Decolonizing White Sociology

Just as sociology notoriously failed to predict the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 60s, it was unprepared for the eruption of racial conflict that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement. As before, dominant discourses complacently assumed that the nation had made great strides in “race relations,” highlighted by the election of “the first black president” in 2008.

By uncanny coincidence, the 1963 meeting of the American Sociological Association occurred on the same day as the historic March on Washington. In his presidential address Everett Hughes posed the right question: “Why did social scientists—and sociologists in particular—not foresee the explosion of collective action of Negro Americans toward immediate full integration into American society?” However, Hughes was utterly incapable of providing an answer to his own question and drifted off into pedantic obfuscation.

Actually, there were some sociologists who did anticipate the racial upheaval that “exploded” in the 1960s. Chief among them was W.E.B. Du Bois who wrote in 1906, at a meeting of the Niagara Movement in Harpers Ferry that spawned the NAACP:

We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America.

Du Bois was not alone. There was a cadre of minority and radical scholars who anticipated the civil rights revolution, precisely because it fit into their theoretical and political paradigm. But like Du Bois, they were regarded as substituting politics for science, and were ignored or marginalized.

Aldon Morris’s recent book, The Scholar Denied, is a canonical game changer because it vitiates sociology’s origin myth and demonstrates incontrovertibly that Du Bois is the rightful primogenitor of “Chicago sociology.” Morris’s larger purpose is to challenge dominant discourses in sociology that, ever since the inception of the discipline at the University of Chicago in 1892, have not only elided the groundbreaking and transformative contributions of black sociologists, but have also provided epistemic justification for racial hierarchy.

As Australian sociologist R. W. Connell reminds us, “sociology was formed within the culture of imperialism and embodied a cultural response to the colonized world.” Here is a jolt to “the scholastic unconscious.” Through Connell’s theoretical lens, it becomes clear that the race relations cycle advanced by Robert Park far from being value-free, embodies the logic of colonialism.

The four stages of the race relations cycle—contact, competition, accommodation, and assimilation—have been recited like a catechism by generations of sociologists on doctoral exams, oblivious to the ideological assumptions that lurk behind this deceptively innocuous language. “Contact,” according to Park, refers to groups who “come together through migration or conquest”—a specious shorthand for the systematic plunder of entire continents by Western powers over centuries, beginning with a global slave trade that transported over 12 million Africans to the New World to provide slave labor for plantation economies. The second stage in the cycle—“competition”—is yet another euphemism for colonial domination and the slave trade, including the system of “internal colonialism” that developed in countries that imported slaves. The third stage—“accommodation”—refers to the process whereby the vanquished group is rendered incapable of more than token resistance, and relations between the oppressor and the oppressed are normalized through law and custom. Assimilation, the final stage, refers to the ultimate incorporation of the subordinate group, culturally and biologically, into the society of the more advanced group. As Park wrote with chilling equanimity: “Races and cultures die—it has always been so—but civilization lives on.”

Hence, progress—the advance of civilization—was the pot of gold that lay at the end of the sociological rainbow (to borrow a phrase from Albion Small, one of the founders of Chicago sociology). The core assumption undergirding this epistemology is that both overseas and internal colonialism are part of a global teleology whereby peoples at a lower plane of civilization are incorporated into the culture and institutions of groups that have innate superiority over the peoples they dominate.

Sociologist Stanford Lyman argued that this evolutionary optimism helps to explain why sociology failed to apprehend, much less champion, civil rights until forced to do so by the rise of black insurgency in the South. As he wrote sardonically in 1993, “since the time for teleological redemption is ever long, blacks might consign their civic and egalitarian future to faith in the ultimate fulfillment of the inclusion cycles promise.” Sociology’s race relations cycle thus served to put full inclusion and social emancipation on pause by presenting assimilation as a matter of future inevitability rather than one of present urgency. Lyman stated flat out that “sociology has been part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

In The Racial Contract, Charles Mills provides another jolt to the colonial unconscious with a blanket indictment of race knowledge, suggesting that it is predicated on “an epistemology of ignorance” whose whole purpose is to obscure rather than to illuminate. To quote Mills:

One could say then, as a general rule, that white misunderstanding, misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception on matters related to race are among the most pervasive mental phenomena of the past few hundred years, a cognitive and moral economy psychically required for conquest, colonization, and enslavement.

