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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 Such legal classifications were repealed in the latter half of the 20th Century, yet the notion that racial identity is genetically-based persists with the general public today.

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As Marijuana Becomes Legal, The Legacy of Structural Racism Still Haunts Many

In this essay, Beverly Yuen Thompson describes the structural racism created by the War on Drugs era and shows how the racial inequality it created may continue to disproportionately oppress people of color in the emerging legal marijuana economy.

While the 2016 U.S. presidential election will be remembered by history for the shocking election of Donald Trump for president, it should also be remembered for the 8 states that voted to legalize marijuana for adult and medical use. Continuing the trajectory established by the previous two elections, marijuana legalization increased its momentum by passing eight of the nine initiatives put forth. Medical marijuana became legal in Montana, North Dakota, Arkansas, and Florida, bringing the national total to twenty-eight states (plus Washington D.C.). Four states legalized marijuana for adult-use: California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine, doubling the total to eight states nationally. Only one state rejected an adult-use legalization measure: Arizona. However, after this election multiple questions surrounding legalization remain. For instance, what will be done for individuals previously convicted or currently imprisoned on marijuana charges. Furthermore, how will our legal system treat felons seeking employment in this now legal industry?

The New Jim Crow and Structural Racism

“After 40 years of impoverished black men getting prison time for selling weed, white men are planning to get rich doing the same things. So, that’s why I think we have to start talking about reparations for the war on drugs. How do we repair the harms caused?”

–Michelle Alexander (2014)

Jim Crow laws enforced continued segregation of African Americans from white Americans in places such as public schools, restaurants, hotels, and rest rooms, after the Reconstruction period, and lasted until they were challenged in the mid–1960s by the Civil Rights Movement. Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow, that the drug war has been overwhelmingly oriented towards disenfranchising Black Americans convicted of possessing narcotics.

Jim Crow laws and the “War on Drugs” demonstrate how structural racism is enacted. While we may think of racism as an individual’s biased perception of other people, structural racism demonstrates that institutions themselves can uphold racism, such as segregated public places or discrimination against those seeking home mortgages. A modern example of structural racism can be found in the “good moral character” clause that bars many people of color from the legal marijuana industry….

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Standing Rock, Hashtag Activism, & The Road Ahead

In this essay, Andrea Hunt discusses how social media is being used by activists at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and their supporters around the world to resist the construction of North Dakota Access Pipeline.

A map of the North Dakota Access Pipeline.
Map of Pipeline.

In the final days of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not allow the construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to be completed. This decision was celebrated by protestors who, since April of last year, have been physically blocking construction of the pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Activists have opposed construction of the pipeline for many reasons. First, the pipeline poses a threat to the drinking water of those living near it. Second, many activists contend that construction of the pipeline violates multiple existing treaties the U.S. government signed with Native American tribes in the area. Third, many activists are concerned that the pipeline will lead to expanded use of fossil fuels and ultimately speed climate change. Despite these, and many more, objections, President Trump signed an executive order last week directing government officials to allow the pipeline’s construction.

What happens next remains unclear. However, we can learn something about social movements, political communication, and resource mobilization by examining how activists used social media to achieve their goals.

Standing with Standing Rock Through Hashtag Activism

Protester holding sign that says, "We Can't Drink Oil! #NODAPL"

While water protectors are at Standing Rock, others are taking part in Hashtag Activism (i.e. speaking out and raising awareness via social media). This modern form of activism uses social media to facilitate political communication and as a way to gather resources from supporters around the world. Loader (2008) suggests that online or virtual protests provide new political opportunities and unconventional forms of political interventions….

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Is Having a Baby Like Buying a Rolex? Economic Values & Children as Luxury Items.

In this piece John Kincaid explores how our profane capitalist economic values have seeped into aspects of our life we hold sacred. Specifically, he asks us to think about how modern capitalism in the U.S. encourages us to view babies as expensive luxury items. If the question in this piece’s title offends you, then read on, that’s precisely what this piece is about.

Sociologists love to write, think, talk and argue about capitalism. In part this is because the large-scale shifts from a feudal economy to a capitalist economy were what made social systems so apparent and so interesting to early sociologists. Early sociologists from Durkheim to Weber were fascinated with the links between economy and society in this era of change. So, as sociologists, we may have capitalism itself to thank for our discipline.

