Florida Atlantic University Sociology Inhibit Upward Mobility Paper


In class, we discussed various structural factors that inhibit upward mobility. Drawing on a wide variety of readings and videos on gender, debt, crime/punishment/courts/police, race, health, neighborhood dynamics (including ghettoization/redlining/gentrification), etc., you will show how and why upward economic mobility is difficult in this country for people of various backgrounds. (NOTE: This is a purposely broad prompt. You need to think about how you will craft a coherent essay that deals with many, though not all, of these concerns.



one thing i KNOW
falling upward
by dalton conley
The top one percent of Americans reaped 70 percent of income
growth during a period of economic expansion, average people
became over-leveraged, and stocks soared.
At its most concentrated, that top one percent took in nearly
a quarter of the national income. The economy got top heavy,
the stock market crashed, and economic depression descended
like a worldwide fog.
Sound familiar? Perhaps you’re thinking Lehman Brothers,
the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and the subprime crisis. But I’m talking about 1928-29. While the similarities in the
lead up to the Great Depression echo eerily across the century,
the aftermath of this crisis is anything but comparable. After
the Great Depression, inequality leveled out until 1969; by contrast, since 2008, inequality has only continued its steady rise.
Tea Partiers and left-wingers who opposed TARP might say
the reason for this difference is obvious: in 1929 there was no bail
out of Wall Street (or the nascent auto industry, for that matter).
There wasn’t even deposit insurance. The free market was left
to destroy fortunes—ill-gotten or not—“correcting” gross wealth
inequalities in the process. No doubt, TARP (and even the FDIC)
does play a role in explaining the differences between income
inequality in the Great Depression and the Great Recession, but
these days there are deeper social forces that powerfully—though
subtly—alter the economic landscape and may have made TARP
and other pro-Wall Street policies inescapable.
First, the forces driving wage differentials don’t show any
signs of abating. Globalization combined with the rising skillpremium of a knowledge economy means there are sure to be
more Bill Gates in our future (and that work will continue to get
outsourced by their inventions). But the real kicker is that while
labor market inequality will likely continue to rise, the interests
of workers are increasingly yoked to those of their bosses.
Asset data are sketchy for the 1920s, but economic historians know that, while stock market participation did expand during those boom years, the overall rate was nothing like it is
today. Thanks largely to the shift to defined contribution pension plans and the ease of internet investing, half of Americans
now have direct or indirect investments in the stock market.
The catch is that while many of us are in for a penny, it’s still the
super-wealthy who are in for a pound. A study by the St. Louis
Federal Reserve Bank found the richest 10 percent own upwards
of 85 percent of stocks and other financial assets. So if the rest
of us want to save our 401ks, we have to save the status quo
for the super-rich, too. Thank heavens Social Security wasn’t
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privatized (as George W. Bush proposed in 2005), or we’d be
even more beholden to the financial industry.
Ditto for the housing market—home equity makes up a
greater and greater share of household wealth as we drift down
the income ladder. Back in 1930, fewer than half of Americans
owned a home; by its peak in the 2000s, the homeownership
rate had hit 70 percent. So we’re all invested in real estate values. A sluggish housing market used to at least mean falling rents
for those at the bottom of the pyramid, but today, when most
of us keep our life savings in the form of housing equity, price drops
are devastating. Plus, home ownership reduces workers’ ability
to move for better job prospects; thus, limiting bargaining power.
Many scholars, including myself, have argued for the benefits of wider-spread asset ownership as a way to spread opportunity, good financial habits, a future orientation, and ultimately,
a greater stake in capitalism and the rule of law. But we must
be honest about the fact that an “ownership society” (to use
Bush’s term) also means a country in which the economic interests of the wealthy and the non-wealthy are increasingly tied
to each other. Populist anger aside, letting robber barons sink
would drown the rest of us, too.
Taken together, these trends suggest inequality is a quasipermanent feature of the economic landscape. While research
has yet to establish a causal link between inequality levels and
human outcomes, it seems intuitive that there must be some
effects of economic polarization. The problem is that while in
absolute terms, everyone wants the same things—rising house
and stock prices—in relative terms, those in the middle (and bottom) fall further and further behind. In other words, a rising
tide lifts all boats, but that same tide causes more and bigger
financial waves that risk swamping the dinghies while sparing
the ocean liners and oil tankers.
Many on the left wonder why there isn’t more of a backlash against rising inequality. But it’s really not too bewildering—we’re all implicated in the greatest Ponzi scheme ever.
How to keep from swindling ourselves is the trick.
Dalton Conley is in the department of sociology at New York University. He is
the author (with Annette Laureau) of Social Class: How Does it Work?
Contexts, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 84. ISSN 1536-5042, electronic ISSN 1537-6052. © 2011 American Sociological Association.
http://contexts.sagepub.com. DOI 10.1177/1536504211418806
rethinking american poverty
by mark r. rank
It’s a fundamental paradox: in America,
the wealthiest country on earth, one also
finds the highest rates of poverty in the
developed world. Whether we examine
children’s rates of poverty, poverty
among working age adults, poverty
within single parent families, or overall
rates of poverty, the story is much the
same—the United States has exceedingly
high levels of impoverishment.
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As a result, half of U.S. children will reside in a household that uses
food stamps at some point during childhood. Life expectancy in
Harlem is shorter than in Bangladesh. The bottom 60 percent
of the American population currently holds less than 1 percent
of the financial wealth in the country. And two thirds of the
counties that black children are growing up in are considered
high poverty with respect to impoverished neighborhoods.
Although there are several possible explanations for why
these conditions exist, the argument developed here is that a
major reason has to do with how we as a society have tended
to conceptualize the issue of poverty and, based upon this
thinking, how we have acted (or better put, failed to act) toward
the issue.
The traditional manner of thinking about poverty in the
U.S. has viewed impoverishment as largely the result of individual inadequacies and failings. These shortcomings include not
working hard enough, failure to acquire sufficient skills, or just
making bad decisions. Consequently, the problem of poverty is
often seen through a lens of individual pathology. Since individuals are perceived as having brought poverty onto themselves, our collective and societal obligations are seen as limited.
The age-old distinction between the deserving versus the undeserving poor reflects this perspective—unless the working-age
poor have very good grounds for their
poverty, they’re deemed largely undeserving of help. Poverty is therefore
understood as primarily affecting those
who choose not to play by the rules of
the game. Ultimately, this perspective reflects and reinforces
the myths and ideals of American society: there are economic
opportunities for all, individualism and self-reliance are paramount, and hard work is rewarded.
This overall mindset has long influenced both the general
public’s attitudes toward the poor and much of the policy and
academic work analyzing poverty. Nevertheless, it seriously misconstrues the true nature of poverty and fosters a lack of political and social will to address the problem itself. Three major
changes are essential for realistically and proactively reframing
American impoverishment.
poverty affects us all
A first fundamental shift in thinking is the recognition that
poverty affects us all. All too often we view poverty as someone else’s problem, or think that poverty is confined to certain
areas and neighborhoods (such as inner cities or remote rural
areas), and that by avoiding such areas we can simply ignore
the issue. The notion is “out of sight, out of mind.”
