City Power and Resistance in the Reagan Era

Cities have become a focus of hope and attention since the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. Academic and non-academic urbanists, activists, and politicians have noted the eruption of large scale protest marches, smaller organized acts of resistance to anti-immigration measures, and declarations by municipal leaders of opposition to Trump initiatives to punish sanctuary cities. Beyond these actions, the tendency for cities to house large and diverse populations offers a symbolic rebuke of implicit and explicit white nationalism in the Trump base and administration. Cities, at risk of hyperbole, seem to be the best hope for preserving a diverse, inclusionary, and small-d-democratic society.

I’ve written about this before in an award-winning article prompted by the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. I argued that with many legal limits on the volume of money in electoral politics ruled unconstitutional, it was crucial for anyone concerned with democratic participation to think hard about the next step. I challenged one strain of liberal response to Citizens United, the call for more small-donor contributions to advocacy organizations to balance out possible surges of corporate and individual cash (while also disputing a pillar of the liberal dissent in the decision, i.e. that “corporate” spending in politics was more corrosive to democracy than spending by rich individuals). Rather than fight a futile battle to outspend antidemocratic forces, those supporting an inclusionary and egalitarian society should look to cities as a class of corporation that, per the Citizens United decision, could (and should) exercise their own speech rights.

Not to toot my own horn but, in an essay that I began writing in 2010 (and had to keep revising to accommodate new anti-urban and anti-democratic developments) and finally saw in print in 2015 (thanks American Quarterly for your 18-month delay in sending it for review between 2012 and 2013!), I was kind of prescient. I noted, incorporating arguments made by law prof Heather Gerken, that cities as corporate bodies could exercise some small powers allotted to them by state governments to effectively engage in wide-ranging speech–what Gerken called “dissent by decision.” I used the examples of San Francisco’s explicitly declared sanctuary city policies (glad that issue’s gone away!) and Los Angeles’s decision not to spend municipal funds with Arizona firms in the wake of that state’s notorious “papers please” law entitling local law enforcement officers to demand proof of citizenship from brown suspicious people they stopped for traffic or because they felt like it other offenses (which has, since January 2017 evidently become federal policy). Indeed, the number of mayors, city councils, and other local officials denouncing aggressive ICE action has grown in proportion to the agency’s aggression against all  undocumented persons in the country, above and beyond a criminal minority.

Now, it’s important not to oversell “dissent by decision” and its impact. Municipal boycotts by themselves don’t change policy at the state or federal level. But they do spark deliberation and debate. And, as I argued, when they follow and are pushed by social movements, as by immigrants and their allies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, these actions establish clearly that immigrants have a stake in and are in fact parts of the cities they inhabit. The growth, vitality, and economic power of cities depends on their openness, with the corollary that urban leaders cannot simply ignore workers, taxpayers, students, parents, or consumers in their cities simply because they lack national citizenship (though of course some places that are legally incorporated as cities have done precisely this, under the influence of the national right-wing Federation for American Immigration Reform/FAIR, sent up memorably by Samantha Bee this week, but I’m referring here to the larger, more diverse, complex places commonly connoted by the term “city”).

If I were writing that essay over again, I’d do a few things differently. I would probably not be so cavalier about the surge in Super PACs and “dark money” being simply the continuation of money politics by new means. The opacity of those organizations offer great potential for mischief, even if many rich individuals like Sheldon Adelson or Foster Friess pridefully advertise their individual financial backing of candidates and causes as ego displays. I’d also dispense a bit with some of my analysis of legal doctrine and political theory and go to more historical examples. What can we learn about successes and failures for this kind of urban and municipal intervention in national politics?

That’s why I’ve been interested in a report (full report here as .pdf, summary here) from the transit infrastructure advocacy group Jobs to Move America and the Center for Media and Democracy on the legacy of municipal anti-Apartheid protests in the Reagan era. As a small-town child, my knowledge of the anti-Apartheid movement was sadly limited to its symbolic representation in the wardrobe and set decoration of The Cosby Show. But the movement had been pushed to a level of visibility such that the General Electric corporation’s NBC network would allow an affluent and aspirational black family to tout it because of public action, including urban protests and boycott decisions by 92 municipal and 28 state governments that confronted the Reagan administration’s appeasement of Pretoria and earned harsh federal retaliation, embodied by efforts to withhold infrastructure funds from rebellious cities and to involve business and ideological groups opposed to boycotts in an alliance to push for legislation to limit local authority to engage in boycotts or related activities.

