With the events in Ferguson in 2014 and the subsequent growth of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, sociologists have been pondering what they can do to address police violence. When a group of us gathered in the lobby of a San Francisco hotel in 2014 during the ASA conference, this was at the top of our mind. What could we do as a collective of sociologists who were deeply concerned about the events we were watching unfold on television? The police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and the protests that were met with militarized law enforcement efforts to squash the right to free assembly struck the 10 of us gathered in the lobby, as it did so many across the country, as symbolic of racialized policing practices that have terrorized and traumatized black communities for generations.
The meeting in the hotel led to Sociologists for Justice, an independent collective of over 2,000 sociologists who supported a statement issued by the group expressing our concern with the excessive use of force and militarized response to protestors seeking justice and a change in policing practices in black communities. We also outlined policy recommendations and provided sociological resources on our website including links to research articles that could inform the national conversation (sociologistsforjustice.org/). This initial effort was covered by national media and inspired academics in other disciplines to take similar actions.
The question, “what can sociologists do to support Black Lives Matter?” remains relevant and salient. Since the death of Michael Brown, videos of police violence against blacks have increased as many bystanders and victims’ loved ones employ cell phones to document police encounters. ‘Stop Killing Us’ and ‘Enough!’ are common signs at BLM protests. These proclamations underscore the “fierce urgency of now” that have led many of our colleagues to join the thousands who have taken to the streets to protest the latest life lost at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve.
Many of us wonder what we can do to take our support of this critically important movement further? And what is the role of our discipline in facilitating racial justice activism?
During the 2016 ASA Annual Meeting in Seattle, we posed these questions to the nearly 100 people who attended the Sociologists for Justice meeting. Three themes emerged from our discussion: the role of scholar-activism, the significance of leveraging our campuses as sites of racial justice activism, and the need for the discipline to fully embrace racial justice activism.
Extending Sociology’s Reach through Scholar-Activism
American sociology has had a complicated relationship with activism, rejecting publicly engaged scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Jane Addams as the field in the early part of the 20th century sought to establish itself as a scientific discipline. Du Bois and Addams’ race and gender also played a role in their marginalization by the field. But scholars like Du Bois understood that studying inequality was an inadequate enterprise, especially for scholars who are directly impacted by systems of oppression and domination. Like many of my colleagues, I was attracted to sociology because of its potential to lead us to a more equitable society. The subject that we pursue in our research are often issues that we have struggled with ourselves directly or as members of communities shaped by histories of social, political, and economic marginalization. With this understanding, society is to be studied to change it. Activism is a natural extension for scholars affected by racism. It is not a choice, but instead necessary for challenging the structures that maintain racial hegemony.
In my involvement with Sociologists for Justice, I have been encouraged and inspired by the diversity of scholars who are committed to and view racial justice activism as an enlivened and publicly engaged sociology that connects its scholarship from efforts to change society. Americans across race and class lines have joined Black Lives Matter protests, and, as evidenced in our Sociologists for Justice meetings, sociologists are looking for ways to connect their research, teaching, and commitment to social justice efforts that will lead to systemic change.
Sociologists are engaging in activism in support of Black Lives Matter by participating in protest marches and, for some, becoming deeply involved in organizing work at the local level. I have been to several protests against police violence in Baltimore and DC and have found them incredibly inspiring, enlightening, and critical to my ability to understand the dynamics of the movement. The broader movement for black lives that is increasingly the subject of sociological scholarship requires us to show up more fully in our work—not only as sociologists but as scholar-activists connected to the struggle and to the people who are on the ground pushing for change.
It is critical that we as a discipline not study or approach Black Lives Matter from a distance but from a place of deep engagement. What that engagement looks like is different for each of us. In addition to using the tools and critical analysis that sociology offers, listening to and standing in solidarity with communities responding to police violence and racial oppression should be a part of this engagement.
Several sociologists have started initiatives to help support the movement. In the September/October Footnotes, Rashawn Ray, a member of Sociologists for Justice, outlined several of these initiatives including the Race and Policing Project, an effort led by Abigail Sewell at Emory University to make research examining how race affects policing more widely accessible to the public and the media. Sociologists for Justice is also seeking to develop policy briefs on key issues related to policing violence that focus on policy and systemic change. Many other scholars are also blogging and using Twitter to share resources and to bring the sociological perspective to ongoing discussions about race and policing.
Leveraging Campuses as a Sites for Racial Justice Activism
Attendees at our meeting emphasized the importance of not overlooking how campuses can be instruments of change. Because most sociologists work at universities, opportunities to engage students should be harnassed as one of many ways to support racial justice and Black Lives Matter. Sociologists can not only expand students’ awareness about race and racism through their courses, but outside of class, plan and coordinate panel discussions that feature Black Lives Matter activists. Sociologists and students alike can learn by being in dialogue with activists. Activists, for example, can bring an important on-the-ground perspective to racial justice work that sociologists may lack.
Supporting student organizers as they seek to elevate these issues on campus and in their communities is another way to engage and mobilize campuses in support of Black Lives Matter. Sociologists can also help push the dialogue on race and racism within their own departments and the university as a whole. I have heard from colleagues at predominantly white institutions who felt that even in their sociology departments, conversations about race and racial justice are not subjects that are easily broached. This underscores a point that several colleagues made at our last meeting about the need for the discipline to examine itself and its commitment to racial justice.
Embracing Racial Justice Scholar-Activism as a Discipline
The third theme from our ASA meeting relates to the lack of support in the discipline for scholar-activism in general, but racial justice activism in particular. Several suggestions were offered to move the discipline toward creating an environment that supports racial justice scholar-activism. First, activism should be fully embraced by ASA as a part of sociological work. The sentiment is that many more sociologists would become involved in racial justice activism if there was a greater acceptance of public sociology, especially efforts to advance racial equity through public engagement and policy advocacy. The status quo in many universities often means that public sociology is seen as less worthy sociological work. Much of this is related to how tenure is awarded. Meeting attendees felt that although public sociology is promoted within the discipline, when it comes to decisions about tenure, activism and public engagement (e.g., writing articles in popular media) are seen as less valuable contributions despite those vehicles reaching more people and possibly having more of more an impact than scholarly journal articles.
Scholarship on race is generally undervalued in the discipline, according to some attendees, which puts scholars, especially scholars of color committed to scholar-activism, in perilous positions within their departments and universities. Racial justice scholar-activism must be valued by the field and explicitly supported by ASA. Channels of knowledge production outside of traditional research and publishing should be recognized as essential tools for effective racial justice advocacy and for expanding the reach of sociology.
In closing, sociology offers a critical lens through which we understand racialized police violence. Many sociologists are deeply concerned about the systemic nature of racism and its impact on affected communities. Racialized police violence is one especially brutal manifestations of systemic racism. Sociologists on their own and working collectively, are building networks and initiatives that facilitate deeper engagement with the issues that have long captured the attention of the field. These are positive developments that are helping to reignite the tradition of scholar-activism of Du Bois and others who first introduced and brought many of us to the discipline. It is clear in the past two years that we want and expect more from our discipline. Structures must be established witin ASA that institutionalize and support scholar-activism and push our society toward greater inclusivity and equity.