The ironic outcome, as Mills says, is that “whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.”

So much for the fabled Chicago School of Race Relations. Indeed, it was not until the black protest movement—in both its nonviolent and violent forms—and the attendant upheaval that threw the entire society into crisis and led to the burning of cities—that sociology made the shift from the obfuscating terminology “race relations” to its rightful name: “racial oppression.” Radical and minority voices that had long been ignored or marginalized were, for the first time, thrust to the center of both academic and popular discourses.

By the 1980s, however, the race relations paradigm was restored to hegemony and today—half-a-century after the civil rights revolution—mainstream sociologists have reverted to discourses that prevailed half a century earlier. They celebrate “racial progress” and improved “race relations,” and when confronted with conditions at odds with their rosy diagnosis, they invoke the discredited culture-of-poverty theory (albeit in new rhetorical guise) as well as other articulations of victim-blaming discourses that prevailed even before the civil rights revolution.

This raises the paramount question: how do we explain intellectual hegemony and the process by which certain ideas achieve hegemonic status? This requires that we do more than examine the subtle ways that sociologists consciously and unconsciously reproduce social inequalities in our departments, universities, and even within the American Sociological Association. These issues are important, but the larger issue regards the structures and dynamics of knowledge production. We need to examine the machinery of hegemony, the precise mechanisms through which ideas become ensconced and canons are formed.

This requires that we subject the sociological enterprise to the critical eye that C. Wright Mills brought to The Power Elite. This begins with elite universities whose imprimatur alone launches careers, opens up doors to prestigious publishing houses and the op-ed pages of leading newspapers, and helps secure grants from foundations and government agencies. Grants, in turn, allow these entrepreneurs to form “schools” and “dream teams” that propagate their pet theories to fledgling scholars. It is an open secret that the academic wheel is greased with money, which means that the people and interests who control the purse strings are the engineers of knowledge production. Like the referee system for journals, the referee system for grants, functions to enforce ideological conformity by rejecting submissions that go too far in challenging the prevailing wisdom. Meanwhile, professional associations that often resemble fraternal societies, create rewardtocracies that dispense honorific titles, awards, and sinecures that invest hegemony with an indispensable aura of legitimacy.

To be sure, dissident viewpoints are tolerated in the academy, if only because they sustain the myth of the liberal university as a bastion of diversity and dissent. I do not deny the existence or vitality of diversity and dissent—rather, the key issue pertains to which viewpoints prevail. Which receive material support? Which are canonized? Above all, which are influential in terms of politics and public policy? In the final analysis, the ultimate test of critical reflexivity is not scoring debating points but rather advancing the cause of racial justice. And creating a social science that lives up to its emancipatory promise.

Stephen Steinberg is a Distinguished Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College and the Ph.D. Program in Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of many books, including Race Relations: A Critique. (Note: this post first appeared on the Stanford Press blog: http://stanfordpress.typepad.com/blog/2016/08/decolonizing-sociology.html)

More Hostility to Spanish: An Arizona Mayor

Fort Huachuca City is a small community in Arizona (pop. 1900) located approximately 20 miles from the Mexican Border. Mayor Ken Taylor was upset when he received an invitation to a meeting of U.S. and Mexican border city mayors because it was written in both English and Spanish, or “Spanish/Mexican,” as he put it in an email to John Cook, executive director of the U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Association in El Paso:

I will NOT attend a function that is sent to me in Spanish/Mexican. One nation means one language and I am insulted by the division caused by language.

Cook’s reply to Taylor’s email was sharp:

I will certainly remove you from our email list. The purpose of the Border Mayors Association is to speak with one voice in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City about issues that impact our communities, not to speak in one language. My humble apologies if I ruffled your feathers.

Taylor, in turn, responded in a manner reminiscent of developer-candidate Donald Trump:

America is going ‘Down Hill’ fast because we spend more time catering to others that are concerned with their own self interests. It is far past time to remember that we should be ‘America First’ … there is NOTHING wrong with that. My feathers are ruffled anytime I see anything American putting other countries First. If I was receiving correspondence from Mexican interests, I would expect to see them listed First. Likewise, when I see things produced from America, I EXPECT to see America First.

Mr. Taylor’s reaction is rooted in a portion of the White Racial Frame that vilifies Latinos and their culture and language. It was early developed by Southern slaveholders and other white elites to justify the US seizure of sovereign Mexican territory in the mid 1800’s. This segment of the White Racial Frame received a “shot in the arm” as a result of the spread of Trump’s blatant anti-Latino rhetoric.

Mr. Taylor should be aware of two things:

First, to call Spanish “foreign” is ignorant of history. The presence of Spanish in what is known today as “the Southwest” precedes the arrival of the Mayflower at Plymouth Colony in 1620.

Second, with the growth of the Latino population, Spanish has become indispensable for businesses and government, maybe not in Fort Huachuca City but definitely everywhere else. Spanish is here to stay.

Dangers in Normalizing Racism: Trump Wildly Attacks Obama

Sometimes it seems that only late night comedians such as Seth Myers have nailed Donald J. Trump’s bigotry and normalization of racism. According to Myers,

We can’t become immune to it. We cannot allow it to become normalized.

Referring to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about Muslim immigrants to the United States knowingly protecting terrorists, Myers noted, “To be clear, this is bigotry, plain and simple.”

The tepid reporting by most cable news and print commentators of Donald Trump’s latest inflammatory comments at a rally near Fort Lauderdale, Florida on August 10, 2016 declaring that President Barack Obama “honors Isis” and is the “founder of Isis” fails to identify the flagrantly racist nature of his most recent attack. In Trump’s words, President Obama “is the most valuable player” for Isis. Even a Trump supporter on a recent CNN broadcast, admitted that Trump’s emphasis on Obama’s middle name, Hussein, in the Fort Lauderdale rally, might have been designed to suggest that Obama is a foreign sympathizer.

After reiterating his claim of President Obama founding Isis several times on August 10 including during a news interview with conservative commentator, Hugh Hewitt, Trump backtracked the next day, declaring his remarks were simply “sarcasm” and adding “but not that sarcastic to be honest with you.”

Most subsequent news accounts of the rally have carefully avoided the mention of race and launched into extensive analyses of the ways in which Obama could or could not be deemed responsible for the rise of Isis. Even Hillary Clinton’s tweets in response to Trump’s commented were understated and did not mention the racist nature of these comments. As she wrote,

No, Barack Obama is not the founder of Isis. . . . Anyone willing to sink so low, so often should never be allowed to serve as our Commander-in Chief.

Ironically, relatively few commentators and mostly those from minority groups have zeroed in on the racist nature of Trump’s delegitimization of President Obama and the ways in which Trump has galvanized the anger of blue-collar and other white workers about their perceived loss of stature in an increasingly minority majority country. The New York Times Editorial Board on August 11 did identify Trump’s “racist rage” against the president as “appealing to the mob.”

Much earlier, during the Democratic primary race, Bernie Sanders keyed in on the “unprecedented level of obstructionism” against President Obama, naming the birther issue that Trump raised as specific evidence of what he termed “a racist effort.” As Sanders keenly observed,

No one has asked for my birth certificate. Maybe it’s the color of my skin, who knows?

The delegitimization of President Obama re-launched by Donald Trump draws on consistent themes that Trump has promoted for more than five years. Trump has repeatedly blasted President Obama as incompetent, a theme frequently leveled against minorities and women as underscored in recent sociological research. The implication that Obama is a secret Kenyan-born Muslim who sympathizes with terrorists labels the President as un-American, an outsider, and a foreigner. Add this to Trump’s call for a ban on immigration of Muslim immigrants and the deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants from the United States; his declaration of Mexican immigrants as in many cases drug dealers, criminals, and racists; his reluctance to disavow the Klu Klux Klan; his criticism of the mother of Army Captain Humayun Khan; and the claim that Judge Gonzalo Curiel was biased due to his Mexican heritage: it all adds up to a single, irrefutable refrain.

As Nicholas Kristoff concludes after analyzing four decades of a consistent pattern in Trump’s words and actions, “I don’t see what else to call it but racism.”

Our Post-Truth Culture: Institutional and Individual Consequences

This presidential election has become the perfect storm of “post-truth” politics and racism. It is reflected by the fact that an unqualified “know-nothing” like Trump could be nominated as the Republican presidential candidate. Trump’s disregard for ethics, extreme egoism, and racist solutions to complex policy problems, which include banning all Muslims, building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and bombing our enemies into the stone age, will have institutional and individual consequences if he is elected as the next president.

In an article entitled “Why We’re Post-Fact,” Pomerantsev states:

[W]hen Donald Trump makes up facts on a whim, claims he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Twin Towers coming down, or that the Mexican government purposefully send ‘bad’ immigrants to the US, when fact-checking agencies rate 78% of his statements untrue but he still becomes a US Presidential candidate—then it appears that facts no longer matter much in the land of the free.

Indeed, facts must not matter with the American electorate as the latest polls show Clinton and Trump very close, with 44% of the public supporting Clinton and 41% supporting Trump. What are the consequences of voters’ preference for “truthiness” over facts and feelings over reason?

Institutionally, the normal “self-correcting” checks and balances and separate institutions we cherish aren’t working. Pomeranstsev argues that while politicians have always lied at least they used to care about constructing a coherent and logical narrative, but not anymore.

At the individual level, the consequence is allowing a new level of racism that was unacceptable. Now we see an increase in aggressive frontstage racism as opposed to what Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin have documented as backstage racism, the sort that used to take place among whites at a fraternity party. In our new era one doesn’t have to feel embarrassed for being openly anti-Muslim or anti-foreigners.

Institutionally: Trump is a presidential candidate who makes his employees sign non-disclosure statements and says he’d consider doing the same in the White House if elected president. Does Trump believe that forcing people who work for him to refrain from later criticizing him or his actions publically would be legal in his role as president? So much for the federal Freedom of Information Act, not to mention the First Amendment right to criticize public figures without being sued for both libel or slander established by the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. In Sullivan the Supreme Court established the

principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.

Not so for Donald Trump. If Trump is elected we will see more than just constitutional First Amendment protections or public policies disregarded.

Some may question how much damage electing Trump for president can do. After all, the U.S. has survived bad presidents before. Some may even argue we have a constitutional framework of checks and balances and separation of powers that will serve as self-correctors in our system. Some may even contend that electing Trump will produce a counter-leftward political movement. As a good friend once said, “If we’re living through the 1950s again it must mean we’re going to have another 1960s.” Perhaps. However, because of the lack of importance on truth in our political climate this presidential election may show us that the normal “self-correcting” checks and balances and separate institutions we cherish aren’t enough to protect us against some real damage to our ideals and institutions.

Individually: This presidential election has also resulted in increases in open racism. It seems many Trump supporters feel liberated to openly and freely harm and insult people of color using Trump as a justification. For example, Isaac Chotiner made the point in Slate that anti-Muslim attacks are on the rise. Chotiner provides one example of a woman calling another woman “Muslim trash,” and a “terrorist,” before spilling a drink on her and stating she was going to vote for Trump because he would send Muslims away at a Starbucks in Washington D.C.

Another example where perpetrators of hate crimes have specifically mentioned Trump is the brutal attack in Boston on a homeless 58 year-old Latino that left him with a broken nose, battered body, and face drenched in urine. The two brothers who committed the hate crime claimed they targeted him because he was Latino and because they were “inspired” by Trump. These examples, while anecdotal, underscore the rise in hate groups since George W. Bush left office. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center hate groups, especially “Patriotic” white hate groups have been on the rise since the start of the Obama administration, and have been ticking upward since 2015. Trump’s white-framed racist and nativist presidential campaign will have negative consequences beyond this presidential election cycle for ethnic and racial communities.

This presidential election is operating in a political climate where substance and truth matter little. If we don’t start caring about facts and how we treat our fellow human beings regardless of their religion or race it will prove to cause long-term damage to our institutions and to race relations.