Visualizing Lynchings in the U.S. South, 1877-1950

Using comprehensive lynching data from the Beck-Tolnay Inventory,  I analyzed Southern episodes of lynching from 1877-1950 using Tableau software.

In the storyboard, you can play around with a few important variables (state, race, sex) to see differences in where lynchings took place, and the demographics of the victims. With the maps, you can identify the number of lynchings in an area down to the county level.

If clicking on the map below doesn’t take you to the story, just click here.


Southern Lynchings in the United States: 1877-1950

Sharp End: The Sorrid History of Race, Space, and Inequality in Columbia, Missouri

**Note: Much of this history has been covered elsewhere, and much more substantively. I’ve provided links to the sources I consulted while writing this piece. For a strong academic treatment of Sharp End, see Jason Jindrich’s 2002 Master’s Thesis for the University of Missouri’s Department of Geography. This thesis serves as the foundation for how local papers and historians discuss Sharp End and the history of racial exclusion in Columbia, Missouri.[1]

With so much coverage over recent racial unrest at my alma mater, the University of Missouri, I thought it would be appropriate to provide a bit more context—historical and geographical—for those interested in understanding the underlying conditions of racial inequality that many students, faculty, and staff are calling attention toward. However, I want to broaden the perspective, and situate the demands for inclusivity and equity within the larger narrative of Columbia, Missouri.

A few days ago, a Facebook friend declared, “Never in our lifetime have we had any real racism that represented a large portion of our society as a whole…I’ve lived in Columbia my entire life and never has there been a real race problem until now.”

This person is near my age (I’m 33), so I was shocked to hear him claim that Columbia is an exemplar for racial tolerance. I’m a three-time alum from the University of Missouri, and spent roughly twelve years living, working, and going to school in the city. My instincts tell me that this friend’s statement is more a reflection of a failure to understand what racism actually is. This wouldn’t be uncommon. Numerous sociological studies show that often, when people discuss racism, they frame it as individual acts of hatred toward members of a racial or ethnic minority group. Shouting racial slurs, or proclaiming your own individual hatred of a certain racial group, are familiar tropes.

While these acts of intolerance are racist in the sense that they articulate a set of beliefs about a particular group’s inferior status based on that group’s racial membership, racism isn’t just a set of beliefs or attitudes. Racism also refers to the actions and practices guided by these beliefs and practices. Ideologies are the cement from which a whole architecture of policies and practices arise. Democracy, for example, isn’t just a belief in representative government, it’s also how that belief is put into practice. Racism, then, is not just a set of beliefs in the inferiority of other racial groups. It also includes practices at the individual and collective levels that flow from those beliefs.

One set of practices that has received incredible attention among scholars and journalists alike is urban renewal, and the displacement of low-income and nonwhite residents that typically follows. Columbia’s history of redevelopment is no different than that of many other cities, yet I’m surprised it has received so little attention by national and local media, who seem to think the recent racial unrest at the University of Missouri is new, and in sharp contrast to the perceived serenity of this popular college town. So, allow me to introduce many of you to a brief history of Sharp End, a once-thriving black business district in the heart of downtown Columbia, that was completely wiped out by Columbia’s first foray into ‘urban redevelopment’ in the mid 1950s.

Sharp End was located within the historic Douglass neighborhood, an area that was once home to Columbia’s business center—Market Square—in what is now the Flat Branch area. Figure 1.1 shows the approximate location of Douglass, marked by the red square. Within the southern border of Douglass is Sharp End, denoted by the smaller black rectangle. The larger, black shape to the south of Douglass and Sharp End is a rough approximation of the University of Missouri (per 2010).[2]

Figure 1.1: Columbia, Missouri 1950

1950Around the turn of the 20th century, city planners recognized that this bottomland was prone to flooding, and relocated Market Square to present-day 8th and 9th streets in downtown Columbia. Because Columbia was still highly segregated due to Jim Crow laws, free blacks could not live in white neighborhoods, or frequent many white establishments. The newly deserted area in Flat Branch was one of the few areas in the city where free blacks could live. As whites left, free blacks moved in, and began building what would soon become a commercial and cultural hub for black residents. Sharp End was solidified as a black business district sometime after 1910, and over the next forty years was home to a collection of thriving black-owned shops, bars, and restaurants that stretched along Walnut St., and between 4th and 6th streets. During Jim Crow, these were important alternatives to white-owned businesses that blacks were prohibited from patronizing.