Clearly, this perspective is incorrect and intellectually lazy.
In one way or another, poverty affects us all. There are at least
two ways of thinking about this. The first is that whether we
realize it or not, we pay a steep price for our high rates of
poverty. As mentioned earlier, the extent and depth of poverty
and economic inequality in the U.S. are far greater than in any
other Western industrialized country.
As a result, we spend considerably more money than
needed on social problems associated with poverty. These
include greater health problems, family problems, a less able
work force, and so on down a long list. When we speak about
homeland security, these are the issues that undermine us and
our security as a nation. We wind up paying a tremendous
price for quietly allowing so many of our citizens and communities to remain mired in poverty.
All too often, we view poverty as someone else’s
All images from series “American Outsiders.” © Tom Stone,
As an example, a study by the economist Harry Holzer and
colleagues attempted to quantify the annual monetary cost of
childhood poverty in the U.S. They calculated the economic
costs that growing up in poverty had for future earnings, risk
of engaging in crime, and health quality in later life. Their estimate was that the overall cost of childhood poverty was an
eye opening $500 billion per year — nearly 4 percent of this
country’s GDP.
The result is that we end up spending much of our tax dollars and resources on the by-products of poverty, assuredly a
more expensive approach over the long term than preventing
poverty in the first place. In short, each of us pays dearly in a
number of ways for letting poverty exist at such levels, but we
too often fail to see this connection.
However, there is also a second way of thinking about
Contexts, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 16-21. ISSN 1536-5042, electronic ISSN 1537-6052. © 2011 American Sociological Association.
http://contexts.sagepub.com. DOI 10.1177/1536504211408794
spring 2011 contexts 17
poverty as affecting us all. And that comes in considering the
chances that an average American will directly encounter poverty
at some point during his or her lifetime. As it turns out, the number of Americans who are touched by poverty during adulthood
is exceedingly high. My co-author, sociologist Thomas Hirschl,
and I have estimated that between the ages of 20 and 75, nearly
60 percent of Americans will experience at least one year below
the poverty line and three quarters will experience a year either
in or near poverty. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that two
thirds of Americans between the ages of 20 and 65 will wind up
using a social welfare program such as Food Stamps or Medicaid;
40 percent will use such a program in at least five years scattered throughout their working age adulthood.
Consequently, although those in poverty and welfare recipients are routinely vilified and portrayed as members of “marginalized groups” on the fringes of society, most of us will find
ourselves below the poverty line and using a social safety net
program at some point. After all, during the course of a lifetime,
any number of unexpected, detrimental things can happen—
job loss, family break ups, or the development of a major health
problem. In addition, recent research has shown that this life
course risk of poverty and economic instability has been rising
since the 1990s. More and more families, including middle class
ones, are experiencing greater income volatility, greater instability in the labor market, and a lack of benefits such as health and
unemployment insurance. Jobs are no longer as stable as they
once were, health care benefits are harder to get, and the safety
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net has weakened over time.
A first shift in thinking therefore asks the question, “Who
is at risk of poverty and its consequences?” The answer is: virtually all of us. As a result, each of us has a vested interest in
and an imperative for reducing poverty in the U.S.
structural failings
A second critical change in thinking is a recognition that
American poverty is largely the result of failings at the economic
and political levels, rather than at the individual level. In the
past, we’ve emphasized individual inadequacies as the major
reason for poverty; that is, people aren’t motivated enough,
aren’t working hard enough, have failed to acquire enough
skills and education, or have just made bad decisions. These
behaviors and attributes are seen as leading people into poverty
and keeping them there. And in fact, we tend to confront most
social problems in this country as individual pathologies.
In contrast to this perspective, the basic problem lies in a
shortage of viable opportunities for all Americans. Certainly,
particular individual shortcomings, such as the lack of education
or skills, help explain who is more likely to be left out in the
competition to locate and secure good opportunities, but they
cannot explain why there’s a shortage of such opportunities in
the first place. In order to answer that question, we must turn
to the inability of the economic and political structures to provide the supports and opportunities necessary to lift all of us
out of poverty.
The most obvious example is in the mismatch between
the number of decent paying jobs and the pool of labor in
search of those jobs. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. economy has been producing more and more low-paying jobs, parttime jobs, and jobs without benefits (it’s estimated that
approximately one third of all jobs are low-paying—less than
$11.50 an hour). And of course, beyond those in low-paying
jobs, there are millions of unemployed Americans at any point
in time. During the recent economic downturn, six to seven
people have been competing for every single job opening. Coupled with the country’s lack of universal coverage for child care,
health care, and affordable housing, this situation leaves an
increasing number of families economically vulnerable.
In class, I often use the analogy of musical chairs to help
students recognize this disconnect. Picture a game with ten
players, but only eight chairs. When the music stops, who’s
most likely to be left standing? It will be those who are at a
disadvantage in terms of competing for the available chairs
(less agility, reduced speed, a bad position when the music
stops, and so on). However, given that the game is structured
in a way such that two players are bound to lose, these individual attributes only explain who loses, not why there are losers in the first place. Ultimately, there are simply not enough
chairs for those playing the game.
The critical mistake that’s been made in the past is that
we‘ve equated the question of who loses at the game with
the question of why the game inevitably produces losers. They
are, in fact, distinct and separate questions. So while characteristics such as deficiencies in skills or education or being in a
single parent family help to explain who’s at a heightened risk
of encountering poverty, the fact that poverty exists in the first
place results not from these characteristics, but from a failure
of the economic and political structures to provide enough
decent opportunities and supports for the whole of society.
By focusing solely upon individual characteristics, we can
shuffle people up or down in terms of their likelihood to land
a job with good earnings, but when
there aren’t enough of these jobs to go
around, somebody will still end up in
poverty. We’re playing a large-scale version of musical chairs.
The recognition of this dynamic represents a fundamental shift in thinking
from the past. It helps explain why the social policies of the last
three decades have been largely ineffective in reducing poverty
rates. We‘ve spent our attention and resources on altering players’ incentives and disincentives through various welfare reform
measures, or, in a very limited way, upgrading their skills and
ability to compete with various job training programs, but we’ve
left the structure of the game untouched.
Overall rates of poverty do go up and down, but primarily
as a result of changes on the structural level (that is, increases
or decreases in the number of available opportunities—the
“chairs”). In particular, the performance of the economy has
been historically important, since, when the economy is expanding, more opportunities are available for the competing pool
of labor and their families. The reverse occurs when the economy slows down, as we saw in the 2000s and the economic
collapse that began in 2008. To attribute the rise of poverty
over the past ten years to individual inadequacies or lowered
Between the ages of 20 and 75, nearly 60 percent
of Americans will experience at least one year
below the poverty line.
motivation is absurd. Rather, the increase in poverty has everything to do with deteriorating economic conditions, particularly
in the last few years.
Likewise, changes in various social supports and the social
safety net affect how well families are able to avoid poverty.
When such supports were increased by the War on Poverty initiatives of the 1960s and buoyed by a strong economy, poverty
rates declined significantly. Likewise, when Social Security benefits were expanded during the 1960s and 1970s, poverty rates
spring 2011 contexts 19
among the elderly dropped sharply. Conversely, when social supports have been eroded, as in the case of children’s programs
over the past 30 years, rates of poverty among those relying on
such services have gone up.
The recognition of poverty as a structural failing also makes
it clear why the U.S. has such high rates of poverty when compared to other Western countries. It’s not that Americans are
less motivated or less skilled than those in other countries, but
that our economy has been producing millions of low-wage jobs
and our social policies have done relatively little to economically
support families compared to other industrialized countries.
From this perspective, one key to addressing poverty is to
increase the labor market opportunities and social supports
available to American households. We must shift our thinking
to recognize the fundamental distinction between who loses
at the game and why the game produces losers in the first place.
the moral ground
Let’s turn to the third shift in thinking that’s needed to create a more realistic and proactive approach toward poverty. And
that is the moral ground on which we view poverty in America
must change. In the past, our moral perspective has been rooted
in the ethos of individual blame, with a resulting general acceptance of the status quo. In other words, since people bring it
upon themselves, poverty’s their problem, not mine.
But poverty is a moral problem. It represents an injustice
of a substantial magnitude. Severe deprivation and hardship
have been documented in countless studies — not to mention
millions of human lives. And, as argued earlier, a large portion
of this poverty is the result of failings at the structural rather
than the individual level, which places much of the responsibility for poverty beyond the poor.
be somewhat higher than the Eiffel Tower, but almost all of us
would be within several yards of the ground. By the time of
Samuelson’s 2001 edition of the textbook, most of us would
still be within several yards of the ground, but the Eiffel Tower
would now have to be replaced with Mount Everest to represent those at the top.
Or consider the distance between the average worker’s
salary and the average CEO’s salary. In 1980, the average CEO
of a major corporation earned around 42 times the pay of the
average worker. Today, it is well over
400 times. Adding insult to injury, during the past 30 years, an increasing
number of companies have demanded
concessions from their workers, including pay cuts and the elimination of
health benefits in order to keep their
labor costs down, while those at the top have prospered beyond
any sense of decency.
Patterns of wealth accumulation have become even more
skewed. The top one percent of the U.S. population currently
owns 42 percent of the country’s entire financial wealth, while the
bottom 60 percent of Americans are in possession of less than 1
percent. And while all of these trends have been emerging, our
social policies have continued to give more to the well-to-do and
less to the economically vulnerable, with the argument that these
policies help all Americans through “trickle down economics.”
A new way of thinking recognizes this as a moral outrage.
Injustice, rather than blame, becomes the moral compass with
which to view poverty amidst abundance. The magnitude of
There’s a fundamental distinction between who
loses at the game and why the game produces
losers in the first place.
However, what makes this injustice particularly grievous is
the stark contrast between the wealth, abundance, and
resources of America and its levels of destitution. Something
is seriously wrong when we find that, in a country with the
most abundant resources in the world, there are children without enough to eat, families who cannot afford health care,
and people sleeping on the streets for lack of shelter.
It should also be noted that the gap between extreme
prosperity and vulnerability has never been wider. The venerable economist Paul Samuelson, writing in the first edition of
his introductory economics textbook in 1948, observed that if
we were to make an income pyramid out of a child’s play blocks,
with each layer representing $1,000 of income, the peak would
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such injustice constitutes a strong impetus for change. It signals
that a wrong is being committed and cries out for a remedy. A
shift in thinking is premised upon the idea that social change is
essential for addressing the injustices of poverty.
This is in sharp contrast with the old way of thinking, in
which the moral focus is upon individual blame. Such thinking simply reinforces the status quo by letting us do little while
poverty rates climb. The perspective of injustice exhorts us to
actively engage and confront poverty, rather than comfortably
settling for widespread impoverishment.
In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or
Community?, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “A true
revolution of value will soon cause us to question the fairness
and justice of many of our past and present policies. We are
called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will
be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be
transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and
robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands
that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. A
true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring
contrast of poverty and wealth.” This revolution of values must
begin with a fundamental shift in how American society understands, and ultimately acts toward, the poverty in which so
many of our citizens live. These are the building blocks on which
to challenge and confront the paradox of poverty amidst plenty.
recommended resources
Alberto Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser. Fighting Poverty in the US
and Europe: A World of Difference (Oxford University Press, 2004).
A comparison of the differing approaches taken in the U.S. and
Europe to addressing poverty.
David Brady. Rich Democracies, Poor People: How Politics Explain
Poverty (Oxford University Press, 2009). Demonstrates that the
extent of poverty across countries is largely the result of variations
in social policies and programs.
Jacob S. Hacker. The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity
and the Decline of the American Dream (Oxford University Press,
2008). Ties Americans’ increasing economic vulnerability over the
last 30 years to the shifting of economic risk from government and
employers to individuals and families.
Alice O’Connor. Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy,
and the Poor in Twentieth-century U.S. History (Princeton University
Press, 2001). Argues that U.S. poverty research has shifted from
a focus on structural causes to an over-emphasis upon individual
behavior and personal characteristics as the reasons for poverty.
Mark R. Rank is in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of One Nation, Underprivileged: Why
American Poverty Affects Us All.
spring 2011 contexts 21
and the
by richard alba
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Lethal bombs exploding on American soil, suspicions about immigrant groups harboring terrorists, a drive to close the borders to
unassimilable foreigners—this isn’t just today, it’s also the 1920s, a
similar period of turmoil around immigration and the ethno-racial
divisions that arise from it.
One case and two names symbolized the contradictions
of the era for Americans in the ‘20s: Sacco and Vanzetti. Before
two anarchist Italian immigrants were executed for their alleged
involvement in a robbery and murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts (a suburb of Boston), their case became a cause
célèbre among Americans, divided by their views of the men’s
guilt or innocence.
Nine decades on, we can look back at this case to recognize how easily justice is perverted by the intensifying perception of immigrants as “enemies” of American institutions.
These perceptions are vulnerable to exploitation in uncertain
times like the immediate post-World War I period. Then, as
now, some immigrant groups were widely believed to be inferior to ordinary white Americans and unsuitable for assimilation into the mainstream.
By World War I, decades of mass immigration to the U.S.—
the zenith was the first decade of the century — had produced
a huge population of foreign origin. The twentieth-century highwater mark for immigrants in the population, 15 percent, was
reached in 1910. In the largest American cities outside the South,
immigrants and the second generation (those who’d grown up
in immigrant homes) made up the majority of residents.
World War I triggered profound anxieties about the foreign born. Americans worried that immigrant communities
from countries that were now enemy powers could shelter
conspiratorial groups that would bring the war to the homeland through sabotage and propaganda. Just as is true today,
native-born Americans thought language marked distance from
the mainstream; a number of states passed laws to ban the
teaching of foreign languages, particularly German.
The war ushered in a period of superpatriotism, when
“100 percent Americanism” became the slogan of the day and
the federal government passed laws to suppress and punish
dissent. After the war ended, anxieties focused, during the Red
Scare of 1919-20, on political radicals and labor organizers.
Again, immigrant communities appeared in the crosshairs, and
the Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, ordered raids on foreign-born radicals for the purpose of deportation. Anarchist
groups, often anchored among Italian communities, responded
From the Boston Daily Globe, October 2, 1923.
with bombing campaigns, one of which reached the front steps
of Palmer’s Washington, D.C. residence.
Such events lent momentum to the long-term drive to
limit immigration, especially for groups viewed as undesirable
according to their race, religion, or national origin. Scientific
racism, then widely accepted by even educated Americans,
provided the theories and evidence (collected, in part, with the
newly developed IQ test) to regard most of the recently immigrated groups as inherently inferior.
Asians had already been mostly eliminated from the immigrant stream (starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882),
but now the targets became the heavily Catholic and Jewish
immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. The Ku Klux
Klan revived in the early 1920s, this time in northern cities, as
Protestant whites mobilized against the interlopers. In 1921
and 1924, Congress passed immigration laws that, “at long
last” in the eyes of many native-born Americans, shut the
golden door to the U.S. These laws stipulated nationality quotas that discriminated against southern and eastern Europeans.
The Italians, the most numerous of the immigrant groups, saw
their annual limit for entrants set at less than 6,000, about 3
percent of the 200,000 newcomers they’d averaged in the
early years of the century.
enter sacco and vanzetti
In April 1920, a gang pulled off a brazen robbery outside
Contexts, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 30-35. ISSN 1536-5042, electronic ISSN 1537-6052. © 2011 American Sociological Association.
http://contexts.sagepub.com. DOI 10.1177/1536504211408875
spring 2011 contexts 31
a South Braintree shoe factory. Two bandits gunned down the
payroll master and his guard as they walked down the street,
shooting the guard repeatedly from close range in an apparent execution. A car with three other men raced in to pick up
the gunmen and their loot (almost $16,000) and sped away.
The crime played out in full view of numerous witnesses.
A few weeks later, two different plotlines intersected when
police in a nearby town arrested Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo
Vanzetti, both carrying loaded revolvers on a streetcar. The men
were part of a small contingent of Italian-born anarchists who
were out that evening in an unsuccessful attempt to pick up and
hide materials belonging to their group. Leaflets? Dynamite? No
one knows for sure, but they were acting out of fear that the
group had been fingered by two New York anarchists who’d been
detained and interrogated for weeks by the Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of the FBI). The police for their part had set
a trap for anarchists they suspected of the South Braintree crime
and of a failed Christmas Eve robbery in nearby Bridgewater.
Sacco and Vanzetti were exhibited to numerous witnesses
of the crimes, most of whom failed to recognize them. Still
believing they’d been arrested for their anarchism and wanting to protect their comrades, the men gave false and evasive
answers to police questions. Later, this behavior was viewed
in court as betraying “consciousness of guilt” and weighed
heavily against them. In the event, the local police chief, Michael
Stewart, a key player in the drama to come, was certain that
he had his men and convinced the district attorney, Frederick
Katzmann, to prosecute. Sacco and Vanzetti were trapped in
a vise that would tighten relentlessly until they were dead.
Vanzetti went on trial first, for the Bridgewater robbery.
(Sacco could not be tried for this crime because he could prove
that he was at work when it occurred.) The trial foretold what
ney Katzmann presented a series of
eyewitnesses who
identified him as a
gunman (the jury
was not told about
the more numerous
witnesses who’d not
recognized Sacco as
one of the bandits).
The courtroom testimony often deviated
from what the witnesses had told
investigators shortly
after the crimes, and
the defense tried its
best to highlight the
Sacco’s alibi, that
he’d been in Boston
attempting to secure Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was only
one luminary arrested in Boston
an Italian passport to protests in the summer of 1927.
return home, was
supported by defense witnesses and the affidavit of an Italian
consular official. But his fate was sealed by ballistics tests that
purported to show that a bullet from his gun had killed the
Against Vanzetti, the evidence was much weaker. No witnesses placed him at the crime scene, though a few claimed
to have seen him subsequently in the getaway car. The prosecution presented the theory that the gun in his possession
when he was arrested had been taken
from the dying guard. His alibi was that
he was on the streets hawking fish that
day, but the claim was hard to prove.
Though the evidence on which the
trial turned has been analyzed and disputed ever since, the jury took just three
hours to convict the two men of a capital crime. The verdict did
not end the drama; it merely brought down the curtain on the
first act. Between the close of the trial in July 1921 and the
execution of the two men in August 1927 lay six long years of
appeals, controversy over their guilt and the fairness of the
trial, and national and international mobilization on their behalf.
In those years, the defense filed multiple motions for new
trials, which were heard and rejected by Judge Thayer and
higher courts as well. In 1926, Herbert Ehrmann, a defense
lawyer who would devote his life to the case, assembled evidence that a known Providence, RI criminal gang, the Morellis, had carried out the crime. The possibility of a new trial was
rejected again.
The Sacco and Vanzetti case suggests how
easily justice is perverted by the perception of
immigrants as “enemies.”
was to come. Eyewitness testimony placing Vanzetti at the
scene was thin, and his defense presented numerous Italian
witnesses who said that he was elsewhere that day, selling eels,
a customary Christmas Eve food in Italian families. But the alibi
testimony, often requiring translation into English, counted for
little, as the district attorney deployed courtroom tricks, asking
the Italian witnesses to recall their experiences on randomly
chosen dates to undermine their reliability. Vanzetti was convicted, and Judge Webster Thayer, who’d preside at the next
trial as well, sentenced him to an exceptionally long period in
prison—12 to 15 years—for the failed robbery.
The next trial, for the South Braintree robbery and murders, would make world history. Against Sacco, district attor-
32 contexts.org
Appeals exhausted, Judge Thayer finally imposed the
mandatory sentence of death in the spring of 1927. All hope
was not yet extinguished, though: the governor could grant
clemency. But, wary of acting on such a controversial case, he
asked a three-man committee of luminaries, including the presidents of Harvard and MIT, to review it. Though they listened to
extensive presentations from the defense, even evidence about
the alternative theory of the crime, their report found the trial
fair and the original verdict correct, thus paving the way for the
closing ranks
The Sacco and Vanzetti case shows how an ethnically unified establishment can close ranks against outsiders, especially
against those who are viewed as social and
moral inferiors. In the process, those with
power can pervert justice, acting in ways
that they would probably condemn in others, but viewing their own actions as morally
justified. One of the defenses frequently
offered on behalf of those who sent Sacco
and Vanzetti to their deaths is that they were “honorable” men,
incapable of the perversions of justice that are apparent in retrospect (such as the subornation of perjury by the prosecution).
Honorable they may have been, but when facing what they view
as a crisis, those in power will generally do what they deem necessary to protect an established order in which they occupy positions of privilege.
None of the establishment actors from Sacco and Vanzetti’s
case escapes with honor intact. Not only did the prosecution
put eyewitnesses on the stand who gave trial testimony that
deviated considerably from what they’d previously told investigators, but some were explicitly coached to tailor their testimony to the prosecution’s case. For instance, a shipping clerk
appeared as a prosecution witness to tell about his observation of the getaway car loitering on a nearby street hours before
the robbery, but he was urged to omit mention of a second
car, whose driver
appeared to be in
communication with
the other. Two cars
might have suggested a more professional operation
than immigrant anarchists were capable
of mounting.
One of the most
devastating misrepresentations involved
Vanzetti. The theory
presented to the
jurors that the pistol in his possession had been taken from
the dying guard was known by prosecutors to be false by the
time of the trial. When the police records of the case were
unsealed a half century later, the files of Michael Stewart, the
police chief, revealed that his men had uncovered the original
sales record for the guard’s gun, which proved it wasn’t the
gun found on Vanzetti.
Prosecutor Katzmann’s final remark had addressed the
jurors as native-born Americans: “Stand together you men of
Norfolk.” And stand together they did. Interviewed many years
later, they were unwavering in their views of the case and
refused to consider the possibility that prejudice of any sort
played a role in their deliberations. Yet they took remarkably
little time to convict two men of a capital crime, even though
Between the close of the trial and the execution
lay six long years of appeals, controversy, and
international mobilization.
the evidence was contradictory and against Vanzetti, meager.
(And sometimes ludicrous, as when one witness who claimed
to have seen Vanzetti in the getaway car also stated that
Vanzetti had yelled a warning in idiomatic, unaccented English.
Vanzetti, like Sacco, spoke a stilted English with a strong accent.)
The role of Judge Thayer was controversial even at the
time. Some observers recalled an icy courtroom atmosphere,
where the hostility toward immigrants was almost palpable.
The judge’s contempt for the defense’s lead lawyer, Fred Moore,
was undisguised. Thayer had asked to preside at the South
Braintree case, and he heard and rejected all of the appeals. His
hostile attitudes burst through in private comments that were
made public. At one of his clubs, he opined, “These two men
are anarchists; they are guilty… They are not getting a fair trial
but I am working it so their counsel will think they are.”
Then there’s the governor’s committee of advisors, who
lent their prestige to a dubious verdict. Its three members,
including Harvard’s president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, knew
their review was the final step before execution, and seemed
to take their responsibility seriously (they rebuked Judge Thayer
for breaching the neutrality of his role with prejudiced outbursts, for instance). In the end, though they may have had
reservations about the case, they stood with the establishment.
Their hesitant conclusion about Vanzetti expresses the awkwardness of their position: “On the whole, we are of the opinion that Vanzetti also was guilty beyond reasonable doubt.”
These indictments of establishment actors don’t mean that
Sacco and Vanzetti lacked for influential supporters. The case
became a cause célèbre, both in the U.S. and abroad. Prominent among the supporters were radicals like Moore, who, as the
lead defense lawyer during the trial, helped to raise the profile
spring 2011 contexts 33
of the case to the international plane. Also flocking to their cause
were intellectuals such as the novelist Upton Sinclair and the
poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. In addition, members of minority
groups, such as the Jewish future Supreme Court Justice, Felix
Frankfurter, then a Harvard professor, made common cause with
the two Italian immigrants. Upper-class Boston women, perhaps
conscious of their recent suffrage struggle, supported the men
with jail visits and English lessons.
Others saw the case as a test of the American system.
After Moore left the case due to a dispute with Sacco, the two
men were represented by the Brahmin lawyer William Thompson, who was convinced of the men’s innocence. Harvard’s
president Lowell was harassed by alumni for linking the university’s name to what they perceived as a miscarriage of justice.
Many ordinary Americans were skeptical of the trial and the
verdicts; on the night of the executions, men and women kept
vigil throughout the world.
were they guilty anyway?
One hindsight defense of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial is that,
though the judicial process may have been highly imperfect, it
got the right men: Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty, or, in another
version, only Sacco was. Some present-day conservatives, such
as commentator Ann Coulter, deride the notion of Sacco and
Vanzetti’s innocence as yet another liberal delusion.
Without question, Sacco and Vanzetti were militant anarchists. They belonged to a group that preached violence against
capitalism and the state, but the two men did not come to the
U.S. as anarchists. Like thousands of other Italian immigrants
at the time, they were radicalized by the harsh conditions under
which they labored and lived and the discriminatory treatment
to find the money strongly suggests the police were looking in
the wrong place.
The accomplices in the robbery were never identified either.
The anarchists in Sacco and Vanzetti’s circle were investigated
by the police, who initially believed they’d stumbled on a criminal band. However, no one else was ever tried for the South
Braintree crime (and historians sifting the evidence have subsequently ruled out most of these men as potential participants). Moreover, the group involved in the crime was likely
larger than the five bandits observed fleeing the scene (a second car was almost certainly involved in the getaway). This
level of organization suggests a gang of professionals (as the
Bureau of Investigation believed at the time), not an opportunistic handful of radicals.
There can be little doubt about Vanzetti’s innocence. The evidence against him is so paltry that there’s simply no reason to connect him to the South Braintree crime. Sacco remains the hard
case, and his guilt or innocence can probably never be established in a way that will convince everyone. The ballistic evidence
presented at trial has withstood the newer technologies that
have been applied to it. That is, the bullet that was alleged to have
mortally wounded the guard was fired, we can now be certain,
by Sacco’s gun.
However, the problems with the conclusion that he was
guilty lie with everything else. Sacco was a family man with
young children; by the time of the South Braintree robberies,
he was a skilled worker earning good pay and with a considerable sum of money in the bank. He lived next door to his
Irish-American employer, whose trust in him was not ended
by the criminal charges. He had a credible alibi for the time of
the crime, supported by an Italian consular official. Why would
such a man engage in this sort of crime?
Why would his anarchist comrades, some
of whom were unmarried and had less
to lose, bring him into the risky enterprise and give him the role of gunman?
If Sacco was innocent, then someone tampered with the
ballistic evidence. There’s a plausible case to be made here. A
scrupulous analysis of the trial evidence by historians William
Young and David Kaiser (in their book, Postmortem) found the
bullets presented by the prosecution conflicted with eyewitness
testimony—supposedly only one bullet came from Sacco’s gun,
though every witness reported the gunman firing several shots
at the guard from close range. Even Young and Kaiser, though,
can’t explain convincingly how a bullet substitution could have
been carried out.
Nativism’s powers are contingent, vulnerable to
shifts in the social landscape.
they received at the hands of many native-born white Americans. They knew men who planted bombs, sometimes with
lethal consequences. One of their friends, perhaps stumbling
as he carried his bomb to Attorney General Palmer’s house,
blew himself up in front of it. Yet there is no indication that
Sacco and Vanzetti participated in bombings.
