What life experiences have contributed to your interest in social psychology in general
and/or your specific research areas?
From a very young age I have seen people in their interconnectedness. For good or ill, I have been blessed with a sociological eye. I won’t claim any edge on deep sociological wisdom or insight, but I have always recognized and attended to the ways that the presence of others, be they friends, family, a particular group or organization, or an even larger social units like communities or nations, at once figure (and prefigure) our lives. In part, this inclination may have been rooted in an early awareness of race, racial difference, and prejudice. Listening to my parents talk about clearly racialized experiences, thinking about the adaptations they were making, or even learning about slavery in school all made an impression on me. In 1965, when I was 7 years old, the family planned a cross-country drive from Los Angeles to see, among other things, the World’s Fair in New York. The trip would include visiting relatives in Atlanta, Georgia and possibly in Florida as well. This occasioned serious discussion of the potential difficulty to finding hotels or places where we (the kids) might go to the restroom without a problem. In part, this inclination is the natural result of being a product of Martin Luther King’s America. I was old enough to witness the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements on television—though not old enough to actually take part. But this sparked a concern to make the world a better place. Hence, my enduring scholarly and social psychologically inflected interest in matters of race, politics, and social inequality.
Where did you spend the early part of your sociological career (first as a student and then as faculty)? How have your specific interests in sociology changed over time?
My interest in sociology began as an undergraduate at Loyola Marymount University in Los
Angeles. Like so many young people with an interest in politics and changing the world I began college thinking political science was the logical pre-law major. For one reason or another the courses did not excite me but a friend convinced me to take a class on “Social Deviance” taught by Professor Nicholas Curcione. Wow! What an exciting class and what a
dynamic and engaged scholar. Curcione had us reading Laud Humphries (on tearoom trade), Howard Becker (on becoming a marijuana user), Erving Goffman (Asylum, and the presentation of self in everyday life). I was a sociology major before the end of my sophomore year.
Eventually, I decided to give up law aspirations (years of participation in speech and debate convinced me that I want to seek and create real knowledge, not merely prepare to argue either side of a case). This choice was made easier by the fact that my mother had grown up in Atlanta, going to school on the Spelman/Morehouse campus. This meant that for a time she would see Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, sporting his Homburg hat, gloves, and cane, as she walked into school. So I grew up being regaled with tales of my mother saying “Good morning Dr. Du Bois” each day (who guessed her son would grow up to hold the W. E. B. Du Bois Chair at Harvard!).
Moreover, E. Franklin Frazier, the first African American president of the American Sociological Association, was a close family friend and her godfather. As events played out and I became serious about graduate study I ended up at the University of Michigan for graduate study. This was the perfect intellectual fit for me. As an undergraduate I had crafted a sort of senior thesis project (LMU really did not have this option when I was a student there) that involved analyzing data from the General Social Survey on white public
opinion on the use of school busing for school integration. I advocated in favor of Herbert Blumer’s theory of group position versus David Sears’s theory of symbolic racism. Much of my argument on the nature of racial attitudes was based on the work of Howard Schuman
and Mary Jackman, both of whom, it turned out, were faculty at Michigan. Bear in mind, my decision to apply there was serendipitous in that I only did so because a roommate had written off for the Michigan application materials and decided not to use them. So, he let me have the forms. I worked for Howard Schuman for 4 years as a research assistant and he chaired my dissertation committee which also included Mary Jackman and Jim House. The rest, as they say, is history. My first tenure track appointment was at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. At the time I chose Madison over Berkeley, Penn, and Indiana, each of whom had also made me offers. For me, I felt an immediate connection to folks like David Featherman, Robert Hauser, Franklin Wilson, Cora Marrett, Karl Taeuber, and Jane Piliavin. This seemed, for me, the best mix of race, social psychology, and normal science as I understood it.
What is your current (or recent) research focus?
I am currently working on two books. The first will involve an elaboration of the theory of laissez faire racism. The book is an extended interrogation of the notion of post racialism in the U.S. The second book is on the scourge of racialized mass incarceration, a more social psychological and political analysis of the emergence of historic levels of reliance on formal incarceration as our societal response to the problem of crime.
What interests and/or activities outside of sociology, are important to you?
Always a bookish sort, I enjoy reading murder mysteries, especially British police procedural mysteries (Dorothy L. Sayers, P. D. James, Elizabeth George) but also some American detective fiction (Walter Moseley). I am an avid jazz fan, enjoy watching professional football and basketball. And I spend as much as of the summer months as possible riding a bike on Martha’s Vineyard.
Given your success in the field, how do you balance professional and personal demands?
An awfully good question. Never take myself too seriously. Get out to the movies. Never pass up a good martini or fine bottle of wine (preferably at a great restaurant).
If you had to leave academia, what career would you choose?
Investment banker, with some combination of an MBA and/or law degree.
Do you know something today that you wish you had known when you started in sociology? What is it?
Academe is actually a small world. Be diplomatic.
What one piece of advice would give a graduate student? What about an assistant professor?
For young faculty, my main advice on the positive tip is produce, produce, produce. To wit, keep your head down and do your research. Write, write some more, and get it out there. Repeat. Spun in a more negative fashion, what I am saying is ignore the status striving, petty politics, and departmental and disciplinary intrigue that defines altogether too much of life in the academy.