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

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

What Ought To Be Considered for P&T

I remember from my time as a graduate student instructor the horror stories concerning teaching evaluations. Many of these stories, often second-hand, suggested that just one negative student evaluation could be the difference between getting a job and not getting a job in what is an extremely constricted and competitive academic job market. Even now as junior faculty, I occasionally come across an article reporting that a faculty member was denied tenure, or had a difficult time getting tenure, because of negative student evaluations. Student evaluations certainly matter, but the degree to which they matter varies from institution to institution. Even at institutions where student evaluations may be weighted equally for promotion and tenure, how we are evaluated as faculty varies considerably.

I say all of this to suggest we, as faculty members, consider other determinants of our impact on students, and how best to demonstrate this impact when it’s time to go up for promotion. I recently received a very kind note from a former student who sought my help in preparing for her Americorps interview. Having worked for one United Way chapter, and now a board member at another, I had a pretty good idea of what kinds of questions she might be asked, and how she could best demonstrate her fit with a nonprofit, service-oriented organization like Americorps. We scheduled a mock interview, and I prepared around a dozen different questions I thought might be asked of her. After our mock interview, we reviewed her responses, and I made some suggestions on how she could rephrase some of them in order to illuminate her skill set, and the contributions she could make as an Americorps member.

A few days later, after her interview, I received the following email:

Dr. Thomas,
Thank you so much for your help before my interview. Your practice questions were almost identical to what they asked me during the Skype interview and I felt much more confident having already prepared answers and questions of my own. I referenced your class a lot, which they were very impressed with as its so relevant to their cause. Mentioning books we were assigned to read that piqued my interest in youth education and outreach was one of the strongest points of the interview and they even wrote down the names of the books to suggest them to their team. Thank you again for all your help, I couldn’t have done it without you!

Later that same day, I received a handwritten thank-you note from this same student, which I took a picture of and placed end of this post. My point here is not to toot my own horn (though I have no qualms about owning my achievements). Rather, it’s to suggest, as my dissertation adviser wrote:

When you care enough to put in special extra effort and attention to a students success that won’t help a vita line but is morally important and of significant importance to the student, it often is a more important thing in their lives than we sometimes realize. Turning points matter and the multiple seemingly little things you do to go an extra mile to help students, such as a mock interview, are not actually in the end little at all.

How my former student was impacted by our mock interview is something that may not make it into a P&T file, but it should. The current model of likert scales and brief, qualitative summations of our courses as ‘really hard’ or ‘really cool’ simply don’t convey how much we can, and do, impact our students’ lives both in and outside of the classroom. We, as faculty members, then, need to take it upon ourselves to catalog these experiences and interactions. Maybe in the process we can take back some degree of ownership in how we are evaluated, and help determine what should count.


The Social Marketing of Social Problems

This semester, I asked my Social Problems students to work together on a class project to map the landscape of need in Oxford/Lafayette County, MS. Splitting my students into three groups (Research, Marketing, Policy), they were to work together to collect and analyze information on poverty, develop a plan for raising community awareness around the issue, and present potential policy recommendations based on their findings.

Two of my students play for the University of Mississippi’s baseball team. Together, they convinced the media relations team of the Athletic Department to construct some short PSAs that were shown at this past weekend’s home baseball series against Alabama. Over 10,000 fans were in attendance at each game, and saw the following videos:

I am so very proud of my students. They really rose to the challenge here.

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?

Teaching Poverty Using Family Budget Worksheets

What are the budget-related challenges of the working-class and working-poor?

In the upcoming week, my students in my Intro courses will be exploring this question in depth, looking at the geography of poverty around the U.S., and in the state of Mississippi specifically (where I teach).

I’ve created a very simple “Family Budget Worksheet”, pulling some tips from McCammon’s (1999) Teaching Sociology article on social stratification. I constructed five different budget worksheets, based off of family income quintiles for the State of Mississippi, using the data from the American Community Survey’s 2011 five-year estimates. The sheet below represents the 3rd, or middle, quintile, and is the mean of the income limits for that quintile. The upper limit of this quintile was roughly $46,000 a year, and the lower limit was roughly $28,000 a year. I then subtracted from their monthly income only their federal tax liability, or 15%. I did not subtract any additional taxes (e.g. state, local, etc). As an aside, the $37,000 figure represents, roughly, a household where both parents work and each earn the newly proposed minimum-wage of $9 per hour mentioned by President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union address.

To determine fair market rents, I used HUD’s 2012 information for Jackson, MS, the city with the highest population in the state of Mississippi. I then determined average food costs using January 2012 average monthly cost of food estimates from the USDA. In addition, worksheets with family incomes below $28,655/year can employ the average SNAP contributions for families of four. For the purposes of my classes, the only quintiles that will qualify for this program are the bottom two. Other cost of living expenses listed below were gathered using State and Local government sources.

All students are to assume a four-person household, with two adults and two children. I realize that one drawback is that this is a very heteronormative representation of poverty. I plan to develop more inclusive budget worksheets in the future, reflecting the complexity of the American family unit.

Students will be grouped in pairs of four, and groups will be evenly distributed throughout the range of income quintiles. Students will be asked to balance their budget based on their monthly, post-tax household incomes, which are as follows: $1103 (Bottom); $1148 (2nd); $2622 (3rd); $4250 (4th); and $4699 (5th). Many of the groups will be forced to make tough choices, some which many households in the state of Mississippi have to make on a monthly basis. At the end of each worksheet, I ask groups to respond to the following questions: If you had a surplus, what do you plan on doing with it?, and If you are in debt, what do you plan to do about it?

My goal is to get students to think about how these choices reflect the everyday practices of working families, and that for many families, in order to stay afloat, they have to make several key cuts to their budget that have a negative impact on other aspects of their daily lives. I also aim to use this exercise to enter into a conversation with my students centered on the concept of a living wage.

For those of you who teach on stratification and poverty, do you employ similar techniques? Do you find this useful? What could be improved?

*Note: Some of the formatting was lost in the original budget worksheet and the worksheet below*

State of Mississippi Family Budget Worksheet

Household Size: 4

Household Income: $37,000 per year, $2622/month post-tax


Fair-Market Rent, 2012 (HUD)

Efficiency/Studio Apartment











Cost of Food

USDA January 2012 Averages

Thrifty Plan


Low-Cost Plan


Moderate-Cost Plan


Liberal Plan



SNAP Benefits (if less than $28,655)


Miscellaneous Living Expenses



Transportation (Car + Gas)


Family Health Insurance







Total Costs: