by Manning Zhang (Brandeis University)
On Jan. 27, 2022, the Culture Section of American Sociological Association held the first event of this year’s Culture and Contemporary Life Series. Yan Long (University of California, Berkeley) moderated the discussion. Ellen Berrey (University of Toronto), Marcus Anthony Hunter (University of California, Los Angeles), Mario L. Small (Columbia University) and Derron Wallace (Brandeis University) participated as panelists. The event took the theme “Revisiting Cultural Methods to Address Racism.”
You can watch the recording of this event on YouTube. Here are highlighted remarks from the discussion.
Yan Long prepared three questions. First, she asked the panelist what theoretical perspectives from the study of race and racism they regard as especially informative for cultural sociology, and what theoretical perspectives provided by cultural sociology informed their own research on race and racism.
Derron Wallace said that he is committed to unmasking culture as race neutral. Particularly, he found Stuart Hall’s theories of race and culture compelling, and considers Stuart Hall’s work worthy of more attention in US sociology. He recognizes that through cross-national or international perspectives we can further challenge and interrogate what we mean by culture. In his own work, Wallace brings Stuart Hall and Pierre Bourdieu into conversation and considers schools as central sites of cultural construction, contestation, and reproduction. He sees race as a significant social force contributing to class relations and cultural constructions.
Mario L. Small made two points. First, he uses the perspective of culture as an institution to build on conversations with researchers in other disciplines about the study of racial discrimination. Second, he pointed out that the sociology of culture as a subfield within the discipline has been very Eurocentric. He suggested reevaluating the subfield with respect to its diversity.
Marcus Anthony Hunter highlighted the works of Ida B. Wells. Hunter is always curious about the way race is conceived as something you need to “bring to the party,” rather than as essentially being the foundation of the culture. As a result, work on race is pigeonholed or diminished. He argues that whether or not race is “cultural” is actually the premise of the culture.
Ellen Berrey discussed how her first book, The Enigma of Diversity, conceptualizes the term “diversity” as a cultural object at the center of legal, political, and organizational contestation over racism. Cultural sociology helpfully foregrounds meaning-making, but it provides inadequate tools for explaining institutional racism. She explained how her book would have been different, and strengthened, if it had been more thoroughly grounded in premises of critical race theory, including an understanding of racism as a permanent structural characteristic of the United States.
The second question Yan Long asked was how the panelists have designed studies to review systematic racism as well as the dynamics of creating change. How have they incorporated reflectivity, particular choice of methods, and political commitment in the formulation of research questions and practice?
Ellen Berrey noted that her current collaborative project involves studying anti-racist campus protest and responses by university administrations and the police. She and Alex Hanna are doing a large-scale quantitative study of protest events at universities and colleges in the United States and Canada, spanning the Obama and Trump years, based on student newspaper articles. This project centers relationships between movements and organizations. It aims to support progressive and liberatory movements.
Marcus Anthony Hunter regarded his work as circling back to affirming the words, schemes and mindsets that he grew up with, instead of only focusing only on the negative vocabulary that has been used and that is skewed toward people who are not black. He noted his own use of the positive term “chocolate cities,” and he suggested a perspective that reaffirms the vocabulary used on the ground.
Mario L. Small’s recent study maps accessibility to banks and alternative financial institutions in neighborhoods of different racial composition. His work suggests very strong patterns that cannot be accounted for by socioeconomic status. Small believes that the sociology of race and the sociology of culture share an important problem: both of them have been very jargon heavy. While some jargon is inevitable, he argued that often jargon is evidence of unclear thinking. Also, he gave a reflective analysis on the works which either expressly or not deliberately adopted a deficit model of African-American culture.
Derron Wallace reflected on the similarity between his experience as a community organizer and as a sociologist. He believes that adopting accessible language, and using terms drawn from the groups we study, can help the readers to “see the world as participants see it.” Wallace also highlighted that the training for the next generation of scholars should welcome new and innovative questions that may challenge dominant modes of theorization in cultural sociology.
Yan Long’s third question addressed current controversies, asking the panelists what they thought is missing in the current public debates about cancel culture and critical race theory.
Derron Wallace argued that we should extend the discussion concerning critical race theory to “any critical theory of race or anything critical, anything that would require that we reconsider how we distribute and use power.” He argued that there is certainly an attack on CRT in the contemporary moment, but that this is about much more than CRT. He contended that on one hand we should pay attention to the dynamics of the conservative discourse around how critical theory is positioned, understood and misrepresented. On the other hand, we should recognize that critical race theory has to do with a critical orientation about the use and distribution of power.
Mario L. Small had a different take on this question. He noted that despite the ever-broadening wealth disparity, the current political environment couldn’t come up with a viable wealth tax that would redress inequality, given the vast amount of wealth that has been accumulated by the top 1 percent in the last 10 years since Occupy Wall Street. He contended that when sociologists try to figure out what we are talking about with regards to the current “debate” on Twitter over critical race theory in classrooms, we are essentially distracting ourselves over something that over the long run actually will not make a big difference. This leads us to disregard things we already know are in fact making a very large difference, such as the dramatic wealth disparities and the very heavy consequences for low-income families across the country.
On cancel culture, Marcus Anthony Hunter argued that humanity is not a subscription, computer or algorithm. He cautioned that researchers should not treat humanity like a magazine subscription, and treating other human beings as if they are a control key can be detrimental. Hunter has been working in the legislative space trying to get the United States to enact the first Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Commission and also to pass the H. R. 40 Commission to Study and Develop Reparation bill for African American Act. In terms of critical race theory, Hunter argued that to some extent the theory is normative, saying that the system is racially flawed and race intercedes in what we call justice. Rather than necessarily being anti-racist, he asked why we aren’t just pro-human, pro-love and pro-inclusivity. He argued that we should really be talking about how we build up systemic diversity, equity and inclusion.
Ellen Berrey recommended listening to the opening plenary from the ASA meeting this past August, where the central topic was the attack on critical race theory. She added that we should think about the attack as part of a political movement of far-right white supremacists. Speaking about what is missing, Berrey expressed her expectation to see a full-throated defense of critical race research coming from university leadership, especially, and also from liberal and progressive movements.
During the Q&A session, an audience member asked what the scholars see coming out of cultural sociology that doesn’t “make sense” for understanding race and racism, and what some solutions to improve that work might be.
In response to this question, Marcus Anthony Hunter raised additional questions: when things like race come up in the sociology of culture, why is it usually an addendum? Why is it not a prerequisite? He added that every nation is premised on a story. If the story includes race, how can you tell a national or international story with no mention of race? He encouraged scholars to take race as intrinsic, as Derron Wallace said earlier.
Ellen Berrey posed a question to those people grounded in cultural sociology but wanting to do a better job of analyzing and theorizing race and racism. Is racism what you are trying to explain? Or are you analytically prioritizing something else - such as art markets or political mobilization or neighborhood change - but your theorizing and methods need to account for racism, in order to accurately explain the institutional context, organizational dynamics, or social relations?
Another question asked about the panelist’ views on the role not just of politics, but also of policy as a tool for anti-racist cultural change. Marcus Anthony Hunter reaffirmed his stance of being pro- human liberation and recommended that the audience look into how Barbara Lee and Cory Booker have put forward the U. S. Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Commission. He suggested they educate themselves by checking out policy efforts on congress.gov.
Mario L. Small echoed Hunter’s point by suggesting that a lot of the most effective changes at the federal government began in states. He also believes that there’s a part of public sociology that has to do with discourse. Changing the conversation and giving people a language to understand their circumstances can be helpful in terms of formulating social change. Small warned that there are times when people can very easily slip from contributing to a productive discourse to getting caught up in the noise, on Twitter for instance. He argued that when scholars are doing this kind of engagement, they should continuously ask themselves: are we doing something good as social thinkers? Are we caught up in noise when we should know better?
Derron Wallace wanted to call our attention to the work at the local level within the institutions that we are part of, such as that of school principals. He highlighted the policy practice gap and how people – including students and teachers – are making meaning of the given policies. He also noted that civic engagement, especially among young people, has informed sociologists that the pursuit of justice can extend well beyond the vote.
Yan Long thanked the speakers and the audience, and noted that upcoming events of the Culture and Contemporary Life series will discuss topics including fake news. Please pay close attention to the note on our twitter to be informed of the most up-to-date schedule.
Bios of Participants
Ellen Berrey is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and an affiliated scholar of the American Bar Foundation. Her research explores the cultural dynamics of inequality, race, law, organizations, and social movements.
Marcus Anthony Hunter is the Scott Waugh Endowed Chair in the Division of the Social Sciences, Professor of Sociology, and served as the Inaugural chair of the department of African American Studies at UCLA. He is generally interested in urban race relations, sexuality, politics, gender, history and change with an especial focus on urban black Americans.
Mario L. Small is Quetelet Professor of Social Science at Columbia University. His research interests include urban poverty, inequality, personal networks, and qualitative and mixed methods.
Derron Wallace is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Education at Brandeis University. He specializes in cross-national studies of structural and cultural inequalities in urban schools across global cities, focusing specifically on the experiences of young people of African descent. His current research examines the educational outcomes of Black youth in London and New York City.
Yan Long is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of California, Berkeley. She studies the interactions between globalization and authoritarian politics across empirical areas such as civic action, health, development and technology.