Profile of the ASA President . . .
Troy Duster: A Biography in History
by Harry G. Levine, City University of New York-Queens College, and Craig Reinarman, University of
A recent Scientific American profile of Troy Duster told of a 1997 meeting at the National Human Genome Research Institute. The eminent geneticists agreed on a mantra: “Race doesn’t exist.” They insisted that because the DNA of people with different skin colors and hair textures is 99.9 percent alike, the notion of race had no meaning in science:
Then sociologist Troy Duster pulled a forensics paper out of his briefcase. It claimed that criminologists could find out whether a suspect was Caucasian, Afro-Caribbean or Asian Indian merely by analyzing three sections of DNA. “It was chilling,” recalls Francis S. Collins, director of the Institute. He had not been aware of DNA sequences that could identify race, and it shocked him that the information can be used to investigate crimes. “It stopped the conversation in its tracks” (Lehrman, 2003).
Years before the Human Genome Project had begun, Duster had already been patiently explaining that while genetic research cannot find race as a biological reality, race remains very much a social reality—with important biological outcomes, such as sharply higher rates of hypertension and prostate cancer in racialized populations. When the revolution in molecular biology arrived, Duster warned that DNA markers linked to ancestral origins would be used to attempt genetic explanations of these conditions—a dangerous pathway to the reinscription of the biology of race. “In large part, thanks to Duster,” the Scientific American article said, “Collins and other geneticists have begun grappling with forensic, epidemiological and pharmacogenomic data that raise the question of race at the DNA level.” As a result, says Collins, “Duster is a person that rather regularly gets tapped on the shoulder and asked for help.”
Troy Duster has been doing this kind of thing for many years on many issues—using solid data and telling examples to shift scientific conversations, and sometimes, political debates as well. He is, to use Michael Burawoy’s four-fold schema, a professional sociologist, a policy sociologist, a critical sociologist, and a public sociologist.
Duster’s research and writing have ranged widely across the sociology of law, science, deviance, inequality, race, and education. In addition to numerous book chapters, he has published in an extraordinary array of scholarly journals including Nature, Social Problems, Science, Ethnicities, Representations, the Bulletin de Methodologie Sociologique, The American Sociologist, Philosophy and Social Action, Politics and the Life Sciences, Crime and Delinquency, Society, Social Psychiatry, The Black Scholar, Les Temps Modernes, and The Japanese Journal of Science. His research has been translated into French, German, Italian and Japanese.
His first book, The Legislation of Morality: Drugs, Crime, and Law (1970), a classic in the drug field, showed that when the demographics of opiate addiction shifted, so did its definition and the law. When addicts were predominantly white, middle-class, middle-aged women, addiction was a health problem dealt with privately by physicians. But when addiction spread among more “disreputable” groups like poor young men, it was redefined as a crime problem dealt with publicly by imprisonment.
Duster’s other books include the seminal Backdoor to Eugenics (1990), which The Nation called a “lucid landmark.” In his introduction to the second edition (2003), Pierre Bourdieu applauds Duster for showing the dangerous slide toward a “covert eugenics” that has emerged as “old mythologies” about intelligence and crime are “dressed in the biological sciences.”
Duster’s most recent book is Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (2003; co-authored with Brown, Carnoy, Currie, Oppenheimer, Shultz, and Wellman). It received extraordinary critical acclaim, won the Benjamin Hooks Award, and was a finalist in 2004 for the C. Wright Mills Award. “Framed as a response to conservative analysts who claim that racial problems are essentially solved,” wrote Andrew Hacker, Whitewashing Race is “a brilliant, seamless book on America’s deepest divide.”
Duster has been an editor for Theory and Society, Sociological Inquiry, Contemporary Sociology, The American Sociologist, and the ASA’s Rose Monograph Series. He is currently a member of the Social Science Research Council, and has served on committees for the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association of Law Schools, the National Science Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and he was Chair of the Ethical, Legal and Social Issues Committee of the Human Genome Project.
Among other awards, Duster has received a Guggenheim Fellowship at the London School of Economics, an honorary Doctor of Letters from Williams College, and the DuBois-Johnson-Frazier Award from the American Sociological Association. He’s currently Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge at New York University, as well as Chancellor’s Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught since 1970.
Scratch a Theory . . .
Troy is fond of saying, “Scratch a theory, you find a biography.” It follows that careers like his don’t come out of the blue.
Troy’s grandmother, Ida B. Wells, was born as a slave in Mississippi in 1862. As Phillip Dray (2002:53) has written, Wells grew up in the exhilarating spirit of Reconstruction “believing fervently in the promise of black citizenship and accomplishment, and for the rest of her life chose to behave as though that promise had never been withdrawn.” In the 1880s, her sharply worded articles about the challenges facing African-Americans were published in many black newspapers. The editor of the New York Age wrote of Wells, “She has plenty of nerve, is as sharp as a steel trap, and she has no sympathy for humbug.”
In 1892, three black shopkeepers in Memphis were lynched for competing too well against white merchants. When local protests brought no results, Wells wrote newspaper articles about their lives and what had been done to them. The lynchings, she explained, had been “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.” She investigated lynchings throughout the south and produced a series of articles for the national black press challenging the widely believed claim that lynchings were mainly responses to black men raping white women. Her writings launched the first national campaign against lynchings. Frederick Douglas called her articles “a revelation” and admitted that until he had read them he himself had believed “that there was increased lasciviousness on the part of Negroes” (Dray, 2002:67).
