May/June 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 5

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Snippets from the Travels with Erik Blog, Part 2

Travels with Erik

Below are brief pieces from the Travels with Erik blog, which follows Erik Olin Wright, 2012 ASA President, and Jean Shin, ASA Minority Affairs Program Director, on their visits to colleges and universities in the south and southwest in late March. Their goal is to connect with students and faculty from underrepresented groups and highlight the importance of sociology and the opportunities available to those who study it. To read the blog in its entirety, see

Day 1 — April 8, 2012, En route to Jackson, MS

Now I am on my way to Jackson, Mississippi. I have never been to Mississippi and Alabama, the only states in the country I have never seen. These places hold a very powerful place in my “cultural imagination” because of their importance during the civil rights era of the 1950s and early 1960s when I was growing up. I have vivid memories of the news footage of civil rights marches in Selma, the bus boycotts, the shootings, the defiance of George Wallace, and as much as anything in my childhood these events shaped my concerns with social justice issues. But I have never really traveled in the South, only flying in to major cities like Atlanta.

Erik Olin Wright with a Martin Luther King statue in downtown near the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Erik Olin Wright with a Martin Luther King statue in downtown near the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Day 1, Part II — April 9, Jackson, Mississippi

A sample question raised by students at Alcorn State following Wright’s discussion

“How does race fit into the Real Utopia framework? What will this do for black people?” This was an important question.  I realized that I had not said anything about race explicitly in the talk itself – that is something I will rectify in the other campuses I visit. I explained that the moral principles involved in the value of Equality are rooted in the idea that ALL people should have equal access to the conditions to live a flourishing life, and the value of democracy requires that all people should have equal access to the means to participate meaningfully in decisions that affect their lives. The combination in each case of all people and equal access implies a rejection of any racial disadvantages and discriminations that undermine equality. I also pointed out that the inclusion of the social means to live a flourishing life, not just material means, implied a rejection of all forms of social stigma and denigration. I ended by discussing the specific proposal for community land trusts connected to community-based urban agriculture as a way of revitalizing and rebuilding inner-city neighborhoods in ways that would specifically address some of the issues around marginalization in the black community. I think the problem here in part stems from the distinction between the real utopia discussion of institutions that can realize these fundamental values and the question of the strategies and processes needed to go from here to there. The question of racial solidarities and struggles is critical for the transformation problem, for the realization of democratic egalitarian values, but it is less clear how much race as such figures in the institutional designs themselves.

Day 2 — April 10, Jackson State University, Jackson, Mississippi

Sometimes when I talk about [equal access] there is a shadow of suggestion that the lives of people subjected to sharp injustices are wholly defined by their exclusions and deprivations. But of course this is not true. People cope with deprivations and unjust exclusions and make lives that are “a good deal more than that.” I don’t mean by this that the critique of social institutions that generate such exclusions should be tempered by the realization of the ways people manage to flourish and robustly create meaning and purpose in spite injustice, but it is important not to obliterate the fact that lives are not reducible to such oppressions….

If I compare sociology today with what it was like when I began grad school in 1971, it has become, if anything, more pluralistic, more tolerant of diverse styles of work and methods. You can see this in the sections of the ASA, which reflect a very wide range of styles of work, not just topics. The methodological wars between quantitative and qualitative work have largely subsided, although not completely disappeared. As a community, sociology still values work that is anchored in the lived experience of people situated in different ways in the social structure, and interpretive modes of sociology still play an important role in making sense of those experiences. From my point of view one of the things that makes sociology an exciting and vibrant intellectual discipline is the dialogue and tension between the humanistic interpretative, life experience forms of sociology and the hard-edged quantitative, statistical forms of sociology (to oversimplify a contrast). Of course this causes problems. The more hermeneutic forms of sociology are always vulnerable to attack for being “unscientific”; the more positivistic forms of sociology are vulnerable to the critique of superficiality...This kind of complexity in the overall field of sociology is pretty much alive and well, I think, and part of the strength of the discipline.

