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“28 Blocks” Mural and Public Art

By Briana Pocratsky

On a warm, sunny Saturday evening I walk down R Street NE toward the Metropolitan Branch Trail. A train rumbles past on Metro’s Red Line. I look to my left. A red brick warehouse, Penn Center, sits on the outskirts of Eckington, an industrial neighborhood in Northeast Washington, D.C. On the side that faces the rail line is a large mural of black, white, and gray that runs the length of the building. Emerging from the brick surface are images of the Lincoln statue, people quarrying large blocks of marble, and a man chiseling. This mural, “28 Blocks,” has received substantial local media coverage and interest the past few weeks.

“28 Blocks”

The mural includes a familiar sight: the Lincoln Memorial statue, which sits a few miles southwest. Since its official unveiling in 1922, this marble statue of the 16th President has been a witness to a range of important historical events. The popular narrative surrounding the creation of the Lincoln statue typically credits architect Henry Bacon and sculptor Daniel Chester French with designing the Lincoln Memorial and the Lincoln statue respectively; but, there’s more to the story. “28 Blocks” provides a more complete visual account of the statute’s creation. The mural highlights the often overlooked contributions of individuals whose labor made not only the statue but the nation possible. Referring to the twenty-eight blocks of white Georgia marble used for the statue’s construction, the title suggests that this mural has a different story to tell.

While the mural includes a rendering of the familiar Lincoln statue at its far end, there are a number of less familiar images that accompany Lincoln as one walks down the Metro trail. In the trailer for the “28 Blocks” documentary film, the mural’s artist Garin Baker explains that “28 Blocks” started with the question of who built the Lincoln Memorial statue. Looking into the history of the statue, Baker found that first and second generation freemen and Italian immigrants were integral to the iconic statue’s construction. A quote by Frederick Douglass at the bottom left of the mural reminds us that finished products or end results have a history that precede them. The inclusion of the quote within the context of the mural suggests that without the labor that went into the statue there could be no great statue –with every end product there are very important, and often unrecognized, means.

While the mural features Daniel Chester French thoughtfully examining a small scale model of the statue, the mural also features less well-known creators of the statue and its setting. Also referenced in the mural are African American men, who quarried the marble used for the statue; Evelyn Beatrice Longman, a woman sculptor who created decorative art that is inside of the Lincoln Memorial; and the Piccirilli Brothers, a family of Italian immigrants who carved the statue.

Men quarry marble.

Photo by Briana Pocratsky.


The Complexities of Public Art

As I sit on a bench near “28 Blocks,” I see people on the trail pause at the mural. One cyclist stops, looks at Frederick Douglass’ quote for a while, and takes a selfie with the mural. Others on the trail glance at the mural for a few moments as they walk, jog, or bike past. A few others simply pass by, unfazed by, or perhaps already familiar with, the huge mural. While “28 Blocks” seems to be welcome in Eckington and in the District, public art is not always welcome in its intended spaces.

The seemingly positive reception of “28 Blocks” by the general public led to me think about public art, mainly its definition and its relationship to society. The notion of art itself is a topic that can result in a number of questions. What is art? Does art have a role in society? Can art be revolutionary? The notion of public adds yet another layer of complexity to an already challenging topic. For example, is “public art” art made by the public, art presented in a public space, or art made for the public? Whatever the case, public art is related to public opinion in some way, especially when the artwork is tied to public space and public funds.

In the 1990s, two artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, attempted to understand the world’s Most Wanted paintings and surveyed individuals in a number of countries for their aesthetic preferences in order to “discover what a true ‘people’s’ art would look like” (Dia Art Foundation 2016:1). Based on the survey results, the artists created a painting for each country that reflected these preferences.

The U.S.’s Most Wanted painting is the size of a dishwasher and features a hodgepodge of images including George Washington, children, and wild animals (a hippo and deer) in a grassy green foreground with blue water, mountains, and sky in the background. The project as a whole is tongue-in-cheek; a commentary on the reliance and inadequacy of polling as a means of participatory democracy and the reduction of everything to numbers in general.

Photograph of Garin Baker's "28 Blocks" mural.

Photo by Briana Pocratsky.


The project also demonstrates the difficulties in incorporating numerous opinions into a singular whole or, in this case, a work of art. Most Wanted illustrates how public opinion may be distorted or misrepresented and gets at some of the complexities of a democratic society.

The following example shows how public art can result in controversy if power and authority are concentrated outside of the public, such as with the artist or the government. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, a 12’ X 120’ X 2 ½’’ modernist COR-TEN steel sculpture, was a site-specific public artwork installed in 1981 in Federal Plaza, Manhattan. Commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), Tilted Arc sat in a busy plaza surrounded by federal office buildings.

Serra’s sculpture caused controversy and illuminated societal tensions about private/public spaces and power, illustrated by petitions, a public hearing, a lawsuit, and media coverage. Some found Serra’s work to be an obtrusive, elitist eyesore and even a potential safety hazard that dismissed local culture. Others found it to be purposely disruptive and critical artwork that did not pander to the public. Removal of Tilted Arc from Federal Plaza would destroy Serra’s site-specific public art.

Tilted Arc highlights the lack of public spaces dedicated to fostering debate. As historian Casey Nelson Blake (1993:250) explains, Tilted Arc “demonstrates that the most important source of the aesthetic crisis of public art is the ongoing political crisis of the public sphere. Bitter disputes of the aesthetic and social functions of public spaces both reflect and contribute to a waning belief in the very possibility of a democratic public sphere constituted by collective deliberation.” As sociologist Steven C. Dubin (1992:38) further explains, public art controversies tend to occur when “there is a high degree of communal fragmentation and polarization, and widespread civic malaise and low communal morale.” This controversy usually manifests at public sites, such as Federal Plaza. Eight years after its installation the federal government removed Tilted Arc from the plaza, replacing the artwork with benches and some landscaping.

Public Art: Always Controversial?

When public art causes major controversy, it becomes clear that art, especially public art, can materialize complex power dynamics that were hidden, dormant, or largely unchallenged. But, public art does not have to be controversial to provide a commentary on power or to enrich a community or public. This is evident by the reception of Baker’s mural. “28 Blocks” is not Baker’s first work of public art; Baker is well-known for “public art murals” across the nation and in Europe. Rooted in realism, Baker’s murals are approachable, welcoming passerby to linger on details of large-scale art.

A man chisels, a man looks at Lincoln statue model, and a woman descends a staircase

Photo by Briana Pocratsky.


While Baker’s mural may disrupt our notion of the narrative surrounding the Lincoln statue, the mural also promotes a needed narrative of solidarity in a particularly divisive time in U.S. history. By using an iconic image woven into the cultural fabric of the nation, Baker grabs the public’s attention in order to convey a narrative that would otherwise be unknown or dismissed.

Celebrating the contributions made by immigrants and African Americans to the construction of this national symbol, the mural challenges and complicates the dominant narrative of who helped to build the nation. To view Garin Baker’s public art murals and other artwork, visit


Blake, Casey Nelson. 1993. “An Atmosphere of Effrontery: Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, and the Crisis of Public Art.” Pp. 247-289 in The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History, edited by R.W. Fox and T.J.J. Lears. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Dia Art Foundation. 2016.

“Komar + Melamid: The Most Wanted Paintings.” Retrieved September 8, 2017 from (

Dubin, Steven C. 1992. Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions. London: Routledge. National Park Service. 2017.

“Lincoln Memorial Builders.” Retrieved September 3, 1027 from (

Strong, Shawn. 2017. “28 Blocks Trailer.” Vimeo website. Retrieved September 2, 2017 from (

Return to October 2017 Issue

Berlin on My Mind: Traveling through Memory

By Amber Kalb

I traveled to Berlin, Germany in June 2017 for a Jewish studies program at Humboldt University. Memory of Berlin’s former Jewish inhabitants is omnipresent, inscribed into the buildings, on the cobblestones, and, of course, in the memorials that fill the public spaces as a reminder of those who were persecuted and perished in the Holocaust. I have been exposed to Germany’s ongoing memorial debates concerning the preservation of memory and how it ought to be done (whether through icons with specific lessons to imprint onto the public consciousness or by more ambiguous, conceptual monuments that resist passive speculation).

I was able to observe and, in some cases, speak with people in the “spaces of memory” or “the space between the memorial and the viewer” where one renegotiates the spatial and temporal boundaries that separate the lessons of the past from their applicability in the present (Young 2000: 374).

Over the course of eight weeks, I lived and learned under the same roof with a group of both Jewish and non-Jewish students (hailing from Toronto, Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, Budapest, Madrid, Moscow, and the States, namely Florida, Kentucky and Texas), and the conversations often revolved around our experiences walking through a city that is a dizzying amalgam of sleek futuristic structures interrupted by surviving architectural relics of and memorials to Berlin’s past.

Of the various walking tours scheduled throughout the program, Berlin’s Jewish quarter was in many ways the most haunting. Armed with photographs from the interwar period, our tour guide would march us up and down gentrified streets pointing out the shops and apartments that had once been predominantly occupied by the Jewish communities. A kosher butcher on this corner, a record store on the next, all erased except for images he held up as proof of their transient existence. While much of Berlin’s Jewish communities has disappeared in the post-war period, the construction of memorials commemorating a murdered people has proliferated in public spaces all over Germany.

As the walking tours wore on, so would the number of memorials to which we were exposed. In speaking with fellow students, many expressed feeling suffocated by the sheer pervasiveness of them, while others walked seemingly unperturbed by their presence. One acquaintance would often avoid routes that were particularly crowded by monuments and memorials because of the intense feelings of melancholia they provoked. In another instance, at the Eisenman Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I watched as children jumped slab to slab as parents relaxed nearby enjoying what I imagined was an overdue family vacation.

As I reflected on the variety of ways each of us chose to engage with these spaces of memory, what stood out the most was a sense of disengagement. Perhaps, that is too simplistic of an interpretation of my limited observations and interactions, but I think there are some important questions contained in these moments of passive acceptance and avoidance.

Visitors resting on the concrete slabs of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Photo by Amber Kalb.