Death threats forced Wells to move from Memphis to New York City where she became an even more prominent writer and speaker. Ida B. Wells was a star of the first generation of writers who invented the field of investigative journalism. She helped found the NAACP as well as the National Afro-American Council, serving as chair of its Anti-Lynching Bureau, and she worked tirelessly alongside W. E. B. DuBois and other leading lights of racial justice. She raised six children and died in 1931, five years before her grandson, Troy, was born. Wells was brave and brainy beyond measure, but despite all her accomplishments she could not leave her family the financial assets for a comfortable life.
When Troy was nine his father died and Troy was raised in poverty by Wells’s daughter, Alfreda Duster, and his three older brothers and sister, in the heart of the ghetto on the south side of Chicago. His mother was a community organizer who taught him many valuable things, including: to get a good education, to contribute to the community, to play bridge skillfully, and to not mention his famous grandmother so as to avoid putting on airs—a habit he retains to this day. Even some long-time colleagues do not know, or learned only from elsewhere, about Duster’s extraordinary grandmother. In recent years, he has been more public about Wells. With his siblings, he established the Ida B. Wells Foundation to give awards to journalists and researchers working in Wells’s tradition of writing and speaking out for civil rights, civil liberties, and social justice.
Troy attended the local high school, was editor of the school newspaper, and graduated first in his class. He went to Northwestern University on an academic scholarship, one of only three blacks in his class, studying journalism and sociology. He was mentored by Raymond Mack, who encouraged him to go to graduate school at the University of California,Los Angeles, where for two years he studied ethnomethodology with Harold Garfinkel and methodology with W. S. Robinson. Mack then invited Duster back to Northwestern, where he wrote a dissertation on social responses to abnormality and mental illness, receiving his PhD in 1962. He then did research in Sweden where he met—and argued about race in America with—Gunnar Myrdal.
Duster’s first professorship was at the University of California-Riverside. In the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots, Duster was asked to speak at a large public meeting in conservative, white Orange County. His remarks were brief and polite, but still he received threatening phone calls and found garbage dumped on his lawn. Friends say this eventually convinced him to move to the University of California-Berkeley and take a position at the Center for Research and Development in Higher Education. Even before becoming a professor at Berkeley, he was regularly asked to address the Academic Senate to help faculty understand racial controversies on campus.
Duster’s many years of service at UC Berkeley included being Chair of its Sociology Department, and founding and directing (for 17 years) the Institute for the Study of Social Change. He also directed Berkeley’s path-breaking Diversity Project and authored a major report on the effects of a generation of affirmative action. In countless committees and behind-the-scenes negotiations, he has been an indefatigable advocate for opening up higher education to those historically excluded. He also served as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and was principal author of ASA’s 2003 official statement on race.
Over the years, Duster has actively mentored a great many PhD students, over 65 of them Asian, African American, Latino, or Native American. As the child of Alfreda Duster and Ida B. Wells, he embraced the women’s movement as part of the struggle for civil rights and social justice. At the Institute for the Study of Social Change and elsewhere, his quiet generosity created humane environments where many students, researchers, faculty, and visiting scholars could do productive work. In Berkeley and New York he has hosted innumerable seminars, dinners and informal get-togethers where students at all stages mingle with top experts from almost every field.
In the past 15 years, Duster has given more than 250 public speeches and invited lectures around the world, from community colleges to world conferences. He travels so much he is recognized by the staff in many frequent flier lounges. After taking a position at NYU, he joked about coming out of the closet as “bi-coastal” in order to reassure California friends that he would not be spending all his time in New York. Given how frequently he is airborne or on other continents, it may be more accurate to describe him as “multi-coastal,” or even “post-coastal.”
Public Intellectual, Private Life
How can Duster do all the things he does with such aplomb? Among other reasons, he is culturally multilingual—he is a code-switcher. He can talk to white audiences about racism and the need for affirmative action, to administrators about student needs, to geneticists about how society works, and to sociologists about how genes work.
Duster also seems able to see around corners and three or four chess moves ahead of ordinary mortals. His sociologist switch is rarely turned off, and whether engaged in research or just walking down the street, almost nothing escapes his analytic attention. He is a dazzling student of social life, from the microscopic level of the utterance to the macroscopic realm of historical conjunctures. His brain seems to click happily along at all levels all the time, and he’s never so far into any one paradigm that he forgets he’s in a paradigm.
Duster is a public intellectual with a rich private life. In his Berkeley brown-shingle home, he built a kitchen that allowed his many friends to gather around while he crafted gourmet meals without missing a conversational beat. When he became a ceramic artist, he built a potter’s atelier, complete with kiln in the garage. He adores music, plays the cello occasionally, and younger family members eagerly await Troy’s high quality hand-me-down stereo gear. Close friends say he never met a gadget he didn’t like. Before the iPod existed, he had a 20-gigabyte mp3 player with a large library of music that he takes on all trips. His preferred communication device is a Blackberry, which contains both addresses and salad dressing recipes. He even manages to keep running a now-antique Ford pickup.
Troy Duster is an extraordinary blend of playful and passionate, a man with a great capacity for intellectual engagement and enjoying life. He is humorous, upbeat, charming, and graceful—a cosmopolitan at home in the world, and down home, too. He’s many other things as well, and this year, the hundredth anniversary of the American Sociological Association, he’s the President.
Dray, Philip. 2002. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. New York: The Modern Library.
Lehrman, Sally. 2003. “The Reality of Race,” Scientific American. January 13.