Nevertheless, the city’s neglect of the Douglass neighborhood through the first half of the twentieth century was blatant, and had severe consequences. City officials refused to pave or repair roads, and Douglass residents were denied many city services enjoyed by whites. As late as the 1930s, the city was dumping its refuse into Flat Branch creek, which ran through the western edge of Douglass. The city gas plant was also found to have leaked oil into the water of the creek, which accumulated human and livestock waste as it passed between black residences on Park and Ash streets. Finally, intense segregation—both residential and occupational—made for high concentrations of poverty among Columbia’s black residents in the inter-war years.

As a result, many Douglass residences consisted of wooden shacks, often without plumbing or electricity. Few black residents were able to afford city sewage, so their waste from their privies often flowed into the neighborhood creeks. A survey of Columbia’s waste management in 1919 revealed that, city wide, only 5% of black residences were connected to a sewer, compared to 80% of white residences.[3] Landlords often regarded Douglass-area property as a lost cause because it was black-occupied. For example, one landlord is quoted as saying, “Negro property is a fine investment because you don’t have any upkeep expense. All you have to do is pay taxes and insurance, and the taxes are very low on that property. Then besides, the niggers pay their rent, they don’t get behind like other people do.”[4]

As a teaching point, we should recognize that while this landlord’s statement reflects racism, it isn’t racism simply because the landlord uses the word “nigger.” The landlord’s statement, rather, reflects the dominant ideology of the time: blacks are less than human, and therefore do not require humane conditions or treatment. Importantly, this ideology cemented itself through specific actions (or in this case, inaction), resulting in massive racial disparities in the distribution of resources and opportunities. The practice of neglecting predominantly black neighborhoods on account of them being predominantly black—a practice that was institutionalized and supported by local government— is racist with or without the use of a racial epithet.

Importantly, the historical neglect of the Douglass neighborhood by city officials and local realtors alike laid the foundation for justifying the forced removal of its residents and black businesses in the 1950s. Following the 1949 Federal Housing Act, Columbia, like many other cities across the country, took advantage of redevelopment loans and grant programs by the Housing and Home Finance Administrator. Title I of this act authorized local public agencies to purchase or condemn areas of the city deemed “blighted or deteriorating.” Cities were then authorized to clear that land and “make it available, by sale or lease, for private or public redevelopment or development in accordance with predetermined local redevelopment plan for the area.”[5] In the case of Douglass and Sharp End, any ‘blight’ within that neighborhood was a direct consequence of the intentional and explicit denial of basic city services, including proper sewage and road maintenance.

Columbia twice failed to pass an ordinance for the creation of a local housing authority in 1952. However, in 1956 voters approved the formation of the Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority, and its first meeting took place that June.[6] Records from the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, housed at the University of Missouri, show the authority had, as its objective, “slum clearance and urban renewal.” The authority selected 126 acres within the Douglass neighborhood for its first project, including within it the Sharp End district. Under the U.S. and Missouri constitutions, the city of Columbia was allowed to condemn Douglass under eminent domain laws. Though the law requires that the taking of private property must be justified for a public purpose, and that property owners must be compensated fairly, this was not the case for black residents and business owners. In 1958, a consultant hired by the LCR Authority had estimated the total worth of the 126 acres at more than $1 million. Yet, the city managed to only pay $591,000 for the land; or, less than 60 cents to the dollar.[7] Residents who refused to sell had their properties condemned under eminent domain, and were forcefully removed.

The Douglas School Urban Renewal Project began in May of 1959, and was completed by July of 1966.[8] When it was finished, more than three hundred structures were completely eradicated, including at least eighty black-owned businesses. A portion of the Douglass neighborhood was rebuilt as public housing. However, many former black homeowners were not eligible for residency. Yet, because they were black, they were unable to secure loans for new homes. Local lenders still operated under revised models of the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and Federal Housing Authority (FHA), which had pioneered a ‘risk rating’ system that incorporated race as a marker of credit-worthiness as well as property value. By the logic of HOLC, and later FHA, black homebuyers ‘invaded’ neighborhoods, and compromised the value of surrounding properties.[9] Realtors and lenders were discouraged from showing black renters and homebuyers potential properties in predominantly white areas, denying even blacks with capital the opportunity to purchase affordable homes that would retain their value over time.

Consider the following racial dot map of Columbia, Missouri in 1970. Just over a decade after the initial razing of Douglass and Sharp End, we can see the extreme residential segregation of black residents in relationship to whites. Each orange dot in the map represents two black residents; each green dot represents two white residents. According to data from the U.S. Census, there were a total of 3,863 blacks living in Columbia in 1970.[10] More than half (~56%) were concentrated in Tract 8, which encompassed the former Douglass neighborhood. Though, as the map shows, the southern edge of Douglass, including Sharp End, were nearly devoid of residents, indicating this land was in the midst of being redeveloped for primarily commercial interests.

Figure 1.2: Racial Dot Map, Columbia, Missouri 1970

1970DotBy 2013, the former Douglass area had a lower concentration of black residents. However, if we take into account the two neighboring census tracks directly to the north and the tract directly to the west, those four tracts (including the one that encompasses the historic Douglass neighborhood) accounted for nearly 35% of all black residents in Columbia, Missouri (Figure 1.3).[11]

Figure 1.3: Racial Dot Map, Columbia, Missouri 2013

2013Complimenting the racial dot map is the following map of average gross rent for black-occupied units in Columbia, Missouri, in 1970 (Figure 1.4). As this figure illustrates, blacks were primarily concentrated directly to the west and north of the former Douglass Neighborhood. Because so few blacks were able to rent in any other area of Columbia at the time, there is no available data for the average amount of money black residents paid in rent throughout the rest of Columbia. Average rent for blacks ranged from $74 per month in the former Douglass neighborhood and encompassing census tract, to $153 per month just to its South, where the current University of Missouri campus now extends.

Figure 1.4: Average Gross Monthly Rent, Black-Occupied Units, Columbia, Missouri, 1970

Rent1970Now, let’s overlay that with the composite gross monthly rent, irrespective of race (Figure 1.5). Here, the story becomes even more interesting. The blue shaded tracts are spaces where blacks’ gross monthly rent exceeded the composite gross monthly rent of that same area. In the tract directly to the north of the former Douglass neighborhood, the average gross monthly rent for blacks was 1.3 times higher than the composite gross monthly rent ($112 to $99). Directly to the south of the former Douglass neighborhood, overlapped by the south side of the present-day campus, monthly rent for blacks was nearly 1.4 times higher than the composite gross monthly rent ($153 to $112). This data suggests that, despite federal laws prohibiting such practices, Columbia realtors and landlords were still engaging in racist rental practices in 1970.

Figure 1.5: Gross Monthly Rent for Blacks vs Composite Gross Monthly Rent, 1970

GrossComparison1970Finally, let’s look at the median value of homes in these areas. In 1970, the median value of homes in Columbia, Missouri was $21,900.[12] In the areas in which blacks were primarily concentrated, the median value of homes ranged from a low of $10,824 in the former Douglass neighborhood, to a high of $15,627 just to its west (Figure 1.6). Put differently, the median value of homes in neighborhoods in which blacks were primarily concentrated ranged from 49%-71% of the median home value for the rest of the city.

Figure 1.6: Median Home Value, Columbia, Missouri, 1970

HomeValue1970By 2013, not much had changed (Figure 1.7). The median value of a home in Columbia, Missouri was $169,800. In the former Douglass neighborhood, it was $101,400 (59% of the median value). Just to the north, it was $66,500 (39%).

Figure 1.7: Median Home Value, Columbia, Missouri, 2013

HomeValue2013My goal with this very brief analysis of the Sharp End District and its demise at the hands of city government is two-fold. First, I want to illustrate that Columbia, Missouri is far from a racial paradise. Like most other cities in the United States, it has a long history of institutionalized racism, clearly identifiable in the local politics and decision-making among city officials, planners, and developers. Second, I hoped to demonstrate with this analysis that the effects of this institutionalized racism do not simply disappear because we wish for it. Without intentional, deliberate anti-racist policies and practices, racism and its effects will continue to fester. In the case of black residents of Columbia, Missouri, a multi-generational community, and its wealth, were nearly eradicated through deliberate practices by local government and developers.

As of 2015, the north side of the former Sharp End district houses the Columbia Post Office. The south side of Sharp End was converted into a parking lot upon the first phase of urban renewal. It remained so for nearly fifty years, until in 2011 it was converted into a ten-deck parking garage.


[1] Jason Jindrich, “Our Black Children: The Evolution of Black Space in Columbia, Missouri” (M.A. Thesis, University of Missouri, 2002), Microfilm, University of Missouri Libraries.

[2] All maps and figures derive from data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and were created using Social Explorer.

[3] August F. Larson, A Housing Survey of Columbia, Missouri (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri, 1919).

[4] Audrey Nell Kittel, The Negro Community of Columbia, Missouri (University of Missouri, 1938), 44.

[5] United States Senate, “Housing Act of 1949” (United States Government Printing Office, 1949), 2,

[6] Arcenia Harmon, “Columbia’s Sharp End,” Columbia Daily Tribune, April 4, 2004,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Phillip Sitter, “Sharp End District Remembered for ‘Togetherness,’” Columbia Missourian, May 19, 2015,

[9] Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 92.

[10] United States Department of Commerce, “1970 Census of Population and Housing, Columbia Missouri, Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce and the Bureau of the Census, 1972).

[11] United States Bureau of the Census. “American Community Survey, 2009-2013 (5 year estimates.” Washington, DC. 2014. Accessed via Social Explorer.

[12] United States Department of Commerce, “1970 Census of Population and Housing, Columbia Missouri, Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area.”

The Disappearance of Kinloch, Missouri

I’ve been in the early stages of planning a new project, with colleague and friend Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl. We’re interested in collecting and analyzing the narratives of displacement resulting from urban gentrification.

One of the sites we’re interested in studying is Kinloch, Missouri. Kinloch was, for several decades, a vibrant and flourishing (nearly) all-black township in the northwest part of St. Louis County, Missouri. However, in the 1980s, the city of St. Louis began to buy up surrounding property for the future development of Lambert International Airport, and, as consequence, most of the black residents were displaced.

I got to playing around with census data from Social Explorer in order to map this shift over time, from 1940 through 2013. 1940 was the first decade in which census tracts were used for measurement in St. Louis, so I’m unable to show what Kinloch looked like prior to this period. Click on the link below to view the map.

April 15th is “Fight for $15” Day!

On April 15th, workers from around the country are planning a massive rally to support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and union representation for low-wage workers in the fast food, retail, and childcare industries.

There is strong public favor toward raising the federal minimum wage. A 2014 Bloomberg poll, for example, found 69% of Americans were in favor of President Obama’s call to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. But is $10.10 per hour enough? Is the $15 per hour demanded by millions of fast food, retail, and other low-wage industry workers sufficient?

For over ten years, researchers at MIT have been collecting and analyzing several key indicators of economic well-being in order to determine what an actual “living wage” threshold would be for ordinary Americans. Taking into account the cost of food, childcare, housing, health care, and other basic necessities, then adjusting for geographic differences, this research calculates the minimum wage necessary for any household makeup in any area of the country. For a household of two adults and one child in Oxford, Mississippi to have financial independence while maintaining housing and food security, the calculated living wage threshold is $17.26 per hour.

Not surprisingly, few employers in Oxford use this standard for their own workforce, including the University of Mississippi. In combing through the job descriptions and pay rate ranges available through the University of Mississippi’s Department of Human Resources, there are more than 295 job titles, or approximately 25% of all occupations at the University, whose MAXIMUM hourly salary range is below the living wage threshold of $17.26 per hour.

The state of Mississippi has no state minimum wage rate, however, making Mississippi workers subject to the federal standard of $7.25 per hour. Importantly, in March of 2013 Governor Phil Bryant signed into law legislation that prohibits individual counties and municipalities in Mississippi from establishing their own mandatory minimum wages. Despite these obstacles, no law or policy prohibits individual employers from establishing wage standards that exceed the current federal and state minimums. This means that the University of Mississippi, as the economic engine of the Oxford/Lafayette County area, has a real opportunity to lead from the front on the issue of economic inequality in our own backyard. We, as members of this community, implore the University administration to acknowledge, and begin taking steps toward addressing, the issue of a living wage for our campus workforce.

Mississippi Family Income Distribution, by County

I’ve spent the past few weeks playing around with Tableau, a data visualization software program. Though initially a bit outside of my wheelhouse, I am starting to understand the software a bit better, and it’s intuitiveness is becoming a bit more clear to me.

I downloaded some data from the American Community Survey’s 2009-2013 five-year estimates the other day, and decided to play around with it in Tableau. Below is something I came up with rather quickly–family income distribution for each county in the state of Mississippi, first by the total number of families reported in each county, and then by their percentage distribution within each county. Feel free to use the drop down menus to change which counties are displayed:

Mississippi Family Income Distributionby County

As I get more familiar with the software program, I hope to create more complex visuals, and stories. Ultimately, I think Tableau can be a really cool tool to integrate into the classroom with students to help better understand data, and the stories sociologists can tell with data. If you’re unable to access the workbook above, just click here

Diversity in Sports

On March 5th, 2014 I participated in a panel discussion entitled, ‘Diversity in Sports.’

Many of my comments in this discussion drew inspiration from Taylor Branch’s phenomenal essay for The Atlantic, The Shame of College Sports‘. One of the points I tried to make in this discussion (26min mark) is that we can’t expect to have a transformative discussion about diversity if we don’t begin that conversation by interrogating inequality and inequity within the contexts of sports (and this would apply to institutions of higher education, more generally). The hiring of more men and women of color as head coaches, as faculty, and as administrators does not solve the problem of a system that is fundamentally coercive and exploitative. College athletes have no labor rights, yet produce enormous amounts of wealth and value (symbolic, cultural, political) for their universities. While many receive a college scholarship for their efforts, this scholarship is year-to-year, on average it does not cover 100% of tuition and fees, and it can be revoked at any time by the coaching staff for undisclosed reasons. Meanwhile, many other college athletes play competitive sports in exchange for even less than the aforementioned “full-ride”.

I sympathize with some of the comments made by other panelists for the need to have greater representation and retention among men and women of color in the higher ranks of college athletics, and institutions of higher education more generally. Yet, I’m not convinced that a NCAA version of the ‘Rooney Rule’ would do much, and I certainly disagree with the comment made by one of the panelists that commerce and capitalist logic has led to positive changes regarding diversity in pro sports (17min mark). Too often, diversity is employed as a marketing strategy, as a way to re-brand the University as a place of inclusivity because they now have an initiative to become diverse. And, like the federal Affirmative Action initiative, too few of these diversity initiatives have clear goals and timestables to hold parties accountable when they fall short. What we end up with is a diversity initiative that is efficient in changing the perception of the University as a diverse place, rather than an initiative that actually facilitates transformative changes to the University’s structure (see Ahmed’s On Being Included for a great analysis of this phenomenon).

What does a diverse institution look like beyond just representation? Or, how does an institution that truly commits to diversity and inclusivity operate differently from one that does not? How do they restructure their day-to-day operations in order to promote diversity? How do they use diversity and inclusivity to frame new initiatives? These are the questions I would like to see more colleges and universities wrestle with in a transparent way, where students, faculty, staff, and administrators can collaboratively develop the University they want to become.

A Response to Homophobia at the University of Mississippi

On Tuesday, October 1st, members of an audience of University of Mississippi students, including an estimated twenty members of the University football team, disrupted the Theater Department’s production of “The Laramie Project.” The audience used derogatory slurs, like ‘fag’, and heckled both cast members and the characters they were portraying.

On Thursday, The Critical Race Studies Group, an interdisciplinary group of scholars committed to fostering an inclusive campus environment at the University of Mississippi, issued the following statement:

“We are members of the University community who are committed to promoting an environment of acceptance and support for difference at the University of Mississippi. As such, we reject expressions of intolerance and bigotry of all types, such as the recent display of homophobia during a performance of The Laramie Project on our campus. We pledge our ongoing, active support for students and other members of our community who are hurt by such incidents. As educators and scholars, we vow to contest all forms of hatred that manifest in expressions like those Tuesday night. We reject the notion that Tuesday’s event was an isolated one. Instead, we encourage an open dialogue among members of our community, including the administration, faculty, and staff, to interrogate our complicity in maintaining an environment where such forms of hatred are even possible, and how they may be tied to other forms of prejudice, discrimination, and inequality.”

As a member of The Critical Race Studies Group, I am so proud of our efforts, and our stated commitment during such a time. That we were able to coordinate this statement among almost two dozen members and allies, all through an email exchange, and in less than three hours, is a demonstration of our undying willingness to fight injustice on our own turf.

Please check out our Facebook page, and stay tuned for more updates.


Workers of the World Unite?: Marx, Weber, and the Fast-Food Workers’ Strike

The past two weeks in my Social Stratification course, we’ve covered several classic readings on stratification and social order: Adam Smith’s Of the Division of Labor, Marx’s Alienated Labor and Wage-Labor and Capital, Weber’s Class, Status, and Party, and DuBois’s Of the Dawn of Freedom, to name a few.

One of my objectives in this section is to get students to see how these classic (and, in some cases, dated) texts relate to contemporary issues of stratification. In moving from Marx’s theory of social order flowing from the political economy (relations of production) to Weber’s theory of social order flowing from a combination of the political economy and status, it struck me that a useful question to ask my class was why are so many Americans resistant to demands for fair-wage practices coming from the Fast Food Industry?

In scanning online mass media coverage of fast-food worker strikes, and in particular the comments sections, I found that workers were frequently described by posters as ‘lazy’, ‘incompetent’, ‘unskilled’, ‘unmotivated’, and ‘undeserving’. Statements like “It seems that America is becoming more lazy and the masses that are demanding more are contributing less and less, were common. Furthermore, I noticed several instances where commentators and posters justified low wages among fast-food workers by referencing less-than-ideal wages for high-status occupations, like school-teachers and public service workers (police officers, firefighters, etc.).

I asked my class what Marx might say about this matter: many of them felt that Marx would question a system so resistant to providing basic necessities to its members based on a drive for profit. Others correctly pointed out that Marx, in “Alienated Labor”, clearly states, “an enforced raising of wages would be nothing but a better slave-salary and would not achieve for the worker or for labor significance or dignity.” For these students, raising the minimum wage would be a form of appeasement, but ultimately would not disrupt capitalism.

I redirected their attention to Weber, asking them how Weber might explain the resistance of so many Americans to fast-food workers’ demands. In a previous class period, we watched “Wealth Inequality in America“, which highlights the increasingly uneven distribution of wealth among the U.S. population. I asked them to think back to that video. The information in the video demonstrates that Americans in the middle quintile of wealth distribution (40-60%) have more in common with those in the bottom quintile than they do with those in the top. Even those in the fourth highest quintile of wealth distribution have more in common with those in the bottom quintile than they do with the top five-percent of Americans.

I asked my students to think of occupations that have relatively high social value, or prestige, but relatively low median earnings. Many of them identified school teachers, police officers, firefighters, and even university faculty (hell yeah!). I informed them that one of the fastest growing occupations in the U.S. is the hospice worker. Most agreed that this is an important job, with high social value. Many were surprised, however, at how low their median wages are (less than $11/hr). Here is a chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that projects the fastest growing occupations from 2010-2020, and their median wages:

Fastest Growing JobsPersonal aides and home health aides (think hospice workers) clearly dominate this projection. Other than biomedical engineers, many of the fastest growing occupations pay well below the U.S. median household income ($51,324 in 2011). We don’t often think of hospice workers, pipelayers, iron workers, carpenters, or aides to physical and occupational therapists as ‘lazy’, ‘incompetent’, ‘unskilled’, ‘unmotivated’, and ‘undeserving’. These jobs do require skills, they do require some training, and yet they pay only marginally better than the fast-food industry.

I show this data to my students to help them understand Weber’s position that status is still very important for maintaining our existing system of stratification. The role of status is evident in other low-wage workers’ responses to fast-food workers’ demands for better pay in their own industry. Rather than recognize common class interests among fast-food workers and Americans working in other, low-wage earning occupations, many Americans align themselves with the class interests of the elite through their perceived status relative to fast food workers. I anticipate this will spark a discussion centered on the power of the media, and its role in producing and maintaining hegemony over the public. It’s important to inform students that while they’re correct in identifying the media’s contributions to maintenance of contemporary stratification, we also need to think deeply about the role of other institutions, and social actors within them (How, for instance, do colleges and universities contribute to class and status stratification? What about departments, faculty, and students?).

Our next step in examining classic theories of stratification is to ask how would DuBois respond to Weber and Marx if he were to enter this conversation?

Teaching the Prison-Industrial Complex (PIC)

Important to undergraduate courses in sociology, as well as more interdisciplinary courses like Area Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Women’s and Gender studies, is that students demonstrate an ability to recognize how historical material relations shape their present and future biographies, or as C. Wright Mills is oft quoted: “[to] grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society.”

In my Southern Studies course, I recently took this approach in teaching my students about the historical and contemporary formations of crime and punishment in the American South. Specifically, I focused on what Angela Davis and others have referred to as the Prison-Industrial Complex (PIC): the bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment in the U.S. and abroad even in the absence of need. Because this is a Southern Studies course, I focused specifically on how the South, as a geo-political space, has come to define, and be defined by, the formation of the PIC.

I start by examining the trends of crime and punishment over the last several decades. Students seem surprised to learn that, according to violent crime statistics kept by the FBI, the rate of violent crime has decreased dramatically since 1991, by about 20%. They were even more surprised to learn that despite this, the number of people in prison or jail has risen by almost 50% in that same time period.

This graph takes a historical view at imprisonment:


In looking at the graph, I ask my students to think about some possible explanations in the sharp increase in imprisonment following 1972. Did we simply become a more violent society? After giving them some brief context regarding the American public opinion on imprisonment in the 1960s, and how this changed dramatically following Nelson Rockefeller’s State of the State address in 1973, we begin to trace this sudden increase in imprisonment to more strict drug laws, including the return of mandatory minimum sentencing in 1986.

But in addition to imprisonment, we also looked at the corrections system as a whole, and how it has changed in just over three decades:

Not only are there more people in prison and jails, but there are also more people on parole and on probation. When you add those figures up, we have well over seven million Americans that are being monitored by the U.S. correctional system. For my Southern Studies students, I explained to them that this is more than the 2010 total populations of Mississippi and Arkansas, combined. Here, I asked my students whether these numbers imply that our criminal justice system is working effectively, since we are locking up more people than ever before. I then ask them how they think this compares to other nations around the world, both developed and developing. Many of them were surprised to see the following illustration:

Slide05With just under 5% of the world’s total population, the United States is home to 25% of the world’s total population of prisoners. The 2.3 million people we have behind bars, not counting those on parole and probation, is the highest overall number anywhere in the world, including China, which has a population roughly four times that of the United States. I then ask them to think about how China has been portrayed within U.S. media as a totalitarian state where freedom is restricted, and what a graph like this says about the restriction of freedom here in the United States.

I used the above information largely to set the tone for this class. Next, I segued into how it relates to the American South with this map:


Purple states reflect the highest growth of prisoners from 2006 to 2008. Green states had the 2nd highest rates of growth, and blue states had the lowest rates of growth. Many students have expressed in previous classes a sense of lawlessness and crime among the Northern states, particularly in urban regions. Yet, they were surprised to learn that the states with the sharpest increases in imprisonment during this time period were not states like California or New York, but instead states in the Delta and Cotton Belt regions of the United States.


When examining incarceration rates per 100,000 residents, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama all have rates that not only top the U.S., but are also higher per capita than both Russia and China. I asked my students to think about whether this is a reflection of the American South.

Next, we moved into another issue related to the Prison-Industrial Complex – felony disenfranchisement. Demonstrating that what constitutes a felony ranges from drug possession and distribution on one end, and violent crime like murder and sexual assault on the other end, I ask my students whether they think permanent or long-term disenfranchisement is an appropriate form of punishment for these types of crimes. I ask them to consider a felony DUI as a potentially disenfranchising incident, and whether they know of anyone who has been charged recently with one. Given that it’s a college classroom, it did not surprise me that many of them knew of friends or acquaintances that had been charged with driving under the influence.

Though the laws on how convicted felons can petition for their right to vote once released vary from state to state, when we map the variations of these laws, we see that the states that are most restrictive with regard to granting the right to vote to former felons are predominantly concentrated in the South, specifically in the Delta, Cotton Belt, and Appalachia regions:


From here, I build into the raced (and classed) components of felony disenfranchisement laws:


With Black men nearly six times as likely, and Hispanic men nearly three times as likely, to spend time in prison during their lifetimes as White men, and the vast majority of inmates coming from working poor and working class backgrounds, I ask my students how they think this impacts representational democracy in the United States over time. With trends like these, whose interests are most likely to be represented in the next twenty to twenty-five years in both local, state, and national politics?

To drive this point home even further, I showed my students this map:

Slide11Comparing disenfranchisement rates from 1980 to 2010, using U.S. census data, we see that while in 1980 states like Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama had rates of felon disenfranchisement up to 5%, by 2010 these rates had nearly doubled in Mississippi and Alabama, and in Florida exceeded 10% of the eligible voting population. In Mississippi, the African-American population exceeds 30%. Yet, when rates of incarceration for both Black men and women exceed those of White men and women many times over, and many of their convictions are felonies concentrated in drug possession and distribution, it becomes clear how these laws function to prevent large blocks of racial and ethnic groups from being able to effectively participate in the democratic process.

Finally, I turn to the increasing trend of prison privatization within the United States. It is no secret that, since the 1970s, prison construction and outsourcing has generated enormous revenues for large corporations, such as Corrections Corporation of America ($16B in revenue in 2008). I asked my students how they think this is impacting the South, economically and politically. Then, I showed them this map:

Slide13This is what happens when you map poverty over prison population growth. The red circled areas reflect those regions in the United States where prison growth and poverty rates are increasing most rapidly.

Because many of my students are from these regions, or near these regions, they are familiar with the slow decline, or disappearance, of previous economic anchors, like mining, agriculture, dairy farms, and manufacturing. Combined with the fact that these areas have very low per capita incomes among households, it creates an economic opportunity for prison corporations looking to expand. Depressed values in real estate, combined with high rates of unemployment, not only make these attractive areas to build and maintain a prison, but they also become selling points to local and state politicians and special interest groups looking to see even a marginal increase in economic activity. It is true that these prisons provide wages, an increase in local services bought, year round employment opportunities. Some even provide health care benefits and a pension. Further, prisons, unlike most other industries, are recession proof. In fact, they are one of the few industries that actually expand during economic downturns.

But when the driving force behind a prison is profit, what costs are associated with the above “benefits”? First, in looking to increase profit margins these companies are more likely to build their facilities using cheap materials, and cheap or free labor in the form of prisoners. Because of this, facility upkeep and improvement is largely placed at the feet of the prison population, and many of these facilities are quickly becoming run-down.

Second, these facilities are increasingly being staffed by untrained, or undertrained, personnel. Training requires more overhead, and when your goal is produce a profit, it is more likely that you will provide the minimum training necessary to meet state and federal standards, rather than the appropriate training necessary to meet civil and human rights laws.

Finally, I asked my students to consider this…if you’re running a for-profit prison business model, what is the one thing you need to have in order to grow as a business? (Answer: Prisoners). I then asked them what are some ways that large corporations like CCA can increase their prisoner population, or retain their current population? (Answers: lobbying for stricter prison sentences, not offering rehabilitative programming, depressing other economic activities in a region by building prisons).

Do you find this useful in demonstrating the Prison-Industrial Complex? What else could be included? What needs improvement or clarification?

Additional Resources:



Teaching the Geography of Poverty

I find maps extremely useful for illustrating a variety of social problems to my students. Statistical tables have a lot of utility, but many first and second year students have little experience in interpreting their significance. And while charts and graphs provide one type of visual, maps seem to allow students to literally place their own biography in a unique and impactful way. A number of publicly available data sets now incorporate GIS imaging through their host websites. The two I find most useful are American FactFinder and Community Issues Management.

When I teach the geography of poverty, I do like to begin with a few charts and tables that demonstrate an important point: contrary to popular opinion, may people who are poor and/or live in poverty work!

Here, you see the percent of the working poor who worked for at least six months out of the year between 1987-2010. I like to get my students to consider how it is possible for the rate of working-poor to have increased by almost 2% since 1987.  Working Poor in the U.S.

In this table, I point out to my students the bottom two categories, “Total Below Poverty Level” and “Rate”. I find this table really useful for demonstrating just how many millions of people work part-time (involuntarily) and full-time, yet still are unable to escape poor or impoverished conditions. I like to ask my students, “How is this different from popular opinions about those in poverty?”

Working Poor in the U.S. Table

After priming my students with these tables, I then move into various maps that demonstrate where the poor in our country are most concentrated, including some disaggregated data on age and race.

In this map below, students can see two related items. On the left, students are shown where the highest concentrations of poverty are located in the U.S. Because I teach at the University of Mississippi, I highlight the regional characteristics of poverty – Southern and rural – that run counter to the popular perception of poverty as primarily being a condition of urbanization. Next, using the image on the right that demonstrates persistent poverty over four separate Census records, I like to emphasize the point that poverty is as much a Southern tradition as collard greens and cornbread.

Persistent Poverty

Next, I use the two images below to demonstrate how the the age of poverty has changed over time. In the first image, we see counties in which 20% or more of the population were living in poverty in 1980. Orange areas reflect counties where 20% or more of kids only lived in poverty. Red areas represent counties where 20% or more of the elderly lived in poverty. Finally, grey areas represent counties where 20% or more of both kids and the elderly lived in poverty.

High Poverty Counties 1980
Now, take a look at how it changes by 2010, below. Here, we see that increasingly poverty is becoming younger, and more widespread, impacting more kids at higher rates than it did during 1980. I ask my students, “What might be some explanations for this trend?”High Poverty Counties 2010

Finally, I like to demonstrate how poverty and race intersect, along with space, in the U.S. context. The focus on non-metro areas with this map is intentional, and meant to move the conversation away from simple explanations on urbanization and over-population. What we see with this image is that poverty is extremely concentrated by race, particularly in the Deep South, where Blacks and Latinos are at the highest risk of living in poverty.

High Poverty Counties by Race 2000

Zooming in even closer, I demonstrate just how concentrated poverty is among Blacks in the Deep and rural South. Again, because I teach at the University of Mississippi, I use this image to drive home the point that this is as much a historical tradition of the South as any other my students can think of.

Black High Poverty Counties 2000

Finally, I like to show my students just how hard it is to escape poverty in these areas by looking at the availability of good-paying jobs in the regions most impacted. Often, when we consider policies for reforming our national landscape of poverty, we do not take into consideration the complexity of space and region. When you have practically entire states, like Mississippi, making a median household income less than $35,000 (or, to put in perspective, less than a two-parent household making the newly proposed $9/hour minimum wage), then policies that do not take this regional characteristic into consideration will not have a great impact on these areas with the highest concentrations of poverty.

Median Household Income by County

Here is another illustration that builds on this last point, demonstrating that unemployment rates, while high across the country, clearly have a regional flavor to them. The highest concentrations of unemployment in 2012 were in the American South and the West Coast.

Unemployment Rates by County 2012

Do you find these images useful for your own pedagogy? What was effective? What do you think could be improved?