Visitors resting on the concrete slabs of the Memorial to
the Murdered Jews of Europe. Photo by Amber Kalb.


What does it mean when memorials and monuments fail to engage people in memory work? How might we relate these relics of the past to the present? And, to what end?

Obviously, these questions have little to do with the monuments and memorials themselves (whether they be traditional, conceptual or otherwise), but rather what they symbolize to a society.

Ultimately, it is not the statues or icons that transmit lessons from the past into the present, but it is the continual conversations we have with one another and ourselves that create, maintain and eventually, renegotiate their meaning for the present.

During my stay, I would often find myself walking about the city, hoodie up, staring at my feet to avoid the spitting rain that seemed to find me whenever I ventured outdoors. My eyes were always naturally drawn to the gold Stolpersteine that perforated the brown and grey cobblestone.

Inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution and placed in front of the homes where they were last known to freely reside, the Stolpersteine (meaning, “stumbling stone”) are one of the many civic commemorative efforts in Berlin and Europe designed to intrude on and interrupt the present with memories of the past.

The old Jewish Cemetery on Groβe Hamburger Straβe. It was desecrated by the Nazis. Photo by Amber Kalb.

The old Jewish Cemetery on Groβe Hamburger Straβe.
It was desecrated by the Nazis. Photo by Amber Kalb.


When I passed by a refugee center, overburdened and undersupplied, I wondered how people negotiate these new instances of persecution considering their memories of past Nazi crimes under the Third Reich.

A memorial in the former Jewish neighborhood of Berlin to its former residents who tried to escape deportation. Photo by Amber Kalb.

A memorial in the former Jewish neighborhood of Berlin to its former residents who tried to escape deportation. Photo by Amber Kalb.


I wondered: Are daily errands interrupted by a sense of injustice as they enter these spaces of memory?

I realize this question seems rather historically and geographically limited, given transnational nature of contemporary Holocaust memory and the current political and social climate where monuments and their meanings are increasingly contested. But this question applies to every community that erects monuments in an effort to impart normative meaning and values to the next generation.


Young, James Edward. (2000). At memory’s edge: after-images of the Holocaust in contemporary art and architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Return to October 2017 Issue

Racism in TrumpAmerica

By Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
109th President of the American Sociological Association

This is an abridged version of a presidential talk to the District of Columbia Sociological Society, January 27, 2017.

This article is about race in TrumpAmerica and is oriented around two pressing questions: (1) is Trump’s victory evidence of an increase in “racism” in the nation? and (2) is the problem of racism concentrated among poor, uneducated, working class white folks? To answer these questions, I will do four things. First, emphasize the need for theoretical clarity on what racism is all about and give you a taste of what I will articulate in my ASA speech in 2018. Second, argue that systemic racism did not die in the late 1960s with the collapse of Jim Crow, but was replaced by a more formidable regime—the “new racism.” Third, contend that although there are several racial ideologies at play, “color-blind racism” rules the ideological landscape of the nation. I will argue that this ideology is the connecting racial tissue of how most whites think, talk, frame, and even feel about race matters. Lastly, conclude by addressing what needs to be done to advance the cause of racial justice in America.

What is Race? What is Racism?

Following the advice of the King in Alice in Wonderland, I “begin at the beginning” by addressing some racial theory. We cannot continue discussing race matters by accepting the premise that race is the fulcrum of things, a premise that reifies the existence of the category. Race is absolutely nothing without racism. Racism is the engine that creates the conditions for races to exist through racialization (Omi and Winant 1986). Race then is “socially constructed,” but as is the case with all social categories, it is a never-finished product—it must always be recreated through practices in the everyday. This implies that “race” has fractures, imperfections, and ambiguities which allow us to do political work to change things. If race was a finished thing, there would be no point in doing politics in the race arena as actors’ views, postures, and likely actions would be preordained.

But beginning our conversations on racism rather than on race is not enough. We must still do something harder: challenge the dominant narrative regarding what racism is all about, the racism-is-prejudice perspective which focuses attention on the individual-level analysis of people’s attitudes, motivations, and behaviors. This perspective, so evident in the last election cycle, does not allow us to justify the agenda and politics the moment requires. The more we focus on individual prejudice, the more we will continue advocating for education, diversity training, and racial dialogues or “beer summits” as the solutions to racism. We must find ways of advancing a structural interpretation of racism. We must explain that racism is about racial domination or racial rule. And because racism is anchored on systemic advantages for whites, whites are vested in maintaining the (racial) world as it is (Bonilla-Silva 1997).

A Taste of Feeling Race

Although I believe it is crucial that we anchor our analysis of race matters in a structural-materialist theory, we must expand our notion of the “material.” Why?  Because humans do not survive on bread alone! Once any social category is created, it is also charged emotionally. Simply put: one cannot create social divisions without imbuing and bonding the actors emotionally.

Hence, racialized actors pursue not just “objective” race-based interests, but also subjective or emotional ones.  (On this, please see the book by Paula Ionide, The Emotional Politics of Racism.)

I have labeled the Post-Civil Rights racial regime as the “new racism” and argued that its dominant practices, unlike those typical of the Jim Crow period, tend to be subtle, institutional, and seemingly non-racial (Bonilla-Silva 2001). For example, whereas school or residential segregation were maintained in the past through direct exclusionary strategies, today they are reproduced in a seemingly “non-racial” fashion. Neighborhood segregation, for instance, is accomplished through steering by realtors, white property owners relying on white networks to get renters or buyers or using clever strategies to exclude minority clients, and redlining by banks.

In White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era (2001), I added an important detail to my original argument—the idea that although some of the practices may not be covert and subtle, they are so by virtue of being invisible to the white population. For example, Post-Civil Rights’ racial control practices (police brutality, racial profiling, and community surveillance) although not “overwhelmingly covert” are part of the “new racism” because (1) they are perpetrated by state officers (actors regarded as objective and legitimate by whites), (2) the agencies in charge (police departments and criminal justice system) are deemed racially neutral, (3) whites perceive crime as black/brown, hence, whatever happens to “them,” it is okay, and (4) the incidents that happen (e.g., Rodney King, A. Diallo, Trayvon, etc.) and garner public attention are treated as “isolated cases.”



Cell phones and social media have made these incidents more visible, but nonetheless, this violence is regarded by most whites as legitimate and non-racist. Perhaps since the murder of Trayvon Martin, we have focused intensely on one aspect of the “new racism” control tactics: police brutality. This is expected as social mobilization always follows incidents that galvanize people’s attention and we have had plenty of opportunities. Watching the news gives the impression that we are indeed in what Michelle Alexander (2010) labels in her book as the “New Jim Crow,” but I want to suggest that this interpretation limits our ability to understand what is going on, and of what we should do.

First, although we think police brutality and shootings of black folks are on the rise, cause-of-death data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that between 1968 and 2011, blacks were, on average, 4.2 times more likely to be killed by cops than whites, so police brutality is not a new concern (CDC 2012). Police brutality and shootings have been a consistent fact of life for people of color in America. Second, the vilification of black and brown folks by regular white folks, which allows them to be okay with the violence inflicted upon us by the police, began way back but intensified in the 1960s. This vilification has crystallized in a controlling image that Kathryn Russell-Brown labels as the “criminalblackman” (1998) as well as what historian Heather Ann Thompson calls the “criminalization of urban space” (Thompson 2010). Both images have facilitated measures, laws, and policing tactics that have produced our mass incarceration system.

Thus, Donald Trump’s claim to bring back “law and order” and his endorsement of tactics such as “stop and frisk” are not new developments. Finally, and this is key, the bulk of racial practices and behaviors that keep folks of color in “their (new but still subordinated) place,” are of the new racism or hegemonic variety. Although our focus on violence is understandable, we need to be analytical and political about how racial inequality is reproduced in this period. We are not in a New Jim Crow Era as racial domination in schools, jobs, stores, or in the streets is mostly, albeit certainly not exclusively, accomplished through “now you see it, now you don’t” tactics.

When folk of color are asked “May I help you?” at Nordstrom, or told by a teacher that they may be good in physical education, or declined for a job or denied admission to college based on exams that do not predict much, or charged more for a loan independent of their financial profile, or steered into a different neighborhood by a smiling realtor, or told that their accomplishments on the job are due to affirmative action, we must understand that all of these things are examples of the “new racism.” Although it may not seem politically sexy to organize against these slippery things, they are the core practices that maintain the racial monster we face these days.

Contemporary Racial Ideological Field

In my book, Racism Without Racists (2010), I argue that a new racial ideology dominates the landscape: color-blind racism. However, no ideology, racial or otherwise, rules any polity at any point in time a hundred percent. This means that although color-blind racism is hegemonic, there are still strong pockets of old-fashioned, Jim Crow-type prejudice out there.

How many whites still hold old-fashioned racist beliefs? It is hard to tell with precision, but I guesstimate, based on survey results and recent political outcomes, that about between eight to ten percent of whites do not sing the color-blind song. This does not mean that 8-10 percent of whites belong to the Klu Klux Klan or are “fascist”—a term used very lightly in this last election cycle.

But it means that a non-trivial number of whites still hold outmoded racial views, so we must pay attention to this segment of the white community. “Deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton referred to them during the campaign, exist, but they are not fifty percent of the white population. Not all whites spewing the old-fashioned racial poison do so in the same way as whites did in yesteryears! Variations in tone and articulations with elements of color-blindness abound.

For instance, although Donald Trump made many racially crude remarks throughout the campaign and had a record of racial discrimination in housing1 and in dealings with black employees,2 and has allegedly odious racist personal views (Johnston 2016), he insisted in the campaign that he was “the least racist person you’d ever met,” that he loved Mexicans and that Mexicans loved him back—which he demonstrated by eating a taco salad during “Cinco de Mayo,” and by insisting that, “I love the Muslims. I think they’re great people.” More significantly, his racialized articulation was coded by the media and by most journalists as not “really racist,” which contrast with how they dealt with characters such as Donald Sterling (Clippers), the Nevada rancher Clyven Bundy, David Duke, or Richard Spencer (Alt-Right leader).

The White Color of Color-Blind Racism

My main claim in Racism Without Racists is that the nasty racial discourse of the past has been, for the most part, replaced by a more “civilized racism” that I label “color-blind racism.” By this I mean the new dominant racial ideology anchored in the abstract extension of the principles of liberalism to racial matters.

This ideology is comprised of frames, style, and racial stories (for definitions, see chapters 3, 4, and 5 in the book). The central frames of this ideology are “minimization of racism,” “cultural racism,” “naturalization,” and “abstract liberalism.” Combined, these frames amount to this: whites believe that racism is gone, that people of color do not do well because of cultural deficiencies, and that programs assisting people of color represent reverse racism. In this section I will focus on the minimization of racism frame.

Whites do not believe that discrimination is why nonwhites fare worse than whites in America. Instead, they believe that “it’s because of their culture,” “class,” “legacies from slavery,” “Mexican/Puerto Rican backward culture,” “culture of segregation,” “lack of social capital,” welfare dependency, or plain laziness. For whites, the plight of people of color is due to “Anything but racism!” An example of this is Sandra, a retail salesperson in her early forties, who explained her view on discrimination as follows:

I think if you are looking for discrimination, I think it’s there to be found. But if you make the best of any situation, and if you don’t use it as an excuse… I think sometimes it’s an excuse because people felt they deserved a job, whatever! I think if things didn’t go their way I know a lot of people have a tendency to use prejudice or racism or whatever as an excuse. I think in some ways, yes there is (sic) people who are prejudiced. It’s not only blacks, it’s about Spanish, or women. In a lot of ways there [is] a lot of reverse discrimination. It’s just what you wanna make of it (Bonilla-Silva 2010: 46).

This needs very little comment. Since most whites, like Sandra, believe discrimination has all but disappeared, they regard minorities’ claims of discrimination as excuses or as minorities playing the infamous “race card.”

I could say more about the style, particularly semantic moves such as “I am not a racist, but…” or “Some of my best friends are black…” and racial stories of color-blind racism such as “I didn’t own any slave” and “The past is the past,” but I must move on and address the race/class question. Despite the hoopla in the media and by sociologically-inclined pundits, the core racial views of poor, working, and middle class whites are actually quite similar. This in part explains why most whites voted for Trump, including the millennials. (As an aside, I must point out that analytically, voting for Hilary or for Obama, cannot be read, as so many have done, as evidence of people not subscribing to a particular racial ideology. All Americans are racialized subjects, hence, have racial viewpoints. It is my belief that the majority of whites, whether Democrat or Republican, subscribe to color-blind racism, although most likely, Republicans do so with more intensity and nastiness.)

The following examples illustrate the similarities in the racial views of working and middle-class whites. First is Bob Hardey, Mayor of the City of Westlake in Louisiana, in Arlie Hochschild’s book Strangers in their Own Land:

I have had enough of poor me. I don’t like the government paying unwed mothers to have a lot of kids, and I don’t go for affirmative action. I met this one black guy who complained he couldn’t get a job. Come to find out he’d been to private school. I went to public school like everyone else I know. No one should be getting a job to fill some mandated racial quota or getting state money not to work (Hochschild 2016: 92).

How different is the Mayor’s view from that of John Avery, a worker in Youngstown, OH, interviewed in Joel Gest’s book, The New Minority?

There are a lot of people who abuse [welfare]. I am running around busting my hump, while another guy sits on his porch. That’s not right. I get food assistance and medical from the government because of my daughter. But I go to work every day, even after I broke my leg. You have to earn it [People on welfare] are driving around in new cars and I can’t even afford a vehicle. The government pays their rent and utilities, and so they spend the cash on gold chains and a Cadillac, when I can barely afford my Cavalier…People will take advantage of things any way they can (Gest 2016: 95).



And these views are not new as we have had the data on the racial views of white workers and middle-class folks for years. For instance, Al Ricardi, a taxi driver quoted in Lillian Rubin’s Families on the Fault Line (1994), stated:

Those people, they are hollering all the time about discrimination. Maybe once a long time ago that was true, but not now. The problem is that a lot of those people are lazy. Theirs is plenty of opportunities, but you’ve got to be willing to work hard.

When pressed to define who “those people” are, he said:

Aw, c’mon, you know who I am talking about. It’s mostly the black people, but the Spanish ones, too.

My point on the similarities in the racial views of poor and middle-class whites is not new. Barbara Ehrenreich said the same thing in her 1990 book, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class: “On most of the key “backlash” issues, as defined by the media, it was hard to distinguish the blue-collar people singled out by the news magazines from the rest of the Middle Americans” (104). She cites a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor in a story, based on a poll commissioned by Newsweek, as saying that successful blacks were “almost all light-colored” and an investment advisor who defined “law and order” for the pollsters as, “Get the niggers. Nothing else” (105). In my own data, gathered in the late 1990s, John II, a retired architect, said about reparations that,

Not a nickel, not a nickel. I think that’s ridiculous. I think that is a great way to get the black vote. But I think that’s a ridiculous assumption because those that say we should pay them because they were slaves back in the past and yet, how often do you hear about the people who were white that were slaves, say, Boy we should get reparations, the Irish should get reparations from the English (Bonilla-Silva 2010: 79).


I return to the questions I posed at the outset and discuss what is to be done. First, is Trump’s victory evidence of an increase in “racism”? The right question is not if we have more or less “racism” today, but whether systemic racism is still in place. My answer to this more theoretically clear question is that we have had a new racial regime in town for a while: the new racism. Trump’s victory denotes the ebb and flow of the race-class question under the new racism regime. Our present situation, in fact, is remarkably similar (including the reaction of the liberal-progressive community) to Regan’s victory in 1980 and, to a lesser extent, to Bush’s victory in 2000.

Second, are poor whites the reason for why we have racism in the nation and for Trump’s victory? As I argued, we should not vilify poor and working whites for Trump’s victory or for racism in the nation (racism is society-wide), but I am not suggesting a return to the “workers of the world” approach to politics (class over race) or the empathy-without politics route advocated by Hochschild either. What the moment requires is a more nuanced understanding of the race/class nexus in contemporary America. What we desperately need is an analysis to help us to forge the politics necessary to work with the “white masses.”

Now a few words on what is to be done to address the seemingly beyond race and racism (as practices and as ideology) we face today as well as the harsher, more direct version practiced by poor whites and white workers. First, we must preach that racism is not about good and bad people, but about an institutional racial order that benefits some at the detriment of others. Second, if racism is structural, we must fight the nonsense that tolerance, teaching folks to be good people, or organizing “beer summits” are the tools to fight racism. To be clear, being nice and tolerant is good, but none of these things alone will change the basics of our racial order.

For that to happen we need a serious social transformation. Third, since 1980, we all but abandoned the white working class. We viewed them as Archie Bunkers and stopped doing what radical and ethical people should always do: work with as many people as one can in the effort to build the “new society.” The white working class, as much as the white middle class, is deeply racialized, so I am not saying the work will be easy. However, they have fractures and ambivalences that can be exploited.

Gest, for instance, suggests that in areas where black and white workers live together and interact meaningfully, class tends to become a more salient identity.

Others, such as David Roediger (2007) and Joel Olson (2004), advocate for an abolitionist-democratic movement from below—a politics committed to expanding freedom through the dissolution of whiteness. But whatever we do, we cannot abandon forty to fifty percent of the people as that leaves the door wide open for Trump-like politicos to play the white ethno-nationalist card.

I end by outlining a specific plan of action for us, sociologists committed to creating a racially just society. First, we must appreciate the centrality of social movements in fighting racism. Given that racism is structural, the bulk of our efforts should be dedicated toward organizing people for social change. (I know we want to do “more research” but research has not freed anyone in history!) Second, although we must do social justice work where we work and live, it is also time to get out of our comfort zone. The struggle for racial justice requires that we do socio-political work in Youngstown, Ohio; Warren, Michigan; Erie County, Pennsylvania; Gary, Indiana; the “rural” counties of Wisconsin; and in the South. Lastly, although we must work on raising the consciousness of the people, we must also educate ourselves. This means moving beyond liberalism and becoming anti-racists, and anti-racism begins by retooling ourselves—recreating how we live our life, with whom we associate, and what we do about systemic, cultural, and personal racism. The time for theoretical progressiveness is over! It is time for all of us to recommit to the struggle; it is time, once again, for action. In the words of black abolitionist Frederick Douglas, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”


  1. He was sued twice by the Department of Justice in the 1970s (Kranish and O’Harrow Jr. 2016).
  2. He was fined in the 1990s by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission for forcing black dealers out when high rollers were around (White 2016).


Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of  Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 1997. “Rethinking racism: toward a structural interpretation” American Sociological Review 62:46580.

____. 2001. White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

____. 2010. Racism Without Racist. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2012. Multiple Cause of Death Data. Atlanta: United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. 1990. Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class. New York: HarperCollins.

Gest, Justin. 2016. The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in their Own Land. New York: The New Press.

Ionide, Paula. 2015. The Emotional Politics of Racism: How Feelings Trump Facts in an Era of Colorblindness. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Johnston, David Cay. 2016. The Making of Donald Trump. New York: Melville House.

Kranish, Michael and Robert O’Harrow Jr. 2016. “Inside the Government’s Racial Bias Case Against Donald Trump’s Company, and How He Fought It,” The Washington Post, January 23.

Olson, Joel. 2004. Abolition of White Democracy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant 1986. Racial Formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.

Roediger, David. 2007. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso.

Russell-Brown, Katheryn. 1998. The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment and Other Macroaggressions. New York: New York University Press.

Thompson, Heather Ann. 2010. “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History” The Journal of American History 703-734.

White, Abbey. 2016. “A Trump-Owned Casino Was Fined For Agreeing to Keep Black Employees Away from a Racist High Roller,” Paste, March 10.

Return to May 2017 Issue

Putting the Social in Science: Sociologists March

By Emily McDonald

Earth Day 2017 will be remembered for more than the usual day of service, recycling drives, and tree planting. On the morning of April 22, thousands of people descended on the National Mall (in Washington, DC) for the March for Science while over 600 satellite marches occurred around the globe. Signs ranged from “Grab Him By the Period Table” referencing the abhorrent Access Hollywood tapes that surfaced during the 2016 presidential campaign, to “I’m With Her,” a clear play on the Clinton campaign with an arrow pointing to the planet.

Among the signs of chemistry, biology, and environmental puns were some familiar references to the sociological eye. On March 21, 2017, the American Sociological Association (ASA) announced they were partnering with the March for Science, calling sociologists around the globe to gather at their respective marches to stand for sociology. And gather they did.

On the morning of the march, the K Street office of the ASA was packed with sociologists from Washington, DC to San Francisco, gathering for breakfast before the day’s events. In their outreach efforts, the ASA suggested three statements for signs: “Good Public Policy Needs Sociology,” “Are Marches Effective? Ask A Sociologist,” and “Sociology: The Science of Us.” These signs, along with a few other creative ones, such as “What the Foucault?” and “This Is Not Normal” with an arrow pointing outside of a bell curve, were all around the National Mall and throughout the satellite marches. Meanwhile the #March4Sociology hashtag brought together sociologists marching around the globe via social media to share their experiences.

While well-represented, scientists as a whole were not all in agreement that the March for Science was the right move. According to a New York Times article published five days before the march, some saw this as a politicization of science that would only result in increasing the perception that science is nothing more than partisan ideology (Roston 2017). Yet, the March organizers remained committed to a nonpartisan march that “champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity” (March for Science 2017). Considering Burawoy’s (2005) ASA presidential address that spurred over a decade of ongoing conversations and debates on sociology’s relationship to the public, a march sponsored and supported by the ASA highlights both the ongoing transformation of the discipline and the complicated times in which we find ourselves.

Source: Emily McDonald


I found a few hours in the day to sneak off to my neighborhood coffee shop in Washington, DC where I took a break from the day’s activities to work on a paper due the following week. The coffee shop was full of individuals wrapping their signs with clear packaging tape to protect their messages from the forecasted rain before heading to the mall. I struck up conversation with a couple next to me, giving them some guidance on the bus routes. I wished them luck and said I would be out there soon as well.

One of them, a molecular biologist, asked, “Are you a scientist too?” To which I replied: “Well, sort of. A social scientist. I am a sociology PhD student.” She responded: “You’re absolutely a scientist. We all have to stand together during this time. Who cares about the subtitle?”

As a young sociologist with an admittedly newfound commitment to showing up and making a public statement in the era of Trumpism, I find myself reflecting on the nature of activism often. What is new? What has always been true, but not clear to me as a privileged woman in the academy? It seems activism is not and can no longer be about simple policy recommendations, but about gauging the public imagination on what we are willing to hold as fundamentally important, such as the ability to explore and debate empirically without threat of retaliation.

This activism comes in the form of marches and protests, but also in the ongoing commitment to imagine and create alternatives in the future through a robust solidarity and forged alliances.

Funding wars that have loomed in the academy over the past decade have pitted disciplines against one another to prove their scientific worth. Sociology has arguably not been immune to the effects of funding crises as departments feel the pinch to prove their relevance and establish themselves as a “respectable social science” (Dinerstein 2017). Less than a week after the March for Science, President Donald Trump delivered the keynote speech at the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) annual convention in Atlanta. During the convention, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre named “academic elites” as one of America’s “greatest domestic threats” (National Public Radio 2017).

Source: Emily McDonald


Theorizing and contemplating the politics of solidarity and alliances has a long history in the social sciences and the humanities, and scholarship provides a robust critique of solidarity that artificially erases unequal power relations, but returns us to the importance of true coalitions again and again. Whether it is the March for Science, the Women’s March, or the Tax March, the power distribution among constituents must and should be historicized. As Alicia Garza (2017) suggests in her reflective post-Women’s March article: “No one is safe from the transition this country is undergoing … Simply said, we need each other, and we need leadership and strategy.”

As with the other mass mobilization marches that have taken place over the last few months, the question remains as to whether or not the March for Science is a brief moment of solidarity, or the beginning of a broad collaboration to speak for a better future. Ana Dinerstein (2017) suggests that: “The creation of utopias, as expressions of the desire for a better way of being or living, is the proper and distinctive method of sociology” (p. 14-15). Certainly sociology should remain a contributing voice to the conversation about a future beyond the limited possibilities we currently allow ourselves to imagine.


Burawoy, Michael. 2005. “2004 ASA Presidential Address: For Public Sociology.” American Sociological Review, 70(1), pp.4-28.

Dinerstein, Ana.  2017. Social Sciences for an Other Politics: Women Theorizing without Parachutes. Palgrave Pivot.

Garza, Alicia. 2017. “Our cynicism will not build a movement. Collaboration will.” Mic, January 22.

March for Science. 2017. “Our Mission.” Retrieved April 23, 2017 (

National Public Radio. 2017. “Trump Criticizes ‘8-Year Assault’ On Gun Rights At National Rifle Association.” Retrieved April 29, 2017 (

Roston, Michael. 2017. “The March for Science: Why Some Are Going, and Some Will Sit Out,” The New York Times, April 17

Return May 2017 Issue

Representations of South Asian Characters in U.S. Media

An Interview with Bhoomi K. Thakore by Briana Pocratsky

On April 10, 2017, The Sociologist (TS) interviewed Dr. Bhoomi K. Thakore, Assistant Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Elmhurst College. Dr. Thakore recently gave a presentation at George Mason University as part of the graduate student Public Sociology Association (PSA) speaker series titled “Fostering Civic Engagement: The Social and Political Dimensions of Race.” Her research primarily focuses on race, the media, and inequality. Dr. Thakore is the author of the book South Asians on the U.S. Screen: Just Like Everyone Else? The book discusses stereotypical representations of South Asian characters in contemporary popular television and film. Dr. Thakore uses audience reception to understand changing perceptions of race in the 21st century.

TS: In your book, you explain that popular media in the U.S. tends to represent South Asians in stereotypical ways. What you mean by “stereotypical representations” in the media?

Bhoomi K. Thakore: There are representations that tend to rely on our quick gut reactions and assumptions about different groups in our society. When we look at the role of stereotypes as it applies to racial groups, they become particularly damaging, especially when we think about the racial hierarchy and its history in the United States. Stereotypes tend to be reproduced by these media representations in that they rely on the lowest common denominator of understanding, characterizing, and perceiving different groups.

TS: Can you provide an example of a stereotypical representation of a South Asian character in U.S. media?

Bhoomi K. Thakore: The classic stereotype of South Asians in the media is Apu from The Simpsons. Apu is a good example because the show is still on the air after around thirty years. Apu exudes the very stereotypical representation of South Asians in that he has an accent, he is different from everyone else, and he tends to be the butt of jokes as a result of his otherness or difference. There are larger repercussions of that when we think about the status of immigrants in our society and how people who are not seen as assimilated into American society are treated as other and are often ridiculed as a result, either in comedy or in more severe instances.

Source: Bhoomi K. Thakore


TS: Is there an example of a multidimensional South Asian character that contradicts or challenges these stereotypes?

Bhoomi K. Thakore: A character like Mindy Kaling from The Mindy Project or even Aziz Ansari in Master of None are instances that do a good job of challenging what we have seen historically. They are both on a streaming service, which is a non-conventional media outlet, and there is a lot more freedom on what they can do through those outlets. Both characters break the mold regarding overt stereotypes of South Asians.

Being South Asian is not who they are, it is just a part of who they are. This comes out in their family dynamic, ethnicity, and the things they consume, which I think is the experience for most ethnic Americans. They are not confined by the limitations of networks. The Mindy Project is an interesting example because it was on Fox, and it was cancelled. Now it’s on Hulu. Since being on Hulu, they have been able to make some of these interesting transitions in a way that they weren’t necessarily able to when the show was on Fox. Although, I still tend to be critical of both of those representations.

TS: Why is the study of media representation so important?

Bhoomi K. Thakore: The media is a major influence on the way we understand our society. The media helps us to navigate how to interact with people and to understand our social spaces. Sociologists have long understood that, but the role of the media in the socialization process is becoming more and more significant. When we think about representations in the media, the subtle messages or not so subtle messages that come out of these representations have the potential to have negative impacts for how we interact with people and understand our social space.

When it comes to understanding how race is represented, it becomes an important topic as we acknowledge the increasing diversity of the United States and the increasing importance of understanding and being able to work with this diversity. If your understandings of diversity are limited to stereotypical understandings of different ethnic groups, then you are at a disadvantage in society in interacting with those groups and in helping society move forward.

TS: Based on your research, have popular film and television improved the way in which they depict South Asians? Are characters becoming more multidimensional in relationship to race and ethnicity?

Bhoomi K. Thakore: I think the media overall is getting better. We can look at examples of racial and ethnic, and even gender, groups in the media and understand how the stereotypes are not as overt as they used to be. In many ways, they’re covert, subtle. But, the tenets of the stereotypes are still embedded in the characterization of these representations. I think that can be equally damaging. What ends up happening is that there is a subconscious way of reading and understanding these representations. While it’s not as in your face as it used to be, the by-products of these subtle stereotypes is that they become ingrained in our psyche and in turn we don’t really challenge these stereotypes as we have understood them historically, leading up to today. It’s getting better, but I tend to be somewhat critical of these representations.

There is a political economy of the media that tends to inform how these representations are created, how actors are cast, and what storylines actually get to production. This becomes a big part of our understanding of what images are on the screen in the first place. In the 21st century we can acknowledge that that screen is no longer what it used to be with Netflix, YouTube, and independent film. There are avenues where these stereotypes can be broken and different stories can be told. In that sense, there is a lot of progress being made, but there are still places that can be improved.

TS: Audience reception studies focuses on how audiences are understanding and interpreting messages contained in media. Given your research, why is audience reception studies so important?

Bhoomi K. Thakore: Media is the disregarded family member of sociology. It used to be a big part of sociology, and I think that it is now more under the realm of cultural studies or communication. There is a lot of relevance to media studies within the field of sociology, and I think this is where audience studies and audience perceptions come in.

