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Call for Papers

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Punishing Trauma

Institutional and Individual Responses and Consequences for Children’s Adversities

A Conference at Columbia University in the City of New York

Friday, April 26th 2019

Call for Papers

Although the problem of mass incarceration has recently received more wide-spread scrutiny, the negative consequences of incarceration on children, families, and communities receive less attention and remain under addressed and poorly understood. Punishing Trauma aims to provide an interdisciplinary space for conversations between graduate students, faculty, and members of the community who work with, study, and confront these pressing concerns. Academic perspectives must be in conversation with community perspectives for justice to be truly served. To this end, we invite submissions from doctoral students in any discipline on topics examining the impact and consequences of punishment and surveillance, broadly conceived, on children, families, and communities. We also invite community organizers and activists, policy-makers, and individuals directly impacted by mass incarceration and mass supervision, who are currently working to mitigate these impacts, and who bring invaluable experience and critical perspectives, linking academic and community perspectives. Equitable responses to mass incarceration and mass supervision require transdisciplinary and community-based solutions. Punishing Trauma intends to serve as a venue for these crucial connections and conversations.

We invite submissions on topics including, but not limited to the following:

  • Race, gender, sexuality, and class dimensions of intergenerational trauma
  • Causes and consequences of housing instability on children/the homeless-to-prison pipeline
  • Health effects of stigma on children and over the life course
  • Racialized othering and the criminalization of students of color
  • Schools and other institutional responses to trauma
  • Adaptation and resilience to intergenerational trauma and onslaught
  • Institutional responses in education to promote empathetic school environments
  • Community and youth responses to urban adversities

Please submit extended abstracts (500-1,000 words) and contact information to:

Deadline January 25, 2019 at 11:59 PM

Successful applicants will be informed by February 11th.

Limited travel grants will be available to select conference participants

Questions or Inquires? Contact


In Memory of Devon Tyrone Wade, PhD

At his untimely passing, Devon Wade was completing his last year as a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. An accomplished scholar-activist, Devon’s research was borne out of, and driven by, community needs. His dissertation examined how schools develop responses to children impacted by trauma, such as having incarcerated parents. Devon was posthumously awarded his PhD by Columbia University in May of 2018. Punishing Trauma is organized in his memory, in order to bring together like-minded scholars and activists to address the pressing issues to which Devon dedicated his life.

Return to January 2019 Issue

The Other Story about Unaccompanied Immigrant Minors

By Hansel A. Aguilar

In the past few months, major U.S. media networks have (rightfully) expended considerable coverage to the unaccompanied immigrant minors (UIMs) crisis at the southwest border. The recent focus concerned the implementation of the Department of Justice’s short-lived “zero-tolerance policy.”1 In short, the policy required the absolute criminalization of migrants attempting to enter the U.S. at the southwest border without requisite travel documents or for not crossing the border at a designated port of entry (POE). Additionally, it allowed for state sanctioned family separations of migrants entering the U.S. with their children.

The parents were taken to immigration detention centers while the children were classified as “unaccompanied” and taken into custody of the federal government through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), specifically the Office of Refugee Resettlement2 (ORR). After considerable outrage and pressure from civil society, lawmakers (Democrats3 and Republicans4), celebrities5, medical and mental health professionals (American Medical Association6, American Psychological Association7, American Psychiatric Association8, American College of Physicians9 and American Academy of Pediatrics10) and international actors11, President Trump reversed the policy through an executive order.12 Although the recent policy changes resulted in the creation of a new category of international migrants (under the typology of UIMs), the existence of this sub-group of international migrants is not new.

Albeit infrequently, UIMs have been arriving at the southwest border for decades (IRC, 2014). The historical and current reasons minors have sought entry into the U.S. include: family reunifications; asylum; labor opportunities; academic opportunities. It is also important to note that there have been considerable numbers of UIMs who have been the victims of human trafficking and have exercised limited social agency in the process of their own international migration.

As the dust is settling from the media frenzy regarding the family separations, it is of utmost importance to remember the UIM phenomenon has not and will not go away anytime soon. This means that well intentioned onlookers and elected officials should not lose interest in advocating for sound policies regarding the care and well-being of these vulnerable children. Moving forward, there should be a more concerted and conscientious effort by the media, policy makers, and scholars to provide a more thorough understanding of this labyrinthine issue.

This article is an attempt to provide some clarity and important distinctions when approaching sensible, evidence-based solutions for this phenomenon. I will provide three important points that the public needs to understand about this occurrence and two recommendations for improving our responsibility concerning this susceptible group and alleviating the trauma and angst being experienced by the children.

If She looks like an Unaccompanied Immigrant Child

The Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for Getty Images, John Moore, had the world over discussing the ‘zero-tolerance policy’ with his viral photograph of an infant crying while a border agent pats down her mother. In an edited version, the photograph even made it to the July 2, 2018 (Vol 192 No 1) cover of Time magazine. The photograph and the magazine cover, however, represent a key problem with the current coverage of UIMs: there is a huge misunderstanding about who they are. The two-year-old Honduran child, from my hometown (Puerto Cortes), was not13 an UIM. Not even under the Trump Administration’s manufactured version of the term can Yanela be classified as an unaccompanied minor. She was momentarily placed on the ground as the Border Patrol agent conducted a person search of the mother, Sandra Sanchez.

The photograph and its erroneous usage demonstrate how, through the since-reversed policy, members of the public can be (mis)led to believe that unaccompanied minors are (only) the children that have been separated at the border from their parents. It is of utmost importance to remember that separated children at the border is a new phenomenon under the Trump administration and by best estimates14, this category of UIMs accounts for under 20% of the children in ORR care.

This is not meant to diminish the traumatic experiences of these children, but rather to show that the vast majority of UIMs (approximately 82%) obtained their status as a UIM from one of two equally problematic ways: (1) while attempting to enter the U.S., the child (under 18 years of age), without an adult parent or legal caretaker, is apprehended by Border Patrol, or (2) an undocumented child (one who may or may not have been a former UIM) who does not have a legal caretaker is taken into the custody of a law enforcement agency and subsequently turned over to ORR.

These two pathways account for most of the children in ORR care, with the former pathway accounting for the vast majority15 of UIMs. The important takeaway is that there is a spectrum of experiences in the ORR system and we need to be more informed of how terms, classifications and categories are being used legally and sociologically or anthropologically.

Missing Children

The ‘missing children’ were never missing, but the lack of follow-through is still a concern. The fact that the ORR was unable to contact 1,475 (former) UIMs for safety and well-being follow-up calls is absolutely problematic. In my previous experience as a case manager for unaccompanied minors during the Obama administration, these calls were an important aspect of the holistic approach to safe reunification. Even under the Obama administration, these calls were not always effective. ORR grantees were required to “attempt” to conduct a follow-up call within 45 days to ensure the children were well protected and still with their sponsors.

The attempts consisted of a case manager or another designee of the shelter making at least three phone calls to the child and the sponsor. If after three attempts the child or sponsor could not be reached, the program would just document the failed attempts and not be required to take additional action. This is the scenario that happened with the ‘missing children.’ Later reports and investigation into the issue revealed that part of the reason the children and sponsors were not answering the calls was because of a climate of fear being experienced by migrants under the Trump administration.

South Texas Border; U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and unaccompanied migrant children. June 29, 2014. Source: Photographer: Barry Bahler.


The calls themselves, whether under Obama or under Trump, still deserve more scrutiny. At best, these calls were comparable to a customer service feedback survey and at worst they were superficial documentation of the child’s safety and well-being. How much can one learn about the safety and well-being of a child in one phone call? The limited follow-through to check on the children, however, is not unintentional.

The reported missing children demonstrated why the ORR needs to be further challenged against their 2016 Congressional testimony16 that, once a child is reunited with a sponsor they are no longer ORR’s responsibility. This declaration made by ORR officials in the aftermath of the Marion, Ohio egg farm trafficking case (where several Guatemalan unaccompanied minors were placed in the hands of labor traffickers through the ORR’s reunification process) is emblematic of what sociologist Marc Jacobs has called the no-fault society.

Not Just a Border-State Issue

While it may be easy to lose interest and concern regarding issues that may not affect us directly, it is important to note that issues concerning unaccompanied minors are not just confined to border states. This is absolutely a local issue since many minors have and are continuing to seek reunification with family members in our area. As reported in ORR data17, there were approximately 3,000 minors reunified in Fairfax alone and approximately 6,000 minors in the Northern Virginia area from 2015 to 2017. The experiences of immigrant minors in our area should become part of our agenda for human rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, neoliberalism, and transnationalism.

A Couple of Recommendations

Susan J. Terrio, an anthropologist, has explored the unaccompanied minors phenomenon in her book titled Whose Child Am I? (2015) by gaining unprecedented access and visiting children in various shelters throughout the country. In her ethnography, Terrio chronicles the lived experience of minors in the ORR grantee shelters and demonstrates that the unaccompanied minors phenomenon is a significant social issue which requires the interdisciplinary attention of many more scholars and our public gaze.

Unaccompanied minors walk in a Homestead, Florida facility supervised by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, on June 20, 2018. Source: Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement.


My two recommendations are: we should all aim to become more familiar with the publicly available quantitative and qualitative data about unaccompanied minors as it pertains to our specific geographic location; and let us challenge ourselves to situate the minors’ experiences within our public interests and academic studies (i.e. feminist theory, critical approach, conflict theory, critical ethnography).


International Rescue Committee. 2014. ORC Field Visit to Texas and Arizona: Key Findings and Recommendations to Policy Makers. Accessed via:

Terrio, S. J. (2015). Whose child am I?: Unaccompanied, undocumented children in US immigration custody. University of California Press.


  1. Department of Justice Press Release, Attorney General Announces Zero-Tolerance Policy for Criminal Illegal Entry, accessed June 19, 2018,
  2. Visit ORR website for more information about the unaccompanied minors program:
  3. Wise, Justin. 2018. “Dem Lawmaker Announces Protests against Trump’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policy.” TheHill.
  4. Watkins, Eli. 2018. “These Republicans Have Criticized Trump’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ Immigration Policy.” CNN.
  5. Arevalo, Lydia. 2018. “Celebs Protest Trump’s Zero Tolerance Immigration Policy.” Vibe.
  6. American Medical Association. June 19, 2018. “American Medical Association Opposition to the Zero-Tolerance Policy.”
  7. American Psychological Association. June 14, 2018. “American Psychological Association (APA) Opposition to Zero-Tolerance Policy.” Accessed via:
  8. American Psychiatric Association. May 30, 2018. “APA Statement Opposing Separation of Children from Parents at the Border.” APA Statement Opposing Separation of Children from Parents at the Border. Accessed via:
  9. American College of Physicians. May 31, 2018. “ACP Objects to Separation of Children from Their Parents at Border.” Accessed via:
  10. American Academy of Pediatrics. June 20, 2018. “AAP Statement on Executive Order on Family Separation.” Accessed via:
  11. Cumming-bruce, Nick. June 18, 2018. “U.N. Rights Chief Tells U.S. to Stop Taking Migrant Children From Parents.” The New York Times. Accessed via:
  12. Exec. Order No. 13841, 3 C.F.R. page 29435 (2018).
  13. In a fact-checker article by Politifact, it was reported that the girl from the viral photograph was not actually separated from her mother, but rather momentarily placed on the floor while the border patrol agent searched the mother. Sherman, Amy. 2018. “Immigrant Girl on TIME Cover Not Separated from Mom.” @Politifact. Accessed via:
  14. Lind, Dara. June 15, 2018. “The Trump Administration’s Separation of Families at the Border, Explained.” Vox. Accessed via:
  15. According to ORR policies regarding the placement of unaccompanied minors, “The majority of unaccompanied alien children come into ORR custody because they were apprehended by border patrol officers with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) while trying to enter the United States without legal authorization. DHS (and in rare circumstances other federal agencies) may refer unaccompanied alien children to ORR’s care 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” ORR. January 30, 2015. “Children Entering the United States Unaccompanied: Section 1.” Children’s Bureau ACF. Accessed via:
  16. Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. 114AD. January 28, 2016. Adequacy of the Department of Health and Human Services Efforts to Protect Unaccompanied Alien Children from Human Trafficking: Hearing before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, One Hundred Fourteenth Congress, Second Session, Accessed via:
  17. See:

Return to October 2018 Issue

Experiencing the Other at CARNE y ARENA

By Margaret Zeddies

An art installation in the H Street NE corridor is giving District of Columbia area residents a virtual reality experience of the treacherous journey that refugees and migrants embark upon when entering the U.S. Housed in a former church, CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible)“explores the human condition of immigrants and refugees,” according to creator and Academy Award winning-director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu.

Based on true accounts of Central American and Mexican refugees and migrants, CARNE y ARENA uses virtual reality technology to “break the dictatorship of the frame—within which things are just observed—and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts,” says Iñárritu. The topic of the installation couldn’t be more prescient: the number of forcibly displaced persons increased by 2.9 million in 2017 to a record high of 68.5 million. This steep increase was met with an equally strong rebuff by the Trump administration. The administration’s yearly determination of the number of refugees to be admitted into the United States in fiscal year 2018 was dropped to a record low of 25,000.

The question of how we engage with and are engaged by global inequality is an important sociological question that has been examined through concepts such as the Other (Said 1978) and distant suffering (Boltanski 1999). Engaging with the distant Other is explored through concepts such as pity and empathy. As a discursive mechanism, pity creates a sense of caring for the Other (Chouliaraki 2006). Modern media has further intensified the immediacy of distant suffering. Through modern media such as television and the Internet, the suffering of populations like refugees and migrants have an even greater chance of generating an immediate, emotional reaction by the viewer.

Virtual reality technology, then, would seem to take this experience one step further; it has been recently used with great enthusiasm by Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) for fundraising, as seen with Amnesty International and their #360Syria campaign, which generated an uptick in donations.

Source: Carne y Arena DC Press Release, March 26, 2018.


Mediation is lauded by some as overcoming distance in communications, geography, and morality. While media technology may have the capacity to bridge these gaps, it can also create a sense for the viewer that they are privy to reality, when it in fact is always a replication. Iñárritu maintains that the CARNE y ARENA experience “blurs and binds together the superficial lines between subject and bystander…allowing individuals to walk in a vast space and live a fragment of a refugee’s personal journey.”

Charity fundraisers have found that mediated representations were effective in motivating viewers to donate money to their aid campaigns. However, the inundation of images of people suffering from starvation, war, etc., has been criticized for victimization and creating ‘compassion fatigue.’ As a guide for ethical judgment and moral practice, empathy can thus decrease viewers’ sensitivity to people’s suffering when it occurs in larger numbers (Bloom 2017). Mediated representation also raises the question as to how easily virtual reality can dissipate the lines between tourists and vagabonds, as Bauman describes them (1998). Bauman’s tourist is not bounded by nation-state borders and is able to travel more freely by choice.

Vagabonds, on the other hand, do not travel by choice and may only stay in one place as long as they are wanted there. While sociologists like Bauman advocate for shared humanity and connection between distant sufferers and spectators, what are the effects of tourism and art being the main conduits for these experiences? When tourists are seeking novel experiences, will the refugee become a spectacle as one of Bauman’s vagabonds, who must market their ‘otherness’ to tourists (1998)?


Bauman, Zygmunt. 1998. Globalization: The Human Consequence. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bloom, Paul. 2017. “The Case Against Empathy.” Retrieved Sept. 29, 2018.(

Boltanski, Luc. 1999. Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chouliaraki, Lille. 2006. The Spectatorship of Suffering. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Random House.

UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). 2017. “Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017.” Retrieved Sept. 21, 2018 (

Return to October 2018 Issue

The Challenge of Reentry in a Free Society: Prospects for a New Crime Commission

By Maria Valdovinos

On the heels of the 50th anniversary of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, and the publication of the report, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, we are once again revisiting the need for a new crime commission in the 21st century. Appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, this commission is also known as the Johnson Crime Commission and the goal of its work in 1965 was to “examine every facet of crime and law enforcement in America” (U.S. President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice 1967). In response to what was perceived to be the Nation’s rapidly escalating crime problem at the time, this two-year undertaking, staffed by 19 commissioners, 63 staff members, and 175 consultants, yielded an impressive 300+ page report with over 200 specific recommendations on improving public safety and the administration of justice.

The report indeed reflects a comprehensive effort and deep dive into the causes of various forms of crime and criminality perceived to be afflicting the country at the time, such as juvenile delinquency, youth crime, and organized crime. It is also in large part due to this report that our understanding of the administration of justice in America as a “system” became solidified in our minds. The commission also set the stage for the creation of a federal research arm tasked with widening our scientific understanding of how this system and its system components (i.e. the police, courts, corrections etc.) work. As such, this national effort has been widely credited with improving our understanding of crime and the American criminal justice system and “creating [justice] institutions and practices that are still in place today” (Lum and Gest 2018). Some of these institutions and practices have subsequently been heavily criticized as having set the stage for the era of mass incarceration that soon followed. Regardless of its positives or negatives, the legacy of this report in shaping criminal justice policy in the subsequent five decades cannot be overstated.

In 2017, the call for the creation of a new crime commission in the 21st century began to ring loud. Introduced by Senators Gary Peters, Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 20171 is backed by a bi-partisan group of senators, civil rights and law enforcement groups (Jackman 2017). Its core goals include the reduction of crime and improvement of public safety, as well as the administration of justice. Its proposed methodology, an 18-month comprehensive review, overseen by over a dozen commissioners with the goal of yielding recommendations, is also strikingly similar to the goals and methods of the Johnson crime commission.

In response to this prospect for the first comprehensive review of the American criminal justice system in over 50 years, the Center for Evidence Based Crime Policy at George Mason University set out to address the following question: What would a new crime commission accomplish? What could it add? In April 2018, over a dozen scholars gathered to address these questions at the Center’s congressional briefing on criminal justice in the United States entitled Lessons from the Past, Prospects for a New Crime Commission.2 Among the contributors to this discussion were Senator Gary Peters, who sponsored the bill, and scholars such as Alfred Blumstein who participated in the 1965 commission. These scholars would like to lay the groundwork for what a new commission should address through their contributions to the journal Criminology & Public Policy (Special Issue on the 1967 Crime Commission Report).3 The areas identified included science and technology, juvenile crime, the courts, prosecutorial discretion, sentencing, correctional rehabilitation, the police, race, crime and criminal justice, narcotics and drug abuse, firearms, domestic violence and criminal justice statistics.

Senator Gary Peters speaks at Congressional Briefing, April 24, 2018. Photo by Maria Valdovinos.