Day 4 — Xavier University, April 11, 2012, New Orleans

Unlike the HSIs we visited in March and two HBCUs we have already visited, Xavier is a private school – a catholic school funded by a wealthy nun in 1915 who had inherited a fortune from her father. It has 3000 students from all over the country, and has a more diverse student body in many ways: 70% black instead of 90% and above. Apparently it has a very well regarded pharmacy school, which attracts a fair number of nonblack students, and also a very strong pre-med program. The school is 75% female, which is also different from Jackson State and Alcorn State which were around 55% female. At lunch I asked one of students why she choose Xavier. She said that all of her schooling growing up on the West Coast had been in white schools and she wanted to see what it would be like to be in a predominantly black environment.

A sample question raised by students following Wright’s discussion.

“What motivates people to do anything in a real utopia? If you realize your egalitarian principle, what will motivate doctors?” Suppose, I said, that medical education was free so that doctors did not have debts. And suppose that they earned a good income, but nothing extravagant. What would happen? Well, people mainly motivated by money might not decide to become doctors, but others motivated more by the desire to help people could now do so without incurring such financial burdens. There would still be plenty of motivations for people to acquire skills.

Day 4 — Continued, Lower Ninth Ward, Later that Night

The L9W has been treated very different from other parts of the city. It is undergoing a process of gentrification in a whole new way. Only 25 percent of the original residents have returned. One person offered the prediction that 10 years from now only 5 percent of the people in the ward will be pre-Katrina residents. It is a prime location, close to downtown, and developers want to transform it. There has been constant obstruction to allowing people to come back. There is only one school in the whole ward, a K-12 school. There is not a single grocery store. There are parts of the ward where there are whole blocks with no houses or only one house. Before Katrina, 65 percent of the home owners in the L9W were elderly. Most of them just couldn’t cope with the idea of starting over and rebuilding. People are resilient, but it is very hard to rebuild in these conditions. None of this is by accident. This transformation of land use is something elites in the city want – they want to whiten the city and blocking the rebuilding of the L9W for the time being is one way to do this.

Day 6 — April 13, Tuskegee University

Tuskegee University has been designated a national historical site and has a [Carver] museum administered by the National Park Service. Founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881 and the place where George Washington Carver did his most important research for many decades, it became very clear immediately when we arrived at the campus that people here have a very strong sense of its historical importance. Throughout much of the 20th century it seems that when rich American philanthropists wanted to do something for Black education, one of their prime targets was Tuskegee…

For real utopias, then, the critical problem is thinking through the central principles of the world we want to have and then asking of any given transformation: does this help build the elements of that world? That is pretty abstract. As I said this in the talk a really good illustration occurred to me: Consider the problem of adequate nutrition and hunger in America. This problem certainly violates the egalitarian principle that all people should have broadly equal access to the conditions necessary to live a flourishing life. Food stamps are a way of improving people’s lives with respect to this issue. But they are not a real utopia: in a society built around principle of social justice there would be no food stamps, no means-tested programs to fill gaps in nutrition. I strongly support food stamps as a practical solution to a pressing problem, but they are not a building block of a just society; they reflect and counteract injustice but do not embody justice. Community land-trusts connected to new urban agriculture, on the other hand, are potentially elements of a democratic egalitarian alternative to existing institutions around the production and distribution of food. They help solve the problem of the food desserts in central cities by restructuring the urban ecology of land and food and its relation to population, and potentially in ways that strengthens community participation and democratic control.

Day 7 & 8 — Driving north to Nashville, April 14 & 15

Today, Sunday, we drove to Birmingham to see the museum at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  It is located facing the park where a march of mainly youth was met with high powered fire hoses and police dogs under the direction of Sheriff Bull Connor. The park itself has become a sculpture garden with stunning sculptures commemorating those events. The most striking was a space you passed through with snarling German shepherds on each side pulling at leashes as if they were lurching at you. The museum is absolutely worth the trip.

Day 9 — April 16, Austin Peay State University, Clarkesville, Tennessee

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new sociology building at Austin Peay State University.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new sociology building at Austin Peay State University.

Austin Peay is a regional university in the Tennessee system about an hour’s drive northwest of Nashville. It has about 9,800 students, 35% minorities, 61% female and 40% what they refer to as nontraditional students. The motto for the campus is “Let’s Go Peay.”

The [sociology] department had only recently been established as an autonomous department—before then it shared a chair of department with the political science department. It had also just moved into a new building, with nice offices and classrooms and lots of lights. Before this they had been in a basement. The official ribbon-cutting ceremony to inaugurate the new quarters was set for this afternoon. The faculty were all very pleased and excited about these recent developments. They were young—one tenured professor, the Chair, David Steele, and six assistant professors—and perhaps this contributed to the sense of vitality and commitment. No one seemed at all burned out; they all seemed very energetic and engaged with students and the fate of the department. Judging from the discussions I had with students later in the day, they were clearly doing an excellent job in transmitting this enthusiasm to their students.

Day 10 — April 17, Vanderbilt University, Nashville

I also raised the issue with the department about the minority “pipeline”—the problem of recruiting good undergraduates to go on to get PhDs in sociology and then enter the pool for assistant professors. One of the students I met in Laredo at TAMIU is one of the in-coming PhD students at Vanderbilt for next year. I told them about the MA program at TAMIU which automatically admits any student from their own program with a BA in sociology and sees one of its purposes as preparing their students to enter PhD programs in leading universities. I encouraged the faculty at Vanderbilt to think creatively about how they might be able to partner with Tennessee State to increase the flow of minority students into grad school. Vanderbilt is in the unusual position of being in the same city as a strong HBCU with a very active sociology program, and this could be an excellent context for increasing the flow of African American students into graduate school. They seemed receptive, but of course it is not so easy in practice to figure out an actual process for doing this successfully.

Day 10 — April 17, Tennessee State University, Nashville Continued

At the talk, there was an extended discussion, involving four or five different people, on the issue of the value of Wikipedia and whether or not it represented a “real utopia.” One person strongly questioned the value of Wikipedia because of its unreliability, but others defended it because you could also follow up on the sources, and the editorial process was not so different from peer review. A former editor of a journal said that peer review journals were like monarchies with an all-powerful king making the final decisions. When I noted the way in which Wikipedia destroyed the market for the print edition of the Britannica, the critic of Wikipedia said that this was a great loss. I then explained the purposes of the ASA Wikipedia initiative and stressed the ways in which Wikipedia should be seen as a dynamic process rather than a static document. It is a massive public good and it will improve and become of high quality to the extent that experts in subjects begin to see it as a professional responsibility to contribute to the public good. The use of Wikipedia writing assignments in sociology courses is one way of doing this over time.

Day 11 — April 18, Berea, KY, Berea College

Berea has an extremely unusual admissions policy: tuition is free (the equivalent of a $24,000 scholarship for all students). Only low to moderate income students are admitted: families have to submit copies of their tax returns to prove that the family income falls below the required threshold. (I was told for a family of three this was around $40,000/year). Eighty percent of the students come from the Appalachian region, 20 percent from elsewhere.  All students at the college have to work 10 hours a week, which contributes to paying for room and board. In the past this labor included construction work —many of the buildings on campus were built with student labor. Now janitorial work, secretarial work, various kinds of administrative support work, is all done by students as part of the labor requirement. And, the college does all this while clearly maintaining a rigorous and challenging academic program. I was deeply impressed and moved by the college’s aspirations and history, but even more by the earnest and passionate way in which these aspirations are translated into the reality on the ground in the institution today…

In the late 19th century it began attracting wealthy donors and built up an endowment. Andrew Carnegie, for example, was a major contributor, as was the Danforth family fortune. I would like to know more about the way wealthy donors saw their donations to a place that is so consciously committed to social justice and equality as ideals. Perhaps it was seen more in the spirit of “helping the poor” rather than “promoting equality and justice.” The result, in any event, is a very large endowment—approaching $1 billion – which provides the basis for the zero tuition policy. (But also: most students have Pell grants and many receive food stamps)…. Berea is a real utopia:  a university that grounds itself in principles of equality and social justice and then tries very hard to live up to those ideals in its practices.


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