So what can we learn? The authors of Reagan vs. Cities note that pushback against municipal boycotts can, today as in the 1980s, take four main forms:

  1. Adopting national policy to deter independent actions by Congress, cities and states.
  2. Collaborating with the business lobby to oppose sanctions.
  3. Interpreting federal law to justify withholding federal funding from cities and states adopting sanctions and divestment policies.
  4. Actively organizing support for litigation to challenge city divestment and sanctions laws.

Suppressing local power to dissent works hand in hand with austerity politics. Justice Department analysts in the 1980s identified their most compelling rationale to block local divestment efforts in the fiscal responsibility of local governments. If making a stand against apartheid resulted in higher costs for contracts, it could be invalidated:

federal grantees were prohibited from adopting laws or procurement requirements that placed a “burden on competition” by either limiting the pool of bidders vying for a federally funded contract or by raising the price of the federally funded contract.

This points to a critical division in thinking about what cities are and their function in a democratic society. Are they vehicles for residents to participate in political debate, or simply service delivery systems? While no one would doubt that cost is a concern for municipal contracting, it is far from the only one.

Among the more than 250 pages of primary documents reproduced in the .pdf of the report are memoranda showing the emerging influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council as a broker between business interests and state legislatures, influence that has only increased and has been reflected in a host of efforts by state governments to preempt local decisionmaking. It’s also worth knowing that ALEC is already strategizing against urban resistance to its agenda, not only engineering state-level preemption of city legislation on environmental, wage, civil rights, and immigration issues, but seeking to seed city halls with copacetic politicians, as Nicholas Ricciardi notes (AP, here as published in San Francisco Chronicle):

The city council project is the brainchild of Jon Russell, a councilman from the Virginia town of Culpepper, population 18,000. He was dissatisfied that the traditional, nonpartisan municipal groups, like the National League of Cities, seemed to constantly think more government was the answer to problems.

“Now we can communicate with 2,500 elected officials across the country that we know share our values and push back against some of the progressivism that’s gotten into cities,” Russell said.

Though the group is still young, it’s notched some significant accomplishments – most prominently helping distribute model legislation to end the automatic deduction of union dues from paychecks that 12 Kentucky counties implemented in 2014 as a precursor to that state becoming the 28th “right-to-work” state.

The American City County Exchange also distributes model legislation on everything from a taxpayer bill of rights that would require a supermajority to raise property taxes to measures requiring that cities explore all available materials to build sewer pipelines. An official at the city council project, Bruce Hollands, is head of the PVC pipe association.

Perhaps the best indicator of the growing role of cities in encouraging democratic action is the extent to which reactionary elements have rallied to control what cities do.

Metropolitics and the Defense of Wealth

This is a very intriguing post by Destin Jenkins at the Organization of American Historians blog Process. Jenkins argues for looking at the phenomena lumped together as the “racial wealth gap” from the side of the possessors of wealth, asking how advantage accumulated. Jenkins particularly wants to challenge recent, but ahistorical, critiques from the left. Both politicians like Bernie Sanders and crossover heterodox economists like Thomas Piketty have identified the 1980s and 1970s respectively as decades when inequality accelerated. These arguments are not so much wrong, per Jenkins, as grossly incomplete, focusing on

implicit archetypes of deracialized middle class and poor Americans getting the short end of the stick while a deracialized wealthy elite collects the spoils. Though strong on explaining the expanding wealth gap, their histories miss how changes over the last fifty years, whether under the guise of such metanarratives as neoliberalism, financialization, or post-industrialism, compounded the deeper history of racial disparities in wealth. Indeed, one wonders whether it is the growing wealth gap amongst white Americans that has forced pundits to engage with wealth disparities.

Jenkins notes, building on work by Ira Katznelson and citing a recent Demos report “The Asset Value of Whiteness” by Amy Traub, Laura Sullivan, Tatjana Meschede, and Tom Shapiro, that researchers have built a solid case for extending the temporal frame of the wealth gap back to the New Deal era, when social support for housing helped white Americans to begin building wealth in home equity while excluding Americans of color.

Yet, Jenkins argues, a still longer frame, informed by W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, allows historians to understand a far longer pattern of forcible and legal dispossession of Black Americans. This is a move of consequence, because it forces us to think not only of the incomplete development of U.S. social democracy (a problem  potentially fixable) but also of a more insidious history of dispossession by legal and extralegal means.

Most analyses of the racial wealth gap focus primarily on disparities in the acquisition of wealth. Hence they use the language of amassing, inheriting, accumulating, references to “inherited poverty,” and claims that black people are “late comers” to acquiring wealth. But we should also think about the racial wealth gap in terms of racial disparities in the defense of wealth: the relative ability to defend wealth from expropriation, whether through violence, state-sanctioned seizure, and sometimes both. After all, what good is wealth if you can’t defend it?

The historical record of whites’ ability to defend wealth and Americans of color’s relative inability to do so is bloody and brutal, and Jenkins’ focus on the period between Reconstruction and the New Deal bridges a gap between works like Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White as examinations of the links between state power, capital, and racism.

As a metropolitan historian of the later 20th century, I see an indirect connection to my own work, which deals less with overt violence and more with the ways that institutions can be mobilized and manipulated to defend the value (market and affective) of white-owned property, among other prerogatives. This is reflected in suburban incorporation and secession movements, where political boundaries are changed to enhance or protect wealth. This is still a fairly controversial proposition, and outside of fields influenced by critical race theory, the contingent and contested nature of political boundaries, like the inherent racial inflection of property value, is not always readily grasped, even by insightful analysts.

This kind of institutional politics requires ideological support to make the specific advantage of one group appear to be an expression of the general good: of freedom of choice, the market, or the American Way. I’ve written about the way that nascent public choice theory in the 1950s, which applied neoclassical economics to the organization and operation of local governments, both reflected and helped to defend and normalize the metropolitan fragmentation that accelerated in the postwar era. As suburban developers and homeowners in Lakewood, California and surrounding suburbs of Los Angeles County formed cities to capture local tax revenue, they fought against metropolitan cost sharing and defined a narrow and local sense of community that rejected wider ties.

Crucially, the ground-level work of these political entrepreneurs was mirrored by a group of academic entrepreneurs at UCLA, who theorized fragmentation not as a wasteful duplication of resources or a means of exclusion, but as a necessary adaptation of local government to market dynamics. I argued that the real intellectual work done by public choice theory was not descriptive but normative; the theory, adopted in bowdlerized form by political conservatives in governor Ronald Reagan’s orbit, effectively mandated a more competitive relationship between local governments, delegitimized metropolitan government, and raised the stakes of competition between local governments so that some would win and some would lose. For residents of cities like Compton, the consequences were devastating, as Black and Latino homeowners found that their home equity was tied to their city’s status as a losing competitor in the game.

This is why I’m quite interested to read Nancy MacLean’s forthcoming book Democracy in Chains, which is reviewed in Jacobin by Colin Gordon (certainly not coincidentally an urban historian whose work has detailed the economic and political consequences of public choice metropolitics in greater St. Louis). MacLean’s book mines the papers of James McGill Buchanan, a political economist and Nobel Laureate notable not only for his contributions to public choice theory but for his successful institutional entrepreneurship. Buchanan established numerous funded institutes dedicated to reorganizing social institutions around market principles, ultimately facilitating the Koch brothers’ beachhead in academe.

Unfortunately, as Gordon notes in summary of MacLean, Buchanan’s

market fundamentalism, and the policies that flow from it, are essentially faith-based — and either blind or indifferent to their own contradictions.

Here, MacLean echoes the recent work of the sociologists Margaret Somers and Fred Block, underscoring the many ways in which “free” markets are embedded in social relations. Ignoring this fact simply camouflages advantage and disguises the reliance and dependence of successful market actors on conditions (property rights, contract law, patent protection, worker suppression) secured by state action.

As Gordon notes, mostly (but not exclusively) Southern “Freedom Caucus” politicians carry this tradition forward today in Congress. But of course, campaigns for suburban secession, tax revolts, and other metropolitical battles also evince this

conviction that the polity could be cleft between “makers and takers,” and that it was the “takers” who, by employing state power to tax wealth and income, were doing the exploiting.

I found this thread running through the words and deeds of anti-tax politicians, advocates for incorporating new cities, and secession advocates in north Fulton County, and it runs through the strong support for Donald Trump and backlash politics in many American suburbs, as well as the right’s predilection to concentrate power in state governments through federalist devolution from Washington and preemption of local action.

