"The more active an attitude [people] 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
My aims as a sociologist are in some ways quite straightforward. I hope to understand the social factors that maintain systemic racism, and which generate the related inequalities that frustrate human potential. And I hope to support the work of people committed to racial liberation, informing strategies we can use to counter this inhumanity. Sociologically speaking, my goals lean on questions of social reproduction – a concept that refers to perpetuation of social systems and the social order; how societies are maintained and reproduced. In my work, I examine how race is made and re-made over time – as a socially constructed phenomenon and the ideological basis of centuries of systemic white domination.
My theoretical lens recognizes racism as material (that is, rooted in resources, opportunities, and the concrete conditions that shape people’s life chances), but also symbolic and psychic (meaning, connected to the cultural dimensions of everyday life and the beliefs and perceptions people hold, often deep in the recesses of consciousness). I use insights from psychology, philosophy, and cultural sociology to reconstruct critical theories of race that better explain the persistence of white supremacy over time. My work highlights how systems of domination are ordered by historically deep, enduring, and institutionalized structures designed to maintain racial inequality and other forms of oppression. I underscore, however, that such systems are ultimately built, preserved, and transformed through everyday acts of human agency. Across three lines, my research stresses this synergy – between culture and structure – to reveal not just the durable mechanisms that reproduce white domination over time, but also the important and often creative ways people reproduce and resist these arrangements.
Line 1: Racial Cognition, Ignorance, and 'Non-Knowing'
Materialist theories of racial cognition have been anchored primarily to the concept of racial ideology, a pattern evidenced by long-standing interest in the work on color-blind racism. My research probes the limits of this popular approach for theorizing racial cognition, and advances an alternative framework built around the concept of racial ignorance.
Drawing on the wisdom of ethnomethodological breaching, this line originates in a study examining how thinkers process racial logics under conditions that make color-blind frames difficult to use, and which incentivize abandoning colorblindness. Using an original research project (outlined in my Teaching Sociology article, "Tracing Family, Teaching Race"), I collected 156 papers over four years, from undergraduates who investigated and then analyzed their families’ intergenerational transmission of wealth and capital. "Producing Colorblindness: Everyday Mechanisms of White Ignorance" (published in Social Problems) examines the 105 papers produced by white-identified students, to challenge explanations that theorize white people’s color-blind reasoning as induced by structure, often passive and rather automatic. I draw on students’ explanations of privileged wealth transmission to argue white thinkers must actually work to accomplish colorblindness using an epistemology of ignorance – that is, a process of ‘racial knowing’ oriented toward ‘non-knowing.’ My data reveal that white students developed novel epistemic maneuvers when colorblind logics were foreclosed, to neutralize and mystify racial ‘knowing’ and sustain ideological perspectives. (You can hear me talk more about this research in this episode of "The Authors' Attic.") In a complementary co-authored analysis – “Anticipating White Futures: The Ends-Based Orientation of White Thinking" (early versions presented at the 2015 American Sociological Association and 2017 Eastern Sociological Society meetings; under review) – we examine students’ statements of intended praxes following declared racial ‘awakenings.’ Our analysis reveals how white cognition abides by an ends-based orientation – one whereby white people coordinate "anticipated futures" to maintain the spoils of racism without being racist.
Building on these insights, I advance a process-focused theory of racial ignorance in "Racial Ideology or Racial Ignorance? An Alternative Theory of Racial Cognition" (published in Sociological Theory). Grounded in the premises of critical race theory and the philosophical construct ‘white ignorance,’ the Theory of Racial Ignorance (TRI) elaborates how racial ignorance works as a core process in white domination, drawing attention to mechanisms of white knowledge evasion and resistance that facilitate racial reproduction – in everyday life, through the work of institutions, and across societies more broadly. Together these pieces clarify the dimensions, creativity, and depth of whites’ commitment to racial reproduction, findings that urge significant updates to how we conceptualize consciousness-raising in education and social movement organizing. More broadly, this research contributes to an emergent body of work in the sociology of ignorance. Indeed, my recent piece in Sociology Compass – “Advancing a Sociology of Ignorance in the Study of Racism and Racial Non-Knowing” brings together the nascent work on ignorance and precedents in scholarship on race and racism, to urge race-critical scholars take advantage of our unique positionto advance theory and methodology surrounding ignorance and the social‐cultural production of non‐knowledge as a broader area of social inquiry.
Line 2: Cultural Affordances
Connected to my above work, a second research line examines cultural affordances – the range of functions and constraints that a cultural artifact, technology, or structured everyday practice provides for, and places upon, structurally situated subjects. My research here examines affordances as the dynamic link between individuals and cultural objects and technologies, demonstrating how cultural affordances participate in reproducing, revising, challenging, and transforming structurally inequitable systems.
Several projects in this line explore politics of racial representation embedded in popular culture, media production, and cultural consumption. In an early empirical study – “Unmasking Racism: Halloween Costuming and Engagement of the Racial Other” (with D. Dirks and L. Picca, published in Qualitative Sociology) – my co-authors and I analyzed 663 participant observation journals from undergraduates across the U.S. to assess how students deployed racial concepts and identities through the ritualized affordances of Halloween. We conclude white students deploy cross-racial costuming as a ritual of rebellion in a contemporary era imagined as restrictive, reproducing stereotypes while trivializing their impact. This article was profiled in Contexts, reprinted in several popular readers, and used as a methods exemplar in How It’s Done: An Invitation to Social Research. A more 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. For example, our analysis reveals conventions that mystify the material basis of slavery and facilitate thinking of white supremacy as confined to particular eras, regions, and people as opposed to a global system — affordances into which creators, dominant audiences, and reviewers leaned. Relatedly, an in-progress project, “Representations of Black History in White Space" (with Phia Salter; presented at the 2018 Southern Sociological Society Annual Meeting), scrutinizes Black History Month commemoration practices, specifically in white institutional spaces, as “intentional worlds” of racism: sites of cultural production invested with beliefs and desires of people who create and reproduce them.
Line 3: Intergenerational Transmission
In my third line, I delve into intergenerational processes that reproduce systemic racism over time, both materially and culturally. Here, my work originates in an empirical study of the racial wealth gap and capital transmission in U.S. families, documented in my in-progress book project – Inheriting the Gap: Wealth, Capital, and Intergenerational Race-Making in the U.S. (under contract with New York University Press). The book’s analysis foregrounds the literal and symbolic intergenerational inheritances captured in the research papers produced by my students – 105 white, 51 students of color – investigating wealth and capital transmission in their family histories.
Despite the undeniable influence of historical dynamics, racial wealth gap research has been dominated by quantitative studies of contemporary-era data. Most mediate the current wealth gap through class indicators, or behaviorally-oriented variables, like propensity to save. My unique qualitative, multigenerational data – which chronicle the literal, cultural, and social assets transferred and lost in families from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries to today – challenge assumptions embedded in these approaches.
Drawing on theory-driven thematic and categorical content analysis, I argue 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, everyday practices. My analysis reveals how these macro-, meso-, and micro-phenomena assemble to hyper-develop and protect white wealth and capital over time while simultaneously suppressing the mobility of families of color. I use pathway building as an analytic metaphor, to clarify how systemic, racialized structures interact with everyday decision-making to shape wealth and capital transmission differentially across generations. Notably, this culture-sensitive focus reveals white families must often use creative strategies to accumulate privileged resources, troubling structurally deterministic arguments that infer whites mostly reproduce inequality habitually and ‘without racism’ as a result of covert institutionalization. Further, I tie material transmission to the ideological narratives families (and my students) construct to explain unjust enrichment and impoverishment in their histories, arguing that epistemologies of ignorance and resistance are, themselves, forms of ‘cultural inheritance.’ The book thus theorizes how inheritance pathways work to reproduce the material conditions and cultural meanings that sustain white supremacy, and thus ‘race’ over time.
In addition to the book, I am developing two companion journal articles framed by Critical Race Theory: “Toward a Critical Race Theory of Social Reproduction,” an original race-centered rearticulation of social reproduction theory (anticipated submission to Sociological Theory); and, “Race, Wealth, and the State of White Supremacy” (with Glenn Bracey), a targeted re-analysis of my data that challenges a legal fiction commonly assumed in state-based analyses – that of a racially neutral public state separate from the corporate interests of private white citizens (in preparation for Sociology of Race and Ethnicity).