The weight of the evidence speaks against the guilt of
either man when it comes to the crimes for which they were
convicted and executed. This evidence is negative in part, consisting of questions that, implausibly, have no answer. For one
thing, no trace of the stolen money was ever found, though
police went to great lengths, even asking Italian authorities to
search the trunks of an immigrant anarchist who left the U.S.
shortly after the robbery. Nor did the anarchist groups connected to Sacco and Vanzetti, which had been infiltrated by
the authorities, show any sudden cash infusions. The failure
34 contexts.org
past to present
Among other things, the Sacco and Vanzetti case illustrates the power of nativism in the hands of an establishment
facing threatening social changes. One strategy its members pursue to protect position and privilege involves brightening the
grant backgrounds to assume positions
boundary between the mainstream
of leadership in the labor force and
and ethno-racial outsiders, highlightelsewhere. How this transition plays
ing that “they” are not “us.” This is
out, on the ground in everyday relamost effective when the boundary is
tionships as well as in the economy
already visible and legitimate to the
and the polity, will do much to deterbroad majority population. The
mine the exclusionary—or inclusive—
boundary that in the early 20th century
force of 21st century ethno-racial
kept southern and eastern Europeans
from easy access to the mainstream
entailed social distinctions, including
The ultimate significance of the
religious ones, with deep roots in
Sacco and Vanzetti case remains as
American history and identity.
paradoxical as some of the events
The nativism of today exhibits
themselves. While the men’s fate
similar features. As was true a century
demonstrates that nativism can even
ago, immigration is bringing about
assume life-and-death powers, the
social changes that seem threatening
subsequent integration of Italians
to many majority Americans. The analreminds us that its powers are continogy is especially strong in terms of Sacco and Vanzetti, handcuffed together outside
gent, vulnerable to shifts in the social
demographic shift: a hundred years the courthouse after learning that they’d been
landscape and to the resistance of
ago, the changes threatened the posi- sentenced to death by electrocution.
anti-nativists. This gives a new twist
tion of Protestants of northern and
to the eloquent epitaph spoken by
western European ancestry; today, it’s the position of a broader
Vanzetti to a journalist a few months before the executions:
group of white Americans that is challenged. The tropes of crim“If it had not been for these thing, I might have live out of my
inality and threat to American institutions are as vital to nativism
life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have die,
today as in the past. They’re most potent when invoked in relaunmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This
tion to already salient social distinctions, such as that between
is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we
immigrant Latinos and native Anglos in the Southwest. The
hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s underresponse of many majority Americans has been to support measstanding of man as now we do by our dying.”
ures that place large portions of the immigrant population under
suspicion and state surveillance, exemplified in the extreme by
recommended readings
Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (PrinceArizona’s 2010 law empowering local police to detain those they
ton University Press, 1991). An in-depth portrait of radicalism
suspect are unauthorized immigrants.
among early 20th century Italian immigrants.
Yet, in the midst of a period of intense nativism, it’s easy
Leo Chavez, The Latino Threat (Stanford University Press, 2008). An
to exaggerate the power of an establishment, and of the majoranalysis of the construction of American xenophobia toward Mexity group more generally, and impose an enduring, inferior staicans, the most numerous of today’s immigrants.
tus on minorities. That view can lead to a mistaken emphasis
Samuel Huntington, Who Are We? (Simon & Schuster, 2004). A demonstration that nativism has contemporary, establishment supporters.
on social reproduction at the expense of opportunities for
change. In the case of the Italians, within three decades of the
Leo Lucassen, The Immigrant Threat: The Integration of Old and
New Migrants in Western Europe since 1850 (University of Illinois
Sacco and Vanzetti case, they were well on their way to mass
Press, 2005). A masterful analysis of the historical continuities of
entry into the mainstream. That a minority group deemed infenativism in the European context.
rior in the first half of a century could become part of the majorPeter Schrag, Not Fit for Our Society (University of California Press,
ity during the second half demonstrates that the exclusionary
2010). A narrative that convincingly links the nativism of earlier
eras to the present.
power of an establishment is not unlimited.
A repetition of mid-20th century mass assimilation is not
Bruce Watson, Sacco and Vanzetti (Viking, 2007). An excellent
account of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, with useful references.
in the cards, at least for the foreseeable future, but the determinative power of today’s nativism may also turn out to be limited. The most critical factor will be the demographically-driven
Richard Alba is in the sociology department at the Graduate Center of the City Unitransition to a more diverse society that is already underway. It
versity of New York. He is the author of Blurring the Color Line: The New Chance
will likely offer opportunities to alter the balance of power in
for a More Integrated America.
American society: that is, because of the shrinking number of
All historial images courtesy the Sacco and Vanzetti virtual
white Americans in young age groups, the U.S. of the near
tour online at mass.gov/courts/sjc
future will almost certainly depend on young people from immi-
spring 2011 contexts 35
In June of 2013, Riley Cooper, a wide receiver for the NFL’s Philadelphia
Eagles, was caught on video at a Kenny Chesney concert shouting,
“I will jump that fence and fight every nigger in here, bro!” After a
massive public uproar about the scene, Cooper, who is white, released
a statement announcing that he would speak with “a variety of
professionals” in order to ”help me better understand how I could
have done something that
was so offensive, and how
I can start the healing pro-
cess for everyone.” His
team excused Cooper from
activities so that he could
get expert help to “under-
stand how his words hurt
so many.”
It was hardly the first time a high-profile figure
sought professional counseling after being associated with an act of public racism. In 2006, while
performing at a West Hollywood comedy club,
Michael Richards, best known as Kramer from the
hit television series Seinfeld, lashed out at hecklers,
referring to them as “niggers.” Afterward, Richards’ publicist
quickly issued a statement announcing that his client would seek
psychiatric help. Paula Deen, Mel Gibson, and John Rocker also
pledged publicly to seek treatment for their racism—reflecting a
growing tendency to frame racist acts as a mental health issue.
How did racism come to be seen as psychopathological,
and how might that understanding influence efforts to combat
racism? With that question in mind, I examined mainstream print
media, and conference proceedings, presidential addresses, and
debates within the American Psychiatric Association from the
period immediately following World War II through the present.
I also analyzed public speeches by civil rights activists from the
late 1950s through the early 1970s.
Over time, this research shows, experts expressed growing
by james m. thomas
medicalizing racism
concern about the psychopathological consequences of racism on victims, and the effects of
being racist—a mental health discourse that is
transforming our understanding of the nature and
causes of racism. In this medicalized model, new
protocols focus on treating those who suffer from
the condition of racism. It is an understanding that reflects the
“new racism” of the post-civil rights era.
authoritarian personalities
Modern social science is often seen as having displaced
nineteenth century scientific racism. But while scientific racism was collapsing due to a growing body of social scientific
research, the simultaneous redefinition of racism as a pathological condition was emerging.
In 1944, the American Jewish Committee held a two-day
conference on religion and racial prejudice whose purpose was
to examine the origins of extreme bigotry that led to the Holocaust. Following this conference, the AJC commissioned the
Studies in Prejudice Series, a five volume set, with three volumes
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Adorno, Lewin fled Germany when Hitler ascended to power
centered on examining the following question: What is it about
in 1933, taking a director position with the Commission on
the psychology of individuals that may render them prejudiced?
Community Interrelations. Under Lewin’s directorship, the CCI
The first volume of the study, which is perhaps the best known,
collaborated with the American Jewish Committee. At an AJC
was The Authoritarian Personality, written by Theodor Adorno
1944 conference on religion and racial prejudice, Lewin and
and three colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley.
Adorno were key contributors.