Yeah, But…. Or, Economists do Postwar Metropolitan Segregation

Leah Boustan, an economist at UCLA and the National Bureau of Economic Research, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times last weekend that distilled the essence of her new book, Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets, described thusly by Princeton University Press:

Traditionally, the Great Black Migration has been lauded as a path to general black economic progress. Leah Boustan challenges this view, arguing instead that the migration produced winners and losers within the black community. Boustan shows that migrants themselves gained tremendously, more than doubling their earnings by moving North. But these new arrivals competed with existing black workers, limiting black–white wage convergence in Northern labor markets and slowing black economic growth. Furthermore, many white households responded to the black migration by relocating to the suburbs. White flight was motivated not only by neighborhood racial change but also by the desire on the part of white residents to avoid participating in the local public services and fiscal obligations of increasingly diverse cities.

I’m going to offer two caveats for my analysis right off the bat: First, the whole book is ambitious in scope, and proposes a provocative that migration was less clearly a Good Thing for the interests of Black advancement (reading the blurb, one might approach the book asking “compared to what?” but….). And second, it’s quite difficult to express complex research findings in short form. The book seems highly worth reading, among other reasons because of the kind of media traction it’s getting through, well, NYT Op-Eds.

That said, I found the article to be flawed in its basic assumptions about the definition and nature of racism in American urban areas, particularly as related to metropolitan real estate markets in the 20th century, and not very informed about the historiography of that phenomenon. Continue reading

Trumpism and the Suburbs

This is a very interesting article by Jesse Myerson, which addresses something that’s irritated me about the discussion of Trump’s “white, working class” base. Leaving aside the sloppy definition of “working class” by the proxy of lacking a college degree, the implicit thesis embedded in the terminology is that Trump’s support reflects the economic anxieties of people who have been left behind by the transforming post-industrial economy.  Continue reading

FOLLOW-UP: Research on Racial Resentment and Approval of Social Policy

In my last post, I argued that understanding Tom Price’s likely actions as the Secretary of Health and Human Services requires understanding the fierce and racially fraught metropolitics of greater Atlanta, where tax and service politics of all sorts, but particularly those surrounding medical care for the region’s poor (who are much more likely than the whole population to be Black). The long and short of it is that the region’s wealthy homeowners (who are much more likely than the whole population to be white) have developed a consistent grievance politics around the premise that Fulton County’s social services under Black political leadership take from deserving white homeowners to give to the undeserving (implicitly Black) poor.

I’ve made this argument inductively from archival research on movements for suburban secession in Atlanta since the 1960s. With varying degrees of overtness, one core premise–that catastrophe would result from Black Atlantans exercising political control over whites’ property–has animated white homeowner politics in Atlanta. This of course simplifies the story, but I emphasize that core idea because it’s easy to get lost in arguments about quality of life, fiscal responsibility, or local control that circulate in the political discourse but are dependent on the core idea.

Interdisciplinarity is useful for historians because social scientists working deductively on questions of the role of racism in decision-making help to ground what may seem like more ephemeral or constructed narratives about historical actions. In this case, I’m highlighting research by political scientists Christopher Federico, Matthew Luttig, and Howard Lavine, featured on sociologist Lisa Wade’s blog The Society Pages

Are some Trump supporters’ political views motivated by race?

One way to find out is to see whether the typical Trump supporter is less likely to support policies when they are subtly influenced to think that they are helping black versus white people. This was the root of a study by political scientists Christopher Federico, Matthew Luttig, and Howard Lavine.

Prior to the election, they asked 746 white respondents to complete an internet survey. Each person was randomly assigned to see one of two pictures at the beginning of the survey: a white man standing next to a foreclosure sign or the exact same photograph featuring a black man. Respondents were also asked whether they supported Trump. (Non-white people were left out of the analysis because there were too few Trump supporters among them to run meaningful comparative statistics.)

The first graph shows that white Trump supporters were eight percentage points more likely to oppose mortgage relief if they had seen a “black cue” (the picture featuring a black man) than a “white cue.” The opposite was true for white Trump opponents.

This mirrors findings by Jason McDaniel and Sean McElwee posted on the Wester Political Science Association’s blog in March. McDaniel and McElwee conclude noting correlations between education and economic status and Trump support in a US county, that strongly held resentment against racial minorities by whites, defined in terms of a zero-sum or something-for-nothing understanding that gains for minorities come illegitimately at whites’ expense, was the stronger predictor:

While we accept that all of these factors help explain Trump support, we find that racism is the main driver of support for Trump. The model presented here accounts for all of these attitudes and still finds an incredibly strong relationship between racism and support for Trump. The centrality of racism to the Trump phenomenon should not be obscured.

This research is disturbing, but perhaps, in reference to the likelihood of drastic actions by Tom Price, hopeful. On one hand, the reality that the Republican Party has an ideological core of white nationalism or racial resentment evokes horrifying prospects. But, if the party is guided less by a rigid free market ideology and more by a perception that government largesse is simply going to the wrong people, that could mean that social safety net legislation like the Affordable Care Act, with its substantial constituency of white beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion in states like Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky, could be very difficult to repeal. I’m not a policy wonk by training. I’ve been taught how to pick stuff apart after it’s happened, not to try to evaluate the process as it unfolds. But, it seems as though the difficulty of recrafting the ACA to exclude the “other” while legitimating and preserving benefits to whites may stop the new Congress from repealing it (Sarah Kliff explains).

Thinking About Urban Sociology, Somewhat Historically

I haven’t had much to say about the controversy over Alice Goffman’s On the Run. I do here, but for a rather different purpose. To state my positions on the core of the matter, I find the critiques of Goffman’s veracity compelling, and defenses of her work considerably less so, but I’m more interested in thinking about how the affair illuminates the way that knowledge about cities gets produced. Since Goffman’s book was praised by many non-academic reviewers as being like The Wire but (ostensibly) true, I’m reminded of the last season of that show, particularly since I probably rate that season much higher than the typical fan. What I found most compelling about the arc of the season was its reflection on the way that a wide range of imperatives–Scott’s compulsion to fabricate, his bosses’ encouragement of his pursuit of “Dickensian” aspects of Baltimore life–make a newspaper a grossly limited source of understanding. The assassination of one of the most important men on the west side, after all, gets cut. Because it doesn’t mesh with what some people think they already know about Baltimore, Omar’s death, which actually caps a truly Dickensian story arc, gets lost to the history that’s fit to print.

And, while the problem is most definitely larger than a single book, the On the Run controversy should be cause for some deep thinking about how we know what we’re talking about, and what the prior assumptions of our methods and theories are, particularly for academic ideas associated with Chicago School sociology that have been profoundly influential to other academic fields, to public policy, and even to public common-sense about metropolitan communities. It’s beyond me to offer a critical history of an entire academic discipline in a blog post, though thankfully it’s not beyond others. And it seems to me that On the Run intersects with another sociological bombshell offered by a critical history of the discipline. Which I’ll discuss below.

But first, a few (admittedly half-cooked) thoughts about urban ethnography. Paul Campos, both for himself in the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywalled) and blogging at Lawyers, Guns & Money, has been one of the more tenacious and acute critics of Alice Goffman’s On the Run and of Goffman’s defenders. Campos, among others, raised serious questions about the plausibility or veracity of several of the key incidents that Goffman recounted as evidence of the pervasive reach of the criminal justice system into the lives of young Black men in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood.

[Note: To be sure, that reach is a serious problem for social justice, and a problem which many powerful interests in American society would prefer to conceal. Which is all the more reason why academic and popular analysis of it should be rigorous and diligent, and why the apparent “truthiness” of Goffman’s book may prove detrimental to efforts to meaningfully reform rules of probation, parole, and criminal detention.]

Campos’s critique met with praise and counterattacks, but it strikes me that most of Goffman’s defenders have engaged with (and indulged in) metacritical debates–is the intrusiveness of policing on Black men’s lives a core truth that stands regardless of the veracity of the evidence used to demonstrate it? Is it legitimate for a young white woman with academic pedigree and Ivy League credentials to relate the stories of poor Black people? Does the scholarly imperative of concealing respondents’ identities (or IRB rules requiring such concealment) make accuracy impossible? Is sociology losing influence as a discipline and desperate to restore it by supporting more “dangerous” ethnographies? Are sociologists overly impressed by the social distance traversed by the researcher to observe her subjects? Are attacks on Goffman attempts to silence the voices, conveyed through her, of low-income urban Black men?–and ignored the rather large elephant in the room: Did Alice Goffman make a bunch of stuff up?