Many of these topics were covered in the 1967 report and while there is always a need to update the body of knowledge, the congressional briefing left me wondering why another aspect of the criminal justice system, which is prisoner reentry, did not seem more of a focal concern. Although prisoner reentry within the purview of corrections is addressed by some of the scholars (MacKenzie and Lattimore 2018), the dynamics of reentry seem to be overlooked.  Indisputably, the institution of mass incarceration presents a crucial difference between societal conditions of 50 years ago and those of today.

Reversing the era of mass incarceration, which is routinely traced back to the 1970s and the War on Drugs, is a key agenda item informing much of the 21st century criminal justice reform work. Whereas the challenge of crime in a free society was the problem that led to the appointment of the original crime commission, it would seem that the challenge of reentry in a free society should really be driving the agenda for the new crime commission.

While the 1967 President’s Crime Commission is considered a landmark in the history of reform, it is far from the starting point. As we look toward reform in the 21st century, there is a real risk of re-inventing the wheel, so to speak, and of recreating conditions that work to maintain the system of crime and incarceration that characterizes America rather than transforming it. In looking toward the future of reform, it is important to recognize that there is a much longer history of criminal justice reform efforts whose relationship to crime and incarceration we know little about. Over the summer, I had the opportunity conduct an archival review of some of these earlier 20th century efforts in criminal justice reform as part of a summer research fellowship. My aim was to understand how the reform efforts of the past 100 years (and not just the past 50 years) have contributed to the design and construction of the American criminal justice system that is the target of reform today.

The reform efforts I reviewed encompass both small and large scale undertakings by early 20th century reformers to create a system for administering justice in America and its improvement over time. These efforts arguably begin with the Cleveland study (1920s) credited with creating a blue print for reform and include at least a dozen more leading up to the Johnson Crime Commission and Brown Commission in the 1960s.

However, as the movement for 21st century criminal justice reform grows (a movement that at the moment seems to be squarely focused on de-incarceration), we have the opportunity to ask critical questions about the normative structure of the American criminal justice system and to challenge the politics that led to its design.  However, in order to do so, the agenda for a new commission on criminal justice reform will need to expand beyond study of the system itself. A new commission should also consider the societal conditions that maintain this system.


  1. The bill was introduced into Congress on March 8, 2017. As of October 2018, it has not progressed to the next step in the legislative process. For bill text see:
  2. For the congressional briefing agenda see:
  3. Criminology and Public Policy, special issue table of contents:


Jackman, Tom. (2017). “Senators Seek to Reform Justice System Nationwide by Launching National Criminal Justice.” The Washington Post, March 8.

Lum, Cynthia and Ted Gest. 2018. “Progress and Prospects – The 50th Anniversary of the 1967 President’s Crime Commission Report in Today’s Criminal Justice Environment.” Criminology & Public Policy 17(2):265–69.

MacKenzie, Doris L. and Pamela K. Lattimore. 2018. “To Rehabilitate or Not to Rehabilitate: That Is the Question for Corrections!” Criminology & Public Policy 17(2):355–77.

Rubenstein, Richard E. 2017. Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed. London: Routledge.

U.S. President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. 1967. The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society. Washington, D.C: United States Government Printing Office.

Return to October 2018 Issue

Building an Age-Inclusive District

By Emily Morrison and Emily McDonald

Over the past year and a half, we have participated in an ongoing, community-based research project to understand the experience of aging in the District of Columbia with a particular focus on older adults. This experience has introduced us to many community members, leaders and activists who are working to strengthen our community, foster systemic change, and help the District become a more age-inclusive city. Here we offer a brief overview of how one organization is using findings from this inquiry to advance a city-wide initiative aimed at making the District an easier place for all to grow older.

The United States continues to witness a significant demographic shift: the number of people age 65 and older is on the rise and is projected to double by the year 2060 (Mather, Jacobsen, and Pollard 2015). This shift raises questions as to how the fabric of communities may change and how communities can best prepare. The District of Columbia, in particular, raised this question around how to better support citizens as we all grow older. In 2012, the District government began laying the foundation for building an age-friendly city and continues to take a multifaceted, collaborative approach by inviting academicians and researchers interested in community-based work to join community members and leaders in this effort.

Given the ongoing dialogue around aging globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) established the “Age-Friendly” initiative to evaluate cities’ “structures and services” for their accessibility and inclusivity for “older people with varying needs and capacities” (WHO 2007). Locally, in 2012, then Councilmember Muriel Bowser led the City Council to approve plans for the city to participate in the WHO Age-Friendly initiative (AFDC 2017). The initial steps established Age-Friendly DC (AFDC) as a 5-year mayoral task force. The task force began a city-wide inquiry to assess the experiences of older adults in the District, how citizens are already organizing themselves in formal ways (e.g., belonging to a recognized organization) and informal ways (e.g., checking on a neighbor) to provide the structure and support they need, as well as what programs and services may be needed. The task force employed direct interviews, focus groups, and meetings with community members throughout all eight wards.

Several issues emerged through the task force’s inquiry. One of the biggest concerns is a lack of affordable residential facilities that support individuals as they grow older and as their needs and capacities shift over time. Many adults of all ages wish to remain in their current communities as they grow older.

Age-Friendly DC

However, doing so is complicated by ongoing neighborhood gentrification and limited resources for expanding access to services like transportation and wellness centers. Thus, AFDC established a collaborative relationship with Villages, which are grassroots organizations focused on creating intentional communities where older adults can support one another in aging in place for as long as it is safe and feasible to do so.

Villages are founded as emergent organizations. Neighbors essentially establish a Village for themselves, and then continuously create their organizational structures and services based on their needs over time.

The first DC Village, Capitol Hill Village, was established in 2006. The movement continues to grow, with 12 active Villages in the District as of 2017 (AFDC 2017). Villages help foster social connections among neighbors through events and services (e.g., educational programs, tai chi classes, ride-sharing, and book clubs). More generally, Villages provide a space where neighbors can ask for help with whatever they may need (e.g., help cleaning one’s home after surgery), and provide assistance and support to fellow members in whichever ways they can (e.g., checking the mail while someone is away).

However, Villages also face significant challenges. First, Villages are not evenly distributed throughout the city. Most are concentrated in higher income areas with less racial diversity than the city’s overall population. Further, some Villages require membership fees.

While many Village leaders work to establish reduced cost programs, fees may potentially exclude interested neighbors with more limited incomes. Overall, Villages currently provide significant and much-needed services and opportunities for community-building. At the same time, there remains the need for model adaptation to support older adults in different parts of the city and with varying levels of resources.

Understanding the Villages’ overall strengths and current limitations provides opportunities for further growth, which exemplify how AFDC continues their work. In 2017, Mayor Bowser signed AFDC’s 5-year renewal. Over the next 5 years, spanning until 2023, AFDC will continually develop age-inclusive programs for the city, and continually collaborate with, and support organizations like the Villages. AFDC’s efforts and the self-organized and emerging Villages offer ways to add perspectives to existing theories of researchers like us.

The Villages also challenge models that oversimplify or fail to see the complexity of aging. Dillaway and Byrnes (2009) argue that aging studies frequently undertake “crises” frameworks that focus on how retiring baby boomer cohorts are producing structural strains for social services and younger generations.

Source: Age-Friendly DC.


These frameworks reduce the complexity of what it means to grow older by misapprehending lived experiences, replacing individual agency to affect change with assumptions of inevitable disengagement in later years, and disregarding how communities can better organize their systems in more age-inclusive ways. We have found that issues such as accessible housing and healthcare (which are important to many researchers and sociologists in particular), intersect with aging in important and consequential ways that vary greatly in context.

Through our ongoing, community-based research which engages community members as essential knowledge co-creators, we continue to find opportunities to support grassroots organizing through the research process itself (e.g., training community members to assess their own needs and practices) and through legitimation from rigorous study of Age-Friendly programs in the District (e.g., funders or city leaders seeing Villages as formal and feasible organizations they should support).

Many more opportunities remain for collaborative work throughout the District to promote an age-inclusive community where all are supported as we grow older.


AFDC. 2017. “Age-Friendly DC: Five Year Progress Report to the World Health Organization.” Retrieved from:

Dillaway, Heather E. and Mary Byrnes. 2009. “Reconsidering Successful Aging: A Call for Renewed and Expanded Academic Critiques and Conceptualizations.” Journal of Applied Gerontology 28(6):702-722.

Mather, Mark, Linda A. Jacobsen, and Kevin M. Pollard. 2015. Aging In The United States. Population Bulletin: 70(2). Retrieved from:

World Health Organization. 2007. Global Age-friendly Cities: A Guide. Retrieved from

Return to October 2018 Issue

Ask the Sociologist: Authority and Obedience

By Briana Pocratsky

Dear Sociologist,

Using the Milgram experiment, can you analyze group members’ compliance to authority?


Concerned about Compliance*


Dear Concerned about Compliance,

While Stanley Milgram’s experiments do not definitively explain all of the complexities of obedience to authority, especially in a group setting, his research does offer insight into how power dynamics may influence a person’s actions. Milgram, a social psychologist, discovered that the presence of an authority figure could, in some cases, cause individuals to act in contrast to their own morals. To get a better understanding of how authority can influence people’s actions, it is important to take a closer look at the different variations and conclusions of Milgram’s obedience experiments.

