A White Sociologist and the Doctrine of the Black Insider

More than forty years ago, sociologist Robert Merton called attention to an emerging “Black Insider Doctrine” within sociology, the viewing of white sociologists as “outsiders,” incapable of understanding or conducting research on matters concerning blacks. Groups in conflict in 1972 wanted to make their own interpretation of reality the prevailing one. Over the years, as blacks began to participate fully in social institutions—including in the social sciences—attitudes changed as discrimination lessened and counter-ethnocentrism diminished.

But, did it? It is possible that the Doctrine of the Black Insider was always there just under the surface—only to reappear stronger than ever at places like Pomona College where last Spring, 128 (anonymous) “students, alumni and allies” of the Sociology Department published an open letter to the Pomona administration charging that hiring white sociologists who engage in “voyeuristic” research on the Black community can no longer be allowed.

Related: Can Sociology Be Saved?

The Pomona letter protested the scheduled arrival this fall of the white female sociologist, Alice Goffman, as a Visiting Professor in the Sociology Department. Goffman, who studies the impact of mass incarceration and policing in black communities, was hired over two black female applicants for the position. She is the granddaughter of Erving Goffman, one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century. The letter writers are demanding the job offer to Goffman be rescinded—and given to one of the two black female sociologists who were finalists for the open faculty position. Claiming that “hiring white faculty who engage in voyeuristic, unethical research and who are not mindful of their positionality as outsiders to the communities they study, reinforces harmful narratives about people of color.”

Part of the reason for the angry response had to do with the controversial research methods Goffman employed for gathering the data for her book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City—an ethnographic study in a poor black community in West Philadelphia. The book chronicles a six-year account of the lives, challenges, and most notably the continual interactions with police by those she called the “6th Street Boys.” Goffman rented an apartment and lived for several years in the poor predominantly black Philadelphia neighborhood. Becoming friends with the young men, Goffman allowed several of her research subjects to live with her in her apartment. Her sympathies were clearly with those in the community—as she attempted to expose what she called the “hidden practices of policing and surveillance” in the West Philadelphia community.

Cleared of Wrongdoing

While there were questions about her data collection methods, investigations by the American Sociological Association, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison—her current home institution—have cleared her of any wrongdoing in her research. But that has not stopped her Pomona critics from viewing her as an outsider who has “profited” by exploiting the Black community.

Demanding that Pomona rescind the offer of employment to Professor Goffman, the unidentified letter writers claim that the hire “boasts the framework that white women can theorize about and profit from black lives while giving no room for black academics to claim scholarship regarding their own lived experiences.”  The aggrieved group has decried the fact that Goffman was hired over two black finalists for the position—both of whom presented academic papers on “Intersectionality,” a concept that describes overlapping or intersecting social identities of race, class and gender—pointing to the systems of oppression, domination or discrimination.

Goffman’s arrival on the Pomona campus will surely cause even more divisions. In this, Pomona simply reflects a growing national polarization. In fact, last year’s national freshman class has the distinction of being “the most polarized cohort” in the 51-year history of UCLA’s Freshman Survey, the largest and longest running survey of American college students. Survey data collected from 137,456 first time, full-time students who entered 184 U. S. colleges and universities in the fall of 2016 revealed an all-time high of 41% of women who self-identify as “liberal or far left” with respect to political views. This is compared to only 28.9% of men—yielding the largest gender gap in self-reported liberalism to date.

Stormy Times for Campuses

The polarization is already being played out on many campuses—especially once race is factored into the equation. Even The New York Times has noticed the “stormy times” predicted for college campuses. Reporting on the consortium of Claremont colleges where angry disputes over identity politics and cultural appropriation have drawn national attention, the Times reported that even campuses that had “prided themselves on increased diversity in admissions are now wrestling with students who want more control over the institutions they attend.”

Last spring, a group of self-described “angry and annoyed” Latina students took over a dormitory wall devoted to free speech at Pitzer College (like Pomona, a member of the Claremont group). They wrote the message, “White Girl, Take Off Your Hoop Earrings!” to protest the appropriation of fashion “that belongs to the black and brown folks who created the culture…a culture that comes from a historical background of oppression and exclusion.”

Whether most white Pitzer College students will remove their gold hoops remains to be seen. For Merton, the critical measure of the success of counter-ethnocentrism occurs when the interpretation moves beyond the boundaries of the in-group to be embraced by outsiders. At the extreme, the converted outsider, validating himself as sensitive and understanding becomes even more zealous than the Insiders in adhering to the doctrine of the group with which he wants to identify.

As Merton says, “He then becomes more royalist than the king, more papist than the pope.” More black than those in the black community. Some white sociologists, so guilt-ridden after centuries of white racism, are prepared to identify so strongly with the black community that they begin to see racism where others do not see it—outdoing the claims of the group they would symbolically join—ready to surrender their hard-won expert knowledge if the Insider doctrine seems to require it.

As a converted outsider, Alice Goffman appears to see racism everywhere. In a long essay titled “The Trials of Alice Goffman,” for The New York Times, a reporter noted that “In Madison, we were picked up between appointments by an Uber driver in blue scrubs…Goffman turned to the driver, who was black, to ask—in the offhand way you might ask an Uber driver about his experiences with the company—What have your local experiences with racism been like?” Goffman told the Times reporter that at the airport security gates that morning, she “tried to exchange a look of solidarity” with a young man with brown skin who was being stopped by TSA agents but “he wouldn’t look at me.”

Pomona sociology students will have in Alice Goffman someone with great empathy for the black experience. She is someone who understands the black community as well as any ethnomethodologist could ever understand it. Having lived and loved the people living in the West Philadelphia community, Goffman knows what day-to-day life is like for those who live there. She never pretended to be a dispassionate social observer, and her allegiance is certainly to the community—not to the police.

But, it likely won’t be enough for those who continue to affirm the universal saliency of the ascribed status of race. For them, Alice Goffman is “inauthentic,” simply because she is white—writing in their anonymous protest letter that “Students need authentic mentors. The hiring of Alice Goffman has already, and will continue to discourage students of color, and especially women of color from entering the Sociology Department and academia for years to come.”

As our society becomes ever more polarized, so do contending claims to truth. The attacks on the intentions and the integrity of a young, idealistic sociologist like Alice Goffman do nothing but exacerbate collective insecurities—increasing mistrust and misunderstandings. Eventually, the Doctrine of the Black Insider will again diminish. But, in the meantime, college campuses need to prepare for some difficult days ahead.

2 thoughts on “A White Sociologist and the Doctrine of the Black Insider”

  1. Obviously, “multiculturalism” which the Goffmans have supported and helped spread, is not really working out as planned. People are simply different, just like men and women are different. In reality, multiculturalism is killing diversity. Why do we all want to be the same? You don’t import another race into your nation so you can enjoy their culture. You go to THEIR country to enjoy it.

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