Category: All Issues

Truth about the Past, Justice in the Present

An interview with James W. Loewen

On February 4, 2016, The Sociologist (TS) interviewed Professor James W. Loewen about his scholarship on American history and race relations. Professor James W. Loewen is the bestselling author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, Lies Across America, and Sundown Towns. He is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont. He is visiting professor at Catholic University of America. Below are excerpts from the interview.

TS: Why did slavery become associated with race?

James Loewen: There were two key developments in European history that caused slavery to gradually become racial slavery.  The first was the Portuguese put together inventions:  gunpowder, cannons, ships with lateen sails, and military force—soldiers on board— and proceeded to make their way down the western coast of Africa.

The Portuguese used that force, and they also made deals with the coastal African peoples, gave them guns, liquor, and other Western products in return for people, in particular slaves from the tribes inland. The result was, pretty soon, most of the people who are enslaved in Europe are black and most of the people who are black in Europe are enslaved. And so there becomes an identity between those two groups.

The combination of the ability to enslave masses of people in western African and the economic situation that you could make a fortune of the unrequited labor in the Western Hemisphere led to the expansion of racially based slavery. It is important to teach this to K-12 students. Otherwise people wind up believing that racism is “natural” or that “whites are always racist.”

TS: The Africans were not obliged to sell slaves to the Portuguese, white racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, what created this culture of racism?

James Loewen: There is plenty of guilt to go around in terms of the original Africa to America slave trade. The coastal tribes are definitely involved and in fact, when I was at two of the embarkation points in Ghana in 2003, I found that Ghana did a pretty good job of not letting themselves off the hook. A better job really than, at that time, the Unites States did in discussing the slave trade. However, just in the last five years or so, there are some places in the United States that are facing up to our participation in the slave trade more honestly. The immorality of slavery, racial slavery is apparent. So, how then is the dominant group, in this case, of course, the white group, to assert to itself that they are good people?

Everyone wants to think of himself/herself as a good person. Well, the answer has to be racism. These people are different from us, they are inferior to us. I quote a famous French philosopher who says, ironically, “they must be inferior else we cannot be Christian.” So, that rationale grows during the 1700s and continued growing pretty much until 1860.

TS: What is the role of the African slave trader in contributing to the superstructure of racism?

James Loewen:  Well, I am sure they did not think they were contributing to the superstructure of racism. Because, after all, they are black and they are dealing with Europeans on a level of equality. Now, of course, the Europeans are perhaps feigning this.  But in a given situation, people make choices and they are choices that may be in their short-term interest and not in their long-term interest. The coastal peoples who made these deals with the Portuguese and later the British and other slave traders did ok economically. So, this trading by the African coastal peoples was in their short-term interest but not in their long-term interest.

In the United States, the ideology of slavery—that is racial inferiority—was stronger in 1860 than at any previous point.  And it just doesn’t disappear in 1865. It of course does weaken during the Civil War and Reconstruction in the North as well as in the South, but it then comes back full force in 1890, because between 1890 and 1940, we grow more racist in our thinking than at any other point. And by “we” I mean white Americans. In 1859/1860, no white supremacist, no matter how racist, could say that slavery was an equal opportunity employer—that it is possible for black folks to get out of slavery and they had failed because they were inferior. But by 1910 or 1920, you could tell yourself that America is an equal opportunity country, and we are still telling ourselves that. And so, it is their own fault that they are so poor. So this is the era of 1890-1940, when Sundown Towns spring up all across the United States, and if these people are so inferior, why then would we allow them in our towns?

TS: Who are the Neo-Confederates?

James Loewen: They want to think well of their ancestors. Surely all of us want to think well of our ancestors. It is hard to think that your ancestors sacrificed their life in a war to justify slavery or racial inferiority. The other answer is white supremacy. Every time that the Confederate flag is waved among large groups of people, white supremacy is usually lurking in the back there. There is a sort of identification that cannot be gainsaid.

TS:  Where do you think this is going?

James Loewen: I think the present era is a very exciting time for racial relations.  I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna optimist. One example is the reaction to the horrific murders committed by Dylann Roof in Charleston which led to the take-down of the flag in South Carolina, which led to questioning of all Confederate monuments in the United States—that movement is ongoing. We haven’t seen the last of it. Also, BLM, Black Lives Matter, is another reason. I think we are moving to a place where we eventually will be post-racial. I think in the next, maybe 50 years, we will be much closer to that than we were during Reconstruction. Reconstruction was a very interesting time to be alive in America, and so it is today.

Yin and Yang Image


Return to May 2016 Issue


Immigrant Testimonies on Transitional Space: the Albanian Experience

By Silva Cami

The end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century marked a new long-distance Albanian emigration pattern that was primarily necessitated by the need for relief from the ubiquitous economic difficulty and regional turmoil afflicting the nation (Çiraku & Vyshka 2014). What began as an economic, male-dominated emigration flow of Albanian citizens into the United States transformed into a family-oriented immigration pattern (Naggi 1988; Vullnetari 2007), only to be interrupted by the formation of Albania’s socialist state and limitations on travel across the nation’s borders.

Savoring the opportunity to recount the personal history and migratory experiences of an underrepresented people, fifteen (pre-communist) Albanian immigrant oral histories collected by the Ellis Island Oral History Project were analyzed.

This paper uses Donald Winnicott’s (1971) concepts of transitional symbols (i.e., phenomena and objects), play, and potential space as elements of immigration and cultural assimilation. Parallels are drawn between Winnicott’s work and the Albanian immigrant’s experience of a new location within a comfort zone that approximates representations of unity with and palpable separation from an old location. Ethnic unity and ethnic separation were considered simultaneously occurring elements of successful immigration, defined as “one where the person [immigrant], after a long period of struggle, is able to amalgamate both past and present [cultural] experiences” (Sengun 2001:66).

Winnicott (1971) discussed the notion of a hypothetical area that exists between an individual and an attachment object during a stage of perceived separation; this area is the potential space between one’s personal reality and  external reality.

This psychological position is where unity with, and separation from, an attachment is simultaneously and constructively experienced through “transitional phenomena,” and the utilization of “transitional objects” as relational tools, to transcend difficulties (e.g., separation anxiety) associated with loss of the attachment (Sengun 2001; Winnicott 1951; 1971). Transitional objects are symbolic representations of one’s unity with and deprivation of an attachment: the object is not necessarily used as it is collectively perceived, but rather related to and assigned meaning by an individual as an isolate.

The illusory importance that is ascribed to the object serves as provisional relief or defense against anxiety caused by separation from an attachment (Winnicott 1951).

Winnicott’s concept of transitional phenomena (mannerisms, patterns, or fixations) are observable and are crucial in the production of a human cultural experience (Lee 2005:102).

 Transition in Family

“They [family] were always helping each other, and they also would help each other, if they made some money, to pay the passage for someone else to come over here [to America] within their family. If they’re the cousin or another brother or whoever, that is how they brought them, they bring each other. But they would pay their way, the one who had made the money in the United States.”1

Presented as a component of the settlement process in the data, the family is a source of comfort during times of despair or angst. Identifying the family as a transitional symbol offers a look into the Albanian immigrant’s ability to identify with their homeland, yet simultaneously consider their adopted country as their own space. One woman spoke of her father, who had come to America fifteen years prior, and his apprehension to attend night school and learn the English language.

“I went to night school in Boston. And my father said, “Oh, how nice, I wanted to go to night school, but I didn’t feel like going alone, you know. Now that I have you, that you’re going to go, why should I leave you to go at night by yourself and to come home by yourself? We’ll go together, and it’s good for me. Because I’ll learn some English there.”

One may recognize the father’s need for a transitional object, that being his teenage daughter, to offer him a source of relief from the anxiety of detaching from an element of his native land. Not only did a sense of belonging manifest as transitional phenomena in the family, it created a transitional space that embodied Albania as well: “When we walked out the door, we were in the United States of America. And we lived outside just like any other American, but when we came in we spoke Albanian, we lived Albanian inside the home, and we kept our traditions.”2

One woman was asked if she felt any different shortly after her arrival to the United States. Her response: “No, because I came in a house with my sister-law, and all the relatives, they come greet me. I had uncle over here, a lot of cousins. I feel like home. That’s it.”3 Another person spoke of his arrival to the United States as a child; upon reuniting with his only contact here, his older brother, he said, “grabbed me and loved me and kissed me. And he said, “You are with me; he tried to make me feel at home.”4

The family home, as a root, allows an immigrant to consider the dwelling itself as a tangible potential transitional space. Winnicott addressed this potential space as a psychological territory, and these transitional phenomena create an objectively recognizable place that is infused with subjective reality.

Transition in Community

“I always go to…relatives, friends, parties, over here, over there. In the church we meet all my, our people. Nothing wrong.”5 Traditions from Albania informed the construction of bonds that were shared amongst Albanian immigrants, resulting in the formation of communities. A uniting force of the Albanian community was the church. The Albanian Orthodox Church became a centrality for Albanian immigration settlement.6,7 This was largely due to the importance of traditional festivities: Christmas, New Year, and Easter were frequently mentioned in the data as communal celebrations.

Upon inquiry, one respondent stated “when you leave home, that you leave a very rich life, you consider yourself punished, in great discomfort to live the way you do.”8 Another immigrant offered a supposition on the importance of the community:

“Rockland was a disappointment to my mother. In ways the climate, for one thing, was much harsher than the Mediterranean climate…She had no one here. Also there were the language difficulty, the food was difficult. …she couldn’t get olive oil at that time, the basic needs. …other people suffered and came here, yes, we all suffered. But we all suffered in an ethnic way. Because everybody grouped themselves with each other, and there was support to one another. The difficulty with my mother was that in Rockland there weren’t that many Albanians.”9

The Albanian communities regaled newly arrived young immigrants with the stories of past Albania. One immigrant said, “at four or five years old you’re not knowledgeable about the land you left. But I know with my people, the stories they tell me, what they left. And I drew from them.”10

These transitional elements of community further cement the connection between the old country and new country, as relation to Albania was nurtured in future generations, but not so much as to limit cultural adaptation: “What they left…I was thankful that I was here.”11 These community spaces are not strictly created by Albanians themselves, but can be externally sourced and adapted to meet the needs associated with attachment loss and willful detachment.


