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My Two Cents


February 2016

“My Two Cents”

The Other Side of Black Lives Matter

By: William Julius Wilson

[Reprinted from The Brookings Institute: Mobility Memos 12/14/15]

Several decades ago I spoke with a grieving mother living in one of the poorest inner-city neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. A stray bullet from a gang fight had killed her son, who was not a gang member. She lamented that his death was not reported in any of the Chicago newspapers or in the Chicago electronic media.

I have been thinking about that mother a good deal recently, as the Black Lives Matter movement has dramatically called attention to violent police encounters with blacks, especially young black males. Aided by smart phones and social media, Americans have now become more aware of these incidents, which very likely have occurred at similar levels in previous decades, but were “under the radar.”

This is good, of course. But it is not enough. We need to expand the focus of the movement to include groups not usually referenced when we discuss “Black Lives Matter,” including that boy in Chicago, who would by now be a grown man, perhaps with children of his own.

Segregation by income amplifies segregation by race, leaving low-income blacks clustered in neighborhoods that feature disadvantages along several dimensions, including exposure to violent crime. As a result, the divide within the black community has widened sharply. In 1978, poor blacks aged twelve and over were only marginally more likely than affluent blacks to be violent crime victims—around  forty-five and thirty-eight per 1000 individuals respectively. However, by 2008, poor blacks were far more likely to be violent crime victims—about seventy-five per 1000—while affluent blacks were far less likely to be victims of violent crime—about twenty-three per 1000, according to Hochschild and Weaver:

Violent crime can in fact reach extraordinary levels in the poorest inner-city black neighborhoods. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where 46 percent of African Americans live in high poverty neighborhoods—those with poverty rates of at least 40 percent—blacks are nearly 20 times more likely to get shot than whites, and nine times more likely to be murdered.

As Leon Neyfakh points out, some people are reluctant to talk about the high murder rate in cities like Milwaukee because (1) it might distract attention from the vital discussions about police violence against blacks, and (2) it runs the risk of providing ammunition to those who resist criminal justice reform efforts regarding policing and sentencing policy. These are legitimate concerns, of course.

On the other hand, it is vital to draw more attention to the low priority placed on solving the high murder rates in poor inner-city neighborhoods, reflected in the woefully inadequate resources provided to homicide detectives struggling to solve killings in those areas. As Jill Leovy, a writer at Los Angeles Times asserts in her 2014 book Ghettoside, this represents one of the great moral failings of our criminal justice system and indeed of our whole society. The thousands of poor grieving African American families whose loved ones have been killed tend to be disregarded or ignored, including by the media.

The nation’s consciousness has been raised by the repeated acts of police brutality against blacks. But the problem of public space violence—seen in the extraordinary distress, trauma and pain many poor inner-city families experience following the killing of a family member or close relative—also deserves our special attention. These losses represent another social and political imperative, described to me by sociologist Loïc Wacquant in the following terms: “The Other Side of Black Lives Matter.” They do indeed.

William Julius Wilson is Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. Past President of the American Sociological Association, Wilson has received 46 honorary degrees, including honorary doctorates from Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, and the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands. He is a nonresident senior fellow.

Dad Struggles to Pass on Late Father’s Racial Insight

By: Alford Young

[Reprint from The Detroit News 9/24/15]

My late father and I really began to hit it off during my teenage years. Prior to that I struggled to understand him. As a child, a relative told me a story about how my father as a young man had hoped to be a parent of daughters because his own stepfather had convinced him that boys were just too much trouble. My father’s first-born was a girl, and I, as his second and last child, sometimes thought that my birth somehow let him down.

I do not recall ever talking to him about this, but I also never thought much about the matter after turning 16. It was then that I felt like I truly made sense to my dad, as he did to me. I began feeling that I wasn’t so bad after all. Truthfully, I never was. This was much unlike some of the guys I grew up with in New York City’s East Harlem, where there seemed to be no shortage of young black and brown men in trouble. I never experienced their kind of trouble, and at age 16, I began feeling that whatever insecurities I had about being my dad’s son were replaced by the euphoric feeling that he was happy to have me in his life.

My father was a college-educated professional, so the poverty surrounding our family in East Harlem was never brought into our household. Instead, my teenage years were spent getting to know my father and his social worlds. Among other things he taught me that anything he achieved was within my grasp, but he also let me know that at any point in time I could be underestimated and prejudged because I am a black man.

I experienced integrated schooling since the first grade. My parents had more resources than many of our neighbors, so going to school in this Caucasian environment was counter-balanced by returning home to East Harlem — a social world full of struggling Latinos and African-Americans. I learned to navigate race by moving between these social worlds (what we today call code-switching). Through elementary and high school I had white friends and black friends, and I was one of few who regularly engaged people on each side of the divide.

As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, the rules of engagement were clear. Black boys had their ways of talking to each other, and black and white boys never ventured into the terrain of black-on-black conversation. Occasionally some of my white friends took an interest in the emerging phenomenon called hip- hop, but most struggled to understand why any group would want to rhyme about themselves over tracks of music made by somebody else. The parties in high school were never really integrated. In my all-male Catholic high school, the black boys attended the one party a year hosted by the black student organization. The other parties were not on our calendar as the two racially distinct worlds got along side-by-side, in the lunchroom, classroom, practice field, and the stands.

Three decades later, I am the parent of two boys, teaching at the University of Michigan and living in Ann Arbor. My goal has been to create the same quality of relationship with my boys that I experienced with my dad. A well-respected family sociologist once told me that I could never live with my children the way I lived with my father. Her comment encouraged me to think about how East Harlem of the 1970s and 1980s was not at all like the Ann Arbor of the 21st century.

As I raise my family, I am reminded of this all the time.

My oldest son is nearly 17. His peer group includes young men of various races and ethnicities. In fact, he has rarely experienced racially distinct social circles. He has grown up hearing the N-word not as an intentionally derogatory term but as part of Hip Hop culture. It seems that every young person listens to Hip Hop today, and popular culture offers no grounds for making racial distinctions. Today, race talk happens exclusively at home for my sons rather than with friends as it did back then. The discussions my wife and I have with him and his 12-year-old brother about race often seem to me to be suited for children of the 1980s.

To be fair, my sons understand that race matters. We talk about the public responses to President Barack Obama in ways that make it clear that they realize that it does. Yet, I long for them to understand why race matters. After all, they have never had to divide their life experiences in the same way as I did. My boys understand the civil rights movement not as a time in which the adults in their lives fought for social justice (as I recall thinking in the 70s and 80s), but as an historic moment of some time ago — a part of history just like slavery.

Today they don’t have to talk about race. Social media allows them to non-verbally access all kinds of people and situations that can be all about race. And none require face-to-face interactive skills that had to be employed in the past. Today talk among youth is facilitated by technology, which allows so much to be shared with so many, all without anyone having to actually talk to anybody. Hence, young people can claim to know so much about other people and their life situations without ever having to directly confront them or their issues.

And that makes me nervous. I am nervous not because I doubt the ability of my sons to become who they want to be in the future. I am nervous because, like any parent, I worry about that which I am hopeful for, but cannot control, which is their future. More importantly, as a black man and father I am nervous because I am still trying to figure out the racial rules that they abide by when so much of the game seems the same.

Black males can be killed for walking down the street (Trayvon Martin), arguing with the police (Michael Brown) or face-down on the platform of a municipal train station (Oscar Grant), yet theirs is a single social world with no public space to retreat and reflect. The only space is at home with mom and dad, neither of whom can figure out why so many youth today so casually use the N-word, and why our boys sometimes act like their fates are so common with others when so much happens to us that does not happen to them.

I tell my oldest son (and my youngest more so in recent years), that the internet cannot give you all you need to know about interacting with police, whether in small towns or large cities. My son is quite knowledgeable of local laws and policies (another by-product of the internet), but this does not substitute for knowing how to act in public, I warn. And despite what the law says, I tell him that associating with people in trouble means that you will be in trouble as well if the police are around.

Because he weighs 215 pounds and wears a size 14 shoe, I warn him that not everyone, certainly not some police, will necessarily see him as the boy he is. I tell him that although he has a way to go to be a man, he must know right now that others will think of him and act toward him as a man, and what the law says may not matter for how such others may respond to him in the mall, after the concert or the game, or on the street.

The streets of Ann Arbor may strike many as innocent, but my son goes to concerts in Detroit, visits relatives in New York City and loves to vacation in Chicago. Those streets demand that a young black male know not just the law, but how easily he can be seen as unlawful in the eyes of others. This insight cannot be garnered through social media, and it seems to have no place in his peer group discussions.

Consequently, I strive to tell him that the power of race is such that what people do, especially in moments of uncertainty and confusion, may not correspond with his idea of proper conduct. Hence, he cannot always assume that people will think of him as a proper young man, irrespective of how he thinks about and conducts himself. I tell him and his brother that just because there may be less talk about race today, whether because people have decided that it’s just not right to talk about or because they do not talk much at all because they are texting, that at any point in time, in any place, race may make all the difference for what happens to them and why.

Al Young is the Arthur F. Thurnau professor and department chair in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan. His fields of study are culture and knowledge; race, ethnicity and immigration, and social psychology

(Mixed-)Race, Racism, and Dating in the Time of #BlackLivesMatter

Shantel Gabrieal Buggs, The University of Texas at Austin

The increased media attention being paid to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is shaping a particular orientation toward, and conversation around, race and racism in the United States. As Khury Petersen-Smith (2015) notes, the movement has “shattered what remained of the notion of a ‘post-racial’ America.” More specifically, BLM has impacted individual-level relationships, creating a framework within which people are able to evaluate and “vet” their dating partners, especially amidst claims that society is more “progressive” and that the atrocities we have witnessed are “not about race.”

In my research, I explore the discourses and logics that self-identified multiracial women who use the internet to find romantic partners utilize to explain their own responses to the current social justice movements around race, racial inequality, state-sanctioned violence, and racism. This has been an unexpected finding of my research, as I had not anticipated that multiracial women would have mobilized Black Lives Matter as a metric of racial progressiveness. Yet, the language around, and produced by, movements like BLM has influenced the ways in which these multiracial women discuss race, racism, and inequality in the context of their intimate relationships. Several women described using their own stances on the issues BLM addresses as a means of selecting potential dating partners. This finding suggests that BLM and other widespread social justice movements are having significant impacts on how people are navigating racial politics on an interpersonal level. This is particularly pertinent during a time where U.S. media and popular culture is especially focused on issues of racism and state-sanctioned violence.

Black Lives Matter provides multiracial women with a means of framing their commentary on racism, racial inequality, and violence. Often, these women describe trying to find a “middle ground” in which to exist politically, so as to not fall within the so-called “extremes.” This middle ground calls to mind the notion of mixed-race people being a “bridge” between communities. The “middle ground” suggests that to be on the extremes is to identify too closely with blackness or to not be “beyond” race. Thus, many women expressed contradictions over the course of their interviews; for several women the tensions around race and racism are issues of “diversity” and something that these women perceive black people to be “ethnocentric” about. It is telling that the multiracial women who believe that the concerns of BLM are solely concerns for black people are women who are not of black descent. However, women of a myriad of mixed racial backgrounds – including those who are not part black – noted that the issues the movement highlights are concerns for us all.

Alternatively, the women concerned with the so-called “appropriate” behavior of those interacting with the police rather than the inequality inherent in police violence rely on counter-Black Lives Matter narratives. They suggest that if someone is “acting stupid,” then an officer can only assume they are “dangerous and on drugs.” As social scientists have demonstrated for decades, overwhelmingly, the people who are assumed to be dangerous and on drugs are people of color. Virtually every woman who indicated that those killed by police are somehow responsible also relied on some “liberal” talking points, suggesting that officers “not go for the kill shot right away” or that “we need better training.” However, these women also used anti-black logic, which suggests that those killed by police are the deserving aggressors. Virtually all opponents of BLM utilized the “some bad apples” discourse to suggest that these instances of police brutality are isolated incidents. This logic enabled several women to suggest that the movement is being overly sensitive and that the wrongdoing is on “both sides.”

Women who consider potential dating partners’ views on issues of race and racism were invested in finding someone capable of making informed commentary. White masculinity in particular has a specific meaning in this political climate. Some multiracial women expect white men they date to have a certain racial literacy – the racial socialization and antiracist training that defends against and counters racism (Twine 2010) – and would not consider dating (white) men who are not at least marginally versed in anti-racist discourse and logics. This is not necessarily a requirement for all potential partners, as several women indicated that they assume that men of color will just “get” that racism exists. So, white men are expected to provide proof that they “get it,” much of which is proven through how they engage with discourses around race and racism. Several women described pulling up videos of police assaults – such as the now infamous pool party in McKinney, TX – or referencing other news stories during dates in order to see how men would react.

While it may not be surprising that women are excluding partners that they do not view as compatible, it is notable that several women indicated that “what’s going on” in the U.S. did not seem to matter much until about two years ago, correlating with the rise in Black Lives Matter demonstrations and news coverage. Public discourses impact our everyday lives, particularly the highly racialized, classed, and sexualized process of dating. We should be concerned for not only how people are responding to BLM and other related social movements, but also how people are implementing racial rhetoric in their everyday lives. As the mixed-race women in my research illustrate, the dating practices of Americans have the unfortunate potential to continue to reproduce much of the polarizing and unequal racial politics and inherently unequal social structures that have made Black Lives Matter and its like necessary in the first place.


 Petersen-Smith, Khury. 2015. “Black Lives Matter: A new movement takes shape.” International Socialist Review, 96.

Twine, France Winddance. 2010. A White Side of Black Britain: Interracial Intimacy and Racial Literacy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Shantel Gabrieal Buggs is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation, Utopic Subjects, Post-Racial Desires explores the online dating experiences of self-identified multiracial and multiethnic women in Central Texas and the ways in which these experiences inform constructions and understandings of race and intimate relationships. Look for Shantel on Twitter @Future_Dr_Buggs.

Whose Black Lives Matter?

Cayce C. Hughes

I landed in Houston to begin my dissertation fieldwork on July 13, 2013—three days after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed seventeen-year-old boy whose untimely death and subsequent demonization in the trial of his killer are the events BLM organizers identify as the genesis of the movement. Over the course of the next two years, I interviewed poor women with children living in a high-poverty, predominantly Black neighborhood in Houston. As I spoke with these mothers about their experiences seeking assistance from the state and other safety net institutions—about their struggles to retain privacy and dignity in the face of intense scrutiny and surveillance by the welfare state—the faces of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others filled the TV screens that often served as a backdrop for our conversations.

In one of my final interviews in September of 2015, with a woman named Keisha*, she brought up Sandra Bland, who two months prior had died under suspicious circumstances in a jail cell located just over the county line, mere miles from where we sat in the break room of a Head Start center. Keisha couldn’t remember Sandra’s name and instead bluntly referred to her as “that Black lady who they killed and said she hung herself.”

Notably, Keisha did not mention Sandra Bland in the context of critiquing brutal policing practices or the mass incarceration of people of color, both of which have come to be seen as some of the primary issues motivating the BLM movement. Instead, she was talking about her own experience as a mother of four seeking help from the state. She described how “sickening” it felt to her that she had to answer so many personal questions as part of applying for food stamps when, “all I’m trying to do is get assistance with groceries.” Her very next comment was, “That’s just like that woman, that Black lady who they killed…” Keisha directly linked what she viewed as racialized systemic problems in our criminal justice system to her own experience as a poor Black woman dealing with the welfare state. Her critique was echoed by numerous other mothers I interviewed, who were angered by the invasions of privacy and disrespectful treatment they endured that came primarily from caseworkers, not police officers. These mothers and grandmothers lamented the feeling of being “turned inside out” each time they recertified for public assistance and were asked again to provide details to prove their need and documentation to verify the veracity of their claims.

Sociologists including Matthew Desmond and Nicol Valdez (2012) and Loïc Wacquant (2012) have elaborated on Keisha’s insight about the linkages between the criminal justice and welfare arms of the state, and the gendered and racialized mechanisms through which poor people of color are punished as a result of disproportionate involvement in both. Scholarship by Megan Comfort (2007), Devah Pager (2003), and Bruce Western and Christopher Wildeman (2009), among others, has also documented the myriad and deleterious secondary effects that mass incarceration of poor men of color (though rates for women are rising exponentially) has on their female partners, family systems, and whole communities. Indeed, nearly every mother in my study had taken on extra burdens to care for dependents, including romantic partners as well as family members and extended kin, whose employment opportunities were severely diminished because of the stain of a criminal record. These demands put increased pressure on mothers who are already barely keeping their heads above water, who already face multiple challenges to make ends meet. Until October 1st of 2015, the state of Texas did not allow people convicted of a felony drug charge to receive food stamps; this restriction alone had dramatic consequences for those (mostly women) who were eligible and thus in a position to provide for those (mostly men) excluded from the program.

Acknowledgement and critique of the gendered dynamics I describe above is central to the BLM movement’s guiding principles. As stated on their website, BLM is an explicitly woman-centered movement and seeks to affirm that in addition to the imprisonment of millions of Black men, “Black women bearing the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families is state violence” ( The movement’s founders and leaders are predominantly women, and a politics of inclusion based not only on gender identity but also sexuality, physical ability, age, and other vectors of difference characterizes the movement. It is often Black queer women who are at the forefront of organizing BLM protests and actions. Yet the issues that have received the most attention from outside the movement remain those more directly involving men’s experience. We typically don’t see faces like Keisha’s or the countless other struggling poor Black women on TV, except when another pejorative story emerges about purported welfare fraud, revitalizing the mythology of the “welfare queen.” Their struggles as women, as mothers, as grandmothers—as people—tend not to be featured on their own.

Certainly, some of this has to do with the fact that Keisha is alive to tell me her story, and Travyon Martin is not. The gravity of the spate of Black men’s deaths at the hands of police understandably and importantly has taken precedent. Further, it is not only Black men, but also Black women who have lost their lives in police custody. The hashtag #Sayhername began circulating after Sandra Bland’s untimely death, intending to draw attention to police brutality against Black women, particularly Black trans women. These issues around policing and the criminal justice system are urgent, important, and have gained impressive traction in public discourse.

I do not believe that the collective horror and outrage at these deaths—and the lack of accountability on the part of the police and criminal justice system—should somehow be diminished to make room for even further outrage at the experiences of “state violence” poor Black women face when engaging with the welfare state. These are structurally and symbolically inseparable and multiplicative problems, and no effective remedy can ignore the relationship(s) between the two. However, I do think it is critical to examine who and what gets left out of the conversations that BLM has sparked, both in academia and beyond. It is not that the women at the helm of the BLM movement are not talking about the issues most central to poor Black women’s lives; perhaps it is that those outside of the movement are not listening.

* pseudonym

Works Cited

Black Lives Matter. (2016). “About the Black Lives Matter Network.” Retrieved from:

Comfort, Megan. (2007). “Punishment Beyond the Legal Offender. “ Annual Review of Law and Social Sciences 3: 271-296.

Desmond, Matthew and Nicol Valdez. (2012). “Unpolicing the Urban Poor: Consequences of Third-Party Policing for Inner-City Women.” American Sociological Review 78(1): 117-141.

Pager, Devah. (2003). “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” American Journal of Sociology 108(5): 937-975.

Wacquant, Loïc. (2012). “The Wedding of Workfare and Prisonfare in the 21st Century.” Journal of Poverty 16(3): 236-249.

Western, Bruce and Christopher Wildeman. (2009). “The Black Family and Mass Incarceration.” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621(1): 221-242.

Cayce Hughes is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Chicago and a Kinder Scholar at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, with research interests including the sociology of privacy, urban poverty, gender, health and well-being, and culture. His dissertation is an ethnographic and interview-based study that asks how poor mothers in a high-poverty neighborhood in Houston, TX, negotiate the loss of privacy that can accompany the receipt of public assistance, and how privacy concerns affect when, how, and whether they engage with the social safety net.


January 2016

How collaborating with a social worker changed my research

(and why I can’t wait to do it again)

By Megan Comfort


Megan Comfort is a senior research sociologist in the Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice research division at RTI International and the author of Doing Time Together: Love and Family in the Shadow of the Prison (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Her recent work focuses on the repercussive effects of incarceration on families and communities, health disparities among urban poor populations, and innovative methodological approaches to conducting research with marginalized groups.

As a sociologist at RTI International, I work in an interdisciplinary setting with a strong public health focus. Unlike much social science research, public health research frequently involves intervening in the lives of participants with the goal of improving people’s wellbeing. For example, public health studies may examine the influence of a media campaign to encourage HIV testing, determine whether individual counseling sessions can change people’s eating habits, or measure the impact of mindfulness meditation classes on cortisol levels.

From 2011-2014, my colleagues and I conducted a study that gave us a whole new perspective on intervention research. The study focused on adults who were HIV-positive and not “connected to care” – that is, were not seeing a doctor for treatment for their HIV infection on a regular basis. In order to be eligible for our study, people also needed to have used crack cocaine or injected any drug in the last thirty days. The combination of these eligibility criteria and the neighborhoods in which we conducted our recruitment yielded a study sample of people who were living in extreme poverty, entangled in the criminal justice system, and suffering from numerous mental and physical health challenges.

The purpose of the study was to determine whether receiving intensive case management would improve several biological markers of health for HIV-positive people, notably their “viral load,” or the amount of virus in their blood. By taking medication, many people can lower their viral load to the point that it is undetectable, which greatly enhances their health. During the 18-36 months of their study participation, nineteen participants worked closely with a clinical social worker who helped them connect with HIV care at community-based health clinics. In addition, the social worker assisted participants in strategizing how to reduce harm and take care of their health under the chronically brutal circumstances of their lives. For instance, some people began to store their HIV medications in their clothing so they would still have them if their possessions were stolen.

The case management followed a holistic, trauma-informed approach that also gave credence to non-HIV-related needs. The social worker talked with participants to determine what their top priorities were for establishing some stability in their lives, and then she worked hand-in-hand with them to achieve those goals. For many, shelter was a number one need: at the beginning of the study all of our participants were unstably housed or homeless. With support through the complicated application process and long waiting list periods, nine of them ultimately moved into subsidized housing. Obtaining a source of legal income was also key, and the social worker helped participants apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and other government entitlements for which they were eligible. She worked with several clients to get dentures, and with one person to obtain a prosthetic eye. She vouched for clients’ progress in meetings with their parole or probation officers, visited them in the local county jail, welcomed them to use the microwave and phone in her office, and went looking for them when they fell out of touch.

Not surprisingly, the results of our study indicate that this type of intensive case management helps keep people connected to care and therefore lowers their viral load and improves their health. But as my colleagues and I recently wrote in an article in the inaugural issue of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, integrating a social worker into our team brought a depth to our data collection and analysis that, quite frankly, we had not envisioned when we conceived of the study. And now that we’ve had this experience, it’s difficult to imagine ever conducting research with hypermarginalized people again without collaborating with a social worker. In a nutshell, here’s why:

Social workers have the skills to work with people in distress. Although social science researchers often build meaningful relationships with participants, the needs of severely marginalized people can quickly surpass our capacities. Over the course of our study, many participants experienced periods of intense crisis, such as episodes of paranoia or hallucinations, violent victimization, and life-threatening illnesses. Through her clinical training, the social worker was able to provide participants with therapeutic support in these moments to alleviate suffering and reduce harm. She also had the necessary credentials to coordinate care for them with other clinical professionals. Collectively, our team felt more comfortable with the ethics of undertaking research on a high-needs population knowing that participation in our study brought people into contact with someone who was equipped to actively work with them to improve their wellbeing, rather than just document their suffering.

 Collaborating with a social worker can shift analysis from the individual to the structural. Although the social worker came to know the study participants deeply as individuals, her collaboration in the research focused our attention on the structural factors that kept them mired in poverty and social disadvantage. During weekly in-depth debriefs, the social worker described how she and the participants attempted to navigate the medical, social service, and criminal justice institutions that dominated their lives. These recorded sessions formed the core of our analysis of how institutions work at odds with each other and ultimately fail to protect the health and safety of the people who are involved with them. Without the social worker’s intervention, it might have appeared that the institutions weren’t helpful due to the “fault” of hypermarginalized people, who often have trouble attending appointments, or maintaining consistent contact information, or following through with paperwork. But in partnership with the social worker, our study participants were able to overcome these barriers – and we could analyze the institutional failures that occurred at a deeper level, when people were present and prepared and trying to engage with services.

In the RSF journal article, my colleagues and I go into much more detail about these empirical, ethical, and methodological issues. For those of you who are undertaking methodological innovations of your own in your work with marginalized groups, please submit to the open session I’ll be organizing for the 2016 ASA!

December 2015

The truth about Asian Americans’ success

(it’s not what you think)

By Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine and the co-author of The Asian American Achievement Paradox with Min Zhou, published by the Russell Sage Foundation. Follow her on Twitter: @JLeeSoc.


Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the country. But not for the reasons you think.

For too long, conservative pundits and the news media have pointed to Asian Americans as the “model minority.” They cite the Ivy League admissions and educational success of many children of blue-collar Asian immigrant workers as evidence of a superior culture – one of hard work and strong families – that puts Asian Americans on a sure path to success.

But it isn’t Asian “culture” or any other attribute of ethnicity that is responsible for this success. Instead, it’s a unique form of privilege that is grounded in the socioeconomic origins of some – not all – Asian immigrant groups. Understanding this privilege offers insights into how we can help children from all backgrounds succeed.

In our new book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox—based on a survey and 140 in-depth interviews of the adult children of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles—fellow sociologist Min Zhou and I explain what actually fuels the achievements of some Asian American groups: U.S. immigration law, which favors highly educated, highly skilled immigrant applicants from Asian countries. Based on the most recent available data, we found that these elite groups of immigrants are among the most highly-educated people in their countries of origin and are often also more highly educated than the general U.S. population.

Take Chinese immigrants to the U.S., for example: In 2010, 51% were college graduates, compared with only 4% of adults in China and only 28% of adults in the U.S. The educational backgrounds of immigrant groups like the Chinese in the U.S.—and other highly-educated immigrant groups, such as Korean and Indian Americans—is where the concept of “Asian privilege” comes in.

When highly-educated immigrant groups settle in the U.S., they build what economist George Borjas calls “ethnic capital.” This capital includes ethnic institutions—such as after-school tutoring programs and after-school academies—which highly educated immigrants have the resources and know-how to re-create for their children.,9171,2094427,00.html These programs proliferate  in Asian neighborhoods in Los Angeles such as Koreatown, Chinatown, and Little Saigon. The benefits of these programs also reach working-class immigrants from the same group.

Ethnic capital also translates into knowledge. In churches, temples or community centers, immigrant parents circulate invaluable information about which neighborhoods have the best public schools, the importance of advance-placement classes, and how to navigate the college admissions process. This information also circulates through ethnic-language newspapers, television, and radio, allowing working-class immigrant parents to benefit from the ethnic capital that their middle-class peers create.

