This article is part of a series looking at sociologists doing research and activism as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Being a virtual witness to the murder of Philando Castile did something to me. I mourned for days as my mind flashed back to the video of Castile dying during a routine traffic stop. To hear the 4-year-old daughter of Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend and fellow passenger, try to console her mother was unbearable. I knew then that everything I thought I was doing to make a difference wasn’t enough. As the father of two Black boys, I have to use my sociological toolkit more effectively if I want them to live in an equitable and justice-oriented society. However, there are challenges to doing timely scholarship given our lengthy peer-review process and grant cycle. Herein, I detail my journey to live up to the scholar-activist tradition of W.E.B. Du Bois.
Academics Tackling Racial Angst
Following video of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, professors and students at University of Maryland (UMD) pondered what sociologists were contributing to understanding the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement and the racial angst in America. Over the past two years, we have developed a series of scholarly activities to move our discipline forward and help us progress toward a more equitable nation. To start, I published a series of theoretical pieces (two with Keon Gilbert) that speak to changing policies related to police killings, the social psychological dimensions of why police kill Black males with impunity, and how police brutality affects the health of Black males throughout the life course.
Next, I analyzed Twitter data related to Ferguson with Melissa Brown, PhD student at UMD, Neil Fraistat, Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), and Ed Summers, a developer at MITH. Scholars are frequently unable to capture the organic processes behind the evolution of social movements. Social media data help to overcome these limitations by telling and showing what people do in real-time, bringing voices to individuals who do activist work in silence, and providing a portal into how organizing and communicating generate narratives over time and become engrained in the social consciousness. With over 30 million tweets, we examined the evolution of #BlackLivesMatter. We found that tweets about Ferguson correspond to actual protests on the ground, male activists are viewed as more credible sources compared to female activists, and the names of male victims of police brutality are used as hashtags more than female names. These findings led us to explore #SayHerName, which draws attention to the devaluing of Black women regarding police brutality (e.g., Sandra Bland) and their voices in the BLM movement.
We also found something counter to mainstream media. #AllLivesMatter represented less than 1 percent of all tweets. Rather, #TCOT (Top Conservatives on Twitter) is the counter narrative to BLM as it relates to tweets about Ferguson. A content analysis of #TCOT tweets found that “validating justifiable homicides,” “white victims of black criminality,” and “#BLM as radical terrorists” developed as major themes. We have assembled about 20 scholars conducting research using social media data. We plan to publish a special issue and an edited volume.
Currently, UMD sociologists are conducting a longitudinal study with the Prince George’s County Police Department (PGCPD). Kris Marsh and I are conducting implicit bias training with police cadets and senior officers. Our workshops deal directly with structural racism and segregation, in addition to engaging officers in the social psychology of race, prejudice, and discrimination. We are training senior officers to conduct the workshops to formalize implicit bias training into the cadet curriculum. Marsh and Patricio Korzeniewicz participated in the county’s Citizens’ Police Academy to better understand police training and policy. Marsh served as president of her academy class.
At UMD, Marsh and I teach undergraduate courses on Prince George’s County. Marsh’s course focuses on racial and class segregation, while my course focuses on race and class identities. In spring 2016, we trained students to conduct interviews with residents of the county. With roughly 100 participants, we found that Blacks report more mistreatment by the police than Whites but believe that body-worn cameras (BWC) will help reduce harassment and use of force. Headed by Korzeniewicz, we are evaluating the PGCPD BWC program. Conducting an audit study, we will compare whether officers with BWC receive fewer complaints and engage in less use of force than officers without BWC. Philip Cohen and Moriah Willow are examining whether military training or the education of officers impact use of force.
In collaboration with the School of Engineering’s virtual reality lab, we gathered about 12 senior PGCPD officers to explore innovative ways to examine implicit bias, improve training for real-world scenarios, advance the objectivity of police reporting for court cases, and allow better ways to capture the perspectives of citizens and multiple individuals during police encounters. Collectively, we believe these research endeavors will contribute to changing the cultural norms and the organizational structure of police departments that contribute to racial disparities in police brutality and killings.
Most of these endeavors operate within the Critical Race Initiative (CRI). Founded by Patricia Hill Collins, Marsh and I now serve as co-advisors. Wendy Laybourn, PhD Candidate, serves as the administrative graduate assistant. CRI is a group of faculty and graduate students who center critical race theory as an important framework for understanding inequality in society. In addition to focusing on what race is, CRI focuses on what race does, how it is used, and how it operates via individual, social/cultural, and institutional conditions that manufacture and maintain racial inequality. CRI holds an annual symposium in honor of Congressman Parren J. Mitchell, a monthly writing workshop, and a colloquium series. These endeavors are able to flourish with the support of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at UMD that encourages innovative faculty to think of how to be the solution.
In addition to these normative ways of engaging in public intellectualism, I have aimed to make sociological research more public and accessible by writing a series of op-eds on recent race-related events that gained national attention. Correspondingly, I started the #DailyThought Vlog. Going public can be scary, but I did it to cope with headaches and watery eyes as I mourn the killing of another person who looks like me committed by people sworn to protect us. The killing of Korryn Gaines in Baltimore and the shooting of her 5-year-old son being my most recent mourning. I can no longer bear to look into my sons’ eyes knowing that I need to better use my sociological toolkit to help others view them as worthy of unconditional freedom. This scholarly activism will culminate in an edited book by CRI, entitled Race Relations in America: Examining the Facts, which will be written for a general audience to explore, challenge, and dispel racial myths and stereotypes.
In the scholar-activist tradition of Du Bois, we have an obligation to become more public as a discipline. We must renegotiate contracts with journal publishers to make research more accessible. Some scholars are taking up this call for scholar-activism and public intellectualism and have produced Sociologists for Justice, the Race and Policing Project, Soc ArXiv, Sociology Toolbox, Conditionally Accepted, Sociological Cinema, and Sociological Images.
As scholars, we can add important empirical data and theoretical expounding on the #BlackLivesMatter movement as it shapes American discourse and policy. Now is the time to step outside of the Ivory Tower.
Rashawn Ray is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland-College Park. His work can be seen on his website at rashawnray.com and on Twitter @SociologistRay.