The Dishchii’ Bikoh’ Apache Group from Cibecue, Arizona, demonstrates the Apache Crown Dance. Photo by Grand Canyon National Park, Flickr CC

In recent years,  an increasing number of Americans are celebrating Indigenous People’s Day to honor those who suffered at the hands of explorers like Christopher Columbus. Social science research helps us understand the underlying gender and racial components of colonial settlement in the United States.

In what is now the United States, Andrea Smith argues that sexual conquest — the rape of native women — was closely tied to the conquest of land. Europeans perceived the indigenous people that inhabited the Americas as uncivilized. Ideas of white civility deemed native women as hypersexual and uncontrollable, unlike white women, whose perceived purity they could not match. These ideas of native women’s sexuality allowed for European males to rape native women without consequence.
Ideas about native men’s and women’s  inferiority were also important for white men’s identities. In the U.S., white settlers believed themselves to be superior to indigenous peoples, bringing enlightenment to an empty wilderness. White, male identity was thus closely tied to the control of land and ownership of property.  
Colonizers viewed land as a metaphor for women’s subjugation. Land – similar to women – was something to be taken and possessed by European men. For example, Europeans who colonized parts of Africa referred to the continent as “virgin land.” Just as virginity was used to describe young women who are perceived as pure and untainted by sex, referring to unconquered land as “virgin” reflects the European’s beliefs that it was also pure, untainted, and ripe for European colonization.
A candlelight vigil outside Virginia Tech’s Burruss Hall after the 2007 mass shooting. Photo by Kate Wellington, Flickr CC

The nation remains in mourning as we struggle to make sense of this week’s tragedy in Las Vegas, where 59 people were killed and over 500 wounded. Many are referring to the attack as the “deadliest shooting in modern US history.” Through their grief and shock, some now question how local law enforcement, politicians, and news media outlets will characterize the shooter, a middle-aged white man, who, according to family members and the early stages of the investigation, had no known ties to religious or political groups. Investigative authorities link terrorism to violent acts, the motives behind those acts, and affiliation with known terrorist organizations. Yet, several activists have argued that the media’s characterization of mass shooters depends upon their race, ethnicity, and religious beliefs, noting that “Whiteness, somehow, protects men from being labeled terrorists.” Examining the role of media discourse regarding mass killings might help us make sense of these acts of violence.

Mass shootings have been covered extensively by the U.S. media since the late 1990s Columbine shooting. What began as a focus on the two perpetrators and 11 victims developed into a moral panic regarding youth delinquency, mental illness, discipline, and even terrorism. Yet, the media does not treat all mass shootings equally — several factors come into play, including the availability of iconic images, media access, and the race and socioeconomic status of the perpetrator. Shootings that occur in seemingly quiet suburbs by white youth are more shocking because the perpetrators and victims are considered to be “people like us.” In contrast, shootings where the perpetrators are persons of color or reside in working-class neighborhoods produce less shock, as news producers and consumers presume that violence is somehow normal or inherent to those communities.
One comparative study defined mass shootings as “homicide offenses that require firearms as the weapon of attack, and they often end in the offender’s suicide or orchestration of ‘suicide by cop’.” By this definition, the U.S. has likely had more public mass shootings than other comparable nations over the past 50 years. Mass shootings are more likely to take place in countries with higher levels of gun ownership and, in the case of school shootings, have been linked to aggressive performances of masculinity by predominantly young, white, suburban students. While mass shootings frequently involve multiple casualties, authorities rarely refer to such acts as terrorism — the designation of “terrorist” is generally reserved for “foreign-based terrorist organizations.” 
One concern about the coverage of such events is that the publicity and sensationalization surrounding mass killings may inspire other “copycat” crimes. Potential mass killers may use media reporting as a way to create a fictive bond with other mass murderers as a “comradery-focused fantasy.” Seung-Hui Cho, for example, idolized Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris (Columbine shooters) for several years, before carrying out his own deadly attack at Virginia Tech. Other potential mass murderers intensely scour news clippings of prior mass killings to find the perpetrators’ weaknesses and compete with them. Before killing 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, shooter Adam Lanza’s correspondence illustrates that he critiqued James Holmes, the Aurora movie theater shooter, for what he saw as a weak effort to murder multiple people.
Photo by Herry Lawford, Flickr CC

Worries about rapid technological change negatively affecting society abound — the advent of the internet, increased availability of smartphones, and ubiquity of social media have many concerned that people are constantly “plugged in” and, as a result, tuning out the world around them. These concerns were revitalized with the recent publication of psychologist Jennifer Twenge’s new research, which finds that a social media heavy diet is associated with depression and social isolation among teens. However, Twenge explains, “The aim of generational study is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both.” Social science research on nostalgia warns against idealizing the past, but also points to varied uses and meanings of nostalgia over time.

