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Culture shift: Q&A with sociologist Michèle Lamont

Jun 17 / 20

As the world confronts racism and a pandemic, Michèle Lamont reflects on the factors that make 2020 feel different.

For many, Spring 2020 feels like a historic moment, with global conversations around policing and racism coming to a head amid an unprecedented global pandemic.

Michèle Lamont is the co-director emerita of CIFAR’s Successful Societies program (2002-2019), director of the Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs, and Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is a cultural sociologist, and has researched and written extensively on race, stigma, how people make meaning of their environment, and the ways that culture is shaped and used.

Currently on leave from Harvard writing a new book prospectively titled Gaining the Future: Producing Hope in an Uncertain World, Lamont reflects on the recent demonstrations and a culture shifting towards diversity, sustainability, and authenticity.

What makes this moment different from other times in history when issues of race, racism, and police use of force were at the forefront of the public consciousness?

Michèle Lamont: There are several factors that make this moment different.

First of all, we are in the middle of a pandemic, which I think has played an important role as a catalyst. Black people and people of colour are concerned that they have been the primary victims of the pandemic. This, of course, is connected to the ways in which experiences of poverty and inequality make people far more vulnerable to viruses.

Secondly, there was an accumulation of incidents of violence against Black people over several weeks in quick succession. There were the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, as well as an incident in Central Park where a white woman targeted a Black man, and explicitly used race to try to mobilize police forces against him.

Thirdly, social media has been extremely important in facilitating the spread of information and indignation about the unfair treatment of Black people by police, but also by racist white people.

Finally, this is all against the background of President Trump having been in power for nearly four years now. In that time, he has consistently thrown oil on the fire by strengthening racial boundaries and group boundaries between conservative populists and liberal progressives, defunded the office in the White House responsible for pandemic preparedness, and shaken people’s faith in knowledge and expertise.

In short, the structural weaknesses of American society—inequality, racism, polarization, lack of faith in expertise, defunded institutions—were pre-existing conditions that set the stage for a very quick build-up of a social movement catalyzed by social media and a pandemic.

One could say that it was a perfect storm.

How will this global conversation around anti-racism and diversity change culture?

Michèle Lamont: In 2016, with a group of colleagues, I published a book called Getting Respect, which compared how people experience and respond to racism in the US, Brazil, and Israel. When we wrote the book, the primary response that African Americans had to racism was confronting: calling out racism when they saw it. This was unlike what we found in the other two countries, where a response we call “management of the self” or not responding were more prevalent. This involves going away, thinking about the incident, talking to friends, and questioning the character of the experience: “was that racist?” 

I think that, since the denunciation of the violent and blatant character of racism is so salient now, “management of the self” will become far less prevalent, including in the US. The legitimization of the anti-racist, diversity ideology would mean that the “confronting” response would be much more readily accessible to people.

What makes the generation of young people at the vanguard of this movement, the Gen Zs and Millennials, different?

Michèle Lamont: I'm particularly interested in the ways in which Millennials and Gen Zs are not buying into the American Dream, and how they are redefining the rules of collective living. 

There's a lot of questioning that is happening in these generations, which is indicating a real embrace of values such as diversity, sustainability, and authenticity as an alternative to the values to the American Dream. My book in progress will argue that the American Dream was the collective story that drove the nation after World War Two, but that it’s coming to an end for sizable segments of the population. 

As part of my research, I’ve been interviewing those I call “agents of change.” This includes comedians, often people of colour, who provide scripts and narratives through which people are now thinking about diversity. It includes people who created popular TV shows like Girls, Parks and Recreation, Transparent, and The Handmaid's Tale, to understand the narratives of hope that these shows offer. I also interviewed philanthropists who are funding this narrative change, promoters of inclusive capitalism, and the leaders of social movements like Black Lives Matter and MeToo.

What I'm trying to do with these interviews is, through all these various spheres of life, understand the cultural supply side: where hope comes from. How are the values that Millennials and Gen Zs are embracing being made available to them? It’s through popular culture, through advocacy organizations, and through social movements. These ideas don’t come from nowhere. There are many cultural producers whose life calling is making available these ideas that are now feeding the current movement.

I think we’re in a very special moment where much  is changing.

How is academic culture changing in response to this movement?

Michèle Lamont: There's an enormous amount of student mobilization, and they are calling out departments and administrators who they feel are just paying lip service to diversity. I think what we hear is much more demand for academic leaders to acknowledge that the world in which they work is a white space, and to understand how implicit messages are sent to people of colour and first-generation students about them not belonging or being second-class citizens.

Many academic environments are very white, so we really need to think much more proactively in terms of diversifying and, to borrow a phrase I’ve been hearing in my interviews with Gen Zs, “lifting up” the voices of people from underrepresented groups.

Lifting up is very important because it's about giving recognition. To lift up a group means celebrating them in such a way that they feel fully valued in the group. Social scientists need to analyze more closely the process of recognition, which is at the center of the current movement. My 2018 presidential lecture to the American Sociological Association was precisely on this topic. 

In that spirit of “lifting up,” which Black scholars are doing research in this space whose work we should read?

Michèle Lamont: The literature on police violence, policing, and mass incarceration has been exploding. And it's of enormous interest. I’ll mention the work of two of my recent students who are just absolutely wonderful, but there are many others.

Monica Bell has done great research on how residents in Cleveland relate to the police and use the police. On the one hand, they are very critical of the police, but they are also using the police to stop domestic abuse. Her work really locates police forces in the social fabric of the space in which low-income people live. It's very excellent work.

Matthew Clair has done great work comparing middle-class and working-class people of colour and white people in their relation to the police and the criminal justice system. He shows how those who are middle- or upper-middle-class have much more trust in lawyers and prosecutors, and are in much better position to get good deals than is the case for the working-class and the poor, who are defiant and distrustful and end up with much worse punishment. It’s important work, because this had not been studied very much.

The interview above has been edited for length and clarity.