Few writers described capitalism as poetically as Karl Marx, who in the Communist Manifesto argued that in a capitalist system, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” In an earlier post, I talked about the role of the sacred and profane in modern society. For Marx and others witnessing the transition between two enormous social systems, the economy was reshaping the fundamental relationships of our society, and the distinctions we often placed between those relationships.

Economic Values & Our Families

One example of this in Marx’s time, of the economy rewriting social relations were the conditions of child workers and the necessity of families to sell their children’s labor to survive. This is such a striking example because as a society we often think of things like the value of children (sacred) and the value of business profit (profane) as being parts of two very different systems of values. But we also have examples of the profaning of the sacred in pursuit of profits in our current society. It’s not quite on the same level as child labor, but I can think of multiple other examples from my own family….

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The Rock Says, “Know Your Role”

This post applies Erving Goffman’s Dramaturgy to the recently released film Central Intelligence. In this essay, Jesse Weiss explores how humans perform roles for each other and draws connection to the film using lines of dialogue and character development.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson

Like millions of Americans, I like to watch movies on the weekend. Because I have young children, most of the movies I watch have long since left the theater and can be viewed from the comfort of my Tempurpedic bed. I do stream movies and have fully embraced movies on-demand but DVDs still hold some level of desirability for this Gen X-er.

On a recent trip to the Redbox to fetch a superhero movie that had been sold out for hours, I came home with a movie that, given my track record, I had low expectations of. After all, the movie starred a former professional wrestler whose biceps are bigger than his talent and an overexposed stand-up comedian who has not read a script that he said no to. At least I would get to see The Rock in a smedium baby blue unicorn t-shirt! While Central Intelligence will not receive any consideration for a gold statue in February, it was entertaining, funny, and surprisingly poignant.

As has been the case since I embarked down this long path of studying the world sociologically, I cannot help but to practice recreational sociology. I often apply my sociological imagination to the popular culture that I consume. This was certainly the case as I laughed out loud several times and was struck by one of the lines from the movie. Not only does the line serve as the overarching theme film, but it also speaks volumes about the human lived experience. At one point in the film, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose character is a former bullied nerd who grows up to be a CIA agent, says that “every man is the hero of his own story.” While this quote is directed at Kevin Hart, the big man on campus turned everyman; it could describe all of us.

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The Sacred Right of Protest & the Profaning of American Democracy

In this essay, John Kincaid examines Durkheim’s concepts of the sacred and the profane in relation to the recent election, protest and art.

In the immediate aftermath of the election earlier this month, there were many protests that took place across the nation. Many of the protests opposed the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, but there were several rallies in support.

One of the immediate conversations in the wake of these protests has been over whether or not it is “appropriate” to protest the results of a presidential election. Many commenters have argued that the protests are “un-American,” and that the protestors are not respecting democracy. In sociology, we often look at these types of debates through the lens of the concepts of the “sacred” and the “profane.” Emile Durkheim argued that the sacred and the profane are essential components of social life. Those things a society holds sacred are objects, actions, symbols etc.. that we set aside from, and elevate above, everyday life. The profane is the ordinary, the everyday, the dingy aspects of life that surround us constantly. Observing and maintaining the boundaries between the sacred and the profane can create solidarity (another Durkheimian concept) between members of a society. They provide touchstones of shared values that can help unite members of a society that may be separated by distance or even cultural difference.

In the U.S. we tend to hold the ideal of “democracy as a sacred value, and part of the reason that the anti-Trump protests have drawn attention has been because they violate our idea of democracy as a sacred ideal. We as citizens are supposed to respect, honor and cherish the democratic process, not dirty those ideals by protesting the results of an election.

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It’s Those Rural Voters!

Rural voters have recently come to dominate the news in the quest to determine who is to responsible for the election of Donald Trump. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath discusses her own experience of rurality and the misidentification of social problems.

I grew up in a rural downstate Illinois town. I was always going to go to college, as I describe here. My high school guidance counselor was less supportive than my parents. He gave me this advice when I told him my after high school plans:

“Expect your grades to be one to two grades lower than they are now. And, do you realize how far away that college is?” (Yes, I did. I had visited it. The campus was an “onerous” 2.5 hour drive.)

In short, I was encouraged by my guidance counselor to stay closer to home and lower my expectations.

Instead of taking his advice to heart, I did what I planned to do (the trendy descriptor for this would be that I had grit). I moved away to a college town. When folks in my hometown learned of my black roommate from Chicago, they gave me well intended sympathy that was motivated by their racism and fear of all things from Chicago. I learned what to share with my friends and acquaintances from my small town to avoid their racially motivated fears and sympathies.

For graduate school I moved to a southern city. Here I experienced disregard for rurality from my classmates. In one of my first sociology classes, we read research from one of our faculty that studied a rural area and a classmate asked him “why study rural areas because nobody lives there”? I let it slide. This was my first semester and I didn’t want my peers to think less of me. In another class, a classmate disparaged the Amazon reviewers for her book as uneducated and backwoods on account that they were not enthusiastic about her book. When we were assigned a chapter to read from Morel TalesI was the first student who ever shared with my professor that I had actually been mushroom hunting. I learned to ignore the slights and selectively disclose my own rurality. But here’s the thing, I was never fearful because of my rurality. No one ever threatened me because of it. No one ever intimidated me because of it. No one ever suggested that I should go back where I came from. Perhaps my experience would have been more difficult had I moved to a city outside of the south. In the south, my rural y’alls could be passed off as southern and not necessarily rural….

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Election Reactions: Expressive Violence & Social Cohesion

In this post, Jena Morrison explores how the reaction to a presidential election can correlate with an upturn in community responses, particularly in incidents of expressive violence and efforts to create social cohesion.

In the days following a very close election, there are a lot of emotions running high throughout the entire country. Some are excited about new prospects, a change in leadership, and of the new path for the country. Others are afraid for their families, their safety, and for what the future may hold. Across the country and throughout the world, we are struggling with these emotions, the reactions of others, and watching to see what will happen next.

Expressive Violence

Expressive crimes, those that are motivated by the need to express anger, frustration, rage, and feelings of powerlessness are often seen in the aftermath of events such as this (Siegel 2016). With such a close race and high emotions, we often feel the need to be heard and to express our emotional turmoil. For some, this means emotional displays of crying, yelling, or even spending extra time at the gym. For others, however, this can result in expressive crimes such as assaults and even riots.

In the aftermath of the forecasted results, several news sites reported a break out of riots particularly those at University of California, Los Angeles, University of Oregon, and the University of California, Davis (Chabba 2016). An up-tick in crime, particularly crimes such as arson, property destruction, and assault can be common after events that we perceive as traumatic.

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Viewing the Election with a Sociological Imagination

Why are some people crying while others are joyful over the 2016 presidential election? Wondering how to understand the range of reactions to this election? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how using your sociological imagination can help you understand the responses to the results. 

Did you vote in the 2016 US Presidential election? I did. Did you stay up late to watch the results? I did not. I went to bed not knowing which candidate had won. And then I woke up the next morning and checked the results. I will not describe my personal reaction, but instead point out the range of reactions Americans had (and are still having) to the results. Some people were overcome with grief. Others were elated. Still others defensive, confused, or unsure. Some folks felt validated and others became (more) fearful for their personal safety and that of their loved ones. And some continued not to care at all.

Why all of these different responses? Are we really all so different? Did the presidential election drive a greater wedge between Americans? Perhaps our reactions to a presidential election are not all that new (2012, 2004) but instead our differences are just amplified due to social media and a 24-hour news cycle littered with pundits and talking heads instead of trained journalists. Those are questions for another day.

Regardless, you might be a bit perplexed by how people are responding to the results (whether they are insulting one another on social media or protesting in the streets). It is challenging to understand why people vote differently from ourselves and why they might respond to the results differently, too. Sociology helps me figure all of this out–especially when I use the sociological imagination….

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Essentialism: It Is What It Is And That’s It

“Professor Palmer, do sociologists think everything is a social construction?” a student asked me. I laughed; it was one of the “don’t be silly” varieties. In truth, I was stalling. Standing in front of 300 students, I needed a moment to rack my brain. “No… well?… Um.” I cocked my head to the side and squinted in anticipation of how my answer was going to land, “Yes.” My answer was a declarative statement, but it sounded like a question. “I’m Ron Burgundy?”

In successive weeks, my intro students and I discussed how race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexuality were all social constructions (Omi and Winant 1994; Ridgeway 2011). Before that we chewed on the idea that every symbol is inherently empty until we socially construct a meaning to fill it with (Zerubavel 1991). Before that we learned about symbolic interactionists who argue that reality is a social construction (Beger and Luckmann 1967).

In truth, every aspect of human life is at least partially a social construction. That’s a bold claim, and I’m prepared to back it up, but before we do that, we need to talk about two opposing ideas essentialism and constructionism.

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