Three sociologists who study children and youth and race and ethnicity, Elizabeth Ackert, Margaret Hagerman, and Ranita Ray, answered questions from the ASA Section on Children & Youth’s Communication and Publications Committee about their work and about race and ethnicity in the contemporary United States. Check out their full interviews here.
Questions for Elizabeth Ackert: As someone who studies the experiences of Mexican-origin children and youth, could you comment on the current situation of Mexican and other immigrant parents and their children in the United States? What do you think is most important for children and youth scholars to keep in mind about the current situation?
EA: First, it is important to remember that there is a diversity of experiences among the immigrant population in general and among the Mexican immigrant population in particular. As social scientists, we often compare mean outcomes between groups, but when focusing on immigrant populations it is always important to think about within-group variability (by national origin, by citizenship status, by authorized/unauthorized status, by levels of acculturation, etc.). My current research looks at place of residence (immigrant destinations) as another source of diversity within the already diverse immigrant and Mexican-origin populations. Highlighting diversity in characteristics and outcomes among these groups should be fundamental to research in this area.
Second, we are in an era of political scapegoating of immigrants, including Mexican immigrants. This scapegoating involves the characterization of migrants and asylum seekers as “invaders” and attempts to link immigration to societal ills such as crime and disease. This scapegoating is not new, unfortunately, but the rhetoric is heightened right now. It is important for scholars to document both qualitatively and quantitatively how national and local dialogues and policies surrounding immigration are influencing development and wellbeing among the children and descendants of immigrants. One new area of my research, in collaboration with Stephanie Potochnick from the University of Missouri, examines how local immigration enforcement (287g agreements and deportations) varies across immigrant destinations and determines whether Latino/a families in areas with higher immigration enforcement are less likely to utilize health care. Click here for Elizabeth's full interview.
Questions for Margaret Hagerman: Your new book, White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, is based on two years of ethnographic study of affluent, white parents and their children. Very briefly, you find that white racial socialization involves not only what affluent, white parents do for their children (e.g., choices about neighborhoods, schools, and extracurricular activities), but also what they say to their children (e.g., whether they talk openly to their children about race), and that white children do not always agree with their parents about race. What effect did this particular research and book project have on you as a sociologist?
On the positive side of things, I now believe that it is possible for our research to have an impact on the choices that individual people make and how people see the world. Honestly, I always feared that my work might be pointless in terms of actually challenging inequality. But I have had so many conversations recently with affluent, white parents who have told me that my book has influenced them, that they are thinking critically in new ways about their own complicity with white supremacy, and that they want to make different parenting choices moving forward. I hope that they do. However, on the negative side of things, I have also learned that the statement “all children should be worthy of consideration” is possibly the most controversial statement I could make. I have been absolutely horrified by the hateful response to my suggestion that all children should be valued in our society, even if they are not one’s own affluent white child. Click here to hear more about Margaret's experience.
Question for Ranita Ray: In your recent book, The Making of a Teenage Service Class: Poverty and Mobility in an American City, you draw upon your three years of ethnographic study of sixteen black and brown youth living in an economically marginalized community to challenge the commonly-held belief that targeting risky behaviors (drug use, gangs, violence, teen parenthood) is the key to ending the “cycle of poverty.” What should be done instead and why?
RR: I think it is imperative we not place inordinate focus on risk behavior prevention because not only does this come at the cost of supporting youths’ educational and occupational goals, but it actually causes harm by reinforcing racist and classist stereotypes. For example, many non-profits in Port City actually invested resources and energy on pregnancy and violence prevention at the cost of, say, providing assistance with college admission or mitigating food insecurity. But it’s not just that. This focus often lead youth to internalize the idea that they’re potential social problems—for example, even after being admitted to a four-year university, one youth chose to join the military to “become disciplined.” Teachers, non-profit workers, community members, and sometimes the youth themselves, policed and stigmatized youth as potential social problems.
This focus also places the burden squarely on the individual as it indicates that ultimately behavioral change is the answer to challenging inequality. In reality, it is wealth inequality, discrimination, low-wages, tax laws that benefit the wealthy, and profit systems that result in hunger and eviction as white wealthy people accrue wealth that hold youth back. Given drug use is evenly distributed across communities, for example, why do we primarily focus on drug use within communities of color instead of, say, raising minimum wage or focusing on estate tax reform to challenge the racial wealth gap?
When we construct Black and Latinx youth as social problems to be solved, even if through our benevolent desire to do good, we are ultimately reproducing systems of racism and classism. For more from Ranita, click here.
About the Contributors:
Elizabeth Ackert is a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Her individual and collaborative work examines explanations for why racial/ethnic and immigrant-origin groups are unequally distributed across contexts—including schools, neighborhoods, and immigrant destinations—and evaluates the consequences of this contextual inequality for disparities in outcomes in domains such as education, residential mobility, and health. She is particularly interested in understanding how the attributes of immigrant-receiving contexts, including states, communities, neighborhoods, and schools, influence the educational and health outcomes of children and adolescents of Mexican origin.
Margaret Hagerman is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University and is a Faculty Affiliate in both the African American Studies and Gender Studies programs. Her qualitative research focuses on the study of racial socialization. In addition to her new book, White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America (NYU Press, 2018), Hagerman has published articles in Journal of Marriage and Family, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, Ethnic and Racial Studies, and Sociological Studies of Children and Youth.
Ranita Ray is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is an ethnographer specializing in children and youth, women of color feminisms, urban inequalities, and education and policing. In addition to her book, The Making of a Teenage Service Class: Poverty and Mobility in an American City (University of California Press, 2018), Ray has published other work related to children/youth, urban inequalities, race, class and gender, including book chapters and articles in such journals as Social Problems, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and Sociology Compass.
This ASA guide is a sneak peek of some our upcoming newsletter content:
Conferences can be intimidating for even the most seasoned researchers, let alone first-time attendees. Below are some tips—a list of what not to do at conferences and what to do instead—that we have put together from our experiences as graduate student conference attendees.
Don’t fill every time slot with an activity. Instead, give yourself time to rest. Conference burnout is real!
Don’t stay in every night. Instead, attend section special receptions and dinners.
Don’t only mingle with people you know. Instead, reach out to faculty who inspire you in advance via email and plan to meet for coffee. In our experiences, professors are more than willing to meet with students during conferences.
Don’t drone on and on about your dissertation. Instead, practice your elevator pitch before the conference.
Don’t only attend sessions in your subfield. Instead, attend sessions on topics that interest you but are different from those you study.
Don’t sweat it if you can’t book a room at the conference hotel. Staying at the conference hotel is preferred, but if that doesn’t work out, stay in an Airbnb in a quirky nearby neighborhood.
Don’t carry around the paper program. Instead, utilize the ASA app to help you keep track of talks and events you want to attend. To download the app, click here.
Don’t forget to enjoy the city. Instead, explore famous landmarks, do touristy things, and eat local cuisine. For some ideas on things to do in Philadelphia, click here.
Don’t wear uncomfortable shoes. Or if you do, make sure to keep a comfortable pair in your bag for foot emergencies.
Don’t worry if you are worried. Conferences can be anxiety-provoking experiences, especially if you are a graduate student who is attending for the first time. It’s perfectly normal to feel awkward, anxious, or stressed…everyone feels this way at points during a conference.
· Advice for Attending Academic Conferences
· How to Give a Fabulous Academic Presentation
· How to Work the Conference
· The 6 Ways You’re Acting like a Grad Student (And how that’s killing you on the job market)
Lilla Pivnick is a rising fourth year graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin and the student representative to the Children and Youth section for 2018-2019.
Michela Musto (PhD, University of Southern California) is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research.
What steps can parents, teachers, and students take to reduce the risks of a mass shooting in their community?
The most important thing community members can do is report any suspicious or concerning behavior or statements to law enforcement. Although many people are familiar with the Department of Homeland Security’s campaign “If You See Something, Say Something,” they often assume that it primarily applies to the behavior of strangers. In reality, you are far more likely to see warning signs among your family, friends, or acquaintances, because you spend so much more time with them, and they are more likely to let their guard down and reveal their thoughts or plans when they are with people they know.
What is the clearest sign that someone may be at-risk of committing a mass shooting?