Our Chinese interviewees described how their non-English speaking parents turned to the Chinese Yellow pages for information about affordable after-school programs and free college admissions seminars. This, in turn, helps the children whose immigrant parents toil in factories and restaurants attain educational outcomes that defy expectations.

The story of Jason, a young Chinese American man we interviewed, is emblematic of how these resources and knowledge can benefit working-class Chinese immigrants. Jason’s parents are immigrants who do not speak English and did not graduate from high school. Yet, they were able to use the Chinese Yellow Pages to identify the resources that put Jason on the college track. There, they learned about the best public schools in the LA area and affordable after-school education programs that would help Jason get good grades and ace the SAT. Jason’s supplemental education—the hidden curriculum behind academic achievement—paid off when he graduated at the top of his class and was admitted to a top University of California campus.

This advantage is not available to other working-class immigrants. Mexican immigrants, for example, are largely less-educated, low-wage workers because they arrived to the U.S. as a result of different immigration policies and histories. Theirs is a largely low-wage labor migration stream that began en masse with the 1942 Bracero Accord, and continues today.

Based on the most recent census data, about 17% of Mexico’s population are college graduates compared with 5% of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. As a less-educated immigrant group, they lack the resources to generate the ethnic capital available to Chinese immigrants, and rely almost exclusively on the public school system to educate their children.

Yet, despite their lack of ethnic capital, the children of Mexican immigrants make extraordinary educational gains and leap far beyond their parents. They double the high school graduation rates of their immigrant parents, double the college graduation rates of their immigrant fathers, and triple that of their immigrant mothers.

The legal status of parents is key to success. On average, the children of Mexican immigrant parents who are undocumented attain 11 years of education. By contrast, those whose parents migrated here legally or entered the country as undocumented migrants but later legalized their status attain 13 years of education on average, and this difference remains even after controlling for demographic variables. The two-year difference is critical in the U.S. education system: It divides high school graduates from high school drop-outs, making undocumented status alone a significant impediment to educational attainment and social mobility.

Undocumented status affects other immigrant groups, including Asians. There are currently more than 1.5 million undocumented Asians in the United States, accounting for 13.9 percent of the total undocumented population in the United States. This comes as a surprise to many Americans, who equate undocumented status with Mexicans.

The children of Mexican immigrants who surmount the disadvantage of their class origins and legal status and graduate from college pointed to an influential teacher, guidance counselor, coach, or “college bound” program that helped them make it to college.

Camilla, a second-generation Mexican woman we interviewed, is a case in point. No one in Camilla’s family had attended a four-year university, but a guidance counselor at her community college encouraged her to transfer to a four-year university and helped her with her application. As a result, Camilla ultimately went on to attend a top private university and later pursued a master’s degree in social work. Her educational mobility shows what is possible when schools provide adequate resources to support children’s ambitions and potential. It is worth asking how much more Camilla and other children of Mexican immigrants might have attained had they had access to something like the “Asian privilege” of the children of Chinese immigrants.

How do we extend this privilege to students of all racial and ethnic groups? Our research has made it clear to us that pundits should stop talking about Asian culture and start making supplemental education available to students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, including Asian ethnic groups that lack ethnic capital and don’t get a boost from this privilege, such as Hmong, Laotians, and Cambodians.

Increasing funding for guidance counselors, coaches, and college bound classes is a start, but creating affordable after-school academies and tutoring programs in neighborhoods, for example, like LA’s Koreatown—which is home to Angelenos from diverse backgrounds—could give children of immigrants across racial, ethnic, and class lines the resources they need to succeed.

Creating institutional spaces where students cross divides has another benefit: it will help prepare them for the diverse college environments and workplaces that many will enter. Making supplementary education available to other working-class children will do more than level the playing field to make it to college; it will also help today’s students succeed once they are there.

Originally published at on August 4, 2015 at


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