Elijah Anderson on Race Relations and Public Space: Beyond the Primacy of the Street

Elijah Anderson on Race Relations and Public Space: Beyond the Primacy of the Street

Contemporary SociologyThe Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, by Elijah Anderson New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. 318pp. $17.95 paper. ISBN:97803933

Mitchell Duneier
Princeton University
mduneier@Princeton.edu

Were a future historian to turn to the sociological literature of the past fifty years to seek information on how members of different races were living together in urban areas, he or she would get almost no sense of the extent to which blacks and whites (not to mention other groups) have interacted along and across racial lines. Harvey Molotch’s Managed Integration (1972) showed, by counting the number of blacks and whites in various stores and commercial spaces, that they may have gone shopping side by side, but otherwise, they did not socialize in public. There has been little ethnographic data collected on the topic since. In works like Massey and Denton’sAmerican Apartheid (1994) and Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), which emphasize the extent of social isolation and segregation in the United States, interaction suffuses these studies as an imputed variable. These works were never intended to be informative about the actual interactions that occur between and outside such communities as their inhabitants circulate throughout the city, but the influence of demographic images could give the impression that blacks and whites barely interact.

What Is the Matter With Sociology?

What Is the Matter With Sociology?

Elijah Anderson’s new book points up an identity crisis.

By Sudhir Venkatesh

In the late 1980s, I fell in love with the discipline of sociology by reading books written by patient, perceptive observers like Elijah Anderson. As I told my father excitedly during my sophomore year in college, these scholars helped me see my immigrant anxieties as “normal” and a signature American experience. Concepts like identity and ethnicity let me express sentiments that until then had been inchoate and threatening. Going deep into the pockets of American society and hanging out at length, sociologists could draw on the human ballet to examine our cherished beliefs and institutions as well as our stereotypes and misguided social policies. This seemed to me to be a great magic trick, taking us into foreign, seemingly impenetrable worlds and emerging with useful insights.

For over a century, sociologists were some of our country’s influential truth-tellers. They gravitated to those issues—race relations, social inequality, and the workings of government—that were part of the American experiment to build an open, free democracy. Think of battles to end school segregation, ensure fair housing policy, and promote public sector accountability. A data-carrying sociologist—St. Clair Drake, Herbert Gans, James Coleman—was often at hand, gathering evidence, providing analysis, writing intelligibly for the citizenry. Anderson’s own ideas shaped criminal justice, welfare, and urban development policy. The sociologists may not have been household names, but they were important cogs in the civic wheel.

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