“They just lived, you know, with each other and gave each other great comfort in times when, you know, they didn’t know where to shop, or how to shop, or how to buy,…they had each other.”12 Winnicott regarded this potential space as the position where one may engage in creative play and cultural heritage. The potential space serves as a comfort zone for constructive management of anxiety associated with an immigrant’s separation from ethnic attachment (Sengun 2001; Winnicott 1951; 1971).

Black and white photo of Albanian woman

Albanian immigrant at Ellis Island c. 1905. Source:


Playing facilitates the experience of the unfamiliar reality. Only in the psychological refuge of the space may play be achieved. As an individual begins to reality test, his or her illusions interchangeably become apperception and perception. (Winnicott, 1971:3).

Cultural Experience

“I like my country… I am Albania, but I like America, too. … I mix with the people. We, we all belong to, you know, Y.W.C.A…We got mixed [i.e., assimilated].”13 There is a direct development of transitional phenomena, from play to collective play, and from this to cultural experience. According to Winnicott, this cultural experience is developed through creative living that first manifests itself as an extension of play. Creative living refers to the attribution of subjective meaning to external reality, consequentially creating the sense of a life worth living, as opposed to futile compliance with reality.

All that an individual does in life and in relation to a community is creative living:  “It is only in playing [i.e., experimentation] that the individual…is able to be creative,…as one experiences a relation to an object and forms a cultural experience” (Winnicott 1971:54, 98).

As individuals are brought into cultural circumstance and inherit social elements that are internalized, espoused, and expressed as codes of manners and morals, personal realities become reoriented and initiate an individual sense of belonging with the collective whole.

The area of potential space permits an individual to constructively initiate a relationship with a new world, utilizing transitional objects/phenomena to begin individual and collective play that translates into the development of a cultural experience.

As community and family nurtured the Albanian immigrant in their relocation, a new cultural experience formed that was rooted in tradition shared amongst the Albanian group in the United States.  “The things we do I think is to keep our Albanian heritage alive. … I don’t feel that we should ever lose our background. I think that they should always be Albanian. I think that there should always be an Albania.”14

Unsuccessful Immigration

“You see, when you leave home when you are 14 years old, in different country, you kind of get used to it. And the voyage don’t punish you. The lonesomeness from this is gone. You get homesick when you leave home. You never forget.”15

Finally, the tendency for potential space to facilitate play and develop a cultural relationship is dependent on the living experience of separation: a healthy separation allows for a gradual and confident detachment from a culture.

If this separation from a mother culture is too fast or interminable, such as in the case of exile and political refuge, a trauma may occur in which the potential space is compromised; the memory of the internal representation of one’s homeland fades and transitional objects/phenomenon lose meaning, thus inhibiting play and creative experience of a new culture (Winnicott, 1971:15).

On the other side of the spectrum, there may be a case when an attachment is not gradually disillusioned and an immigrant may create a transitional object that symbolizes the attachment to a homeland in its subjective entirety: “The migrant remains dependent on the old frame, keeping the incorporated object in his internal graveyard and projecting it into the new frame instead of being able to use it to grow” (Le Roy 1994:190).

In the event of trauma, there is little trust and reliability in the migrant’s unity with their homeland. The newly settled immigrant experiences an aggressive end to a relationship that would otherwise inform potential spaces and corresponding transitional symbols; this necessitates the formation of new attachment symbols.


Çiraku, E., & Vyshka, G. (2014). Time-trend of the Albanian migratory movements. Anthropol 2(3), e123. doi: 10.4172/2332-0915.1000e123.

Lee, N. (2005). Childhood and human value: Development, separation, and separability. (1st ed.). New York, NY: Open University Press.

Le Roy, J. (1994). Group analysis and culture. In D. Grown & L. Zinkin (Eds.), The psyche and the social world. London: Routledge.

Segun, S. (2001). Migration as a transitional space and group analysis. Group Analysis, 34(65), 65-78. doi: 10.1177/0533316401341007.

Vullnetari, J. (2007). Albanian migration and development: state of the art review (Vol. 18). IMISCOE Working Paper.

Winnicott, D.W. (1951). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena. In D.W. Winnicott, Collected papers: Through pediatrics to psycho-analysis (pp. 229-242). Abingdon, Oxon: Tavistock Publications Ltd.

Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and reality. United Kingdom: Tavistock Publications Ltd.


  1. Janet Levine, (Interviewer). Pauline Stevens Curtis. Brockton, MA, 1992.
  2. Janet Levine, (Interviewer). Pauline Stevens Curtis. Brockton, MA, 1992.
  3. Janet Levine, (Interviewer). Aphroditi Terova Mullo. Worcester, MA, 1993.
  4. Debby Dane, (Interviewer). Stephen Peters. Alexandria, VA, 1986.
  5. Janet Levine, (Interviewer). Aphroditi Terova Mullo. Worcester, MA, 1993.
  6. Janet Levine, (Interviewer). William Johns. Holdon, MA, 1993.
  7. Janet Levine, (Interviewer). Norman C. Simo. Shrewsbury, MA, 1993.
  8. Edward Applebome, (Interviewer). Steven Congress. Alexandria, VA, 1986.
  9. Janet Levine, (Interviewer). Georgia Stevens Tasho. Brockton, MA, 1992.
  10. Janet Levine, (Interviewer). Anthony Athanas. Boston, MA, 1994.
  11. Janet Levine, (1994). Anthony Athanas. Boston, MA, 1994.
  12. Janet Levine, (Interviewer). Georgia Stevens Tasho. Brockton, MA, 1992.
  13. Janet Levine, (Interviewer). Aphroditi Terova Mullo. Worcester, MA, 1993.
  14. Janet Levine, (Interviewer). William Johns. Holdon, MA, 1993.
  15. Edward Applebome, (Interviewer). Steven Congress. Alexandria, VA, 1986.

Return to May 2016 Issue

H Street and the Aesthetics of Cool

By Brandi Thompson Summers

What are we to make of this image of a clinched raised fist? An image that resonates with a distinct global history; an image that the brewery’s owners said derives from their desire to represent Washington, D.C. as a neighborhood and not merely the nation’s capital.

Chocolate City Beer logo that has a fist with three stars

Chocolate City Beer logo 2013. Source: Brandi T. Summers


For those familiar with the D.C. flag, this logo directly references the emblematic “stars and bars.” But the clinched fist is widely recognized as a radical leftist symbol of solidarity, defiance, unity, and most notably resistance among oppressed people. While the redness of the fist might lead us to consider its relationship to the “red salute”— a symbolic marker of power and solidarity amongst communists and socialists — its association with D.C., the first Chocolate City, invokes us to see the fist as a nod to the black freedom movement tradition.

It conjures memories of the black power salute, of John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists in Mexico City, of power to the people.

In the Chocolate City Beer logo, blackness is defined as edgy and cool, creative, resistant, unruly, and commercial.  The absence of an actual black fist allows the red fist to operate in aesthetic proximity to blackness.  While the red fist asks us to imagine its symbolic universality, the image need not be black in order to evoke blackness.

As an aesthetic, blackness no longer relies on the presence of black people, or in this case black limbs for social traction. Aesthetics define blackness in particular ways and open up space for play with the fluidity and instability of blackness especially when black bodies are not present.

Reimagining H Street

I use this piece to think about how blackness structures the design and execution of rebuilding and reimagining the H Street, NE corridor — a Washington, D.C. neighborhood in transition. As D.C. undergoes demographic change, I want to focus our attention on how the built environment informs how we think about racial aesthetics.

What is interesting about a place like D.C. is that it is not only recognized as “chocolate” because of the bodies that inhabit it, but because of its juxtaposition with a power structure steeped in white privilege (white politicians, white residents). In other words, D.C. is black and Washington is white.

The Chocolate City label originally referred to Washington, D.C., but Parliaments 1975 song of the same name opened up the designation to include cities like Newark, Gary, and Los Angeles where blacks became the majority population as white residents fled to the suburbs.

But as I noted at the outset, the concept of “Chocolate City” is linked to the political and cultural imaginations of the civil rights and black power eras. The Chocolate City of the funk era referenced an aesthetic of black empowerment and nationalism in music, fashion, politics, and the visual arts.

In contrast, the current post-Chocolate City aesthetic markets a depoliticized black cool in the multicultural, neoliberal city — a dynamic the Chocolate City Beer insignia captures all too well. Where diversity was once invoked to emphasize the need for federal programs that enhanced the life chances of an entire demographic, the concept of diversity is now frequently used to emphasize opportunities for individuals to accrue cherished commodities and individual advantages.

Diversity is Cool

The consequence of this widespread shift in the value of diversity is that people can associate themselves with the nobility that derives from the term’s social justice origins, while partaking in its more recent iterations of what it means to be “cool” and “hip.” In the context of diversity’s shift from a social justice ethic to an aesthetic lifestyle amenity, blackness enhances rather than threatens the esteem of a given neighborhood (Modan 2012).

District government agencies, private developers, historic preservationists, and others work together to provide official representations of a past that existed before H Street was “chocolate,” as a way to promote and develop the space.

The production of an official history attracts visitors and justifies the deployment of diversity as a construct that might not deter white residents and patrons. Diversity becomes a cherished asset.  Overall, I highlight a shift away from black enterprise and aesthetics on H Street to think about the ways that governing, markets, space, and style are now organized around diversity.

This matters because the narratives are about the diversity of the H Street corridor, how bodies move through this space, what places and people are cool, safe or unsafe, and the kinds of establishments where the bodies belong.

From H Street to Great Street

Recognized as one of three commercial districts devastated by riots following the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the H Street, NE corridor was named USA Today’s top “up and coming” neighborhood as well as one of Forbes magazine’s “Hippest Hipster” destinations in 2011.  The history of H Street tells the story of a black space that underwent significant challenges to achieve the political and economic infrastructure that enabled it to thrive.

Image of a sign on H Street

Greater H Street Northeast Heritage Trail Signpost. Source: Brandi T. Summers.


The area did not suffer from lack of attention or a commitment of funds, but a lack of sustainable options to support the people who lived, worked and shopped there.

In the years following the 1968 riots, the H Street, NE corridor was deemed, particularly in the media as blighted, unwelcoming, and teeming with transient people who did not care about their own condition or the conditions of their environment.  Although the downfall of the H Street corridor was due to several factors, negative renderings of blackness prevented the restoration of H Street as a renewed black retail space. Prior to the 1950s, the H Street, NE corridor provided numerous retail options, eateries, and public spaces to black residents that were central to economic and social life.

Back then, H Street was known as a sustainable black-business downtown district because segregation laws prevented black patrons from shopping at downtown D.C. businesses.  Before the 1968 riots, it was the most significant commercial activity center within the greater Capital East area. The corridor was second only to downtown D.C. in the production of jobs and tax revenue.

By the 1960s, H Street suffered at the hands of suburbanization in America, when mostly white, middle class residents left the cities for the suburbs and used malls as their main shopping source.  A combination of state and corporate divestment, abandonment, and disparaging representations of urban markets and black consumers left urban commercial corridors like H Street to falter.

Post-riot H Street underwent significant challenges in its rebuilding.  Of the three riot corridors, none were so slow in redeveloping as H Street. As the neighborhood grew increasingly poorer and blacker, the closure of several key retail stores in the 30 years following the riots left large gaps in its streetscape.

Plans for the redevelopment of H Street in the late 1960s and 1970s originally included significant involvement and decision-making power in the hands of local groups led by black residents and community leaders. The rebuilding of H Street was seen as an opportunity for the black community to control the money, jobs, and political power.

Black residents living in the area wanted the corridor to be planned by black developers, built by black architects, and refreshed with local black-owned businesses, who they believed could meet the needs of the predominantly working-class black neighborhood (Kaiser 1968, The Washington Post 1968).

But plans to refurbish H Street as a black-developed and black-operated commercial corridor were later deemed economically impractical and unfeasible.1 It was not until the Williams administration in the early 2000s that changes took hold and H Street attracted a number of investors and developers to transform the neighborhood.

The Williams administration particularly stressed neoliberal development strategies that encouraged economic growth through the proliferation of public-private partnerships.

Rather than emphasize an expanded role for the local government, several of the programs introduced by the administration, like the Main Streets and Great Streets initiatives, largely supported entrepreneurial efforts towards the growth of small businesses. These initiatives limited the role of the local government in providing various services for its residents, in favor of free market approaches to economic development.

Judging by the content and dramatic increase  in  media   attention,  commercial development and capital to the corridor, current value of H Street is abstractly conceived through material and symbolic representations of diversity, “hipness” or ”coolness.” These discursive representations affect the resources the area receives.

Resources like policing, surveillance, national media attention, and visits by political figures and celebrities increase as the area is deemed more desirable. The importance of diversity and cultural consumption intensifies social and economic inequities by valorizing diversity in particular areas and making previously undesirable spaces popular.

Again, renewed energy around the development of H Street in the 2000s placed particular emphasis on the corridor as a welcoming space of diversity.

Diversity became a positive characteristic for business and tourism along H Street.  National brands and local public-private partnership organizations strategically incorporated diversity as part of their official language to justify their introduction to the space — signaling affective cohesion with the neighborhood.  For example, diversity is conceptually incorporated as part of the vision for H Street’s future in D.C.’s 2004 official strategic plan (D.C. Office of Planning 2004:32).

Business offerings on 8th and H Street NE. Source: Brandi T. Summers.


Similarly, marketing materials produced by the Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership (a public-private partnership that promotes business opportunities in D.C.) highlight cultural diversity as integral to the roots of H Street and its contemporary growth.

The introduction of retail businesses like Whole Foods Market, that serve an upper-middle class customer base, shows us the ways H Street has come to resemble other contemporary “revitalized” urban spaces.

Whole Foods uses diversity as a way to accrue value for both its brand and the H Street’s brand. A 2013 press release announcing the new store references the corridor’s diversity as an attribute and implies that communities with diverse, commodifiable cultural opportunities can benefit both old and new residents. So, in the case of H Street, the neighborhood is both seen and aesthetically valued by corporate interests as a diverse space.

The Corner: Racial Aesthetics and Politics of Belonging

The concept of diversity is not necessarily rooted in demographic representation, but in the visibility of racial difference.  This is where we can point to blackness as a necessary component of diversity, as it indicates our successful transition into a post-racial social climate.  Therefore black bodies must be there in order to make the space diverse.

In particular, the 8th Street and H Street intersection at the center of the corridor is an important site for the corralling of blackness and managing the excess of blackness in a specific location.

The intersection is now the city’s busiest bus transfer point, the number one bus transfer location in the District, and is a central gathering place for lower-middle class and working-class black city dwellers.

The corner served as an important junction from the early to mid-twentieth century when the streetcar was originally in service, which led to the commercial cluster that developed at the intersection of 8th and H Streets.  This corner continues to be a center of activity and a meeting place along the corridor.  But it has also had a particularly sordid history.

It was from this location that the “Eighth and H Street Crew” got its name.  Sixteen members of the “crew” were charged with the 1984 slaying of 49-year old Catherine Fuller — often described as the most brutal murder in District history. Attempts to relieve this intersection from its reputation as the gathering place of the Eighth and H Street Crew came in the form of several plans for commercial redevelopment.

The H Street Connection shopping center that begins at the southeast corner of 8th and H Streets opened in 1987 and was heralded at that time as the centerpiece of redevelopment efforts on H Street.

Because the intersection is known for its high volume of black bus riders who travel across the river to Anacostia, blackness can be contained on this corner as the riders socialize and wait for their transit.

The corner is surrounded by several businesses including a corner store, athletic shoe store, a convenience store, McDonald’s, a Chinese food carryout, a liquor store, and a check cashing facility.

As the rest of corridor starts to cater to more affluent consumers, these black bodies are invited to stay not for long, to share the corridor only momentarily, spatially or economically.

The presence of black bodies congregating around 8th Street and H Street provides evidence of the corridor as a welcoming, inviting space for all, while maintaining a bit of edginess and perceived danger.  Blackness serves to make claims on the success and durability of the post-racial.

Repurposing the Neighborhood

In the redevelopment of the H Street, NE commercial corridor, diversity is used to attract capital, customers, and tourists to the area.  Diversity discourse makes blackness one of many inflections while H Street acts as a neoliberal zone that sustains reforms and affirms blackness by using it as an entrepreneurial machine of development.

It is through the work of diversity that H Street emerges as a hip, yet edgy, district. Nevertheless, while diversity evokes difference, it does not provide commitment to redistributive justice.

In light of H Street’s violent past, the narrative describing its history reinvents itself as multicultural in order to write the violent times away and repurpose the neighborhood for a new market and a new time.  Racism and other forms of inequality that take place here are not overt, but subtle, and euphemisms like creativity, and cultural vibrancy can be used to disinvite.

Black excess can be unwieldy if not disciplined, managed, contained or deployed for proper use.

What happens as a result of H Street’s remaking is that the area hasn’t been purged of symbols of blackness; instead blackness is transformed to become palatable and consumable while some of its edginess remains.

I want to close by returning to the Chocolate City Beer insignia. Critics openly complained about the name of the company when it was discovered that the now defunct brewery was the brainchild of two white men who invited two black men to join the partnership.  In response to this scrutiny, one of the white owners explained that the decision to use the clinched fist as their logo came from their desire to use “iconic images” rather than any direct reference to race or black political history (Kitsock 2011).

The “chocolate” in Chocolate City may no longer reference blackness as in the moment of integration, civil rights, and black nationalism, but instead refers to post-racial America, at a time when black aesthetics and diversity discourse can be deployed independently of black people.


  1. In fact, on May 10, 1968, one month after the riots, then City Council Chairman, John W. Hechinger released a statement rejecting plans for H Street, NE to be rebuilt expressly by black people. Hechinger, whose corporation later built the Hechinger Mall at the eastern edge of H Street in 1981, said plans to rebuild and run riot-torn areas promoted an “ideology of two separate societies,” therefore these ought to be rebuilt by all races.

Works Cited

  1. The Washington Post 1968. “Negro-Run Ghetto Mapped by Pride.”April 17, pp. A21.
  2. District of Columbia Office of Planning. 2004. Revival: The H Street NE Strategic Development Plan. Washington, DC: Government of the District of Columbia.
  3. Kaiser, Robert. 1968. “Burned Out in Riots, Many Owners Won’t Reopen.” The Washington Post, August 1, pp. H3.
  4. Kitsock, Greg. 2011. “Beer: Chocolate City Starts Small, Plans to Stay That Way.” The Washington Post, September 21, pp. E05
  5. Modan, Gabriella. 2008. “Mango Fufu Kimchi Yucca: The Depoliticization of ‘Diversity’ in Washington, D.C. Discourse.” City & Society 20(2):188-221.

Return to January 2016 Issue

A Variety of Globalizations

By Johanna Bockman

Last month at a local urban studies discussion group, University of the District of Columbia geography professor Amanda Huron talked about the grassroots work of Washington Inner-city Self Help (WISH) to stop the displacement of poor residents from the District. In the early 1990s, several WISH members brought their experiences to South Africa, building connections of solidarity with poor black residents there.

At the end of Huron’s talk, an audience member asked, “but how did poor people in South Africa know about WISH, a very local organization run by poor people in Washington, D.C.?” This was before the internet.  How did this connection happen?

The question might seem naïve, but in fact highlights the deep problems with our notion of globalization and, as I argue below, the deep problems that sociologists have studying globalization.

While sociologists are some of the best scholars of globalization (for example, Saskia Sassen, Immanuel Wallerstein, Philip McMichael, Janet Abu-Lughod, Ulrich Beck, Jennifer Bair, Patricio Korzeniewicz), sociologists in the United States have traditionally studied the United States. As a result, sociologists who study countries other than the United States generally must present their work within a globalization framework, in order to give their work sociological significance in the eyes of more mainstream sociologists. I know this personally because I began my career studying Hungary and Eastern Europe more generally.

Image of a globe



On the job market, I only achieved success by converting myself into a scholar of globalization. Academic sociologists who do not specialize in the U.S. are assumed to be the natural teachers of globalization courses, even though Americanists and the United States also, obviously, exist in a global world. I have long enjoyed teaching globalization courses, even though globalization studies was a fundamentally new literature and field for me, as it would be for someone studying U.S. topics.

Additive Sociology

In my graduate globalization course last semester, we read for the first time Connected Sociologies by Gurminder K. Bhambra, a sociologist at the University of Warwick in the U.K.1 Her book was a revelation to me and the students. Bhambra criticizes a whole range of theories — theories of modernity, capitalist modernity, modernization, dependency, world systems, cosmopolitanism, global civil society, globalization, and so on — for assuming that the modern, the cosmopolitan, and the global are European in origin. The rest of the world is perceived as not yet global or just becoming global, thus only gradually becoming relevant to sociology.