Many people do not realize that public mass shooters often openly admit that they are interested in committing a mass shooting before they actually attack. In 2002, a joint study of school shooters by the United States Secret Service and the United States Department of Education (DOE) found that in 81% of cases, “at least one person had information that the attacker was thinking about or planning the school attack,” and, in 59% of cases, more than one person knew about the impending attack. In these cases, the person who knew was almost always a peer, friend, or family member. This should not be surprising, given that mass shooters are often suicidal, and previous research has similarly shown that approximately 80% of suicidal people tell someone what they are planning in advance. But it is extremely important not to dismiss these statements as “jokes” or solely attention-seeking behavior, because they may be our best chance to prevent a mass shooting.
Although the Secret Service/DOE study is now 16 years old, its findings are just as applicable today as they were in the past, and apply to all types of public mass shooters, not only those who attack at schools. The 2015 Charleston church shooting, 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, 2017 Sutherland Springs church shooting, and 2018 Parkland school shooting are just a few of many recent examples where offenders made explicit admissions that they were interested in committing an attack. This information may be revealed in face-to-face conversations, text messages, social media posts, or other forms of communication.
What other warning signs should people be looking for?
In a recent journal article, I identified three major warning signs: (1) suicidal motives or life indifference, (2) perceived victimization, and (3) desires for attention or fame. School shooters, workplace shooters, and other public mass shooters (including those who claim terrorist motives) often want or expect to die, feel like they have been profoundly mistreated or disrespected by others, and hope to gain fame or notoriety through their attacks. However, these factors are not always easy for observers to recognize in advance, so in the article I provide detailed checklists with specific things to look out for. If anyone would like a copy of the article, they can request one here.
If I report someone who seems dangerous, will that person be arrested or committed to a psychiatric facility?
There are many potential outcomes from reporting people who are at risk of harming themselves or others, and in most cases, they do not involve arrest or institutionalization. Depending on the laws where you live, it is possible that the person you report will be prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms, which significantly reduces the risks to the community. And sometimes reporting someone actually leads to an improvement in that person’s life, through counseling or other positive interventions.
If I report someone to a teacher, administrator, boss, or law enforcement officer, does my responsibility end there?
Unfortunately, there have been many cases where members of the public have done their part by reporting suspicious or concerning behavior, but that information was not taken seriously enough to prevent the attack. The Parkland school shooting was just the most recent example of this disturbing trend. After you “see something” and “say something,” you should continue to pay attention to make sure that the authorities have responded appropriately. Ask follow-up questions about their response, if necessary.
If the potential threat has not been sufficiently addressed, you may be able to put pressure on the teacher, administrator, boss, or law enforcement officer by reminding them that you have documentation that you brought your concerns to them, and that if something tragic happens, they will be directly responsible for not doing their due diligence. If they still continue to dismiss your concerns, you can contact me directly for further advice or assistance.
Adam Lankford is Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at The University of Alabama. Prior to becoming a faculty member at The University of Alabama, Lankford helped coordinate Senior Executive Anti-Terrorism Forums for high-ranking foreign military and security personnel in conjunction with the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance program. He conducts research on many types of social deviance and criminal behavior, including mass murder, mass shootings, and terrorism. He is the author of two books, The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers (published in 2013) and Human Killing Machines: Systematic Indoctrination in Iran, Nazi Germany, Al Qaeda, and Abu Ghraib (first published in 2009), as well as numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals. In addition, Lankford has been interviewed many times by a variety of news outlets, including CNN, MSNBC, BBC World News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, NPR, and BBC Radio. He received his Ph.D. and M.S. in Justice, Law & Society from American University and his B.A. in English from Haverford College.
Youth suicide is never far from the American imagination. It is featured regularly in sensationalistic media coverage, as well as in books, plays, movies, and TV shows. In some ways, suicide occupies a similar space in the sociological imagination. Durkheim’s Suicide was one of the foundational texts of our discipline, and his influence, on sociology and the scientific study of suicide (or “suicidology”), is still recognized today; particularly, Durkheim’s insight that suicide is deeply tied to social isolation. Yet, at the same time, since 1980, sociologists have contributed dramatically fewer papers on suicide than nearly every other discipline, essentially ceding knowledge construction to psychology, psychiatry, and epidemiology. Perhaps more importantly, when we do contribute knowledge, we are largely re-testing Durkheim’s theses rather than pushing analyses forward by (1) drawing on our diverse methodological and theoretical toolkit and (2) focusing on the social problems of today, rather than those from Durkheim’s era.