Published in 1950, The Authoritarian Personality initiated
Lewin and Adorno’s relationship, and Lewin’s mentorship of
a major public debate. It argued that anti-Semitism and other
Alfred Marrow, help contextualize Marrow’s comments on the
forms of extreme bigotry entail more than simply negative attirelationship between racism and mental health. Marrow’s position
tudes. They consist of “nuclear ideas”; central beliefs that have
as the chair of what would later become the New York City Comprimary significance, such as the belief that Jews are conniving,
mission on Human Rights, and Wilkins’ position with the most
blacks are lazy, or homosexuals are perverse. Once these nuclear
influential civil rights organization in the country, provided them
ideas are formed, they draw in other opinions and attitudes
with broad platform for proto form a broader system
moting the claim that racism
of beliefs, an “authoritarian
is a mental health issue.
personality” that produces
extreme hatred, including
racism, according to Adorno
a sick society?
and his co-authors.
By the late 1950s
The framework proa significant number of
vided by The Authoritarian
mental health researchers
Personality proved quite
drew upon the framework
useful for several notable
offered by The Authoritarcivil rights activists and
ian Personality to situate
organizations at the time.
racism within a “sick sociFollowing the murder of
ety” model of psychiatric
Emmett Till in 1955, thenepidemiology. White and
NAACP Executive Secretary
black mental health workRoy Wilkins drew inspiraers active in the civil rights
tion from Adorno’s work to
movement also declared
suggest the hatred responthat racism was responsible
sible for Till’s lynching was
for creating and sustaining
a “virus, it’s in the blood of
many of these social ills.
the Mississippian.”
These claims reached
Is racism a mental illness? Some psychologists would like us to believe
In September 1958, that it is.
a tipping point with the
Alfred J. Marrow, thenpassage of the 1963 ComChairman of the New York City Commission on Intergroup
munity Mental Health Act, which was based on the notion that
Relations, addressed the Annual Conference of the National
victims of racism experienced psychological stress for which
Urban League in Omaha, Nebraska. In his address, Marrow
community-based mental health centers could provide treatclaimed that racism created “emotional havoc” for both its
ment. A year later, during the Freedom Summer of 1964, over
victims and perpetrators, and called for social scientists and
one hundred physicians, nurses, and psychiatrists formed the
policymakers to consider not only the “mental health effects
Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR), whose mission
of segregation on its victims,” but also “the health impact on
included providing mental health-care to blacks in segregated
the segregators.”
As a student, Marrow had studied under the GermanPsychiatrist Alvin Poussaint served as field director for the
American psychologist Kurt Lewin, one of the most prominent
Southern branch of MCHR from 1965-1966. In the pages of
pioneers of social and applied psychology in the modern era.
Ebony Magazine, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe,
Prior to Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933, Lewin worked in
Poussaint argued that racism was both a product of a sick
Germany, and had strong ties to Frankfurt University’s Institute
society—and that it produced social sickness. Writing in The
for Social Research, where Theodor Adorno was an affiliate. Like
New York Times in 1967, Poussaint declared that racism had
illustrations by Cassandra Conlin
Contexts, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 24-29. ISSN 1536-5042, electronic ISSN 1537-6052. © 2014 American
Sociological Association. http://contexts.sagepub.com. DOI 10.1177/1536504214558213
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FA L L 2 0 1 4
rendered African Americans unable to express appropriate rage
for fear of the threat of violence. Because they repressed their
anger, he argued, black Americans had developed a core form
of psychological self-hatred.
Poussaint was not the only scholar-activist making these
claims. In 1965, Kenneth B. Clark, well-known for his doll studies
of the 1930s and 1940s, wrote an editorial for Ebony Magazine
declaring that racism produces paranoia, and is itself a type of
paranoia. That year Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick
Moynihan published his infamous The Negro Family, which
later became known as the Moynihan Report. He claimed that
the legacy of racist social and economic policies had created a
“tangled pathology” within black families. Moynihan concluded
the “broken family structure” of black America would eventually
produce “immature, criminal, and neurotic behavior” among
black children.
Although the Moynihan Report came under heavy criticism,
many civil rights leaders at the time echoed its claim that social
racism as diagnosis
pathologies were leading to the psychosocial alienation of black
youth. In his 1967 speech at the annual meeting of the American
Psychiatric Association, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared that
alienation among blacks was responsible for the recent wave
of urban riots. Declaring that white Americans valued property
over their fellow citizens, King argued that urban rioting was
had tested, among other things, whether Southerners exhibited
stronger authoritarian personalities than Northerners. He concluded that Southerners exhibited a higher level of prejudice
toward blacks than their Northern counterparts, but that levels
of authoritarianism among these groups was virtually identical. In
sum, because racism was normal behavior, it does not constitute
a mental illness.
Despite the APA’s refusal to consider
racism to be pathological, many clinical workers began to develop treatment
­models for the effects of racism. One of
the more infamous examples occurred in the aftermath of the
1967 deadly shoot out between Houston police officers and
students at all-black Texas Southern University. Mayor Louie
Welch called upon Blair Justice, a Rice University psychologist,
to try to alleviate tensions between Houston police officers and
Houston’s black community. By 1969, teams of psychologists
encouraged heated exchanges among participants that were
In 1969, a group of black psychiatrists, Poussaint among
them, presented a list of demands to the American Psychiatric
Association at their annual meeting. They urged the APA to
acknowledge that racism is the “major mental health problem
of this country,” and to include extreme bigotry as a recognized
mental illness within the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual
The APA endorsed this “general spirit of reform and redress
of racial inequities in American psychiatry.” However, they
rejected the black psychiatrists’ desire to classify extreme bigotry
as a mental illness. In order for racism to be considered a mental
illness, the APA decreed, racism must deviate from normative
In explaining why they rejected the psychiatrists’ request,
the APA cited a series of studies conducted by Harvard social
psychologist Thomas Pettigrew. Interviewing residents of eight
small towns in the North and South in the late 1950s, Pettigrew
As social scientific research displaced scientific
racism, racism became a pathological condition.
a form of “emotional catharsis” for blacks, and was meant to
shock white society. By the end of the 1960s, the “sick society”
model, popular among scholars and activists alike, had laid the
foundation for a psychopathological framework within which
to situate the “new racism.”
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designed to move deepseated prejudices into the
open. One year later, based
upon tests of police attitudes that demonstrated
a small decrease in identifiable prejudices, Welch
declared the program to be
a success.
Meanwhile, within
the ranks of the APA, the
organization’s official position on racism remained
highly contentious. In 1971,
Vice President Charles
Prudhomme editorialized
in The American Journal
of Psychiatry that racism
“parallels and is an analog
of psychosocial development.” At the APA’s 1979
annual meeting, Carl Bell
gave a hotly debated paper
that was inspired by The
Authoritarian Personality,
claiming that racists suffer
from narcissistic personality disorder, and seek constant praise
from authority figures in order to bolster their self-esteem.
Finally, in a presidential address at the 1980 annual meeting,
Alan Stone discussed the APA’s internal debate over whether
to recognize racism as a psychiatric problem, a social problem,
or both. It is the APA’s professional obligation “to confront this
conflict openly,” he declared. While Stone’s remarks did little
to resolve the debate, several scholars, including Poussaint and
Bell, remained critical of the APA’s decision
to keep racism out of the DSM III and IV,
published in 1980 and 1994.
Yet by the early 1990s, clinical practitioners had proposed several diagnostic
tools that were designed to identify and
treat racism. In a 1991 article, “Racism
as a Disease,” Judith Skillings and James Dobbins proposed a
clinical diagnosis that identified four symptoms: a belief one’s
heritage is superior to another; when racism becomes infectious
without any conscious sense of antipathy by its host; when’s
one’s perceptions are distorted or confused; and when racism
robs its hosts and targets of their mental and emotional wellbeing. The access to power which racism affords, they argued,
makes racists dependent upon that source of power. In other
words, they argued, racism
is addictive.
Dobbins and Skillings
described four signs of this
addiction: rationalization (“I
know we need to increase
diversity, in general, but why
do I have to play a part?”);
selective comparison (“I
can’t be racist, because I’ve
never called any Mexican
a wetback”); protecting
the source of addiction
(“I know I have White
privilege, but what do you
want me to, give it up?”);
and minimization (“I’m not
being racist, I’m just telling
it like it is”). Meanwhile,
UCLA psychologist Edward
Dunbar had begun developing a “prejudice scale” to
measure what he termed
“prejudiced personality.”
The highest scoring individuals distrusted financial
advice from racial and ethnic minorities, experienced job loss due
to inappropriate interactions with customers of color, and even
expressed support for the Oklahoma City bombing.
By the early 2000s, racism had several clinical names, including “prejudice personality” and “intolerant personality disorder”
and pathological bias, but no official diagnosis in the DSM. The
APA considered adding “pathological bias” to the 2013 DSM
V under a rubric that would have included racism, sexism, and
By the early 2000s, racism had several clinical
names, including “prejudice personality” and
“intolerant personality disorder.”
heterosexism, though it finally decided against doing so. Nonetheless, the 2012 Oxford Handbook of Personality Disorders
included an entire chapter on it.
anti-racism in the era of “pathological racism”
The increasing authority given to medicine and psychology
since World War II led to the rise of medical and psychological
explanations for human behavior. Developments within medicine
FA L L 2 0 1 4
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propranolol scored significantly lower on the Implicit Attitude
and science not only produced new understandings of human
Test than did those taking the placebo. “Such research raises the
behavior, but also new insights into how to treat these behaviors.
tantalizing possibility that our unconscious racial attitudes could
The number of licensed psychiatrists in the United States
be modulated using drugs,” wrote the lead researcher. The Caliincreased by over 30 percent, the number of licensed clinical
fornia Department of Corrections has in fact treated inmates with
psychologists nearly tripled, and the number of clinical social
antipsychotics in an effort to reduce racism and homophobia.
workers increased from 25,000 to 80,000 between 1975 and
The ongoing efforts to diagnose and treat racism as a psy1990, according to Stuart Kirk and Herb Kutchins’ 1992 book,
chopathological condition should trouble anti-racist activists. In
The Selling of DSM. Furthermore, according to the Bureau of
her 2012 book On Being Included, Sarah Ahmed cautions antiU.S. Labor Statistics, job growth for clinical psychologists and
racist efforts to remain focused on systemic and structural causes.
psychiatrists is estimated between 20-28 percent through 2020.
While individuals with “bad attitudes” certain exist, she argues,
Along with the expansion of mental health professions,
focusing on the “bad
the DSM itself has also
apples” underestimates
grown. The first edition,
racism’s scope and scale,
which was released in
and leaves us with a weak
1952, was 130 pages in
account of how racism is
length, and included 106
reproduced over time and
mental disorders. The secacross cultural and social
ond edition, released 16
contexts. As Ahmed writes,
years later, recognized
“The very identification of
182 mental disorders. The
racism with individuals
DSM V, published last year,
becomes a technology for
proposes over 300 mental
the reproduction of racism
disorders. When considof institutions.”
ered alongside the growth
There is no denying
of the global pharmaceutithe psychological effects of
cal industry ($500 billion in
racism on minority popu2011), the context of the
lations, or racism’s impact
pathologization of racism
on how members of domiis clearer. There is a great
nant racial groups perceive
deal of profit to be made
and interact with minorfrom individualized mediity populations. This does
calized understandings of
not prove that racism is a
this social phenomenon.
psychopathological conThe search for a
dition, however, that can
“cure” for racism was
be treated with behavioral
revealed in a 2012 experiAfter racist gaffes, celebrities such as Paula Deen often p
­ ublicly
declare that they’re seeking therapy.
and drug therapies.
ment by researchers at
Recent controversies
Oxford University that gensurrounding overt racist remarks and action, including those
erated a great deal of public attention. In the experiment, scientists
by Donald Sterling, former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers,
gave half of their subjects the drug propranolol, a common betademonstrate that many Americans see racism as an individualized phenomenon, and
believe that what counts as racism are the
negative attitudes, beliefs, and expressions
of lone racists—rather than systemic and
structural explanations. The increasingly
popular belief that we now live in a “postracial” society makes this even more prevalent.
blocker used to treat heart disease, while the other half received
In the “new racism” of the new millennium, identifiable
a placebo. They were then administered the Implicit Attitude
racism is often classified as “abnormal behavior” which deserves
Test, which measures unconscious racism. Participants taking
In the “new racism” of the new millennium,
racism is often classified as “abnormal behavior”
which deserves psychological treatment.
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The controversy over former Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks is an example of how Americans see racism
as an “individual’s” problem.
psychological treatment—which makes the continued significance of covert and structural racism even more invisible. But in
truth, the United States, along with most of industrialized West,
has been shaped by an enduring pattern of racial rule. Racial
minorities have been subordinated, and whites have benefited
from that subordination.
Individual treatment protocols, including behavioral and
drug therapies, target the symptoms of institutional racism
rather than its causes. In order to truly understand the origins
and reproduction of contemporary racial hierarchies, we need
models that are historically grounded, culturally informed, and
politically attuned.
Duster, Troy. Backdoor to Eugenics, 2nd Edition (Routledge,
2003). Provides empirical analysis of eugenics’ lasting influence
on social policy, including welfare reform, public health, and the
criminal justice system.
recommended resources
James M. Thomas is in the sociology and anthropology department at the University
of Mississippi. He studies historical formations and contemporary articulations of
race, racism, and difference.
Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Duke University Press, 2012). Investigates the experiences of those charged with doing diversity work, and how institutionalizing diversity initiatives can mask racism.
Gilman, Sander. Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness (Cornell University Press, 1985). Traces
the history of stereotypes, demonstrating their origins in ideas of
women, Jews, and blacks as carriers of disease and illness.
Rose, Nikolas. Inventing Ourselves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood (Cambridge University Press, 1998). Traces the historical
role the psy-disciplines—psychology and psychiatry in particular—played in transforming personhood into something that can
be treated, worked on, and reshaped by clinical practitioners and
therapeutic protocols.
Conrad, Peter. The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Disorders (The Johns
Hopkins University Press, 2007). Illustrates the transformation of
human conditions and problems into medical problems over the
past several decades.
FA L L 2 0 1 4
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