The Chapel Hill Murders & Hate Crimes

In this post, Mediha Din explores what a hate crime is, types of hate crimes, and sociological explanations of prejudice.

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha
Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha

On the evening of February 10th, calls started coming in to police of shots fired in a neighborhood just off of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. When police arrived, Craig Stephen Hicks was arrested for allegedly shooting and killing Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (all of whom were Muslim Americans). Police believe Hicks was angry about an on-going parking dispute. The victims’ family members however, feel that the murders should be investigated as a hate crime. According to CNN, Craig Hicks has a history of parking disputes with neighbors. He also allegedly identified himself on Facebook as an atheist and ridiculed different religions, including Christianity and Islam.

From a sociological point of view, a hate crime is an unlawful act of violence motivated by prejudice or bias. It is a crime that in whole or in part is connected to hatred of a particular group. According to the FBI, a hate crime is “a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias.” The bias can be based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, or other factors.  If a crime is determined to be a hate crime, the punishment can be more severe. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, explains that it can be difficult to prove a hate crime because there is often no evidence of a criminal’s motive or state of mind. Potok also notes that not all states have laws protecting the same groups from hate crimes. Some states for example, do not prosecute a hate crime based on sexual orientation….

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The Sociology of Sickle Cell Disease

In this guest post, Dr. April Schueths and Dr. Raymona Lawrence show us how Sickle Cell Disease is affected by how society is structured.

“It feels like knives are stabbing me all over my entire body.” To live with Sickle Cell Disease is to live with immense chronic pain. This quote was taken from our ongoing research on the health care experiences of people living with Sickle Cell Disease (Lawrence et al. 2014). Beyond the pain, to live with Sickle Cell Disease is to live with a disease that many people don’t understand and many doctors don’t know how to properly treat. Sickle Cell Disease shows us how social constructions and social structure profoundly change the experience of living with a chronic disease.

blood tubes in rack

The Social Construction of Sickle Cell Disease

If you’ve heard of Sickle Cell Disease, chances are you’ve also heard the myth that it is a, “black disease.” Sickle Cell Disease affects people of all races. According to the World Health Organization, the Sickle Cell Trait is more common among people whose ancestors came from areas of the globe where malaria is common, such as West and Central African, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. The Sickle Cell Trait provides some protection against malaria which partially explains why it is more common in these geographic regions (for more information about the controversies surrounding Sickle Cell Trait, see Lawrence and Shah 2014).

It is true that African Americans are affected at a higher rate than any other racial ethnic group. Nelson and Hackman (2013) report that 1 in 500 African Americans was affected by Sickle Cell Disease, but that rate dropped to 1 in 3000 for all other racial ethnic groups. All told, Sickle Cell Disease affects approximately 100,000 in the United States and millions more worldwide.

Despite the scientific evidence, many still believe that Sickle Cell Disease is a “black disease” and this misconception affects the quality of care individuals with Sickle Cell receive and the amount of money devoted to Sickle Cell research and advocacy (Smith et al. 2006). Or put in more sociological terms, the way we socially construct Sickle Cell Disease influences the social structures that surround it.

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If Italians Made It up the Social Ladder, Why Can’t Mexicans?

If Italian immigrants started at the bottom of the American social ladder and made it to the top, why can’t Mexican immigrants do the same today? In this essay Nathan Palmer shows us how thinking sociologically and considering social structure can help us answer this question.

“Italian immigrants made a place for themselves in America and worked like hell to climb to the top of the economic ladder, why can’t we ask the same for immigrants today?” On the face of it this is a reasonable question, but is this a fair comparison?

Mass Italian immigration to the United States started after the Civil War, peaked in the 1910s, and then tapered off. Like most immigrants, these Italian men, women, and children established their first foothold into the country at the bottom of the social ladder living in poor neighborhoods with inferior schools and inferior community resources. Italian immigrants faced open bigotry, discrimination, and even mass lynching’s by the hands of their white counterparts. In the face of all this, Italian immigrants fought their way out of poverty and into the mainstream.

Since the 1960s the majority of immigrants to the United States have come from Central America, South America, and Asia[1]. This can be explained in part by the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which removed multiple barriers that systematically limited Latino and Asian immigration. However, recent Latino and Asian immigrants have struggled to escape poverty and integrate into the mainstream. For example, first and second generation Latino immigrants disproportionately live in poor neighborhoods, are exposed to high rates of crime, and drop out of high school (Haller, Portes, and Lynch 2011).

So what gives? Some would argue that recent Latino and Asian immigrants lack grit or are lazy. This is what is known as an individual explanation because it tries to explain a social problem (i.e. less comparative immigrant success) by relying on individual characteristics (i.e. today’s immigrants are lazy). To be a sociologist is to consider how social structures affect individual lives.

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How my Whiteness Unlocked Doors

Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that involves racial discrimination in housing under the Fair Housing Act. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath describes how whiteness offered her certain advantages when apartment hunting and asks whether racial discrimination needs to be intentional in order to have a negative impact on a community.

White family buying home

When I moved from a large Southern city to a mid-size Midwestern factory town (which I’ll call Soybean City), I thought finding a place to rent would be a breeze. I was spoiled by the well-maintained rentals I could easily find in the large Southern city I was moving away from. They were affordable. They were clean. They came with amenities, such as tennis courts, swimming pools, and even a place to garden.

I had moved many times before, but this move was to be different. I would have my baby with me as I searched and I had only two days to find a place. Prior to coming to Soybean City, I called property managers to explain my needs, timeframe, and to schedule showings. On one of these calls, the landlord expressed relief that they were finally getting rid of their current tenant because he was black. Interesting. This landlord assumed from the phone call that I wasn’t black. So I scratched that overtly racist landlord off my list and kept looking.

A few days later, I traveled to Soybean City. I was quickly frustrated. …

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Gentrification: Housing Market Booms as Locals Bust

In this essay Nathan Palmer uses gentrification to illustrate how simple individual choices can lead to collective issues.

Gentrification is what happens when the middle-class starts buying houses in poor neighborhoods. The neighborhood quickly flips from being predominately poor to being predominating non-poor and like a snapped towel a wave of change pushes the long-time locals out of their homes (Glass 1964; Hackworth and Smith 2001; Smith 1996). Disproportionately the people losing their long-time homes are people of color and the ones getting their dream homes or turning a profit from flipping the neighborhood are white (Freeman 2006)[1].

The homes in poor neighborhoods are cheap and thus attractive for people with low paying careers (e.g. artists) and for real estate developers trying to buy up land in anticipation of a future booming housing market (Zukin 1989). Over time as middle-class individuals and families move into a historically poor neighborhood, their presence changes the housing market. The values of the properties begins to rise and more people want to move into the area. The shift in the housing market can be dramatic, especially if other social factors are present like tax breaks or financial incentives from the local government to encourage growth or a company moving it’s operations into the area (and with it a lot of new jobs).

Rising property values generate desperately needed money for local services, but it also raises the cost of living in the area. Long-time locals watch their monthly rent climb or they are evicted after their landlord’s sell their property for “redevelopment.”

Highland Park, a neighborhood just outside downtown Los Angeles, is gentrifying at warp speed. “According to RealtyTrac, home values have soared about 200 percent from March 2000 to 2014.” Marketplace, a national public radio program, sent their Wealth & Poverty team to Highland Park to report on the human experience of gentrification and in the piece below, the people who gentrified it.

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Jane The Virgin, Hollywood, & Stereotypes

The new prime time television comedy Jane The Virgin has been a big hit. The show has been described as funny and relatable. For sociologists, the show also helps bring to light stereotypes portrayed by Hollywood. The characters on Jane The Virgin break down many stereotypes, especially about Latino culture. In this post, Mediha Din explores these stereotypes.

Symbolic interaction is a theoretical perspective in sociology that focuses on labels. A symbolic interactionist sees society as the product of everyday interactions of individuals. This point of view emphasizes that:

  • We attach meaning and labels to everything
  • Reality is defined collectively
  • Individual beliefs and actions are affected by the community that surrounds them

Television and movies can have a strong influence on how we label groups, how we come to understand reality, and which stereotypes we believe are accurate. As sociologists, we describe a stereotype as a preconceived, simplistic idea about the members of a group. These ideas can hinder social interactions and lead to false assumptions about others.  Now let’s turn our attention to one new television show, Jane The Virign, and the stereotypes it is trying to break.

Stereotype 1: Latina Women Work As Maids

The star of Jane The Virgin, Gina Rodriguez has said that she is excited to play a character that helps break common stereotypes of Latinos/Latinas that have been repeated in television over the years. She describes choosing not to take a role on another well-known television show with a Latino cast, “Devious Maids,” because of the stereotypes it portrays. Rodriguez states: “Being a maid is fantastic; I have many family members who have fed their children in that role. But there are other stories that need to be told. The media is a venue and an avenue to educate and teach our next generation.” According to Entertainment Tonight Online, Rodriquez is also proud that the show “introduces young viewers to a strong female lead who is a “size me” rather than a size zero.”

Stereotype 2: Latinos Are Poor and Uneducated

Although Rodriguez’s character is a waitress in the show, she is studying to become a teacher. The show also depicts many other Latino characters with varying educational backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. One of her love interests, Rafael, runs a successful hotel owned by his father. Rafael’s sister is an OBGYN, and his step-mother is an attorney. Jane’s father plays the role of a very successful Telenovela star….

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Thinking of Volunteering Abroad? Read this first.

Unless you have paid work lined up, soon-to-be graduates frequently ponder what they will do with all the newfound spare time on their hands, while simultaneously questioning how their university degree can be put into practice in the “real world.” Lacking that tangible, reliable post-graduation roadmap, many recent university graduates (at least those who can afford it) are choosing to volunteer internationally, as a way to build their resumes, help others in need and add meaning to their lives. In this post, David Mayeda draws on the concept of neocolonialsim to critique this growing practice of international volunteerism.

