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Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.
New Yorkers protest Black Friday in solidarity with Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo: otto-yamamoto/Flickr)

New Yorkers protest Black Friday in solidarity with Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo: otto-yamamoto/Flickr)

The systematic oppression of black people has been thrust into national consciousness because of the visibility of recent police brutality against black men. Black Lives Matter, the emerging social movement that is challenging this violence and the institutionalized inequalities that underlie and uphold it, started as a hashtag by three black queer women activists. Now it has become a national call to action that has brought thousands of people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds into the streets to demand immediate changes in police policies and practices.

As social scientists, our job is to understand the social structures within society that reproduce inequities of all kinds. We can bring our sociological eye to this effort, to address and help to eradicate racial oppression.

It is black people who suffer the consequences of anti-black racism; they must be in charge of the movement to eradicate it.

While many non-black people are marching and speaking out in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, most, including academics, have never looked down the barrel of a gun to see a shiny police badge at the other end or had family members racially profiled, searched or seized, or murdered because of the blackness of their skin. We live in a society that systematically privileges whiteness.

Women’s studies scholar Peggy McIntosh explains this white privilege as “an invisible weightless backpack ... of unearned assets which [white people] can count on ... but about which [we are] 'meant' to remain oblivious.” It is like a special benefits package that offers discounts and advantages to members who, without notice, take them for granted most of the time: using checks, credit cards, or cash without skin color working against appearances of financial reliability, or making decisions about our lives without people attributing these choices to the bad morals, poverty, or illiteracy of our race. It is the privilege of wearing baggie clothes and a hoodie without being singled out and viewed as a potential criminal.

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege in our work to end racial and economic oppression. There are concrete things we can do.

We can listen and follow the lead of this black-led movement to confront racial injustice. It is black people who suffer the consequences of anti-black racism; they must be in charge of the movement to eradicate it. The women who started Black Lives Matter bring to their work a deep understanding of how different oppressions—including gender, race, and sexual preference—intersect and reinforce one another. With their leadership, social scientists along with other white allies—or “accomplices”—can “keep black lives at the center.”

We can assess the critical role of law enforcement. As a tool of the white dominant culture, we can question how police brutality against racialized others has historically been considered acceptable. A study conducted by scholars from Harvard and Rutgers for the ACLU confirmed racial discrimination within the Boston police force, which concluded that its officers disproportionately interrogated, observed, or searched black residents between 2007 and 2010. There was little evidence of probable cause. This “stop and frisk” policy is ubiquitous in many other cities.

We can create space in our classrooms for dialogue about white privilege and anti-black racism. An independent collective of sociologists called Sociologists for Justice published a public statement on Ferguson along with an official syllabus that includes research articles to help students and others dig deeper into the range of factors contributing to the criminalization and marginalization of black and brown communities.

We cansupport social action among our students. Feminist faculty at Colgate University posted an “open letter to student activists” about brokenness: “a broken justice system that facilitates impunity and the abuse of power, a broken society where the humanity of the racialized and the poor is subject to daily assaults and being disappeared, a broken world all together where the cracks reveal far too many injustices,” and the broken spirit this all creates. The letter stands with student activists and acknowledges the university’s responsibility to help repair the system.

Even if we are not race scholars, we can incorporate a race lens into our research and writing, and include research on race in our syllabi. Sharing stories about racial injustice gives our readers and our students a better understanding of how racial inequality and discrimination is reproduced. The American Sociological Association’s Teaching Resources and Innovations Library for Sociology (TRAILS) has a database where members can search and download relevant materials.

We can share our findings with other colleagues, activists, and our broader communities. Through numerous postings on The Society Pages, sociological researchers are already sharing a wealth of information about racial oppression and inequality in the United States.

We canopen our eyes, look around, and “interrupt oppression”when we see it. Faculty who witness racial slurs and harassment on their campuses can and should take formal action to discipline the behavior and create a safe, collegial environment for students. Several campuses are participating in peaceful protests in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Faculty, staff, and administrators can be proactive in efforts to promote free speech in a respectful environment and stop racist bullying and intimidation.

We cantalk about the Black Lives Matter movement and engage in critical dialogue to transform our institutions. We have instituted a series on Black Lives Matter on Feminist Reflections, beginning with an introductory article about the Black Lives Matter movement that lists additional news articles and resources, and another on what sociologists can do to support this movement.

We can mobilize anti-racist white people when we are called upon to do so, to attend protests or even to consider getting arrested when black leaders ask for white activists to be on the front lines. At a training session held at Hope Church in Boston, over 300 white allies responded to a call from local and national black leadership to come together and talk about their role in the movement for racial justice. Audience members were asked to get actively engaged in this call to action. As one of the trainers said, “As white folks, we have the ability to sit back and do nothing. But our whiteness doesn’t get us killed.”

At this critical time, we all have an opportunity to examine ourselves and to support those seeking transparency, accountability, and safety in their communities. Racial justice requires fundamental changes to a system with deep historical roots, one that structurally disadvantages black people as a group. But we can help to change the system. We must.