In his article “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” Milgram (1963) asserts that obedience is a “ubiquitous and indispensable feature of social life” and the “dispositional cement that binds” people “to systems of authority” (pp. 371-72). Milgram explains that the study of obedience is crucial:

Obedience…is of particular relevance to our time. It has been reliably established that from 1933-45 millions of innocent persons were systematically slaughtered on command. Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacturer of appliances. These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only be carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed orders (p. 371).

In order to better understand why individuals and large groups of people would commit such atrocities, Milgram, while an assistant professor at Yale University, completed a series of experiments. He explored the conditions of (dis)obedience; he questioned to what extent would a participant in a study comply with orders from an experimenter to hurt another individual, even if the instructions may conflict with the participant’s morality? Under what conditions will the participant not carry out the orders and disobey authority?

Milgram’s Obedience Studies

Milgram conducted a series of experiments to better understand the conditions of obedience (Milgram 1963, 1965, 1974). In his first publication on the series, his experiment included 40 male participants between the ages of 20-50 years old with differing educational and occupational backgrounds who resided in the New Haven area and who were recruited for a study of “memory and learning at Yale University” (1963: 372).

This experiment consisted of the following procedures: When the participant arrived to the laboratory for the study, the experimenter, a white male in a gray lab coat, informed the participant and an actor, who appeared to be a participant, that they were taking part in a memory study that focused on punishment and learning (a topic that lacked scientific research). The experimenter explained that one participant would act as the “teacher” and the other as the “learner” for the exercise. The experimenter instructed both the participant and the actor to a draw a slip of paper from a rigged drawing whereby the participant was always the teacher and the actor was always the learner. The teacher watched as the learner was “strapped into an ‘electric chair’ apparatus” (that administered shocks on the learner’s wrist) (p. 373). The experimenter stated that the shocks can be “extremely painful” but will cause “no permanent tissue damage” (ibid.).

The teacher would read a list of word pairs to the learner from the adjoining room. In this room, the teacher had access to a shock generator, which appeared to be connected to the learner’s wrist. The teacher would read the first word from the pair, and the learner was expected to recall the second word in the pair. If the learner answered correctly, they moved on to the next word pair. If the learner answered incorrectly, the teacher would shock the learner. The experimenter instructed the teacher to administer incrementally more severe shocks using lever switches if the learner answered incorrectly. The simulated shock generator used “30 clearly marked voltage levels that range[d] from 15 to 450 volts” with coinciding “verbal designations that range[d] from Slight Shock to Danger: Severe Shock” to “XXX” (p. 372). While the situation was constructed to seem authentic to the participant-teacher, the actor-learner did not receive any shocks.

According to Milgram, the experiment was standardized, and the responses of the learner and the experimenter were standardized as well. For example, in this variation of the study, if the participant administered a 300 volt shock, the learner acted as if they were in pain by kicking the wall and no longer provided answers to the teacher. The pounding occurred again at the 315 volt shock, and the learner provided no further responses.

In another condition,1 the verbal responses of the learner were taped, and “each protest [was] coordinated to a particular voltage level on the shock generator” in which at 75 volts the learner “beg[an] to grunt and moan,” at 150 volts the learner demanded to quit the experiment, at 180 volts “he crie[d] out that he can no longer stand the pain” and at 300 volts “he refuse[d] to provide any more answers to the memory test, insisting that he [was] no longer a participant” and must be let out (Milgram 1965: 60).

An illustration of Milgram's experiment with the experimenter, learner, and teacher.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.


When the participant-teacher exhibited an unwillingness to continue with the experiment, the experimenter responded with a sequence of prods such as “[t]he experiment requires that you continue” (Milgram 1963: 374).


In the variation of the study detailed above, “[n]o subject stopped prior to administering Shock Level 20,” or 300 volts, and “[o]f the 40 subjects, 26 obeyed the orders of the experimenter to the end, proceeding to punish the victim until they reached the most potent shock available on the shock generator” (Milgram 1963: 375-76). In this case, and in other variations of the study, many participants exhibited what Milgram (1963: 375) termed “signs of extreme tension” in which they would “sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their flesh” in addition to having nervous laughing fits. A few participants even had seizures. Milgram reflects on the general findings of the experiments in the following quote:

“[The results] raise the possibility that human nature, or –more specifically– the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority” (Milgram 1965: 75).

As part of the series, Milgram also considered (dis)obedience in relationship to group situations. For example, in one study, Milgram had three teachers in the room with the simulated shock generator. Two of them were actors and one of them was a participant. When the actors quit in the middle of the learning exercise, “90 per cent of the subjects followed suit and defied the experimenter” (p. 71). In another variation, an actor administered the shocks to the learner as the participant observed.

With this variation, only three participants out of forty defied the experimenter. In yet another condition, the participant and actors were tasked with deciding the shock level they would use to punish the learner for a wrong answer. Actors recommended increasingly higher shock levels. Some participants challenged the increase in shock levels while others went along with the actors.

Replications and Alternative Interpretations

Variations of Milgram’s obedience experiments have been replicated. For example, Jerry Burger (2009) partially replicated one of Milgram’s studies with similar findings. In Burger’s (2009) base condition, “[t]he percentage of participants who continued the procedure after pressing the 150-volt switch was examined,” and “70% of the base condition participants continued with the next item on the test and had to be stopped by the experimenter” (compared to Milgram’s 82.5% of participants) (p. 8).

In another variation of Burger’s study, called the “modeled refusal condition,” two actors (one teacher and one learner) and a participant were involved in the experiment. In this situation, the actor-teacher administers the shocks and stops after pressing the 90 volt switch. The participant is then asked to take-over and administer the shocks because the actor-teacher refuses to continue. In most cases, the participant continued with the shocks past the 150 volt point (63.3%).

In addition to their popularity, Milgram’s obedience experiments unsurprisingly have a number of ethical and methodological concerns, making it a “contentious classic” (Tavris 2014).Milgram’s experiments have been criticized recently for misrepresentations of the debriefing process (some participants were not fully debriefed), the experimenter’s off-script improvisation of prods, and Milgram’s selective reporting of results. Richard A. Griggs (2017) explains that some social psychologists have reinterpreted Milgram’s findings. Essentially, “this reinterpretation argues that the experiments were not about obedience to authority but rather engaged followership based on identification with the experimenter and his scientific project” (p. 33).2

A black and white photograph of Stanley Milgram.

Stanley Milgram. Source: Harvard University Department of Psychology.


Are the Obedience Studies Still Relevant?

As the merit of Milgram’s obedience studies is continually revisited and questioned, and reinterpretations of his findings evolve, it will be interesting to see how Milgram’s experiments are framed and taught in the future. However, larger questions regarding the construction, operation, and maintenance of authority (and individual choice and resistance) in society remain pertinent.

What are authority’s forms, signifiers, and spaces of operation, and how is its power individually and systemically implemented?3 Whether in a lab coat, military uniform, or cassock,  Milgram’s studies, at the very least, remind us that we should be ever vigilant in the presence of authority: what it looks like, the power it wields, and how this power may be used to harm groups of people in society.

Additional Resources

Asch conformity experiments; Stanford Prison Experiment: Studies related to the obedience experiments ▪ Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963): A book by political theorist Hannah Arendt concerning the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann ▪ Obedience (1965): Stanley Milgram’s documentary film on the obedience experiments ▪ Experimenter (2015): An entertainment film about Stanley Milgram and the obedience studies ▪ Shock Room (2015): A documentary film about Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies.

*Question was edited for clarity.


Burger, Jerry M. 2009. “Replicating Milgram.” American Psychologist 64(1):1–11.

Griggs, Richard A. 2017. “Milgram’s Obedience Study: A Contentious Classic Reinterpreted.” Teaching of Psychology 44(1):32–37.

Milgram, Stanley. 1963. “Behavioral Study of Obedience.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67(4):371–78.

Milgram, Stanley. 1965. “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority.” Human Relations 18:57–76.

Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row.

Tavris, Carol A. 2014. “Teaching Contentious Classics.” APS Observer 27(8).

Weber, Max. [1925] 2008. “The Types of Legitimate Domination.” Pp. 178–84 in Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory. Los Angeles, CA: Pine Forge Press.


  1. Some other variations in the series of experiments include the participant’s proximity to the learner, the participant’s closeness to authority, the setting of the laboratory experiment, and the gender of participants. In an unreported experiment, pairs of participants who knew one another in some capacity were included in a condition. One participant was the teacher and the other participant was the learner (see Griggs 2017). The different conditions in the experiments had varying results.
  2. For an overview of old and new criticisms and reinterpretations of the obedience studies’ findings, please see Griggs (2017).
  3.  Sociologist Max Weber ([1925] 2008) considered forms of domination that bring about the belief of legitimacy, or authority in society. Weber classifies “the types of domination according to the kind of claim to legitimacy typically made by each” and its relationship to obedience (p.179). Weber states that legitimate domination in society generally adheres to three ideal types or pure forms: traditional authority, charismatic authority, and rational-legal authority.

Return to October 2018 Issue

Policing Brown Bodies: Sheriff Arpaio’s Reign and Immigration Law Enforcement

By Mary Romero
President-Elect of the American Sociological Association

While immigration law enforcement is taking place on a national level, Arizona’s reputation as “ground zero” in the immigration debate resulted from the intense immigration legislative activity and forceful law enforcement that included white nativist vigilante involvement over the last decade.1  Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, former Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, was a major set-back for immigrant and human rights activists who fought to remove him from office in 2016. The pardon is a pass for elected officials and police to violate the civil rights of Latinos.  Arpaio’s efforts to reinforce his reputation as the “toughest sheriff” included terrorizing the Latino community in Maricopa County.

His policing and comradery with white nativist anti-immigration vigilantism fits into Trump’s current immigration rhetoric. A major component of Joe Arpaio’s immigration law enforcement involved political spectacle and symbolic politics, which normalized human and civil rights violations and legitimated racism toward Mexicans and other racialized immigrants. I begin by reviewing the largely forgotten legislation passed in 1995, the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).

Next, I examine the strategies and practices by the Maricopa Sheriff Department during Joe Arpaio’s tenure as sheriff to point to the way that immigration law enforcement served as a spectacle that legitimizes vigilante activities. Vigilante activities are examined by focusing on anti-immigrant organizations’ activities allowed during immigration protests.

Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA)

To understand Trump’s characterization of Mexicans and Joe Arpaio’s policing campaign against Mexicans and other racialized Latinos, we must remember that the foundation for claiming that Mexican immigrants are criminals (rapists and drug dealers) was solidified in the legislation passed after the Oklahoma bombing to deter terrorism. The Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) combined immigration, criminal and terrorism into one legislation, which blurred the distinctions between “alien immigrant” and “criminal.” Eliminating the distinction between undocumented workers and criminals provided Arpaio the platform to enter center stage in the immigration debate.  In previous immigration legislation, being an “alien immigrant” was an administrative violation attached to one’s status upon entering the U.S. without documentation.

This category included people who had overstayed their visas or had expired green cards, as well as some other noncriminal circumstances. “Criminal aliens” referred to immigrants who committed a crime or were engaged in illegal behavior. The third category of alien immigrants identified in this legislation are persons the state identifies as posing a grave risk to national security and are deportable as terrorists.

Co-mingling immigration and terrorism policies “fueled passage of a new summary exclusion procedure in 1996 by which a noncitizen could be bared admission into the country at the port of entry by an INS officer without judicial review” and the definition of “aggravated felony” was broadened and subjected immigrants to deportation without judicial review and mandatory detention.

Placing immigration under Department of Homeland Security provided the basis for nativist groups to argue that all immigrants are criminal and should be addressed with the same aggressive law enforcement aimed at terrorists, drug dealers and human smugglers. In establishing the Department of Homeland Security, immigration and criminal law enforcement were officially combined under the rhetoric of counter terrorism. Raids, detention, deportation and surveillance of noncitizens all became the concern of counterterrorism legislation, which included the USA Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Act and the enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act.

By outlining the Office of Detention and Removal’s mission around concerns of public safety and national security, the collateral damage to families and communities was minimized or ignored. Connecting the War on Terror and the War on Drugs was a smooth transition into a campaign against narco–terrorism in 2002. Raids, detention, deportation and surveillance of noncitizens all became the concern of counterterrorism legislation. Substantive changes under Homeland Security legislation provided the foundation for emerging state and local anti-immigrant ordinances, increased use of surveillance and racial profiling, police engaging in unlawful breaking and entering of private residents, and other violations of the Fourth Amendment.

Overview of Symbolic Politics and Political Spectacles in Immigration Discourse

The significance of symbolic politics and political spectacles is in identifying the real consequences and costs of draconian immigration policy on communities of color. Coverage of political spectacles in the media serves to blur or erase public memory and condones racial profiling and violence against Latinos as unavoidable collateral damage in maintaining national security.  Modifying immigration raids to use similar equipment, strategies and armed military force deployed in major drug raids renders immigrants as dangerous and a threat to society.  The public spectacle of armed federal agents with rifles and bulletproof vests raiding homes, work sites and shopping malls reinforces support for more funding and resources toward immigration enforcement and the passage of draconian laws.  These tactics serve to create an illusion that the government is responding to a major danger threatening the country. These political actions have been called “pseudo-events” that provide public entertainment framed as news.  Press coverage of these pseudo-events has little if any context and most importantly do not report human and civil rights violations.

Numerous researchers have written extensively about the anti-immigration discourse as a major aspect in creating the spectacle and symbolic policies. Immigrant scholars note the inflated metaphors used to describe migration from Mexico as a crisis (e.g., Chavez 2001, 2008; Otto 2002). Politicians promoting an anti-immigration position frequently use carefully selected sound bites containing metaphors to highlight the “alien,” “foreign,” and “inferior” characteristics of non-citizens.  Symbolic language and spectacles clearly establish that immigration poses a national threat.

Agencies and news coverage of activities refer to persons arrested in terms related to non-humans such as “net of 56 captured” or “rounded-up.” Terms used to describe immigration raids and deportation programs add to the spectacle (such as, ‘combat’, ‘fighting’). The titles of immigration operations also capture the imagination (for example, Operation Return to Sender, Detention and Removal Operations, National Fugitive Operations Program, Agreements of Cooperation in Communities to Enhance Safety and Security, Operation Gatekeeper). Describing raids as the pursuit of investigations of violent crimes, human smuggling, gang organized crime activity, sex-related offenses, narcotics smuggling, and money laundering adds to the drama.

The military tone established in homeland security discourse and the increasing number of nativist extremist groups sets the background for claiming a Mexican invasion, a war within our borders and the threat immigrants and their families pose to the economic and security well-being of citizens’ families (Romero 2008). Interrogating anti-immigration discourse is crucial in following the immigration debate, policy, and law enforcement. A major ideology embedded in each continues to be white injury.

The anti-immigrant discourses that claim that immigrants pose a cultural, security and economic threat, are based on an ideology of white injury and casts white middle-class citizens as the victims (Cacho 2012). The list of white injury includes the erosion of public education, high unemployment and crime rates, the gang and drug problems, insufficient health care, reverse discrimination and the subordination of English and “white” culture. Instead, responsibility of the country’s problems is placed upon non-citizens employed as day or low-wage workers attempting to improve their living conditions. An ideology of white injury works as a significant symbolic device in establishing ambiguous meanings to arouse strong xenophobia feelings based on emotional narratives. Accurate facts and context can thus be ignored.

Source: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement


The U.S. government has a long immigration history of responding to the ideology of white injury and in creating fear by scapegoating migrants for social problems.  Since Operation Wetback, immigration raids have been used to respond to unemployment and a sluggish economy.

Arpaio’s Use of Symbolic Politics and Political Spectacles

Arpaio’s tenure as Maricopa County Sheriff in Arizona demonstrates the use of state and federal legislation, along with the use of spectacle and symbolic politics to police brown bodies and create a haven for anti-immigrant vigilantes. Arpaio was elected Sheriff of Maricopa County in 1993 and served for 24 years. He finally lost re-election to Democrat Paul Penzone in the last election. Arpaio first made international news for his human rights violations by establishing a tent prison in the Arizona desert, banning coffee and cooked meals and reestablishing chain gangs.  As the anti-immigrant sentiment intensified in Arizona, Arpaio’s first move to gain center stage in the national immigration spectacle began by offering jail rooms to detain immigrants and obtaining funding to establish a country-wide immigration law enforcement program (Doty 2009).

Arpaio signed the controversial 287 (g) agreement2 between Maricopa County and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which allowed him to cross train sheriff deputies in immigration enforcement.  ICE granted Maricopa County “the most robust 287 (g) contract in the country” (Shahani and Greene 2009:24).  In September 2006, the Law Enforcement Agency Response (LEAR) program began in Arizona and ICE agreed to provide “a more comprehensive response” when officers encountered suspected illegal aliens (ICE 2008).  The director of the Phoenix Office of Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) field office claimed that “One of ICE’s top enforcement priorities is to improve public safety in Arizona communities. . . By focusing our resources on programs that identify criminal aliens for removal from the United States, we are succeeding in our mission to keep foreign-born criminals off the streets in Arizona” (ICE 2008).

After the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) expanded his power to engage in random street raids under the 287 (g) program, Arpaio unleashed a series of raids on Latino communities throughout Maricopa County.  His rampant campaign of racial profiling was not hampered by local police chiefs’ and city council members’ disapproval of his activities or the indictments for civil rights abuses or law suits resulting from these actions.  While Arpaio’s history of human rights violations expanded during his five terms in office, his immigration law enforcement demonstrated the strongest link between creating a public spectacle and legitimating hate-groups and anti-immigration campaigns.

Arpaio’s most significant use of symbolic language was the constant reference to raids as “crime suppression sweeps,” which created the symbolic illusion of eradicating crime rather than racial profiling or committing civil and human rights violations.  The public was notified that all persons arrested were criminals and stopped for criminal behavior.  By targeting neighborhoods with a high concentration of Mexican and immigrant families, the link between crime and immigrants was reinforced in the public mind. Reports on the number of persons arrested in a “Crime Suppression Sweep” were immediately released to the press with little distinction made between the precise numbers of violent criminals arrested and immigrants detained for “being out of status” or undocumented.

Local immigration raids and sweeps were staged to demonstrate government action is being taken to protect its citizens and regain jobs and benefits. Drama was produced by using work places and Latino communities as political stages. Law enforcement officers arrive with menacing props and costumes and chase individuals perceived as immigrants based on their race, without regard to their personal safety or consequences to their families. Gradually, the spectacle included SWAT-team style immigration raids on homes, previously reserved for the War on Drugs. Raids have taken place across the country but civil and human rights violations under Sheriff Arpaio were particularly evident in Maricopa County in Arizona. Sheriff Arpaio choreographed his use of 287 (g) agreement by establishing areas for citizenship inspection stops and for raids and sweeps.

Source: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement


Given the lack of support from city council members and police chiefs in the country, he made concerted efforts to demonstrate the need and urgency for these police actions. Organizing the sequence of actions for country sheriffs, voluntary posse and participating ICE officials, Arpaio set the police action in motion, provided the media and news reporters with adequate access and staged press releases. He usually arrived with his fleet of Ford Econoline vans that were clearly marked in red lettering with the following: “HELP SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO FIGHT ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION & TRAFFICKING CALL 602.876.4145 WITH TIPS ON ILLEGAL ALIENS.” Arpaio manufactured a media circus by establishing a mobile command center. His excessive use of sheriff deputies and posse in each operation, coupled with extravagant and highly visible vehicles, created a war-like zone. Armed with long barrel shotguns and at times tear gas, Latino neighborhoods were raided in a manner that any observer could conclude the operations were targeting an imminent threat. The massive show of weapons and police presence instilled a sense of crisis. Arpaio’s highly visible operations enforced the notion that all immigrants were criminals and dangerous.

During the spring of 2009, Arpaio incorporated another controversial symbol into the raid ritual by issuing his deputies protective gear kits consisting of face masks and gloves to use when encountering and arresting Mexican immigrants. After making a news release of the need to protect deputies and jail staff from the risk of swine flu exposure, he provided the media with visual images of law enforcement agents using surgical masks and gloves, which clearly conveyed the message that Mexican immigrants posed a health threat to officers and citizens.

The fact that surgical masks do not combat the virus was unimportant since the only point of issuing protective gear kits was continuing the spectacle of the threat of immigration. The news release attributed the presence of tuberculosis and chicken pox in jails to detained immigrants. Using infectious diseases as one of the symbols to identify the threat that Mexican immigrants posed in the U.S. was a completely planned and staged event. The protective gear for dealing with “suspected illegal immigrants” marked all non-citizens, particularly Latinos, as a threat to public health.

The prop that led to one local newspaper to claim “Sheriff Arpaio’s Reign of Terror” was the black ski masks that members of Arpaio’s posse wore when accompanying Maricopa County sheriffs during raids in 2008. Sheriff Arpaio maintained a civilian posse for 16 years. They had official insignia, and many drove unmarked cars. He unleashed the posse for immigration raids. They chased down individuals they felt were undocumented and when they worked alone, they held suspected undocumented immigrants until officers arrived. Some members of the posse were also members of Nativist and anti-immigrant groups.

One of Arpaio’s most outrageous use of terror were a series of raids that targeted the town of Guadalupe, a town consisting of one square mile between Tempe and Phoenix, Arizona. Originally founded by Yaqui Indians
at the turn of the century, the town is now the home of both Yaqui and Mexican immigrant and Mexican American residents. Yaqui Indians have ancestral roots in Mexico. There are about 5,500 residents.

Unfortunately, as a small community, Guadalupe does not have its own police force and relies on the services of Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department. Arpaio conducted a two-day raid. The first day, he established his Command center at the Dollar Store. Residents who protested the raids were targeted for special surveillance.

This was also the day of celebration for the town because the church was holding confirmation for the children. On the second day, Arpaio moved his Command Center because the national office of the Dollar Store complained that he did not have permission to use their parking lot.

Residents were stopped by masked and armed men while driving or walking, others were chased as they ran to their homes for refuge. After two days of raiding the one-mile radius of Guadalupe with 200 deputies and members of Arpaio’s posse, only nine immigrants were arrested for not having adequate documentation to be in the U.S.

Source: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement


This type of policing has terrorized low-income communities, particularly children and the elderly. Sheriff Arpaio’s raids profiled immigrants who were working poor and were of Mexican ancestry. Reasons used for stopping drivers included: walking with open containers, broken taillights, improper use of horn, children appeared to be bouncing up and down in backseat and not wearing seatbelts, expired tags. Former Phoenix Mayor Gordon criticized Arpaio’s policing as a sanctuary for felons because during this time there were 40,000 warrants that his office had not served, and the sweeps had little impact on arresting criminals or human smugglers. These policing priorities are reminders of the high price Mexican communities pay for the ideology of white injury.

Mainstream media and elected officials assisted in normalizing these immigration practices by engaging in the chronic use of anti-immigration terms, which functioned to induce uncritical responses and erased doubts of inhumanity. One way that resistance was silenced was by linking anti-immigration campaigns to “patriotism” and characterizing involvement in anti-immigration as patriotic acts.

The claim to patriotism by anti-immigrant and vigilante groups frequently included the display of numerous U.S. flags, highlighting leaders’ veteran records, and using recognized icons, such as Uncle Sam or Rosie the Riveter (Romero 2008). In identifying anti-immigrant politicians and law enforcement officers as standing up to the threat that immigration poses, people opposing and protesting these immigration law enforcement practices were then painted as enemies of the state.

Part of the choreographed event of setting up the spectacle was assigning police officers or sheriffs to monitor the protestors. This was done by creating a border with barricades and officers standing behind while facing the activists rather than Arpaio’s supporters. Even though activists obtained permits to protest, were well organized and never carried weapons, they became the focus of the police gaze. American Freedom Riders arrived on the motorcycles wearing leather clothing with red, white, and blue patches to the protests.

Signs and banners contributed additional symbols of patriotism. Banners and signs containing red, white and blue background or lettering carried messages of support for Arpaio. Nativist patriotism not only appropriated anti-immigration as the only patriotic stance on immigration but defined the criteria of citizenship as being a mono-lingual English speaker. American Freedom Riders frequently arrived at the protest events armed and freely physically intimidated human rights activists without police interference while riding their motorcycles.

The Southern Law Poverty, along with numerous civil rights organizations, tracked the increasing number of nativist extremist and hate groups targeting immigrants in Arizona. Many of these groups also have strong links to other anti-immigrant groups, such as Save Our State, Colorado Minutemen, and California Coalition for Immigration Reform. Almost all of these groups have members in Maricopa County and are active supporters of Arpaio.

The symbolism created by policing protestors marked the activists as potential law-breakers.  Keeping the activists under police surveillance contributed to condoning the actions of Arpaio’s armed supporters and created the appearance that activists were not law-abiding citizens.  The armed police officers monitoring the protesters further enhanced the image of immigrants as dangerous and activists as unpatriotic.

A strategy used by anti-immigration groups to appear patriotic and mainstream included volunteering and contributing to political campaigns and inviting potential candidates and politicians to speak at their rallies.  Joe Arpaio was a frequent invited speaker at their rallies.

White supremacist political party, American Third Position, announced donation to fund defense of AZ SB 1070.3 Their mission statement declared the group existed “to represent the political interests of white Americans.”

History of Lawsuits

Over his 24 years as sheriff, Arpaio was accused of numerous practices of police misconduct, mistreatment of prisoners, abuse of power, misuse of funds, failure to investigate sex crimes, unlawful enforcement of immigration laws, and election law violations. Over 2,700 lawsuits, concerning violations at the county’s prisons alone, were filed against Arpaio in Federal and County Courts, which is 50 times the number in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston combined.  However, the lawsuit that finally ended his career was the class action lawsuit, Ortega Melendres vs. Arpaio, which charged Sheriff Arpaio and MCSO (Maricopa County Sheriff Office) of instituting a pattern of targeting Latino drivers and passengers.

In the case of plaintiff, Mr. Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, his encounter with MCSO officers occurred as a passenger rather than a driver during the sweep on September 26, 2007. The white driver was told he was stopped for speeding but not given a citation. However, Mr. Ortega was asked for identification. After showing his U.S. visa, his Mexican Federal Voter Registration and a stamped permit valid until Nov. 2007, issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, he was ordered to get out of the vehicle.

He was submitted to excessive force and unprofessional behavior as he was patted down and handcuffed. In his four-hour detention in jail, he was not read his Miranda rights, given the opportunity to make a phone call, told why he was being detained or provided a Spanish-language translator. Later he was taken to the local ICE office and his handcuffs were removed. After a total of nine hours, with no water or food, the ICE official reviewed Mr. Ortega’s identification documents and he was released without any paper trail other than a case number. At no time was Mr. Ortega read his Miranda rights, informed of charges or given any information about the reason for the arrest.

U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow found that Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies targeted Latinos during traffic stops with the presumption that they entered the country illegally and found their practices of the sheriffs discriminatory based on race that resulted in prolonged traffic stops and baseless extended detentions in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

During the trial, Arpaio was found to have condoned and participated in circulating racist commentary about Latinos and created “a general cultural of bias” in the sheriff’s office. In 2011, Judge Snow issued an order mandating changes in MCSO to eliminate misconduct and future violations of the community’s constitutional rights. Arpaio ignored the 2011 order to stop immigration enforcement when he lost the federal 287(g) agreement.

Arpaio also violated court orders to audio and video record of all traffic stops, increase training and monitoring employees, and maintain comprehensive records. Judge Snow found him in contempt of court and scheduled sentencing for October 2017.

Although, Arpaio was unlikely to do jail time, Trump pardoned him on August 25th. Following Trump’s pardon, attorneys filed motions to have the entire criminal case against him expunged from his record. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton ruled the conviction stands because the pardon only affected possible punishments. Later in the fall, Arpaio announced he was running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate being vacated by Republican Jeff Flack. Arpaio asked an appeals court to overturn the judge’s decision to uphold his criminal contempt conviction despite being pardoned by Trump. Immigrant and human rights activists who fought to remove him from the sheriff’s office in 2016 are regrouping to get Latino voter turnout with hopes of getting at least 350,000 Latinos – about one third of those eligible to vote in 2018.


Although I focused on Arpaio’s law enforcement practices and his use of spectacle and symbolic politics, we cannot lose sight of state and national government participation in alarmist immigration rhetoric and laws embracing “alien immigrant,” “criminal” and “terrorist” as the same category and lending legitimacy to a range of anti-immigration activities conducted by civilians.

Source: The Sociologist


As the state shifts immigration policy to counter terrorism, vigilante groups are provided a shield of patriotism to conceal their nativist and racist attacks against Latinos in the U.S.  Anti-immigrant vigilante groups continue to operate without much state interference and are sometimes encouraged or celebrated by public officials. Alarmist immigration rhetoric and laws continue to support draconian measures particularly targeting immigrants of color and non-citizens residing illegally in the U.S.


  1. Portions of this paper were previously published in “Are Your Papers in Order? Racial Profiling, Vigilantes and America’s Toughest Sheriff’,” Harvard Latino Law Review, 14: 337-357 (2011) and “Keeping Citizenship Rights White: Arizona’s Racial Profiling Practices in Immigration Law Enforcement,” Law Journal for Social Justice, 1 (1): 97-113 (2011). Portions of this paper were also presented at a talk at American University on January 25, 2018.
  2. The 287(g) program is one of the partnership initiatives of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The program allows a state or local law enforcement entity to enter into a partnership with ICE, under a joint Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), to receive delegated authority for immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions.
  3. The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (referred to as Arizona SB 1070) was a legislative Act in the state of Arizona. When it was passed in 2010, it became the broadest and strictest immigration measure passed in Arizona.


Cacho, Lisa Marie. 2012. Social Death, Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected. New York: New York University Press.

Chavez, Leo Ralph. 2001. Covering Immigration: Poplar Images and the Politics of the Nation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Romero, Mary. 2008. The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens and the Nation.  Stanford University Press.

Romero, Mary. 2008. Crossing the Immigration and Race Border: A Critical Race Theory Approach to Immigration Studies, 11 Contemporary Journal Review.

Doty, Roxanne Lynn.  2009. The Law into Their Own Hands: Immigration and the Politics of Exceptionalism. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Otto, Santa Ana. 2002. Brown tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Shahani, Aarti and Judith Greene. 2009. Local Democracy on ICE: Why State and Local Governments have no Business in Federal Immigration Law Enforcement: A Justice Strategies Report available at

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 2008. Fact Sheet: Operation Community Shield. hppt://

Return to May 2018 Issue

Skipping Class: First-Gen, Working-Class, and Low-Income Students in College

By Robert D. Francis

Were you the first in your family to graduate from college? If so, congratulations on defying the odds. During my dissertation fieldwork, I recently sat across the table from a young man who had tears in his eyes when he shared that he was the first in his family to finish high school. He hopes to go on to college, perhaps online, but he currently works as a laborer at a steel mill as he saves money and crafts his plan. Unfortunately, the data do not stand in favor of him finishing.

A new study from the National Center for Education Statistics or NCES (Redford and Hoyer 2017) gives a glimpse of the barriers that first generation (first-gen) college students face. When compared with what the study calls their continuing-generation peers, first-gen students were more likely to attend for-profit schools; half as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by ten years from their sophomore years in high school; and more likely to leave college for financial reasons without a degree.

The NCES study might be particularly pessimistic because it uses a narrow definition of first gen: students enrolled in postsecondary education whose parents do not have any postsecondary education experience. What about those students whose parents have some college but no degree? What about an associate’s but not a bachelor’s? Or what if one parent earned a bachelor’s degree but left the family through divorce—or death? And what about those whose parents have a four-year degree but are still poor? Are any of these students first-gen too?

A recent article in The New York Times (Sharpe 2017) explored the challenges of defining first-gen. According to the article, the U.S. Department of Education defines first-gen in at least three different ways1. And a recent working paper (Toutkoushian, Stollberg, and Slaton 2015) finds that estimates of first-gen students in the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002—the same data source used in the NCES study—can range from 22 to 77 percent, depending on the definition. The first step in better serving first-gen students might be arriving at a shared definition.

A Shot at Middle Class

My case is one of the complex ones. I cannot claim first-gen status, as my Mom earned her bachelor’s degree in education at a rural teacher’s college. My Dad had his high school diploma, serving active duty as a Marine in Vietnam before settling into a career as a manual laborer.

We might have had a shot at the middle class on their joint incomes, but my Mom, despite her earning power, retired from teaching when I was born. Her view of gender roles, informed by her conservative Protestantism, dictated that she should stay home to raise me and my sister. This left my Dad to provide, and without the benefit of a college degree or union wages, it was always a struggle. While not first-gen, I grew up in what I now consider a working poor family, or perhaps working class, despite having one parent with a BA.

Common Approaches

Working class is another designation that is difficult to pin down. In an unpublished paper by sociologist and class scholar Allison Hurst, a review of sociological journal articles finds no consensus on how scholars operationalize social class. Common approaches utilize parental education or income, and to a lesser degree, parental occupation. None are fully satisfying, but more complex measures often require data not collected by most surveys. And still another vexing category is low-income.

What counts as poor? Should we use the federal poverty line, the supplemental poverty measure, Pell eligibility, or something else? Despite the lack of consensus in defining these terms—first-gen, working-class, and low income—we know there is quite a bit of overlap among these three designations. More practically, how do these first-gen and working-class identities play out on our campuses?

Overwhelmed and Familiar

There is good evidence that students from first-gen and working-class backgrounds not only face academic barriers, but cultural ones as well. First-gens can feel overwhelmed (Hertel 2002) and experience self-doubt (Engle, Bermeo, and O’Brien 2006). They often feel inauthentic (Dews and Law 1995; Lubrano 2004; Hurst 2010) on campuses where continuing-gen and middle-class values are the norm (Lightweis 2014; Pascarella et al. 2004; Reay et al. 2009; Stuber 2015).

I remember the jealousy and even resentment I felt toward my freshman roommate because he had his own desktop computer for our dorm room, while I relied on the campus computer labs to type and print my papers. I worked all through college, sometimes sending money home to help my family rather than the reverse.

And as if to crown my college experience with a final social class indignity, I remember my embarrassment when my family chose Bob Evans as the “nice” restaurant where we would celebrate my college graduation. It was what we could afford, and it was culturally familiar. (Truth be told, I didn’t have ideas for any nicer place anyway, which added to the insult as my classmates headed off to what I presumed were more upscale choices.)

Inequities in Education

Some of the culture shock for first-gen and working-class students comes from the fact that our undergraduate populations are already polarized, unequal, and affluent. The Equality of Opportunity Project, led by Raj Chetty, made headlines in 2017 when one of their studies showed that 38 colleges and universities had more students from the top 1% of households than the bottom 60%. (The New York Times created an interactive tool with Chetty’s data that allows you to search for your school.2) Results for selected schools in the DCSS area are in Table 1.

Of course, these figures require interpretation, and they might say more about underlying inequalities in education writ large than about any particular institution. Regardless of the composition of our undergraduate populations, there is much that can be done to consider the unique needs of our first-gen, working-class, and low-income students.


Measure and Proxy

The first step for many schools is collecting better data. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the financial aid form completed by most incoming freshman, has just one crude measure of parental education.

Marymount University in Arlington, where I am an adjunct faculty member, started asking additional questions about first-gen status in their application in 2010. For most schools, Pell eligibility provides a proxy for low-income. Even for schools that track low-income and first-gen, measures of social class are still largely absent. We can start by collecting better data about the first-gen, working-class, and low-income statuses of our students.

Some schools provide infrastructure to support the unique needs of these students. Marymount University’s Office of the First-Year Experience3, while not explicitly dedicated to first-gen and working-class students, focuses on the social and academic transition to college, which can be more fraught for first-gen, working-class, and low-income students. Campuses are also forming student groups for low-income, first-gen, and working-class students, like First-Gens@Michigan. And sociology faculty, for their part, are finding ways to add social class considerations into their curriculum4.

But as Debbie Warnock (2016) recounts, her efforts as a faculty member to sponsor a first-gen, working-class, and low-income student group ran into many institutional hurdles. From this experience, she drew the provocative conclusion that low-income students lack institutional support because their very existence challenges the bottom lines of their schools: they cost more to admit and sustain, and their lower test scores and poorer graduation rates punish schools in the arms race of the hallowed college ranking systems.

I was recently at a coffee shop in my rural hometown when I noticed that the barista on duty was studying when business was slow. I asked her about her story. She said she started at a selective liberal arts college about an hour away, but the privilege of her fellow students was unexpected and jarring. She loved her classes and professors, but she said she felt isolated and alone. She left the school after just one semester. Now she is working toward her Associate of Arts (AA) degree at a small branch campus closer to home. Her classes are much less challenging, but the school is a cultural fit. She may be fine in the long run, but how many other stories like hers go unnoticed each semester? Many of the efforts to support first-gen and working-class students on campus are led by faculty and staff who themselves identify as first-gen or working-class.

