This is a guest post by Jose Itzigsohn, written in response to my prior post.
Erin McDonnell organized a wonderful panel on Rethinking Sociological Theory and Andrew Perrin published in Scatterplot a thoughtful response to the panel that included a critique of my arguments. I asked Prof. Perrin whether Scatterplot would publish my response and he readily agreed. I thank him and welcome the opportunity to elaborate on the call to decolonize sociological theory.
Yesterday’s panel on teaching classical social theory was fantastic. Erin McDonnell did a great job organizing and facilitating, and the four panelists — Greta Krippner, Jose Itzigsohn, Zine Magubane, and Jocelyn Viterna — offered really thoughtful, measured, and inspiring ideas. The session was remarkably well-attended, particularly for summer: I think around 100 people showed up. Awesome!
I want to raise a few thoughts about what I hope will be ongoing discussions and reforms in this vein.
Earlier this week, the US government announced a new policy that would prevent international students from staying in the country if their universities offered entirely online courses. This policy was designed to force universities to reopen, even if doing so is unsafe and against public health advice. Harvard and MIT have already sued to prevent the policy taking effect and other universities have condemned the policy.
Sociologist Heba Gowayed organized the below open letter for faculty to express their opposition to this cruel policy. More than 15,000 academics have signed the letter so far. You can sign the letter here and view the list of signatories here. Another petition (for anyone, not just faculty) has garnered almost 200,000 signatures and can be signed here.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, policymakers at the national, state, and local level are scrambling to decide what can reopen while limiting the virus’s spread. In some sense, we can think of the overall rate of infection of the virus as a kind of budget constraint. As long as the rate of spread is kept below 1, the virus is under control. If too much opens up, and the rate goes above 1, the virus will begin to overwhelm the healthcare system, as we’re currently seeing in Arizona, South Carolina, and Texas. Keeping everything closed would certainly help avoid that outcome. But keeping everything closed also comes with costs to the economic and social/emotional well-being of individuals, organizations, and society as a whole. Thus, the question that policymakers face – at least assuming they want to avoid massive, unnecessary deaths – is what to reopen given that some things have to stay closed? Or, put differently, which institutions are so critical to society that reopening them for in-person use is ultimately worth the risk?
Discussions of racism tend to get tangled up in issues of level of analysis.1 Sociologists (e.g. Bonilla-Silva) and critical race theorists (e.g. Haney-López), among others, have long argued that we need to understand racism as something that works “beyond” or “above” the individual, building on arguments that go back to Stokely Carmichael’s distinction between individual and institutional racism. In talking through these ideas with friends and students, I’ve found that the terminology can be confusing – in part because sociologists (and non-sociologists) have used terms like institution and structure to mean so many different, overlapping things. In this post, I outline my idiosyncratic terminology for characterizing different levels of racism when trying to explain these interwoven concepts. For me, it’s been useful to break down racism into four levels that are at least partially nested: individual, organizational, institutional, and systemic.2
On Friday, June 12, 2020, fourteen sociology graduate students at Brown University held a teach-in on how to support BLM in academia at the Population Studies Training Center (PSTC), an interdisciplinary center for the study of population issues. The teach-in evolved from the invitation that sociology graduate students (with support of staff and faculty) had extended in the department’s statement in support of BLM. The letter had urged members of the sociology community to have conversations with and beyond each other on how to combat anti-black racism and to produce anti-racist research. Susan Short, sociologist and Director of PSTC, asked graduate students if they wanted to hold an event or a meeting at the center as a follow-up. The students decided on holding a teach-in on race and racism in the academy. In the tradition of teach-ins and public sociology, the event mixed theoretical discussions with conversations about praxis and centered the coming together of the PSTC community to discuss recent political events and possible futures. During the second part of the teach-in, the attendees were invited to participate in facilitated breakout sessions to brainstorm anti-racist practices in research, as well as in institutional and interpersonal situations within the academy. The suggestions below are the result of those collaborative conversations. Recently there have been discussionson how professors in all disciplines can talk to students about race and racism. Teach-ins potentially provide a way to challenge status and generational divides between students, staff and faculty on campus while offering opportunities to rearticulate the meaning of community and to create anti-racist publics within the academy.
What is transmitted in higher learning?… Limiting ourselves to a narrowly functionalist point of view, an organized stock of established knowledge is the essential thing that is transmitted. The application of new technologies to this stock may have a considerable impact on the medium of communication. It does not seem absolutely necessary that the medium be a lecture delivered in person by a teacher in front of silent students, with questions reserved for sections or “practical work” sessions run by an assistant. To the extent that learning is translatable into computer language and the traditional teacher is replaceable by memory banks, didactics can be entrusted to machines linking traditional memory banks (libraries, etc.) and computer data banks to intelligent terminals placed at the students’ disposal. Pedagogy would not necessarily suffer. The students would still have to be taught something: not contents, but how to use the terminals.
Abolition is in the public eye like never before. In five years, we’ve gone from “require body cameras and implicit bias training” to “defund the police.” Longtime abolitionist Mariame Kaba is in the New York Times: “Yes, we mean literally abolish the police.”
As a discipline that has had much to say about racism, policing, and incarceration, where do sociologists fit into this new picture, where abolition is not simply a fringe position, but one front-and-center in current debates?
Much excellent work has been written about the need for systemic reform of policing in the US, the discrimination and inequalities faced by Black Americans, and the brave struggles of anti-racist protesters amidst the ongoing police repression and the unprecedented COVID-19 global pandemic. As social movements go, the ongoing mobilizations have clearly set the political agenda of anti-racism in a news cycle previously dominated by public health policies around COVID-19. Right now, it’s far too early to tell the political and cultural consequences of the current protests, but what we do know so far from the data is that this current wave is significantly larger than previous protest waves in the past. Since it has been a couple of weeks since George Floyd’s death, we are starting to get data trickling in on the scale and size of the current anti-police brutality protests. I will focus here on presenting some preliminary statistics and figures of the current Black Lives Matter protests and compare them with previous mobilizations. Continue reading “recent anti-police brutality protests since George Floyd’s death are far arger than previous Black Lives Matter protest waves”
In recent weeks, heated interactions nationwide between protesters and police, were sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, by a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin. Throughout recent history, nearly all social movements have been concerned with the potential impact of police presence at their protests. Protesters have feared police will suppress their activities, use violence against participants, and incite turmoil in the crowd.
Over the past 4 years, I’ve studied community perceptions of the Minneapolis Police Department. With a team of students, we conducted qualitative interviews with over 100 residents and 20 leaders of police reform/transformation/abolition groups; tracked reform efforts by the MPD; and attended city council hearings, vigils, and community listening sessions. We learned that many in Minneapolis agreed that racialized police violence was a dire social problem, but disagreed on its solution (and whether policing could ever be reformed). Some citizens and groups fought for reform through bureaucratic channels, while others pushed for police abolition or transformation.
As readers are well aware, these questions about reform vs. abolition recently became a national conversation. Following the murder of George Floyd by four now-former MPD officers on May 25, 2020, and the explosion of protests locally (and nationally and internationally), many have looked to Minneapolis to see how this conversation might produce real change.
In times of political turmoil, we often wish that there were more sociological perspectives in the popular media. This is especially true when issues of power and inequality are involved. One of the best ways for sociologists to make our voices heard is to write something ourselves, but writing for the public is different than writing for other scholars. How do you know if your contribution will be valuable? What makes a great op-ed? And how do you get it into the right hands? In this blog post, I detail my own process for deciding when and how to write for the popular media.
The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening the lives of people worldwide. It has certainly increased the level of risk we are all exposed to. Ulrich Beck and others have described our times in terms of a risk society, and the pandemics seem to confirm this view. Of course, exposure to risk has always been unequal. The marginalized sectors of the world economy have always been exposed to high levels of risk (from illnesses, to violence, to exclusion), while the economic elites and the middle classes have been able to protect themselves and to some extent shelter themselves from risk. And exposure to the coronavirus, access to health care, and the risk of losing one’s life are highly correlated to class and to race in our racialized class system. But the pandemic has increased the risk for all, mounting the risks of people who already live precarious lives, but also putting at higher risk the lives and livelihoods of people who usually enjoy some mechanisms of protection from the “conventional” risks we were used to living with. It is hard to think of a previous crisis that has affected all parts of the world at the same time and in such a radical way (at least within the memory of most living people).