetually reproduce simultaneous race, gender, sexuality, and class inequalities.
NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, Flickr CC
NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, Flickr CC

Originally Posted October 19, 2016.

The rain and wind of Hurricane Matthew may have stopped, but much of North Carolina is still under water. The hard work of repairing and rebuilding has begun across the southeastern U.S. and the Caribbean, particularly in Haiti where they are still reeling from the 2010 earthquake. Hurricanes – so called natural disasters –  are not simply the result of the weather but become “disasters” because of how society shapes people’s risks and how people prepare, adapt, and respond.

Extreme weather events like hurricanes often become problems because of the ways society has changed the environment, such as locating cities in areas at risk of flooding, filling in wetlands for development, and building homes on eroding coastlines. Government policies are also major factors in where, why, and when an event becomes a human disaster because development policies have contributed to creating risky areas while response plans are often inadequate.
The risks and burdens of disasters are not evenly distributed. Communities with the least economic, social, and political power often face the greatest threats from natural disasters and are also the least able to prepare, evacuate and rebuild. Socio-economic status affects where people live and the quality of their housing. Poor and working class communities also tend to bear greater physical, emotional, and psychological impacts of displacement and have fewer resources and government support to rebuild and recover after a catastrophe.
Economic inequality and race also contribute to different levels of vulnerability and resiliency between countries around the globe. Communities of color are more likely to be threatened by environmental disasters and be less prepared, while government evacuation and reconstruction programs tend be limited for these communities. Researchers who studied Hurricane Katrina point to how experiences of the storm were shaped by institutional racism and how the effects exacerbated racial and class inequalities. For example, government aid was slower to reach African American communities who also spent more time in shoddy temporary housing and had more trouble rebuilding their neighborhoods.
Women and children also bear a greater burden and risk from disasters because they tend to have fewer resources. Women typically have more responsibilities of caring for children and aging relatives, yet they have also been leaders in the recovery process after countless disasters, organizing their communities to rebuild and demanding a government response. Natural disasters have a large impact on children due to the trauma, displacement, and disruption of their lives. Research found that childrens’ ability to respond and adapt after Katrina was related to their family’s race and class, with more vulnerable children experiencing greater detrimental effects on their well-being after the storm.
Sign in a store that says “We Accept SNAP.” Photo by ajmexico, Flickr CC

Recently, Trump advisor Stephen Miller announced plans to bar documented immigrants from citizenship if they or their families have ever used social assistance programs such as food stamps or welfare. Such action reflects stereotypes about who uses social assistance — in the United States, people of color take the blame. Not only are these stereotypes often incorrect, they are also deeply rooted in a long history of race and racism in America.

It is important to understand that racial minorities and immigrants do not necessarily use more public resources than native-born whites. Racial minorities and immigrants do tend to have lower incomes and levels of education than native-born whites, but research shows that they do not excessively use social assistance programs when compared with other groups.
Americans’ attitudes towards welfare — particularly myths that certain groups overuse programs such as welfare and food stamps — are heavily rooted in politics of race and racism. In fact, several scholars have illustrated how political and ideological opposition to social spending are shaped by racial appeals. Even in the post Civil Rights era, political figures use implicit messaging and coded language to attack social spending programs and recipients of these programs, subtly implying racial minorities overuse such programs, thus perpetuating these racist narratives.
Miller’s plan to bar citizenship for immigrants who have used social spending programs must also be understood as a consequence of historical racism in the American welfare state. During the 19th and 20th centuries, white working-class immigrants from a variety of European countries accessed social spending programs, opportunities for home ownership, and union membership due to their racial privilege.  On the other hand, Blacks and other non-white groups — including non-white immigrants– were denied the same opportunities. This heightened racial inequality while simultaneously validating racist beliefs about minorities and immigrants. In short, while Miller’s plan seems to primarily focus on immigration, it most certainly also about race.
Photo by Steven Depolo, Flickr CC
Photo by Steven Depolo, Flickr CC

Originally Posted September 14, 2016.

It’s September, which means students are zipping up their backpacks and sharpening their pencils for a new school year. For many kids, however, disciplinary actions like suspension and detention make school feel less like a place of learning and more like a minefield for getting into trouble. Some schools are experimenting with restorative justice practices to address disruptive behavior in lieu of more traditional means that often mean missing class. These new policies tend to take a lot of time and effort to implement, and very little research has been done regarding the efficacy of these restorative justice initiatives. However, research points to an array of problems with the more traditional, exclusionary methods educators have relied on in the past. 

