June 05, 2020 | UCHRI The Fire This Time: Race at Boiling Point

Hosted by David Theo Goldberg and UCHRI on Friday, June 05, 2020.

UCHRI gathered Angela Y. Davis (Emerita, UC Santa Cruz), Herman Gray (Emeritus, UC Santa Cruz), Gaye Theresa Johnson (UC Los Angeles), Robin D.G. Kelley (UC Los Angeles), and Josh Kun (USC) to think differently together about the structural conditions and explosive events shattering our times.

In a wide-ranging conversation emerging out of the national and international protests in response to yet another spate of anti-Black police violence, these leading critical thinkers engage questions about intersectional and international struggle, the militarization of the border, racial capitalism, the feminist dimension of new social justice movements, the unsustainability of the nation-state, the power of the arts as a rallying force for imagining and sustaining solidarities, and much more.

Rapporteur Report by Dennis Browe (PhD Student, Sociology, UC Santa Cruz)


Herman Gray (Professor Emeritus, Sociology; SJRC Advisor, UC Santa Cruz)


Angela Y. Davis (Distinguished Professor Emerita, History of Consciousness, UC Santa Cruz)

Gaye Theresa Johnson (Associate Professor, African American Studies, UC Los Angeles)

Robin D. G. Kelley (Professor, African American Studies, UC Los Angeles)

Josh Kun (Professor and Chair, Cross-Cultural Communication; Director, School of Communication, University of Southern California)

The Fire This Time: Race at the Boiling Point (recording), which took place on June 5, 2020, brought together a superb collection of scholars to think together about this powerful moment – a confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ‘fed up’-risings against police brutality and systemic racism taking place across the U.S. and globally. Hosted by the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI), over 9,000 people joined, indicating the energy of the moment and the hunger that so many have for real change and more justice both in the U.S. and abroad.

David Theo Goldberg, director of UCHRI, introduced the event and set the tone by noting the pain but also the hope engendering the circumstances of this necessary conversation. Dr. Goldberg also acknowledged the UC Santa Cruz wildcat strike and larger UC graduate student struggle for secure living wages still taking place, linking the militarized police suppression of the strikes across numerous UC campuses (though especially the UCSC picket line) to the police repression we are seeing on the streets across the U.S. today. Directly connecting the COLA movement with the reason for this event, he stated: “The impacts [of disciplinary measures taken by administration] have fallen especially hard on students and faculty of color.”

Herman Gray served as the moderator of the panel. Repeating a powerful Black Lives Matter mantra, he began by individually naming those most recently killed by police: “Of course, we are here because of the public lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and David McAtee.” Much of the conversation centered around the transformative power of this moment and the types of hope that have been opened up. Panelists used a number of metaphors and analogies, borrowing other scholars’ words to describe these affective openings in the body politic. Gray relayed Antonio Gramsci’s phrase “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will” to speak about opportunity in crisis, while Stuart Hall’s notion of this being a truly ‘conjunctural moment,’ full of possibilities, was also invoked. Additionally, Angela Davis mentioned Arundhati Roy’s recent writing on the novel coronavirus as a ‘portal’ that can lead to something new, something different.

Gray then pulled on the polyvalent slogan, “I can’t breathe” to link together a number of intersecting structural conditions that harm Black and Brown people. These conditions literally affect their ability to breathe, while breath also metaphorically stands in for conditions of the measure of the good life. First, it is often poorer Black and Brown communities that have to live near polluted environments and polluted air. Second, the devastating health impacts of COVID-19 are hitting Black and Brown communities the hardest – importantly, not due to ‘racial’ genetics but due to structural racial inequalities, such as socioeconomic status and living in dense, low-income housing. And third, this phrase has been engrained into national consciousness by a number of Black men – Eric Garner and George Floyd as just the two most well-known names – who whispered these final words through their constricted airways under the weight of police chokeholds and knee-holds. “I can’t breathe” captures this confluence of structural conditions that for Gray opens a space to think through this moment and the possibilities for real change. 

