This is Encouraging

The Intercept has posted what seems to be a leaked Pentagon video about the challenges, from a counterinsurgency and governing perspective, of mega-urbanization. If you’ve been keeping up on your dystopian futurism (my current favorite is Margaret Atwood’s treatment of the Pleeblands outside of the corporate compounds in her Maddadam trilogy, but YMMV) you will recognize a lot of this.

What’s interesting is that the broader alternate possibilities of promoting democratic and humane cities is completely outside the frame for the Department of Defense. If your only tool is a hammer, you start complaining about how many nails there are and wondering why they won’t sit still.

Good News, Bad News

A recent article by Issi Romem points toward the importance of historical perspective in urban policy arguments. By which I mean that not only are there historical patterns to the creation of exurban sprawl and its attendant social pathologies, but a useful understanding of how to reverse these effects requires policymakers (starting with the President!) to recognize that the political and cultural contexts of sprawl matter as much as land economics (indeed, are intrinsic to land economics). Romem offers a summary of key takeways that is pretty clear:

  • The link between housing production and outward expansion is unmistakable: cities that expand more produce proportionally more new housing.

  • Throughout the country, housing production is skewed towards low density areas.

  • Densification has slowed down across the board, and especially in expensive cities, undermining their ability to compensate for less outward expansion.

  • Unless they enact fundamental changes that allow for substantially more densification, cities confronting growth pressure face a tradeoff between accommodating growth through outward expansion, or accepting the social implications of failing to build enough new housing.

The good news is that articles like this point to the phenomenon beginning to be treated less as an artifact of “choice” and more as a product of a sequence of political decisions that have left the majority of Americans with suboptimal housing situations, on top of a historical support for racial and economic segregation and drastically different communities of opportunity.

To be sure, though, Romem looks first to the market:

Why has the pace of densification decreased? One reason is national in scope: despite some fluctuations, the total amount of new housing built each decade in the U.S. has remained fairly constant since the 1950s, but because of urban expansion the area absorbing it has grown much larger. Thus, new housing is spread more thinly, which amounts to less densification. Another way of putting it is that the demand for new housing – or growth pressure – per unit of developed land is less intense than it used to be.

But, a better way of putting it might be that the costs in terms of time, driving miles, and traffic-related social alienation have been gradually shifted onto home buyers and that costs in terms of infrastructure expansion have been shifted onto taxpayers. Despite what sprawl apologists argue (for instance, Wendell Cox at Joel Kotkin’s New Geography embraces a futility thesis critique of “forced density”lateral growth controls), this is not a case of housing priorities being set by rational consumers in a free market, or of liberal-urbanist social engineers tilting in futility against sprawl that is both inevitable and beneficial. Rather, a set of politically motivated and administratively maintained subsidies and incentives to banks, builders, and (in a more conflicted sense) buyers has created sprawl (see Dolores Hayden’s classic Field Guide to start), without the consent of the majority of the people whose daily lives are affected by it. Does not “forced” apply as well to a housing market that imposes a hundred driving miles a day on a home buyer? The equity effects of this form of development are severe; though there are exceptions, mobility in highly decentralized metro areas is a severe impediment to economic opportunity for the poor.

Elsewhere, Romem acknowledges the limits of the market as an explanatory scheme for sprawl, noting that in a real-world setting, markets are affected by choices about resource allocation, and whatever the potential preferences of free agents in the marketplace, the claims made on limited transportation and infrastructure funds by exurban highway expansion are at odds with the expansion of mass transit that is necessary to prevent people from simply bringing their cars into denser developments.

It would also require a leap of faith that in the chicken-and-egg conundrum of density and transportation infrastructure, density can come first.

It’s welcome to see discussions of housing that dig beneath the superficially cheaper houses for sale in sprawling metro areas to consider costs to people, the environment, and the quality of social life.

The bad news stems from Romem’s fourth bullet point: the political (and I’m talking about institutional and cultural forms here) difficulty of enacting densification reforms in already-urbanized areas. While there have been a spate of accounts touting The End of the Suburbs as a seeming market-based response–a back-to-the-city movement based on millennials’ distaste for buying and sitting in cars and Generation X’s reaching an upper limit for commuting endurance–is at best a partial solution, because urban housing is increasing in desirability without a concomitant increase in supply because of land use regulations, cultural norms, and uncoordinated planning and development. The prospect of car-free or car-lite living may be attractive, but as a Brookings Institution report from 2014 indicated, the reduction of car commuting by young workers, while significant, represents a small reduction (workers aged 25-54 showed a 0.9 percent reduction in car commuting between 2007 and 2013).

Romem’s conclusions are intriguing, but there are significant political-economic impediments to achieving them. As Richard Florida notes, Romem describes aptly a “trilemma” of development imperatives, in which cities and metros must balance three objectives, where at least one necessarily suffers.

But this view, as apt a description of the forward-looking policy problems of density and affordability as it might be, leaves out the politics of the trilemma, and the ways in which policies that create sprawl are less a sacrifice of the desire to prevent sprawl for the sake of affordability and growth, but an affirmation of the priorities of political interest groups (real estate developers, home builders, automobile manufacturers, oil companies) in a “sprawl lobby.” Where neither Florida nor Romem quite go is to the conclusion that making density more economic effectively means making sprawl more expensive. We’ll keep waiting for that, I guess.


Of course, there is a role to play for ideas and values in the political arena, and perhaps this seemingly impossible political shift could be enabled by a powerful normative shift around lifestyle. Romem calls, among other things, for an effort to normalize multi-family housing as a child-rearing environment. Again, thinking historically, multi-family, cooperative, and other housing models have been envisioned as not only acceptable, but preferable to the domestic isolation of the single-family house. The problem is, as Dolores Hayden has written, that while the suburban single-family house was a spatial fix for the needs of the real estate, construction, and banking interests of mid-century America as much as those of working families, it met many of those families’ material and emotional needs well enough to become established, and to make alternatives appear impossible.

I’ve shown this 1957 industrial film In the Suburbs to my students for several years in the past, and it always provokes interesting responses. Lizabeth Cohen wrote about it in A Consumer’s Republic, suggesting that it heralded a transformative moment in the public embrace of consumerism. I’m a little less sure of that. The film is only incidentally touting consumer goods; it’s really selling Redbook magazine as a marketing tool to tap the wallets of “young adults” moving to the suburbs. I’ve always been struck by the amount of cultural work needed to normalize what the film subtextually portrays as a new and bewildering lifestyle.

There’s no reason to think that density can’t be as effectively sold, if there is the will to do it.

Trumpism’s Urban Roots

It’s tempting, though inaccurate, to look to articles like this weekend’s Washington Post piece following Jim Cooley, a downwardly-mobile former trucker on disability who packs an AR-15 to the local Georgia Wal-Mart while his wife uses Facebook to alert the local sheriff that his intentions are benign and unworthy of forcible response (illustrated thusly, a bit on the nose),


Photo Jabin Botsford, Washington Post

and conclude that Trumpism is a tide that laps the edges of metropolitan areas, but properly belongs to some here-be-dragons space off the map.

While this perception is largely based on the use of “non-college educated” as a shoddy statistical proxy for “working class” and ignores the higher-than-average incomes of Trump supporters, as well as their ample (if, perhaps, electorally insufficient) presence in American suburbs, it’s also worth noting that the key professional basis for Trump’s claims to the presidency (whatever their merit may be) is his career as a real estate developer. And, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that that career would be nothing without the regime of tax abatements and incentives that have characterized post-industrial urban governance in New York City and elsewhere.

Charles Bagli has that story in the New York Times. The long and short? Trump’s New York properties were built using tax abatement programs that lowered costs to Trump during development and shielded buyers of luxury condos from the full tax rate, allowing Trump to charge (and receive) higher prices to make more immediate profits. As Bagli writes, Trump’s Grand Hyatt hotel, which opened in 1980,

set the pattern for Mr. Trump’s New York career: He used his father’s, and, later, his own, extensive political connections, and relied on a huge amount of assistance from the government and taxpayers in the form of tax breaks, grants and incentives to benefit the 15 buildings at the core of his Manhattan real estate empire.

Since then, Mr. Trump has reaped at least $885 million in tax breaks, grants and other subsidies for luxury apartments, hotels and office buildings in New York, according to city tax, housing and finance records.

As a product of public subsidies that have created luxury for a privileged elite, starved the public sector, and stinted on obligations to provide affordable and integrated housing, while cloaking themselves in the rhetoric of competitive enterprise, Trump’s empire reflects the trajectory of urban America, uncomfortable though it may be to recognize.

Cities Versus States

I ran across this piece by Abby Rapoport on Politico (which sponsors some good long-form investigations when it’s not playing DC Gossip Rag), by way of Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money. It’s a good analysis of the significance of the conflict between state legislatures and municipal governments, particularly as the former have been gerrymandered to include more seats where Republican primaries decide who’s elected.

Since I’ve studied and written about this issue in some depth, I would point out that this is one of the best popular accounts of the history of preemption and the legal status of municipal power I’ve read. Rapoport gets into the technicalities of municipal home rule, gets quotes from two of the leading academic legal scholars on the subject, and explains why the subject, which even many civically engaged Americans may not understand, is critically important for democracy, by letting the local activists whose work has been preempted by state governments in Texas and elsewhere tell their stories.

What’s particularly important is Rapoport’s summary of the distinction between “minimum” preemption, where state governments establish minimum levels of regulatory or other action that city governments must meet, and “maximum” preemption, where state governments actively prohibit local governments from taking action. Many critics accurately note that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is an incubator for maximum preemption bills that specifically target corporate or social conservative boogeymen like local fracking bans, living wage laws, and anti-discrimination laws. What I hadn’t recognized before reading this account was that the strategy of maximum preemption actually goes back to the lobbying efforts of the tobacco industry:

The strategic use of maximum preemption laws dates back to the 1980s, when localities began passing smoking bans and smoke-free requirements. As court documents later revealed, R.J. Reynolds began promoting preemption because, in its own words, “state laws which preempt local anti-tobacco ordinances are the most effective means to counter local challenges.” Although further grim research findings eventually dealt the tobacco industry’s campaign mortal blows, other groups learned from its efforts. The National Rifle Association used similar tactics in the 1990s when concerns about crime prompted local gun regulations; 43 states now have some form of maximum preemption preventing localities from passing additional gun regulations on top of state law.

Which makes sense in a head-to-desk sort of way. The tobacco industry pioneered many of the denialist and doubt-seeding tactics thathave proven useful to thwart climate change action, ignore the need for gun control, and slow environmental and consumer safety laws (Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe it in Merchants of Doubt. If you’re really lazy about reading, there’s now a film).

As Americans (rightly) pay attention to the presidential election, it’s important to remember that the battles that define what kind of society we live in will be fought closer to home, in the space between state and local governments. Which space is, sadly filled with lobbyists and hacks operating largely without scrutiny because the state houses are actually far less visible to the typical person than either the Capitol or City Hall.

Loomis offers a good summary of the federalism-of-convenience for the right that I may as well quote here, since I’d be saying the same thing in different words:

There’s a very specific reason why conservatives fetishize state government, even to the point of calling for the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. All the talk about devolution that came out of the 90s stops right at the state capitol. It’s not about principle. It’s about conservative control. The federal government is too big for corporations or movement conservatives to easily control. Cities are too small. States are just right. State legislators can be bought off for incredibly small amounts of campaign donations. So making the federal government powerless, unless it wants to do corporate bidding, and making the cities powerless is part the conservative game to maintain power. And it’s been that way since at least the 1930s, when corporations complained about federal control and wanted power to reside at the state level. That’s what these wars on liberal cities are about in red states. Some of these cases, like the Denton fracking ban or Austin’s rejection of Uber, are about corporate control, others like HB 2 in North Carolina, are not. But for each type of conservative group, the state is where they see power residing precisely because that’s where it’s easiest for them to control that power.

Democracy, Disposability, and the Flint Water Crisis

This is a great analysis, and points out some of the ways that my work, by focusing on the question of emergency management vs. urban democracy, obscures some of the larger ways that the Flint story is embedded in capitalist political economy.

The Third Coast Conspiracy

flint 2

First there was Detroit, and now there’s Flint. After more or less staying under the radar for over a year, in the last few weeks the water crisis has become national news. The overall story is pretty clear. Back in April 2014, the city stopped getting its water from the system that serves the Detroit metropolitan area, which it had been doing since 1967, and switched over to the Flint River instead. Residents immediately noticed the difference, complaining about the water’s taste, smell, and color. City and state officials ignored or dismissed them, insisting that the water was safe—and trying to hide evidence to the contrary. In fact, the corrosive river water had caused lead in the city’s aging pipes to leach into the water supply. A year and a half after switching to the Flint River, the proportion of children with above-average levels of lead in their blood…

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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.

Tribute to Dr. Cliff Kuhn

Dr. Cliff Kuhn of Georgia State University–oral historian, champion of labor history archives, and peerless public educator of Atlanta’s history–passed away today.

I had the good fortune to meet Cliff when I was a visiting scholar in Atlanta, and while I didn’t get to know him well, he was extremely generous with his vast knowledge of the city and the region at a time when I was just beginning a research project there.

I want to express my condolences to his family, his colleagues, and the Atlanta area. I would also recommend that anyone who knew Cliff or knew of his work read this wonderful tribute at Tropics of Meta by his colleague Alex Sayf Cummings.