"The more active an attitude
men and women take in regard to the
exploration of [social issues] the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those [issues], take possession of that reality."
Paulo Freire, 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
"[S]ocial systems have no purposes, reasons or needs whatsoever;
only human individuals do so."
Anthony Giddens, 1979, Central Problems in Social Theory
As a scholar I am compelled toward two goals – to understand mechanisms that sustain racial inequality and broader white supremacy, and to illuminate factors that promote social consciousness, resistance, and social change. Meeting these objectives requires an analysis sensitive to the interplay between everyday, cultural processes and racialized structures. My research agenda targets this synergy across two lines – intergenerational transmission of wealth and capital and everyday cultural enactments.
I ground my analyses in critical, systemic theories, which assume the socio-historicity of stratified systems and emphasize foundational, structural and intersectional aspects. My research highlights how inequitable structures shape the interests of actors and social institutions, yet underscores that ultimately such systems are built, preserved, and transformed through everyday acts of human agency. By stressing this recursive relationship – between culture and structure – I am able to not only explicate mechanisms that maintain white supremacy over time, but also spaces of creative reproduction and resistance.
Line 1: Intergenerational Transmission of Wealth and Capital
Despite the certain influence of historical dynamics, racial wealth gap research has been dominated by quantitative studies of contemporary-era data, which mediate the current wealth gap through class indicators, or behaviorally oriented variables like propensity to save. Drawing on a qualitative, multigenerational design, my research in this line tests assumptions embedded in these approaches.
Using an original undergraduate research project (outlined in my Teaching Sociology article, "Tracing Family, Teaching Race"), I collected 156 papers over four years, produced by white students and students of color investigating their families’ intergenerational transmission of wealth and capital. My analysis draws on theory-driven thematic and categorical data analysis to examine these complex family histories. This research demonstrates that the racial wealth gap is not a simple product of “race differences,” but has been built and sustained by a mix of racially contoured asset policy, state protectionism and inaction, and private practices that have hyper-developed and protected white wealth and capital over time while simultaneously suppressing and exploiting the capital of families of color. I advance pathway building as an analytical metaphor, to clarify how racialized structures interact with everyday decision-making to differentially shape wealth and capital transmission across generations. Notably, this culturally-attentive focus reveals white families must often engage in creative work to acquire and maintain the spoils of racial oppression, troubling deterministic arguments that suggest whites generally derive contemporary privilege passively, as a result of strong institutionalization.
I am currently at work refining a book-length manuscript on this research, tentatively titled Inheriting the Gap: Wealth, Capital, and Intergenerational Race-Making in the U.S. My analysis centers inheritance pathways as central to reproducing the conditions and cultural meanings that sustain white supremacy and “race” over time. Beyond analytic contributions, the unique data – tracing families’ wealth transmission from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries – chronicles contemporary white Americans often literal connections to privileged resources gained during the eras of slavery and legal segregation, a topic of resurgent public interest in the wake of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ extended expose in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” I have met and discussed prospectus outlines with editors of several university presses, and will submit the formal prospectus and sample chapters this fall.
I am preparing two journal articles as well: “Toward a Race Critical Theory of Social Reproduction,” an original race-centered rearticulation of social reproduction theory; and, “Race, Wealth, and the State of White Supremacy,” an empirical analysis that uses Critical Race Theory to trouble the legal fiction of a racially neutral public state separate from the corporate interests of private white citizens.
Line 2: Everyday Cultural Enactments
Stratified systems shape not only the tangible, material outcomes of social groups; they also contour cultural resources and ways of being, knowing, and doing in everyday life. My work on everyday cultural enactments explores tools and everyday practices that participate in reproducing, conservatively revising, and transforming structurally inequitable systems.
Several projects in this line target popular culture, media production, and cultural consumption to explore politics of racial representation. For example, an early project analyzed 663 participant observation journals from undergraduates across the U.S. to examine how students deployed racial concepts and identities in ritual Halloween costuming. In “Unmasking Racism: Halloween Costuming and Engagement of the Racial Other” (with D. Dirks and L. Picca, published in Qualitative Sociology), we conclude white students deploy cross-racial costuming as a “ritual of rebellion” in a contemporary era they imagine as restrictive, reproducing stereotypes while trivializing their impact. This article was profiled in Contexts, reprinted in Race and Ethnicity in Society: The Changing Landscape, and used as an exemplar in How It’s Done: An Invitation to Social Research. My recent book chapter, “Consuming Black Pain: Reading Racial Ideology in Cultural Appetite for 12 Years a Slave” (with Rula Issa), centers on contemporary representations of slavery in popular film. Analyzing a variety of data through content analysis, we demonstrate how media, as a system of cultural production, distribution, and consumption, abides by an epistemology of ignorance – that is, by logic and practices designed to suppress and distort critical knowledge concerning structural white supremacy.
Ongoing research in this line extends this focus on cultural production of ignorance, toward questions generated by my racial wealth gap data. Here I assay assumptions undergirding research on colorblind racial ideology. In "Producing Colorblindness: Everyday Mechanisms of White Ignorance" (published in Social Problems), I explore racial logics within students’ explanations of family wealth transmission. As opposed to assuming colorblindness as structurally induced, I argue whites must actively “accomplish” colorblindness in the everyday using an epistemology of ignorance. Drawing insights from ethnomethodology, my data reveals that whites can and often will engage in novel epistemic maneuvers when colorblindness is “breached,” to mystify racial understanding and sustain hegemonic ideologies. (You can hear me talk more about this research in this episode of "The Authors' Attic.")
I am also finalizing a complementary discursive analysis examining white students’ statements of intended praxes – “More than Words: Colorblind Racism and the 'Discourse' of White Praxis" (early version presented at the 2015 American Sociological Association meeting; in preparation for submission to Sociology of Race and Ethnicity). Finally, "Racial Ideology or Racial Ignorance? An Alternative Theory of Racialized Cognition" (under review) advances a process-focused theory of racial ignorance, grounded in premises of critical race theory and the philosophical construct, white ignorance. Together these pieces clarify the dimensions, creativity, and depth of white commitment to racial reproduction, findings that urge significant updates to how we conduct research and conceptualize consciousness-raising in education and social movement organizing.