In just over two weeks, 11 current and former University of Auckland students and I will embark on a two-week trip to Cambodia and Thailand to learn about the horrific practices of human trafficking and modern day slavery. Our guides on this trip will be personnel from an organization called, Destiny Rescue, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that specializes in stopping the trafficking of women and children who are coerced into sex work. During the past year, the students and I have been preparing for this trip, which has included all kinds of fundraising, as well as having honest conversations about our short trip’s objectives.

For the most part, our trip will entail learning how broad structural factors (e.g., poverty, discriminatory citizenship laws, corruption in law enforcement and politics, gender and age discrimination, demand from high income countries) contribute to modern day slavery, guided through this learning process with people who deal with these factors “on the ground” as part of their daily work. However, there will be a few occasions where our tour group volunteers with young people who have escaped trafficking rings….

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Panic or Pandemic? Understanding the Ebola Crisis

Heard the word “Ebola” lately? This rare and exotic disease has become a household term in America over the past few weeks. In this post, Ami Stearns suggests that our fear of Ebola might be better understood from studying our fear of outsiders.

PHIL disinfection Ebola outbreak 1995.jpg

I don’t mean to sound like an alarmist, but something must be done about this disease NOW. Deaths due to the highly contagious virus are estimated at anywhere from a low of 3,000 to a high of 49,000 in America. Every economic resource at our disposal should be employed to warn our citizens of this imminent danger. Public service announcements should be tailored to alert everyone about the threat of contagion and the measures that can be taken to stop the terrifying progression of this often-fatal illness. This is no new disease either. If we aren’t very careful, we could see a repeat of 1918-1919, where this epidemic caused the deaths of 20 to 40 million people worldwide. Every media outlet should be covering this potential disaster relentlessly!

What am I talking about? The flu, of course!

Oh, just the flu? Yawn.

The flu has wreaked havoc throughout history, killing more individuals during that 1918-1919 pandemic than were killed during World War I. And yet- it’s the flu. Nothing to get excited about. How then can we explain the utter panic and grim forecasts dogging the Ebola virus?…

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Everyday Colonialism

In 1991, Philomena Essed wrote an important book titled Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory. In her seminal text, Essed outlines how seemingly subtle and innocuous interactions between majority group members and women of color are muddled with racism. Essed termed these interactions, “everyday racism.” Other scholars in social psychology have called everyday racist acts “microaggressions.” In this post, David Mayeda discusses a recent commercial from Australia and his own research with Maori and Pacific students in Aotearoa New Zealand to illustrate the power of everyday racism and what he and his colleagues term, everyday colonialism.

Before I get into this post, check out this recent commercial that demonstrates what indigenous peoples in Australia (Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders) must cope with on a regular, everyday basis.

Here at SociologyInFocus, a sociological topic we tend to neglect is colonialism.  First let’s define imperialism – “the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory; ‘colonialism’, which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territory” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin, 2002, p. 46). In short, colonialism is imperialism put into action.

Today, old school colonialism is less prevalent. Instead what we tend to see are modern remnants of colonialism operating systemically through what scholars call “neo-colonialsim.” In neo-colonial settings, previously colonized states have gained political independence from the colonial powers of yester-year. However, contemporary political, social and economic arrangements persist that keep indigenous peoples pushed to society’s margins and in a state of perpetual structural disadvantage. Thus, colonialism lives on even if we don’t realize it….

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Bringing Ferguson into Context

Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18 year old child, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. Nearly everyday since, protestors have filled the streets of Ferguson demanding information and an investigation of the officer’s actions. In this post, Nathan Palmer argues that to truly understand the events of that day we must consider both the social and historical contexts that surrounded them.

“You will find that the people doing the oppressing often want to start the narrative at a convenient point, [they] always want to start the point in the middle.” Actor and civil rights activist Jesse Williams said that on CNN while talking about the killing of Michael Brown an unarmed 18 year-old and the protests that followed in Ferguson, Missouri. Mr. Williams sounds like a sociologist.

Sociology at it’s core is the scientific study of how the individual is shaped by society and how society is shaped by the individual. Sociologists believe that to truly understand an event like the killing of Michael Brown and the civil unrest that followed, you first have to place it within it’s social and historical context. Or put more simply, you can’t truly understand Michael Brown’s death if your analysis starts in 2014. Ferguson is bigger than one killing and bigger than a single town in Missouri.

If you’re not up on the news out of Ferguson, check out this helpful timeline of events and watch the video below to get caught up quickly.

The Social Context Surrounding Ferguson

Ferguson is a 21,000 person suburb of St. Louis that is predominantly Black (60%), highly segregated, and poor with one in four residents living below the poverty line as of 2012. The economic downturn of 2008 hit Ferguson particularly hard. The unemployment rate before the recession was less than 5%, but in the 2010–2012 time period it jumped to over 13%. For young African American men in the area, the economic situation was worse. As local columnist David Nicklaus reported, “47 percent of the metro area’s African-American men between ages 16 and 24 are unemployed. The comparable figure for young white men is 16 percent.”

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