Seen as a sickness when it first entered circulation centuries earlier, nostalgia became a common trope in the late 20th century, moving from the medical field to everyday life. Nostalgia is typically defined as a “sentimental longing for the past,” and is often associated with an idealized remembering of “how things used to be.” In this way, nostalgia can be viewed as reactionary and regressive — calls for returns to “traditional families” or “tight-knit communities” are often cast in a language that selectively highlights the positives of previous social forms and ignores the problems associated with them. For example, Stephanie Coontz finds that there has never been a “traditional family” that protects people from poverty or social disruption.
Nostalgia can also be exploited by those in power to further ideological ends. For example, think Trump’s electoral campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” or Brexit with its “Take back control” discourse — both imply a better past. This type of nostalgia is usually vague in terms of the era and place of longing, yet has an exclusionary vision of society that has strict rules about who belongs.
However, recent research complicates these negative connotations of nostalgia by exploring some of the different affective, sentimental, and ideational roles that various kinds of nostalgia practice perform. Research finds that nostalgia can be both a comfort and a catalyst for change, and some argue that nostalgia can be an important basis for thinking into the future. Sociologist Fred Davis recognizes nostalgia as a tool for identity construction and a lens through which people construct, maintain, and reconstruct their identities. He finds that nostalgia reduces insecurities and self-threat by keeping fears of insignificance at bay and reassuring us that our self “is as it was then.” Similarly, Katharina Niemeyer argues that the process of “nostalgizing” provides a sense of belonging that can increase solidarity and lessen loneliness.
Photo by Frank de Kleine, Flickr CC

Several abortion providers have come under intense criticism for offering free abortions to women affected by Hurricane Harvey. While this criticism echoes decades of social and political debates regarding women’s reproductive rights, the control over women’s bodies extends far beyond the second-wave feminist movement during the mid-20th century. For example, recent calls for the removal of a statue honoring J. Marion Sims, a doctor known for medical contributions to the field of gynecology and who performed experimental surgeries on non-consenting enslaved black women without anesthesia, illustrate the historical links between reproductive control, gender, and race. Sociologists allow us to trace the long history of controlling black women’s reproduction.

While historical accounts of reproductive rights rhetoric in the 19th century point to the gendered issue of men’s control over women’s bodies and the valorization of traditional motherhood, they neglect how political rhetoric also drew on ideas of white superiority. As more immigrants migrated to the U.S., Anglo-Saxon political elites worried that greater migrant representation would quickly dismantle their political power, and so American physicians encouraged Anglo-Saxon women to bear children for the sake of continued political power among whites.
Even though white women were subjected to political rhetoric that sought to control their reproduction, their capacity to reproduce the white race meant they were privileged relative to black women. This privilege was shaken when white women gave birth to mixed-race children, however, and these women were sometimes forced into indentured servitude. On the other hand, racially mixed children born to black women during slavery were not threatening to a white racial order. Instead, they were viewed as symbols of white men’s social and economic control over black women.
During and after slavery, black women were commonly depicted as sexually deviant, hypersexual and promiscuous. State-sanctioned practices to control black women’s reproduction–like coercive birth control and mass sterilization campaigns where doctors performed hysterectomies on black women that were not medically necessary–reflected these cultural images. When black women did have children, restrictive welfare policies limited the state support they could receive, further drawing on racialized constructions of black women as lazy, ignorant, “welfare queens.” Both sets of state practices reflect the attempt to control black women’s sexuality, reproduction, and families.

For more on the ways mothers are controlled and policed, check out this TROT on morality and maybe-moms.

Photo by Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

Despite increased awareness surrounding transgender identities and experiences, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) has tracked 36 anti-LGBTQ homicides in 2017 alone, 16 of whom were transgender women of color. Along with President Trump’s recently proposed military ban of transgender persons, there is evidence that personal prejudices and institutional discrimination continue to affect the lives of those in the trans community.