Many schools have increased their use of punitive discipline and zero tolerance policies, despite drops in school-based delinquency. A shift in school disciplinary procedures would likely result in fewer days of missed tests and lectures for African American students, who are the most likely to receive suspension as a punishment in schools, especially in more racially diverse schools. Research shows that black students are more likely to receive the brunt of disciplinary action when overall delinquent behavior in school is low because teachers and administrators perceive them as threatening day-to-day proceedings.  
Educators often evaluate certain behaviors and mannerisms like punctuality, quiet voices, and particular styles of dress as indicative of being good students. These perceptions of good behavior often stem from teachers’ raced and classed biases regarding what a model student looks like. But many of the characteristics that teachers think make bad apples, like tardiness and attendance inconsistencies, are in fact the same red flags that a student is at risk of dropping out of school. And new research finds that exclusionary punishments like detention and suspension lead to lower test scores and increased tensions between teachers and students.


Lactation Room Sign. Photo by Cory Doctorow, Flickr CC

Recently, Utah and Idaho legalized public breastfeeding, finally making the practice lawful in all parts of the United States. Yet, even where public breastfeeding is legal — and has been for some time — breastfeeding mothers still face stigma. For instance, a pool patron and a staff member recently asked a breastfeeding mother in Mora, Minnesota to cover herself while at a public pool. Many have pointed out the contradictions between observers’ acceptance of women’s skin in certain public domains (like at the beach or on the cover of a magazine) and the public shaming women receive when their skin is exposed during breastfeeding.

In U.S. society especially, breasts are sexual symbols. And since motherhood is not highly sexualized, public breastfeeding presents a cultural contradiction in the United States. Because of these shared understandings of breasts as sexual, mothers must consciously negotiate spaces where they can breastfeed. For example, mothers report they engage in a variety of behaviors, like avoiding breastfeeding in certain spaces where they might face scrutiny or draping a blanket over the baby to hide their breasts, in order to not be viewed as sexual while breastfeeding.

In other words, one reason people respond to public breastfeeding with discomfort and sometimes hostility is that breasts have a particular meaning within U.S. culture and breastfeeding in public challenges that meaning.

Photo by Indi Samarajiva, Flickr CC
The word “rave”evokes different responses depending upon one’s generation. For many it symbolizes fun all-night dance parties with friends. While the public may be quick to associate rave culture with youth delinquency, social science explores the broader range of social, spiritual, and cultural elements of raves and electronic dance music (EDM). Raves began in 1980s Britain and quickly spread to the United States. Youth created these anti-establishment and and underground events to celebrate peace, love, unity, and respect — otherwise known as “PLUR.” However, heavy drug consumption resulted in media scrutiny and government crackdowns of these underground locations in the 1990s and early 2000s, pushing raves into more formal spaces like clubs.
Social scientists have explored raves and the electronic dance music scene from two different perspectives. The cultural perspective emphasizes a sense of community and empathy for its members as the roots of the scene. From this perspective, drug use enhances these experiences. The rave has been portrayed as a youth cultural phenomenon, characterized by belonging, self-expression, acceptance, camaraderie, escape, and solidarity, and where drugs — particularly ecstasy or “E” — are often central to the scene or tools in rebellion. From the public health perspective, excessive drug use is the defining feature of rave culture. Here raves and the electronic dance music scene are perceived as dangerous drug subcultures that increased drug-related health problems in the United States. However, some debate these claims and argue that the effects of ecstasy itself are linked to feelings of closeness and solidarity at raves.
While typically not linked to public perceptions of rave culture, some scholars connect raves and electronic dance music culture (EDMC) to religion and spirituality. In particular, scholars point to the non-Christian religiosity of rave’s dance “ritual,” likening it to the non-denominational “new church.” Further, EDM inherits its ritualistic, chanting, and percussive elements from African, Asian, and Indigenous cultures in North America, and African American, Latino, and gay communities in Chicago and New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, youth promoted raves as place of growth, sacredness, and unity, where youth were not divided through class, ethnicity, and gender.

Though the shape and form of raves and rave culture continues to change, both cultural and public health scholars agree that these events are much more than sporadic, all night dance parties.

