Organized Labor is Organized Love (September 1st, 2019)

On Sunday, September 1st, 2019 I had the honor of sharing some thoughts on labor organizing, and our own efforts to unionize at the University of Mississippi, with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford. Here are those comments below, in their unpolished form.

*Updated to correct a part of the background which I got wrong in the first version*

First, I want to thank Reverend Doctor Gail Stratton for extending an invitation to me to talk today. And to Wendy Prenger for organizing the details and the planning.

My family and I come to the UU church on occasion, and we’ve always felt welcomed here. Which I don’t ever want anyone to take for granted – it matters a great deal to us that we’re welcome here.

I was asked to share some thoughts on labor, on organizing, and importantly on the new wall-to-wall union we now have at the University of Mississippi. And in framing those things, I thought I might focus on those aspects of labor, of organizing, and of our union that don’t get as much attention. That these things – labor movements, labor organizing, and the formation of our own union at the University of Mississippi – are at their core about a radical praxis of love.

That praxis of love isn’t often centered in imagery and depictions of labor organizing, at least in my view. More often, labor movements conjure images of anger between workers and their employers, or violent confrontation between workers and law enforcement.

Some of you for example have probably read about, or heard about, the Haymarket Square Affair of 1886. On May 4th of that year, labor activists in Chicago had organized a rally in Haymarket Square to protest the killing and wounding of several workers by Chicago police during a strike that happened the day before. The protest turned into a riot when someone threw a bomb at police. The bomb and ensuing gunfire resulted in the death of several police officers, and at least four civilians, with dozens more wounded.

Some of you may have also read about, or heard about, the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. Here, an uprising of ten thousand coal miners from across West Virginia turned into the largest armed insurrection since the American Civil War. There are of course more contemporary examples, but these are some of the more sensational.

I’m not here to claim that the history of labor movements has been nonviolent, nor am I going to claim that every instance of violence on behalf of labor movements has been justified.

Instead, I want to talk about what grounds labor movements in general, and our own labor movement on campus more specifically.

Let me locate myself a bit, here, too, for context. I was born and raised Jewish. As a young kid, I attended Saturday services pretty regularly with my grandmother. As a teenager, I drifted away from the synagogue. But as a young adult in college, I drifted back to Judaism’s ethics, by way of a few religious studies courses taught at the University of Missouri by the local rabbi.

And it’s that set of Jewish ethics that informs a lot of my own activities today around economic justice, racial justice, and political engagement.

But what are Jewish ethics?

There’s a famous story about Rabbi Hillel, a first century sage and commentator, in which a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism approaches him. The gentile stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stands on one foot. Hillel accepted the challenge, and said the following:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”

Other rabbis have pointed to Micah 6:8, which some of you may know:

The Lord has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Rabbi Tarfon, another first-century sage, offers the following commentary on Micah 6:8:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Justice, mercy, and humility – these are among the core tenets of Judaism. For many Jews, these tenets aren’t electives we can simply shrug off as optional. We are literally called to be dedicated agents of justice, to look the world’s pain, despair, and sadness in the eyes and face it head on. Even – and perhaps especially – when it would be easier to do otherwise.

And importantly, to act justly and to love mercy – these are relational practices. Each necessitates the other. They are also active. It is not enough to want, or hope, for justice. Or to want, or hope, for mercy. You have to act justly. You have to love mercy.

So what does this mean in terms of union work and labor organizing?

About two years ago, Jessie Wilkerson, who is a professor of history and southern studies on our campus, approached me to see if I had any interest in helping to form a union on our campus. Jessie had been approaching others with the same question, and had been working with a friend, colleague, and labor organizer whom she knew from her days as a community college instructor and member of United Campus Workers of Tennessee.

The early years of United Campus Workers of Tennessee included a successful living wage campaign, and the expansion of membership to every public college and university in the state of Tennessee. Today, United Campus Workers has active locals at the University of Georgia, here at the University of Mississippi, and as recently as last month, at LSU.

And when I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri, I helped form a graduate student association within my department that later became part of the basis for a graduate student unionizing effort that took place after I completed my degree. In June of 2018, a federal judge ruled that the University of Missouri’s student workers are employees under the Missouri state constitution, and that their union is the sole collective bargaining entity for MU graduate students, and that the University of Missouri’s Board of Curators must recognize them. The University is of course appealing the ruling.

Now, when Jessie and I spoke, we talked about our own interests in forming a union. We spoke about things like fair pay, and the fact that the wage floor at the University of Mississippi is not even $10.30/hr. Which works out to barely $21,000 a year, if you are working full-time and have full benefits.

We talked about how expensive housing is here, and how difficult it is to find adequate, affordable housing when our wages on campus are as low as they are. The median rent for a two-bedroom housing unit in Lafayette County is nearly $870 per month. For someone working full-time and making $10.30 per hour, that $870 per month is nearly half of their monthly income, and it’s just for rent.

We talked about how little healthcare our health insurance actually affords us. The co-pays are high, the coverage isn’t great, and if you have dependents on your coverage you’re coming out of hundreds of dollars each month in premiums.

We talked about the imbalance of power between workers and employers on our campus. That there aren’t strong policies that protect us in the workplace from harassment, from bullying, and from retaliation by our supervisors.

Now – it’s easy to hear these things only as grievances. To only imagine the frustration we feel. Maybe even to feel frustration and anger for us. But take a pause. At its core, our discussion was not about anger and frustration, though that was certainly part of it. Our discussion was about our care and concern for our fellow persons. And our anger and frustration was rooted in a radical love for others. In our desire to act justly, and to love mercy.

Pay is low at the university, so low it makes affording housing and other basic needs difficult if not impossible. And that’s a problem because we want people to be able to meet their basic needs. We love our fellow person enough to see their struggle, and to want to do something about it.

Healthcare is expensive, and the coverage isn’t great. And that’s a problem because we want people to be able to see a doctor when they need to, and not go broke because of it. We love our fellow person enough to recognize they aren’t doing well, and to want to do something about it.

There is an imbalance of power in our workplace, and workers have little protection from harassment, bullying, and retaliation from their supervisors. And that’s a problem because we want people to be able to feel safe and supported in the places that they work, so that they can thrive. We love our fellow person enough to see they are being bullied and harassed, and to want to do something about it.

Following that initial conversation with Jessie, several of us began to meet pretty regularly, to plan for the plan, so to speak. And by October of 2018 – less than a year ago, we chartered the first higher education union in the state of Mississippi with an initial dues-paying roster of 50 members. We are now at nearly 90 dues-paying members, with plans this year to grow membership to at least 200.

Because of our success, friends and colleagues at other higher institutions across our state – Mississippi State, Southern Miss, Jackson State, and Mississippi University for Women to name a few – have reached out with interest in joining United Campus Workers of Mississippi, and starting their own campus chapters.

Now, something that is often lost in our union’s narrative, and in social justice work more generally, is this. When it came to organizing United Campus Workers of Mississippi, much of the heavy lifting was overwhelmingly performed by women.

To be sure, there were some men who also did some very heavy lifting. But there were many more women. Strong women. Women committed to acting justly, and loving mercy.

Jessie Wilkerson whom I already mentioned. Ellie Campbell, a former law school librarian who recently moved to Chapel Hill to take a position at UNC’s law library. Wendy Goldberg, from the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. Angela Green, also from the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. Lauren Rogers, who works at the main library on campus. Jodi Skipper, an anthropologist and activist who organizes the Behind-The-Big-House tours each year in Holly Springs. Carey Dowling, a professor of psychology who along with her partner Conor has opened her home for strategic planning sessions.

And then there are the women who work for our umbrella union organization, Communications Workers of America, or CWA. Karly Safar and Melanie Barron, who work as regional organizers for United Campus Workers and CWA. Also Kate Diedrick, who is part of a worker-owned firm called Research Action which partners with UCW, CWA, and other national and local racial and economic justice organizations across the Southeast to assist with their campaigns and organizing practices.

Each of these women shows a radical capacity for love of others – and that love informs and shapes every aspect of our union and its activities.

So to end, if I can go back to Micah, this time to chapter 4, verses 3 and 4. Here, Micah offers a prophecy for how to transform despair, or in Hebrew, ya’ash, into peace, or shalom.

It reads:

“…They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war; But every [one] shall sit under [their] grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb [them].”

Within this passage is a beautiful image of a world to come. But whose responsibility is it to make it so? Not some higher power, whatever name we give that higher power.

This world to come will be, if and only if we make it happen. If we beat our swords into plowshares. If we make our spears into pruning hooks. This prophecy calls us to act, and demands that we love. And only if we – the collective we, the organized we – do these things, can we all know peace and justice.



The Alchemy of Heroes

I started writing this shortly after John McCain died in late August of 2018, in a rough attempt at creative writing. I shared it with a few friends, but chose not to publish it so shortly after his death. Jewish ethics demand we honor the dead, including those we may not deem honorable. Today marks the one-year anniversary of McCain’s death. It felt right to share it now.

From its sins, its lies, and the pain of others the Nation fashions Its heroes. Twenty-three. Twenty-three times, the Soldier climbed into His aircraft with orders to drop bombs on behalf of His Nation. Twenty-three times, the Soldier dropped the Nation’s bombs on to men, women, and children that did not ask to be bombed. The War was Unjust, but the Soldier was dutiful. And so the Soldier required His Nation’s praise.

On His twenty-third mission to deliver the Nation’s bombs upon men, women, and children who did not ask to be bombed, the Soldier’s plane was shot down and the Soldier was captured. The Nation was split. How should It consider Its Soldier and others like Him, who dropped bombs on those who did not ask to die? For five years, the Nation agonized over this question. Until one day the Soldier was set free. And the Nation was relieved. The Nation had Its Soldier, and no longer needed to drop bombs onto those who did not ask to die.

The Nation summoned Its Alchemists to do what has been done since the Nation’s founding. The Alchemists gathered the Nation’s sins, Its lies, and the pain of others, and from them fashioned a Hero. The torn limbs and charred flesh of the men, women, and children who did not ask to be bombed were rendered ash. The details of their lives made dust, and to dust they returned.

But the Alchemists were not finished. From the Soldier-turned-Hero’s military career and captivity, they wrote an Odyssey. From ashes of the men, women, and children who did not ask to be bombed, the Alchemists fashioned steppingstones. The Alchemists laid these stones before the Hero, so that he could ascend into the Great Hall where other Heroes like Him awaited.

Once in the Great Hall, the Hero and others like Him built the Nation’s Great War Machine. The Hero and others like him demanded bigger and better bombs that could kill many more men, women, and children who did not look or think like Him.

A time came for the Nation to weep for its own Martyr. Yet the Hero could shed no tears. Nothing was more important for the Hero than His Great War Machine. Though the Hero would regret having shed no tears, He never regretted His Great War Machine. To be sure, His Great War Machine made Martyrs of many more men, women, and children who did not look and think like him. But they also made many more Heroes in His own image.

The Nation’s Alchemists watched this all, and were still not satisfied. So they gathered Dissent, Death, and Destruction, and to their Hero added Maverick, Straight-Talker, and Statesman. From the Nation’s most essential Truths – Imperialism, War, and Greed – the Alchemists fashioned a Man of Principle. For more than four decades, the Soldier-turned-Hero-turned-Maverick served in the Great Hall alongside other Men of Principle just like Him.

And when the Hero’s time on this Earth finally came to pass, the Nation mourned the loss of one of its Men of Principle. And when the Hero’s body was laid to rest, the Nation once again called upon its Alchemists to conjure a Symbol from Him that would be wholly recognizable to the Nation, yet wholly irreconcilable with whom the Nation buried. The Alchemists took their Symbol and placed it within the Heavens for all time. Then the Nation returned to its work, gathering its sins, its lies, and the pain of others. And from these things the Alchemists fashioned for the Nation its next Savior from itself. For the Alchemy of Heroes forever requires the words and deeds of Broken Men, and the gulf between.

Visualizing Lynchings in the U.S. South, 1877-1950

Using comprehensive lynching data from the Beck-Tolnay Inventory,  I analyzed Southern episodes of lynching from 1877-1950 using Tableau software.

In the storyboard, you can play around with a few important variables (state, race, sex) to see differences in where lynchings took place, and the demographics of the victims. With the maps, you can identify the number of lynchings in an area down to the county level.

If clicking on the map below doesn’t take you to the story, just click here.


Southern Lynchings in the United States: 1877-1950

Petition to Amend or Retract Mississippi Governor’s Proclamation

The University of Mississippi’s Critical Race Studies Group, for which I am currently co-chair, has created a petition through demanding our Governor, Phil Bryant, amend or retract his proclamation that April 2016 be Confederate Heritage Month. You can click the above link to sign and share the petition. Below is the full text:

On February 10th, 2016, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant declared the month of April 2016 ‘Confederate Heritage Month.’ Governor Bryant has issued similar proclamations in the past, yet this year carries special significance. The murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist with an affinity for Confederate imagery led to protests and calls for the removal of Confederate iconography from public spaces across the nation. In addition, Bryant’s proclamation preceded the Mississippi Legislature’s failure to act upon nineteen different bills proposing a change to the stage flag. It remains the only state flag in the US that bears the Confederate battle flag in its emblem.

In his proclamation, Governor Bryant declares that “it is important for all Americans to reflect upon our nation’s past, to gain insight from our mistakes and successes, and to come to a full understanding that the lessons learned yesterday and today will carry us through tomorrow if we carefully and earnestly strive to understand and appreciate our heritage and our opportunities that lie before us.”

The 1861 Mississippi Declaration of Secession stated plainly “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” In spite of this, Governor Bryant’s proclamation makes no mention of the millions of enslaved men, women, and children who suffered and died in captivity, or the Confederate cause to keep them in bondage. As citizens of this State, we ask that Governor Bryant clarify what specifically about our nation’s past he intends that we reflect on; what insight is to be gained from the error of owning other human beings and, in turn, fighting for that right; and to make clear the specific mistakes and successes of the Confederacy, so that we can not only come to a fuller understanding of our shared heritage, but learn from it.

Therefore, whereas the history of the Confederacy consisted of the victimization of state enslaved men, women, and children of African descent in the four-year period of 1861-1865; and

Whereas the influence of the Confederacy allowed the continuation of the victimization of millions of black Americans within Mississippi and elsewhere following their emancipation in 1865; including state-sponsored denial of economic, educational, health, and socio-political rights; and

Whereas Confederate Heritage Month, Confederate Memorial Day, and other commemorative events surrounding the Confederacy and its legacy risk the perpetuation of false values and narratives without well-defined grounds, goals, or necessities for such proclamations;

Now, Therefore, we, as citizens of Mississippi, and friends across the world, call upon Mississippi’s elected officials to recognize the pain and suffering of its enslaved population, and honor their survival; while also recognizing the continued effects of this dreadful past on our present. We call upon Governor Bryant and other elected officials to make good on their claims of civic enlightenment through economic and political support for statewide efforts to tell richer and more factually accurate narratives of our state history, through social science public education, creative arts programs, and cross-racial dialogues. We insist that only a deliberate and intentional reckoning with this shameful legacy of injustice will carry us through to a better tomorrow. Until that reckoning, we reject the validity of Governor Bryant’s proclamation, and call upon Governor Bryant to either (1) clarify his intentions or (2) retract it entirely.


The University of Mississippi Critical Race Studies Group and The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation

First Pub for the UM Critical Race Studies Group!

The University of Mississippi Critical Race Studies Group (for which I am co-chair this year) just received notification of our first scholarly publication, in Sociology of Race and Ethnicity.

You can find the abstract to our publication below. If you’d like a copy of the article but can’t get through SAGE’s paywall, just email me.

Click here to access the article


Excerpt from Affective Labour: (Dis)Assembling Difference and Distance (with Jennifer Correa)

Below is an excerpt from a book-in-progress I’m writing with friend and colleague, Jennifer Correa, entitled Affective Labour: (Dis)Assembling Difference and Distance. In the book, Jennifer and I want to first ground the concept, affective labour, through four ethnographic case-studies, demonstrating how affective labour is employed to assemble differences and distance among and between social groups. Toward the end of the book, we want to consider how affective labour is, and can be, manipulated toward more radical, progressive ends. The excerpt below is derived from that chapter. Jennifer and I welcome any feedback!


from Chapter 5: Affective Labour and World Building–Toward a Theory for Radical Change

Affect, and its manipulation, circulation, and distribution as part of hegemonic articulations on the part of neoliberal, neoconservative establishments has, we hope, been quite clear to this point in our book. However, we want this chapter to provide our readers with a hope for how we might envision the role of affective labour in a radical democratizing project. What role does, or can, affect play in a ground-based populism that resists privileging any one subject position over others?

In 2012, for the 7th Berlin Biennale, a bi-annual event aimed at establishing an “open space that experiments, identifies, and critically examines the latest trends in the art world, the event featured a proposed project by Czech artist Martin Zet that would make use of Thilo Sarrazin’s Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab (Germany Does Away with Itself). Sarrazin’s book, widely regarded as anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and racist, was nevertheless the most successful work of political non-fiction by a German author since World War II. Zet proposed collecting as many copies as possible from the German public to first display them at the 7th Berlin Biennale, after which he vowed to “[recycle] them for good purpose.[i] A media frenzy unfolded, in which Zet’s promise to get rid of the books fueled a collective imaginary in which ‘git rid’ became interpreted as ‘burning books.’ In a comment on the project, Chantal Mouffe wrote the following statement:

I think Martin Zet’s project is a legitimate initiative. He is curious to know what is the opinion of those who bought the book. Asking them to donate it is to give them the possibility to express that they disagree with its content. The artist has a right to do it and it is a democratic act. What should be avoided is to have only moral denunciation of the book without a serious discussion. I see this art project as a way to give an answer to Thilo Sarazzin in visual terms and as a proposal for an agonistic discussion. I find problematic that a lot of people just dismiss the book without asking what it touches in the German public? What makes it such a bestseller? If there is very little response to Zet’s call, does it mean that the book is treated very seriously by the readers? It will be interesting to see what happens. We should also wonder why some people see flames in the call for collection of second-hand books? What are the first reactions to this project tell us about the psyche of the German society at the moment? I would never have thought about burning the books seeing the recycling sign. It rather suggests reusing it to publish something different. It recalls a strategy of situationist detournement. To see flames has more to do with the German psyche than with the actual meaning of the project Martin Zet plays on affects. People on the left very often ignore the role of affects. In contemporary politics unfortunately only right-wing populist parties try to mobilise citizens through emotions. Why shouldn’t the left also address them? Affects and passions are very important driving force in politics and they can also be mobilized in a progressive way. There can be a passion for equality and there can be a passion for justice. This should be an important field of intervention for critical artistic practices.[ii]

In the latter half of the quote, Mouffe makes clear the role affects and passions do play in hegemonic projects led by those on the Right, and what role they might play for progressive causes. Equality and justice are not just discursive, they are pre-discursive, a condition of affect not atypical for Laclau, Mouffe, their students, and more recent contributions by other scholars within the critical affect studies tradition.[iii] Returning to Laclau and Mouffe’s definitions from Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, we might think of affects as types of elements: those differences “that are not discursively articulated because of the floating character they acquire in periods of social crisis and dislocation.”[iv] If we acknowledge the openness of the social, or the “constant overflowing of every discourse”, affects would be those forces that have yet to be articulated into partially fixed meanings. They are the literal and discursive power to both articulate, and disarticulate, discursive structures—to provide coherence or rupture, hegemony and insurgency.[v] Their role in the ongoing project of radical democracies is in the power of affect to expand the chains of equivalence through cathectic investments in the commonality of differently located subject positions, or intersubjectivity. As Laclau stated in a 2010 interview, “There is radical democracy whenever there is a widening of popular interventions in the public sphere on the basis of the expansion of equivalential chains of democratic demands around a hegemonic popular core.”[vi] The theory of hegemony put forward by Laclau and Mouffe, and modified over the past thirty years in social and political thought, is a strategy. It entails a “performative agency of ideological interventions that is capable of quilting contingent field of differences and providing precarious regularities of social order.”[vii]

What does this look like in practice, however? If our case studies delineate how affective labour is used to assemble difference and distance to the benefit of white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and nationalism, are there identifiable projects for radical democracy taking place, where affect is centered, that might give us insight into how this can be accomplished? How, then, rather than eliminating difference and distance, can they be disarticulated from their current hegemonic expressions and reorganized through a logic of equivalence centered around a populist core?

…In concluding our previous chapter on the affective labour of state-based violence toward black and brown bodies in urban America, we briefly touched upon the emergent #BlackLivesMatter movement as a contemporary example of a populist core articulating itself vis-à-vis the expansion of a chain of equivalents: from three black women, two of whom identify as queer, a movement emerged largely through social media that expanded to include not only the specific issue of police violence toward men and women of color, but also to institutional racism as it plays out within the realms of housing, the criminal justice system, and even public schooling. Though still an emergent movement, we believe the #BlackLivesMatter movement for racial justice represents one unique case study from which social theory, and social movement organizations, can better understand the power of affect in the production of democratic reform.

Recall from the previous chapter how Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of the movement, described its origins: “When we began, #BlackLivesMatter was a series of social media platforms that connected people online to take action together offline.”[viii]. How members were mobilized, however, is key. For the founders, #BlackLivesMatter refers to “an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”[ix] As the riots in Ferguson, Missouri in August and September of 2014 unfolded, #BlackLivesMatter expanded its chain of equivalents, drawing in not only other men and women of color, but the internet hacktivist group, Anonymous, infamous for, among other things, its vocal role in the Occupy Wall Street movement against global wealth inequality. Both of us recall, with amazement, how, as militarized police rained down teargas and rubber bullets upon protestors, young and old, men, women, and children, night after night, social media became a serious platform through which other movements around the world could connect to the events in St. Louis. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, using the #BlackLivesMatter and #MichaelBrown hashtags, began circulating information on how best to treat, and prevent, exposure to teargas. The global network of Anonymous became a significant resource, shutting down the computer systems of the Ferguson police department, its city hall, and even ‘doxing’ the Ferguson police chief and other officers in the department.[x]

Following four days of heavy-handed police violence toward protestors in St. Louis, much of which played out on national television through major network coverage, a National Moment of Silence was organized for the evening of Thursday, August 14th of 2014. The moment of silence began as a simple conversation on August 10th, between New York City social worker and community organizer, Feminista Jones and another user on Twitter on how best to demonstrate solidarity following the death of Michael Brown. During their conversation, Jones stated, “I think we should have a national vigil for #MikeBrown and all recent victims of police brutality. Same day. Same time. Every city we can.” Using the hash tag, #NMOS14, information rapidly spread, and by August 14th, massive moments of silence had been organized in nearly every major city across the United States.[xi] Importantly, the moments of silence were not just relegated to large, urban cores where police violence against communities of color is most typical. In Oxford, Mississippi, where JT lives and works, a University of Mississippi student from the St. Louis area organized a moment of silence on the downtown courthouse lawn for that evening. Standing in a circle, with a reported 60-70 other black and white women, men, and children, participants raised their hands as a gesture of non-violence and in solidarity with Michael Brown, who it was claimed yelled “Hands up, don’t shoot!” before being gunned down by Officer Darren Wilson.

The student organizer, in describing the event and his inspiration for organizing it, stated, “I just want to tell everyone in Ferguson to be strong and stand up for their rights in the face of brutality – and be safe. I want to tell the police that this kind of militarization is not acceptable in any way, and black lives are worth just as much as all other lives.”[xii] Another student from Tupelo, Mississippi stated she attended the event because “I am against police brutality, and I’m against the things going on in Ferguson, Missouri, right now. I think anything I can do to speak out against that, I should do.” Meanwhile, the executive director for the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi also attended, declaring, “We’d like to stand with the victims of police brutality, with folks in the city of Ferguson who are hurting and hoping for answers and justice. We just want to declare our oneness with humanity (emphasis ours).”[xiii]

If, as we noted in the last chapter, political subjectivity is born from the condition of unassimilability to the state as a result of it being the target of state power, then we might consider how political intersubjectivity, that is, the relations between political subjects of the state, is also born of the same condition. Unassimilability, as a discursive and affective condition (one feels one’s sense of place in a racialized, classed, and sexed system), becomes the nodal point through which chains of equivalence are articulated and expanded. The absence of place-ness, felt in the realization of one’s body being ‘out of place’, becomes the empty signifier through which concepts like ‘justice’, ‘fairness’, ‘equality’, and ‘community’ overdetermine. The recognition of unassimilability, attained through the real and discursive violence upon bodies by state apparatuses, becomes the point of cathectic investment among politicized subjects. That investment, however, is not something that becomes directed toward the interior of political subjectivity—it becomes harnessed, and directed outward, creating those intersubjective relations so important for creating and sustaining broad-based movements, and for creating a hegemonic populist core. Fear, anger, rage, along with hope, compassion, and our ‘oneness with humanity’ are outwardly expressions that circulate, and in their circulation, they become powerful, producing new ways-of-being among one another.



[i] See

[ii] Chantal Mouffe, “Comment by Chantal Mouffe – Berlin Biennale,” accessed July 17, 2015,

[iii] Jenny Edbauer Rice, “The New ‘New’: Making a Case for Critical Affect Studies,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 94, no. 2 (May 1, 2008): 200–212, doi:10.1080/00335630801975434; see also Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley, eds., The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, 1st Ed. edition (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2007); Patricia T. Clough et al., “Notes towards a Theory of Affect-Itself,” Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization 7, no. 1 (February): 60–77; Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, First Edition edition (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2002).

[iv] Howarth, Norval, and Stavrakakis, Discourse Theory and Political Analysis, 7.

[v] Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony And Socialist Strategy, 99.

[vi] Glynos and Stavrakakis, “Politics and the Unconscious – An Interview with Ernesto Laclau,” 241.

[vii] Rafal Smoczynski, “Naming And Affect. Ontological Function Of Ideology In The School Of Essex’s Discourse Theory,” Educação E Filosofia 25, no. 50 (2011),

[viii] Pleasant, Liz. May 1, 2015. “Meet the Woman Behind #BlackLivesMatter—The Hashtag That Became a Civil Rights Movement.” Yes! Magazine. Accessed June 18, 2015 (

[ix] Alicia Garza, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement by Alicia Garza,” The Feminist Wire, accessed July 17, 2015,

[x] Doxing is a tactic often employed by hacktivists that entails leaking private information about individuals to the public. This information includes everything from home addresses, to banking and credit card information, to sealed legal documents.

[xi] Michelle Broder Van Dyke, “Protesters Rally In Cities Across The U.S. In Solidarity With Ferguson,” BuzzFeed, accessed July 17, 2015,

[xii] Errol Castens, “Moment of Silence against Brutality Held in Oxford – Daily Journal,” Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, accessed July 17, 2015,

[xiii] Ibid.


On the Problems with the “Write Clearly” Campaign

I’ve been going back and forth about writing this post for several weeks. Last month, I came across the following tweet from Syed Ali, co-editor of the sociological magazine, Contexts:

Before going further, let me be clear: I don’t know Syed well, having only met him once. I do sit on the editorial board of Contexts, but since we only meet once a year at the American Sociological Association meetings, I don’t have much personal interaction with the magazine’s leadership. The one time I met him, he was polite and collegial. In addition, Syed has posted a nice essay on the Contexts website explaining what kinds of writing the magazine is interested in, so that more sociologists can adapt their work to the magazine’s conventions.

Syed’s essay, and tweet, are part of a more general movement taking place within sociology, and many other social sciences. I call this movement the “Write Clearly Campaign.” The campaign’s goals are admirable: in the spirit of wanting a stronger and more direct impact on public discourse, certain circles within sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics have encouraged a form of academic writing that is less “jargon-y”, and more accessible to a general, nonacademic readership. The magazine, Contexts, for example, is explicit in its aim is to make “cutting-edge social research accessible to general readers.” In general, this is a great goal for the social sciences, especially given recent debate in The Chronicle of Higher Education on our role (or lack thereof) in public debate and policy discussion. Making our scholarship more widely available, and understandable, to a nonexpert audience has the potential to influence public opinions on a number of important social issues.

Nevertheless, I found Syed’s tweet incredibly naive, especially concerning the line he, and others, draw between “jargon” and “clear writing.” As someone embedded within the larger intellectual tradition from which “lived experience” is located, I feel it’s necessary to explain why this term is far from “jargon”, and how reducing it to just jargon illustrates a serious problem within the Write Clearly Campaign–an underlying assumption that all social science derives from the same epistemological position.

Epistemology, of course, refers to the study of knowledge–how we know what we know, including how that knowledge is produced and distributed and what conditions constrain and enable its production and distribution. The term “lived experience” derives from a specific epistemological position–that there is a complex relationship between our bodies and our awareness of our bodies and our surroundings. Some of this tradition date back to Spinoza’s counterclaim to Descartes classic Mind/Body dualism, but I find aspects of Spinoza’s monist position (i.e. the mind and body are of the same substance) equally troubling. A more contemporary understanding of “lived experience”, I believe, is found in the phenomenological tradition–a tradition extremely influential in the development of sociology, particularly the interpretivist vein which focuses on how social actors make meaning from their experiences. Phenomenological thinkers like Edmund Husserl and Alfred Schutz, for example, have greatly influenced interpretive sociology for several decades. Though they and others have used the term “lived experience” in different ways, my own understanding and use of the term reflects that of the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty understood our bodies as the sites from which our social experiences unfold. He described that our bodies are used for all sorts of things, from the mundane (e.g. sit, stand, walk) to the complex (e.g. create, destroy, and govern). In doing these things, we bring our bodies into relationships with our worlds, and through this encounter, our experiences become meaningful–literally, full of meaning. Our bodies, then, are not merely ‘objects’, in the Cartesian sense. Our bodies, rather, are our point of view in the world–the vessels through which we interpret what it means to sit, stand, walk, create, destroy, and govern.

It’s important to note that, while these discussions were originally matters of philosophical debate and discussion, they are now grounded across several disciplines, including sociology of course, but also anthropology, political science, and cognitive neuroscience.  So when one uses a term like “lived experience”, it’s not a “jargon-y” way of saying “experience”, as if all experience is lived therefore it’s unnecessary to specify. It’s demonstrating–clearly, I might add, for those embedded within the phenomenological canon–that (1) our discipline, along with many others, has not always recognized the inherent problems in Cartesian duality and (2) those of us who use the term write from an epistemology that examines embodiment as subjectivity-in-action/practice.

Is phenomenology complex? Absolutely. Within the canon, there is much debate about the specific relationship between embodied habits and practices and how we make sense of those things. Nevertheless, it’s a significant branch of sociology, and one in which concepts like “lived experience” have great currency. Dismissing it as something to “abhor” fails to recognize this concept, and others, on their own terms. Importantly, it draws poorly thought-out lines between sociology worth bringing to a wider audience, and sociology worth keeping insulated. Look, I’m all for making the knowledge we produce as sociologists more accessible to a non-specialized audience. However, if the Write Clearly Campaign is saying there is no room in their movement for complex discussions on how knowledge is produced and/or situated, then we’re doing a disservice to our potentially broader audience.

Mississippi Family Income Distribution, by County

I’ve spent the past few weeks playing around with Tableau, a data visualization software program. Though initially a bit outside of my wheelhouse, I am starting to understand the software a bit better, and it’s intuitiveness is becoming a bit more clear to me.

I downloaded some data from the American Community Survey’s 2009-2013 five-year estimates the other day, and decided to play around with it in Tableau. Below is something I came up with rather quickly–family income distribution for each county in the state of Mississippi, first by the total number of families reported in each county, and then by their percentage distribution within each county. Feel free to use the drop down menus to change which counties are displayed:

Mississippi Family Income Distributionby County

As I get more familiar with the software program, I hope to create more complex visuals, and stories. Ultimately, I think Tableau can be a really cool tool to integrate into the classroom with students to help better understand data, and the stories sociologists can tell with data. If you’re unable to access the workbook above, just click here

Medicalizing Racism

My most recent article, “Medicalizing Racism”, is now available for free from the magazine, Contexts. Go download it! Below is a brief description from the magazine’s website:

“Sociologist James M. Thomas examines how public and scientific accounts of racism draw upon medical and psychological models, and how this contributes to our understandings of racism as a medical, rather than social, problem.”

Origins: From ‘Intercultural Education’ to ‘Diversity and Inclusion’

One of my current research projects investigates competing meanings of diversity and inclusion within contemporary institutions of higher education. One component of this project is a historical examination of the discursive formation of ‘diversity and inclusion’. In their widely-cited article in the American Sociological Review, “Diversity in Everyday Discourse: The cultural ambiguities and consequences of happy talk,” sociologists Joyce Bell and Douglass Hartmann make two interesting observations that peaked my initial interest in the historical questions for this project. First, they claim that, to date, no scholar has produced an exhaustive account of when diversity first emerged in American discourse. Second, they claim that diversity discourse may be the first racial project of the 21st century (2007: 910).

Let me make it clear here, I think the world of Bell and Hartmann’s research, and the Mosaic Project more generally. However, when reading that article I was skeptical of both of those terms. In some of my earlier work, I’ve argued for an approach to social and cultural history that moves away from linear progression from one epoch or episode to the next. Instead, I argue that social and cultural history often unfolds through what Walter Mignolo (1995) describes as a clustering process, where clusters of social history overlap with one another, shaping emergent clusters, and our memories of prior ones. What I’ve found in many of the sociological writings on diversity/inclusion in higher education is this taken-for-granted assumption that diversity discourse emerged from both civil rights legislation and post-civil rights discourse in the 1960s and 1970s as more colleges and universities established cultural centers, academic programs, and student organizations centered on celebrating the achievements of historically marginalized populations. I just wasn’t convinced this was the beginning of modern day efforts to achieve ‘diversity and inclusion’.

I began by trying to move backwards from some of the values held by advocates of the contemporary ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives in higher education, and trying to identify any historical overlaps. I came across a brilliant, but largely neglected, piece of scholarship by the historian Nicholas Montalto entitled, A History of the Intercultural Educational Movement, 1924-1941 (New York: Garland, 1982). Though Montalto does not connect the dots between the intercultural education movement of the interwar period, and the movement toward diversity and inclusion within higher education in the post-civil rights era. However, in reading through his work, and the work of a few others, I’ve come to recognize a major ‘clustering’ between the inter-war period and the post-civil rights period concerning the discursive elements of intercultural education and diversity/inclusion. My goal for several upcoming posts in this blog is to flesh out some of these findings as I prepare the historical write-up of my research project.


Below are just some small pieces of the larger narrative I’m writing on the relationship between contemporary discourses of diversity and the discourse of the intercultural education movement from the inter-war period. I welcome feedback!

“A part of the emphasis on the model of diversity that posits diversity as a celebration of multiple cultures arose from the coopting of psychological theories of identity and self-esteem in the early 20th century. At the time, it was widely believed that an individual’s self esteem was dependent upon the status of their membership group. Rejection of that group, then, was believed to be the cause of self-hatred. Social workers employing these psychological frameworks began to argue that the way to solve the ‘second generation problem was to raise the status of the immigrant group through public recognition and praise of immigrant cultures for their unique contributions…

The Commission on First Generation Americans, established in 1925 to study the second-generation problem, issued its final report in 1930. In it, the authors recommended the formation of clubs along nationality lines for second generation persons “wherever there is lack of security, manifested either by intense nationality concern in the first generation or by blatant, extreme, and noisy disregard for nationality in the second generation…

Much of the diversity educational framework that is employed today harkens back to the early multicultural and intercultural education programs advocated by Rachel Davis DuBois in the 1920s and 1930s. Partnering with major teacher-training colleges and universities, the American Association of University Women, the New Jersey Race Relations Survey Committee, and the National Conference of Christians and Jews, DuBois designed assemblies and courses marked by a strong international focus, immediate antecedents in the pacifist movement, and a strong concern to change the attitudes of the majority rather than alter the self-concept of racial and ethnic minorities…

By the mid 1930s, national interest in ethnic diversity was intensive and widespread. The new commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, was carrying out plans to revitalize tribal arts, language, and culture through reservation schools. In Pittsburgh, one of the first efforts in higher education to incorporate diversity education was taking place at the University of Pittsburgh. There, seventeen Nationality Rooms in the University’s ‘Cathedral of Learning’ had opened, with the intention to use these spaces as classrooms where regular use would produce a “building up [of] respect for the historic traditions” of the major groups residing in the city. In 1935, spurred by its imminent merger with the Service Bureau, the widely-reputable Progressive Education Association passed a resolution for intercultural education stating, “there is no more important or appropriate task for this association…not only for the education of our thirty million new Americans and other minority groups, but also for the enlightenment of the children of the old Americans whose ignorance of other cultures is an equally great menace to our community life.”In December of that same year, the PEA Board of Directors voted to establish a “Committee on Intercultural Education” – marking the first time the term ‘intercultural education’ entered the education profession’s lexicon…

In the late 1930s through the early 1940s, the American Jewish Committee underwent a major transformation in how they thought about combatting anti-Semitism through educational programming. This transformation was due, in large part, to a growing body of evidence in the social sciences that suggested spikes in anti-Semitism were closely correlated with economic downturns and increases in anti-democratic behaviors. Increasingly, it became less popular to back programming centered on educating the general public on Jewish culture and history. Instead, it was argued by members of the AJC that anti-Semitism could only be extinguished by championing democracy more generally. The task of intercultural education, for the AJC, became one where open-mindedness, critical thinking, respect for the individual, and equality of opportunity were to be encouraged. Their commissioning of the now famous Studies in Prejudice series, of which the widely-read and cited The Authoritarian Personality was the first volume, was the apex of their new approach to “sterilizing the soil” from which anti-Semitism and group prejudice grew…”