Bhambra argues that more recent global sociology does not overcome these assumptions because it remains additive: sociology merely needs to be supplemented by additional data, voices, and knowledges from other countries. Often, sociologists listen to these new voices or data in such a way that only confirms what is already known in European or American sociology.

According to Bhambra (2014:108), privileging of European or American sociology constrains “the possibilities for a truly global sociology, either intellectually or practically.” Therefore, Bhambra argues, sociology must be fundamentally transformed to understand not only the present but also the past and the future of our global world.

To do so, Bhambra calls for “connected sociologies.” American sociologists’ focus on the United States — methodological nationalism — has obscured the centuries of global connectedness of sociology and the United States. Much of early American sociology came from nineteenth-century Germany, which was an empire   practicing   colonial violence and exploitation until 1918 and thus was very much connected globally. The same could be said for British, French, American, and other national sociologies, which have also always been global in this imperial sense. Globalization is not new. Bhambra (2014:3) wants to reconnect sociology as the study of modernity with the imperialism — “the historical connections generated by processes of colonialism, enslavement, dispossession and appropriation” — that made this modernity possible.

By recognizing how sociological knowledge about the nature of modernity is connected to imperialist violence, we can then begin to perceive other connections not visible in conventional sociology. We should thus practice a new kind of sociology.

The Global Connections

With this new sociology, we might then see the connections between WISH and poor residents in South Africa as part of a long history of an “always-already” global world. I believe that such connections go beyond Bhambra’s focus on “the historical connections generated by processes of colonialism, enslavement, dispossession and appropriation” toward a globalization driven by people outside of Europe and the United States.

From the 1950s, for example, developing countries forged the Non-Aligned Movement, a global movement to build what they called a New International Economic Order independent from Western Europe, the United States, and the “developed” world.

The Non-Aligned Movement still meets today. Perceiving the enormous range of connections must change our sociological understandings of globalization — from globalization seen as recent or European-based to a variety of globalizations — but also must change the conventional American sociology practiced here in Washington, D.C.2 William Julius Wilson, Loic Wacquant, Douglas Massey, Nancy Denton, and others have demonstrated how segregation, advanced marginalization, and poverty function in the United States. If we practiced “connected sociologies” beyond the study of local social capital, we might discover the participation of the poor in a variety of globalizations.

We could look at the earlier global connections of the members of now-declining labor unions, members of churches in solidarity with those in Central America, the members of African drumming and dance groups, and the overlapping worlds of VISTA and Peace Corps workers. And these are just a few examples from D.C. We might then explore how these people became provincialized, made local or even isolated. Were they provincialized or are they just perceived this way?

Truly Global

These connections become apparent through practicing unusual forms of American sociology. Extremely few sociologists take part in the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies or other area-studies associations like the African Studies Association, the Latin American Studies Association, or the Middle East Studies Association. I have found that participating in such associations is not only additive, not only enriches my sociological work, but also exposes me to connections and globalizations outside those originating from Western Europe or the United States, as well as to scholars from these regions working on the cutting edge of global transformations and exploring concerns unknown to most American sociologists.

This exposure makes my practice of sociology strange in the U.S. context. It does not fit in any conventional sense. Those sociologists and other social scientists practicing area-studies know how many of their colleagues perceive their area-studies research and teaching as superfluous, at best as some additional information about another country and at worst as completely irrelevant to mainstream sociology. Yet, area-studies are essential for understanding globalization.

Thankfully, universities have been promoting globalization studies as part of their global branding. This provides a place for some of us in the university, but confined within the narrow and seemingly neo-imperial space recognized by university presidents promoting global mindsets and taking advantage of global opportunities to create value.

A “truly global sociology” both intellectually and practically would go beyond these narrow confines and the narrow confines of conventional American sociology through area-studies and other means to perceive the many global connections of seemingly provincial and local people in our “always-already” global world.


  1. Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2014. Connected Sociologies. New York: Bloomsbury.
  2. Elsewhere, I have argued that the Non-Aligned Movement, the Second World, and the Third World more broadly worked hard to create a global economy in the face of active resistance by the United States and other current and former colonial powers. See Bockman, Johanna. 2015. “Socialist Globalization against Capitalist Neocolonialism: the Economic Ideas behind the NIEO,” Humanity 6(1): 109-128.

Return to January 2016 Issue

Who is an Applied Sociologist?: Panel Discussion about Careers

By Lynda Laughlin

Although teaching and conducting research are the dominant career paths for professional sociologists, other forms of employment are growing in both number and significance outside of the academy. According to the American Sociological Association (ASA), a quarter of graduates who earn PhDs in sociology go on to work in non-academic positions.  Sociologists work closely with economists, political scientists, social workers, and many others reflecting a growing appreciation of sociology’s contributions to interdisciplinary analysis and action.

On October 15, 2015 DCSS hosted a discussion of the topic What Do Applied Sociologists Do at George Washington University. Panelists included: Andrew Clarkwest of ThinkShift Collaborative, John Czajka of Mathematica Policy Research, Diana Elliott of Pew Charitable Trusts, Theresa Goedeke of U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Christopher Tamborini of U.S. Social Security Administration. The panelists shared their experiences from a variety of nonacademic job markets. Below is a summary of their remarks.

Understanding the World from the Ground Up

Panelists affirmed that sociological training provides the skills to examine issues from the ground up. For example, in her position at the Pew Charitable Trusts, Elliot works with a team of survey researchers, economists, and sociologists to understand if and how Americans save money. Survey data often obscures the complicated relationship Americans have with money, leading to misleading assumptions about short-term economic security as well as longer-term economic growth. Elliot’s training in sociology provides her the necessary analytic skills to understand American debt — how families hold it, their attitudes toward it, and how it relates to their overall financial health.

Tamborini, Czajka, and Clarkwest  agreed that their sociological training gave them the tools they needed to go beyond general survey data in order to understand the underlying reasons of individual or group actions; for instance, why individuals use (or don’t use) government programs. Czajka noted that sociology provides the critical thinking skills necessary to conduct focus group interviewing, construct survey questions, as well as formulate research questions.

The Public Impact

Unlike the other panelists whose workplaces employ a number of people with social science backgrounds, Goedeke is only one of two sociologists working in her office; she said that unlike her colleagues who are trained in the hard or physical sciences, her training has helped her team understand the how individuals relate with their physical environment.  Goedeke has helped inform environmental planning related to natural and man-made disasters as well as general land management.

All of the panelists noted that their sociological training has made it possible to discuss complex issues with members of the public, policy makers, and educators and see a real public impact. This is not always possible in the academic setting.

Marketing your Sociology Degree

Panelists revealed that they often felt constrained when writing about empirical findings in public reports, although sociological theory always played a role in how their research was directed. The panelists said that it is sometimes difficult to explain to others what sociologists do without naming sociological theories or using academic jargon. Unlike other professions, such as economists, most job postings that sociologists qualify for are not directly marketed to a sociologist. These postings rarely use “sociologist” in the job title.

In fact, none of the panelists use “sociologist” in their job title. Panelists suggested that job seekers search for different types of positions including social science analyst, statistician, project manager, policy analyst, research associate, qualitative analyst, or research coordinator.  Given the vague job titles, sociologists are competing with economists and other candidates with social science degrees for a limited number of jobs. However, many of the skills sociology students learn in undergraduate or graduate school are exactly the types of skills employers are looking for. Sociological training fosters critical skills that prove to employers that you are a problem solver. Advanced sociological training often includes training in quantitative and qualitative methods.

Sign that reads "Career Get Started Now"


Research Skills

Panelists stressed that sociologists need to highlight their research skills to employers. Panelists noted that quantitative skills are often the most desired skills because employers need staff that can gather basic data and organize the information in useful ways.

Don’t rule out applying for jobs with local or state governments, cautioned the panelists. Clarkwest and Goedeke mentioned that their first jobs were with local government agencies and they were hired because of their empirical and survey skills. These are great entry-level job skills for students with undergraduate or graduate degree. Panelists were also asked what classes they wish they had taken more of in graduate school. Tamborini suggested that students should consider taking classes in longitudinal analysis in order to work with large data sets which are used by federal and local government agencies to conduct program analysis.  Tamborini also said federal and research agencies are looking at how to take advantage of large administrative datasets to supplement survey data.

Several panelists mentioned that Geographic Information Systems or GIS is becoming a critical skill because more and more data are collected with geographic markers. Panelists also suggested learning to use some of the newer statistical graphing packages such as R or Tableau.

Networking and Professional Identity         

Networking is just as critical for applied sociologists as it is for academic sociologists. Czajka suggested joining local sociological or professional associations related to your research areas. The ASA also has a section on Sociological Practice and Public Sociology. Local workshops provide great networking opportunities. Internships are a great way for students to gain valuable work experience, and can lead to permanent employment. Students can determine the appeal of non-academic work through an internship.

Elliott said she recently attended a meetup to network and learn more about using open source data to understand social and economic trends in the District of Columbia.

Sociology is often perceived as an academic profession, but employers do place a strong value in sociological training. The number of sociologists employed by the government or research organizations often pales in comparison to economists, but panelists clearly demonstrated that sociologists are working in a variety of settings and contributing to solving social and economic issues. As long as sociology graduates understand the various career paths available to them and learn to effectively highlight their skills, their career options are many.

Additional Resources

  1. Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology.
  2. ASA Section on Sociological Practice and Public Sociology
  3. Public Sociology Association, Department of Sociology, George Mason University
  4. USAJOBS, the federal government’s official jobs site.

Return to January 2016 Issue


Fighting Violence with Gandhi and Sociology

By Lester R. Kurtz

“They hired me to kill people, so I can’t remember people’s names,” an inebriated gentleman across the aisle explained to us after his companion complained that he had called him by the wrong name one recent morning at Starbucks. He had seen years of combat, he’s “the one they called in when someone needed help.” He was now clearly the one in need of help rather than the rescuing hero. As I write, the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s largest military has teared up while talking about the deaths of first graders in a school shooting, and North Korea has claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb.

Fighting violence has been a top priority on my intellectual agenda for decades. Max Weber said we have to wrestle with the demon of our time — for him it was bureaucratization, rationalization; for me, it is violence. Years ago, wanting to delve deeper into the causes of violence and its remedies, I combined my interest in the sociology of religion with a newer one in the arms race and the problem of violence.

I turned to one of my favorite authors from my anti-Vietnam War college days: Mahatma Gandhi. Off I went to India for a year of interviews and field work, reading and searching.

The Warrior and The Pacifist

From studying Gandhi’s legacies, I have learned this: the world’s religious and ethical systems present us with contradictory motifs regarding the use of violence and force:  the warrior and the pacifist (Kurtz 2008).

The warrior believes in a sacred duty to use violence on behalf of a higher cause. The pacifist, however, believes it is a sacred duty not to harm or kill others. These contradictory motifs, internalized by many, precipitate a structural ambivalence in various social roles (Merton and Barber 1976). Gandhi’s nonviolent activist embraces both motifs and transcends them, fighting without killing.

Black and white headshot of Gandhi



Both warrior and pacifist roles are fraught with dilemmas. The warrior knows there are moral problems with killing, and much combat research suggests killing under any circumstance causes psychological harm to the perpetrator (Grossman and Siddle 2008; MacNair 2002; Collins 2009) and high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among combat veterans (like our Starbucks friend) provide an indicator.

When I interviewed the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, he insisted that humans were born nonviolent — our first act is to seek nurture at our mother’s breast — and we have to be taught to be violent. The pacifist, however, may be rendered ineffective in the face of injustice, paralyzed by concerns about harming others if she or he acts to address a problem. Sitting on the sidelines of history, the pacifist’s moral stance paradoxically fails to take the offensive and challenge evil, thus creating another moral dilemma.

The Nonviolent Activist

Because the warrior has to account morally for his or her questionable behavior to himself or herself and others (Bandura 1999), religion becomes a powerful and widely available resource for justifying the use of violence. Violence becomes sacralized and is transformed from a sin to a duty; under such circumstances, what is usually forbidden, becomes obligatory (Girard 1977).

Gandhi addresses the shortcomings of both motifs with the nonviolent activist; his fusion of contradictory moral teachings results in a burst of cultural creativity that draws on ancient faith traditions but offers alternatives for the future. It diffuses globally in human rights and pro-democracy movements; it has led to the fall of the apartheid system in South Africa, the collapse of dictatorships, and significant cultural and policy shifts worldwide over the ensuing decades.

Ambivalence about Violence

Fighting violence becomes acutely problematic in the nuclear age, in which, Jonathan Schell (2002:195) argues “morality and action inhabit two separate, closed realms. All strategic sense becomes moral nonsense, and vice versa, and we are left with the choice of seeming to be either strategic or moral idiots.” Nonviolent civil resistance, Gandhi argued, allows one to be both morally and strategically smart. This ambivalence about violence and Gandhi’s struggle against it emerged quickly in my research on his legacies.

When Gandhian-trained Jawaharlal Nehru transitioned from nonviolent civil resistance to governance, he found himself caught in a classic Weberian dilemma: “he who lets himself in for politics, that is, for power and force as means, contracts with diabolical powers” (Weber 1948:123). As soon as he took office, the atrocities of communal violence “required” the resistor turned prime minister to send troops to quell the violence. The first interview I conducted in India was with a seasoned Gandhian activist, who declared Nehru was the devil who had betrayed the Mahatma. Yet, when the Chinese invaded the Indian border in 1962, critics claimed Nehru had failed to build up India’s military. He could please neither warriors nor pacifists.

John Kenneth Galbraith, President Kennedy’s ambassador to India who became close to Nehru, told me that the Chinese invasion destroyed Nehru; he died a few months later. Personal and political dilemmas about violence are intertwined.

Types of Violence

Gandhi’s multi-faceted fight against violence took place on two “fronts:” on the one hand was nonviolent resistance of the system he opposed (British colonialism) and on the other, his “constructive program” that involved building up alternative institutions that would serve the new society after the old one had fallen (an aspect too often neglected by today’s social critics).

The Violence Diamond (Kurtz 2015), adapted from Galtung’s (1990) Violence Triangle. Source: Lester R. Kurtz.


In doing so, he addressed all of the major types of violence later conceptualized by Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung (1990): structural violence (harm caused by social structures), cultural violence (racism, imperialism, discrimination), and direct violence (what we usually think of as violence). In my conceptual resistance of violence, I have added a fourth side to Galtung’s triangle, “ecoviolence,” which is violence against the natural environment, which has become more prominent since the publication of Galtung’s 25-year-old typology.

Gandhi’s social theory was created out of and resulted in his praxis: mobilizing creative collective action against multiple forms of violence. His campaigns against the British Raj (systemic cultural racism and global structural inequality reinforced by the brute force of the British military) were accompanied by campaigns against “untouchability” (the extreme of the caste system) and patriarchy (although I do not think he called it that).

Here is how it worked, taking the two prime examples from his resistance to Empire: the cloth boycott and the Salt March. The former went to the heart of the colonial system of resource extraction (which persists today in relations between “the West” and the “South”). He called on Indians to spin their own clothes and boycott British products, allowing mass direct protests by individuals who could protest the Raj with low-risk daily actions that empowered them to address their own basic needs. The Indian National Congress gave out spinning wheels; recipients could participate in the revolution by spinning their own clothes.

The second iconic campaign was the Salt March, in which he again brought macro issues to the micro level, marching 240 miles to the Indian Ocean to defy the British monopoly on that basic ingredient for everyday life, and promoting indigenous production of salt from their own natural resources. Arriving on the anniversary of the Amritsar massacre where nonviolent demonstrators had been gunned down by British troops, Gandhi kicked off the final major campaign that facilitated the move to Indian Independence and the eventual unraveling of the colonial system.

If the lessons from Gandhi’s struggle against violence are to be better understood and actualized, we need more public sociology. That is at the top of my agenda, and I invite you to join me.


  1. Bandura, Albert. “Moral Disengagement in the Perpetration of Inhumanities.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 3 (1999): 193–209.
  2. Collins, Randall. Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
  3. Galtung, Johan. “Cultural Violence.” Journal of Peace Research 27 (1990): 291–305.
  4. Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1977.
  5. Grossman, Dave, and Bruce Siddle. “Psychological Effects of Combat.” In Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict. L. R. Kurtz, editor, 1796–1805. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2008.
  6. Kurtz, Lester R. “Gandhi and His Legacies,” 2008. In Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict. L. R. Kurtz, editor, 1796–1805. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2008.
  7. MacNair, Rachel. Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002.
  8. Merton, Robert K., and Elinor Barber. “Sociological Ambivalence.” In Sociological Ambivalence and Other Essays, 3–31. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.
  9. Schell, Jonathan. The Fate of the Earth: And, The Abolition. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.
  10. Weber, Max. “Politics as a Vocation.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, editors. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 1948.

Return to January 2016 Issue

Star Wars and the Problem of Public Attention

By J.L. Johnson

I recently got married, which is how I became an uncle (that role with the vague semblance of parental pride and concern for young children not biologically yours). My wife and I spent our first married holidays in New Hampshire with her parents, where my five-year-old niece Maddy removed her jacket to reveal a Star Wars tee shirt. Her grandmother feigned a gush and asked Maddy if she wanted to be Princess Leia. Maddy grew cross. She was not Princess Leia. She was Rey, the pro-feminist protagonist at the heart of Disney’s recent continuation of George Lucas’s well-known space opera.

There was laughter. My wife and I encouraged her. Quietly to me, Maddy’s mom lamented the lack of Star Wars-themed girl empowerment toys. For my part, as maybe all newly-weds do in uncertain interaction rituals marking the beginnings of legal-familial-assimilation, I overshared. I told a story about my mom. She is first generation Ecuadoran-American.

She was thirteen when a family friend took her to see Star Wars in 1977, and it was her first time seeing a movie, which would become a favorite pastime for her. She saw it at Uptown, the historic one-screen theatre on Connecticut Avenue, Washington, D.C. She often ends her recollection asking me, “Have you gone to Uptown yet?” Over the last year she has added, “Are you excited for Star Wars? I wonder if it will show at Uptown.” It would.


I saw it there. It was my first time at Uptown. I took joy in retracing my mom’s footsteps. After a lifetime of consuming film at labyrinthine mega-cinemas, I bought my ticket, walked onto the faded maroon carpet of the lobby and grinned at the absence of hallways. There is really one screen. Trying to imagine my mom’s feeling in 1977 was an experience of inversed awe at the quaintness of a single showing.

Rey stands in a desert looking down at a white and orange robot.

Pro-feminist character Rey and nonhuman character. Source:


Then the same teal invitation offered to my girl-aged mom phenomenologically transported me from the same room she had physically inhabited to another galaxy in another time, a galaxy somehow ancient and technologically superior than ours. My mom’s highest education is a high school diploma. She wanted to go to college. My grandmother insisted she help at home, which she did for a couple of years. Then she married at nineteen. Knowing those facts, the time between my mom’s first movie and her first child seems galactic. The change of conceptions, expectations and representations of gender between my mom’s Star Wars and Maddy’s Star Wars is even more so.

To begin moving our issues out of personalist frames and into civic and collective frames of gender discussion, it would be great to have sociological talks about gender without commercial mediation. Sometimes you have to start with Star Wars.

I offer this short autoethnography as a way to juxtapose a symbolic interactionist approach to popular culture and cultural studies, recently exemplified by Cyberology, a blog started by sociology doctoral students at the University of Maryland. The site’s essay on The Force Awakens (Banks 2015) is 1,627 words long but can be drastically shortened with no loss of argument:

Like a grad student who has not done the reading but contributes anyway, here’s a review of a major blockbuster film unseen by the reviewer. It doesn’t need to be seen because we only need to look at how it causes hypercommercialism. Films of the future will be sequences of sensationalistic action scenes keyed by utterances from nonhuman characters. The reason being that Hollywood execs prefer technologically enhanced nonhuman characters because you don’t pay them salaries and royalties so they more easily make for sellable toys. Not to indict the franchise, but nostalgia blocks us from recognizing Star Wars as a product of capitalist industrialization (no citation of Horkheimer and Adorno [(1944) 1972]). On a positive note, other media are having a good conversation about the film’s diversity.

 Mainstream discussion of diversity should be better though, and the fact that diversity sells might be why capitalists do it. Which makes Star Wars a ‘successful investment vehicle.’ People might notice this once they realize they’ve put their emotions into such a vapid movie unseen by the reviewer.”

A clipart image of a black movie projector with film behind it.



Communicative Problem

By Burawoy’s fourfold conception of sociology (Burawoy 2007:33), Cyberology’s review of The Force Awakens is a standard moment of critical sociology. Some of the critique is sound if not new.1 It might be more challenging to figure out how The Force Awakens fits empirically within Buroway’s conception of public sociology.

To think in this direction, it helps to look at public sociology as a communicative problem that may be more fraught with a crisis of attention and translation than we realize. Burawoy’s (2007:25) first thesis that sociology drifts left while the world moves right may understate this problem. Buroway (2007:30) nods to this fact when he calls for a “sociology of publics…to better appreciate the possibilities and pitfalls of public sociology” that draws from the likes of Park ([1904] 1972), Dewey ([1927] 1954), Habermas ([1962] 1991) and Fraser (1997), all of whom worried about the commercial structure of public attention at historical moments more amenable to sociology than today.

Public Attention

Although rarely cited in this regard, C.W. Mills (1959:171) articulated well the problem of public attention in his concept of the “cheerful robot.” People’s ability to become balanced, self-educating persons is paramount to forming genuine publics, but Mills (1959:170) took seriously the fact that leisure time is used “to play, to consume, ‘to have fun.’” Mills, however, displayed more sympathy than can be found in recent strands of studies of technology and popular culture.

It is not that people are unable to transcend their everyday lives to connect personal troubles to the institutionalized ambitions of capital. Instead, cheerful robot points to the tendency of consumption as one viable solution to relative powerlessness that continues and worsens today.

To use the parlance from one of my fieldsites, even Mills would “meet people where they are at.” Mills himself noted that sociologists must begin developing people’s sociological imaginations with the mass media.

A somewhat civil orientation toward media is why Mills agreed to appear on television, sadly dying right beforehand. Today, social movement actors know this all too well. In a changed media landscape that puts self-publishing tools in the hands of activists and flattens the space between them and potential sympathizers, movement actors begin to think organizationally about their relationship to broad audiences and the problem of attention — captured well in what I call communicative mobilization, a concept that may help us consider the promises and challenges of reaching publics outside of the academy.

Shifting Relationships

Communicative mobilization does not conflate advocating for journalistic attention and media of all sorts, helping us secondly index the shifting relationships between movement and media actors. A rapid expansion of who counts as media partners accompanies the recent shift in power dynamics and changed strategies between social movement organizations (SMOs) and media.

In conjunction with self-publication, movement organization actors are thinking about their assumptions of what audiences pay attention to while accessing and shaping all kinds of media.

They may collaborate with cultural producers across the gamut: doing social media, editing scripts, advocating for diverse actors to play diverse characters, providing locations and footage, or participating in promotional campaigns.

In other words, “factual media” (Alexander 2006:80) may no longer be a sole priority of communicative mobilization for SMOs. It may be scandalous to suggest, but sociologists might consider such a shift as well.2 In fact, Alexander (2006:82-83) already opened up this theoretical terrain by minimizing the capitalist organization of media, arguing that diverse publics historically contributed a diversity of press on noneconomic issues. This continues to be true. The organizations in my research constantly publish noneconomic issues in digital media. However, in agreement with the bloggers at Cyberology, capitalist frames of media and technology deeply structure the work of communicative mobilization and the attention of audiences.

Against this, Alexander might argue that mass media are constitutional of a civil sphere, ascribing to media a symbolic autonomy. Alexander (2006:75) uses the passive voice in regard to media: “they” populate the civil sphere with the moments, stories and characters like pro-feminist Rey that help us grapple with the social justice or injustice of inclusion and exclusion. Relating media to movements in a bold theory of democratic justice and solidarity, social movements become “civil translations” (Alexander 2006:213) that communicatively push for democratic realization. On this, Alexander is aggressive: “In order to succeed, social movements…orient themselves not only to the state but to such communicative institutions as the mass media, which could mobilize persuasion rather than force” (Alexander 2006:229). At this juncture, it is unclear whether social movements or media have pride of place, and there is the matter of evidence that SMO actors actively and strategically mobilize with and against capitalist media. From the point of view of these actors and against Alexander, media do not autonomously fill civil society with democratic issues; contrapositively and against the cyberologists, capitalist media do not automatically exploit cultural dupes.

Communicative mobilization is a processual concept that moves between media as civic participation in public and media as consumption in “lifestyle enclaves” (Bellah et al. 1985:71).

It is a concept that may help us account for the shifting relationships between movement actors, cultural producers and audiences and the changing definitions of gatekeepers between civil society and the public sphere, which should be a concern when considering public sociology’s potential for publicity. Additionally, communicative mobilization indexes relationships to other forms of media like film and television that have been ill studied as nonjournalistic gatekeepers of the boundary between sociology and the public sphere.

It may also account for assumptions about audiences and strategies for their attention. Here I end on a note that communicative mobilization is fraught with a tension between ideal public sphere and actual existing public sphere contaminated by capitalist media. And it gets us nowhere telling folks, true or not, that a movie plays Jedi mind tricks on them.


  1. To be clear, I am sympathetic to such criticism, though I think Walter Benjamin is more appropriate to read alongside the film. A New Hope (1977) was a pastiche of Sunday serials and spaghetti westerns whose plotline was copied for Return of the Jedi (1983), a plotline that reoccurs in The Force Awakens (2015), making it a second derivative of an imitation that nonetheless resonates with diverse audiences.
  2. At the least, it would be great to see a study of those sociologists who have written novels and how they conceptualize their audiences and the potential of their novels to deliver sociology. Here I have in mind Richard Sennet’s Palais-Royal (1987), Todd Gitlin’s Undying (2010), and Kathy Giuffre’s The Drunken Spelunker’s Guide to Plato (2015).

Works Cited

  1. Alexander, Jeffrey. 2006. The Civil Sphere. New York and London: Oxford University Press.
  2. Banks, David. 2015. “Jedi Mind Tricks.” Cyberology. Posted 12/29/2015. Accessed 01/08/2015 at
  3. Bellah, Robert N., and Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. New York and Cambridge: Harper’s Row.
  4. Burawoy, Michael. 2007. “For Public Sociology.” In Public Sociology edited by Dan Clawson, Robert Zussman, Joya Misra, Naomi Gerstel, Randal Stokes, Douglas L. Anderton, and Michael Burawoy. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. Dewey, John. (1927) 1954. The Public and its Problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press and Ohio University Press.
  6. Fraser, Nancy. 1997. Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition. New York: Routledge.
  7. Gitlin, Todd. 2010. Undying. Berkeley: Counterpoint.
  8. Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. (1944) 1972. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum.
  9. Giuffre, Kathy. 2015. The Drunken Spelunker’s Guide to Plato. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair Publishing.
  10. Habermas, Jurgen. (1962) 1991. Structural Transformations of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederich Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  11. Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York and London: Oxford University Press.
  12. Park, Robert. (1904) 1972. The Crowd and the Public. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  13. Sennet, Richard. (1987) 1994. Palais-Royal. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Return to January 2016 Issue

Campus Sexual Assault and Male Peer Support

By Martin D. Schwartz

Sexual assault has for 30 years been a fascinating field of study, both in terms of academic inquiry and campus politics.  The field began almost 60 years ago when Clifford Kirkpatrick and Eugene Kanin (1957) argued that as many as 20 percent of college women experienced attempted or completed rape during just one academic year.  This finding was of course ignored.  Nearer to 40 years ago, one could still write an exhaustive bibliography on a couple of index cards, but we have now been treated to an explosion of studies published in journals and books.

By the mid-1980s, researchers were exposing and getting extensive publicity for studies showing high levels of what was then called “date rape.”  While this energized many feminist communities, it was disregarded in mainstream academia and often drowned out by backlash politics – mainly by people who had no data but who got top space for claiming that academic researchers were “biased.”  This drumbeat continues today.

Prevalence and Incidence

Meanwhile, the explosion of data continues.  For example, Kate Carey et al., in the June, 2015 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health report on a health study of first-year college women.  More than one in seven women reported being the victim of attempted or completed incapacitation rape (committed while under the influence of drugs or alcohol and unable to resist), and one in ten reported surviving attempted or completed forcible penetration.

This was a careful study of only the first 12 months of a traditional college. When pre-college experience is added, from the age of 14 through the beginning of the sophomore year, 37 percent of these women had experienced attempted or completed incapacitation or forcible rape.  We have often found that studies asking about criminal acts uncover smaller amounts of such assaults, while those done by health authorities asking about specific behavior turn up higher numbers.

Yellow crime scene tape photoshopped into a classroom of young adults facing the front of the room

Source: U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations


None of this is news to college leaders. Inside Higher Education (in conjunction with Gallup pollsters) reported on a survey where the majority of 647 responding presidents of American colleges and universities conveyed a concern over the high frequency of sexual assault at U.S. colleges and universities.  Only 28 percent disagreed with the statement that sexual assault is prevalent at American colleges and universities.  Luckily for their students, however, this widespread incidence of sexual assault was only taking place on other campuses.  Seventy-eight percent of these same campus leaders disagreed that their own campus had this problem.  It’s everyone but us.

Given the numerous and repeated survey results and extensive attention to this issue, how is it that most college presidents can believe that they don’t have a problem?  One explanation could be based on the analysis of Washington Trinity’s President Patricia McGuire: “They’re kidding themselves” (Lederman, 2015).

Many who have worked in this field for years might be tempted to suggest that the denial is more purposive.  Others, more generous, argue that the job of the president is to be a cheerleader for their own campus, seeing everything through rose-colored glasses.  What, me worry?

Normative Violence

My personal experience has led me to the cynical position of suspecting widespread purposive denial. A news bureau chief on his last day on the job told me that he had been under orders never to publicize articles studying campus sexual assault, because the administration felt that if parents knew that sexual assault was taking place on the campus they would withdraw their daughters.  I have lectured or taught or researched in a number of states and countries around the globe, and never fail to be amazed at how many people have denied to me that this is a problem, or explained to me that “women commonly lie about sexual assault. That can’t happen at our school.  Our police would never brush off a victim.”

“I’m friends with the student affairs dean, and it is impossible that he would treat a victim like that…She was tagged on Facebook with a picture of herself at a party only a week after the alleged rape, which rape victims never do.”

The last was told to me by the faculty representative on a panel that dismissed charges against a young man because “the Facebook picture proved that the report was a lie.  After all, no rape victim has ever gone out and gotten drunk after being raped.”

My writing partner, Walter DeKeseredy and I have keynoted conferences and commonly have found men’s rights advocates eager to explain to us that the real criminals in domestic violence cases are the females that we thought were victims.

Personally I don’t like the practice of claiming that there is an epidemic today of sexual assault on American college campuses.  What is going on today isn’t at all an epidemic.  It is normative violence that has been and continues to be ignored by some.  All that is different today is that a slightly larger proportion of men and women are concerned about the problem, and a slightly larger percentage of survivors are speaking out or making complaints.

There is no evidence to suggest that sexual assault is more prevalent today than before (partially because there is no solid base line data), and reason to believe that their grandmothers and great-grandmothers faced the same problems if they went to college.

What is new about current claims are the number of women willing to go public with stories about how they reported a sexual assault and were ignored, or compelled not to press charges, or treated badly or paternalistically, or even threatened.

For many years, we have acted as if the official Clery Reports had some relation to empirical reality, when we knew that they are underreported; even today, one-third of all colleges report absolutely no sexual assault on their campus. (The Clery Reports are submitted by colleges to the federal government to report the number of sexual assaults on campus.)

Just as one example, at a time when one campus was reporting consistently about 4 sexual assaults per year (on a campus with 20,000 students), I did a victimization study of 388 undergraduate women (out of perhaps 8,500 on that campus) and uncovered 65 who reported that they had experienced sexual aggression that would be defined by state law as felony forcible rape.

Just like Kilpatrick and Kanin’s respondents from the 1950s, none had reported the event to authorities.  Almost all reported serious psychological and emotional repercussions, but again just like the 1950s, women accepted partial or full blame for the attacks, for not being better gatekeepers (Schwartz & Leggett, 1999).

Most Helpful Person

All of which leaves us with questions.  Why do women often take the blame for men’s bad behavior? Why do men engage in sexual aggression against women?  Why do men and women excuse this behavior, hide it, or ignore it?

As a sociologist, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pressures of society at large, and the people around us in particular.  While there has been quite a lot of attention to the notions of a rape culture, or a paternalistic state, there has been relatively less attention to the role of the people we know well, who surround us.

One example of the effect of friends and family was shown in a study of self-blame.  After identifying a group of women, all of whom reported that they had experienced aggression that fit the description of felony rape, we asked them to tell us who was the most helpful person afterwards, and what they said.  Some were told it wasn’t their fault; that it would have happened to anyone in that time and place.

The rest were told they were to blame (e.g., being on the wrong street, no escort, etc.) but that they were loved and supported.  Recall, these were the most helpful people.  When asked at another part of the survey if they had ever been raped, every single person who had been told it wasn’t their fault, without exception, said yes, they had been raped.  Every single person, without exception, who had been told it was their fault, said that they had never been raped.  In other words, women who have been told by their peers or parents that they are at fault for not preventing their own victimization are less likely to categorize their experience as rape and therefore less likely to seek counseling or other forms of help.

This not only reinforces a societal norm that women are responsible for the bad behavior of men, but as we said at the time, “it even takes away their right to be angry about it” (Schwartz & Pitts, 1993: 396).

Male Peer Support

That leaves us with the question of why men are sexually aggressive.  This has been the subject of my work with Walter DeKeseredy over the past 25 years, (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 2013).  Male Peer Support Theory suggests that much of the impetus to violence against women is social.

Since we began these studies in the 1980s, we have defined male peer support as attachments to male peers and the resources these men provide that encourage and legitimate woman abuse.

This theory firmly situates male aggression within society itself. Of course, inside a structure that has often been called a “rape culture,” there are numerous media, political, religious and familial threads that support, protect or ignore violence against women.

We have found that a powerful medium of transmission of these values has been peers, and particularly male peers among youth.  For example, our largest study was the Canadian National Survey funded by Health Canada that used a representative sample of 3,142 undergraduates from 43 colleges and universities from coast to coast. Among many other items, we asked men if they had ever committed several behaviors, one of which was a description of forcible rape.

We asked a series of questions to develop an index of the extent to which a man’s friends supported the emotional abuse of women, and a second set to develop an index of how much friends supported the physical abuse of women.

Finally, we asked about the man’s use of alcohol.  What we found was that men who went out drinking two or more times a week, and had friends who supported both emotional and physical abuse, were 9.6 times as likely to admit to forcible rape as men who had none of the above (Schwartz & DeKeseredy, 1997).  Since that time, we have repeatedly found, as have other sociologists, that these factors tell us which men will be sexually aggressive toward women.

Other factors include membership in men’s organizations, such as sports teams, fraternities, residence halls or other groups, some of which foster the sexual objectification of women and promote a narrow conception of masculinity (“a real man is one who is athletic, has money, is sexually successful, exhibits machismo, and can hold his alcohol well.”)

None of these characteristics are unknown on the typical college or university campus among all-male groups. Another factor was the absence of deterrence or punishment for male aggressors.

Proposed Solutions

Interestingly, most proposed solutions to those problems involve women.

Popular “solutions” include blue light phones for women to use, self-defense classes, escort services, lectures on awareness, staying relatively sober, and avoiding evening classes, library events, or unmonitored drinks.  In other words, the typical response to the possibility of attack from friends and acquaintances is to provide protection from strangers.  These strategies have not been effective enough.

Much more important is that because the problem is male friends and acquaintances, the solution will have to come from men.  Women don’t need the protection of men as much as they need men to work to change the culture of other men.

Groups like Men Can Stop Rape, MenEngage, and the White Ribbon Campaign have begun the process of changing male peer support norms, speaking out as men to other men.  They give out the message that sexual harassment, rape, misogynist jokes, date rape and other forms of sexual aggression are not humorous expressions of boys will be boys, but rather are criminal aggressions against women and other men, and that it will not be tolerated.


  1. DeKeseredy, Walter S. and Martin D. Schwartz, 2013. Male Peer Support and Violence Against Women: The History and Verification of a Theory. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.
  2. Carey, K.B., Durney, S.E., Shepardson, R.L. & Carey, M.P. (2015). Incapacitated and Forcible Rape of College Women: Prevalence Across the First Year. Journal of Adolescent Health 56: 678-680.
  3. Jascik, S. & Lederman, D. (2015). The 2015 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College & University Presidents.
  4. Kirkpatrick, C. & Kanin, E. (1957). Male Sex Aggression on a University Campus. American Sociological Review, 22: 52-58.
  5. Pitts, V.L. & Schwartz, M.D. Promoting Self‑Blame Among Hidden Rape Survivors. Humanity & Society, 17: 383‑398.
  6. Schwartz, M.D. and DeKeseredy, W.S. (1997). Sexual assault on the college campus. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  7. Schwartz, M.D. and Leggett, M. (1999). Bad dates or emotional trauma: The aftermath of campus sexual assault. Violence Against Women, 5: 251-271.

Return to September 2015 Issue

At the Intersection of Mental Health Services and Guns

A discussion with Ron Manderscheid

On August 4, 2015, The Sociologist (TS) interviewed Ron Manderscheid about mental health services delivery and gun violence in the U.S. He is the Executive Director of the National Association of County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Directors. He is Adjunct Professor at the Department of Mental Health, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University.  He is the recipient of DCSS’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Below we have reproduced excerpts from the interview.

TS: How do gun violence and mental health intersect?

Ron Manderscheid: The broadest sweep of the issue here is people dying by gun violence. A subset of this issue is mentally ill people committing this gun violence. By the same token, there are a number of mentally ill people who have been killed by the police per the article carried in the Washington Post on June 15, 2015.  And I was interviewed for that report. In my opinion, in the broadest statement of the issue, I do not believe that you can simply solve the problem by mental health legislation. If you want to solve the problem at the intersection of mental health and gun violence, you have to do a number of things. You probably have to improve our U.S. mental health service delivery system. But, most clearly, you have to take on the problem of gun violence.

Gun Violence

TS: But, gun violence is not going to end anytime soon.

Ron Manderscheid: I understand that. I know it is a tall climb, but it absolutely needs to be stated that you must do something about gun violence if we are going to have an impact on this problem. I want to cite Australia. In the 1990s, Australia was developing gun problems similar to our problems: there were more and more cases where multiple people were being killed by gun violence. So, what did they do? They controlled guns.

Image of hands holding a gun

Source: The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). reference firearms collection contains more than 7,000 guns – just about every make and model


This is one of the big ticket items we need to address. I have to agree with you; it is exceptionally difficult to do, because of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. However, I have to ask: “If you’re a hunter, hunting squirrels or ducks, or even deer, do you need a military-style assault rifle to do hunting?

Support for Gun Legislation

TS: After the Sandy Hook shooting occurred, there was groundswell of support for some kind of gun control.

Ron Manderscheid: Yes, there was, and I organized a coalition in the mental health community and we communicated with the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, the President of the United States. I went to a work-group in the White House. We said in our initiative, we need gun control legislation. And there was a groundswell for that. Then what happened?

The gun lobby intervened and within 6 months, all the groundswell to do something about guns just disappeared. So, by June of that year (2013), the groundswell to actually do gun control was gone. And unfortunately, some excellent legislation that would have addressed mental health issues was lost because it was attached as an amendment to the draft gun legislation.

So, no matter what we say about mental health, to be honest, we need gun control legislation. The issue is: does our society have the will to do that right now? This is the biggest context here.

Mental Health Service Delivery

And within that context, I would also be the first to say we absolutely need to improve the delivery of mental health services in the United States.  A key example is this: tonight there are going to be 750,000 people in the county jails of the United States. Of this number, 25 percent are people with mental illness, 50 percent are people with substance use conditions, and there is huge overlap between the two. So, three-quarters of the people in the jails tonight have these conditions.  Most of these people are in our jails inappropriately; they never should have been there in the first place. So, how did they get there inappropriately?

They got there because they were homeless and they were out in the street, and the police came and swept them up into jail. They are there because they were mentally ill and they were having an episode and someone called 911, the police came and picked them up, there was no place to take them but the county jail. Others were high on drugs and the police came along and picked them up.

What’s wrong with this picture is several things: we have not trained our police in large-scale to deal with these circumstances. And because we have not trained the police, you get exactly what the Washington Post is reporting about:  police shooting the mentally ill.

In some cases, the police are frightened of them and they shoot because they don’t know what to do and don’t know how to react to the situation. So, there is a huge need for Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for police.