Photo by Sara Star NS, Flickr CC
Despite the stressful experiences and the poverty that often accompany immigration, social science research shows that Hispanics as a whole fare better in health outcomes than non-Hispanic Whites. The ‘Hispanic Paradox’ refers to the fact that these good health conditions in Hispanic populations represent a curious puzzle for researchers. This is because Hispanics also exhibit low-income status, disproportionate exposure to stress factors associated with the immigration process such as learning a new language, adapting to an unfamiliar environment, and encountering persistent discrimination — factors associated with poor health outcomes.
Some studies explain the ‘Hispanic Paradox” based on Hispanic culture-specific features that act as protective factors of health and wellbeing. They include the cultural emphasis in the development of social resources, family ties, and religious affiliations. Hispanic mothers in the United States, for example, enjoy favorable birth outcomes due to their close relationships with family, friends, and community members who provide a protective network of informal prenatal care. However, new research has found that Hispanic mothers’ adaptation to the norms of U.S. society — known as acculturation — erode these healthy behaviors.
Notably, the Hispanic Paradox may not remain consistent when researchers consider the specific composition of Hispanic populations living in the United States, compared to Hispanic populations in their places of origin. For instance, Hispanics who migrate may have better health conditions than those who stay in their home countries, known as the ‘healthy migrant effect’. On the other hand, less healthy Hispanics may be more likely to return to their home countries and thus less likely to participate in research studies, what is called ‘the salmon bias’. A study of Hispanics tested both the ‘healthy migrant’ and ‘the salmon bias’ effects among Cubans (for whom returning to their home countries is not feasible), Puerto Ricans, and U.S.-born Hispanics (whose deaths are recorded in the U.S. national statistics). Findings reveal that lower mortality for Hispanics remains constant, even when controlling for these alternative hypotheses.

Alberto Palloni and Elizabeth Arias. 2004. “Paradox Lost: Explaining the Hispanic Adult Mortality Advantage.Demography 41(3): 385-415.

Ana F. Abraido-Lanza, Bruce P. Dohrenwend, Daisy S. Ng-Mak, and J. Blake Turner. 1999. “The Latino Mortality Paradox: A Test of the” Salmon Bias” and Healthy Migrant Hypotheses.” American Journal of Public Health 89(10): 1543-1548.

Studies on the Hispanic Paradox shine a light on how ethnicity can affect health outcomes. However, concerns about health outcomes among minorities require both strengthening the benefits and preventing potential harmful consequences of being Hispanic in the United States.

Photo by x1klima, Flickr CC

Since its inception last October, the #MeToo campaign has extended beyond the red carpets of Hollywood and into other public arenas like high schools and universities, religious organizations, and military bases. Sexual harassment, assault, and rape within carceral environments such as jails, prisons, juvenile detention facilities, and immigrant detention facilities, however, have received comparatively little public or media attention. And when such reports are made, they are often met with public indifference or ill humor with jokes like “Don’t drop the soap!” Nevertheless, there is a a small but growing base of social science research that shows how confined persons experience both the threat and the act of sexual violence.

In contrast to the #MeToo movement in the larger society, much of the research on sexual violence against those incarcerated has explicitly focused on men and male facilities. Male facilities have long been marred by reports of sexual violence, in part due to norms of hypermasculinity that encourage violence as a sign of heterosexuality. Men are expected to prove that they are not “fags,” “punks,” or “bitches” to avoid being targeted for rape. Yet, confined men who exhibit a smaller stature and present perceived feminine characteristics face a greater likelihood of experiencing sexual violence during their stay.
Women also face staggering rates of sexual violence behind bars. In addition to instances of rape through aggressive physical force, guards sometimes coerce women into sex in exchange for certain benefits such as visits, phone calls, food, and cigarettes. Due to transgender discrimination, trans women are often confined with other male inmates, where they face an even greater risk of harassment, assault, and rape, both by their peers and the guards who control them. Despite increased legislation and advocacy following the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), most detained victims do not report the abuse to authorities. For one, guards themselves are often the perpetrators of sexual violence and wield the authority to dismiss an inmate’s claims. Moreover, victims may not disclose for fear of retaliation, shame, guilt, the loss of benefits, and questions about their (hetero)sexuality.
While sexual violence no doubt pervades many carceral settings, researchers also study other forms of sexual activity, sexuality, and sexual social control among confined persons. Recent work, for example, shows that LGBQ inmates often develop consensual and caring sexual relationships within confinement. Yet, institutional restrictions on sexual activity through mandates like PREA criminalize these consensual relationships. Scholars suggest that such restrictions are not necessarily rooted in concerns over public safety and consent, but rather decades-long discrimination against same-gender sex.
As we continue to grapple with the social and political reckoning of Me Too, social science researchers can help disrupt the “sociological silence of sexual violence” and draw attention to power differentials across settings in which people are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Highlighting confined persons’ lived experiences of sex and sexual violence within carceral settings, then, contributes to larger conversations around sexual consent and power, as well as the reform (or abolition) of incarceration.
Photo by Ulisse Albiati, Flickr CC