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s recent NYT Magazine piece on the Goffman controversy performs this dance, acknowledging the publication of Campos’s and others’ critiques but, by and large, ignoring their substance. Lewis-Kraus shields Goffman from questions about her integrity by painting her basically as an autistic-savant who forgets to plug in her phone or what year major life events occurred, who also makes keen and reliable observations of other people’s lives. One supposes the intention is to encourage the inference that Goffman confused her field notes rather than fabricating them, since unless the question of deliberate deception were in play, no ethnographer would probably want to be portrayed this way in the Times. Elsewhere, he focuses on “discipline,” implying on one hand that Goffman has been a victim of jealousy on the part of some fellow sociologists who resent her success and pooh-pooh her methods, which eschew much of the reflexivity on the social distance between observer and observed that characterizes contemporary ethnography, and on the other, that Goffman has been unable to rebut charges against her because of her strict adherence to methodological safeguards of her subjects’ identities. Since this is the way this story goes, there’s also a third hand, on which Lewis-Kraus argues that the controversy’s spread outside of the academy reflects a gap between the methodologies of journalism and sociology (a formulation that would make Goffman a brave interdisciplinary boundary-crosser, assuming that there’s a significant difference in each discipline’s toleration for making stuff up).

To be fair, Lewis-Kraus tries to write about the inherent difficulties and contradictions of outsider ethnography as communication across social divisions, though his reluctance to consider the veracity of Goffman’s accounts of the lives of her associates undermines that effort considerably–the charge of making stuff up speaks directly to Goffman’s credibility as a conduit of those associates’ experiences and views and to the premise that Goffman was guided by imperatives determined by her solidarity with her associates rather than by the expectations of her audience. If, ultimately, Goffman and her defenders want to base the legitimacy and importance of her work on the premise that Goffman became part of the Sixth Street community, described it accurately, and thus gave voice to its inhabitants, the veracity of her accounts could not be more important to judging her work.

Campos wrote an interesting reaction at LGM yesterday. Part of it is a critique of Lewis-Kraus’s account. But Campos closes with a perspective that, I think points us productively away from thinking about the internal politics of a discipline or the particularities of events Goffman described, and toward thinking about the way that academic research has and may shape what we “know” about urban America, particularly the parts of it that are, for all intents and purposes, foreign to the kind of people who inhabit the sociology departments of Hyde Park and Penn, increasingly separated from south Chicago or west Philadelphia by demilitarized-by-redevelopment zones.

As Campos writes in a follow-up today:

This is another example of how Goffman seems to constantly confuse her “positionality.” The whole point of the anecdote [in which Goffman stiltedly describes her efforts to exchange a “look of solidarity” with a young brown man detained by TSA at the airport] is that she (supposedly) has white privilege in this particular context, so there isn’t any solidarity here between her and him, much as she might want there to be. But Goffman has a habit of forgetting that she’s a very privileged person in a wide variety of ways: hence her complaints that doubts about her veracity are attacks on the credibility of low-status informants, such as the residents of Sixth Street.

This line of defense echoes a certain strain of cultural masquerading by the young, white, and privileged seeking authenticity, as Campos argues.

Any reader who has gotten this far is by this point probably as sick of the Alice Goffman saga as I am. What continues to intrigue me, however, is her apparent ability to get supposedly hard-headed journalists to believe her. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that what makes On the Run an initially compelling read is, ironically, its apparent authenticity — the glimpse it provides into a demi-monde that has fascinated upper class white people for a long time, as captured most memorably in Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro.” That Goffman explored and chronicled this world was, above all, really cool.

This has shown up in prominent stunt-ethnographies, indicating that neither academics nor peri-academic audiences are immune, the contempt with which they might treat the blatant racial essentialism of Mailer’s essay notwithstanding.

But the twist that occurs when these immersions are presented as scholarly research is that the imprimatur of the academy positions the researcher as an authority uniquely able to research the story (by sharing the experiences of the subaltern) and to tell it. It’s this elasticity of positionality, more than whatever tendency toward vicarious danger might excite the hipsters of the sociology department, that are problematic. And, to be sure, though contemporary sociology certainly teaches critical reflection on positionality, this development is a relatively recent adjunct to the core of the discipline. If a high-impact work like Goffman’s can exhibit such a slippage, sociologists may be inconsistently examining an important aspect of racism–not the presence of different groups or the observation of differences in their experiences, but the maintenance and nature of the boundaries among them–both social and spatial (Douglas Massey refers to “boundary work” in the abstract, while George Lipsitz describes “racism taking place” to call attention to the practices that inscribe boundaries, rather than presumably bounded identities).