To be able to fully understand the impacts of media, we need to understand how these representations resonate in society. It is useful to take a media product and examine the content, but that’s not really a good sociological intervention. To make a content analysis sociological, we need to expand that content analysis across wider audiences and really get at the impact of this particular content on audiences as a whole and be able to get at systematic conclusions about how this representation resonates. I see sociology intervening in this important field of media through audience studies. 

TS: Simply avoiding problematic depictions in the media is nearly impossible. What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a responsible and thoughtful consumer of media?

Bhoomi K. Thakore: Always have both eyes open when you are watching the media. When something doesn’t feel right to you in the media, that’s probably significant; when something feels stereotypical or one-dimensional or limited in its characterization, that’s probably significant. Through that lens, you can better understand how that representation you are consuming is limited and how these things tend to happen across representations.

This awareness will also help you in making decisions about what you do consume. The easiest corollary to this is news media. When a story doesn’t sound right to you, you know it’s coming from a biased source. You are more inclined to identify other media outlets where you can get a more balanced perspective on that news story. This places as lot of responsibility on the consumer. It starts with really understanding the things that you are watching

Return to May 2017 Issue

There is No Prison in Washington: Challenges of Reentry in the District

By Maria Valdovinos

In 1997, The Revitalization Act directed the Federal Government to assume responsibility for many of the functions typically managed by state governments, which helped relieve Washington, DC of some of its financial and management responsibilities (Bouker 2016). However, the Revitalization Act has created some unique challenges related to criminal justice.

After the Revitalization Act passed, Washington DC’s prison, Lorton Reformatory, closed in 2001 (Kress, Moser, Tatro, and Velazquez 2016). As a result, individuals convicted of a crime in the District who are sentenced to serve prison time are sent to 26 institutions across the country. “The DC system makes it difficult to keep families together,” says Nancy Ware, Director of Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA).

In addition to making it difficult for families to stay connected through the period of incarceration, the lack of a prison in the District poses several challenges for ‘returning citizens’1 preparing to transition back to their communities after serving their sentences. For many, there is no access to local service providers until they have set actual foot in the District. The delay in accessing services can have devastating impacts, especially for those in need of medical and mental health services.

Recognizing the challenges for returning citizens, there are discussions currently underway about creating a District-wide strategic reentry plan to make it easier for returning citizens to navigate some of these challenges.

Unless sentenced to serve life in prison, most incarcerated individuals will at some point be released from institutional confinement. Reentry is a term used to describe the process of, as well as, the “issues related to the transition of offenders from prison to community supervision” (Markman, Durose, Rantala and Tiedt 2016). In any given year, approximately 600,000 to 700,000 individuals are released from state prison to reenter society (Petersilia 2009; Carson and Sabol 2012).

In the past four decades, the prison population in America has increased considerably, from approximately 350,000 in 1970 to over 2 million presently (Travis, Western, and Redburn 2014: 33). Currently, America’s prison population comprises 25 percent of the world’s prison population in any given year (Walmsley 2009; Weiss and MacKenzie 2010: 269). Any way you look at it, the numbers are not insignificant.

Reentry Reflection

To learn more about the challenges of reentry, in February 2017, I attended Reentry Reflection 2017, which is a month long “period of observance intended to raise public awareness about the challenges facing men and women returning home from prison.” It is hosted every year by CSOSA for the District of Columbia, in partnership with various other organizations and communities. All events are open to the public.

I attended three events, each of which addressed different issues and challenges of reentry. At “Sharing Our Stories to Reclaim Our Lives” I heard stories of struggles and successes and learned about the trauma in prison for females. At the “Family Reunification: Barriers to Reentry and the Impact on Loved Ones” event, I learned about the massive reach of incarceration, and its impact beyond the incarcerated individual to families and communities. The third event was a forum held at Pepco Edison Place Gallery to disseminate the findings of the most comprehensive examination of reentry in the District to date, conducted by the Council for Court Excellence. The report details the unique challenges returning citizens face in the District; the report also provides recommendations on how to overcome some of those challenges.

Unique challenges of reentry in the District

While there are many common and expected challenges to reentry across the nation, there are some unique challenges in the District of Columbia, because there is no state government for the District.

Washington, DC’s criminal justice system is composed of both local and federal jurisdictions, which makes the reentry process difficult to navigate. Some other unique challenges for returning citizens are: (1) Affordable housing is hard to come by. It is no surprise that housing in the District is incredibly expensive.

Source: Maria Valdovinos


The Council for Court Excellence found that three months into community supervision, more than 20 percent of employed returning citizens and more than 30 percent of those who are unemployed but otherwise employable were in a precarious housing situation and at high risk of becoming homeless.

In addition to cost, housing restrictions due to felony conviction make securing housing extraordinarily challenging. (2) Most jobs in Washington, DC require some sort of post-secondary training. In 2012, almost half of all jobs in the District required a college degree and by 2020, it is expected that more than 75 percent of the jobs in the District will require a college degree (Rothwell 2012; Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl 2013).

The increase in educational requirements for employment will make it nearly impossible for returning citizens to secure employment in the District. (3) Childcare in the District is the most expensive in the nation (Fraga, Dobbins, and McCready 2015). Women are currently the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population in America (Swavola, Riley, and Subramanian 2016) and most of these women are mothers. Women who are returning citizens and primary caregivers for their children have to balance childcare responsibilities with the requirements of community supervision. These are severe challenges exacerbated by the lack of affordable childcare in the District.

Despite these unique challenges, there is an opportunity for the District to serve as a model for reentry across the nation. Recently, I met a woman at a networking event who told me she relocated to the District because of the great number of services available to help returning citizens overcome some of the challenges to successful reentry.

The event was organized to help returning citizens develop their own small businesses in the District. The challenge here seems not to be one of lack of services but rather, finding ways to improve the accessibility of these services. The District is hard at work on finding ways to overcome this challenge.


  1. The use of “returning citizen” as opposed to “prisoner” is reflective of the use of “people first” language which aims to move past the use of dehumanizing and stigmatizing language such as “offenders,” “inmates,” or “convicts” when talking about people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system. For more information see: La Vigne, N.G. 2016. People First: Changing the Way We Talk About Those Touched by the Criminal Justice System. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.


Bouker, J. 2016. The D.C. Revitalization Act: History, Provisions, and Promises. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Carnevale, A.P, Smith, N., & Strohl, J. 2013. Recovery: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2020. Washington, DC: Georgetown Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University.

Carson, E. A., & Sabol, W. J. (2012). Prisoners in 2011. NCJ239808, 11, Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Fraga, L., Dobbins, D., & McCready, M. 2015. Parents and the High Cost of Child Care. Arlington, Virginia: Childcare Aware of America.

Kress, J., Moser, B., Tatro, E., & Velazquez, T. 2016. Beyond Second Chances: Returning Citizens’ Re-entry Struggles and Successes in the District of Columbia. Washington, DC: Council for Court Excellence.

Markman, Joshua A., Matthew R. Durose, Ramona R. Rantala, and Andrew Tiedt. 2016. Recidivism of Offenders Placed on Federal Community Supervision in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010. Washington, D.C: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Petersilia, Joan. 2009. When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rothwell, J. 2012. Education, Job Openings, and Unemployment in Metropolitan America. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Swavola, E., Riley, K., & Subramanian, R. 2016. Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform. New York City: Vera Institute of Justice.

Travis, Jeremy, Bruce Western, and F. Stevens Redburn. 2014. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Walmsley, R. 2009. World’s Prison Population List. London: International Centre for Prison Studies.

Weiss, Douglas B. and Doris L. MacKenzie. 2010. “A Global Perspective on Incarceration: How an International Focus Can Help the United States Reconsider Its Incarceration Rates.” Victims & Offenders 5(3):268–82

Return to May 2017 Issue

Immigrant Laborers Bring May Flowers

By Louise M. Puck, Lucy Y. Twimasi and Shannon N. Davis

Immigrant labor is a key contributor to the U.S. economy in all sectors. Research from the Institute for Immigration Research (IIR) at George Mason University has documented that in 2012, foreign-born households contributed approximately $106 billion to state and federal income tax. Subsequent research has revealed that immigrants added $1.6 trillion to the gross domestic product in 2013. Immigrants make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but are, for example, 28 percent of physicians and surgeons, 40 percent of medical scientists in manufacturing research and development, 22 percent of nursing, psychiatric and home health aides, and 15 percent of registered nurses.

Some immigrants who work in public spaces are day laborers, temporary workers hired by contractors to perform a specific job. These immigrant workers are the extra hands that tend to our beautiful gardens in spring, the season of flowers.

A team of researchers from the IIR interviewed Guatemalan and Salvadorian day laborers at the Centreville Labor Resource Center (CLRC) in Virginia. The center is one of many organizations nationwide supporting fair market for day laborers, countering wage theft, and preventing a sub-wage street-side hiring system. The initial planning of CLRC started in 2007 and was led by an outreach committee of the United Church of Christ, who also initiated a series of open community dialogues discussing the effects of immigration.

Today the center acts as an employment facilitator by providing a place for employers and day laborers to connect. Small contractors come to hire temporary workers with skills needed from a safe location, while day laborers receive protection with employer-signed contracts guaranteeing fair working conditions and pay.

The day laborers can be seen replacing roofs on humid Virginia days or sweating under the hot sun while mowing lawns or planting flowers. They undertake temporary or seasonal jobs with no real career advancement. These jobs often require great physical resilience. Poor economic conditions, violent civil wars, coupled with military dictatorships and repression in Guatemala and El Salvador, destroyed economic opportunities and led to chronic underemployment. Most day laborers immigrate to the U.S. as unskilled workers.

Landscapers. Source: Elvert Xavier Barnes


There are temporary visa types available to unskilled workers. This can be viewed as an acknowledgment by the U.S. government that there is a solid need for unskilled labor. However, the allocation of visas for unskilled labor does not meet the significant demand of the retail, food service, construction, landscaping, and hospitality industries within the U.S. economy. Rather than taking jobs away from local job seekers, day laborers fill specific labor market needs within a given community. Back at the CLRC, day laborers are landscapers, painters, and cleaners, but also find additional opportunities in the restaurant, construction, and retail industries. These immigrants work long hours, and contribute to the economic and social fabric of everyday life.

As you stop to smell the roses, view the cherry blossoms, or behold the irises and tiger lilies, you would be right to presume that immigrant labor made your spring olfactory experience more pleasant. To learn more about the Institute for Immigration Research and our CLRC Study (and other recent work), visit

Louise M. Puck is a Social Science Researcher at the Institute for Immigration Research, George Mason University. Lucy Y. Twimasi is a Legal Contributor at the Institute for Immigration Research, George Mason University. Shannon N. Davis, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Sociology, George Mason University

Return to May 2017 Issue

Bonds of Community, Points of Individualism: Conversation with Amitai Etzioni

On December 14, 2016, The Sociologist (TS) interviewed Amitai Etzioni, who is the first University Professor of the George Washington University. From 1987 to 1989, he served as the Thomas Henry Carroll Ford Foundation Professor at the Harvard Business School. He served as Senior Advisor to the White House from 1979 to 1980. Professor Etzioni served as the president of the American Sociological Association from 1994 to 1995. Outside of academia, Professor Etzioni’s voice is frequently heard in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal and in appearances on network television. In 2016, a bill was introduced in Congress to implement his proposal to save 25,000 Syrian children. He is the author of 24 books. Below are excerpts from the interview.

TS: What are the three most important insights you can share from your distinguished career?

Amitai Etzioni: One is that there are no good wars— even when the cause is just—there are no good victories. All sides end up suffering; that was my personal experience when I was in combat. And ever since then, I have used my writing and being active to try to prevent wars and violence. My second insight is: if you want to be an active academic, you have to pay for it. Many of your colleagues will not appreciate it.

So I advise my colleagues who plan to be politically active to note that if you want to be in the kitchen you must be ready to stand the heat. Finally, this might be the most difficult one to follow; we spend so much time and our energies on academic politics, the less you fuss about them, the more contributions you can make to society.

TS: How has sociology improved our world?

Amitai Etzioni: I will give you a very precise and short answer: far from enough. I think sociologists have excellent tools, to help change society, much better than economists, much better than psychologists, but we—many of us, not all of us —are into this science game. You cannot publish an article in many journals without some regression analysis or some highfalutin academic jargon and you miss the kind of articles that C. Wright Mills, Daniel Bell and Robert Nisbet wrote with strong intellectual and public power. I guess there is room for academic papers, in the narrow sense of the term. What sociology can do for the world is that we could do more work for change. I know that there are many urgent missions now and sociologists would do so much better than, for instance, the Generals. Look what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan; many lives could have been saved and billions of dollars could have been saved if sociologists would be more active; would be listened to by the White House and Congress.

Source: Amitai Etzioni


TS: How do we get the people in power to listen to sociologists?

Amitai Etzioni: Surely part of it is, whether you have something significant to offer. There are two sides to it. It is often the case that it is not only that they won’t listen to us, but we don’t often have a solid shared opinion. The economists, they have shared storylines. We don’t. If you call 5 sociologists, you get 5 different answers.

TS: So the problem is lack of consensus?

Amitai Etzioni: Yes, lack of consensus not in the political sense, but in a scientific sense. I once tried a simple sentence: “individual action is, to a large extent, determined by the group or groups of which the person is a member.”

I thought it was a completely safe sentence; but there were a lot of people who thought you could change people one individual at a time. I could not get my colleagues to sign off on the idea.

Economists also disagree with each other, but take free-trade, for instance, most economists will sign off on free trade. I don’t know anything that all or most sociologists will sign off on. We would have to have a roundtable for several years before we can get to them!

TS: Could there be a project to compile the contributions that sociology has made?

Amitai Etzioni: When I say my prayers every evening, I pray for that; God has not delivered that yet!

TS: If you were to pick the top findings, based on your distinguished scholarship, what would be your top choices?

Amitai Etzioni: I would say bonds of community, the exaggerating points of individualism, and the most important force for social change are social movements, not parties, not individuals, not leaders, but social movements.

TS: In terms of racial and ethnic relations, do you think the U.S. is moving closer to the diversity within unity ideal or are we moving closer to the American apartheid?

Amitai Etzioni: I think there are still high tensions among the racial groups, as you can see from their different descriptions of reality and surely the Trump Campaign has contributed to the tensions. On one hand, we are not proceeding in a good direction. On the other hand, despite these very troubling developments, the U.S. is doing much better than Japan, South Korea or most of Europe in these matters. We have a long way to go in the U.S. but oddly enough we are doing better than many societies.

TS: Why is the U.S. doing better?

Amitai Etzioni: This is because the other countries are highly homogenous middle-class societies. Take Denmark and Sweden, which are not used to having racial diversity; the U.S., because it
was built on immigration to begin with, has much higher level of diversity and it has learned to deal with that. The other countries never had to and never had this level of diversity. Germany now has about 1 million Muslims.

TS: What are the problems of group identity, when it comes to fostering inter-community relations?

Amitai Etzioni: The only way to foster relations is members of two or more groups realize that they belong to a larger community. All communities, by definition, exclude some people. Communities have limited membership and in order for members not to get hostile or confrontational towards members of other communities, they also, at the same time, have to see themselves as members of a larger community.

This is what happened after the Civil War; before the Civil War there were two different societies in the U.S. and we paid a very tragic price. In the 1870s the project to build one American society advanced, though that project has not been finished.

There has to be an opportunity for a shared value or mission in enough parts to override particularistic commitments. I am very worried about community relations in the U.S. and quite troubled that we are about to enter a dark age. Internationally, it is not clear to me where we are going. I just agreed with the University of Virginia Press to put to bed my book Avoiding War with China, and so I think if we can avoid major war, that should be our target for international relations.

TS: Who is your hero or mentor; who has inspired you?

Amitai Etzioni: When I came out of the Army, I was a student of a philosopher called Martin Buber; he was a pacifist and a strong communitarian and he had a lot of influence on me and I continue to embrace his vision – I never became a pacifist but I became a peacemaker because of my experience in war.

Return to January 2017 Issue


What We Can Learn from the Debate over Educational Technology in Schools

By Randy Lynn

“We’re here to be humiliated!”
“He’s here to document the abuse!”
“Write this down—harassment!”

These were some of the statements made to and about me on my first day of fieldwork at Catholic Academy. The aggrieved party was Nicolette, a Spanish teacher in her early 60s. And the “abuse” was a controversial educational technology initiative for which the teachers at her school were being trained.

The use of digital technologies in schools is a hotly contested topic. But public debates usually focus on biology and pedagogy, rather than the sociological stakes. Having had some firsthand experience as an educational technology specialist before I became a sociologist, I knew there was much to be gained from studying the messy and sometimes fierce struggles among administrators, teachers, parents, students, and other stakeholders.

So I conducted a total of 73 interviews, focus groups, and observations in two suburban high schools in the same large, Midwestern city. One was a public high school (“Public High”) serving a mostly low-income, racially diverse student population. The other was an elite but financially struggling college preparatory academy (“Catholic Academy”), attempting to stay afloat through a unique partnership with an educational technology startup company. The results of my study led me to propose five recommendations relevant to parents, educators, and policymakers.

Close the digital divide among students

An especially important need is to close the “digital divide” between economically disadvantaged
students, such as those at Public High, and their more affluent counterparts at Catholic Academy. One such divide is a lack of access: students at Public High did not always have access to computers or printers at home. However, these students weren’t given chances to complete assignments using school resources, and as a result were often required to bear additional, unnecessary burdens in order to complete their schoolwork.

Another divide is a disparity of technological skills. Teachers at Public High falsely assumed that their students, as members of the “digital generation,” had already acquired the necessary skills to use technologies, and were surprised to find that many had not.

The most effective way to address these problems, of course, would be to increase funding in impoverished school districts. But there are additional steps that could be taken as well. Technologies in schools should be made available to students who don’t have them at home, so that lack of access isn’t a determinant of academic success. Teachers should also consider the hidden costs and obstacles as they create assignments.

Allowing students to submit assignments digitally, for example, means disadvantaged students don’t have to pay for paper to print their assignments—yet many teachers insisted that students must provide printouts.

Economically disadvantaged students also urgently require remedial training in basic technological skills. The assumption that all members of the “digital generation” have already acquired necessary technological skills is a stereotype that fails to recognize the vast disparities of experiences that exist among young people.

It also reproduces class inequalities, as schools wrongly presume that instruction in this area is not necessary, and as a result, these unskilled students remain at a disadvantage as they enter higher education or the job market. If time can’t be created during the academic year, summer may be an ideal time to address this problem, due to the wide body of research suggesting that summer learning loss contributes to the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

Make more effective investments

Educational technologies are extremely expensive. At Public High, the school couldn’t provide many resources, forcing students and teachers to bear many of the costs as they brought their own technologies into the classroom.

At Catholic Academy, where every student had a laptop, the school spent $100,000 annually to provision a student body of only a few hundred. At all but the most affluent schools, the best use of funds is an investment in inexpensive yet effective hardware and software, so that funds will remain available to meet the formidable needs of technical support and professional development. But the pressures on school and district administrators encourage them to prioritize dazzling yet inefficient investments instead.

Children sit at a desk with headphones on while looking at a computer. A teacher with headphones on points to the computer.

Source: U.S. Department of Education


Public High, for example, had equipped about one-third of their classrooms with flashy and expensive smart boards. As a result, a few teachers were well-equipped, while the rest had to scrape together whatever they could, when more prudent spending could have properly equipped all teachers. Parents and other members of school communities should be aware of this administrative temptation, and resist such flashy initiatives.

Provide better support to teachers

At both schools, some teachers were very skilled with technologies, while others had hardly any technological skills. Most unskilled teachers, like Nicolette, were curious and willing to experiment with new technologies. But they were essentially asked to learn a whole new set of skills that introduced delays and disruptions into their already hectic workflows, when what they really needed was time and support to learn at a slower pace.

As a result, optional development of the sort offered in Public High’s district, resulted in lackluster participation during the school year, while mandatory development during the school year, of the sort required at Catholic Academy, produced strong feelings of resentment.

The only model that seemed to yield success was a once-per-week summer session at Catholic Academy, with teachers grouped according to their existing technological abilities, which provided additional support to a few of the more deficient teachers.

Other schools should consider implementing such a model, rather than attempting to force more work upon already overburdened teachers during the school year. Ideally, teachers should be compensated for their attendance at these workshops—with a small stipend, for example—to recognize their commitment, and to avoid creating the appearance that attendance at such sessions is punitive.

Directly address the working conditions of teachers

Discussions about technologies at both schools revolved around debates about what was in the “best interests” of the students. But this admirable focus on the students’ well-being led many teachers to neglect their own interests. As underpaid, overwhelmed, and under-supported workers, many teachers saw technologies as an erosion of their autonomy, while those who felt positively about technologies saw them as a way to enhance their autonomy. But teachers tended instead to attribute such differences of opinion to other variables, such as age or a psychological “resistance to change.”

As a result, educators were very much divided among themselves regarding the use of technologies, instead of unified around their common interests. This was compellingly illustrated at Catholic Academy, where the school attempted to partner with an educational technology startup company. The partnership was extremely controversial, as teachers were required to produce 20-25 videos during the school year, even if they had no intention of using them in their classes. Although the partnership was eventually abandoned, teachers at the school could not mount an effective, organized resistance, even though it was an initiative that provoked widespread discontent.

Involve students in decisions about educational technologies

For all the talk I heard regarding the “best interests” of students, most decisions about how to implement educational technologies were made behind closed doors, in meetings among teachers, administrators, and other adult stakeholders. Students were conspicuously absent from all decision-making processes.

Yet the students, in my conversations with them, revealed that they understood very well the struggles, dilemmas, and inefficiencies in their own schools—sometimes even better than the teachers. Educators, rather than dismissing student complaints as misguided adolescent angst, should take their discontentment seriously and respect their opinions—especially when these opinions contradict educators’ own ideas about who young people are, and who they should become.

It will be important, as technologies continue to be adopted in schools, that they are truly used to promote students’ best interests. That means the technologies should not be used as superficial window dressing, or treated as a new market for companies to “disrupt.” The educational technologies should, instead, be used to empower teachers and students and advance their common interests.

Randy Lynn’s scholarly work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest project is the Few Years’ Resolution initiative (

Return to January 2017 Issue

Tuesday Night Lights

By J.L. Johnson

Friday Night Lights

In 1988, George H. W. Bush emerged from a private plane in Odessa for what would be his only visit to the small Texas city during his presidential campaign. Addressing the crowd assembled at the airfield, the elder Bush relayed his love and admiration for Texas football. He reminded the assembly that he had lived in the area for the last eight years, during which time he attended a Permian Panthers high school football game for one fluorescently lit Friday night.

Now Bush is asking the Texans in the crowd for their vote, seamlessly weaving into his stump speech the vocabulary of football, linking community and traditional values to those deeply felt codes of pride and competition ritualistically enacted when the Panthers take the field. In 1988, the city of Odessa overwhelmingly voted for George H. W. Bush, on his way to becoming the 41st President of the United States.

Tuesday Night Primaries

On February 9, 2016, Greg Popovich, affectionately known as Pop, the basketball genius (responsible for another legendary Texan sports dynasty in the San Antonio Spurs), resembling a curmudgeon grandfather with thinning white hair and a matching wizened beard, exited his locker room and sidled up to a television broadcaster for his live halftime interview. The National Basketball Association’s (NBA) media partnerships include the contractual obligation that head coaches answer questions from reporters during nationally televised games, a sacrificial offering of access to televisual corporations anxious for new content. Pop famously despises the arrangement. He almost never answers more than the mandatory two questions and only offers curt answers. But his interview on the Tuesday night of the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primaries was a little different. Receiving a cue from television producers, the broadcaster asked Popovich about his struggles against the Miami Heat. “Thanks again guys. Pop, your impression of the first quarter?”
Pop says, “We’re behind and they’re ahead.”
“Why is that?”
“They scored more points than we did. We were pretty crappy on defense. It’s been fun.”

Broadcasters know Popovich views them as trivial marketing ploys, and so this broadcaster gamely laughs. Pop smirks, pivoting on his left heel and taking a few quick steps toward his sideline. Then something extraordinary occurs. The broadcaster halts Pop’s brusque walk by asking him, “Do you want election results?”

Pop is confused at first, but then the corners of his upturned lips flatten. He steps back into the microphone, asking, “Who is it?”
“It’s Sanders and uh, Trump.”

Pop frowns. His bottom lip drops. The smile in his eyes deteriorates into a bleak incredulity. He stares for a few seconds, sighs. It seemed like he has something to say, but then Pop’s shoulders sag, he shakes his head, his eyes drop to the hardwood, and he turns around and slouches to his sideline.

Whether the Sanders or Trump primary victory dismayed Popovich was impossible to tell from the interaction. Close followers of the Spurs, like basketball fans more generally, might guess it was not Sanders. Though basketball and football are often lumped together with baseball as the Big Three popular major sports in America, football and basketball are arguably worlds apart. Basketball and football are at the center of two differently shaped galaxies, at times conditioning and at other times reinforcing diverging sets of moral and political schema and basic categories of thought about things social.

Is Greg Popovich the NBA’s Bill Belichick?

Pop’s stoicism resembles the quiet moodiness of Bill Belichick, the head coach of the National Football League’s (NFL) New England Patriots. But claiming Belichick as Popovich’s counterpart in the NFL would be inaccurate. Belichick seems to experience the pain of mandatory communications for different reasons than Pop.

If Popovich is your curmudgeon grandfather who nonetheless believes in the sanctity of his sport, Belichick is your uncommunicative shady uncle. To Belichick, transparency is weakness. Secrecy is strategic advantage. In accounting for Belichick’s four NFL championships over the last seventeen years, we would need to reckon with more than his coaching and the quality of the play on the field.

Some manipulation and backstage nefariousness have certainly been factors, embroiling Belichick’s teams, particularly his star quarterback Tom Brady, in no fewer than two publicly verified cheating scandals.

Over the same timespan that New England has led the NFL in championships, Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs have led the NBA in most championships won, tied with the Los Angeles Lakers. But Pop’s controversies consist of mild league annoyances; for example, he opts to rest his star players throughout the season, even during nationally televised marquee match-ups. Much like his aversion to marketing ploys, Pop opts to do what is best for the health of his players and what increases their chances at having success during the playoffs, resting players strategically yet transparently.

Another key difference lies in the racial makeup of Pop and Belichick’s teams. Pop’s teams certainly do not resemble Belichick’s teams in terms of nationality and ethnicity. The three best players during the San Antonio Spurs’ championship era have been Tim Duncan, a center from the Virgin Islands, Manu Ginóbili, a forward from Argentina, and Tony Parker, a point guard from France. With a record number of global players joining the roster, the Spurs paradoxically have been the United Nations (UN) of the NBA. I say paradoxical because the team’s Texan fan base, whatever of it exists, is likelier than not to distrust the cosmopolitanism and global institutionalism represented by the Spurs and the UN alike.

It’s not as though the NFL has not reached for global participation. The NFL has recently made a concerted effort, with minimal success, at exporting its sport to a global audience, most obviously by staging games in England. Without similarly concerted effort, basketball has been the better loved American sport abroad. Professional basketball leagues exist in all major European states, in China, and in many South American countries. Of America’s three most popular sports, the Olympics include only basketball. Onshore, football may be supplanting baseball as America’s favorite pastime, but it does so provincially and, at some tacit level, somewhat arrogantly. Outside the U.S., folks put “football” in quotation marks or qualify it as American.

The context of Belichick’s stoicism, unlike Pop, is parochial. The New England Patriots are no cosmopolitan outfit. Belichick’s sport is populist. His secretive ways are celebrated. His reign consists of viewing rules as things to be massaged, bent, or broken, if certain results are desired. Not a cheater, the white superstar quarterback Tom Brady is All-American.

Differences of Race and Control in Football and Basketball

Dwelling on the differences in how football and basketball are played may seem trivial, but I want to say that those gaps in the architecture of the games reveal much about today’s gulf in American thought on race and politics. Basketball places far fewer players on the court, and each basketball player is responsible for both offense and defense.

A football team resembles a modern corporation. There is a pronounced division of labor. Within a football team are more teams, offense, defense, and special teams. Within those separate teams are highly specialized units, each with its own unique skillset. Wide receivers are much smaller and faster than offensive linemen. Offensive linemen, stronger and gargantuan, protect the interior.

Group of football players of the field in the middle of a play



Émile Durkheim had something in mind like the modern structure of a football team when he argued that modern societies, in all their complexities and, especially, in their differences by race and class, would become bound by solidarity despite increasingly specialized, separate, and dependent units, because the mystifying work of the whole is what enables modern success.

But the different structures of American football and basketball tell a different story about race and solidarity in America, one that sadly is more about power over racial divisions.

While a lot of careful thought goes into the structure of a basketball contest, a game looks to casual fans like barely organized chaos. Basketball has been likened to jazz, but here I want to emphasize basketball as participatory democracy. Every player on the court will touch the ball often during a contest, and games occur frequently, three or four times a week. Although the coach develops and calls plays, the point guard exercises extraordinary discretion in changing the play or choosing an unscripted move toward the basket, to which teammates will react and improvise their play. Increasingly, all players might take the role of the point guard at some point during the game.

People in the middle of playing basketball.



Forwards like LeBron James, or legend Magic Johnson assume some of the duties of a point guard during gameplay. Even more complicated, in today’s game, seven-foot centers make three point baskets. Football’s division of labor unfurls like a liberal democracy. Players might interact with coaches throughout the week, voicing concerns or offering feedback. Meetings are held, plans are worked out, but coaches take control on game day.

When your favorite team’s offense goes on the field, you can trace a chain of command. A play gets called by the coach. Your quarterback huddles up the offensive units. Your team’s offense fans out, runs a play, stops to take stock. Attention is fixed on the quarterback, the head coach’s chosen representative, who takes possession, moves the players downfield, and seemingly leads the team to victory or defeat.

Two Quarterbacks

A year before Tom Brady was drafted by the New England Patriots, the Philadelphia Eagles selected Donovan McNabb second in the 1999 NFL draft, making him at the time the highest-drafted African-American quarterback in NFL history. Philadelphia fans attending the draft responded by booing McNabb. Claims that such a reaction was overtly racist were rejected by counterclaims that the jeers were caused by a fervent preference for Ricky Williams, the best college running back in 1998.

But not enough has been admitted about Rush Limbaugh and Curt Schilling, two provocateurs beloved by listeners of right-wing radio, who were implying on-air what many white Philadelphians were undoubtedly saying privately. Black men can’t play quarterback. They aren’t intelligent or responsible enough to be leaders. It was a combination of Philly’s infamous sports incivility, a preference for a running back, race-based assumptions about the quarterback position, and the control of black bodies. Fans saw themselves as corporate stockholders with power over who gets drafted; running backs are likelier than quarterbacks to be black; and Donovan McNabb, the first African-American quarterback to be chosen as the immediate face and future of an NFL franchise, was publicly rejected.

Measured by wins, division championships, and individual statistics, McNabb proceeded to become the best quarterback in Philadelphia’s franchise history, joining an elite company of only four NFL quarterbacks to pass for more than 30,000 yards and run for more than 3,000 yards in their careers. In 2004, McNabb steered the Eagles to an NFL championship game. McNabb’s Eagles lost to Belichick and Brady’s New England Patriots, costing McNabb his one chance to earn consensus as a future Hall of Famer. As it stands, sports writers debate whether McNabb should be enshrined at all. Too many Philadelphia fans and writers wrongly experienced the loss as McNabb’s personal failure. A second public rejection ensued. Despite football’s corporate structure as a team game and the multiple factors in any loss, Brady and McNabb were juxtaposed in black and white. Brady was the better quarterback. Brady possessed the truer skills to lead a team. McNabb ran too much and made poor decisions. Brady knew how to make a team great. McNabb was a loser.

The disproportionate handwringing over McNabb’s performance concurred with Philadelphia’s embrace of the basketball superstar Allen Iverson. Jeering McNabb while cheering Iverson made sense only if one considers the different racial codes of morality and politics at play in their respective sports. Those audiences listening to right-wing radio dismissals of McNabb also heard that the NBA was out of control, yet, unlike football, professional basketball seemed to be yielded to Black America and its cosmopolitan, global, and youth allies. Iverson and the new era of basketball could be celebrated on their own terms, a celebration of a small victory in the 1990s culture war over race. Iverson was simply the stamp on the NBA as hip-hop, authentic, genuine, and urban.

Surely, this is all way too simple. With more time, we could detail the more complicated race tensions around NFL quarterbacks and Allen Iverson alike. We could further discuss the incorrectness of a common lament that Iverson caused too much one-on-one basketball, often code for undisciplined and out of control black behavior.

Iverson innovated some of the most complicated offensive sets of screen-and-rolls and cuts, but the point is that the ways of framing black professional athletes and their professional leagues, and responding to their moments of success and failure have been diverging since the 1990s.

Obviously, both sports employ white and black athletes, but there are far more white athletes in the NFL, and while a record number of African-American quarterbacks started in 2016, the quarterback position continues to be white-dominant. And given the quarterback position’s disproportionate status in the outcomes of contests, by extension, the game of football is imagined to be under white control. For example, the criticism against Cam Newton, the first black quarterback to be selected outright as the NFL’s most valuable player in 2015, was that he wasn’t a “true” quarterback because he ran too much and danced after touchdowns.

The absurd controversy over the ascent of Newton, and especially his signature move, the Dab, evinces how whites continue to view a black quarterback: too flashy, arrogant, doesn’t play the game right, makes poor decisions, and, unlike Tom Brady, cannot win consistently.

Black Lives Matter Protests in the NFL and NBA

The divergent framings of black athletes in basketball and football are reflected in our talk about race and politics, and for some of us, it may influence how we make decisions in a democracy. The NBA has been a crucial site of movement visibility for Black Lives Matter (BLM), and LeBron James has been one of BLM’s most outspoken supporters. Like White America’s reaction to Cam Newton’s MVP selection, white feelings of loss of control were belied when, in 2010, James left Cleveland for Miami as a free agent. A survey1 at the time found that whites were much likelier than blacks to express anger at James’ decision. James has extended his freedom of thought and action to speaking out on social issues.

He has organized boycotts of mandatory warm-up suits, leading teammates in shows of solidarity with BLM. After Travon Martin’s murder, for example, James and the Miami Heat wore black hoodies like the one worn by Martin on the night he was killed by a vigilante.

For a few weeks, a network of NBA superstars threatened to boycott games if the league did not speak out against the shootings of unarmed black men. For their part, NBA owners, managers, and coaches have mostly cooperated in a tacit alignment with BLM, as well as socially progressive issues more broadly.

The NFL’s division of labor has structured social protest differently. There have been fewer signs of team solidarity. Instead, different individuals, in consultation with their teammates and coaches, have chosen smaller acts of collective alignment with BLM.

At the beginning of the NFL season, for example, Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and extrajudicial killings of black men. Kaepernick, an African-American quarterback, was supported by his teammates, but his actions angered many Republican and socially conservative fans. That such disapproval of football players has gained significant traction relates to the fact that the team, as a metaphorical corporation, does not unite in shows of solidarity. At most, a handful of athletes kneel or hold up fists in a sign of Black Power and solidarity, and these athletes tend to know each other from their specialized units of play.

The 2016 NBA and NFL seasons and their different moments of racial politics coincided with the 2016 Presidential Election. On September 28, 2016, Bill O’Reilly, a pundit on Fox News (the cable channel preferred by most Republicans and many social conservatives) casuistically asked the Republican Party’s nominee what he thought about a BLM protest in the NFL. O’Reilly asked, “Last night Colin Kaepernick said another bad thing about his country. You did own a professional football team. What would you do with Collin Kaepernick?”

Donald Trump staked his campaign on his billionaire status, promising Americans that he could pivot from his prowess as a multinational real estate tycoon and his donor status in America’s political system. Trump said, “I think what he’s doing is disgraceful. Is he starting yet or is he still a second-string quarterback?”

“Second-string,” O’Reilly assured him, “But what do you do to him if you were the owner? What would you do?”

At his campaign events, Trump told mostly white and working class audiences that America was out of control. Cosmopolitans and global elites were endangering their lives, and only he was the law and order candidate able to restore America to its proper greatness. Trump said to O’Reilly, “He’s making a tremendous amount of money. He’s living the American dream. He’s trying to make a point. But I don’t think he is making it the correct way. Personally, if it was me, I would not be happy if I were the team owner, and I don’t think I’m going to tell you what I would do…”

Trump is a real estate mogul who became a reality television star. In his televised competition shows, he would use a catchphrase, “You’re fired.” He would spit this at the end of a show to the contestant who had lost that week’s episode. O’Reilly asked, “Would you fire him?”

“I wouldn’t be happy,” Trump said, “They are paying him all of this money. And I think what he is doing is very bad for the spirit of the country. At the same time, he has the right to protest and that’s one of the beautiful things about the country.”

During the campaign, Trump framed himself as the one candidate able to sort out the winners from the losers in America and make the country and economy what his supporters want. His political career essentially began as a publicity stunt to remove the first African-American President from office on the fabricated charge that he was not a real U.S. citizen. At campaign events, Trump has called Mexicans rapists and killers and black protesters losers, the people who are not making America great.

O’Reilly pressed Trump, “But does he have the right to protest on your dime? Say you’re the owner. It’s your stadium. It’s paying customers. It’s your dime. This is right in your bailiwick. OK? So he’s protesting on your dime doing something that offends you. Would you take action against him?”

“I’ll tell you. Offends me, it does,” Trump answered in characteristic fragments, “Especially since he’s doing so well in terms of economically and so many other ways. I guess he probably lost a starting position because something happened to him. He went downhill fast. And, frankly, that’s okay. But I would not be a happy camper.”

On November 7, 2016, the night before the general election, Trump emerged from his gilded jet and addressed a crowd in New Hampshire’s biggest city, Manchester. Trump bellowed about the New England Patriots’ quarterback, known to be a good friend and Trump’s frequent golfing partner. Trump told the crowd, “Tom Brady called today, he said, Donald, I support you, you’re my friend, and I voted for you.” Trump added that the Patriots’ head coach, Bill Belichick, sent him an endorsement letter. Trump quoted Belichick, “Congratulations on a tremendous campaign. You have dealt with an unbelievable slanted and negative media, and have come out beautifully.” By reading Belichick’s endorsement, Trump seamlessly incorporated into his stump speech Belichick’s unapologetic winning ways, his ruthless secrecy, his sullen tenacity in producing championships, generating in the New England area a defensive team pride in the winningest NFL team of the past fifteen years.

Trump continued by quoting Belichick, “You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter. Your leadership is amazing. I have always had tremendous respect for you, but the toughness and perseverance you have displayed over the past year is remarkable. Hopefully tomorrow’s election results will give the opportunity to make America great again.” Trump successfully drew a chain of command from himself, to New England’s head coach, along to its star white quarterback, positioning himself atop and in control of a chain of command that many white football fans prefer to see every Sunday. Trump lost New Hampshire by the slimmest of margins, but he won Manchester on his way to becoming the 45th President of the United States.


The Friday after the election, Greg Popovich took his seat for a pregame press conference. His ensuing comments revealed what was most likely going through his mind that night in February. On Trump, Pop said, “He is in charge of our country. That’s disgusting.” There was a silence in the room. Then, uncharacteristically, Popovich expounded at length. “I’m a rich white guy and I’m sick to my stomach thinking about it. I can’t imagine being a Muslim right now or a woman or an African-American, Hispanic, a handicapped person. How disenfranchised they might feel. For anyone in those groups that voted for him, it’s just beyond my comprehension how they ignore all that.”

Pop clarified, “Not basically because the Republicans won or anything, but the disgusting tenure and tone and all the comments that have been xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic. I live in that country where half the people ignored all that to elect someone [like that]. That’s the scariest part of the whole thing to me.” Pop shook his head, fielded a few more questions, and departed to play the Detroit Pistons.


Return to January 2017 Issue