Teenager Maedeh Hojabri was recently arrested and imprisoned by Iranian authorities for posting Instagram videos of herself dancing in her bedroom. People around the globe were stunned at the news, although such punishment and censorship is sadly a common phenomenon. In Iran, Hojabri’s actions violated conservative legal norms that impose a strict dress code and condemn women for exposing their hair or dancing in public. More than a century of social science research can help shed light on why governments criminalize the violation of expected gender norms.  

Classical sociological theory argues that state actors use legal sanctions to exert control and enforce moral sentiments, in an attempt to garner social solidarity. The criminalization of dancing, for example, enforces and legitimizes the morality of conservative values and strict social control. To protect dominant social values, elites may use the penal system as a tool to persecute and discriminate against social minorities. The dominant group’s repression of subordinate groups derives from hierarchies that operate around patriarchal, racial, religious, class, national, political, or ethnic distinctions. Hojabris’ case illustrates repression based on patriarchal norms.
The state may also use the penal system to demonstrate competence and authority. Penal repression allows the state to demonstrate its sovereign capacity and reassert political authority under threat. The case of criminalizing dancing in Iran thus illustrates how public authorities use penal policy to address a legitimacy crisis. Many scholars link the loss of public confidence in the political system to the rise of punitive populism and the ascendancy of penal severity in and outside the United States.

The penal state has become a central instrument for the exercise of authority. It can protect conservative values and strengthen the power of political elites, who exploit the penal system to legitimize their political agendas. While criminalizing dancing seems odd in the United States, in Iran it serves to enforce moral rules, extend social control, and demonstrate state power.

Photo by Debra Sweet, Flickr CC

With the appointment of a new Supreme Court Justice looming, Roe v. Wade — the landmark legislation that legalized abortion across the United States — faces an increasing threat of being overturned. While we often talk about the women who have or seek abortions, we tend to forget about the providers who perform them. Abortion providers today certainly face many challenges to performing this service, but before Roe v. Wade, choosing to perform abortions was usually illegal and dangerous. Despite this precarity, many providers risked their lives to ensure women had access to abortions.

Abortion didn’t always receive public concern. In fact, prior to the mid 1900s, abortion was considered a strictly medical matter. In the late 1800s, medical professionals began advocating for the criminalization of abortion, arguing that women who sought them were medically ignorant about pregnancy. And, at a time when a growing number of immigrant groups seemed to threaten the dominance of White, Anglo-Saxons, doctors vehemently opposed abortions for White, Anglo-Saxon women who defied their “natural” purpose — to reproduce. Many doctors remained opposed to abortion into the mid to late 1900s, but not all. These others doctors — known as “doctors of conscience” — performed illegal abortions, often requiring the women they served to wear blindfolds so they could not identify the doctors if they were later arrested.
It was not only trained medical professionals who performed illegal abortions. Some providers had little to no legitimate medical training. For example, members of the underground abortion service in Chicago — known as “Jane” — sought training so they would not need to rely on outsiders to perform services. Surprisingly perhaps, many clergy used their status and privilege of confidentiality with clients to provide referrals and assistance to women seeking abortions through an organization known as the Clergy Consultation Service (CCS).

The CCS alone estimates that the abortion providers they worked with were able to supply hundreds of thousands of women with abortion services before Roe v. Wade. And this was only possibly through the collaborative efforts of individuals who formed organizations and networks, and used their privileges and resources to help women who sought their assistance. Today women continue to fight for reproductive rights, and with the possibility of Roe v. Wade‘s overturning, many worry that women will once again need to rely on providers like doctors of conscience to meet their reproductive needs. 


This episode of the podcast, Criminal has more about the Clergy Consultation Service.