This point leads me to an article by Julian Go in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology. Both a review of Aldon Morris’s 2015 book The Scholar Denied, a history of the concealed and quarantined influence of WEB DuBois on the development of American sociology, and a reflection on Go’s own training as a sociologist, the post does two things. First, it makes me determined to get my hands on Morris’s book (and not just the online metacommentary) ASAP. Second, it should make anyone concerned with urban and metropolitan studies consider very seriously the dialectical relationship between knowledge and the implicit premises of research methods. What we know about urban and metropolitan life and communities after all depends quite a bit on the core premises of our investigations, and sociological perspective–that is to say, a particular sociological perspective, embracing both the scholarly authority of the ethnographer and the ethnographer’s ability to transparently observe and describe an otherwise distinct community–has been tremendously influential.

What if this perspective has been narrowed and constrained? As Go argues, summarizing Morris, the gravest limitation of canonical sociological methods has been the diminishment of DuBois’s role (and the role of his “Atlanta School” of researchers working from the city’s historically Black colleges) as the discipline’s most important founder.

In short, the elevation of the Chicago School has served to marginalize Du Bois, even as Du Bois was profoundly influential for his time. Narrating this tension is one of the many virtues of Morris’ book, and it marks the tragedy that The Scholar Denied writes for us – that we have erased the history of Du Bois’ profound influence upon sociology from our most influential histories of sociology. We assume Weber taught Du Bois. We herald Frazier as the most influential black sociologist. We herald Robert E. Park as the innovator.

The intentionality of this erasure, as well as its effects, concern Morris greatly. The pervasive racism of the early 20th century mattered of course, but so did institutional factors. Robert Park and others obviously secured prestige for themselves as their discipline’s leading lights, but by marginalizing DuBois, they also marginalized a scholar whose purpose as a sociologist stemmed significantly from his famous observation that “the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the Color Line.” While Park’s sociology emphasized ethnicity and difference, his school’s presumptions tended to naturalize difference, to identify racial conflict as a matter of friction between different and incompatible groups sharing space, and to evade DuBois’s call to recognize the construction and policing of color lines as the fundamental and indeed generative core of race and racism. Go, again summarizing Morris:

Still, there is another explanatory current amidst the flow. It is not only that Du Bos was black and other sociologists were white, or that Du Bois suffered from lack of capital, it is also that he had dangerous ideas. To be sure, Du Bois innovated by his empirical orientation and methodology. But Du Bois also innovated substantively, birthing a sociology of race that aimed to wrestle discourse on race away from the Darwinistic, biological and frankly racist sociological episteme of the day. Participants and promoters of that episteme included most all other white sociologists, and Morris pulls no punches when pointing out how the Chicago School was at the center of sociologically racist thought. In riveting swaths of The Scholar Denied, we learn about Robert Park’s racist sociology, for example, a sociology that “portrayed African Americans” as “handicapped by a double heritage of biological and cultural inferiority.”[19] These views compelled Park to side with Booker T. Washington in suggesting that the best route for African-Americans was to become manual laborers rather than to try overcome their “savage” origins (in Park’s own terminology). These views also compelled Park to conclude that blacks should stay away from cities, for there they would “only succumb to the vice, disease, crime, and other evils rampant in city life.”[20] And Park’s own famous theory on the cycle of race relations was underwritten by Darwinistic thought on the inferiority of non-whites. Park’s thought was merely the “conceptual framework” that could explain and hence legitimate why the whites of Europe and the US were dominating the world through colonialism –and why race relations throughout the globe were so tumultuous.[21]

Du Bois would have none of this…. Du Bois’ work, using systematically and painstakingly collected data on communities about which Park had little inkling, instead showed the social production of racial inferiority rather than its biological or even cultural determination.

While these ideas have been most commonly associated with the work of Franz Boas and his students, Morris’s argument is that they were earlier propounded by DuBois in works and correspondence that influenced the later anthropologist. The obscuring of the link turns not only the history of the discipline but critical understanding of its purposes on their heads. Here’s what Lewis-Kraus writes about the development of sociology as a liberal and anti-hierarchical discipline.

People in Goffman’s camp trace their work to Robert E. Park and the so-­called First Chicago School, which set itself to the project of understanding the new vigor and clash of the American city, then driven by the dynamism of industrialization and immigration. Park had spent 10 years as a journalist and was working for Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute when he was asked, in 1914, to join the young sociology department at the University of Chicago. This was a Chicago that would produce new sorts of Americans, characters like Saul Bellow’s Augie March, and Park’s team went on to put together canonical, sympathetic studies of the city’s black, Jewish, Chinese and Polish neighborhoods…. Their painstaking empirical efforts, modeled on the anthropology of Franz Boas, were carried out in the hope that they might refute the reigning theoretical paradigm of the day, which looked to eugenics and social Darwinism to explain racial inferiority and the ‘‘social problems’’ introduced by immigration. The project was explicitly liberal and meliorative, of a piece with the work of journalists like Jacob Riis and early social workers like Jane Addams.