The panelists recognized that, while powerful, ultimately this hopeful moment will not last, and a main question becomes what people can do next, how to move in the direction of a better future. Gaye Theresa Johnson offered keen insight here by saying that when people ask what we can do next, they are thinking within institutions; instead, what we need is a fundamental shift around our notion that what we need is a leader (usually a man) to tell us what to do and where to go next. She stated: “we need to start doing this ourselves,” by starting conversations and sometimes simply listening to and supporting the people already doing this work. Johnson remarked on signs of hope coming from these uprisings: they are teaching us “a different kind of calculus of human worth,” one predicated on the inherent humanity of Black and Brown people, who deserve to be here simply because they are breathing, able to draw breath. The suffering, she said, of Black and Brown and trans people, is met with skepticism, putting the burden of proof on them over and over again in order to have to prove their humanity. However, it is through and in struggle that “we always have the lessons of what we need in order to become free.” Davis also referenced the 2015 uprisings against white supremacy at the University of Missouri, reminding us that while the intensity of that powerful moment did die down, it is vital to not lose sight of the openings created for systemic change, even if it is difficult to not see immediate results.

Robin D.G. Kelley noted that there has long been an ongoing war that preceded COVID-19 – a war against poor Black and Brown communities which includes preexisting conditions of racism and structural inequalities. Referencing Cedric Robinson – his teacher and teacher to many on the contours of racial capitalism – Dr. Kelley linked together a number of phenomena into this ongoing war: exacerbation of border closings and horrible conditions of immigrant detention centers; bypassing of labor laws by Amazon, Instacart, and other gig workers; the deeply unsafe conditions of working in the meatpacking industry; as well as the growth of authoritarian regimes all over the world. These interlinked phenomena are manifesting in the unequal effects of COVID-19 and this most recent set of murders by law enforcement, all laying bare the intensity and the possibilities of the current struggle to live collectively. As Jenny Reardon, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Science & Justice Research Center at UC Santa Cruz, argues in a recent essay, it is veracity – ‘trustworthy truths’ – that is required to help imagine and create a more just world, centered around recognizing our collective relations with others.

Josh Kun picked up on this thread, discussing the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border by highlighting the converging effects of policing Black and Brown bodies in this country, including how Homeland Security and ICE have become further integrated into domestic functions of policing (even as far back as 1992, the U.S. Border Patrol was used in Los Angeles to ‘clean up the streets’ and deport Latinos). Kun then discussed his work following Richard Misrach, an influential photographer who documented the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border during the Obama administration. Misrach found all sorts of white supremacist spray paint messaging across the border rocks: “These linked systems of hate and terror are actually written on the walls, written on the landscape and on the land that has been stolen.” While the fear and hatred of Latinx immigrants is so palpable for many in this country, Kun took this opportunity to remark that the strong networking of how domination and violence happens needs to be met with the same level of resistance networking, the same level of strength of convergence and coalition-building.

After the initial round of commentary, the conversation turned to the importance of a global perspective and the need to confront ongoing racial capitalism since, as Angela Davis reminded us, racism is not just a domestic problem. Importantly, the importance of a broad internationalist, solidarity-based perspective turns on the need for awareness of the limitations of the nation-state. The panelists all seemed to agree that, as Davis stated, “the nation-state as we know it is no longer possible.” The liberal nation-state, which, even with its short history in the U.S. (Kelley remarked that the social-democratic liberal U.S. state only appeared during Reconstruction and did not last long) has been hollowed out and dominated by market-based, neoliberal ideology. For the panelists, this is where the authoritarian regimes come in to maintain control of the nation-state – capital still needs to be allowed to freely cross borders, but these regimes use nationalist surges and fear tactics to gain followers. Johnson remarked how these authoritarian nationalist surges are not just a demonstration of power but are also a measure of white supremacy’s fragility. She pointed to a material metaphor to symbolize this white fragility by noting the flimsy chain-link fence that has been put up around the White House to keep protestors out: “It’s the narrative, the gesture that you are not welcome, this is our house. But it’s a permeable chain-link fence, it’s not going to keep anybody out or in.”

The internationalist movement that has exploded across the globe is laying bare this white supremacist fragility, and the beauty of this new movement (which builds on but goes beyond work done by Occupy and on Black Lives Matter struggles over the past decade) is that is a coalescence of contesting anti-Black and anti-Brown state violence. Davis noted that when we say ‘abolish prisons’ and ‘abolish the police,’ we are thinking about a future in which we have moved beyond the bourgeois notion of the nation-state (which is constitutively anti-Black). Johnson beautifully remarked that the nation-state does not, and cannot, “hold all of the dreams and imaginings that we have for our communities, that we have in our own time… we have our own ideas about what freedom is…We are so infuriating to the authoritarian fascists because [we call] their bluff. We refuse their world because we have a whole different set of imaginaries that they cannot even comprehend, and these are ready to be enacted.”

Gray, in a way linking these alternate imaginaries of another world to the question of care – of taking care of one another in the streets through mobilization and protest – noted that this has been an essential element of these uprisings. Davis responded by asking, “Who usually does the care?,” conveying the importance of recognizing the feminist dimension of these new movements. Kelley then echoed a critique being made often this past month: why do police have all the equipment they need, but healthcare workers cannot get enough personal protective equipment (PPE)? This discrepancy speaks to the overfunding of the masculine-imperialist police force and the underfunding of more feminized healthcare work. 

After Kun’s discussion of the importance of cell phone video footage of racialized police brutality as producing a ‘new archive of truth,’ Gray introduced questions from the audience, covering topics including building multi-racial coalitions and organizing; the small-scale steps that people can take as well as what changes institutions need to make; and COVID-19’s economy of violence whereby we are seeing a shutdown of the economy and hundreds of thousands of deaths at the same time that there has been a massive distribution of wealth to the super wealthy. Panelists discussed structural issues that have become exacerbated during the pandemic such as the privatization of healthcare and the mainstreaming of corporate care about issues of anti-Blackness (See, for example, statements put out by Coca Cola and by 23andMe; as well as UC Press’s statement supporting Black Lives Matter). Kun highlighted how corporate maneuvers, which put out public, surface-level statements supporting Black Lives Matter while changing none of their own policies which contribute to racial inequalities amongst their workers, can actually increase capital accumulation on the backs of Black people.                                                                                         

The final part of the conversation revolved around the power of music and visual art as part of freedom struggles. Especially in this moment of isolation from COVID-19 quarantine as it has run up against the uprisings, the sonic dimension of sociality has become even more important. Davis remarked how one of the reasons why people all over the world are drawn to the Black struggle in the U.S. has to do with the power of Black music: along with the Black music that has traveled have been the stories of Black resistance. And this, she thinks, is one of the reasons why there is not nearly the same level of global solidarity with other freedom struggles such as of the Palestinians and Kurds. However, music has the power to open up solidarities across struggles.

Fittingly, this past January the Science & Justice Research Center (SJRC) co-hosted an event on the future of race in the U.S. (which was a conversation between Herman Gray and Alondra Nelson, with Jenny Reardon serving as moderator); the ongoing theme of that conversation centered around how to realize and create conditions of possibility for transformative social moments/movements. And now, just five months later, a massively transformative moment has arrived in full force, opening up new possibilities for taking action centered around a more expansive notion of freedom and for thinking about what work remains ahead.

I end with a comment from Kelley, based on an audience question asking how to reconcile two timelines of freedom: the freedom enshrined in the U.S. Constitution on the one hand, and on the other hand the fact that many groups such as Blacks still do not have that full freedom. He replied by remarking that these are not two separate timelines, since they are dialectically related. One freedom is dependent on the other: unfreedom. For whites in the U.S., their freedom has always depended on the unfreedom of others. Taking in and digesting the wisdom of these scholars pushes us to continue thinking through this powerful moment, envisioning how to build more livable presents and more just futures. Since freedoms are dialectically interdependent, this moment, however short-lived, offers a chance to think and act our way out of the differentially deadly contours of racial capitalism, imagining life-giving alternatives to the conditions of anti-Blackness that can transmute “I can’t breathe” into something like “We breathe better, beautifully together.” This will take massive work on a broad internationalist scale and is prone to opposition and counter-forces at every step along the way, but as this conversation showed, this moment of transformation is already here as an ongoing new beginning.

Call for Participation

Spring 2020 Undergraduate Student Researcher Opportunity

The Science & Justice Research Center is pleased to announce we are now accepting applications for a:

Undergraduate Research Fellowship

The award presents a paid research opportunity to first-generation, low income, under-represented groups, undocumented, and/or former foster youth. The award is intended as a stipend to support general living expenses, fieldwork or travel (as allowed by campus or state COVID-19 and shelter-in-place restrictions), presentation of work, and/or research. Undergraduate students currently enrolled in any department at UC Santa Cruz may apply. Preference will be given to applicants currently involved in the project. Established to increase inclusiveness and a sense of belonging in research, the award will support research conducted by one undergraduate student working with the Center project:

Theorizing Race After Race

The student should:
  • Be currently enrolled as an undergraduate student (any department) at UC Santa Cruz during Spring 2020; summer enrollment is not required.
  • Be currently working on the established Center project: Theorizing Race After Race.
The student will:
  • Help design and articulate the project’s future. This may include conducting interviews and transcription, analysis and editing of interviews; as well as tracking, collecting, and organizing articles about the social, political, and economic dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic written by prominent theorists of race, inequality, and STS.
  • Adhere to IRB standards for working with human research subjects if applicable.
  • Be offered a $1,500 Fellowship with the SJRC and listed on the Project’s webpage.
To Apply:

By 12:00Noon, Wed May 13, students should email (scijust@ucsc.edu) expressing interest, letting us know and sending the following:

  1. Your name, major, academic faculty advisor(s).
  2. Your resume/CV.
  3. Why you are interested in the project, how your personal/work/research/career goals would benefit from the fellowship, and how it would contribute to your overall sense of belonging at UC Santa Cruz.
  4. A short statement on your experiences at UCSC or involvement with the SJRC as related to topics addressed by the Project (including human subjects research, events attended, classes taken, etc.).
  5. Any ideas briefly describing potential research to be completed over Spring and Summer 2020.

Information on SJRC’s TRAR project can be found at: https://scijust.ucsc.edu/2018/11/27/theorizing-race-after-race/

April 24, 2020 | Theorizing Race After Race

Friday, April 24, 2020

2:30-3:30 PM

Join Science & Justice scholars for an open discussion of Theorizing Race After Race!

At this session, we’ll read and think with Alondra Nelson’s, “Society after Pandemic”: https://items.ssrc.org/insights/society-after-pandemic/ (Links to an external site.), and Ruha Benjamin’s, “Black Skin, White Masks: Racism, Vulnerability & Refuting Black Pathology”: https://aas.princeton.edu/news/black-skin-white-masks-racism-vulnerability-refuting-black-pathology. We’ll also discuss a collective writing project.

Contact Camilla Hawthorne (camilla@ucsc.edu) for the Zoom link.

More information on the cluster can be found at: https://scijust.ucsc.edu/2019/05/17/theorizing-race-after-race/.

April 08, 2020 | Theorizing Race After Race

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

2:00-4:00 PM

Join Science & Justice scholars for an open discussion of Theorizing Race After Race!

At this session, we will brainstorm how the COVID-19 pandemic might shift the work we are doing as a collective. We will also discuss our funding proposal, and continue our conversation from last quarter about next steps from the January 22 discussion with Herman Gray and Alondra Nelson.

More information on the cluster can be found at: https://scijust.ucsc.edu/2019/05/17/theorizing-race-after-race/.

Contact Camilla Hawthorne (camilla@ucsc.edu) or Colleen Stone (colleen@ucsc.edu) for the Zoom link.

February 18, 2020 | Theorizing Race After Race [POSTPONED]

Tuesday, February 18, 2020 [POSTPONED]

5:00-6:30 PM

SJRC Common Room, Oakes 231

Join Science & Justice scholars for an open discussion of Theorizing Race After Race!

At this session, we’ll discuss our funding proposal (which we will circulate in advance), as well as a recap of the January 22 discussion with Herman Gray and Alondra Nelson.

More information on the cluster can be found at: https://scijust.ucsc.edu/2019/05/17/theorizing-race-after-race/.

January 22, 2020 | Racial Reconciliation and the Future of Race in America

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Doors opened at 6:00pm; talk began at 7:00pm

Kuumbwa Jazz Center (320 Cedar St, Downtown, Santa Cruz)

RSVP was required; tickets were $10 and a limited amount of free student tickets were made available.

The community joined us for a vibrant, stimulating, and challenging conversation on race in America with Alondra Nelson (President, Social Sciences Research Council) and Herman Gray (Emeritus Professor of Sociology, UC Santa Cruz) as moderated by Jenny Reardon (Professor of Sociology and Director of the Science & Justice Research Center, UC Santa Cruz).

The racially charged moment we are living through in the U.S. comes with tremendous danger, but also with great opportunity.  The dangers are obvious— blatantly racist statements by our president, the emboldenment of white supremacist movements, the rampant loss of black life at the hands of the police, the demonizing of immigrants, rampant Islamophobia and so on. Yet it is a time of tremendous opportunity—with the most racially diverse Congress ever, a diverse pool of Presidential candidates, growing national discussions about reparations for slavery, vibrant grassroots movements for racial justice emerging across the country. There have also been some remarkable efforts in recent years to try to come to terms with the shame of America’s racially oppressive history and move forward on more firm footing for racial justice.

Herman Gray is Professor of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz and has published widely in the areas of black cultural theory, politics, and media. Most recently, Gray co-edited Racism Postrace with Roopali Mukherjee, Sarah Banet-Weiser.

Alondra Nelson, President of the Social Science Research Council and Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, is an acclaimed researcher and author, who explores questions of science, technology, and social inequality. Nelson’s books include, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination; and The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome. She is coeditor of Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History (with Keith Wailoo and Catherine Lee) and Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life (with Thuy Linh N. Tu). Nelson serves on the board of directors of the Teagle Foundation and the Data & Society Research Institute. She is an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and of the Hastings Center, and is an elected Member of the Sociological Research Association.

The event was co-sponsored by the UC Santa Cruz Institute for Social Transformation, the Science & Justice Research Center, NAACP of Santa Cruz County, ACLU Northern California Santa Cruz County Chapter, and Inner Light Ministries.

An announcement of the event appears in this campus news article.

Leading up to the event, SJRC Director Jenny Reardon and Herman Gray interviewed on race in America in January 2020 by Chris Benner (Director of the Institute for Social Transformation).

Rapporteur Report by Dennis Browe

“Racial Reconciliation and the Future of Race in Americabrought together a group of three long-time friends and intellectual interlocutors for an intimate conversation with an overflowing audience at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in downtown Santa Cruz. Jenny Reardon, who served as moderator, described how Herman Gray’s work on race in the media has been pathbreaking for many scholars, including Alondra Nelson. For a long time now, they have wanted to engage in conversation with Dr. Gray, and the recent formation of the Theorizing Race After Race working group presented a perfect opportunity to bring these three scholars together in dialogue.

From left to right: Jenny Reardon, Alondra Nelson, and Herman Gray in dialogue

The conversation included an array of themes including contemporary media; genealogy and genetic ancestry testing; reparations; our polarized nation; the term ‘post-racial’; and the status of the social sciences today. The three panelists discussed the challenges and opportunities of the present moment for understanding and creating social change around race, racism, and reparations in the United States, with the focus mainly on African American history and Black cultural studies. Framing the conversation and introducing the three panelists, Chris Benner, Professor of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz and Director of the Institute for Social Transformation on campus, referenced Michelle Alexander’s January 17 New York Times opinion piece, stating that with the urgency of this moment in our country’s history, “We don’t want to be in denial that the injustice of this moment is an aberration. Conditions of injustice have thrived throughout our history, as have the aspirational movements for and toward an inclusive democracy.”

Dr. Reardon began by asking a series of questions, with the conversation lasting about one hour, before opening it up to questions from the audience. The conversation centered around the expertise and most recent books of Dr. Gray and Dr. Nelson. Herman Gray recently co-edited a volume, Racism Postrace (2019), while Alondra Nelson recently published The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome (2016).

Dr. Reardon launched the conversation by asking their thoughts about a new HBO show, The Watchmen, which brilliantly brings together and cuts across the panelists’ expertise: the relationships between science and technology – specifically genealogy and genetic ancestry – and race; and televisual media as a form of both social critique and speculative world-building. The Watchmen, based on the 1986 & 1987 graphic novel of the same name, takes place in an alternate-reality United States in which the U.S. won the Vietnam War, Nixon remained president for decades, and Robert Redford then assumes the presidency and oversees the passage of an act which provides reparations for descendants of victims of the Tulsa, Oklahoma Race Massacre in 1921. In this reimagined U.S., the passage of the pejoratively named “Redfordations” has sparked a backlash and uprising by white supremacists in Tulsa.

For the panelists, the show succeeds in leaving viewers slightly off-kilter; it scrambles conventional ways of understanding history and trauma, memory and subjectivity, particularly for African Americans. The show also scrambles temporalities: it plays with the possibilities of the past and prospects for the future, denying any clear narrative of progress from a more racist and unjust past to a more just present. For Dr. Nelson, the show succeeds in part because it is sci-fi: realism would not be able to capture the traumas of the past and their effect on memory and lived experience of African Americans that this show captures. It “Makes fun of the absurdity and profundity of racial violence… time gets snatched, people get snatched… The temporality starting and stopping is sometimes out of the control of marginalized communities.” However, the show is also of the horror genre for Dr. Nelson, as it deals with the genealogy of the Klan and the masking of everyone – superheroes, cops, white supremacists. The horror – the inability to know or not know who is a white supremacist – subtends the science fictional reimagination of the U.S. in the show.

The Watchmen also brings in real life Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who in the show plays the US Secretary of Commerce and guides African Americans in Tulsa through submitting DNA samples into a machine to find out whether they are eligible for reparations. This intersects with the work done in Dr. Nelson’s book who, through her ethnographic work with early African American adopters of direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic ancestry testing tools, investigated how and why people use genetic genealogy to make sense of their family’s history, especially in the contextual ‘afterlife’ of slavery and colonialism. Further, Dr. Gray made important connections between the entrepreneurial market logic of this show’s power and why television as a site of circulation is so fascinating: the ways in which memory and trauma attempt to gain cultural standing are tied in with the “marketability of the very idea.” Why, how, and when do certain cultural forms – such as African American trauma, historical but also lived in the ongoing present – become marketable to a mass television audience?

The conversation also touched on the similarities and differences between the Obama and Trump presidencies, with the theme of ‘postrace’ serving as a kind of touchstone which panelists repeatedly referred back to. For Dr. Gray and the co-editors of their Racism Postrace volume, their title does productive work by framing how proclamations of a postracial society further normalize racism and obscure structural anti-blackness. For Dr. Gray, “postrace is a kind of ideology of racism. It’s a set of ideas, dependent on race and racialization, about why race does or does not matter, in the aftermath of the Obama election.” However, postrace also marks the moment in which racializing logics and discourses are being challenged with a vengeance by mass social movements in the U.S.. Dr. Nelson also remarked on how the election of Donald Trump shattered any ideas about a clear teleological narrative of a ‘postracial’ U.S.: a “fantasy story that we told ourselves about race in this country. Now that’s been shattered, the spell has been broken.” Speaking about the case for reparations, for Dr. Nelson, Trump’s presidency has “moved us out of a space asking, is there something owed? Now the line is much more clear,” that something – reparations – is owed to African Americans.

When Dr. Reardon asked why reparations as a particular kind of racial politics have gained more prominence in this moment, referencing Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations,” Dr. Nelson commented that for some communities reparations has always been at the forefront of their political consciousness and activities: “The question of now is really about a longer drumbeat that goes back to the nineteenth or even eighteenth century.” Why, then, did Coates’s article make such a splash, and why do reparations remain at the forefront of African American racial politics? For Dr. Nelson, reparations and what they represent are sufficiently polarizing: “The necessary conditions for a kind of white supremacist emergence, are the necessary conditions for a galvanizing around reparations. And that is just – the most extraordinary thing. Those polar energies bring it to the fore now.”

Perhaps even more importantly, for both Dr. Nelson and Dr. Gray, Coates was able to use his extraordinary talent as a storyteller to link the ‘everyday’ to the ‘structural.’ In his essay, Coates demonstrates how the legacy of structural economic racism – beginning with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade – gets carried forward into the future and impacts upon African American families and their everyday lives. Dr. Gray discussed how the ‘afterlife of slavery’ is tied into structural conditions – how wealth (or lack of wealth) is reproduced over generations: Coates demonstrated how even black families living in Chicago, who do their best to be ‘good citizens,’ who pay their rent and bills on time, find out after forty years of living there that they own nothing. They have not been able to build any wealth of their own.

The final two questions from Dr. Reardon asked about, first, the status of the social sciences today, and second, what hope in this moment might look like and where it might come from. Interestingly, these two themes converged and diverged in unexpected ways. Dr. Nelson, who is current president of the Social Science Research Council, replied that the social sciences need to become more nuanced in our thinking about historical change. We tend to think in terms of paradigms and periods such as the pre- and post-periods of agrarian and industrial revolutions and we tend to place temporal boundaries around historical events. However, in the world these historical events all interweave, both seamlessly and not. Thus, we must develop tools to become nimbler in thinking about how these historical events intermesh, not in a historical-additive model, but in a more dynamic, recursive mode of occurrence. It is not simply that we have been led to this current ‘neoliberal moment,’ but the important questions become: what do we mean by neoliberalism? What other forms of governance and political economy and historically racializing processes does neoliberalism coexist with?

Dr. Nelson also reminded us that while WEB Du Bois began his long career fully believing in the power of the social sciences to build objective knowledge that could tackle structural problems of inequality, by the end of his career he had become disillusioned and felt they were not up to the task of creating meaningful social change. However, for Dr. Nelson, this does not mean that we should lose hope in the social sciences. For her, the social sciences, even with their limitations, can help us think in nuanced ways around language and concepts used by scientists and by the public. For example, sociologists of science have been able to offer much nuance to geneticists surrounding the language they use to talk about race and racial categories. In what precise ways do race and ethnicity get used by geneticists, and how do these terms and categories confound or help clarify their experimental research? Sociology is primed to help think through these sorts of questions. Lastly, for Dr. Nelson, there is hope in social scientists finding a common purpose with other organizations and movements, working toward common goals to create social change.

Dr. Gray also provided an illuminating answer, simultaneously encompassing the limitations and the hope that may come out of the social sciences. He referenced Roderick Ferguson’s book, Aberrations in Black – which begins with a scene from Marlon Riggs’s experimental documentary Tongues Untied. In the scene, an African American person is walking around a lake – they perform gender as a woman but their sexuality remains ambiguous. Dr. Gray takes this example to do the work of what Dr. Nelson had just mentioned: “the capacity of the person exceeds social science’s ability to understand them.” This scene highlights the limits of representation and the troubles with normative categorizing that the social sciences highly value. If representation necessarily fails to a degree, and cannot fulfill its promises toward knowledge, the point then becomes acknowledging and working with excess – representational and categorical excess, and excesses of legibility. Dr. Gray wants to push social scientists to work in the space of these excesses, to trouble normative sensibilities of what gendered and raced subjects are expected to perform. He believes the social sciences are capable of doing this necessary work. In addition to social science, Dr. Gray himself turns to the cultural realm, specifically the sonic – music and imagination, jazz and blues – as a source of hope.

A running theme throughout the conversation, which I believe allows for an appropriate note to end this report on, concerned ‘the conditions of possibility’ which are necessary for social movements to arise and grow. Dr. Reardon quoted from an interview with black cultural theorist Paul Gilroy, who in the early 2000s believed that genetics would be a tool that allowed for the world to transcend race since human genomes are around 99.8% the same. Paul Gilroy in his interview admits that he was wrong about genetics but does not apologize because he was looking for hope, and he will continue looking. As the panelists discussed, how does hope structure conditions of possibility? What were the conditions of possibility through which Obama became elected, and through which Coates’s 2014 reparations article was able to make such a splash? And what conditions of possibility will become necessary for both narrow and mass social movements to flourish – ones which continue protesting police brutality such as Black Lives Matter and allied ones which focus on structural change of racist, political economic systems at the broadest levels?

This genre of question leaves the ending open-ended, a maneuver which resonates with the work of Ruha Benjamin, who recently presented her work at a SJRC event. Dr. Benjamin argues that in order to fight the growth of ‘The New Jim Code,’ including racializing technologies and algorithms, social movements need to intervene at the level of the imagination. I believe Dr. Gray and Dr. Nelson both argue for this too, finding hope in the social sciences and coming to the social sciences through other modes and mediums of hope. Both scholars’ work, along with Dr. Reardon’s, has and will continue to center on realizing the conditions of possibility for these imaginative interventions, so deeply needed to sprout and flourish across our shared world.

November 19, 2019 | Theorizing Race After Race

5:00-6:30 PM

SJRC Common Room, Oakes 231

Join Science & Justice scholars for an open discussion of Theorizing Race After Race!

In thinking about how we might incorporate the upcoming discussion with Herman Gray and Alondra Nelson at Kuumbwa on January 22 into our work, we will be reading some pieces from both scholars:
  • The introduction to Herman Gray et al.’s new edited volume, Racism Postrace
  • Alondra Nelson’s introduction to the Social Text special issue on Afrofuturism
  • Two chapters from Nelson’s book The Social Life of DNA.
All readings will be available as PDFs on our Google Drive: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1P-OqpDv1QeEG-yxK5Ilxseqan–mITC3?usp=sharing

More information on the cluster can be found at: https://scijust.ucsc.edu/2019/05/17/theorizing-race-after-race/.

November 5, 2019 | Theorizing Race After Race

5:00-6:30 PM

SJRC Common Room, Oakes 231

Join Science & Justice scholars for an open discussion of Theorizing Race After Race!

At this meeting, we will be talking about the following articles:

More information on the cluster can be found at: https://scijust.ucsc.edu/2019/05/17/theorizing-race-after-race/.

May 07, 2019 | Theorizing Race After Race

4:00-6:00 PM

SJRC Common Room, Oakes 231

Join Science & Justice scholars for an open discussion of Theorizing Race After Race!

At this meeting, we will return to the NYT article about Reich with the implications of ancient DNA research for contemporary contestations over the category “race” with Lars Fehren-Schmitz. We will also juxtapose the Reich article with the 2018 special issue of Kalfou, “Symposium on Race and Science” by James Doucet-Battle.