The Chicago School of sociology has often gotten a fair amount of credit for bringing the study of race into the academic discipline of sociology in the early decades of the twentieth century. Robert Ezra Park, in particular, is taken as a pioneer with his theories of a “race relations cycle”, his work with Booker T. Washington, and his sponsorship of some of the first African American PhD students in American sociology. But Stephen Steinberg gives this history a very different interpretation in Race Relations: A Critique. His book provides a basis for a different “sociology of sociology” from that offered by Andrew Abbott inDepartment and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred.
Steinberg begins his account with the presidential address of Everett Hughes in 1963 at the American Sociological Association — a momentous year in civil rights history. This was the central question posed by Hughes:
Why did social scientists — and sociologists in particular — not foresee the explosion of collective action of Negro Americans toward immediate full integration into American Society? (kl 119)
How indeed, did sociology miss these key features of American life and inequality in its formative years in the early part of the twentieth century? This is an important core question for the sociology of knowledge: how did theorizing about race enter American sociology? And what social and institutional factors influenced the shape that theorizing took?
Steinberg believes there were very powerful forces within leading American universities, including historically black universities, that shaped the discourse away from “radical” views of the facts of racial oppression in the United States. Boards of trustees were populated by members of the business elite, and significant funding flowed to universities through foundations whose officers had their own views of how the facts of race should be presented. Radical and strident views of endemic racial inequalities were unwelcome, and “unwelcome” could mean the end of an academic career. Steinberg draws attention to the case of Edward Bemis, a young economist who was critical of the power of the private owners of utility companies. “The Chicago gas trust retaliated by denying the university cut-rate prices so long as Bemis remained on the faculty” (kl 496) — an example of the use of economic power to shape the intellectual content of the university.
Essentially, Steinberg’s argument amounts to a severe critique of the orientation towards race in the formative framing of the topic of race in Chicago sociology, including especially Robert Park. The core phrase was “race relations.”
While the term “race relations” is meant to convey value neutrality, on closer examination it is riddled with value. Indeed, its rhetorical function is to obfuscate the true nature of “race relations,” which is a system of racial domination and exploitation based on violence, resulting in the suppression and dehumanization of an entire people over centuries of American history. (kl 203)
To frame the topic of race around “race relations” is to de-dramatize the situation of discrimination, exploitation, violence, domination, and racism that characterize race in the United States — including Chicago in the 1910s. The frame of “race relations” suggests that the issue is fundamentally one of separate racial and ethnic communities whose relations need to be guided and managed. And this framework leads the sociologist’s eye away from the underlying facts of oppression and discrimination that set the stage for life for African Americans, from slavery through reconstruction and through Jim Crow. These conditions of inequality, discrimination, and violence were visible to the common observer; but they became invisible in sociology. Steinberg refers to this as an epistemology of ignorance (kl 518).
Much of Steinberg’s account takes the form of a sociological biography of Robert Parks, in some ways similar to Neil Gross’s treatment of Rorty (link). Steinberg wants to understand how the fiery voice that Park expressed in his pre-academic journalism in support of the Congo Reform Association was transformed into the quietistic, non-engaged sociologist of Hyde Park. And his theory is a combination of personal calculation and institutional constraint: calculation about what kinds of theoretical expressions would forward his career, and institution constraint about how a more engaged and truthful Park would have fared within the discipline of sociology (not well!). The collateral idea of “objectivity” in social science comes into the story as well. It gives an apparently scientific basis for rejecting activist or radical scholarship, on the grounds that the researcher is advocating rather than observing.
An important formative influence on Park was his seven-year service as publicist and speech writer for Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. Steinberg believes that Washington’s ameliorativist view of the situation of African Americans was fundamental to the framing that Park would give to race at the University of Chicago.
Did Park give scholarly exposition to Washington’s accommodationist logic, whose central feature was the avoidance of conflict and acceptance of the racial status quo? Is this why sociology failed to confront, much less oppose, racial oppression? Does this bring us closer to understanding why sociology failed to anticipate the Civil Rights Revolution? (kl 355)
It is important to note that Steinberg does not maintain that more truthful perspectives were unavailable or unimagined.
Whether black scholars remained behind or in front of the veil, there emerged a black radical tradition–sometimes muffled, at other times assertive–that has challenged the main currents of thought on race and racism among mainstream sociologists. (kl 163)
There were such voices — W.E.B. Du Bois, Oliver Cox, or C.R.L. James, for example — but they did not come to set the stage for race analysis in sociology because of their activism and their association with Marxism.
Steinberg believes that Park was influential within sociology, not because of the originality of his ideas about race, but because those ideas fit with the assumptions of the powerful men and institutions who governed universities:
It is not my contention that, minus Park, the historiography of race would have been fundamentally different. After all, Park was hired precisely because he was in sync with the prevailing intellectual and ideological currents, and and without Park, some other person would have emerged to serve as the exemplar of the race relations school. A likely prospect was W. I. Thomas, who had staked out a position similar to Park’s in his paper on “Education and Cultural Traits” at the conference on the Education of Primitive Man. (kl 436)
Steinberg notes this great historical irony: Hughes had written a negative review of Cox’s Caste, Class, and Race in 1948; and the same issue of Phylon included a recollection of Du Bois by Herbert Aptheker, writing “We must agitate, complain, protest and keep protesting against the invasion of our manhood rights; we must besiege the legislature, carry our cases to the court and above all organize these million brothers of ours into one great fist which shall never cease to pound at the gates of opportunity until they fly open” (kl 168). So Hughes had in fact been exposed to the elements of sociological thinking that a more realistic approach to race in America would require; he had simply not recognized it.
(Tom Sugrue has a very good review of Steinberg and several other recent books in The Nation.)