Research Brief: Books, books and more books

This week’s research brief highlights several new (and new-ish) books for your scholarly reading list.

Research in the Dictionary



Morris, Scholar Denied, book cover

Description: In this groundbreaking book, Aldon D. Morris’s ambition is truly monumental: to help rewrite the history of sociology and to acknowledge the primacy of W. E. B. Du Bois’s work in the founding of the discipline. Taking on the prevailing narrative of how sociology developed, Morris, a major scholar of African American social movements, probes the way in which the history of the discipline has been written, giving credit to Robert E. Park at the University of Chicago, who worked with the conservative black leader Booker T. Washington to render Du Bois invisible. Uncovering the seminal theoretical work of Du Bois in developing a “scientific” sociology through a variety of methodologies, Morris examines how the leading scholars of the day disparaged and ignored Du Bois’s work. The Scholar Denied is based on extensive, rigorous primary source research; the book is the result of a decade of research, writing, and revision. In uncovering the economic and political factors that marginalized the contributions of Du Bois, enabling Park to be recognized as the “father” of the discipline, Morris delivers a wholly new narrative of American intellectual and social history that places one of America’s key intellectuals, W. E. B. Du Bois, at its center. The Scholar Denied is a must-read for everyone interested in American history, racial inequality, and the academy. In challenging our understanding of the past, the book promises to engender debate and discussion.  The first chapter is available open access here.

Moraga Anzaldua Book cover


Description: Originally released in 1981, This Bridge Called My Back is a testimony to women of color feminism as it emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Through personal essays, criticism, interviews, testimonials, poetry, and visual art, the collection explores, as coeditor Cherríe Moraga writes, “the complex confluence of identities—race, class, gender, and sexuality—systemic to women of color oppression and liberation.” Reissued here, nearly thirty-five years after its inception, the fourth edition contains an extensive new introduction by Moraga, along with a previously unpublished statement by Gloria Anzaldúa. The new edition also includes visual artists whose work was produced during the same period as Bridge, including Betye Saar, Ana Mendieta, and Yolanda López, as well as current contributor biographies. Bridge continues to reflect an evolving definition of feminism, one that can effectively adapt to, and help inform an understanding of the changing economic and social conditions of women of color in the United States and throughout the world.


Description: Across the West, something called multiculturalism is in crisis. Regarded as the failed experiment of liberal elites, commentators and politicians compete to denounce its corrosive legacies; parallel communities threatening social cohesion, enemies within cultivated by irresponsible cultural relativism, mediaeval practices subverting national ‘ways of life’ and universal values. This important new book challenges this familiar narrative of the rise and fall of multiculturalism by challenging the existence of a coherent era of ‘multiculturalism’ in the first place. The authors argue that what we are witnessing is not so much a rejection of multiculturalism as a projection of neoliberal anxieties onto the social realities of lived multiculture. Nested in an established post-racial consensus, new forms of racism draw powerfully on liberalism and questions of ‘values’, and unsettle received ideas about racism and the ‘far right’ in Europe. In combining theory with a reading of recent controversies concerning headscarves, cartoons, minarets and burkas, Lentin and Titley trace a transnational crisis that travels and is made to travel, and where rejecting multiculturalism is central to laundering increasingly acceptable forms of racism.



Description: Since World War II, historians have analyzed a phenomenon of “white flight” plaguing the urban areas of the northern United States. One of the most interesting cases of “white flight” occurred in the Chicago neighborhoods of Englewood and Roseland, where seven entire church congregations from one denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, left the city in the 1960s and 1970s and relocated their churches to nearby suburbs. In Shades of White Flight, sociologist Mark T. Mulder investigates the migration of these Chicago church members, revealing how these churches not only failed to inhibit white flight, but actually facilitated the congregations’ departure. Using a wealth of both archival and interview data, Mulder sheds light on the forces that shaped these midwestern neighborhoods and shows that, surprisingly, evangelical religion fostered both segregation as well as the decline of urban stability. Indeed, the Roseland and Englewood stories show how religion—often used to foster community and social connectedness—can sometimes help to disintegrate neighborhoods. Mulder describes how the Dutch CRC formed an insular social circle that focused on the local church and Christian school—instead of the local park or square or market—as the center point of the community. Rather than embrace the larger community, the CRC subculture sheltered themselves and their families within these two places. Thus it became relatively easy—when black families moved into the neighborhood—to sell the church and school and relocate in the suburbs. This is especially true because, in these congregations, authority rested at the local church level and in fact they owned the buildings themselves. Revealing how a dominant form of evangelical church polity—congregationalism—functioned within the larger phenomenon of white flight, Shades of White Flight lends new insights into the role of religion and how it can affect social change, not always for the better.

Happy reading!

Want to see your favorite sociology book here (including your own)? Drop us a note using the contact form and we’ll include it in an upcoming research brief. 

The Comeback of the Culture of Poverty (Part 2)

Note: This is the second part of a two-part series. See the first part here.

The Annals issue mentioned in previous post caps off with an article by William Julius Wilson on “Why Both Social Structure and Culture Matter in a Holistic Analysis of Inner-City Poverty.” Wilson wants to show “not only the independent contributions of social structure and culture, but also how they interact to shape different group outcomes that embody racial inequality.” At first blush this appears to be a sensible, even unassailable stance. But what is Wilson getting at with his prosaic language about the interaction of structure and culture? The answer is found several pages later:

One of the effects of living in a racially segregated, poor neighborhood is the exposure to cultural traits that may not be conducive to facilitating social mobility.

This is tantamount to blaming blacks for the racism of employers and other gatekeepers. Like Moynihan before him, Wilson has committed the sin of inverting cause and effect. He thinks that black youth are not socially mobile because of their cultural proclivities—“sexual conquests, hanging out on the street after school, party drugs, and hip-hop music.” But a far more convincing explanation is that these youth are encircled by structural barriers and consequently resort to these cultural defenses, as Douglas Glasgow argued in his neglected 1981 book, The Black Underclass. Liebow had it right when he stripped away surface appearances and put culture in its proper social and existential context:

If, in the course of concealing his failure, or of concealing his fear of even trying, [the street-corner man] pretends—through the device of public fictions—that he does not want these things in the first place and claims he has all along been responding to a different set of rules and prizes, we do not do him or ourselves any good by accepting this claim at face value.

It makes little sense to compare—as Wilson does—the culture of a pariah class with that of mainstream youth, putting aside the fact that white suburban youth also strut around in saggy pants, listen to hip-hop music, and are far more prone to drug use than are their ghetto counterparts. Wilson’s theoretical postulates about “deconcentrating poverty” have also led him to support the demolition of public housing across the nation. Is this how cultural change takes place, with dynamite, the destruction of poor communities, and the dispersal of its residents? Or do we have to transform the ghetto itself, not by reconstructing the identities of its people, but through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty and joblessness?

While he routinely violates his own axiom about the integral relationship between culture and social structure, Wilson injects what might be called the “culturalist caveat.” In a section on “the relative importance of structure and culture,” he concedes,

Structural factors are likely to play a far greater role than cultural factors in bringing about rapid neighborhood change.

But what structural changes does he have in mind? Despite the fact that Wilson’s signature issue for many years was jobs, jobs, jobs, since his cultural turn there has been nigh any mention of jobs. Affirmative action is apparently off the table, and there is no policy redress for the nation’s four million “disconnected youth” who are out of school and out of work.

Instead, Wilson places all his bets on education—specifically, the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a schooling and social services organization predicated on the idea that the challenge is to “take the ghetto out of the child,” much as earlier missionaries and educators sought to “take the Indian out of the child.” Wilson trumpets HCZ’s “spectacular” results, citing a study by Harvard economists Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer that purports to show that HCZ students are closing the achievement gap with students in public schools. However, these findings are based on a single class on a single test in a single year. Also, the measure of progress was scoring at “grade level” in math and reading, and as critics have pointed out, grade-level work is a weak predictor of future academic success. Furthermore, thanks to score inflation—not only prepping students for the test but also lowering the score required for achieving grade level—marks were up throughout New York on the 2007 exam, the one that Dobbie and Fryer analyzed

Never mind; the die is cast. With Wilson’s backing, the Obama administration has made HCZ the model for twenty “Promise Neighborhoods” across the nation. At best, however, HCZ is a showcase project that, even multiplied twenty times, is no remedy for the deep and widening income gap between blacks and others. At worst, the Obama administration is using it to camouflage its utter failure to address issues of racism and poverty.

The new culturalists can bemoan the supposed erasure of culture from poverty research in the wake of the Moynihan Report, but far more troubling is that these four decades have witnessed the erasure of racism and poverty from political discourse, both inside and outside the academy. The Annals issue makes virtually no mention of institutionalized racism. To be sure, there is much discussion of poverty, but not as a historical or structural phenomenon. Instead we are presented with reductionist manifestations of poverty that obscure its larger configuration.

Thus there is no thought of restoring the safety net. Or resurrecting affirmative action. Or once again constructing public housing as the housing of last resort. Or decriminalizing drugs and rescinding mandatory sentencing. Or enforcing anti-discrimination laws with the same vigor that police exercise in targeting black and Latino youth for marijuana possession. Or creating jobs programs for disconnected youth and for the chronically unemployed. Against this background, the ballyhooed “restoration” of culture to poverty discourse can only be one thing: an evasion of the persistent racial and economic inequalities that are a blot on American democracy.

The methodological reductionism that is the hallmark of the new culturalists is a betrayal of the sociological imagination: what C. Wright Mills described as exploring the intersection between history and biography. Instead, the new culturalists give us biography shorn of history, and culture ripped from its moorings in social structure. Against their intentions, they end up providing erudite justification for retrograde public policy, less through acts of commission than through their silences and opacities.

Note: Portions of this post appeared in a 2011 The Boston Review article.

Race, Racism & the Internet: 10 Things Sociologists Should Be Researching

There was exactly one session on “Race and New Media” among the hundreds of panels at the recent American Sociological Association meetings last week in Atlanta.  The panel was interesting, thought-provoking and presented by a diverse group of sociologists, and I’m not just saying that because I organized it.   I think there should be lots more research like this.

Creative Commons License photo credit: atxryan

One of the main points I make in my book Cyber Racism is that white supremacy has entered the digital era, and that means it’s changing, morphing into new forms.  Some of those centuries-old components continue to exist, but now they exist alongside new forms of racism, such as cloaked websites.   This is true not only of the extremist groups I’ve studied, it’s also true of lots of other dimensions of race and racism.   This seems like an arena ripe for sociological investigation, yet I continue to be puzzled by the fact that there’s not more research in this area.

Within sociology there’s a gap between researchers who critically study race and those who study the Internet.  I talked with several prominent sociologists who study Internet and society at the meetings, and they concurred with my assessment of the field.  As one scholar told me when I mentioned the few submissions I received for the “Race and New Media” panel: “That’s because no one studies that.”    Another prominent scholar suggested that the problem is that the critical race folks just don’t know the Internet research and vice versa.  I tend to agree. I talk to people who know the Internet and the research about it, and they generally don’t know much about critical race scholarship.  And, the people I talk to who are critical race scholars, generally don’t know much about the Internet.

In many ways, the study of race and the Internet has been ceded by sociologists to scholars working in other fields such as history, psychology, communications, cultural studies, and political science.   There’s good work going on in those fields, most notably Lisa Nakamura’s work, which I admire and have mentioned here before.     One of the things I enjoy about the growing field of Internet-related research is that it’s interdisciplinary, so maybe it’s not worth raising these intra-sociology disciplinary issues, but it strikes me as a missed opportunity for the field.   Part of the problem here is that the Internet changes quickly, and sociology is just slow. One of my graduate professors used to refer to sociology as “slow journalism”.  If journalism is the first draft of history, sociology is the re-draft of history in many ways. I think that sociologists have something valuable to offer in terms of our understanding of how the Internet is transforming patterns of human social behavior.   While lots of sociologists who study race are using the Internet as a tool for their research (everything from Google Scholar to analyzing messages on email listservs), only a very few are considering the Internet as an object of study, and exploring the ways it’s changing the production of and resistance to race and racism.

So, in an attempt to suggest ways to bridge this gap, I’ve sketched out 10 areas I think sociologists should be researching:

  1. infrastructure / design – How computers and the “graphic user interface” (GUI) – like web browsers are designed affects how people use the Internet.  In 2008, I wrote about the development of a custom browser, Blackbird, designed for use by African Americans, that cause some uproar.  How does the way that interfaces are designed affect the way people use the Internet and how is race implicated in this?  There’s terrific research on user-centered design being done by sociologist Nalini Kotamraju and some on open source software by Jon Smajda which highlight the useful bridge between a deep knowledge of infrastructure and software design.  Michelle White (cultural studies) has done some interesting work on this (why is that little hand always white?), and of course, Nakamura’s relevant here again.   I don’t know of any one in sociology doing research like this on race and interface design.
  2. industry –   The leading tech firms in Silicon Valley are dominated by white men and a few white women, yet the manual labor of putting together circuit boards that run computers is largely done by immigrant and global south women.  How does the predominantly white tech industry located in the global north and the immigrant / global south labor that powers the Internet say about race and technology?  (See, J. Shih, Circumventing Discrimination: Gender and Ethnic Strategies in Silicon Valley, Gender & Society, 2006, 20; (2): 177-206).
  3. gaming – Literally millions of people are playing online games, and meeting in person at gaming conferences, yet this social phenomenon is going largely unremarked upon by sociologists.    Lori Kendall’s Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub (UCPress, 2002) looks at the reproduction of race and gender in one of these game spaces, but I see little other work on this important topic by sociologists.
  4. popular culture / fandom – There are huge – again in the millions – of online groups for everything from tennis to celebrities to popular fiction.   How is being a “fan” shaped by race, and how is online “fandom” in popular culture shaped by race and racism?   Sociologist Sarah Gatson has explored some of this in her work and is seeking papers [pdf] for a special issue of a journal about this.
  5. mobile technology – It’s been a few years since Howard Rheingold (whom I think of as an honorary sociologist) wrote his groundbreaking book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, and I’ve yet to see anyone extend that work to look at mobile technology and race.   There’s research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project documenting that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to access the Internet through mobile devices.  What does this suggest for all that talk of the “digital divide” among sociologists a few years ago?
  6. identity +  community –  In the early days of the Internet, lots of people thought that we would go online to “experiment” with identity, to engage in “identity tourism” to use Nakamura’s phrase.   Yet, that’s not turned out to be the case.  In fact, the way people use the Internet most often is to reaffirm their offline identities.  Sociologist Emily Ignacio’s excellent book Building Diaspora: Filipino Community Formation on the Internet (Rutgers UP, 2005) is an example of this type of work and there should be more.
  7. social movements :  I mentioned my book on racist social movements, and I’d like to see more done on progressive social movements around race, such as the march organized around the Jena6, which was mobilized primarily through young, African American bloggers. One of the strategies I used in my research was to examine movement discourse pre-Internet and post-Internet, and this is another angle that could be pursued by those interested in race and the offline mobilization of social movements around race.
  8. racist framing in Facebook, MySpace, Twitter – Social media is framed by racist language, and within a larger white racial frame, yet there’s very little sociology that looks at this.  Stephanie Laudone (graduate student at Fordham) is at work on a dissertation that takes up some of these issues in Facebook.
  9. health/science – Internet users increasingly look for health and scientific knowledge online.    Victoria Pitts (a CUNY colleague) has written about these issues as they relate to gender, (see Illness and Internet empowerment: writing and reading breast cancer in cyberspace, Health, 2004, Vol 8 (1):33-60), but I don’t know of any similar research that looks critically at race and health.
  10. surveillance culture – We live in what some have called a ‘surveillance culture.’   Sociologist Simone Brown is writing about some of these surveillance technologies as they relate to border crossings (fascinating work), and there are implications of this surveillance culture for understanding race and the Internet.    As just one example, given the millions of Black and Latino men locked up in the U.S., what are the implications of the “inmate locator” websites run by state and federal governments?  How do systems of incarceration work together with online registries and databases of Black/Latino men to shape racial inequality in the digital era?

Of course, this is just a back-of-the-envelope sketch of what I think are the promising areas of investigation for sociologists.    Where I know about people’s work in these areas, I’ve included it (let me know if I left your work out and i’ll add it).  So, what did I miss?  What are some other areas of research?

Black & Poor: Bill Wilson’s Theoretical Muddle

As with his previous books, trouble with William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race begins with its title: Is there anybody on the planet, in academic or popular discourses, who believes that black disadvantage is “just race”? Is Wilson merely shadow boxing? Has he set up a straw argument, making a caricature of his opponent, all the better to demonstrate the rectitude of his position? Is the book an answer to critics who assailed him for undercutting the black protest movement by proclaiming that race was of “declining significance”?

The fierce debate that followed the 1978 publication of  The Declining Significance of Race was a reiteration of a longstanding debate on the Left. On the one hand, there are those in the Marxist tradition who subsume race to class and contend that the problem of race is primarily one of economic inequality. On the other hand, there are those in the black radical tradition who insist that it is not “just class,” not only because we are left with the legacy of slavery, but also because racial discrimination, especially in the world of work, is still systemic and widespread. On this view, the problems of African Americans are fundamentally different from those of other exploited workers, requiring different policy remedies. But neither side of the race/class debate is so simplistic or obtuse as to assert that either race or class operates to the exclusion of the other. Indeed, over the past twenty years a consensus has emerged concerning the “intersectionality” of race and class (a problematic that W. E. B. Du Bois wrestled with throughout his long life). Hence, Wilson’s epiphany, that race and class are “entwined,” has long been accepted as axiomatic by both sides of the race/class debate, and one wonders whether his book, with its dubious title, was even necessary.

Another problem with Wilson’s title is that it doesn’t quite match the thrust of his book, which is preoccupied with another academic squabble: the structure/culture debate. On the one hand, there are those who emphasize the role that major societal institutions play in throwing blacks into poverty and limiting their avenues of escape. Others, however, locate the sources of black disadvantage in an aberrant ghetto culture that, or so they claim, perpetuates poverty from one generation to the next. Wilson steps into this breach, methodically reviews the knowledge claims of both sides, and alas concludes that structure and culture are “entwined.” Had he been faithful to his argument, Wilson would have titled his book, More Than Just Structure.

morethanjustraceIn his laudatory review of More Than Just Race in the New York Times Book Review, Richard Thompson Ford echoes Wilson’s claim that “the vitriolic condemnation of the Moynihan Report effectively closed off a serious academic focus on the culture of poverty for decades, robbing policy makers of a complete and nuanced account of the causes of ghetto poverty.” Now, it is undeniable that Moynihan was pummeled, but not for bringing to light compromising details concerning black families. Rather Moynihan came under fire for inverting cause and effect. Instead of blaming joblessness and poverty for the fracture of black families, Moynihan blamed the “weak black family,” going back to slavery, for the litany of problems that beset the black poor.

Moreover, it is preposterous for Wilson and Ford to suggest that reaction to the Moynihan Report short-circuited a full vetting of the culture of poverty thesis since this has been the reigning precept behind public policy over several decades, culminating in the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act that abolished entitlements for poor people that had been in place since the Depression. Indeed, Wilson should reflect on what the obsession with ghetto culture has wrought. Continue reading…

Teaching “Race & Ethnicity” : The First Day (Open Thread for Comments)

What’s the best way to begin a class on “Race & Ethnicity”? This question is inspired in part by the terrific discussion in yesterday’s comments about the common trainer’s question, “what about being (fill-in-your-racial-ethnic-background) makes you proud?” and by a recent question on the Teaching Sociology listserv.

For the readers here who are professors and classroom teachers, what’s the best exercise or introduction to this class that you’ve used?

For readers who have taken such a class, what sort of exercises have you enjoyed on the first day? What sorts of exercises do you absolutely loathe?

Let us hear from you in the comment box.

And, as a reminder, we have a (beginning) stash of films and syllabi here at RacismReview available for download. I know lots of folks are working on their syllabus for the upcoming semester right now. Please email me (jessiedanielsnyc _at_ gmail _dot_ com) if you’d like to see your syllabus added to the mix.