Two lines of inquiry drive my research: histories of racial formations, and their contemporary articulations. I make use of several interpretive methods to reveal how racial categories and meanings emerge across different socio-political contexts, and how social actors both enable and contest racism in routine practice. My career to date has been marked by a successful balancing of these two lines of inquiry, as well as productive collaborations with scholars across disciplines. I am the author or co-author of four books, and more than two dozen articles, book chapters, and invited essays on the causes and consequences of race and racism in America, and in global contexts.
My early research examined the historical conditions that produced proto-types of the race concept in medieval Europe. Through an analysis of papal decrees, kings’ edicts, and other primary documents, I show how medieval Europeans constructed Jewish bodies as spiritually, morally, and physically inferior to Christians. This research, published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, provided a significant revision to Omi and Winant’s now classic Racial Formation Theory (RFT) by revealing the medieval and theological origins of the modern race concept.
Concurrent with this historical research, my dissertation research centered contemporary urban nightlife as a key site for organizing shared, dominant constructions of race, class, and gender. In my dissertation, I use ethnographic methods including participant observation and field interviews to examine how nightlife venues and the actors within define, organize, and deploy a shared meaning of ‘good times’ that privilege elite, white, and heterosexual actors as more desirable consumers, while other social actors are rendered as undesirable. A key contribution of this research is my analysis of the affective labor involved in producing ‘good times’. Previous research had only examined affective labor in the abstract, or through macro-level shifts in production and consumption. My research, however, puts ‘flesh to bone’ on the concept of affective labor, revealing how social actors actively produce the constellation of feelings associated with nightlife settings.
Upon completion of my dissertation research and the publication of my first book, I began a second major research project on the medicalization of racism within popular and scientific discourse. Starting with contemporary representations of racism as a medical phenomenon in both popular culture and scientific journals, I used historical and archival methods to work backwards and identify the roots of this phenomenon in the immediate aftermath of World War II. This research resulted in several publications, including articles in Ethnic and Racial Studies and The Du Bois Review. A mutual interest in the dynamics of race and racism in the making of mental illness led to a productive collaboration with the cultural historian Sander Gilman. In our co-authored book, Are Racists Crazy? (New York Press, 2016), we trace the ideas of race and racism as psychopathological categories from mid-nineteenth century Europe and the United States to the present day, revealing how racism becomes construed as a mental illness in the modern era. Our text details how nineteenth century medical and behavioral sciences used race to define psychopathological categories, as well as how assertions about race and madness became embedded within disciplines that deal with mental health and illness. Our book has been featured in The New Yorker, Slate, and Pacific Magazine.
Concurrent with my research on the medicalization of racism, I also embarked on my second ethnographic research project: an in-depth case study of a major, public flagship university and its planning and implementing of its diversity initiative. Combining participant observation with in-depth interviews and qualitative content analysis, my analysis centers on how the organization and implementation of the university’s diversity initiative enables the reproduction of racial inequality. I obtained initial funding for this research in 2013 through the American Sociological Association’s Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline. Subsequent funding was obtained through several competitive grants from the University of Mississippi’s College of Liberal Arts and the University of Mississippi’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. My findings from this research reveal what I term a diversity regime: a set of meanings and practices that institutionalizes a benign commitment to diversity; and in doing so obscures, entrenches, and even intensifies existing racial inequality by failing to make fundamental changes in how power, resources, and opportunities are distributed. My research on diversity regimes has been featured in Social Currents and Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. The book length-monograph, Diversity Regimes, was published by Rutgers University Press in 2020.
Current and Future Research
Beginning in 2017, I began a new line of inquiry into the intellectual history of W.E.B. Du Bois. With generous support from a residential fellowship with the W.E.B. Du Bois Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, my project considers an important but missing subject in the intellectual history of W.E.B. Du Bois: the influence of Western European antisemitism within his program for the study of race and racism. By situating Du Bois’s intellectual project within the sociopolitical and intellectual contexts of late nineteenth century German nationalism, my project advances a comparative framework for theorizing the relationship between what have often been treated as distinct racial projects: Western European antisemitism and American anti-black racism. Manuscripts from this research have been featured in Ethnic and Racial Studies, and most recently a special issue of Social Problems on the contemporary relevance of W.E.B. Du Bois. A book-length monograph is under contract and in preparation with the University of Georgia Press as part of its new Sociology of Race and Ethnicity series.
Most recently, I am pursuing a new line of inquiry into what I tentatively name ‘whiteness-in-crisis’. Scholars have long recognized that people’s ideas are grounded in their social, political, and economic circumstances; and that people coming of age in a particular socio-historical context are influenced by the major events of that era. The first two decades of the twenty-first century are marked by significant social, cultural, and political transformations. ‘Whiteness in crisis’ reflects the paradoxical phenomenon of this new century in which the material advantages of whiteness remain as durable as ever, while the underlying ideology of whiteness is increasingly scrutinized. This new line of research uses in-depth interviews to examine how white adults living in the American South and who have come of age in the post-9/11 era – those between the ages of 18 and 35 years old – think about and understand what it means to be white today. This new project seeks to bring into sharp relief the ambivalence, discomfort, and reflections around whiteness that are broadly missing in the sociological study of whiteness. This new project is funded by the National Science Foundation (Sociology program, award #2115147).