Capstone: 2015 Cohort

Different Paths, Similar Outcomes: The Relationship Between Urban Governance, Concentrations of Poverty, and Disparities in Education in St. Louis, MO and Houston, TX

Elena Bell (Honors thesis)

In this study, I analyze the relationship between urban governance, concentrations of poverty, and disparities in education in St. Louis, MO and Houston, TX. Using theories espoused by Colin Gordon, E. Terrence Jones, David Rusk, and Kenneth T. Jackson, I trace key federal, state, and local policies that worked in tandem to shape and encourage the hyper-socioeconomic and racial segregation of the St. Louis region. Working with 2009-2013 American Community Survey data, I use my own methodology and Indices of Dissimilarity and Isolation to quantify the intersection of class, race and spatial inequalities. Using Missouri Assessment Program scores, ACT scores, and graduation rates, I support the Coleman Report by showing the direct correlation between the socioeconomic status of one’s peers and the quality of education available to low-income African American students. Specifically, my data suggest that in the context of a hyper-balkanized St. Louis, the majority of poor African American students do not have the opportunity to use education as a vehicle of social mobility.

In terms of Houston, I evaluate how its divergent urban governance mechanisms impact its distribution of public education in comparison to that of St. Louis. As I show, drawing on works by Zhu Qian and Michael Berry, despite Houston’s elasticity and rejection of separation-of-use zoning, the region still remains very socioeconomically and racially segregated.  Although Houston Independent School District has tried to mitigate the space-based inequalities by fully embracing school choice programs, its implementation of these programs has only been able to achieve marginally better outcomes for its low-income African American and Hispanic students. I use this information to argue that St. Louis, and all urban areas within the United States, need to embrace a paradigm shift in terms of commitment to socioeconomically and racially integrating (or desegregating) all of its neighborhoods.


Modern Tort Reform in the United States: Rhetorical Spin and the “Legal Wheel of Fortune”              

Vince Biase

This Capstone examines the tort reform debate in the United States over the past twenty years from a cultural and political perspective. Focusing on major, defining cases and events in the contemporary debate, I plan on demonstrating the ways in which American political initiatives have appropriated mainstream news and public sentiment in an effort to further propagate their respective causes. Tort reform will serve as a lens for examining this deeply ingrained trait of American politics; allowing for a comprehensive evaluation of how certain lawsuits ascend to national talking points and produce significant public dialogue that echoes cultural and societal norms. In the context of tort reform, lawsuits that follow the aforementioned trajectory through various mass media platforms are ripe for political adoption. National news stories such as McDonald’s “Hot Coffee” fiasco and Wendy’s “Chili Surprise” naturally foster a public consciousness about a particular issue, as well as a committed personal opinion. This Capstone will work to pinpoint where these national discussions of tort reform cross a threshold of political significance and garner an immensely dynamic, rhetorical value in the context of a larger partisan movement.


The Great Education Debate: How Charter Schools Affect American Society

Charlotte Borner

There is a lot that can be said about the American Educational system. As a fundamental right for Americans, it is said to be the great equalizer and the key to success.  But, is it really all of these things?  The public school system in America is often viewed as inadequate, causing frequent efforts to reform the system.  One of these relatively recent efforts is the Charter School Movement.  Charter schools lie somewhere in the abyss that exists between private and public schools.  Most often, they receive public funding and are tuition-free, though they have the autonomy of a private school.

In some cases, this heightened independence allows for these schools to hand select their student bodies, therefore producing results that outshine their traditional public counterparts.  Herein lies the debate: can Americans celebrate the successes of charter schools if these results do not account for the harmful effects they have on the students left behind?  Moreover, do the systems in place in charter schools properly prepare their students for success?

This project examines a specific neighborhood, East Harlem, in New York City, that houses both acclaimed charter schools and traditional public schools.  This generally low-income, Hispanic neighborhood provides an area for observational study for the comparison of charter and traditional schools.  While ultimately, the charter schools produce positive results of the academic success of their students, the qualitative research proves that the students not chosen to participate in a charter school education are put at an even greater disadvantage; and often, the charter schools themselves do not provide a well-rounded education for the students.  The charter school movement in America has put many students at a disadvantage and is therefore detrimental to American society.


The Effect Of Inherent Racial Biases On Black Men

Ashley Brown

In my capstone, I explore the difference in thought that black and white people have in regards to black prisoners and the effects which these different opinions produce in governmental policies and in the black community. The first part of this project briefly explores the origin of how blacks and whites tend to view the justice system and the consequences that have resulted from the various perspectives of the justice system. This includes the creation of three strikes laws, stand your ground laws, and capital punishment, all of which have contributed to a disproportionate amount of profiling, mistreatment, arrest, murder, and incarceration of black men. Using psychological studies, I also examine how inherent racial biases harbored by blacks and whites leads to different perceptions of black criminals.

To analyze exactly how these laws affect particular black men, I use the theory of multidimensionality, which is very similar to the theory of intersectionality. It takes into account different aspects of identity – race, sex, gender, socioeconomic status – and acknowledges the hierarchy that develops between these identifiers under various circumstances. I frame personal and second hand narratives, newspaper articles, and psychological studies around this framework to better understand the root of the creation and the various effects of prejudicial laws. By creating this project, I have gained a better understanding of the cause of the recent amount of violence enacted against black men and have learned what measure can be taken to end discrimination against black men.


Obama the Socialist? American Media and the Prejudice Against Socialism

Matt Cleary

This capstone is a critical analysis of the use of the term “socialist” in modern American political discourse, with a focus on the term's place in the ongoing debate over healthcare legislation, namely the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  In order to understand what critics and supporters of “Obamacare” actually mean when they argue about the alleged socialist nature of the legislation, I have studied the centuries of confused and ill-defined meanings behind the term “socialist,” from the short-lived Paris Commune to the Soviet Union.  Additionally, I offer a brief overview of the history of American opposition to all forms of socialism, which has roots in socialism's reputation as a foreign ideology inherently incompatible with American individualism, as well as socialist pacifist opposition to American intervention in World War I.  Opposition to socialism is the United States is an outlier in Western democracies, many of which have thriving political parties significantly to the left of American Democrats.  Examination of this American occurrence offers a lens on our perception of left-wing politics.

In this paper, I investigate a wide spectrum of political discourse – conservative and liberal, mainstream and fringe – and discuss what sort of dialogue is taking place between opposing sides.  I will also debate whether or not the label of “socialist” actually maintains


Be Like Mike: Exploring the Evolution of the NBA Through the Commercialization of its Most Famous Players

Casey Crawford

The National Basketball Association has witnessed a meteoric rise in popularity over the last 30 years, and numerous factors have played a role in this growth.  As a result, there have been many unintended consequences of the league’s expansion and evolution, and for the first time, personal brand and identity is equally, if not more, important than the National Basketball Association’s brand as a whole, and this is what differentiates the NBA from its contemporary sporting institutions. 

While the notion of a celebrity athlete is far from novel in American society, the NBA may be the first American sports league comprised largely of celebrities.  Moreover, the NBA itself is largely responsible for the ways in which its players are marketed, and thus, the league and its players have created a symbiotic relationship in which the two intrinsically linked parties provide each other with a distinct set of opportunities and advantages. For the players, this comes in the form of media attention and public exposure, while for NBA teams, the relationship can be viewed as one driven by profitability in the form of ticket sales, television contracts, and a growing fan base.

Now more than ever, players are “taking their talents” to other realms of American culture and industry. Former NBA greats Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson are the owners of two American sports franchises, but there are now an unprecedented number of ways an NBA player can gain notoriety. Lamar Odom and Kris Humphries’ relationships with the Kardashians are well documented, as is Nick Young’s relationship with pop star Iggy Azalea. Shaq’s rap albums, however bad they are, were popular. 

This paper will examine the celebrification of NBA players, using Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James as case studies, and pose that the celebrification of NBA players can be viewed as a complex yet mutually beneficial marketing strategy in which certain types of players are used systematically by entities such as the NBA, as well as corporations and the media in a self-perpetuating cycle designed to popularize the league and increase market size.  The intertwined phenomena of celebrity, commodification, and commercialization are explored in the context of globalization and race.


Who Really Gets To Climb The Ladder Of Success?  Student Retention At The University Of Texas At Austin And The Future Of Higher Education Access

Juliet Eisenstein (Honors thesis)

Since 1636, when the first American university was established, access to higher education, for students from marginalized races, classes, and genders, has been unequal. The University of Texas at Austin (UT) has dealt with these issues very publically in recent years, due to their top ten percent admissions policy and the Abigail Fisher Supreme Court case in 2011. These factors have compelled UT to focus on campus diversity in ways that their peer institutions have not, especially in how it has hurt the university’s four-year graduation rates due to poor retention. In this paper, I analyze UT’s largest effort to combat poor retention, the University Leadership Network (ULN), which was established in 2013 to retain students that UT deems the least likely to graduate in four years. After contextualizing issues of diversity and access in the history of U.S. higher education, I employ Vincent Tinto’s widely used Student Integration Model (SIM) of retention to provide a theoretical framework through which to analyze ULN. After illustrating how closely the SIM and ULN align in theory, I take my analysis a step further to explore how they match up in practice, through an interview with ULN’s creator and a study of ULN’s Facebook page. As the architect of ULN, Dr. David Laude’s words speak strongly to the program’s day-to-day operations, while the Facebook page is the most heavily employed means of communication for the ULN cohort. These sources reveal deep contradictions between ULN’s programming and its purpose, through the themes of othering, institutional privilege, community and meritocratic ideals. I conclude that open dialogue and consistent accountability are both required for UT, and universities across the country, to achieve full retention and advocate for strong policy to aid such efforts.


For (Y)our Best Interest: The Minimum Draft Age Requirement and the Conflicting Goals of Profitability in the NBA

Lisa Gosine

Since the start of professional competitive sports, there has been a significant change in the perception of what it means to be a professional athlete.  A rise in sponsorship, television deals, and other forms of income for the sports industry has led to increased interest in the possibility of becoming a professional athlete.  As a Finance Intern with the Brooklyn Nets, my interest was piqued as I thought about the sustainability of sports and what the future of professional sports might look like as the industry continues to experience financial growth.  Moving forward, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has shown interest in raising the minimum age for draft eligibility from 19 years and at least one year out of high school to 20 years and at least two years out of high school.  The league has received resistance on this topic from athletes who view this as unfair, while the NBA and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) have expressed sentiments of concern for young players and their ability to play at the professional level with little to no collegiate or post-high school experience.  This capstone project explores the web of benefit that has been created by the relationship between the NBA, the NCAA, and most importantly, the athletes.   Through a series of articles, I will be evaluating the different perspectives in this debate and examine who truly benefits from raising the minimum age for draft eligibility. 


Structural Inequality in Schools: Re-segregation in St. Louis and Across the Nation  

Emma Honeyman

Last year, 475 K-12 students from one struggling school district became “pawns” in the political game of accreditation as they were forced to transfer to an unfamiliar school where they are unwanted.  The current situation in Normandy serves as a microcosm of the larger national educational failure to provide high-quality education for all American youth.  Some relevant scholarly work references the initiation of public education as the supposed ‘great equalizer’ and yet in reality the structure of American public schools has always propagated inequality and encouraged segregation.  The way in which governments allocate funding and resources to schools is one of the primary culprits, which is why I utilize a case study on the unaccredited Normandy school district in St. Louis, Missouri to illuminate factors behind inequality.

I take a historical approach to illuminate the congruence between discrimination in the public school system and segregation in the United States.  I address the structural inequality endemic to the American public school system, particularly how it perpetuates disparities across socioeconomic, regional and racial lines.  To contend that schools never fully integrated, I examine the historical framework of desegregation in America as a buildup to the current condition where our education system disenfranchises minority and poor students.

The evidence that I employ to support these claims is primarily extracted from personal interviews with educators, news coverage of the events in Normandy and the comprehensive national data released in March by the U.S. Department of Education.  I argue that this data expels any lingering notions of education as the ‘great equalizer’ and elucidates the need for improved communication between federal, state and local governments.  Diversity within and between districts must be accounted for to drive realistic progress toward educational equality.


The Jade Sage Chronicles: Creating a Suburban Mythology

Sam Lai

The town is alive. And it’s under attack.

Ever since his brother, Drew, disappeared three years ago, Lyle’s life has really taken a turn for the worst: his parents are divorced, he’s moved twice, and he’s been plagued by these zany, cryptic messages that no one else sees. But moving to Saybrook, IL, the most suburban place in the world, is the last straw. Now, he really feels like he’s going crazy.

There aren't just bullies (Lyle can handle them), annoying librarians (whatever), and high-strung soccer moms (sure) behind the flawless façade of safety, community, and harmony. Nope. Someone dragged Lyle and his misfit friends into the middle of an ancient ritual that will bring the town to life and maybe, just maybe, bring harmony and healing to the world. The ritual is attracting a lot of unwanted attention, though, and now Lyle, Spiro, Brie, and Kansas, have the absurd responsibility to dispatch an invisible army of delinquent spirits, deal with uppity suburban angels, and infiltrate a poorly organized secret society. All this on top of the general feeling that this whole town was built to torture him.

Good thing there seems to be some hope in all the madness. As Lyle suspected, everything seems to be connected to his brother’s disappearance and if he can stick it out long enough, maybe he can find it all: Drew, a stable job for his mom, and maybe, just maybe somewhere he feels like calling home. But that’s getting ahead of himself. First he and his friends have to protect a town that doesn't want them from enemies that only they can see. 


“He’s the Jew”: Assimilation, Ownership and Colorblind Capitalism in American Professional Basketball

Alex Leichenger (honors thesis)

During the 2014 NBA playoffs, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling sent shockwaves around American society when a tape caught him demanding that a personal assistant not bring black people to his games. Rookie NBA commissioner Adam Silver swiftly banned Sterling for life from the league in a move met with widespread praise. Yet further comments on the tape by Sterling and his personal history as a vicious housing discriminator demonstrated a fundamental conflict in power dynamics between the billionaire owners controlling professional sports franchises and their labor force of millionaire athletes. In some circles, Sterling’s Jewish identity (he changed his name from Tokowitz decades earlier), raised another concern, mitigated greatly by Silver’s Jewish identity, about the possible confirmation of anti-Semitic stereotypes. In fact, the NBA, usually considered a “black” league for the demographics of its players, has historically maintained a prominent Jewish presence—originally consisting of players but more recently among coaches, agents, team executives, union officials, commissioners and owners. Later in 2014, another Jewish owner, Bruce Levenson of the Atlanta Hawks, found himself in hot water for racially offensive remarks about the black majority of the team’s fan base hurting business. With the issues raised by the Sterling and Levenson incidents as a frame, this project explores the black-Jewish relationship in American professional basketball history, proceeding through arguments about labor conflict, masculinity and individualist narratives. Alliance and tension between blacks and Jews in America have been a source of exhaustive academic analysis due to shared histories of persecution, migratory patterns that led the groups to frequently occupy the same diversifying urban spaces, and a divide of white privilege. This project seeks to expand the discussion to the realm of professional basketball, a multibillion-dollar industry that substantially reflects and influences American culture.


She Don’t Even Know It: Expressions of Misogyny, Hyper-violence, and Sexually Aggressive Themes in Rap Lyrics & Hip-Hop Culture

Courtney Oben

This essay explores the common practice of subordinating women through rap music, focusing primarily on the shift in topics discussed in rap music -from primarily concerning political, economic, and social activism to rampant expression of misogyny and heightened sexual violence against women of color, during the early 1990’s. With the surge in rap music glorifying gang violence and celebrating the exploitation of women of color, perceptions of the black community, and specifically black-American women, have negatively shifted to align with the hyper-violent and hypersexual representations of black men in hip-hop culture. To determine the extent to which misogynistic and hyper-aggressive themes in rap music inform the public perception of the black-American male, I will use select productions from DMX and 50 Cent as lenses through which the relationship between rap subject matter and financial/ commercial success can be examined. To sufficiently gauge the both the black-American and general publics’ response to the rap lyrics I will examine, I will consider reactions to hip-hop from black-Feminists over the years to discover how much –if at all- female consumers of the genre must subconsciously disassociate themselves from the types of women discussed in rap lyrics in order to fully enjoy the music.


Food for Thought: An Exploration of Cuisine and Regional Identity in the American Bottom

Sophie Revere

The American Bottom region of southern Illinois is relatively unknown and absent from academic literature; however, some of the most important contemporary conversations about American culture have roots in the region. The American Bottom is home to Cahokia, an architecturally complex pre-Columbian Native American city; the birthplace of controversial agrochemical behemoth Monsanto; and East St. Louis, a town dispossessed from the contemporary social life of St. Louis, yet central to conversations about regional race relations. While these areas have received considerable scholarly attention, the American Bottom has remained a relatively unfamiliar term; the region is often portrayed as a fragmented landscape, comprised of disparate and unrelated areas.

Despite this common outside view of fragmentation, citizens of the American Bottom have a strong sense of regional identity, and many historical and cultural similarities exist between American Bottom towns. My capstone project—a cookbook of recipes from the American Bottom—arose as a means of using food to create a connective narrative across this region that has been previously viewed as discontinuous. The recipes included in my work were gathered from interviews with residents of the American Bottom, community-written cookbooks from the region, and scholarly works. Their origins span the entire breadth of the region, from Alton, the American Bottom’s northernmost point, to the banks of the Kaskaskia River, its southern border, in order to holistically encapsulate the spirit of cuisine throughout the region. Each recipe is paired with an accompanying piece detailing a relevant aspect of the region’s historical or cultural landscape; these writings both demonstrate the interplay between history, culture, and local cuisine, and highlight similarities between the towns from which the recipes originate. It is my hope that through the familiar and universal medium of food, this document will expand and promote the view of the American Bottom as complex, unified, and deserving of study.