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The Racialized Panopticon: There’s an App for That

This post is Part One of a two-part discussion addressing this October 13th article in The Washington Post. The story describes the effects of a private app called GroupMe that enables users to send out real-time notices of suspicious activity in the neighborhood. In this first post, Ami Stearns suggests that the concept of the Panopticon can be applied to the racialized nature of this smartphone surveillance app. 

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“Big Brother is Watching.” That’s the famous phrase from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, and the theme of a popular TV series where every move of the cast is recorded every moment of the day. In the late 1700s, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham envisioned a building that enabled a single, invisible, watchman to monitor everyone. This building design could be applied to prisons, schools, factories, asylums, and hospitals. Bentham theorized that this “Panopticon,” as it became known, would confer power to those performing the surveillance, largely because those inside the facility would know they were being watched at all times, but were unsure when exactly the eyes were upon them. He argued that this would address any behavior problems. A more modern example can be seen in most retail establishments. The shopper may see a sign with something like, “Smile, you’re on camera” or may see the large cameras themselves in the ceiling. Whether or not anyone is actually monitoring the consumer at that very second is unknown, but it is this threat of being watched that works to convince people not to steal or misbehave.

In some countries, closed circuit televisions (CCTV) cover much more than an individual store or restaurant- these cameras capture streets, sidewalks, the subway, and entire neighborhoods. So, a heavily CCTV-saturated place like the UK should be the safest on earth, right? Actually, an evaluation undertaken by highly-regarded Campbell Collaboration suggests this mass surveillance only has a “modest” impact on crime rates….

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Captain America: Symbol of White Privilege?

In this essay, Jesse Weiss evaluates the symbolic representation of Marvel Comic’s Captain America as depicted in the recent film Captain America: Civil War. Drawing from the research of Peggy McIntosh, Weiss explains that Captain America can be seen as a symbol of white privilege.

Never has fiction seemed more representative of my reality than it is now. As voting results from the 2016 Presidential election came in, they indicated that working class white voters exerted themselves in support the Republican candidate. Making up almost one third of the electorate, whites without a college degree overwhelmingly voted Republican, representing a 14 percent increase from 2012. It could be argued that this election was meant to reassert white privileges that some may believe were lost in the last eight years of the Obama Administration. While some rejoice, others protest in what seems to be an ideological war of words, prompting many to make sense of “what is going on.” Is it possible that some of the answers lie in the pages of the comics and the movies based on them?

In 2006 and 2007, Marvel published a series of comic books that pitted two iconic heroes against each other in a battle of powers and ideologies. On one side was Captain America, the performance enhanced super soldier and defender of truth, justice, and the American way. On the other side was Tony Stark, genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist with a technologically advanced suit of armor. The ideological clash between the two divided the Marvel Universe right down the middle and centered on who should have the power to regulate the actions of superheroes. Fast forward ten years and this comic book event came to be depicted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War was widely praised and millions saw the movie in their local cinemas in the summer of 2016. I, like many others, not only saw the film in the theater but also when it was released on DVD later that fall. It was upon this second viewing that I came to see the plot of the film differently. Maybe it was the way that the 2016 Presidential election catapulted race back into the public consciousness or the fact that I just lectured about it in class, but I started to see Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) differently. The hero of the film may actually represent something that many experience but few discuss openly. Is it possible that Steve Rogers may not protect the interests of Americans, at least not all of Americans? Could it be that Captain America is actually a symbol of what sociologist Peggy McIntosh (1988) calls privilege?

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Is Racial Identity Based in Biology or Society?

In this piece, Justin Allen Berg discusses how many people consider racial identity to be a biological given, even though it is actually based in societal perceptions of group differences.

“What color am I?” my six-year old son asked me last winter. I responded, “Most people would call us white. So, I guess we’re white.” Confused, he stared at the snow outside and then down at his arm. “I don’t think you’re right, Daddy.” He raised his arm to the window so that I could see the color difference.

For months, he had played with several boys from different racial backgrounds and, like many people, was trying to figure out his place among them by focusing on skin color.

The History of Racial Categories in the U.S.

There has been a long history in the U.S. of equating racial identity with biological characteristics. The term race implies that there are different categories of people, typically separated by physical traits. During the 19th Century, it was common for Americans to separate people into different racial categories based on perceived genetic and phenotypical similarities. Some U.S. states enacted laws to classify people by race to divide up social and economic resources, leading to labels such as mulatto and quadroon. Eventually in the 20th Century, the one-drop rule emerged, which considered a person to be black if the person had any African ancestry; in other words, a single drop of “black blood” and you were considered Black. Such legal classifications were repealed in the latter half of the 20th Century, yet the notion that racial identity is genetically-based persists with the general public today.

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Systematic Solutions for Systematic Problems:
Or How TRIO Programs Changed My Life.

In this piece, Nathan Palmer tells us how TRIO programs changed the course of his life and asks us to think about how systematic inequalities require systematic solutions.

Walking into the conference room, I knew I was in trouble. It was the summer of 1997 and I was taking summer school classes to make up for a bad semester my junior year of high school. Everything in the room reeked of the 1970s, from the shaggy orange carpet to the earth tone curtains and the giant square conference table made of real hardwood. At the far end of that table sat my math teacher and the director of the Upward Bound program that was paying for my summer school classes.

“Do you know why we’ve called you in today, Nate?” The director asked. I remember she had stringy brown hair and how her presence alone intimidated me. All summer I had dodged her eye contact. “My grades,” I said to the floor.

“No. We brought you in to talk about college.” Surprise snapped my head up from the floor. “Mr. Jones and I have been talking, and we think the only thing standing between you and a college education is… well, you.” At that moment, I was failing Mr. Jones remedial math class, so I was more than a bit taken aback. “You’re too smart, Nate, to be earning grades like this,” she said sliding my math test across the table towards me. The circled cherry red D+ next to my name made me feel like Hester Prynne.

“You’re not studying. You’re not doing your homework until 10 minutes before class starts.” The exasperation in Mr. Jones voice felt familiar. “You’re not trying in the slightest, and it pisses me off.” My hands clenched into fists reflexively. At 17, after spending a decade in the special education program, I was more than prepared me for situations like this. I knew how to appear dutiful without actually listening. I had a stock pile of snappy comebacks cocked and ready for classmates who called me retarded[1].

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A Sociologist Visits an Art Museum: Race, Art, and Selfies

When a sociologist visits an art museum, what do they see? In this instance, Stephanie Medley-Rath connects the racial composition of the place to the artwork on display and the photography behavior of the patrons. In particular, what are the norms of selfie-taking? 

I recently visited the Art Institute of Chicago. I went with the purpose of seeing the Van Gogh’s Bedrooms exhibit. While the Van Gogh exhibit was interesting and very crowded (too crowded to be enjoyable IMO), I also explored some of the other highlights of the museum. I did not tour the whole museum due to limitations on time and the stamina of the seven-year-old with me. My observations are limited to only those exhibits I saw on a Saturday afternoon Easter weekend of 2016.

One thing that immediately struck me at the art institute was how race mattered in the museum space. Among the visitors, I saw a sea of mostly white faces and bodies. Among the museum protection staff (i.e., security officers), I saw nearly all black faces and bodies. The museum protection staff are to remain mostly invisible. They are there to protect the art. They are quick to gently remind visitors to not use flash photography or stand too close to the art. Otherwise, they stand in place and do not interact with the patrons. The racial composition of those working in the museum and those visiting the museum was similar to my observations at a St. Louis Cardinal’s game in 2012. In other words, it is hardly noteworthy because the racial difference between those who are serving and those being served is normative in cities that are highly racially segregated like St. Louis and Chicago (which is the third most segregated city in the nation)….

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Dualistic Thinking Has Left the U.S. Black & Blue

After a week of violence, Nathan Palmer explains how us-versus-them dualistic thinking both supports the ideologies of oppression and prevents us from thinking critically about violence and policing.

“So is this protest in support of the black men who died or the police killed in Dallas?” My chest tightened. I couldn’t tell if he was giving me debate-eyes. “All of the above.” A smile flashed across my face before my brain kicked in. “It’s a march for peace… and… for justice.” He turned his whole body until he was perpendicular to me and looked at the TV above his fireplace. “It’s called Silent No More. You can find out all about by searching for it on Facebook.” He gave me a nod and a polite neutral smile. “We’re protesting everyone whose life was taken and demanding justice.” A smile snuck onto the side of my mouth; That was what I was trying to say before. Walking toward me he said, ”Well that’s good. I guess." I took the cue and he shut the door behind me as I left.

I scrolled through Facebook as I walked backed to my house. My feed was a scramble of hashtags; #BlackLivesMatter, #AltonSterling, #PrayForDallas, #PhilandoCastile, #BlueLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter. I read that former congressmen Joe Walsh tweeted:

”3 Dallas Cops killed, 7 wounded. This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you."

I read his tweet again hoping it’d make sense the second time. Why was the entire Black Lives Matter movement responsible for the actions of a single person (who wasn’t even a member)? Wars have sides. Why did he place President Obama and Black Lives Matter on one side and “real America” on the other? And, who the hell is real America?

As I put my phone back into my pocket, I saw a connection between my neighbor’s question, Walsh’s racist tweet, and the other social media I saw pitting #BlueLivesMatter against #BlackLivesMatter. All three were based on dualistic thinking.

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Racial Educational Inequality & The Importance of Affirmative Action

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that it is legal for university admissions offices to consider an applicant’s race when making enrollment decisions. In this piece, Nathan Palmer discusses why racial educational inequality remains a problem and the role affirmative action plays in addressing it.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas may continue to consider a student’s race when it decides who to admit. After her application was denied in 2008, Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas arguing that as a White woman, her race was an unfair and unconstitutional impediment to her pursuit of a college degree.

Last year outside the courthouse, Fisher said, “Like most Americans, I don’t believe that students should be treated differently based on their race.” While on the surface, this argument may seem straightforward and sensible, it ignores the fact that race affects how students are treated from kindergarten through college.

Racial Inequality in Education

In the United States educational inequality is produced on two fronts: within the schools students attend and within the homes they return to after the final bell. White students are more likely to attend schools that are better funded and offer more educational resources opportunities than their peers of color (Kozol 1991; 2005, Lafortune, Rothstein, and Schanzenbach 2016; Reardon, Kalogrides, Shores 2016; Roscigno, Tomaskovic-Deveym, Crowley 2006). Schools with higher funding can afford to provide their students with state-of-the-art resources, more advanced placement (AP) courses, and a wider array of extracurricular activities. All of which give their disproportionately white graduates an advantage over students from less well funded schools in the competition for admission to the most prestigious universities. This is a form of inequality that is created by the public policy choices of state and local leaders. We could choose to fund all schools and students equally, but we don’t.

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The New Juan Crow: Who Benefits from Immigration Detention?

“Who benefits?” That’s the a question critical sociologists such as Karl Marx, C. Wright Mills and more recently William Domhoff have explored. Instead of just observing the social world, critical sociologists evaluate society and work to create social change. Let’s take a look how critical sociologists apply the, who benefits question, to contemporary immigration detention in the US.

Immigration Detention

Immigration enforcement has become a top priority in the US. When non-citizens, including legal and undocumented immigrants (adults, families, and children) are picked up, they are placed in confinement until the US determines what will happen to them (i.e., deportation, asylum, etc.). Like the prison system, the US is also number one in immigration detention, detaining nearly half a million individuals each year. In the US alone, it costs around 2 billion per yer to detain immigrants and people seeking asylum.

Immigration Industrial Complex

The immigration industrial complex is the joining of the “public and private sector interests in the criminalization of undocumented migration, immigration law enforcement, and the promotion of ‘anti-illegal’ rhetoric” (Golash-Boza 2009: 295). The immigration industrial complex stems from the prison industrial complex (PIC) and the military industrial (MIC) complex. Tanya Golash-Boza (2009: 306), a sociologist who studies race and immigration explains that all three of these complexes perpetuate fear, bring together powerful interests of the public and private sector, and blame disadvantaged groups. She explains:

With the military build-up during the Cold War, the ‘others’ were communists. With the prison expansion of the 1990s, the ‘others’ were criminals (often racialized and gendered as black men). With the expansion of the immigration industrial complex, the ‘others’ are ‘illegals’ (racialized as Mexicans).

Sociologists, Martinez and Slack (2013: 15) also take note of the similarities of the “mass incarceration of African Americans and the criminalization of largely brown Mestizo and indigenous undocumented migrants from Latin America. “Juan Crow” appears to be riding in on the tail feathers of Jim Crow.”

Who Benefits from the Immigration Industrial Complex?

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) manages the immigration detention system and hires private companies, such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and country jails to maintain detainees. Beginning in 2009, Congress implemented a yearly detention bed quota, which is currently up to 34,000 beds per year. No other law enforcement agency in the US operates on a quota system.

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Environmental Racism & The Social Roots of the Flint Water Crisis

In this essay, Nathan Palmer discusses the scandalous environmental tragedy in Flint, Michigan and shows how the catastrophe illustrates the connection between social inequality and environmental inequality.

For over a year in Flint, Michigan, the tap water has been a disgusting brown color. For over a year, local residents have been protesting in the streets, shouting at town hall meetings, and pleading with government officials to declare an emergency and clean their tap water. For over a year, state officials told the residents that the brown water was safe to drink. But, it wasn’t. The water was highly corrosive and contaminated with lead.

How Did This Happen?

The Social Roots of Environmental Catastrophe

When I tell people that I teach environmental sociology, typically their first question to me is, “what does the environment have to do with sociology?” It is as if the natural environment couldn’t be farther from the social environments that humans inhabit. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Environmental sociology exists to highlight how the way we think about and interact with the environment is shaped by our society’s culture and social structure. One of the greatest contributions sociologists have made to environmental science has been revealing the many ways social inequality is connected to environmental degradation. Simply put, social inequality often leads to environmental inequality.

Environmental inequality describes any situation where one social group is disproportionately affected by environmental hazards (Pellow 2000). One specific form of this inequality is Environmental racism which, “refers to any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color” (Bullard 1993: 3). In study after study, researchers have found that poor people and specifically people of color live in environments that are more toxic and more prone to environmental catastrophe (Brulle and Pellow 2006). Two primary reasons for this environmental inequality are sociological: residential segregation and NIMBY politics.

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So, You’ve Been Told You Need to “Check Your Privilege.” Now what?

In this essay Nathan Palmer provides some helpful suggestions for how to deal with personal social privilege and strategies for reducing social inequality in general.

Have you recently been told that you need to, “check your privilege”? Has someone just told you that they experienced something you said or did as a microaggression? Did you have a conversation about race, sexuality, religion, etc. go horribly wrong? Are people upset with you? Are you trying unsuccessfully to convince everyone that, “that’s not what I meant”?

I feel you. I’ve been there myself more times than I care to admit. As a white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied man I have most if not all of the social privileges a person can have. Getting “called out” about your social privilege is not fun, but it can be a learning experience, if you let it be. Here’s some strategies for how to make the best out of these uncomfortable moments.

Start by Actually Listening

When those around you tell you that you words or actions are hurtful or exclusionary, it’s very easy to bunker down behind all of your defenses. If you try with all your might to convince everyone that they got it all wrong, don’t be surprised if they try just as hard to convince you that your social privilege is real and creating problems. Instead of getting defensive, try to really listen to what those around you are saying. Hear them and repeat back to them what you think they are saying.

Accept That Other People Experience The World Differently

When discussions of privilege or discrimination come up, it is only a matter of time until someone of privilege says, “you’re seeing things that aren’t there.” First, we have a name for that; it’s called being delusional. Second, it’s unlikely that people of color, women, gender-sexual minorities, etc. are all suffering from the same collective delusion. So if it’s not a mass collective delusion, then how can two people see things so differently?

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Racial Profiling… There’s an App for That

In major cities across the U.S., communities are using smartphone apps to alert one another when they are victimized by crime and to report suspicious people who they believe are about to commit a crime. In this essay Nathan Palmer discusses how this effort is increasing both social integration and racial profiling.

In Georgetown, a wealthy and predominately white neighborhood in Washington D.C., Terrence McCoy reports that 400 residents, retailers, and police officers have been using the smartphone app GroupMe to send alerts when crime happens and photos of suspicious looking people in their shops or walking on the street. The program, which was codenamed “Operation GroupMe”, is just one of many similar efforts taking place in major cities around the country. McCoy discussed what his reporting uncovered in an interview with NPR’s Kelly McEvers last month:

Those who support initiatives like Operation GroupMe argue that they make communities safer. On the other hand, critics argue that initiatives like these encourage racial profiling and reveal how hostile these posh neighborhood can be toward people of color and those who are not highly affluent. Sociological theory can help us better understand both sides of this issue.

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