Sociology

People at the top establish an institution's morale. Correction from below, even positive correction, comes to be regarded as agitation.

—“Brown University, Fifty Years Later” (2010)

The more you know Black Harlem, the more surely you realize that it is hardly a monolithic entity. Actually, within it are several clearly discernible communities, identified by class, status, and ethnic background. As each community has a distinctive character, so each one preserves a distance from the other. Wealthier Negroes gravitate toward areas north of 150th street, or to the high-rise private projects such as Lenox Terrace between 132nd and 135th streets, or the houses either along Central Park or Riverside Drive; the poorer concentrate between Eighth and Fifth Avenues. Then, within these class lines, there are ethnic and religious groupings. The religious Negroes separate themselves from the non-religious, just as the Pentecostals are distinct from the Catholics and Episcopalians. As the West Indian Negroes have their own allegiances and customs, so Harlem has a French-speaking Haitian community with its own identity. The fact that it is hardly monolithic makes all talk about organizing Harlem into a solid phalanx faintly ludicrous--as difficult, say, as organizing all the Jews in New York City to support a Jewish candidate for Mayor.

Likewise, the notion of Harlem as “a ghetto,” though codified in books by respectable scholars, has little substance. The term, we remember, is based upon, first, the Jewish communities in Western Europe and then upon the immigrant neighborhoods in America's cities. The term presumes that one group has a culture--language, religion, customs, dress--so alien to the area's majority that the minority is forced, either by law or circumstance, to live separately. However, New York's Blacks hardly resemble, even metaphorically, the Jewish immigrants. Negroes speak the same language as white America; as they read the same Bible, so most religious Negroes pray to the same Christian God. They see the same movies, watch the same television shows, hear the same records, wear the same clothes, have pretty much the same aspirations for their children, observe the same laws, succumb to the same advertisements, adhere to similar values; and unlike the classic ghetto dweller, most northern Negroes have daily contact with the white community. Despite all the hokum about Africa, native-born Blacks are as indubitably American as any Americans can be. Harlem is not a ghetto but a racially segregated replica of white America.

What makes the concept of “ghetto” pernicious, then, is that it places the burden of adjustment upon the wrong foot. If the immigrant Italian, say, had to adjust to American ways--to learn English, for one change, as a prerequisite to cultural survival--the Negro's problem is that America has yet to adjust to his presence here and to his natural status as a fellow human being. For these reasons, a more accurate analogy is between Negroes and American-born women, who have likewise been excluded from certain jobs and social possibilities for which they were equally capable.

“The Harlem I Knew” (1967)

Incidentally, when did families that are husbandless get to be called “fatherless”? From that language mistake alone millions, if not billions, of dollars are wasted.

“Gay Marriage” (2004)

The theme of this new political sociology was the social bases of politics, which is to say the analysis of how certain social factors favor one political form over another, why adherents of a certain political sympathy come from common social backgrounds, and then how social developments precede perceptible changes in political preferences. To the classic questions of political science--who gets what, when and how--the political sociologist asks who emphasizes what public issues, in what way, and why?

The Maturity of American Thought (c. 1980, 2006)

I first learned about a people's lack of respect for themselves when I did my masters thesis in black history four decades ago. It was said at the time that one reason why African-Americans haven't done well economically is that they would sooner hire a white doctor, say, than a black, sooner patronize a white bank, etc. I first witnessed such lack of self-respect at a university when I was teaching at the University of Texas at Austin in the spring of 1977. My friend the great avant-garde theater artist Robert Wilson was returning to Austin, from which he graduated less than two decades before, to perform not at the university but at a local theater a piece that he would later present in New York. Even though I recommended his forthcoming show to all the faculty I met at parties welcoming me only a few weeks before and even though I told them I was writing about this advance show for the New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section, the only professor who came to Bob's show was Paul Schmidt, who had been Bob's favorite professor at Austin, and who later threw up tenure, as the British would say, to move to New York himself. My sense was that the other faculty couldn't believe that someone who had been a student at their school merited their attention. Would they be similarly disdainful, you rightly wonder, if Bob showed up again in Austin now, a quarter-century later, after an incomparably rich forty-year career? Would its Harry Ransom Center, so proud of its collections of major writers' papers, purchase his archive? At any rate, that's when I realized that disrespecting one's own was not just “not a Brown thing to do.” It could happen elsewhere.

“Brown University, Fifty Years Later” (2010)

The truth is that just as so much consequential contemporary sociology comes from writers outside the academic profession, so the esthetic philosophy more appropriate to our time has been forged largely by artists and critics. This shift in origins comes not without shortcomings, of course. Whereas deductive estheticians tend to omit works that they do not like or cannot understand, the artist or critic, customarily working inductively, makes no pretense of moving beyond his primary enthusiasms.

The Maturity of American Thought (c. 1980, 2006)