Training and Restoration Centers

TS: So, where do we begin to solve these problems?

Ron Manderscheid: We begin with a proposal by Senator Dick Durbin and Senator Ted Cruz that all police in the United States should have CIT; they propose federal legislation to provide the resources to do this. So, it is not a pie-in-the-sky concept, there’s actually potential practical action here. But that’s only one step. Another step that is absolutely critical is the trained police need a place to take persons with mental illness or drug conditions. And we have that program too; it is called the Restoration Center. We have model Restoration Centers in the United States. The best is in San Antonio, Texas (Bexar County).

Every single police officer in Bexar County has had CIT and the county supports an excellent Restoration Center. They don’t have adverse instances anymore, because the police don’t take the people to jail; the police take the people to the Restoration Center. All the police officers know how the Restoration Center operates. They have moved on beyond this. The next issue: is the Restoration Center enough?

Of course not; you need a continuum of crisis services and these services would begin with ‘warm lines,’ warm telephone lines run by people who have been mental health service consumers themselves. We call them peer supporters. When I am having a crisis, I can dial the 800 number and call that person who understands my issue and can empathize with me.

Peer supporters are important in the delivery system. The 911 capacity includes police who are trained in CIT, and systems with Restoration Centers.  So, what do you do after the person has been to the Restoration Center?

You need to get them engaged in the county behavioral health system with a care coordinator or a case manager; who might also be a peer supporter. So the person gets engaged in ongoing care for whatever their issue is. Here’s a real case from San Antonio — this is absolutely a true story — the police pick up a person on the RiverWalk; the person was inebriated; they took the person to the Restoration Center. The person had been out on the streets of San Antonio drinking off and on for 8 or 9 months. The Restoration Center worked with that person. The person got engaged in ongoing substance use care. It turns out the person was a professor from a university.

And so the next step was, we need to get this person restored to their role, so the people in the substance use system contacted a local university. That person is now teaching in San Antonio. That’s the kind of success you can have if you have a system in place. We need these community systems of care but they have to have key characteristics of care delivery.

Key Characteristics of Care

The care must be Trauma Informed Care, which is delivered with the clear recognition that most mental illness and substance use problems come from previous trauma. So, we would say, about 75 percent of all mental illness is caused by trauma. If that’s the case, you need trauma informed care. Another important characteristic of care is that it must be recovery-oriented, which is designed to help you regain your life. This is the kind of care that helped the professor regain his role as a university instructor and reengaged him in the community, so he has a place to live; he has social support and a mentor, and he has a job, and if he needs it, he has job support. This is what recovery is about.

Back of woman who is standing in the national institute of mental health clinic

Source: National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services.


Recovery is very much the new message in mental health. I have worked in the mental health field for 40 years. When I first worked at the National Institute of Mental Health, the assumption was: if you were once with us for care, you were always going to be with us. That is not the assumption anymore. The assumption now is: we can give you care, you can recover, you can regain your life in the community, and through self-management, and in some cases through various types of drug therapies you can have a full life in the community. You don’t need to come back to us anymore.

The Community Mental Health System

TS: There is a narrative about the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill under President Reagan; that the gaps in mental health services delivery were exacerbated during that period?

Ron Manderscheid: How did we come to have all these gaps? I lived through that period, and I know the statistics. In 1963, President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Centers Health Act and it called for 1,500 community mental health centers in the United States – each of which would serve 75,000 to 150,000 people and all together would cover the entire United States. That was the vision.

By the time Ronald Reagan became President, we had built 804 of the 1,500. When President Ronald Reagan moved into Office, the program was defunded. So, the rest of the country never got these centers to begin with. President Reagan reallocated 25 percent of the federal money that went into building these centers and gave the remaining 75 percent to the states in the form of block grants.

During the 1980s and 1990s, we had deficiencies in our system — we were not serving enough people who were homeless and were mentally ill. They came out of the state hospitals and there were no community mental health services for them in many places.

Some of them went to nursing homes and the door was closed to them after a while. The latest iteration is that large numbers of them are going into county jails. This is the symptom of failed community services. With the recession of 2008 we hit a stone wall when an additional $4 to $5 billion was taken out of the mental health system. We really were in crisis.

What has helped us in the last few years is the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the money that is going to the states in the form of State Medicaid expansions; 30 states have done this and 20 states have not.

The picture is not what it ought to be, but it is better than it was a few years ago because we have the ACA.

System Inadequacies and Fixes

There are over 3,000 counties in the United States and 85 percent of those counties have either no mental health services or inadequate mental health services.

These are usually the smaller counties with minimal resources, so if you live in one of these counties and you have mental illness, you have great difficulty getting any care because there’s no care to get. Because of this, we think there’s need for mental health reform legislation and right now, there is a bill in the House introduced by Representative Tim Murphy and Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson.

There’s a parallel bill in the Senate introduced by Senator Bill Cassidy and Senator Christopher Murphy. The question is: do these bills do the things that need to be done as I talked about?

Another important issue is: people who have serious mental illness and use the public mental health system die 25 years earlier than other people.

I made this discovery through my research which was published in 2006. This is happening because the people may receive care from the mental health system, but they did not get needed primary care.

Therefore, issues like high blood pressure are not caught which may lead to a stroke or heart attack. And so in the future system, we need mental health and substance abuse care linked with primary care. This is a huge advantage of the ACA.

TS: How do we evaluate a person for mental health in a primary care setting?

Ron Manderscheid: We have tools to evaluate a person in the primary health setting to screen for mental health and substance abuse conditions such as the PHQ9 (Patient Health Questionnaire) which picks up depression or anxiety.

There are tools to pick up substance use problems as well such as the SBIRT (Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment).

If we move the care to an integrated delivery system, what are called ‘medical homes,’ it would be the behavioral health professional in the medical home team who would screen for mental health condition. This new system is just starting. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are giving states funding to implement medical and health homes.

Return to September 2015 Issue

Farewell to a Legacy: The Closing of a Sociology Program

By Michelle Chatman

As summer draws to a close, the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) Sociology Program will not be among the programs to welcome new students this Fall semester. The program, along with several others, was terminated by Board Resolution effective March 2014. Thus, I along with several other faculty, will not be returning as full-time faculty this academic year. Some faculty transitioned into other programs or positions. Others did not.

I offer these reflective thoughts as homage to the academic program that is almost singularly responsible for my scholarly development, and to offer my thoughts on the current state of higher education that would allow a core liberal arts course of study at the city’s only public university to close.

When I was a student at UDC in the 1990s, the Sociology/Anthropology Program (as it was then called) was thriving. We had an active student club whose members were engaged in social science research. The department was nurturing.

As an undergraduate student at UDC I was challenged, intrigued, and prepared for the world beyond my campus. My teachers taught me how to engage with the work of Carol Stack, Elliot Liebow, William Julius Wilson, Melville Herskovits, Johnetta Cole, Niara Sudarkasa, and Zora Neale Hurston. I fell in love with the big questions and the intellectual journey inherent in the discovery of their answers. One of my most memorable experiences as an undergraduate is when our department received funding from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) to allow undergraduate students to conduct social science research.

After I graduated, I sojourned to The Gambia, West Africa for six months initially and again for a year. This real classroom gave me an opportunity to practice what I learned in class and through my student activism. My annual sojourns to The Gambia ran parallel with my graduate studies, and when I completed my Master’s degree, Dr. Walter Redmond asked if I would consider teaching a summer course. I tried it and another love affair had begun. I worked as an adjunct professor for several years until I realized that a career in academia was calling.  Dr. Audrey Brown urged me to pursue a doctorate.

Much later, it was Dr. Leslie Richards who welcomed me as a visiting professor in 2011. By then, Anthropology had been dropped from the program’s focus and Dr. Richards was the only full time faculty member in the program. Still, our students were deeply engaged with questions of identity, diversity, inequality and justice, and how the world worked.

The majority of our students were from Washington, DC and other regions of the country, others hailed from regions farther away such as South Korea, Bangladesh, Nepal, St. Thomas, and Ghana. For some of our majors, Sociology was not their first choice.

Yet, as one of my Trinidadian elders says, “What the devil send, God bless,” meaning that a questionable beginning can still have a good outcome. Our program had a good outcome for many students who could only dream of earning an undergraduate degree but who later went on to pursue careers, graduate or professional studies and on the way, obtained salient understanding of society and our world. I ran into my students at a shopping center, the post office, or grocery store and these everyday encounters are metaphoric reminders that education must be attainable for everyone who desires it.

Image includes arms of various races reaching up

Image from the website of the Sociology/Anthropology Department.Source:


With an emphasis on assessment, student learning outcomes, and return on investment, liberal arts education is under ideological assault. Black and publicly funded schools are even more vulnerable , as we have to argue for our relevance in the 21st Century. We face an era where many are questioning whether the social sciences and humanities are still relevant. This, while numerous studies remind us that employers value the skills that the social science and humanities foster: oral and written communication skills, creativity and critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to work effectively across cultural differences. The dissolution of the Sociology program is evidence of a short-sighted view that is trending in higher education. This view gives more weight to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields versus the social sciences, rather than seeing how they work in tandem to expand our capacity for humanity, justice, and quality of life.

In a city where the income and employment gap continues to widen, alongside stark inequities in housing, education, health, and quality of life, it’s nearly unconscionable that academic programs that promote real social inquiry at the only public four year institution have been lost.

What does this say about our commitment to free thinking within and beyond our diamond? There have been times when our existence was threatened by some of our City Council members; an instability further fueled by an odd and competitive tension between the flagship Campus and the Community College. Although Washington, DC is home to several prestigious, exemplary institutions of higher education, their mission is not the same as ours. They do not share the moral and social justice imperative that is germane to our founding and our mission of providing quality, affordable, comprehensive higher education to the residentsof the District of Columbia.

Introductory Sociology courses are still being offered at the UDC Community College. The Sociology program is currently in Teach-Out status, and currently enrolled students are able to complete their required courses until 2018. I’ve heard that efforts to create an Interdisciplinary Social Sciences program have begun, though I’ve seen no concrete evidence of this.

As for me, I will work as an adjunct professor as my availability permits. Thankfully, several Sociology courses have been incorporated into the Social Work and Human Development degree programs. It was at UDC that I became an activist, an inquirer, a scholar. Regardless of where the next leg of my journey takes me, UDC will always be home.

Return to September 2015 Issue