What Should We Do With Our Confederate Monuments?

A recent Winthrop University poll across eleven southern states reveals striking differences between whites and blacks’ attitudes on several social issues. The poll’s methodology is scientific and sound. Of particular interest are questions directed at southerners’ opinions on (1) monuments or memorials to Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War; and (2) statues honoring Confederate war heroes. Continue reading


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, https://bulk.resource.org/gao.gov/81-171/00002FD7.pdf.

[6] Arcenia Harmon, “Columbia’s Sharp End,” Columbia Daily Tribune, April 4, 2004, http://archive.showmenews.com/2004/apr/20040404feat009.asp.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Phillip Sitter, “Sharp End District Remembered for ‘Togetherness,’” Columbia Missourian, May 19, 2015, http://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/local/sharp-end-district-remembered-for-togetherness/article_cdb41a50-fe83-11e4-83cf-c715d4cd44fe.html.

[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.”

New Pub on Phenomenologies of Racial Power, with Jennifer Correa

My colleague and dear friend, Jennifer Correa, and I recently had our article on Latino border patrol agents and the dynamics of racial power published in the new American Sociological Association journal, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity.

Entitled, “The Rebirth of the U.S.-Mexico Border”, in it Jennifer and I expand upon Nick Crossley’s “phenomenology of power” to articulate the dynamic interplay between race, space, and power as it’s practiced in the policing of brown bodies by brown bodies along the U.S.-Mexico border. We describe a phenomenology of racial power as

“the cultural and social “thickness” of racial embodiment [which] recognizes that power is a fluid force within ‘institutions, laws, [as well as the] practices of political officials, law enforcers, and practitioners” (Crossley 1994:197). It is through these sets of relations that the body’s materiality is produced. Further, it is through the body’s materiality that we apprehend the world or accomplish being-in-the-world. These processes are interdependent and inseparable in the unfolding of everyday life. Each action of the body reconfigures the spaces it inhabits, enabling and/or constraining its ability to expand beyond those spaces.”

Our focus on the phenomenology of racial power aims to address my previous call for a more dynamic account of culture in the enabling and constraining of contemporary racialization by centering the experiences of Latina/o state agents who function as both enforcers and targets of racial power.

Jennifer and I are currently working on a book together, with Rowman and Littlefield, entitled Affective Labour: (Dis)Assembling Difference and Distance, in which we theorize affective labor as both producer and product of phenomenologies of power.

Excerpt from Ch.2, Working to Laugh (2015)

Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book, Working to Laugh (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015)

[Chapter 2: Into the Field, p.33-36]

Along the central avenue running east and west, and cutting through the heart of The District, is Helter Skelter. A self-described punk/rock/sci-fi/horror bar, Helter Skelter is perhaps the most culturally eclectic and unique of all of Collegetown’s nightlife venues. The large building that houses Helter Skelter was once the original location of several independent movie theater venues. The first theater opened in 1907, with just over one thousand seats for predominantly viewing silent films. In 1929, a large fire destroyed this theater. It was eventually restored, exchanged owners, and from 1935 to 1985, the building operated as a movie house under several different names, the last one being the most popular. In the early years following its restoration, the theater was ‘invitation only.’ This designation allowed the theater to deny entry to men and women of color during legalized racial segregation, though by the time the theater closed in 1986 both white and nonwhite residents frequented the venue. Unique to the restoration of the theater in 1935 was the inclusion of a balcony, and the only theater in Collegetown at the time used exclusively for feature-length film viewing. The other three downtown venues at the time featured vaudeville acts and other live, performance arts, though they also showcased feature-length films.

Though it may appear odd that a town with a relatively small population at the time would have three theater venues, the context of this period in American popular culture history indicates otherwise. The pre- and post-World War II eras of U.S. history precluded the era of theatre mega-plexes like the now popular Cinemark and Hollywood Movie chains. In 1922, the film industry was the fourth-largest in the nation. By the end of the 1920s, over fifty million people were attending movies each week in the United States, at a time when the nation’s population was only 115 million.[i] These smaller theaters, then, were necessary to meet the public’s increasing demand for film entertainment.

Helter Skelter first opened in 1997 (under a different name) in a small portion of the old theater’s space, with the rest of the building occupied by a sandwich shop and a vintage video-game trading store. The owner/operator of Helter Skelter is Santino, a New Jersey transplant to Collegetown. A self-described ‘wild kid’ growing up, Santino worked as a pipefitter in New York City in his early adulthood. In the late 1990s, opportunities for work as a union pipefitter in New York City became scarce, and Santino relocated to Collegetown, taking a union job at the major University’s power plant. Having a long-held desire to one day run his own bar and tavern, but with overhead costs too expensive on the East Coast, Santino found Collegetown’s relatively cheap real estate market encouraging. He soon quit his job at the power plant to open his dream adult nightlife hangout.

The original Helter Skelter had a much more sinister sounding name. However, local scrutiny of the establishment was often based on perceptions of the original name, with many locals believing it to be connected to the occult, to criminal activities, and to other less-than desirable subcultures. These perceptions led Santino to eventually change the name of his establishment to its current title. Helter Skelter, according to Santino, was inspired by three themes that had a huge influence on his teenage years and through his early adulthood: horror, science fiction, and rock music. Posters of Star Wars and cult-classic B-movies adorn the walls. Novelty skulls and graphics of flames accompany them. Halloween rubber masks are juxtaposed with metal-rock memorabilia, and, in the early 2000s, there was even a life-sized cardboard cutout of Darth Vader stuck to the bar’s door. In an interview with the local paper shortly after Helter Skelter opened, Santino recounted his inspiration for his establishment’s design:

In my childhood, one of the best ways to relax were horror and sci-fi movies…It was kind of escapism. A fantasy world…What seems strange or grotesque to others seems quite normal to me.

Along the shelves above the booths inside of Helter Skelter are dolls and figurines from popular, American horror films: Chucky from Child’s Play, Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street films, Jason from the Friday the 13th franchise, Pinhead from the Hellraiser series, and Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise. Along the ceiling, the large HVAC system is painted in the image of a giant squid, and the air ducts extending out from it are painted to resemble large tentacles gripping the ceiling. The wall above the front of the bar is painted in the caricature of a nude female demon, complete with a long tail and a sexually suggestive pose. Near the pool table in the back of the bar hangs a large poster from the Rob Zombie-directed The Devil’s Rejects.

In August of 2001, Santino opened a second venue across the street from Helter Skelter, aptly titled Helter Skelter Live. A concert hall meant to be an extension of its sibling, Santino intended to use Helter Skelter Live to showcase the musical underground of bigger cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, and Houston. Like Helter Skelter, the rock/sci-fi/horror theme resonated in the room. A life-sized doll of Frankenstein’s monster and a vampire-toothed skull were just some of the venue’s décor. However, in just over a year, Helter Skelter Live closed down. A sprinkler system had gone off during a live show, a symptom of the interior deterioration within the building. With little capital or time to invest in repairs, Santino closed the doors to Helter Skelter Live, and instead turned his complete attention to his original bar and tavern across the street. With a desire to continue with live rock music shows, Santino began to devote his weekends to hosting similar bands to the ones he had been bringing in during the fifteen months his live venue was open. Some of the musical acts that have played live at Helter Skelter include: The Misfits, the late Joe Strummer (of the Clash), and Marky Ramone. Santino proudly boasts that even Sebastian Bach, lead singer of hair-metal band, Skid Row, came in one night just to hang out after playing a concert at another venue in The District.

Currently, Helter Skelter serves a rather eclectic demographic, no doubt influenced by its décor and its weekly rotation of thematic entertainment. Monday nights are ‘Geek Night’, with free pool, darts, and board games offered to customers. Tuesday nights are designated for the amateur comedy show that was the focus of my research. Wednesday night is ‘Trivia Night’, and Thursday night is advertised as Collegetown’s ‘biggest and best karaoke night.’ Comics from Tuesday’s live show often frequent Helter Skelter on Wednesday and Thursday to participate in the bar’s activities. Friday night is themed, ‘Dirty Disco’, a mix of 1970s disco music with punk, horror, and sci-fi themed attire worn by customers. Finally, Saturday night is, with few exceptions, reserved for live musical performances by local, regional, and national acts, fulfilling Santino’s desire to provide Collegetown with a taste of the musical underground of larger, urban nightlife.

Though the eclectic nature of Helter Skelter’s weekly offerings would appear to make it difficult to attract and keep a regular crowd, it actually has the opposite effect. Patrons who frequent Helter Skelter state they do so because it is not like the dozens of other bars and nightlife venues within The District. While many of these other venues attempt to cater to the dominant college-aged demographic – White, heterosexual, upper-middle to upper-class, and of similar mainstream cultural tastes – Helter Skelter makes no such efforts. Specials on mainstream beer products like Budweiser, Miller, and Coors are not offered at Helter Skelter, whereas they are prevalent at all of the other nightlife venues in The District. Instead, Pabst and Stag products are offered at similar, or cheaper, price points.[ii] The patrons who frequent Helter Skelter on a given night are highly unlikely to frequent the more mainstream venues of The District, precisely because Helter Skelter’s patrons do not identify with mainstream Collegetown culture.

The typical crowd at Helter Skelter is almost exclusively White, but unlike other venues, many of the patrons at Helter Skelter both talk and perform working-class identities. These identities come through in the style of clothing worn, the topics of conversation, and the affinity for the aforementioned Pabst and Stag beer products over the more common Budweiser, Miller, and Coors products, as a matter of working-class performance. Meaning, drinking a Pabst or Stag communicates to others that Helter Skelter is ‘your kind of place’. In addition, staff at Helter Skelter participate in working-class performativity through their verbal shaming of customers who do order mainstream products, including what staff refer to as ‘girlie drinks.’ Young men, in particular, are quickly made aware that, while in Helter Skelter, they should drink generic beers like Pabst and Stag, or whiskey, either neat or mixed with soda.


Working to Laugh

[i] For an excellent edited volume on American film history, see The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film (Wiley Blackwell, 2011), edited by Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, and Art Simon. This four-volume set covers the origins of American film through the contemporary period, with essays by a number of cultural historians, anthropologists, and other scholars of popular culture.

[ii] I found it quite funny when it was pointed out to me by a colleague that the ‘daily specials’ advertised on the drinks board behind Helter Skelter’s bar were, in fact, not ‘specials’ at all. They are the normal prices, but are simply rotated on a nightly basis. So, Tuesday Nights were “$5 Whiskey doubles”, but this was actually the normal price throughout the rest of the week.

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.


Affect and the Sociology of Race: A Program for Critical Inquiry

(now available online at Ethnicities)


Theorizing the centrality of race remains a key issue within the social sciences. However, an examination of four programs that dominate critical inquiry, particularly in the US context – Racial Formation Theory; Systemic Racism; Color-Blind Racism; and Critical Race Theory – reveal two key problems: a reductivist account of the role of culture in the production of race and racism and the essentializing of the political identity of racial Others. This article, then, considers a different paradigm for the study of race – an affective program. Two components of an affective program identified in this article are: (a) a more dynamic account of culture, opening up the realm of the discursive to more than just signification and representation, but also expression; and (b) locating the possibilities of racial politics as matters of racialized and anti-racist practices rather than matters of racial identity.

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 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: