Fresh from the American Sociological Association annual conference in Seattle, author and academic Jessie Daniels questions whether there should be a distinction between scholarship and activism or whether the time for retreat to the academic ivory tower is well and truly over….
Academic sociologists sat in silence, many openly wept, as a video of a macabre scene in an American jail played in the plenary session of the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Seattle on Saturday.
The video, pulled from a surveillance camera, shows five people covered head to toe in white protective jumpsuits, similar to cleanroom suits in semiconductor factories. The people in the white suits surround a naked, slightly built, Black woman, and with steady deliberation, end her life.
“Black women are never seen as damsels in distress,” Kimberle Crenshaw, critical race scholar and law professor at UCLA and Columbia, explained. “Rather, we are seen as something that must be controlled.”
Jailed, shackled, hooded
The visual documentation of Natasha McKenna’s death – jailed, shackled, hooded and tasered by Fairfax Virginia sheriff’s deputies in February 2015 – was part of Crenshaw’s efforts to focus attention on Black women as targets of police violence.
In many ways, the plenary was an illustration of how Black feminist scholarship informs and enlivens activism meant to stop the routinized killing of Black people by police, like Natasha McKenna. Crenshaw, of course, is the originator of the term “intersectionality” and one of the foundational thinkers who has pointed out the need to look at race, class and gender together.
Carruthers acknowledged her debt to sociologist Cathy Cohen who helped start the Black Youth Project (@) that Carruthers leads. And, Kaba mentioned the scholarship of Patricia Hill Collins, Beth Richie, Dorothy Roberts, Alondra Nelson and Carla Shedd in shaping her work to gain reparations for the systematic police torture of Black people in Chicago.
“…few among us know the names of Black women who are killed by police…”
Crenshaw made the point that even those of us who may care deeply about state-sponsored violence against Black people, few among us know the names of Black women who are killed by police. She illustrated this in dramatic fashion by having everyone, several hundred sociologists, stand until she said a name we didn’t recognize.
She read out names of Black people killed by police, starting with Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castille while most of the audience remained standing. Then she began to call the names of Black women killed by police, Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Skye Mockabee, and Keyonna Blakeney – and quickly almost everyone in the room began to sit down.
It was a powerful lesson in what Crenshaw said is the way we “invisiblize the bodies of Black women.” Crenshaw used the last few minutes of her time to screen the video that included the horrific scenes of what can arguably be called the state-sponsored murder of Natasha McKenna.
Then came the questions from the audience.
The moderator of the session, Aldon Morris, took several questions in quick succession, including one from a white woman who identified herself as a sociologist from Europe.
Where was the scholarship?
“I’m puzzled by the way activism had been foregrounded in the plenary I just sat through. Where was the scholarship? Europeans view scholarship as a separate and neutral enterprise, distinct from activism.” A slight grumble broke in a wave across the Grand Ballroom of the conference hotel.
“I don’t see scholarship and activism as distinct,” responded Morris, author of The Scholar Denied a book that details the way that W.E.B. DuBois’ work as a scholar and activist has been ignored by the academy. “In my view, sociology should be an emancipatory project.” The crowd responded with enthusiastic applause to Morris’ remarks.
“…sociology should be an emancipatory project..”
The separation between scholarship, supposedly objective and removed from the social world, and activism, born of an engagement with the world, seems an increasingly untenable distinction to maintain.
In part, this is because of the way the circulation of digital images through social media makes possible both activism and scholarship. And, evidence like that of Natasha McKenna’s death at the hands of police, make the retreat to scholarly objectivity seem like a callous, soulless response.
The digital era makes the retreat to the ivory tower, separate from the concerns of the social world in which we live, ever more indefensible.
You can follow Jessie Daniels on Twitter @
The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.