Although that’s what Robert Park may have claimed for himself, Aldon Morris would strongly disagree. Yet, the easy slipping of such a characterization into what passes for a deep journalistic account of sociology demonstrates how pervasive the assumption is, and the ease with which studies rooted in this paradigm, of discrete cultures bumping against each other in the space of the city, and trained observers acquiring privileged insight through immersion, has been among people who have sought to regulate, reform, or renew urban spaces and communities (I’ve touched on that here, for example).

It’s beyond the scope of this post to put forward a counterfactual of what would have happened if DuBois’s proto-constructionist interpretation of racism (which highlighted the role of white institutions and governments, and the relationship of color lines to capitalist exploitation as well as social segregation) had been the theory to influence immigration policy, urban renewal, housing, or employment law in the middle of the twentieth century. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that much of our world would be unrecognizable, and probably for the better. And, in a disciplinary climate more interested in understanding boundaries than in transgressive crossings of them, Alice Goffman’s efforts and talents may have produced a very different book and understanding of the criminal justice system’s role in reproducing racial oppression.

Digital History of Busing

Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (University of California Press), Matt Delmont’s national history of busing is an eagerly anticipated (at least around here) book that connects to many important historiographical trends. It promises to carry forward the work of undermining the notion of a Civil Rights movement that won broad acceptance until its leaders became too militant and demanding (generally in an imagined time called “the late sixties”) by showing that resistance to school desegregation began in the immediate aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education. And, in an intervention that is intimately related, Delmont promises to dismantle distinctions between de facto and de jure segregation and regional mythologies that have obscured nationwide resistance by metropolitan whites and their political representatives to desegregation. And, Delmont’s book proposes to show the ways that both local activists and national politicians framed a media narrative around busing that fixated on an instrument of desegregation and obscured the injustices that made the instrument necessary.

Delmont’s also used the Scalar platform to produce a cool digital companion site to the book, which is now live.

The site’s intro frames the contentions of the whole book rather effectively through a list of suggestions about how to teach busing that are pointed and useful, emphasizing the gaping holes in conventional narratives about busing and opposition to it–notably that New York whites protested busing for school integration in the early 1960s, that those protests led to drafting the 1964 Civil Rights Act in ways that prevented school districts from aggressively desegregating (including by busing), and that that nexus of protest and accommodation by nominally liberal legislators gave institutional support to a deceptive and disingenuous distinction between de facto and de jure segregation that allowed school districts nationally to avoid and minimize the scope of desegregation while focusing public attention on the alleged unfairness of busing programs that, in the grand scheme of things, affected a small portion of students in segregated schools.

Perhaps most insightfully, Delmont explores the relationship between antibusing activists and news media that broadcast a manichean narrative when covering the South, but were “unwilling to depict school integration outside of the South as a present civil rights activity in the North with the same moral clarity.” Antibusing activists were able to present themselves with sufficient credibility as grassroots defenders of their own children, muddling public perceptions of school desegregation so that “the white defense of school segregation in the North looked much more reasonable and justified than similar efforts in the South.” Further, the technological and financial constraints that network TV news programs faced in covering Civil Rights issues in the field created institutional pressures to focus attention on the South and on a narrow set of Northern cities that came to define the desegregation struggle, and to report with an amnesiac lack of attention to the long histories of school segregation in the North and protests to dismantle it. Within this frame, busing appeared to be an arbitrary and sudden product of judicial or political fiat (rather than a measure necessitated by persistent political refusals to desegregate) and opponents merely defenders of their children’s right to education (rather than defenders of segregated schools). Further, the framing of desegregation around “busing” obscured the complexity of political views in communities of color about desegregation. Rather than a discussion of the issues of community control, inclusive curriculum, representation in administration and on school boards, racist school discipline and tracking, and equalization of resources for white and nonwhite students, none of which were congruent with a narrow discussion of integration, media either marginalized Black and other minority critics of existing busing programs, or enlisted them as supporting witnesses for an argument that desegregation was a judicial imposition without any true constituency.

It’s a great digital history project. Check it out.