Nowhere is the lack of a sociological perspective on suicide more problematic than when considering suicide among children and youth. First, suicide among youth represents a major social problem. Though the rise in suicide deaths among middle-aged white men has received substantial attention, the group with the second largest increase in suicide is youth ages 10-25. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1999 to 2014, suicide has increased about 200 percent among girls ages 10-14 and 36 percent among boys ages 10-14. Youth ages 15-24 are also demonstrating substantial and significant increases in suicide. Among girls ages 15-24, the rate has increased approximately 53 percent since 1999; among boys ages 15-24, the increase is smaller (only 8 percent), but still statistically significant. To drive home the magnitude of these changes, according to a CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from August 2017, the suicide rate for females ages 15-19 is now at a 40-year high. On top of these trends by gender, Native American and Alaska Native youth ages 15-34 have one of the highest suicide rates in the U.S. (31 per 100,000 according to the CDC, using 2012 data), which is 2.5 times higher than the national average for that age group.
Though rates of suicide ideation, plans and attempts (also called “suicidality”) have not changed as dramatically as rates of suicide deaths (an interesting trend in and of itself), a brief review reveals that though suicide deaths are rare, suicidality is not. For example, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey of U.S. high school students, 25.6 percent of Latina girls, 22.8 percent of white girls, and 18.7 percent of black girls seriously contemplated suicide in the past 12 months. Latina girls also have the highest prevalence of suicide attempts with 15 percent reporting a suicide attempt in the past year, compared to 9.8 percent of white girls and 10.2 percent of black girls. Though in the U.S., boys report suicidality at lower rates than girls (and have suicide deaths at higher rates), a sizeable minority of boys report suicide ideation (around 12 percent), with much less variation between race/ethnic groups. Additionally, research indicates that suicide is more prevalent in disadvantaged neighborhoods and among poor youth. These demographics clearly indicate that suicide is an important social problem among youth that warrants sociological attention.
The second reason that youth suicide warrants more research attention from sociologists is that social forces likely play a particularly important role because of youth’s developmental sensitivity to social pressures. Indeed, many of the top concerns around suicide in youth involve inherently social experiences. In addition to concerns about suicide clusters or suicide diffusion, substantial attention is being paid to the roles of social media and bullying in youth suicide and to TV shows like 13 Reasons Why. And yet, research has barely scratched the surface of how and why these social forces may matter. With regard to shows like 13 Reasons Why, many suicidologists and psychologists have cautioned that the show could encourage suicide as an option for youth, but in truth, very little empirical research explicitly examines how exposure to suicide via salient role models shapes youth’s vulnerability to suicide. (For my take on 13 Reasons Why, check out this essay.)
This is where my own work, with my colleague Dr. Seth Abrutyn (University of British Columbia) comes in. Using both quantitative and qualitative data, the goal of our research is to better understand how youth cope with and make sense of suicide after exposure to the suicide death or attempt of a classmate or friend. In brief, we have found that exposure to suicide can change whether youth see suicide as a justifiable action that someone like them might do to escape a certain set of circumstances. We also find clear evidence that suicide in adolescence has social roots.
In our qualitative case study of a community with a substantial and enduring suicide problem including repeated suicide clusters, we illustrate how social pressures amplify youth’s misery and diminish their willingness to seek help for their psychological pain. When combined with repeated exposure to the suicides of classmates, this ultimately reifies suicide as an option, or perhaps as the option, for escape.
Undoubtedly, the causes of suicide are complex and multifaceted and involve the intermingling of biological, social, environmental, and psychological risk and protective factors. But sociology is uniquely situated to shed light on how social forces and environmental factors condition biological risk, cause psychological pain, and ultimately shape suicide. As such, it is imperative that sociologists, and particularly sociologists of children and youth, return to studying this important and pressing social problem.
Anna S. Mueller is a sociologist and an assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development and the College at the University of Chicago. Her research on adolescent suicide won the Outstanding Scholarly Contribution Awards from the Section on Children & Youth in 2015 and 2017. For more about her research, visit www.annasmueller.com
Section on Children and Youth