One way institutions like the military discriminate against transgender individuals is by advancing the assumption that trans bodies are a problem and should conform to “normal” standards. For example, medical professionals that work with transgender patients often discourage them from undergoing transitional surgery too soon. This discouragement reinforces traditional ideas that treat gender and sex as the same thing, and recognize both as binary. This discrimination shapes psychological and physical well-being, as transgender people who appear as gender nonconforming have a greater risk of engaging in self-harm acts, including suicide.
Transgender people are also at a greater risk of being the victims of violence. Surveys indicate that roughly 50% of transgender people report experiences of sexual violence or assault. The continuous threat of violence influences everyday decision making and quality of life across communities. For example, transgender women are more likely to perceive an association between acts of physical violence with sexual assault. Moreover, individuals transitioning from male-to-female are more likely to experience violent victimization than those transitioning from female-to-male, with a heightened risk during periods of transition and gender ambiguity.
Photo by Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO, Rakhine State, Myanmar/Burma, September 2013. Flickr CC

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, have been the target of violence for years in Myanmar, also known as Burma. But in recent weeks, international media coverage has surged following a spike in violence that has led to over 120,000 Rohingya fleeing their homes. The increased media attention, however, has also provided a platform for an anti-Rohingya propaganda campaign that argues the Rohingya are “terrorists” and deserve the violence that befalls them. Sociologists have brought new insight into how propaganda enables the acceptance of atrocities and how it can directly impact rates of violence.

Propaganda campaigns often demonize a group by characterizing them as less-than-human. Refugee communities, for example, are often treated with fear and suspicion by members of their host nation. This can also negatively impact individual-level interactions with the mistrusted group, such as higher rates of expressed aggression and contempt. Studies show that when a group is dehumanized, those outside of the group find it easier to exclude them and assume that they are more deserving of problems in their lives.
Scholars have also examined patterns of violence and how perpetrators make decisions through the use of propaganda. Radio propaganda played a key role in the Rwandan genocide; on hills where radio reception was better, the rate of killing was higher than in areas where reception was limited. Groups such as ISIS use social media to motivate and recruit individuals. With the increasing prominence of social media, understanding how these mechanisms enable the acceptance and perpetration of violence is essential. They also indicate that positive social media campaigns could help to counter propaganda.

 

Photo by Fighters Hub, Flickr CC

Sports fans and non-sports fans alike gathered in bars and family living rooms to watch the boxing match of the year between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor last month. In the weeks preceding the match, McGregor, who is white, received widespread criticism for taunting Mayweather with racial slurs such as, “Dance for me, boy” and boasting to black female fans that he is “half black from the bellybutton down.” His slurs fueled racial tensions, leading many fans to support either athlete based upon racial identity, despite Mayweather’s previous allegations of domestic violence. Social science allows us to address the complicated way that race, masculinity, and sexuality collide in sports culture.

Race and sexuality also influence male performances of masculinity within sports. Ben Carrington argues that male dominance in early organized sports relied on presumptions of white superiority and black male emasculation. Consequently, black men have traditionally used sport to assert masculinity, resist racism, and advocate for civil rights.
Gay male athletes often encounter a sports culture that thrives on homophobia. Athletes are expected to act like ‘real men,’ which not only involves physical aggression, but also a sexual desire for the opposite sex. While gay athletes may not always face verbal or physical harassment from coaches and team members, many feel pressure to remain silent about their sexuality. Teammates, spectators, and coaches often still use homophobic language to criticize heterosexual athletes. Interviews with several gay athletes, however, suggest that teammates and coaches are more accepting of gay identities in recent years.
Photo by Phil Roeder, Flickr CC

Many of us can recall at least a few teachers who influenced our career interests. At the same time, contentious relationships with educators may discourage class participation and extracurricular involvement. Social scientists of education provide important insight into how teachers and school administrators’ perceptions and disciplinary actions often stem from race, class, and gender stereotypes. They find that these early educational challenges may widen social inequalities later in life.

Several studies suggest that white teachers often view black students less favorably than their white students. These negative perceptions result in lower grades and student evaluation scores for minority youth. Non-white teachers, however, are less likely to hold more negative views towards minority students. But not all minority students are viewed less favorably. One study indicated that teachers’ perceptions regarding Hispanic students were similar to those of white students, while many teachers reported more favorable views of Asian students than white students.
Teachers’ perceptions also rely on cultural beliefs of female intellectual inferiority, especially in mathematical subjects. Minority boys and girls are overrepresented in lower level math courses and are more likely to obtain lower test scores than their white peers, which partially explains teacher differences in student perceptions. Yet, even when considering GPA and test scores, “high school math teachers are less likely to judge white females as being in a class that is too easy for them” (312). White boys are then perceived as the group to which all others – white girls, minority boys, and minority girls – are compared.
Negative views of students also affect school disciplinary actions. Though many schools espouse the idea of helping ‘at-risk’ youth, organizational policies and practices may actually push students out of school. Observations from one high school suggest that teachers construct images of “troublemakers” based not only upon the student’s behavior, but also their prior academic performance (e.g. grades, truancy record, status on the honor roll). Thus, administrators and teachers were less likely to view students who maintained higher academic performance but misbehaved as “troublemakers.” These images, however, vary across gender and race. Teachers and school administrators often punish Black girls more than white girls through referrals, suspension, and expulsion for exhibiting what they deem as loud, disruptive, and aggressive behavior. In other words, behavior that fails to conform to traditional norms of femininity.
Photo by Hamza Butt, Flickr CC

As students return to school, colleges and universities across the country are increasingly concerned about their role in preventing and disciplining sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently announced changes to the Obama administration’s guidelines for Title IX investigations of sexual harassment in higher education. DeVos drew criticism this past summer in hearings about Title IX for limiting the participation of student survivors and receiving testimony from advocates for accused students regarding harassment and assault. Others criticize campus investigations of sexual misconduct for a lack of transparency and due process. Social science research can help us understand the institutional and cultural forces that shape this serious problem.

The Institutional Story

Rather than focusing on sexual misconduct, U.S. law tends to categorize it as a kind of sex discrimination. The difference matters — it means that colleges, universities, and the Department of Education have taken a set of legal guidelines originally meant to fight sex discrimination in education and sport (Title IX) and use them as the basis for investigations of sexual misconduct. This improvised solution makes it easier to overlook the fact that sexual harassment happens when institutions provide power to harassers, not just when they explicitly discriminate.

The Cultural Story

Then again, the Board of Regents isn’t in the bedroom. Hookup culture on college campuses creates an environment in which sexual activity is separated from relationships. Some students, both men and women, find this empowering and liberating. The trouble is that others find it makes for emotionally confusing and unfulfilling sexual situations where violence and coercion can arise.
Photo by Elvert Barnes, Flickr CC

“They use their media to assassinate real news…all to make them march, make them protest, make them scream racism, and sexism, and xenophobia, and homophobia. To smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law abiding, until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness.”

Last month, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch spoke these words in a new video campaign targeting progressive political protesters. The ad features black and white media footage of protest signs with the words “RESIST” and shows protesters looting, breaking windows, and starting fires in the street. Loesch and the NRA have since received widespread criticism for the advertisement’s seemingly pro-violence rhetoric, even evoking a video response from BlackLivesMatter. While the NRA maintains that the advertisement is not intended to encourage violence against progressive political protest, the black and white imagery depicting protesters as criminals is eerily reminiscent of political campaigns (e.g. the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s) that used political action as a call for criminalization and law and order.

In times of spiraling economic instability, political divisiveness, and social inequality — such as the Great Depression or the Civil Rights Movement, the result is often public unrest and widespread protest. In order to quell state criticisms, elite political actors on both sides of the political spectrum develop campaigns that heighten public anxiety of crime by conflating political dissent with criminal activity. President Nixon, for example, ran on a campaign of “law and order” and called himself part of the “silent majority” on this issue. Regardless of actual fluctuations in crime rates, the public often accepts these messages of criminalization and tough on crime policies. This law and order rhetoric then legitimizes police and military aggressive surveillance – and at times, physical confrontation – against protesters.
We can link the current tide of mass incarceration to these types of campaigns in the 1960s and ’70s. Though the Johnson administration is lauded for taking important legislative steps in welfare reform, Elizabeth Hinton’s recent work argues that the administration simultaneously developed legislation, like the Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA), that expanded police control through federal funding and toughened criminal sanctions amid a time of sit-ins, boycotts, and marches by (young) black advocates against Jim Crow practices. The Johnson administration helped create the “War on Crime,” and their political rhetoric rested upon the notions of black urban pathology and individual (as opposed to structural) economic failure.