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Interview With ASA Immediate Past President Prudence Carter

In September 2023 staff of The Sociologist (hereafter TS) had the opportunity to interview Dr. Prudence Carter, who had just concluded her August 2022 – August 2023 term as president of the American Sociological Association (ASA). The interview, presented below edited for clarity, offers an insightful reflection on the state of the ASA, sociology, the US, and each of us as sociologists; and leaves one grateful for the people who serve as elected officers and staff of our largest professional association.

TS: What achievement are you proudest of as ASA president?

That is a harder question to answer than it might seem. Most people don’t know how many hats you wear as president. Yes, there is a full-time ASA Executive Office in Washington, D.C. (and now really spread out across the country since they are remote); ASA has a staff of 24 and a full-time executive director who carries out many of the everyday duties of the association; but that director also has to frequently check in with the ASA president for approval before she can do some things. So, there is a large part of the job that is administrative; there is another part that is ceremonial, serving as the face of ASA in various public formal settings. And a large part of the work of the ASA President is planning the program for the annual meeting, which is no small feat—and also trying to come up with some small initiative, if you have the bandwidth.

I spent much of my presidency responding to political crises happening in the country. For instance, with Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and other states framing anti-Critical Race Theory policies but also planning and trying to get laws passed against LGBTQ+ individuals, and anything they thought was going to highlight the reality of historically oppressed and marginalized groups. So, during my presidency, ASA wrote multiple public statements in an attempt to respond to these attacks in the most non-partisan, objective, and research-centered way we could. We put out a statement about why it is important to teach about racism, we put out a statement about the importance of academic freedom, we filed an amicus curiae brief in the affirmative action case that was before the Supreme Court. There was a lot of work in collaboration with other learned societies, crafting those statements on behalf of the ASA. ASA has an executive council of 24 members and a smaller group of that council, which is empowered to act when the council is not meeting (as it only meets about four times a year) and a great deal of my time, as I have said, went into crafting these public statements on these very important national issues.

One of the things I was and am most concerned about is that ASA, like other learned societies, has a declining membership. About 15 years ago, at our peak, we had a membership of 14,000; today, we are at about 10,000. That’s, of course, more than a 25% drop in membership. A big drop. We were trying to figure out ways to get people more engaged with the organization. We tried a national town hall, which had a respectable though not large attendance and various webinars, including on timely issues such as the implications of AI for sociology, and a national virtual gathering for graduate students featuring the ASA’s past president Cecilia Menjívar, then president-elect Joya Misra and me. We were and are trying different things to increase member involvement—and thereby to raise membership.

But to get back to and answer your original question. The thing I am most proud of is how the conference turned out this year. I thought much about the educative power of sociology, and I also want to write really deeply about the integration of social organizations, institutions, and communities. What I really felt proud of at this year’s conference was that it was intended to be deeply integrative. I have received a number of kind notes from colleagues who attended the meeting. Some have said to me that they felt deeply seen and heard at this year’s meeting, that they had a place at the meeting this year. I am really pleased at the epistemic diversity of this year’s meeting, of the different ways of doing sociology that highlighted. This has been there in some ways every year, but this year I felt it was in the very ethos of the meeting. As president, from sunup to sundown, I was part of our effort to bring people into the organization—we had a host of receptions, we had new member meetings and orientations—trying at every turn to make that connection that would enable people to feel a part of the project that is sociology in this day. It is still a very large meeting, and I am not saying that we reached everyone, but I think the spirit to do so was really there. I was also very conscious of the intergenerational transmission of knowledge and understanding; it was very important to me to have “the old guard” and “the new guard” there together. I put quite a bit of thought into forming a Program Committee that reflected these generational differences and offered the possibility of intergenerational connections. And I was very pleased after the meeting to have older members, some past leaders to come up and say to me that they were pleased with the meeting. And, then, to swing more to the left, I was also pleased to have some critical public scholars, some of whom have been critical of ASA, to say that they were pleased with the meeting; and one very well-known public sociologist even said that this was the first time they had ever been emotionally moved at ASA. I was moved by the generous feedback from multiple constituencies.

When I think back to my early days putting together the Program Committee, and much of that is covered by bylaws, I was very conscious of the opportunity and the need to put together a committee that represented different parts of the country, different generations, as I have said, different ways of doing sociology, and different kinds of institutions of higher education.

TS: We know some people who in past years have left ASA after presidential addresses they felt were moving the association too far to the left or too far toward critical practice. Do you think the theme of “the educative power of sociology” was a more welcoming orientation than some past themes may have been?

I think, as I said in my presidential address, that ASA has encountered what we may think of as “epistemic flight,” and I tried to challenge those people who have left to come back. As ASA has opened up and it has been led by more women and people of color who have more radical and critical orientations to sociology and ways of doing sociology, there were a number of established sociologists who felt that it was going too far. I think this has been unsettling and destabilizing for some of the traditional mainstream sociologists who had been used to being in charge and did not know what to do when they were not in charge. I also think there have been sociologists who applauded this change in power as a sort of opening to move the organization “all the way to the left,” if we use political ideology, and to practice a kind of exclusion. That is not who I am. I am not tolerant of any kind of exclusion.

I tried to make clear that in the deeply integrative experience that I feel we need to be seeking, we need to learn how to coexist and to disagree and to refine and refute. Otherwise, we are going the same way as when in this country education was supposed to be opened up, and we had white flight out of public schools, right? We sociologists mirror society, we are imperfect human actors, and we reproduce boundaries and stratification and inequality and who’s in and who’s out; we reproduce those dynamics. Not necessarily at the annual meeting, but across the year, I had many mainstream sociologists tell me they had left ASA—many of these were white men, and ASA is now disproportionately female. But there was also a loss of positivist and quantitative sociologists who feel they cannot find a place for their work. I feel that we should be able to move beyond this, that there is enough good work coming out of all epistemological camps to make it possible for us to welcome and work together from a diversity of perspectives.

In preparation for my own address, I believe I read or listened to every ASA presidential address from 1905 on, and what I saw was that across the 20th and 21st centuries, even when ASA was white-male dominant, sociologists were debating among themselves about which paradigms should be the most prevalent—functionalism, conflict theory, Talcott Parsons versus Robert Park, then C. Wright Mills. But when women and people of color come in, a worry emerges from those formerly in power “that we cannot be heard,” and there is a devaluation of the work represented by women and people of color as not being really knowledge creators, but rather ideologues and storytellers working from our own biographies. I think there may be some occurrences of this, but possibly no more than there are people doing quantitative work who are not impartial and use biased measures. I feel part of this is a social-psychological reaction that people who have been in power tend to have when they feel that their power is going to be diminished and ideas less central.

The question I have to wrestle with right now is who gets cited in the written version of my presidential address, because who gets cited is itself a political act. Who am I centering? I have to center the works that will help me develop a strong argument both conceptually and empirically and express my understanding. I still am concerned not to center some scholarship too much and of course not to leave out significant other scholarship.

TS: What was your most frustrating experience? Or troubling failure?

That is an easy question to answer but a hard answer to live with—that is, how little we as an organization are able to do to help individual sociologists who turn to us for support, people who are not being allowed to teach their courses as they know they should be taught. Florida is probably the worst case right now. But there are around the country sociologists who are facing real harassment because they teach issues that are at the very core of sociological analysis of society—they teach about gender, about race, about reproductive justice, and they are either being harassed for it or harassment of them is being tolerated. The new ASA president and council are struggling with letters of support that we write. But I worry do these letters really “land;” is there something more we can do? Is there some other way to help defend these individual sociologists, but also the dissemination of sociological knowledge generally?

I was approached at the meeting by a colleague from Florida who was worried that Governor DeSantis would move against sociology next. I advised the colleague to do what they needed to do to take care of their own health and well-being and that ASA would be ready if Governor DeSantis attacked sociology. But in truth, we do not have the resources or the mission in our governing documents that let us do all that our membership would like us to do. We are not an NGO able to move in and give the kind of protection we would like for sociologists here and around the world.

A learned society, I like to say, has to work like a church or voluntary association—we only have as much as our members give. ASA does not have the resources to provide the support we would like to give. We need more revenue, time, and effort for our membership to do all the things that are needed by the membership. But this is a problem across the board for learned societies.

Partly we know these shortfalls are due to a pandemic effect, and we do not know how long they will last.

TS: What would be your advice to any new ASA president? After everything you have experienced.

Well, once you are elected as president, you are elected for a three-year term—president-elect, president, immediate past president. Joya Misra, the new president, who has a lot of experience with ASA, has picked up where my presidency left off and is trying to work to find ways for ASA to be more supportive when there are attacks on members and to sociology itself. We as a council are working with Joya to address this problem of a hostile environment for the teaching of sociology—which may have been there before but is now in a state of heightened intensity.

TS: Did you ever think about just showing up at a state school board meeting or something?

I had been awarded the honor of an esteemed lectureship and invited to speak at the University of Miami, and I had accepted the honor before things became as they are in Florida now, and I withdrew my acceptance and explained why. And that action—explaining why I felt I could not go to Florida to speak in the atmosphere of state-sponsored hostility to core ideas of sociology—that action seemed to promote discussion there to the effect that the school could say, we cannot attract people we need and want to hear from because of the current anti-intellectual environment here.

TS: If you could have one wish come true for changing ASA, what would that wish be?

That we as a discipline model the kind of radical inclusivity that our discipline tells us is best for a society and that we nearly all wish to see. Also, that we as a discipline need to become more effective with policy makers. We need to work to translate our findings better into the language policy makers can use. In education, my field, I think sociology has ceded ground to other disciplines. Economists are getting coverage asking sociological questions, using their methods, and getting Congress to do what they want it to do. We need to be right there alongside them. I have argued repeatedly that multi-dimensional social problems require multi-interdisciplinary effort, and we in sociology need to find more ways to be part of collaborative, multidisciplinary research teams. One of the best things about my being in a school of education was that I was working with economists, psychologists, historians, anthropologists, and I learned so much. I have in my mind the idea of having sociology seen as “a really attractive playmate in the sandbox of the social sciences.” That’s a bigger cultural change—most disciplines are so busy trying to set up and maintain the symbolic boundaries that make them a discipline.

TS: How can we make sociologists more significant players in the development of US policy? 

I am looking with interest at some programs around the country that come out of joint social science programs—I know one at Michigan, another at Harvard. I wonder if we don’t need to think more about this kind of structure. I repeat again that multifaceted problems need multiple disciplinary approaches, and these kind of combined programs provide a real structure for potential interdisciplinarity; they take that frequently cited idea and move it beyond a couple of professors from different departments getting together.

But I think we also need to step up our game when it comes to confronting the major issues facing society right now. We have tended to reward the asking and answering of empirical questions. Now we face questions that may not have those more ready answers, and we as sociologists are not restructuring our departments and associations to meet those challenges. I am thinking especially of five major areas we need to be encouraging work in, especially theorizing that comes out of the confrontation with these problems: obviously, one is environmental sociology; another is the continuing quagmire of inequality and battles over rights; a third is the economic issue of wealth and a need to look more probingly at what constitutes wealth and what leads to its sharing. A fourth, to my particular heartbreak, is education, my own field—sociologists have radically neglected education. It seems as though we may have thought, “well we’re all in higher education, we know about that.” But we need to have been looking deeply at K-12—we need to ask ourselves, how could we have missed, have failed to predict, the backlash that is now enveloping our schools? And a fifth is technology—where, I ask, is a sociological theory of technology? AI is here to stay. There may be some there that I have missed, but I do not believe that right now sociology has a dominant or even a strong paradigm for analyzing the social impacts of technology.

TS: What, speaking as a sociologist and a parent, is your biggest fear for your son?

What will happen to the earth. But secondly, what does he need to learn? And if there is a bug or a hack, a complete shutdown of computer and smartphone technology on which his generation and even we now rely, what skills will he have to survive? I also worry about the effect of technology, especially social media, on humanity and our abilities to relate deeply with one another.

TS: When we think about this kind of radical change, the radical change your son’s generation may confront, it seems to undercut everything we know about what people need to function. How do you handle this sense of uncertainty? 

I cling to an interview I read with a Japanese founder of AI. He said that looking at the future of AI he would say to everyone, “machines won’t have hearts; they won’t have the skills that come from having emotions. We need to cultivate the arts and humanities.” Both of his daughters were in arts and humanities programs at university. At Brown, a basic computer science course has thousands of students because everyone is thinking that this is the new Wall Street. Some years ago, when Stanford University saw enrollment skyrocketing in computer science courses and dropping in humanities courses, they began partnering with the humanities.

Given where we are going with technology, there is an even greater need for sociology. I think someone in public life who points a way for sociology in the future is Tressie McMillan Cottom; she is an ASA Council member and a New York Times columnist with expertise in culture and technology. But she is not in a sociology department—she is instead an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, and an affiliate of the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill. Now there may be a warning there for sociology departments about having too narrow a sense of what they are looking for when they hire; but there may also be a lesson in what is to be gained from interdisciplinary experience.

TS: What question would you have asked yourself if you were doing this interview?

What was the greatest growth curve for me as President? I would advise that there is so much work to do for the presidential address; you don’t do it in two months; I spent over a year reading and learning widely across the discipline. The best piece of advice I received was “give yourself time for that, you have on your shoulders the responsibility of speaking for the discipline at this moment; give yourself time for the growth that can occur through this experience.” And I was so glad that I took this advice.

Intersectional Solidarities: Building Communities of Hope, Justice, and Joy

Editor’s note: Dr. Joya Misra was elected 115th president of the American Sociological Association in Spring 2022, and became president in August 2023. What follows is a condensed version of a January 2023 talk she gave as president-elect to the District of Columbia Sociological Society, provided by her to The Sociologist.

The theme for the 2024 American Sociological Association meetings is “Intersectional Solidarities: Building Communities of Hope, Justice, and Joy.” I believe that hope, justice, and joy are what we, as sociologists, need to be centering. While calls for social justice are more consistent within sociology, we engage less with hope, and even less with joy. Yet, justice, hope, and joy are all critical to creating a better world.

At the most challenging moments of my life, sociology has given me joy and hope. Sociological understandings of inequality appear in all the media I consume: the books I read, the music I listen to, and the movies and television I watch. I am in awe of how commonplace sociological concepts about gender, race, and class inequalities are, these days. I once had to spend weeks setting up a sociological foundation in my classroom, but these ideas are now accepted knowledge for students on day one. Of course, the fact that these sociological ideas and principles have become more accepted inflames those who wish to maintain their privilege, but the genie is out of the bottle.

Social justice has gone mainstream. We can’t ignore that something has changed, and I have a great deal of hope that what sociology and its sister disciplines in ethnic studies and gender studies have taught us about social justice will help us build a better world. And here I want to remind us, echoing Mary Romero (2020) and others, that the reason so many excellent sociologists work in interdisciplinary fields is because for much of its history, our discipline has treated social justice work as marginal. Yet, this work is increasingly being centered, not only in sociology, but also in the broader world. While there is considerable co-optation of social justice concepts, there is also hope.

Like many, I think of sociology as a form of liberatory praxis. I see sociology as an opportunity to intervene in those structural inequalities we are so skilled at identifying; and to pose ideas for better ways of structuring societies, institutions, and organizations. These ideas tend to be better the more we engage with wider publics, our communities, and those who are impacted most by inequalities. So, I believe in the importance of community-engaged research, both as a mode for how we do our research, and for how we present our findings.

As an interdisciplinary scholar in a joint appointment between sociology and public policy, I know that policy can often reinforce or worsen inequalities. I am also, however, a hopeful optimist who regularly considers how policies may be designed or revised to create greater equity. Like others, I worry that the White House has a Council of Economic Advisers, and not a Council of Social Advisers, because I think that sociologists, as well as other excluded social scientists, have important contributions to make (Irwin 2017).

I’m also excited and energized by the directions our field is moving in – expansions in anti-racist and DuBoisian approaches, as well as efforts to decolonize the field and engage with transnational, Global South, feminist, trans, and queer theorizing. All of these approaches might be read as “critical sociology,” a critique of the mainstream, hegemonic sociological frameworks in the US. Yet, I’d argue that over the last decade or two, that “critical” approach is edging closer and closer to the mainstream. The American Sociological Association is part of this shift, and is now highlighting more and more work that our sister societies like the Association of Black Sociologists, Sociologists for Women in Society, and the Society for the Study of Social Problems, have traditionally highlighted. These are exciting times.

Despite those indicators that the field is moving, I believe that there is important work ahead. We are living in a time of massive dislocations and inequalities. This reflects the pandemic, yes, but also the shift from industrial to post-industrial economies, the dramatic growth in income inequality, and the lack of a safety net and leisure time for far too many.

Many people feel that they are being left behind. And here, I’m not only talking about “the public,” but also sociologists. This reflects the adjunctification of the academy, and the stark differences between tenured, tenure-line, and non-tenure-line faculty. This work is critical to considering what the neoliberal academy is becoming. But I also want us to pay attention to the differences between those working at institutions with very large endowments, and those at institutions struggling to keep the lights on. We also need to consider the many types of jobs sociologists are doing outside of the academy: some are earning well in private, public, and non-profit jobs, and others are barely–or not even–scraping by. And we need to treat all of our members with respect.

There are powerful status hierarchies in the field itself. Cecilia Ridgeway (2014) explains that people automatically assume that people with more status, with more resources, are better than those with fewer resources. Ridgeway shows how these biases play out in daily life, affecting both the behaviors of high and low-status people, and outcomes, so that, for example, within sociology we continue reinforcing these status differences in self-fulfilling ways.

A recent paper in Science Advances from a group of computer scientists explores data encompassing 1.6 million publications by 78,802 tenured or tenure-track faculty in 4,492 PhD-granting departments in the United States, across 25 scientific disciplines from 2008 to 2017. This is big data. The researchers show that the productivity gaps between faculty at elite and less elite institutions can be explained by the greater availability of funded graduate and postdoctoral labor at more prestigious institutions. They summarize: “the productivity dominance of researchers at elite institutions is not due to inherent characteristics such as greater skill or insight or to their academic pedigree but rather can be explained by the greater labor resources accorded to them by their prestigious location within the academic system” (Zhang et al. 2022:6). And I see this operating in our field.

Understanding this has important implications for what the field does next. I’m very taken with the idea of epistemic justice – recognizing the important contributions to knowledge that diverse standpoints and positionalities bring. Many people have been thinking about this, often theorizing it in terms of epistemic exclusion and injustice. Scholars like Mary Romero (2020) and Aldon Morris (2022) and Cecilia Menjívar (2023) have beautifully explained how progress in the field has been hampered by epistemic exclusion, as a result of white supremacy, colonization, and gender, racial, and global hierarchies.

It’s too easy to think that those whose work turns up in certain journals are doing more important work, rather than considering how epistemic injustice shapes what work is allowed into those journals. Or to think those sociologists who are earning more are doing work that is more valuable. Or even more insidiously, that faculty members are doing work that is more important than those who are working in alternative academic jobs or outside academia. But none of that is true.

Sociologists recognize that systems are not meritocratic, yet somehow continue to act as if sociological careers are distributed in meritocratic ways. They are not. How ironic is it that the field that focuses on understanding inequalities reinforces those very same inequalities.

Sociologists in many different kinds of jobs are doing valuable, meaningful work. And recognizing that value and that meaning, unmaking the deep divides within our field, is critical work for the 21st century. Being in this role, it’s a chance to shine a light on these discrepancies, and consider how we can build a more inclusive, more equitable community; a community that recognizes the value of all kinds of sociological careers – because in doing so, we will grow the power and strength of sociology for making a better world.

Yet, despite the ways that certain kinds of work are devalued, we can be doing work that is meaningful, work that brings us joy. I see this in the ways that my friends teaching at community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities describe the power of the sociological imagination for their students; I see this in the ways that my friends working in nonprofit and public sector jobs see their work making a difference, moving the needle on a variety of inequalities in our world; I see this in the ways that my friends in all sorts of settings find joy and meaning in their research and public sociology.

Thus, one piece of building communities of hope, justice, and joy is here – with a focus on sociologists. How can we benefit from the brilliant insights of a wide array of sociologists, who are engaging with diverse audiences in many different kinds of positions? How can engaging more fully, with sociologists in different places, including outside the US and outside of the Global North, help us develop better, more just visions of the world?

At the same time, I want to be pushing us to develop models that identify solutions – how to create more equitable cultures, structures, and societies. We do have to identify inequalities before we can identify more equitable approaches. But I worry that we, too often, stop at identifying the disjunctures, the inequalities, and the brokenness of our world, and do not see ourselves as social science superheroes, jumping in to save the day.

Why not? Well, we don’t want to overreach. We don’t want to pretend that we can glibly solve problems that represent centuries of inequalities, inequalities that continue on and on in front of our eyes.

In the town of Amherst, where I live, we are working on a plan for reparations. And how can we possibly make reparations for the centuries of enslavement, displacement,  discrimination, police killings, and the constant grind of anti-Black racism?

We have a seven-person committee, the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, that is engaging in both reparations and community-wide reconciliation and repair for harms against Black people. There are three pieces to the committee’s charge: a plan for developing funding streams to repair past harms committed by the town against Black people; an allocation plan determined and approved by the broader Amherst Black community; and additional means of repair for anti-Black structural and communal racism, including truth-telling and reconciliation. So far the town has pledged only two million to this reparations fund (Russell 2022).

While I deeply appreciate the work of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, I am endlessly frustrated with the slow progress we are making. And yet, what is the alternative? Not to work toward reparations? Not to take something of a jump? U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern has called Amherst’s efforts a potential blueprint for the rest of the state and the country; and while I think “heaven help us,” I also think, what a difference it would make for every community if the state, if the country, made reparations (Merzbach 2023).

I think, sometimes, we have to be willing to make that leap into the unknown, to take from our work not only what it reveals about the inequalities in our world, but what it might suggest about strategies to heal the world.

When I ask sociologists what brought them to the field I consistently hear that they wanted to make a positive difference in the world. And we do that in a variety of ways. We do that by pushing within the agencies we work, by teaching students to use a sociological imagination and work toward change, by working with community organizations and unions and other advocates, by doing research on the things that we think can help build a better world. And let’s not forget: by protesting. Doing these things, working for justice, can give us more hope and more joy.

Building on the brilliant work of many other leaders, I want to push sociology as a field into the business of suggesting how to create a more equitable world. What I think sociologists can bring – what I think you can bring – is a new way to intervene. And I think those interventions we make need to be grounded in sociological theorizing and methods, but also in a deep engagement with the communities that we are working with. I also think those interventions need to come from the work of sociologists in many different kinds of jobs. This kind of solidaristic approach, not working separately or from above, but with – as comrades in struggle – this is what will lead us, slowly, toward a better world.

And that better and more just world, it’s possible. But it needs us, sociologists, in the fray.


Irwin, Neil. 2017. “What If Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?” The New York Times, March 17.

Menjívar, Cecilia. 2023. “State Categories, Bureaucracies of Displacement, and Possibilities from the Margins.” American Sociological Review 88(1):1–23. doi: 10.1177/00031224221145727.

Merzbach, Scott. 2023. “McGovern: Amherst a reparations role model, hopes work locally will push feds to create a commission.” Daily Hampshire Gazette. Retrieved December 14, 2023 (

Morris, Aldon. 2022. “Alternative View of Modernity: The Subaltern Speaks.” American Sociological Review 87(1):1–16. doi: 10.1177/00031224211065719.

Ridgeway, Cecilia L. 2014. “Why Status Matters for Inequality.” American Sociological Review 79(1):1–16. doi: 10.1177/0003122413515997.

Romero, Mary. 2020. “Sociology Engaged in Social Justice.” American Sociological Review 85(1):1–30. doi: 10.1177/0003122419893677.

Russell, Jim. 2022. “Amherst Town Council paves way for $2 million reparations bank.” Masslive. Retrieved December 14, 2023 (

Zhang, Sam, K. Hunter Wapman, Daniel B. Larremore, and Aaron Clauset. 2022. “Labor Advantages Drive the Greater Productivity of Faculty at Elite Universities.” Science Advances 8(46):eabq7056. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abq7056.

By Joya Misra

Return to February 2024 Issue

Remembering a Scholar, Mentor, Colleague, and Friend

Picture of Esther Ngan-ling Chow

Professor Emerita Esther Ngan-ling Chow was a member of the faculty in the Department of Sociology of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University (AU) for more than 35 years. I am honored to have been her colleague in the department for nearly 25 of those years. Many years ago, when I interviewed for the job at AU, the Arts and Sciences dean at the time had the practice of asking prospective faculty members a very pointed question: among AU faculty, whose scholarly work do you know? But that was an easy one for me. The answer: Esther Chow, who at that time had already achieved the rank of Full Professor.

Esther produced early, pioneering scholarship on the intersectionality of race, class, and gender, particularly in the experiences of Asian and Asian American women. She also served a term as chair of the Asia and Asian America section of the American Sociological Association (ASA). Esther’s research was at the forefront in studying gender, family, work, and policy from global and transnational perspectives. She served terms on the editorial boards of the journals Gender & Society and International Sociology. Esther’s later scholarship focused on issues of citizenship, identity, belonging, and empowerment among migrant women workers in rural China. She founded the True Light Foundation – an organization aimed at reducing poverty and increasing educational opportunities for young women in rural China. That is to say, Esther Chow modeled the melding of scholarship and service in a truly exemplary manner.

For her body of scholarship, Esther received numerous awards: among them the Stuart A. Rice Merit Award for Career Achievement from the District of Columbia Sociological Society (DCSS), which recognizes accomplishments over a professional career of at least 25 years. One of my favorite photos of Esther is of her, our colleague Bette J. Dickerson, and me, with the Key Bridge and the Potomac River as a backdrop, on the occasion of her receiving the Rice award. She also received the Jessie Bernard Award from the ASA, recognizing her significant life-long scholarly contributions to the study of women and gender. Esther noted at the time that this award was a gratifying “affirmation of [her] identity as a feminist sociologist.”

But I am quite certain that Esther felt no greater honor than the renaming of the Women of Color Dissertation Scholarship, which is awarded by Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS), as the Esther Ngan-ling Chow and Mareyjoyce Green Scholarship. This renaming of a major graduate student award acknowledged the crucial organizational contributions to SWS of these two members, an Asian American scholar and an African American scholar. Their integral roles in making SWS more inclusive of women of color now extends to supporting future generations of feminist scholars of color.

Esther’s significant scholarship was matched by her passion for teaching and mentoring. Her presence in the AU sociology department had much to do with our longstanding recognition as a location for the study of intersectionality and social inequality; of gender and international development; and, certainly, of transnational feminism.

Over the course of her career, Esther mentored more than 100 graduate students, guiding some 30 of them to the completion of their doctorates. These doctoral students included multiple international students from China, as well as from Latin America and the Caribbean, and many American women and men of color.

“[I] had that ABD moment and … considered quitting the program,” a former student said. “I remember vividly that upon learning my thought, Dr. Chow was alarmed and called me to meet. [After] several heart-to heart talks … I did not quit the program. … The experience I had and perspective I gained from conducting the research to complete my dissertation enabled me to view and understand global social-political issues from a more critical and holistic perspective.”

Her commitment to mentoring students also extended to mentoring junior colleagues. Bette Dickerson and I, who joined the AU faculty within a year of one another, were profoundly influenced not only by Esther’s scholarship but also by her support, as the two of us embarked on an ambitious project on the theoretical and experiential connections among gender, race, class, and nation. Many, many other colleagues share our experience of Esther’s generosity, including ASA President Joya Misra, who said: “Esther was always enormously supportive of me … showing a deep kindness and intellectual brilliance. We shared a commitment to a global and transnational orientation to feminist sociology, long before such work was recognized more widely. … I am grateful for her influence, both in terms of research, and in terms of how to treat the people around you.”

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Esther graduated from Chung Chi College at Chinese University of Hong Kong with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Economics. In 1966, she moved to the United States for graduate study and earned her doctorate in sociology from UCLA in 1973. During her time at UCLA, she met her husband, Dr. Norman Chang, and together they moved to the D.C. area to work and build a family. Esther is survived by her husband, her children Paul Chang and Dr. Jennifer Grizenko, and two grandsons.

As a sociologist, but also as a colleague and friend, ritual held importance for Esther. She was present for rituals marking major transitions in my life, as I was in hers – most recently, speaking at her memorial at the Chinese Community Church. When I reflect on that photograph from the DCSS awards banquet, Esther’s smile says to me: I am here; I am engaged and interested; I care. May our community hold her thoughtful and caring presence close as we go forward.

By Gay Young

Return to February 2024 Issue

Remembering John P. Drysdale

Picture of John Drysdale

We first met John Drysdale in 1997, at the beginning of a long (but finally successful) struggle to establish the American Sociological Association Section on the History of Sociology (today the History of Sociology and Social Thought). The meeting came about, as did many things in John’s long and happy marriage, through his wife Susan Hoecker-Drysdale. She had reached out to recruit to our fledgling effort, and we knew her for her important work Harriet Martineau, First Woman Sociologist. John, like Susan, proved to be an invaluable supporter—deeply knowledgeable about the history of sociology, open to new interpretations, and committed to producing a history of sociology that included marginalized and overlooked scholars, especially women and African American sociologists in the US.

John brought to the effort of creating a formal organization for the study of the history of sociology not only his historical expertise, but also his years of experience chairing the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Quebec. He also brought his particular personal presence, which had features sometimes called “command presence,” though John’s came not from any military service but from a deep belief in the power of rational discourse, and a commitment to practicing that belief through the way he conducted himself in public debate. Though he was aided in public settings by his physical attributes—he was a tall man with a deep voice—he never in all the years we shared public meeting spaces took advantage of those attributes simply to speak more loudly than another person. He was unfailingly patient and polite, both as a listener and a speaker who was careful never to overstep his allotted time. He rested his case repeatedly on the power of logic, of the better argument.

John was born in La Porte, Texas in 1937, attended Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi and earned his doctorate in sociology at Louisiana State University in 1966. His dissertation was “The Social Context of Academic Freedom.” In his acknowledgements to that work, he concluded with a comment, so typical of his easy touch, that the people he just thanked for all their help “should not be held responsible for any errors, trifles, or nonsense that remain in the presentation of this study.” In the dissertation, John moved from an “analysis of academic organization” to argue that “academic freedom is a function of academic organization,” and then to press “the relevance of formal organization” to the issue of “academic freedom.” In the present moment of tense discussion over the place of academic freedom in the US, John’s 1966 analysis of the nature of “academic freedom” remains relevant. It is today, as it was then, an insightful description of the factors that need to be taken into account in such a discussion, and of the way the norms invoked by the term “academic freedom” vary with the speaker.

After receiving his doctorate, John taught at the University of Kentucky and then, in 1971, began his career at Concordia, which continued through 1997. While there he not only served several terms as chair of the department, but also served as an organizer of the Concordia University Faculty Association union. John also served as the Director of the PhD in Humanities Program, the Max Weber Scholar at the Lonergan University College, and worked on curriculum reform. During sabbatical leave appointments in those years, John did research in Munich, Berlin, Oxford, and Harvard Universities. Following retirement from Concordia in 1997, John taught at the University of Iowa and the American University in Washington, D.C., where he both taught at and chaired the sociology department from 2007 to 2011. And it was, of course, during this last appointment that John served as president of the District of Columbia Sociological Society.

John’s major research interest was Max Weber’s social theory, about which he published a series of thoughtful articles. One that suggests the continuity in his thought from his graduate school days to his later scholarship is a 2007 chapter, “Weber on Objectivity:  Advocate or Critic,” which appears as the lead chapter in Laurence McFalls’ edited collection Weber’s Objectivity Reconsidered by the University of Toronto Press. In that chapter, John returns to themes which concerned him throughout his academic life, especially a concern with the relationship between objectivity and academic freedom.

Following his death on January 14, 2022, after several years of declining health, his family wrote:

To the end John remained resolutely optimistic about the future of humanity. His optimism was rooted in the legacies of the European Enlightenment, updated for our century. He believed that the Enlightenment consisted, not of dogmas or rosy platitudes, but as a set of existential global challenges. At the interpersonal level the challenge is to enlarge the capacity for human understanding and empathy for all people regardless of differences in station or status. At the global level the great challenge is to take seriously the perspective of the entirety of humanity and the viability of life on earth. … At its best, education leads to the enlargement of perspective to the level of humanity in its entirety.

He is survived by wife Susan, son David, daughter-in-law Tracy, and two grandchildren, Nicole and Nathan.

What impressed us most in interactions with John over the years was how much he tried to live his values—as he did during his time at American University during a tense moment in the life of the sociology department. Sandra Linden, a long-time, highly regarded, past department administrator, remembers John as “a splendid academic officer, accurate on operational details, aware of larger issues confronting the department, always able to arbitrate and mediate among varying points of view, keeping both an open door and an open mind as he dealt with differences of opinion and personality within the department; and as a person, truly unfailing kind and generous.”

By Patricia M. Lengermann and Gillian Niebrugge-Brantley

Return to February 2024 Issue

A Researcher’s Story on Uncovering the Truth Behind WIC

As I write this in January 2024, Congress just passed a spending bill that will keep the government open until March, with another spending crisis on the near horizon. Due to unprecedented political polarization and, quite frankly, petty politicking, this has become the new normal, and as a congressional staffer, I have been monitoring these debates and analyzing their effects on the American people. Simultaneously, during the first wave of spending crises, I was working on research uncovering and substantiating the role of former Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-New York) in creating the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also known as WIC. Heralded as one of the most successful and effective nutrition assistance programs in history, WIC serves half of all infants born in the U.S. and feeds over 6 million participants a month. With the looming spending crises, recent projections show that if Congress does not fully fund WIC in the 2024 fiscal year, nearly 2 million parents and children will lose WIC benefits by September (Bergh 2023). Telling the story of Chisholm’s role in creating WIC is more important now than it has ever been, as WIC has come under attack.

In February 2022, during the observance of Black History Month in the U.S., I found a social media post on Twitter posted by No Kid Hungry, an advocacy and lobbying group with a clear mission statement on their “What We Do” page:

Helping Communities Feed Kids. Every kid needs three meals a day to grow up healthy, happy, and strong. But today in America, too many children are missing those meals. The good news? This is a problem we know how to solve. (No Kid Hungry 2023)

This Twitter post linked to a blog post: “DYK [Did You Know]. Shirley Chisholm: Making History in Service” (No Kid Hungry 2021). The blog post’s purpose was to “highlight Black individuals who have fought to feed kids,” and it introduced the fact that Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman in Congress and the architect of WIC, a federal program that offers healthy foods for children 0-5 and pregnant women, as well as nutrition education, counseling and referrals to local health and welfare agencies. (No Kid Hungry 2021). At the time I read this post, especially as a congressional staffer covering nutrition issues, I knew of Chisholm, and I certainly knew about WIC, but this was the first I heard of Chisholm’s involvement as “the architect of WIC.”

This claim about Chisholm’s role started me on a search that turned into the topic of my master’s thesis in sociology at the George Washington University, and allowed me a full opportunity to use my sociology training in my work. That training taught me analytic tools that I use here to reexamine legislative history and to create narratives accessible to a broad audience.Recent statistics estimate that over 30 million Americans, including 9 million children, are hungry (Feeding America 2023). This definition does not include measures of food insecurity (defined differently), which estimates that nearly a quarter of American adults are food insecure, which would total over 85 million Americans (Martinchek et al 2023). This problem was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. And this problem remains almost unchanged from the 1960s, when former Sen. George McGovern (D-South Dakota) first helped to set hunger in America on the nation’s agenda. My research argues that the inability to solve issues of food/nutrition insecurity and hunger in American politics is a choice. We have the resources to not only feed every American but also to guarantee that every American has access to food that is nutritionally sound. But we choose not to do so. One of the reasons this choice is made is because of the stigmatizing narratives American society has regarding government welfare programs and the question of who deserves to be helped.

I seek to reveal this “choice” through a comparative analysis of two stories of the creation of WIC. The WIC program was officially piloted as a supplemental nutrition assistance program in 1972 and is one of the most successful food assistance programs in the United States.  Its goal was to improve the health of low-income pregnant women and mothers and their children up to the age of five. I open the research project with a summary of how the concern about hunger emerged in the 1960s and how it was interpreted differently based on perception.  This study of perception is done through the lens of what sociology understands as “standpoint theory,” the view that perception differs based on socioeconomic status, especially factors of race and class. It is one of the tenets of critical race theory (CRT), a key tool in my methods.

My use of standpoint epistemology reveals that the work in the 1960s that led up to the creation of WIC–and WIC itself–would not have been able to cross the finish line without the sponsorship of Chisholm. The recovery of the work of Chisholm in the creation of WIC is the guiding purpose of my research. My research is guided by the overarching question “why and how was Chisholm excluded from the common narrative of the legislative history of the WIC program?,”  and explores its ancillary questions. Was it because of her constituency? Was it to save herself politically if WIC failed? Was it because she was a Black woman, and the stigma of welfare could hurt WIC? Was it her alignment with the Black Panther Party? This project is necessarily interdisciplinary in nature, allowing sociological theory, political science, and analysis of primary documents (history) to meet.

The project is a qualitative study that employs a comparative discourse analysis. The guiding lens in choosing documents for analysis is CRT, the academic framework “that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society … [and] recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice” (Legal Defense Fund 2023). CRT also recognizes “qualitative methods of storytelling, interview, fictional stories, biographies, family histories, and personal narratives as legitimate and crucial to identifying the origins of racial injustices” (Brown 2023). Using CRT to guide my qualitative method allowed me to pick a series of qualifying documents for comparative analysis. The analytical lens in examining the documents is sociologist Patricia Hill Collins’s concept of controlling images, which she defines as the product of intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, and sexuality that needed “powerful ideological justifications for their existence” (Hill Collins 2000:70). Collins uses the concept of controlling images to explain how “the enslaved African woman became the basis for the definition of our society’s other” (Ibid.).

There are two “stories” that I comparatively analyzed: the story of WIC as the common legislative history recalls (Story One), and the story of WIC as the common legislative history does not recall (Story Two). These primary sources, in conjunction with other secondary sources for corroboration, craft two different stories of the legislative history of WIC, with completely different actors. To interpret the findings of the discourse analysis, I used Black Feminist Thought (BFT), another concept coined by Collins. Similar to CRT, Collins posits that “in developing a Black feminist praxis, standpoint theory has provided one important source of analytical guidance and intellectual legitimation for African-American women” (Hill Collins 2006:205).

The findings were telling. I came to the conclusion that Chisholm was written out of the formal legislative history of WIC because (a) of the political risk of formally attaching a Black woman’s name to the most successful nutrition assistance program in the country; and (b) Chisholm was outspoken on issues that did not fit into the political criteria and the political agenda of the American government at the time.

The purpose of my research is not to reveal that one story is “better” than the other, but rather to display that the story of WIC is greater than what we know it, and involves Black women–not just as recipients, but as policy architects. My point here in this brief overview of my work is a methodological one–the need to use a variety of strategies in our quest for the facts of the case under investigation.


Bergh, Katie, Lauren Hall and Zoe Neuberger. December 2023. “About 2 Million Parents and Young Children Could Be Turned Away From WIC by September Without Full Funding.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“Critical Race Theory FAQ.” Legal Defense Fund, 19 January 2023,

Hill Collins, Patricia. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.

Patricia Hill Collins. 2006. “Some Group Matters: Intersectionality, Situated Standpoints, and Black Feminist Thought.” Pp. 205–29 in A Companion to African‐American Philosophy, edited by T. L. Lott and J. P. Pittman. Wiley.

“Hunger in America.” Feeding America, Accessed 19 January 2024.

Martinchek, Kassandra, Poonam Gupta, Michael Karpman, and Dulce Gonzalez. 2023. As Inflation Squeezed Family Budgets, Food Insecurity Increased between 2021 and 2022: Findings from the Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey. Urban Institute.

By Raina Hackett

Return to February 2024 Issue

Documentaries in Sociology

When I started my master’s degree at American University, I told several of my professors that I had worked on a documentary exploring the institution of marriage. The response to this information was nearly always the same: professors would say “You know, I’ve always thought my research would make a great documentary, but I just have no idea where to begin.” When I entered the public sociology Ph.D. program at George Mason University, it was essentially same reaction, different faculty. As I progressed in my public sociology coursework, I found that almost all of my reading assignments were from peer-reviewed academic books and journal articles; and that my progress throughout the program had been assessed almost exclusively on my ability to write academic papers. I am not suggesting that reading books and writing papers should be cast aside—my undergrad degree was in English education, after all! As public sociologists, though, our mission is not only to conduct rigorous research, but to communicate it as clearly and as broadly as possible. I see documentaries as having the potential to reach far more people than our formulaically-written, jargon-heavy, peer-reviewed publications in academic journals.

In my experience, citing claims made in a documentary in an academic paper is generally frowned upon, which suggests that documentaries are not acceptable sources of knowledge. But one of the things I love about qualitative research is that it validates personal lived experiences as evidence. If we’re willing to take ethnographies, oral histories, in-depth interviews, and Photovoice projects as “reliable” and “valid” methods in sociology (these are all given credence in Carr et al’s 2018 methods bible The Art and Science of Social Research), I have difficulty understanding why documentaries are not considered “reliable” or “valid” sources of knowledge as well; and even greater difficulty understanding why basic filmmaking and editing are not included as part of our methods. If I take the transcript of an audio-recorded in-depth interview with a subject, their quoted words can be used in my written, publishable research. Wouldn’t recording an interview while the subject sits in front of a camera improve the credibility of their story? Or, why does a published article or book from an academic scholar “count” as a reliable source of information, but that same scholar speaking as an expert in a documentary film doesn’t?

Documentaries are an exemplary mechanism for sociologists to use to communicate with the public, because successful documentaries attempt to achieve interaction between their audience and the problems screened. There are dozens of recent documentaries that are useful in helping the public understand certain complex societal problems: Ava Duvernay’s Thirteenth provides an excellent exploration of race and mass incarceration; Jeff Orlowski’s Social Dilemma navigates the intersection of social media and mental health; Jennifer Siebel Newsom scrutinizes media messages of toxic masculinity in The Mask You Live In. These films incorporate statistics (quantitative methods!) along with pictures and interviews (qualitative methods!) to drive home a point that ultimately hits audiences harder than STATA graphs and R charts alone.

Sociology departments should consider incorporating courses on how documentaries can be used to explain various societal structures and how sociologists can use documentaries as a form of public sociology, using our legitimate qualitative and quantitative methods. If such courses aren’t available, sociology students should seek out classes that prepare them with professional tools to communicate their research effectively—by this I mean media courses that introduce them to software like Audible (for podcasting) or iMovie and FinalCut (for video editing). These are marketable skills that will help emerging scholars broaden their skillsets and improve their reach.

Documentaries reach substantially more of the public than do our academic journal articles, and some of the best documentaries help non-experts learn about issues sociologists care about. Further, the role of documentaries in social mobilization is well documented. The anthropologist Ronald Niezen (2020) argues that visual and emotional media technologies can compel audiences toward action. The social movement scholar Alice Mattoni describes media practice and media ecology approaches as “the nexus between social movement and media technologies” (2017:495). American University’s own Caty Borum Chattoo (2020) has an entire research center dedicated to studying the impact of documentary film projects on social movements—this is a part of the School of Communication, and not, at least at this time, in partnership with the sociology department in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Of An Inconvenient Truth, the late film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “In 39 years, I have never written these words in a movie review, but here they are: You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to” (2006b). He called the film “horrifying, enthralling and [having] the potential, I believe, to actually change public policy and begin a process which could save the Earth,” (emphasis mine) (2006a). The accessibility of documentaries in terms of their understandability and their availability to various publics encourages matters of consequence to become public ideas.

According to Pew Research Center (2012; Gelles-Watnik and Perrin 2021) surveys, roughly 1 in 4 Americans read zero books in the year 2021, a proportion that has been largely unchanged since 2012. If sociologists want their ideas to engage with publics, the written word seems to have a limited reach.

In future issues I intend to use this space to discuss the importance of documentaries as a form of public sociology, and to explore this academic and intellectual tension. Like a book club, in future articles I will highlight various documentary projects to discuss their social impact, underscore their validity as sociological research, and demonstrate their utility as teaching tools in our classrooms.


Anon. 2012. “E-Book Reading Jumps; Print Book Reading Declines.” Pew Research Center. Retrieved November 3, 2023 (

Borum Chattoo, Caty. 2020. Story Movements: How Documentaries Empower Social Movements and Inspire Social Change. New York, NY. Oxford University Press.

Carr, Deborah, et al. 2018. The Art and Science of Social Research (2nd Ed). New York: W.W. Norton.

Ebert, Roger. 2006a. “Al Gore plays leading man.” RogerEbert.Com. Retrieved November 2, 2023 (

Ebert, Roger. 2006b. “Disaster movie.” RogerEbert.Com. Retrieved November 2, 2023 (

Gelles-Watnick, Risa, and Andrew Perrin. 2021. “Who Doesn’t Read Books in America?” Pew Research Center. Retrieved November 3, 2023 (

Mattoni, Alice. 2017. “A Situated Understanding of Digital Technologies in Social Movements. Media Ecology and Media Practice Approaches.” Social Movement Studies; Vol 16, No 4, 494-505.

Niezen, Ronald. 2020. #Human Rights: The Technologies and Politics of Justice Claims in Practice. Stanford University Press.

By Courtney Bell

Return to February 2024 Issue

Harold Cruse, Black Intellectuals, and Reconstructing Black America


This paper re-introduces a much neglected classic: Harold Cruse’s epic book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, published in 1967. A time of hope and optimism, but also a time of despair, protest, discontent, and rebellion.

The ‘60s was a crucial decade because America seemed reluctant to address unresolved issues: segregation versus integration in schools, employment, churches, housing, dating, and marriage. Then there was the Vietnam War which raised moral as well as economic issues—can we have both guns and butter, or must we choose between the two? It is such a juncture that prompts scholars, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens to raise the “what next?” question.

Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to address the question in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here. Others, too, raised that question in the past: Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and Lenin’s What is to be Done?. Cruse’s book continues to be important because the issues he raised continue to be ongoing issues in the American moral, political, cultural, and economic landscape.

The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is Cruse’s response to the “what next?” question. In addressing that question, Cruse believed he had to first deal with an unresolved question as to whether America is/was a “nation of nations,” or a “melting pot.” Each position required different philosophical, sociological, historical, and political perspectives. Cruse opted for the former, which denotes racial and ethnic, cultural, and political pluralism. In accepting this position, he challenged the prevailing view held by many that racial integration was the best path to gain Black economic and political prosperity and self-sufficiency. This position also caused critics to accuse him of advocating racial separation and segregation. Cruse countered that he was simply advocating for Blacks what successful white and Asian racial and ethnic groups (Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Italians, Irish) have done historically; that is, use their racial, ethnic, cultural, or religious unity to forge links to create a strong ethnic economic enclave in their communities, or ghettos.

Cruse notes that these groups were not interested in “integrating” with the larger white Anglo-Saxon cultural society, and were proud of their ethnic, racial, and religious solidarity; as well as their group consciousness, which stood them apart from the majority culture. They were not afraid to be seen as different. At the same time, it should be noted that the larger Anglo-Saxon society often rebuffed all attempts by racial-ethnic groups to integrate into their group, though Cruse mentions that it is/was easier for white ethnic groups to gain acceptance into the larger dominant society and culture than it is/was for Black Americans.

Cruse repeatedly makes the case that of all racial and ethnic groups in America, only Black Americans have been told by liberals, radicals, and Black and white politicians that racial integration was the only, and best, path to collective group prosperity. Believing America to be a nation of nations, Cruse asks, with which group will Blacks integrate? While resisting efforts to peg him as a separatist and segregationist, Cruse states that the fight for integration, and against prejudice (boycotts, picket lines, etc.), had sapped the time and energy of Black Americans, leaving them unable to do what the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Jews, Irish, and Italians, who did not fight to integrate with the dominant society, did: devote their efforts to collective group economic success and survival. Cruse views the successful racial and ethnic groups as representing racial and ethnic solidarity, which he views as a form of nationalism. He advocates both for Black America.

The first part of this paper focuses on Cruse’s concept of the intellectual and the unique role of Black intellectuals in Black life and the role they should play in the larger American society. Included in this section is a critique of traditional views on racial and social integration, which Cruse contrasts with the concept of racial, ethnic, and cultural pluralism. The second part of the paper consists of Cruse’s outline for the restructuring of Black institutional and organizational life.

The Role of Black Intellectuals

In his book Cruse (1967:536) clearly defines Black intellectuals and their various roles. They may function as writers, artists, academicians, and critics, but they have a dual role, that of dealing simultaneously with the white power structure, while at the same time understanding and dealing with “the inner realities of the black world” (1967:452). This charge, according to Cruse, requires a deep focus on what he believes to be the central task of Black intellectuals: understanding the central role of Black culture and its relationship to the politics and economics of Black life itself and how these interact with the issues, actions, ideologies, and premises operative in the larger American society. For him, these creators of ideas and objects—books, art works, music, etc., are to engage both white and Black worlds. As Cruse (ibid.) asserts, “the functional role of the Negro intellectual demands that he cannot be absolutely separated from either the black or white world.” In other words, a cultural, political, and economic immersion in both worlds. This process suggests both a Du Boisian Double Consciousness and Dennis’ (1991) concept of Dual Marginality.

But what prompts the idea of the “crisis” of Black intellectuals? With Harlem as a location site and functioning as a sociological and experimental laboratory, Cruse becomes the sociological researcher asking the central question, a hypothesis: why does a majority Black urban sector lack the power to control its present and future? The answer to this question, or the lack of an answer, directs us to the “crisis” in the title of the book. At the center of the crisis is Cruse’s assertion that Black intellectuals have failed to deal with both the Black reality and the larger white American reality. That reality revolves around the “unresolved conflict between separatist and interracialist tendencies,” around which the Black world gravitates (Cruse 1967:415). That intra-Black world conflict must still deal with what Cruse believes to be an issue just as important in the larger American reality; that issue is defining and capturing an American reality that revolves around the struggle for democracy. It is here that Cruse moves beyond the contemporary racial conflict models that have characterized Black-and-white relations. For Cruse (1967:458), the struggle for power and dominance in the U.S. takes place among ethnic groups rather than between races. Under this model, the racial and ethnic groups that are more tightly organized around their race and ethnicity are the groups more likely to dominate key economic sectors in the society.

Believing the traditional role of all intellectuals throughout history to be that of creating the political, cultural, and social foundations of all societies, Cruse stated that Black intellectuals have failed Black America on theoretical and methodological grounds. In the former, intellectuals have failed to create a “workable theory” to explain Black life—past, present, and future. The second failure is in neglecting to create an “appropriate methodology” with which to study key areas of Black life, such as sociology, history, economics, philosophy, and psychology. Cruse’s condemnation of Black intellectuals rests on the premise that intellectuals in all societies have a special role. According to Cruse, Black politicians and civil rights leaders may play, and do play, important roles in Black life. However, they do not “create new ideas and new images of life … that role belongs to the artists and the intellectuals of each generation” (Cruse 1967:96). Cruse continues by declaring that:

The race politicians may create political, economic, or organizational forms of leadership; but it is the artists and the creative minds who will, and must, furnish the all-important content. … Which means to say, in advanced societies the cultural front is a special one that requires special techniques not perceived, understood, or appreciated by political philistines. It is the Negro creative intellectual who must take seriously the idea that culture and art belong to the people- with all the revolutionary implications of the idea. (ibid.)

Moreover, Cruse asserts that each new generation, to shape and refashion a new challenging world for the future, must “first clear the way to cultural revolution by a critical assault on the methods and ideology of the old-guard Negro intellectual elite” (1967:99).

Cruse’s focus on the importance of the intellectual’s grasp of both theory and methodology highlights one of his major concerns throughout the book. The activist tradition in Black American political and social life is important and Cruse understands its importance. However, he asserts that activism without planning, thought, or “deep reflection” is not only anti-theoretical but may result in self-defeating actions and consequences (1967:92).

Lastly, Cruse believes the most damning accusation against Black intellectuals is their adoption of interracialism, which Cruse does not reject on moral or ethical grounds, but solely on its outcome or results. More pointedly, he states “[racial integration] is being criticized on sociological grounds, because its methodology is open to question, in terms of MEANS to achieve an END … it is the means that are under attack here” (1967:85). To clarify his views, he criticizes many nationalist groups for resorting to race hatred in their desire to combat interracialism, stating that “all race hate is self-defeating” and accusing those who do so of acting out of desperation, alienation, hopelessness, racial envy, and class inferiority complexes (1967:365). He accuses Black intellectuals of having bought into the idea that Black people cannot succeed without whites. Asserting the importance of racial and ethnic pluralism (tribalism), Cruse notes that:

Every other ethnic group in America, a nation of nations, has accepted the fact of its separateness and used it to its own social advantage. But the Negro’s conditioning has steered him into that perpetual state of suspended tension wherein ninety-five per cent of his time and energy is expended on fighting prejudice in whites. As a result, he has neither the time nor the inclination to realize that all the effort spent fighting prejudice will not obviate those fundamental things an ethnic group must do for itself. (1967:364)

Thus, Cruse issues a call for Black intellectuals to return to their people to help explain and define new ideas and theories of Black life, all of which may center around what Cruse, like Du Bois, defined as a Black spiritual culture. For both men, the use of the term “spiritual” did not necessarily suggest a religious orientation.

Reconstructing Black America

Earlier in the paper we asserted that Cruse used Harlem as a sociological and experimental laboratory. He did so to demarcate Harlem as the cultural capital of Black America, just as Chicago represented its industrial counterpart. Harlem served as a political base for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the Socialist Movement, the Communist Movement, and the Labor Movement; and hosted a social and cultural mix of Blacks who migrated from the south, Blacks born in Harlem and the north, and Blacks born in the West Indies and Africa who’d emigrated to Harlem, plus the growing Spanish Harlem population. These are the groups central to Cruse’s book, though the latter group does not play a major role in his political-cultural analyses.

First, it should be noted that Cruse, a former member of the Communist Party USA, while critical of capitalism, espouses neither socialism nor communism as appropriate for Harlem or for Blacks in the U.S. As he asserts, “American capitalism must prove that political democracy, economic democracy, and cultural democracy are possible under free enterprise” (1967:94-95). The liberation of Harlem, according to Cruse, must entail “autonomy in politics, economics, and culture” (1967:87). However, central to Cruse’s (1967:86-87) Harlem survival kit was W.E.B. Du Bois’s Negro Cooperative Economic Commonwealth Plan, suggested and partially outlined by Du Bois (1940:206-220) in his book, Dusk of Dawn (see also Dennis and Dennis 2017). Cruse proposes what can only be seen as radical political and economic steps towards achieving his and Du Bois’s objectives:

  1. A Harlem-wide boycott to “take control and ownership of all cultural institutions (theaters, club sites, and movie houses).”
  2. Nationalize these institutions and operate them for the educational and cultural benefit of the Harlem community, under the control of a community-wide citizens’ Planning Commission.
  3. Abolish the “old economic concept of individual rights inherent in the idea of private property. The community should adopt the concepts of cooperative and collective economic organization and administration of its inner community life, or else the Negroes’ chances for survival in the U.S. are very slim” (1967:86-87).

For many, Cruse’s economic plan for Harlem might seem too revolutionary.

However, Cruse views Harlem’s cultural decline as catastrophic, thus requiring no less than a revolutionary approach to exculpate it from what Cruse (1967:88) describes as social disintegration, hopelessness, political backwardness, poverty, and economic slavery. Throughout Cruse’s proposals, it is important to note his exclusion of the larger dominant New York political, economic, and cultural structure in his critique, for he believes Harlem’s massive population, existing institutions, and available individual and organizational networks, adopting his strategy, would readily transform the community. Earlier in the paper we suggested that Cruse was playing the sociologist-social scientist and Harlem was the laboratory-experimental research site. But there is almost a behavioral analogy here, for Cruse is suggesting, without formalizing his thoughts, that if political, economic, and cultural structures are transformed, human behavior will readily adapt to whatever structural formations are in place. That is, structure may shape behavior, and the behavior Cruse wants to ensure centers around building a cultural framework that would serve as a foundation for Black life and enable Blacks to coexist and compete with other races and ethnic groups in a plural society.

Lastly, in listing steps to save Harlem, Cruse lists the importance of an “All-Negro, community-wide political party.” He asserts, “such a party would add bargaining force to social, cultural, and economic reforms” (ibid.). Throughout the early 1970s, creating an all-Black political party was high on Cruse’s agenda, and he wrote a series of articles for Black World magazine outlining strategies for such a party (1971a; 1971b; 1971c; 1974a; 1974b).


Although many social scientists and scholars have written about the role and responsibilities of intellectuals, including Black intellectuals, none have written about this special group in a way that suggests this group to be the “deliverer” of their racial, ethnic, professional, or religious group. In fact, many of the articles and books on intellectuals tend to be rather abstract and theoretical and the authors tend to resist tying intellectuals to a particular task, or mission, or if they do so, it is only in a general manner. Cruse is the only writer who dares to task intellectuals, in this case Black intellectuals, with a specific mission, which Cruse clearly outlines in a seemingly task-oriented obligation. What he repeats throughout his writings is the special obligation Black intellectuals “owe” to their people to draft ideas and proposals to save them. More specifically, he clearly states that they are the only group with the skills, education, and broad societal and global experience and outlook, to do so. Moreover, and this became very controversial, interracial committees and groups cannot do it. Cruse extols a cultural framework as key to Black institutional and organizational survival, because he believes understanding the “lived” cultural experiences (history, sociology, economics, and politics) of Blacks places Black intellectuals in a key position to use their cultural base; and with their understanding and their personal experiences in Black and white America, they would constitute the most crucial foundation in creating ideas and shaping elements of Black cultural life; and would sew the stitches of that life to create a unified socio-political-economic framework for a new Black America. For Cruse, creating a New Black America sets the stage for creating a New America.

The book and Cruse’s ideas continue to generate discussion and controversy, because the issues Cruse raised have been ongoing issues since the year that he wrote the book. These issues, integration and segregation, pluralism and melting pot theory, along with other issues raised by Cruse, such as social justice, discrimination, and minority rights, have long been a part of the everyday concerns of many citizens, especially Black Americans. These issues are both integral and central to the theory and practice of concepts of American freedom, liberty, and democracy.

The “what next?” question has been the central theme of American democracy and has long coexisted with the question, “what can we do to make democracy work?” Cruse’s books and articles emphasize the importance of Black self- development as a key element in the success of American democracy.

Throughout his works Cruse follows in the tracks of renowned thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, and Allison Davis, who also wrote about, and were equally as critical of, Black intellectuals as Cruse. They all highlighted the crucial role of Black intellectuals in the making, shaping, and dispensing of the ideas and values crucial in assisting Black communities, under great socio-cultural- economic-educational pressures, to not only survive, but more importantly, to prosper.

Cruse’s message to Black intellectuals was to dig deeply into their own personal socio-cultural history, as well as the collective socio-cultural history of their people, to provide workable visions and ideals for their collective advancement. He was not anti-Marx, but he raged against Black intellectuals who wished to transplant 19th century European Marxist ideas to the contemporary Black condition, because he believed such ideas were insufficient to address, or answer, the racial and class issues of 20th century America, or the world at large. He also believed that contemporary integration policy, which he does not oppose on moral or racial lines, adopted more than seventy years ago, has not helped Blacks educationally or economically. Between 1988 and 2016, the percentage of Black students attending intensely segregated (that is, at least 90% non-white) public schools climbed in every region of the US; in the Northeast the figure is higher than it was in 1968 (Frankenberg et al 2019).

Structural changes (cultural, political, economic, and educational) within the collective Black world required that these communities themselves, with the assistance of Black intellectuals, be the change-makers. We believe, as does Cruse, that Black communities that are aiding and shaping their own collective political, economic, and cultural development, will give individual participants a heightened sense of their role as creators and participants. A community oriented towards Black-self and Black-collective-community participation, involvement, and control, will not only contribute to its own health, viability, strength, and power. It will also contribute greatly to the larger American society.


Cruse, Harold. 1967. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: William Morrow.

Cruse, Harold. 1971a. “Part 1: Black and White: Outlines of the Next Stage” Black
World 20, No.1

Cruse, Harold. 1971b. “Part 2: Black and White: Outlines of the Next Stage” Black
World 20, No.3: 4-31.

Cruse, Harold. 1971c. “Part 3: Black and White: Outlines of the Next Stage” Black
World 20, No.5: 9-40.

Cruse, Harold. 1974a. “Part I: Black Politics Series.” Black World 23, No. 12: 10-17;

Cruse, Harold. 1974b. “Part 2: Black Politics Series.” Black World 24, No.1: 4-21

Dennis, Rutledge. 1991. “Dual Marginality and Discontent among Black Middletown Youth.” Pp. 3–25 in Race and Ethnic Relations. Vol. 6. JAI Press.

Dennis, Rutledge M., and Kimya N. Dennis. 2017. “Du Bois, W.E.B. (1868–1963).” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1940. Dusk of Dawn. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Frankenberg, Erica, Jongyeon Ee, Jennifer B. Ayscue, and Gary Orfield. 2019.
Harming Our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after
Brown. The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.

By Rutledge M. Dennis and Kimya Nuru Dennis

Return to February 2024 Issue

Revisiting Transracial vs. Transgender Identity

A reflexive statement to start: I am a White cisgender man and the perspectives I offer here are to be interpreted within that context. I acknowledge the intersectional privileges I experience, including the opportunity to express my viewpoints below at a time of extraordinary violence directed at Black and trans* communities across the United States. My hope is that the ideas I offer in this essay help to bolster the struggle for social justice and further all forms of solidarity with those whose marginalized and oppressed identities I discuss. I thank The Sociologist’s editors and reviewers for their helpful feedback on this piece and I welcome the publication of responses to it.

* * * *

A flier for a talk given April 22, 2021, 4:30 pm at a George Mason University Zoom link. The speakers are listed as Robin Dembroff, Yale University, and Dee Payton, Rutgers University. The flier is titled "What The Transracial/Transgender Analogy Misses." It reads: "Almost without exception, people take the question, "Should someone be recognized as a woman?" to be settled by first answer the question "Is that person really a woman?" They do the same in the case of race, taking the question, "Should someone be recognized as a Black?" to be settled by the answer to "Is that person really Black?" We think this reasoning is based on a mistake: what matters is not what race and gender "really are", but rather what race and gender concepts ought to do. We argue that this paradigm shift reveals an important asymmetry between transgender and transracial identification."

Credit: George Mason University Cultural Studies Program

A couple of years ago I was fortunate to attend a highly anticipated local talk on a controversial and hotly contested issue in identity politics over the past decade. At the George Mason University Cultural Studies Colloquium, “What the Transracial/Transgender Analogy Misses,” philosophers Robin Dembroff and Dee Payton shared insights from a 2020 Boston Review article they had co-authored. They called for a paradigm shift in discussions of transracial vs. transgender identity, asking that the debate go beyond questions of whether race and/or gender  “are real,” and instead contemplating “what race and gender concepts ought to do.”

To that end, Dembroff and Payton made the case for race concepts’ relative resistance to transness. They cited research from fields including medical sociology to highlight the intergenerational harms that racism perpetrates on Black people. The findings they shared from these scholarly studies emphasized the material damages caused by generations of harm inflicted on the health, wealth, and overall well-being of Black people in America. The ultimate point was to demonstrate that persons who claim a Black transracial identity have not experienced such intergenerational violence; hence, such an identification is problematic as it undermines the utility of Blackness as a necessary social category to track those who are subject to the intergenerational accumulation of harms associated with Blackness and thus, by extension, in need of reparations.

While acknowledging the material inequalities that gender minorities experience within their own bounded lifetimes, Dembroff and Payton claimed a unique status for racial identity like Blackness given its capacity to be materially transferred parent to child. In short, Dembroff and Payton argued that race is defined by its intergenerational presence in a way that gender is not, a fact that explains why an “asymmetry between transgender and transracial identification” is legitimate to them.

Like many attendees, I was energized by the colloquium’s advancements of the public discourse on a provocative and thorny topic. I found especially inspiring the steadfast commitments to anti-racism practiced by Dembroff and Payton. That said, I left the colloquium wondering about certain assumptions, and corresponding claims, made at the talk, issues that were rooted in what seemed to me to be lurking logical fallacies in these scholars’ conception and use of intergenerationality.

For starters, there is a somewhat simple matter of circular logic. If intergenerationality is how Dembroff and Payton define and distinguish race concepts in the first place, it begs the question to identify the intergenerational manifestations of race and then argue for race’s distinction from gender on the basis of these findings. Put differently, there is a jigsaw puzzle-like quality to putting pieces together that were always already cut from a given puzzle set. It is important to note that there are alternative conceptions of race available, as Charles W. Mills’ (2015) famous essay, “‘But What Are You Really?’ The Metaphysics of Race” highlights. Of Mills’ seven “candidate conditions” for racial identification, only three correspond in any way to ancestry. However, by remaining wedded to the idea that race is a necessarily ancestral identity, Dembroff and Payton simply demonstrate what they had already assumed in the first place, proving the genealogical nature of Blackness by noting an intergenerational transfer of harms to those who are racialized.

I actually believe there is a more salient issue with intergenerationality here, though. In the work of Dembroff and Payton, it serves as a neutral background condition or conduit for the transmission of race-based violence. However, can intergenerationality really be taken for granted as non-gendered? Only if one fails to interrogate what is always already at the heart of intergenerationality within patriarchal societies, namely the fundamentally gendered nature of sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction is a significant component of the material/physical basis of intergenerationality, and to ignore the gender politics of sexual reproduction is thus a basic, and all-important, oversight.

Indeed, from Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Anna Julia Cooper and bell hooks to Angela Davis and Patricia Hill Collins, Black feminist scholars of the past 150 years have emphasized the gender-based violence that is inextricably intertwined with sexual and social reproduction in a White supremacist capitalist patriarchal society. At the very least, a simple acknowledgement is required that gender politics always already condition/structure procreation, and thus the (re)production of generations, which is to say, intergenerationality. After all, gender and intergenerationality share the same etymological root in the Latin verb “generare,” or “to give birth to” – it is hardly surprising, then, that one of Dembroff and Payton’s featured studies measures disparate outcomes for Black maternal health, because if the material harms of racism are to be intergenerationally passed on they must be passed on through the bodies of Black persons who birth the next generation.

Put simply, gendered power imbalances do not stop at the bedroom door, nor are they absent from the family tree. Whether conceptualized as a sphere within which phenomena manifest/transmit or as more of an active process/mechanism, intergenerationality cannot be treated as an apolitical given; instead, it must itself be recognized as a site of profound gender and racial inequality.

For example, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found in 2021 that US households where a woman was the most financially knowledgeable member–and thus more likely to be in charge of finances–had lower median wealth than households where the reverse was true. This wealth gap persisted after controlling for a number of relevant variables such as race/ethnicity, marital status, inheritance, employment status, and so on. The authors concluded that, among other effects, this wealth gap could mean that “female” households are less well-positioned to secure upward economic mobility for their children (Kent and Ricketts 2021).

Thus, when Dembroff and Payton presume race’s uniqueness vis-à-vis gender’s supposed non-transmission of harm across generations, they do not ask if the foundation of intergenerationality itself might in fact be gendered. And if the gender politics of reproduction do indeed undergird racism’s harms, then transracialism’s relative lack of social legitimacy when contrasted with transgender identity cannot be predicated on racism being a uniquely accumulating phenomenon across generations.

I realize how easy it is to identify limitations in others’ arguments, so rather than just deconstruct the work of Dembroff and Payton, I will use the rest of this essay to address the vexing reality that remains at the impasse they leave behind. Why is it that one form of identity is plausible while the other is denied/ridiculed? What is it about the politics of race, as a socially constructed concept, that make it impervious to trans*, while gender’s transness is politically legible in society? Moving beyond descriptive accounts of gender and race on the left and right, like sociologist Rogers Brubaker’s 2016 Trans, I want to examine this social fact building off of, and responding to, the advancements Dembroff and Payton have offered.

To start, as so many conversations about transracialism seem to, it is necessary to discuss the figure of Rachel Doležal. She is by far the most visible cultural symbol of the purported illegitimacy of transracial identity to date. In 2015 her identity ignited a national discussion on the nature of race after the Coeur d’Alene Press published an article demonstrating that she had been born to White parents and was fair-skinned in earlier photos of her life, despite currently identifying and presenting herself as Black (Dolan and Selle 2015). Determining the validity of her identity became urgent and significant in the public consciousness because she was at the time the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, and had a record of reporting racist intimidation against her that could not be independently verified. Broadly speaking, public opinion turned against her quite powerfully, resulting in the loss of her professional positions and appointments. The NAACP’s (2015) statement in defense of her advocacy work regardless of her race, and her own efforts to offer a more nuanced portraiture of her politics, like her interview with sociologist Ann Morning in the American Sociology Association’s popular journal, Contexts (2017), do not seem to have shifted the public’s opinion. Indeed, when Googling the search term “transracial,” Doležal appears front and center as the unofficial spokesperson for the identity, with a photo of her holding a megaphone accompanying the corresponding Wikipedia entry.

A Google search for "transracial". The top result is the Wikipedia entry for the term, which features a picture of Rachel Doležal holding a megaphone.

Credit: David Reznik

Caricatures of Doležal portray her as ridiculously unabashed and woefully ignorant. In subsequent years these characteristics have become associated with transracialism writ large. The shape of this discourse seems to me to bear a striking similarity to the way women are assumed to be ignorant of their own experiences, and transgender women in particular are attacked for their “ridiculous” accounts-of-self. I would thus like to argue that the notion of transracial identity, especially as it is portrayed in popular culture, seems to be inherently gendered. Even in my anecdotal teaching experiences, I have noted that students universally balk/reject transracialism out of hand by invoking the same problematic exemplar every time the concept is introduced during in-class discussions: the dubious and farcical appropriation of Black identity by White women through everything from tanning fads to TikTok dances.

Hence it is impossible to disentangle the concept of transracialism from its gendered assumptions. Specifically, it appears that the anxiety about transracial identity disproportionately emphasizes the role of women. It is a concern with femininity (especially White womanhood) appropriating/consuming/exploiting racial (particularly Black) identity. White women, including White feminists, can be active producers of anti-Black racism as part of their execution of hegemonic femininity (Hamilton et al 2019). This critique is well-established, but it is still frequently repeated in public discourse without further developing the idea (Beck 2021; Schuller 2021; Jackson and Rao 2022; Zakaria 2022). The repetition without development can serve to deemphasize the role of White men and the structure of hegemonic masculinity in producing racism. Indeed, a poster child for present-day White fragility is a woman: the “Karen,” a meme containing multitudes of seemingly timeless gendered tropes about femininity, including hyper-emotionality/hysteria, intellectual/political ignorance, and infantilization/helplessness.

It is not surprising, then, that Rachel Doležal, with all her gendered baggage baked in, has served as the straw person for transracialism. Transracial identity in the public consciousness is less an accurate representation of a potentially important identity politics debate and more a screen upon which to project not only a legitimate excoriation of Whiteness, but a particularly misogynistic version of White womanhood. My point here is that the seemingly unanimous rejection in contemporary society of transracial identity may have lurking within it a critique of femininity, even when it is ostensibly about calling out persons’ supposedly outrageous claims about their racial identities.

* * * *

Which brings me back to Dembroff and Payton. If the gendered nature of transracialism, as it has heretofore been socially constructed, is taken seriously, it becomes easier to recognize how gender is erased, yet also a major driver, in their theorizing. On one hand, intergenerationality is treated as a gender-neutral, or at least de-politicized, process through which households/families pass down the damage of racism; the misogynistic violence and patriarchal inequalities operating in/through sexual reproduction are rendered invisible, or at least remain mostly unaccounted for.

On the other hand, their overriding concern with justifying the distinction between Blackness and gender can itself be understood as an unwittingly, but nonetheless avowedly, gendered agenda. The animating impulse for discrediting transracialism, including the Dembroff and Payton project, seems to be the spectral figure of Doležal, whose ghost-like haunting presence in such discussions elicits a visceral social psychological distaste. And I argue that such revulsion is actually gendered, even in unconscious and surprising ways. Compare the case of H. G. Carrillo, a George Washington University professor who passed away in 2020. At the time of his death he presented himself as Afro-Cuban, though subsequent investigation revealed he had no Cuban heritage. Much public attention was given to the lie he lived (Max 2023). However, colleagues and friends have also celebrated the incredible efforts Carrillo undertook to lift up Latine scholars and students, leveraging his “invented” Afro-Latino identity. This extension of nuance is what has been denied to Doležal in the public discourse, demonstrating, I argue, the role of misogyny in understanding transracial identities.

All of which is to say that race and gender are never as neatly separable as they might otherwise appear. To that end, I suggest that what race and gender concepts ought to do is help find political solidarity around their interlocking moments of synergy rather than imagining clear-cut distinctions. In the specific case of analyzing intergenerational transfers of racist harm, that might look like an acknowledgment of how such harm is always already gendered too. And if some identity claims seem suspicious (as, for instance, White persons’ transracial identifications as Black), then sensitivity to how the adjudication of these claims might incorporate unconscious gender bias is in order.

Ultimately, I would like to offer a takeaway for moving forward from what can be characterized as an uncomfortable and somewhat tired debate. Preempting and outflanking the gendered and racialized vitriol that is so often operant within otherwise radical identity politics today is key to building intersectional coalitions. I have already mentioned the almost scapegoat-like status of White women in contemporary anti-racist struggles and the potential misogyny therein. I thus wonder if an explicit acknowledgement of White women’s work in these movements couldn’t offer a countervailing logic to upend such gendered narratives. The same can obviously be said of highlighting the efforts of Black men within feminist politics to short-circuit racist biases that might undermine the visibility and appreciation of such endeavors. Pushing back on internal sexism and racism would facilitate the ultimate goal of creating robust intersectional coalitions in pursuit of political liberation.

It may seem naïve, but I am convinced that such measures would go a long way toward furthering the transracial vs. transgender identity debate. Common to all the ideas in this essay is a sense that there is no easy way out of the politics of identity; at every stage, there are messy dynamics that cut across categories and/or put the various classification systems at odds with one another. So rather than seeking clarity as the solution, I advocate an acceptance of the confusion inherent in the project of identity politics. Revisiting that which might seem resolved can open opportunities for renewed collective engagement, broader coalition building, and hopefully social justice for all.


Beck, Koa. 2021. White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Brubaker, Rogers. 2016. Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dembroff, Robin and Dee Payton. 2020. “Why We Shouldn’t Compare Transracial to Transgender Identity.” Boston Review, November 18. Retrieved May 30, 2023. ( ).

——. 2021. “What the Transracial/Transgender Analogy Misses.” George Mason University Cultural Studies Colloquium Series, Zoom, April 22.

Dolan, Maureen, and Jeff Selle. 2015. “Black like Me?” Coeur d’Alene Press. Retrieved December 12, 2023 (

Hamilton, Laura T., Elizabeth A. Armstrong, J. Lotus Seeley, and Elizabeth M. Armstrong. 2019. “Hegemonic Femininities and Intersectional Domination.” Sociological Theory 37(4):315–41. doi: 10.1177/0735275119888248.

Jackson, Regina and Saira Rao. 2022. White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism and How to Do Better. New York: Penguin Random House.

Kent, Ana Hernández, and Lowell R. Ricketts. 2021. “Gender Wealth Gap: Families Headed by Women Have Lower Wealth.” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Retrieved December 13, 2023 (

Max, D. T. 2023. “Magic Realism.” The New Yorker, March 20, pp. 30-9.

Mills, Charles W. 2015. “‘But What Are You Really?’ The Metaphysics of Race.” Pp. 41-66 in Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Morning, Ann. 2017. “Race and Rachel Doležal.” Contexts, 16(2):8-11.

NAACP. 2015. “NAACP Statement on Rachel Dolezal.” NAACP. Retrieved December 13, 2023 (

Schuller, Kyla. 2021. The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism. New York: Bold Type Books.

Zakaria, Rafia. 2022. Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption. New York: W.W. Norton.

By David Reznik

Return to February 2024 Issue

Ask a Sociologist: Racism in the Courts

From our mailbag (edited for clarity):

Hi. I have a question specifically on studies relating to what is considered the institutional racism against African Americans in the criminal justice system. I was told the many studies that show a disparity between Whites and Blacks in sentencing, which is said to prove racial bias in the justice system, are invalid due to the fact that they do not take into account how many Black people on average are held in contempt of court, and lawyer ability. Because of the lack of ability to even take these things into account, a study that studies the racial bias on sentencing is invalid and uncredible in its conclusions that there is racial bias.

Is this true? Are so many studies completely uncredible now because they are simply unable to take into account contempt of court averages? Or lawyer ability? Thanks


Dear reader,

I see two questions here:

  1. Are there studies on sentencing bias that take into account the skill of the lawyers involved, and the possibility that Black people could be held in contempt of court more often than non-Black people?
  2. If studies don’t take these things into account, are they incorrect to conclude that institutional racism is present?

Let’s take them one at a time.

The answer to question one is yes. Yes, research exists examining the relationship between lawyer skill, or contempt of court frequency, and criminal justice outcomes for Black people.

Research on the relationship between lawyer skill and outcomes is contradictory as to whether having a skilled attorney matters. Part of the problem is that “skill” is difficult to measure, and different studies have defined it in different ways when trying to capture it. This difficulty also means that research with precise operationalizations of skill is thin on the ground. Nonetheless, the work is out there. For some examples, check out Abrams and Yoon (2007), Shinall (2010), and Wright and Peeples (2013).

Research on the relationship between race and specifically being held in contempt of court is similarly thin, but again, not nonexistent. Chappell writes: “Using data from two mid-Atlantic states, [Peck et al. (2015)] found that Blacks were more likely to get detention and be adjudicated delinquent for most offenses types, including status offenses, probation violations, and contempt. Other research has also found that Blacks are disadvantaged in contempt cases (Bishop & Frazier, 1996; Haynes & Dion, 2011)” (2019:1030).

Now let’s move to question two. If research on sentencing disparities neglects these factors, would that research be wrong to conclude that institutional racism is present? Generally, no. There could be some very specific exceptions, depending on how the analysis is constructed, but “no” is a safe answer. The reason for this is that the influence of racism lives upstream from, downstream from, inside, and parallel to these factors. That’s what it means for racism to be institutional.

While it is true that the caliber of legal representation can impact individuals’ access to justice, Black and Brown communities have a disproportionately difficult time locating counsel, let alone effective counsel, which ultimately results in their incarceration by the criminal legal system.

It is common knowledge that the entire legal system is jammed and overloaded, but so are attorneys, the actual people representing clients. Public defenders are among the most overwhelmed attorneys. They represent indigent clients, who are primarily Black and Brown. A study from the Justice Policy Institute (2011) found that 73% of public defender offices lack the requisite number of attorneys to meet caseload standards. Currently in New York City, public defender organizations are fighting to receive a larger budget–$130 million–from the state. With the increased budget they will be able to provide better services and quality representation to clients. The increased budget would help to combat attrition rates, increase salaries, and aid in going through the thousands of backed-up cases in courts that leave accused people in custody (Caines et al 2024; Hayward 2023).

Because of the underfunding of these institutions, there is a scarcity of attorneys able to represent poverty-stricken clients. A 2022 analysis of Oregon’s public defense system and attorney workloads, called The Oregon Project, found that the 592 attorneys working in indigent defense are tasked with a workload that would require almost 1900 attorneys to provide adequate representation. The compensation packages for public defenders and assigned counsel are relatively modest, deterring attorneys from pursuing careers in indigent defense. This, in turn, contributes to a deficit of legal professionals, leaving a surplus of individuals entangled in the judicial system without sufficient representation (Gross 2023).

Because of this shortage and the government’s reluctance to appropriately fund public defender offices, public defenders wind up spending less time on each client than what is deemed sufficient to provide effective counsel. In Missouri, it is recommended that a public defender spend 106.6 hours on a murder case, but in reality they spend 84.5 hours (Domonsoke 2016). A 2013 analysis of data provided by the Bureau of Justice found that the average public defender handles a little more than 100 felonies each year (Lee, Levintova, and Brownell 2013). That number, according to research co-authored by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense, should be less than 60 for the least taxing felony cases, and less than seven for the most serious (Pace et al. 2023:xii).

Public defender overload causes the accused to lose trust in the system, which is why they would rather take a plea deal. People lose hope in the system because they are aware of the unfortunate reality of indigent defense attorneys, often experience the backed-up court system, lose faith in due process, and take a plea deal to move on with their life, when there could have been a completely different outcome. If the government invested more in the institution of public defenders than they did on corrections, then maybe folks could get the representation that they need and deserve as Americans.

Just as attorney skill is inflected by racism, so too is contempt of court frequency. Some reasons why Black Americans might be held in contempt of court at a higher rate than their counterparts include: exasperation with the system, its role as a tool of oppression, and efforts to dehumanize and lock them into a racial caste system. In one case, both attorneys were called to the bench to discuss something pertaining to a defendant, a Black man, and he became upset that they were discussing matters that could have a significant impact on his life without him. He exclaimed, “this is my life we’re talking about here” (Clair 2020:16). These expressions of passion and frustration with a system that is actively working against this maligned population occur frequently in court, leading to their contempt of court penalties. But because their counterparts are not targeted as aggressively, they do not experience the same level of tension and anxiety as African Americans do.

According to King and Johnson (2016), people with darker skin and afrocentric features are more likely to be sentenced comparatively harshly. Not only does this apply to actual African Americans, but even white defendants with more afrocentric appearances and facial features were treated more punitively compared to their eurocentric-presenting counterparts. Additionally, prosecutors usually ask judges for sentencing leniency when the defendant cooperates with law enforcement. However, data show that prosecutors are more likely to request leniency for white defendants than they are for Black defendants (Blakemore 2016).

Institutional racism is an ongoing and persistent problem in the United States, particularly within the criminal legal system. It is essential to keep in mind that our “justice system” looks the way it does not only because of its flaws, but because it functions as intended. Even if you neglect to pull out a piece of the machine to examine it individually, such as attorney skill, a larger picture can still coalesce around that piece. The journey that African Americans must take to obtain representation for their cases, as well as the difficulty in finding a public defender who will devote the necessary time to their cases, exacerbates existing disparities and contributes to the biases that African Americans face within the system. When considering contempt of court frequency, we must also take into account the high emotions and stress that African Americans can experience in this context, due to feelings of underrepresentation, neglect, and uncertainty about their futures.


Abrams, David S., and Albert H. Yoon. 2007. “The Luck of the Draw: Using Random Case Assignment to Investigate Attorney Ability.” The University of Chicago Law Review 74(4):1145–77.

American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. 2022. The Oregon Project – an Analysis of the Oregon Public Defense System and Attorney Workload Standards.

Anon. 2011. “Overloaded Public Defense Systems Result in More Prison Time, Less Justice.” Justice Policy Institute. Retrieved July 12, 2023 (

Bishop, Donna M., and Charles E. Frazier. 1996. “Race Effects in Juvenile Justice Decision-Making: Findings of a Statewide Analysis.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 86(2):392. doi: 10.2307/1144031.

Blakemore, Jessica. 2016. “Implicit Racial Bias and Public Defenders.” Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics 29(4):833–49.

Caines, Wesley, Lisa Schreibersdorf, Tina Luongo, Alice Fontier, Stan German, and Lori Zeno. 2024. “Re: New York City Public Defenders Legislative Priorities for Criminal Legal System Reforms.”

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By Nakim Ryan, with additional research by Patrick Healey

Return to February 2024 Issue

Ask a Sociologist: Who Are You?

From our mailbag:

What Kind of Sociologist Are You?


Editor Gillian Niebrugge-Brantley responds:

That is, of course, a very legitimate inquiry—and one that in a way sheds much light on the particular history of sociology, which in turn speaks to the kind of sociologist I am. My specializations have been in the history of sociology and in sociological theory, and both of these experiences have tended to make me an eclectic sociologist. I am the co-founder with Patricia Lengermann of the American Sociological Association’s Section on the History of Sociology and Social Thought, and I think it would be hard to work in that history without being impressed by the range of ways sociology has been (and is) practiced. For me, the formative statement of this general principle was George Ritzer’s 1974 book, Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science. But I suppose I do have a particular affinity for works that deal with the history of sociology—particularly as that history connects to social change in US society—and for works offering a clear theoretical vision.

Editor Patrick Healey responds:

I’m still early in my sociology journey, so it’s hard to say. Among other interests, I’ve put some time and energy into the links between personal and structural constructions of gender and sexuality in the context of power; the way sociology produces and measures marginalized subjects, and why this is morally fraught; and the potential utility of art and aesthetic knowledge to the political projects of public sociology.

The throughline there is, I think, feeling out the relationship between the problems sociology can perceive, and the help sociology can provide. For me, the discipline is first and foremost a method of materially improving the world. I’m currently involved in quantitative research on race and gender disparities among university faculty outcomes, and qualitative research on the processes of political mobilization among university students and employees, which I think speaks to my sensibilities.