Source: American Sociological Association


And just as first-gen and working-class undergraduates face challenges, so do scholars with those backgrounds. There is evidence that first-gen and working-class academics often feel like they don’t belong (Lee 2017). And while definitive data are lacking, there is still reason to believe that first-gen and working-class scholars are more likely to end up as contingent and non-tenure track faculty (Soria 2016).For those who can relate, a new edited volume of essays, Working in Class: Recognizing How Social Class Shapes Our Academic Work (2016), offers empathetic voices. The thirteen essays explore what it means to be a working-class academic in the three primary domains of academic life: teaching, research, and service. These essays are also worthwhile for scholars from more advantaged backgrounds, as they reveal ways in which we all might unintentionally reinforce class-based inequalities in the classroom and our faculty interactions.

There is also the Working-Class Studies Association5, formed in 2003 “to promote the study of working-class people and their culture.” This professional association includes a Working-Class Academic Section, designed specifically as a place for scholars who identify as working class.

ASA Task Force

The American Sociological Association (ASA), for its part, is wading into these discussions with the formation of a new Task Force on First-Generation and Working-Class People in Sociology6. Called into existence by the ASA Council thanks in part to agitation by working-class sociologists, the Task Force—chaired by Vincent Roscigno from Ohio State University—has a three-year charge to explore the state of first-gen, working-class, and low-income people within the discipline. I was fortunate to be named as one of the Task Force’s thirteen members. We began our work in late 2017, which will continue through 2020. Look for us at the 2018 ASA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. If you have thoughts about the place of first-gen and working-class people within sociology, please reach out to me at This Task Force presents a unique opportunity to make sure the discipline of sociology is no longer skipping class.


  1. The definitions are: no parent in the household has a bachelor’s degree; no education after high school; no degree after high school.







Dews, C. L. Barney, and Carolyn Leste Law, eds. 1995. This Fine Place So Far From Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Engle, Jennifer, Adolfo Bermeo, and Colleen O’Brien. 2006. “Straight from the Source: What Works for First-Generation College Students.” Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED501693.

Hertel, James B. 2002. “College Student Generational Status: Similarities, Differences, and Factors in College Adjustment.” The Psychological Record. 52(1): 3-18.

Hurst, Allison L. 2010. The Burden of Academic Success: Loyalists, Renegades, and Double Agents. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Lee, Elizabeth M. 2017. “‘Where People Like Me Don’t Belong’: Faculty Members from Low-socioeconomic-status Backgrounds.” Sociology of Education. 90(3): 197-212.

Lightweis, Susan. 2014. “The Challenges, Persistence, and Success of White, Working-class, First-generation College Students.” College Student Journal 48(3): 461-467.

Lubrano, Alfred. 2004. Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Pascarella, Ernest T., Christopher T. Pierson, Gregory C. Wolniak, and Patrick T. Terenzini. 2004. “First Generation College Students: Additional Evidence on College Experiences and Outcomes.” The Journal of Higher Education. 75(3): 249-284.

Reay, Diane, Gill Crozier, and John Clayton. 2009. “‘Strangers in Paradise’? Working-class Students in Elite Universities.” Sociology 43(6): 1103-1121.

Redford, Jeremy and Kathleen Mulvaney Hoyer. 2017. “First-Generation and Continuing-Generation College Students: A Comparison of High School and Postsecondary Experiences.” National Center for Education Statistics. Available at

Sharpe, Rochelle. 2017. “Are You First Gen? Depends Who’s Asking.” The New York Times. Nov 3.

Soria, Krista M. 2016. “Working Class, Teaching Class, and Working Class in the Academy.” In Hurst, Allison L., and Sandi Kawecka Nenga. Working in Class: Recognizing How Social Class Shapes Our Academic Work. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Stuber, Jenny M. 2011. Inside the College Gates: How Class and Culture Matter in Higher Education. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Toutkoushian, Robert K., Robert S. Stollberg, and Kelly A. Slaton. 2015. “Talking ‘bout My Generation: Defining ‘First-generation Students’ in Higher Education Research.” Association for the Study of Higher Education-40th Annual Conference.

Warnock, Deborah M. 2016. “Capitalizing Class: An Examination of Socioeconomic Diversity on the Contemporary Campus.” In Hurst, Allison L., and Sandi Kawecka Nenga. Working in Class: Recognizing How Social Class Shapes Our Academic Work. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Return to May 2018 Issue

Our Fight for Transparency

By Janine Gaspari and Elizabeth Mathews

On February 9, 2017, students from Transparent GMU filed a lawsuit against both George Mason University (GMU) and the George Mason University Foundation, Inc. “in hopes of obtaining grant and gift agreements between private donors and the Foundation, which serves as the University’s fundraising arm.” The lawsuit was filed after the George Mason University Foundation, Inc. claimed their 501(c)(3) private status exempted the organization from FOIA requests previously filed by Transparent GMU. This movement is a sustained effort by GMU students, which started in 2014, to push for more transparency regarding private donations to their public university. The group got their trial day in court on April 24, 2018, which was followed by startling emails from the university president that admitted to donor influence in hiring faculty in GMU’s economics department between 2003 and 2011. The activism of students and a partnership with national organization, UnKoch My Campus, has led to significant victories for these persistent students. Janine Gaspari and Elizabeth Mathews are both undergraduate students at GMU, and Transparent GMU campus leaders. Introduction written by Emily McDonald.

Transparent GMU’s Mission

Transparent GMU’s mission statement is to “advocate for transparency as it relates to the corporatization of education and its adverse effects on George Mason University.” As part of that larger mission, the organization is currently focused on increasing transparency in GMU’s relationship with its donors. Many of GMU’s largest donors, particularly the Charles Koch Foundation and affiliates, are known to attach strings to the money they give to universities.

These stipulations impinge on academic freedom and independence in order to promote an ideological agenda. This is fundamentally opposed to the mission of a university, which is to provide a space for free inquiry and research based on empirical evidence. No one should be able to use private money to influence and/or buy academia.

Transparent GMU v. George Mason University

This lawsuit is focused on a specific set of agreements. The judge’s ruling will determine the extent to which the university foundation, the university, and donor relationships will be impacted.

It is possible that only the documents we requested will become public, but there is also a possibility that the GMU Foundation will no longer be legally considered exempt from requests based FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), which could bring about much more sweeping impacts. With the recent revelation by President Cabrera that GMU had accepted donor agreements from 2003 to 2011 that fell “short of the standards of academic independence,” our lawsuit is more important than ever. Because there is extreme secrecy and a weak culture of transparency around donor agreements accepted by the GMU Foundation, the scope of this issue at GMU is unmeasurable. Many more of these kinds of documents could be held by the GMU Foundation, but they refuse to release them to the public. Our lawsuit aims to make them do just that. We are saddened that it had to get to this point, and that the university was not more receptive to dialogue outside of the legal system.

In terms of relationships with donors on an individual basis, winning our lawsuit would show donors who wish to have undue influence at our university that they will no longer be able do so out of the public eye. For donors who simply want to give out of a love for George Mason and its institutions, then our lawsuit should change nothing. A common argument in response to demands for more transparency is that transparency deters donors. There is little evidence suggesting that this is the case. Higher education is better off, not worse off, with a strong culture of transparency, democratic values, and faculty governance.

The Bigger Picture

Private money is playing an outsized role in our public life, which directly threatens democracy, both in the university and beyond. GMU administration’s resistance to transparency is especially problematic because of the role GMU plays in the Koch network’s model for structural social change. This is a cycle that was engineered by Richard Fink, one of the Kochs’ chief strategists, to transform public life. The cycle includes universities, think tanks, and legislators. Universities produce research that is passed along to think tanks, which then translate that research into digestible policy reports.

The policy reports are then presented to legislators who then can make decisions based on that information. At GMU specifically, the Mercatus Center is an extremely effective Koch-funded think tank and lobbying firm. Thus, when GMU accepts money on terms that the public cannot access, we are unable to hold GMU accountable for their role in this cycle.

Realizing Transparency in Practice

We believe true transparency would have two parts. The first part would be for the university and its foundation to release all of its donor agreements to the public, past and present, to be reviewed for stipulations that give donors undue influence over our education. The second part would be to create university institutions that would give faculty final decision-making power over what kind of donors and agreements GMU will choose to engage with in the future. True transparency would require giving faculty the power to review and get the final say on all donation and gift acceptances. This will ensure that all donations comply with the standards of academic freedom, and the faculty should determine university governance. The only real way to create lasting change is to empower students, faculty and the public to have a larger role in how our university operates.

Photo by Emily McDonald


Moving the Push for Transparency Forward

This lawsuit is only part of our mission, and the starting point to more activism around donor transparency and academic freedom issues. We hope to continue pushing for full transparency of donor agreements and disaffiliation with donors with proven track records of seeking undue influence. We hope to continue empowering students, faculty, and staff to have a larger role in the governance of the university. That being said, donor agreements are not the only issues that require increased transparency at GMU. We hope to be able to use the momentum that we have seen so far to elevate other issues and campaigns that require increased transparency.

Our work strives to promote democratic decision-making at the university and beyond. We do this by advocating for more transparent donation acceptance policies beyond just our current lawsuit. This is imperative in an age of decreased public funding and increased private higher education funding. Universities are looking to private donors to bring in more revenue. Without strong donation and gift acceptance policies led by faculty, higher education can be up for sale to the highest bidder. Without transparency, universities can take part in shady deals outside of the public eye. This makes it extremely difficult for stakeholders such as students, faculty, alumni, and community members to hold universities accountable for their actions. Editor’s note: The Washington Post carried a story about Transparent GMU on April 24, 2018.

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