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: