Archive for the ‘Race and Ethnicity’ Category


Racism is Alive and Well in New Jersey

March 31, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

In mid-March, Wal*Mart shoppers in Washington Township, New Jersey were shocked to hear the following announcement over the store’s public address system.

“Attention Wal*Mart customers: All Black people leave the store now.”  (AP story about the incident)

As it turned out, the announcement was not made by a Wal*Mart employee; rather, the voice was that of a sixteen year old customer who had gotten his hands on the PA system mic.

We could probably write this off as a dare, or a brief moment of teenage stupidity, except now it has come to light that the young man in question allegedly did the same thing, at the same store, last December.  And so it seems we must address this not as a prank but as a pattern of race-based harassment.

This brings to light another of the central themes of my introductory sociology courses: the conflict between our values of equality and group superiority.  How is it possible, my students ask, for us to believe in both of these at the same time?  The U.S. is a country founded on the belief that “all men* are created equal” and yet we have this long and troubled history of inequalities based on race, gender, sexuality, etc.  I argue that these value contradictions are fundamental to our national identity, and that at various times in history one value will be more important than the other.  We can hope that we are moving towards a time when equality will win out over group superiority.

But that brings us back to the young man in New Jersey.  Is he just out of touch with the dominant values of the 21st century?  Or does this event signal a bubbling up of a racist subculture?  If nothing else, it serves to remind us that, no matter how much progress has been made towards that value of equality, we aren’t 100% there yet.

*Yes, the founding fathers really did mean white, landowning men.  These days, of course, the term is interpreted in a much more inclusive way.  Or is it?


A Girl Like Me

February 4, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


Socialization is characterized as the life long social experience by which individuals develop their human potential and learn culture.  The socialization process begins soon after birth, as babies are cared for (or not) by their parents or other loved ones from their family.  Of course that experience is as varied as there are cultures in our world.  We begin to learn at a very early age how to love, to hate, to care for, to fight, and to ultimately relate to other people in our society.

We also learn our position in society, particularly in terms of social class, gender, and race.  We are influenced by history and the social norms of society.  Norms aren’t necessarily right or wrong, but we gauge ourselves to the cultural standards in society, and as Mead would characterize, we develop that sense of self.

As an example of how we internalize what we perceive in society, watch the “Girl Like Me” video below

.  Many students question the validity of these girls’ interpretations of what others think about them.  Keep in mind these are the experiences of these girls, right or wrong, and it is the “job” of the Sociologist to ask the critical questions as to why.

What shapes their viewpoints?  What popular messages in society influence their perceptions?  What ideas and/or behaviors have they garnered from their family and peers that influences their sense of self?


Has America Become a Post-Racial Society?

January 21, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

Today is the first anniversary of President Obama’s inauguration. Depending on who you ask, today is the first anniversary of the inauguration of America’s first Black President, first African American President, first mixed-race President. That election happened less than forty years after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose legacy we honored earlier this week.

Barack Obama’s election has been heralded by some as a watershed moment in the history of race relations in America; some have even argued that his election is a sign that we are now living in a post-racial society. If we elected a Black man to be President, the logic goes, clearly we have reached a point in our history where race no longer matters. But is this really true?

In order to start answering this question, we first have to understand what the term “post-racial” (or “color-blind”) society means. The simplest explanation is that, in a color-blind society, everyone is treated equally regardless of their racial/ethnic identity. They are treated equally in terms of income, education, interpersonal relations. A color-blind society is one without racism.

Sounds like a lovely, idyllic world, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the facts on the ground do not bear out the argument that, by electing the son of a Kenyan father and an American mother, we have erased the remnants of the long and ugly history of race relations in the United States. For example, just focusing on issues of housing:

Doesn’t much seem like race doesn’t matter anymore, does it?

We could look at issues of employment, access to education, and numerous instances of blatant racism, and see basically the same patterns. From where I sit, it sure doesn’t seem like President Obama’s election means we’ve reached a point where race no longer matters.

What do you think? Did President Obama’s election point to a fundamental shift in the significance of race in America? Or is it going to take much more than that?


The Sociology of Avatar

January 15, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


I’m not a movie connoisseur or reviewer by ANY stretch of the imagination. Seriously, you would likely bow your head, shaking it in shame if you knew the movies I had NOT seen.

Ok, so I got that off my chest.  Now, let’s turn our attention to a little movie that came out late December of 2009 called “Avatar”.  Without question the most significant aspect of Avatar was/is how the movie was made.  Groundbreaking technology was used in filming the movie, not to mention the movie came out in both 3D and normal movie viewing mode.  While numbers of movie goers having seen Avatar is hard to come by, the dollar figures aren’t.  At the time of this blog post, Avatar has made well over $1 billion, making it the fastest movie ever to reach that amount in box office sales.

There are those movies that I went into expecting a ton, and was quite disappointed.  I didn’t even want to see Avatar, so I went to say I indeed had seen it.

Needless to say, it was definitely a “wow” experience.  The visual effects were stunning.  But what I did not expect going into the movie, and what still captivates my memory of the event that is Avatar, was/is the clear examples of Sociology.

My first reactions after seeing Avatar can be found in a series of tweets I made on Twitter:

There have been a wide range of reactions to Avatar, and the Sociology of the movie.  Josh McCabe at The Sociological Imagination weighed in.  A widely distributed post by Annalee Newitz at the blog io9 highlights the racist overtones of the movie, comparing it to Dancing With Wolves, Distict 9, and others.  Twitter friend of mine “SocProf” had a similar reaction,  found here.

