American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
July/August 2020
Volume 
48
Issue 
4

Sociological Promise in an Age of Crises

Aldon Morris, Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, Northwestern University, and ASA President-elect

Aldon Morris

Aldon Morris

Second Sight Amidst Crises
 

Black people possess critical second sights—abilities to critically analyze structures and situations — when evaluating America. One hundred sixty-eight years ago, as Blacks labored in chains building the American empire, Frederick Douglass was asked by the Rochester, NY Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society to deliver a speech commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Douglass, an escaped slave and towering abolitionist, was agitated by even being asked to celebrate the 4th of July while his people remained trapped in bondage. In the speech, Douglass spoke from his core personal experience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine, You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Then his oratory shifted to the collective when he put his white audience on the racial hot spot:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim….There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. 

Douglass demonstrated that from the beginning Black and white Americans lived in separate worlds. The 1968 Kerner Commission, 116 years later, reached a similar conclusion: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” However, Douglass’ America did not move to separate societies in the 1960s; separate societies emerged during slavery and never transcended this split caused by the original sin of slavery.

W. E. B. Du Bois was acutely aware of the chasm between the Black and white world. He argued that Black life existed behind a white imposed veil that locked Black people into a state of structural inequality and truncated self-consciousness. Because of their belief in racial superiority, whites never bothered to look behind the veil and see Blacks as human beings. Rather, they treated Blacks with contempt, pity, and distorted their very being. Because of their place behind the veil, Du Bois grasped that Blacks viewed America through a different lens. Their lens revealed that white Americans lived a deceptive lie of white supremacy while preaching democracy but practicing oppression, especially racism. Although Blacks repeatedly tried to inform whites of this deadly hypocrisy, their arrogance, coupled with white privilege, prevented them from listening to their “lesser” humans. The black experience generated a rich authentic knowledge regarding the nature of America. Because of these painful accumulated experiences behind the veil, Black people, according to Du Bois, gained a gifted second sight in this American world. Yet, even today, it seems the barriers preventing whites from benefitting from Black second sight are too steep to overcome. But will that remain forever true?

Americans are currently locked inside a triple prison: Corona pandemic, an economic crisis, and civil unrest. Perhaps now white Americans are more likely to listen to second sights from African Americans because it is evident that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” King warned, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Because of these triple threats, I believe a unique historical moment has emerged. Will we waste this newly opened window or embrace it creatively, thus enabling a vital transformation? 

Corona Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has shattered life across the globe. This is especially true for America because it is the epicenter of the virus with high rates of infection, sickness, and death. Americans have always considered themselves the most advanced, powerful, and civilized country in the world. I have always been struck by how often this claim is uttered without rebuttal. Now the country is embarrassed by its awful and unsophisticated response to the deadly virus. Often “lesser developed” countries have developed more effective strategies for addressing the virus and minimizing its devastating effects. This outcome ought to humble America’s sense of its exceptional greatness. Considering the virus, we should juxtapose our human values to how we value material possessions. This is especially true of powerful rich Americans who clutch their mansions, yachts, private planes and dividends at the expense of most Americans, especially the poor and racial minorities.

The pandemic has exposed deep racial health disparities. For decades, sociologists, epidemiologists and health experts have documented the health crises confronting African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and the poor. Nevertheless, most whites have paid scant attention to these disparities, although COVID-19 may change these attitudes. As the pandemic surged, Black and brown bodies continued to expire in large numbers, making the conclusion inescapable that decades of racism in health care accounts for the staggering disproportionate numbers of Black and brown fatalities.

I have participated in numerous conversations with white scholars and whites generally about racial health disparities leading to fewer years of life, high infant mortality, hypertension, obesity, and diabetes for people of color. But now those conversation are different. After the initial shock of massive Black and brown deaths, whites are beginning to express righteous indignation about racism determining access to quality health care. I challenge them: “You are going to release your outrage as soon as COVID-19 is vanquished and you return to business as usual.” They exclaim “No, not this time. This is not right; we will do better.” Are they developing second sight into this serious form of inequality and will they try and eradicate it? I think this is possible despite warning by sociologists of the gulf between what people say and what they do. 

The Failing Economy

The pandemic has wrecked the economy. Millions of jobs have been lost and numerous businesses are closing permanently. People with jobs find it difficult to work because school closings make it necessary for them to provide daycare and schooling. For the first time, many whites are forced to join long food lines to put food on the table. Many whites never thought they would experience unemployment and the lack of dignity it engenders. They knew many Black people were unemployed, but they thought it was Black’s own fault because they lacked a strong work ethic. For whites, Black unemployment was a personal Black failure rather than a structural problem.

Because of the pandemic, unemployed whites are in the same jobless boat as Blacks. They don’t like it. Individuals as disparately positioned as the sociologist William Julius Wilson and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, have argued that jobs are about much more than money. For Wilson, jobs provide people with hope and a sense of importance. For Biden, “a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about dignity.” Unemployed whites are experiencing this loss of dignity which they considered a God-given entitlement. They know their unemployment is a structural problem that leaves them personally humiliated. The question is whether they extend this structural analysis to unemployed Blacks or continue to see them as lazy welfare cheats. Worse, some whites may blame Blacks for their unemployment woes, viewing them as less qualified affirmative action hires. Perhaps whites will choose the wisest route by gaining second sight into the job market and empathize with other races similarly displaced.

Police Brutality and Civil Unrest

African Americans have always experienced brutal policing. During slavery, practically all whites served as overseers to keep slaves subjugated. Blacks were policed and lynched during the Jim Crow period to ensure compliance with the peonage system of sharecropping. As Blacks migrated to cities, they confronted heavy policing to ensure racially segregated neighborhoods were maintained and Blacks stayed in “their place” within the racist industrial system. By the 1960s, the relationship between Black city dwellers and the police constituted tinderboxes poised to explode into urban rebellions. The Kerner Report, which studied the causes of hundreds of race riots in northern cities, concluded that “‘Prior’ incidents, which increased tensions and ultimately led to violence, were police actions in almost half the cases; police actions were ‘final’ incidents before the outbreak of violence in 12 of the 24 surveyed disorders.”

Generally, whites have overlooked police brutality in Black communities, viewing it as necessary and fair to control Black crime. Black people, utilizing their lived experiences and second sight, pleaded with police, courts, and governing elites to address police brutality. In return, police continued to beat, murder, and imprison Black people which led to the present era of mass incarceration. Repeated scenes of Black mothers, fathers, and families painfully funeralizing their unarmed children murdered by the police and white vigilantes played out like reruns of old movies. Protests often followed this injustice, usually with courts issuing not guilty verdicts. Meanwhile, the white community continued business as usual believing justice was served.

Then a catastrophe occurred. George Floyd was choked to death by a white policeman who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck until life escaped his body while two other policemen aided in the slaughter. The murder captured on video showed a handcuffed Floyd begging for his life and calling for his dead mother as he sensed their reunion in eternity. 

The historic second sense of Blacks informs that the criminal justice system is fundamentally racist despite white dissenting views that justice is blind. With no place to turn, Blacks organize social movements to address racism and police brutality. Slave revolts, bus boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and urban rebellions constitute pillars of this historic freedom struggle. The social movement is a grassroots effort of the oppressed to overthrow domination. Its power derives from the ability of masses to disrupt society so it cannot function as usual. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. succinctly summarized what he hoped the Birmingham campaign needed to accomplish to force durable structural change: “The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” As I wrote in my book, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, contrary to the sanitized, rose-colored glasses version of history, change was not generated through non-disruptive marches of people singing “We Shall Overcome.” Rather, Jim Crow collapsed because the Civil Rights Movement disrupted the roots of southern society. As soon as the business leaders and political elite realized that the demonstrations were indeed chronic, they negotiated with movement leaders, agreeing to dismantle racial segregation in commerce and public services. 

The Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) has made a good start towards creating and sustaining “crisis-packed” situations across the United States. Floyd’s murder triggered mass demonstrations in every state and scores of other countries that have been disrupting “business as usual” in virtually every realm of life. Whether BLM creates meaningful and lasting change depends on the degree to which it disrupts regimes of racial inequalities and can sustain that disruption until the captains of white supremacy are ready to negotiate. This outcome is likely precisely because new forces have joined the movement.

The current movement has attracted masses of whites and people from all walks of life who have joined the protests, augmenting the strength of the movement. Many whites could ignore no longer the police brutality because the blatant murder of Floyd captured on video could not be misread as anything other than murder. This realization converged with Blacks’ second sight that illuminate the reality of their experiences with a criminal injustice system. Moreover, for whites, movement participation produces second sight for it exposes them to the vast racial inequalities entrenched in the police and the society. The movement is awakening many whites, enabling them to see America through a new lens and to struggle to change it.

The main question is whether the Black Lives Matter movement can transform systemic racism in America. New voices and ideas fostered by the movement are penetrating the media and disrupting the engrained loyalty to many of the cultural practices and symbols endorsing and enforcing racism. So far, these disruptions have yielded symbolic changes, including changing flags, replacing monuments, renaming buildings and streets, amending music lyrics, and altering our vocabulary of discourse. These changes are hard won and important, but the eradication of these white supremacy symbols does not ameliorate the material hardship of systemic racism. These changes do not cost billions of dollars. The structural changes that can reduce or eradicate systemic racism are altogether different from cultural changes. They require the re-allocation of basic resources to equalize income and wealth, employment and under employment and underemployment, educational opportunities, incarceration rates, and access to quality health care.

To dismantle white supremacy structural changes are required. They are very expensive to implement, and they have a zero-sum logic that involves transferring money currently earmarked for police weaponry to underfunded schools in Black communities; slashing the military budget to finance low-income housing; and taxing obscene levels of executive pay and bloated corporate profits to make the minimum wage a living wage. To achieve these structural changes, widespread and sustained social disruptions must continue until the powerful people and institutions whose funds are needed for equalization are ready to negotiate. BLM has a difficult task ahead, but it must be inspired by the fact that other seemingly unshakable racist regimes—slavery and Jim Crow—came tumbling down under the weight of massive disruptions.

Conclusions

As sociologists, we are challenged by this era of COVID-19, an economy on the brink of recession and mass racial unrest. What is needed is a vast infusion of second sight into the body social that can guide us from the edge of disaster. This is where sociology is key for it is a brand of second sight commonly known as the sociological imagination. It provides critical understandings of the relationships among biography, history, and social structure, enabling its possessors to critically evaluate structures and social situations. When times are bad in the world, they can be good for sociology if sociologists boldly embrace the challenge to produce and disseminate a sociological imagination that engenders social transformations enabling us to live together productively rather than perish as fools.