Regardless of one’s positive or negative viewpoints of the movie, no one can argue the Sociological metaphors found throughout the movie.  Did you notice the difference in cultural beliefs of the people of Pandora pitted against the humans from Earth?  What about the role of religion on Pandora compared to the traditional practices of religion we have come to know on Earth?


Is Education A Civil Right or a False Promise?

July 17, 2009

Sociologists can divide societies into two broad groups based upon class mobility: open societies and closed societies. Open societies allow for people to move up or down the class structure. For example, a person might be born into a poor family, but later become rich through work, talent, and luck. A closed society, however, doesn’t allow for social mobility; if you are born poor, you will die poor. Of course, most societies don’t fall neatly into these extremes, but instead fall somewhere between.

Some sociologists hold that our society is closer to an open system, while others believe that it is closed for many people. Social scientists who believe that our society is more open argue that it provides “ladders” for motivated people to move upward in both social and economic class. Among the most common of these mechanisms for upward mobility is education. The belief is that all children have the opportunity to acquire an education that will afford them a life-improving career, for example as a lawyer, dentist, engineer, doctor, or nurse. Depending upon their desire and ability, it is argued that most people have the ability to fulfill their life potential through a government-provided education. However, other researchers hold that education is not equal in society, so neither is opportunity.

Watch the video below and if you like, respond to one of the talking points below:

1. How closely do you think education is linked to civil rights in our country?

2. Do you think the author is right and it is time for another civil rights movement? How would you remedy this situation?

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What’s in a Cartoon?

June 18, 2009

A drink mix from the early 1960s.

A drink mix from the early 1960s.

Some people object to the use of cartoon mascots that capitalize on immigrant or minority stereotypes. They hold that such displays are not only insulting to the people whose image they are exploiting, but also risks teaching such views to others. Lately, this controversy has appeared in regards to sports team mascots such as “Redskins” or “Fighting Indians.” But in the historical context in which these team names were selected, such phrases were common. For example, similar images were also used to advertise drinks, soap, cereals, candy, and toys for children.

Would you like to respond to this article? If so, select a topic below to post to:

1. Do you think it is proper to use human cartoons that characterize specific ethnic groups as sports team mascots? Why?

2. Do you object to using human cartoons that characterize specific ethnic groups as advertisement images? Why? Can any of your points be applied to using similar characters as team mascots, as well? Why?

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Race, Gender, and the Supreme Court?

June 10, 2009

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Has Judge Sonia Maria Sotomayor offered sociologists a window into how social variables shape people's understanding of each other and society?

I was talking to one of my classes today and the topic of Judge Sonia Maria Sotomayor came up among the students. There seems to be some controversy about what she reportedly said in a speech roughly seven years ago. reported that on October 26, 2001, Judge Sotomayor stated: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” You can read the article at

I was interested in the social categories the Judge reportedly referred to. Do you think the categories (“Latina woman” and “white male”) are social or biological in nature? And do you think that the question of whether they refer to biological or social variables should affect the current controversy? Remember now, I’m not asking for your personal opinion, but rather your sociological interpretations. If you would like to offer that, please respond to one of the discussion points below:

1. Is being referred to as “white” in America a reference to race? Think about this—do the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, French, Germans, Swedish, Norwegians, Poles, Australians, Icelanders, and Canadians view themselves as being the same “race” of people? Does the term “Latina” mean that Cubans, Spaniards, Peruvians, Brazilians, Mexicans, Colombians, Argentinians, Venezuelans, and Panamanians view themselves as one race? If not, what do “Latina” and “white” refer to? What insight does this give you into the issue of race in America?

2. Do you know the difference between gender and sex? Gender refers to concepts of masculinity and femininity in a culture. Things can be masculine in a specific culture such as professions, clothes, cars, speech, and even behavior. The same can be said for feminine. The key idea is gender is a social product created through norms and values. Sex is a biological state—it is physical. How can the behavioral expectations of a society based upon gender effect people’s perspective of society and each other?

3. Based on the issues covered in the topics above (thinking like a social scientist!), what would be the disadvantages and advantages of taking into account someone’s ethnicity, sex, race, and age when selecting people for the Supreme Court?

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Discrimination In a Word?

February 13, 2009

Carol Thatcher is the daughter of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Until recently, she appeared regularly on a morning program in the United Kingdom called “The One Show.” It has been reported that Carol Thatcher remarked that tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reminded her of a “golliwog.” This term refers to a minstrel rag doll and has been used in Britain as slang to refer to blacks.

Recently Prince Harry referred to his friend in the army as his “little Paki friend.” Paki is a slang term referring to Pakistanis. Prince Harry, who also wore a Nazi uniform to a costume party, has since apologized. Some people have wondered if such behavior might be an older generational phenomena largely manifested in the British upper class. Other people argue that racism is a serious persisting problem in most societies. Still others seriously condemn this type of response as an overreaction.

Discussion Topics:
1) Do you think levels of racism vary from generation to generation? Do you think specific groups targeted by racism can also vary from generation to generation?

2) If prejudice is an idea and discrimination is an act, then can someone discriminate without being prejudiced? Provide an example.

3) Do you think people’s age or social experiences (groups created based on these variables are what sociologists call cohorts) should be used to determine blameworthiness for discriminatory behavior?

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