In the spirit of W. E. B. Du Bois

Camille Z. Charles, sociologist and Director of Penn's Center for Africana Studies Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote “The Philadelphia Negro” here during the late 1800s. At the behest of Penn’s Provost Charles Custis Harrison, Du Bois (author, sociologist and civil rights pioneer) spent 15 months canvassing the city’s Seventh Ward, extending from South Seventh Street to the Schuylkill River, and from Spruce Street to South Street, to investigate the condition of the area’s black population.

Today, more than a century later, Camille Zubrinsky Charles, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Social Sciences and director of the Center for Africana Studies, believes “The Philadelphia Negro” should be the founding piece of research in sociology, and she is focusing her efforts at Penn to developing a research and training program that mirrors the spirit of Du Bois’ seminal work.

“I want to look at all aspects of life, and understand life and inequality, and the implications of inequality in Philadelphia,” says Charles, a survey researcher interested in people’s attitudes and identities. “Philadelphia isn’t the same place that it was in 1896, so I’m interested in new immigrant populations, and the similarities and differences between whites and blacks, between whites and Asians, between blacks and Latinos.”

Charles says the Center for Africana Studies has been “shifting more heavily toward the academic and intellectual,” developing its graduate program, and expanding its “crown jewel,” the Summer Institute for Pre-Freshmen, now serving 70 students.

The Current recently sat down with Charles at the Center to discuss sociology, “regular blacks” versus immigrant blacks, racial residential segregation and whether there is racism in some of the criticism of President Obama.

Q. You were in graduate school at UCLA during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Did the uprising have any effect on your sociological upbringing?
It certainly fueled my passion for what I was doing because I think, prior to that moment, it was easy to think that you were never going to see anything like that again, that somehow that was something that happened back in the ’60s and that we had moved beyond. Even though we knew there were still difficult relationships between the police and the black community, in particular, and increasingly between the police and the Latino community in Los Angeles, you really just couldn’t help but be shocked in a way by what you were seeing. ... We weren’t as far away from the ’60s and Watts as we’d like to think we were at the time.

Q. You mentioned that you originally wanted to be a sportscaster or athletic director before entering sociology and conducting research on the exploitation of black athletes in revenue-producing collegiate sports. Do you think college athletes should be paid?
I’m not sure where I come down on that, but I do think that there are things that [college athletes] are penalized for that don’t make sense. The players that cut hair on the side for a little walking-around money, I just don’t think that should be a problem. I think the bigger issue for me is that what [college athletes] are being compensated with is, through no fault of their own, something that they are often not equipped to cash in on. They don’t have the skills to take advantage of the educational opportunity because they’ve been socialized to be athletes and moved along in school often at the expense of that academic preparation. So to then say, ‘Well look, no, you don’t get paid but you get this great college education ...’ well, they often don’t get this great college education. For most of them, they’re more likely to be struck by lightning than they are to have a successful career in the NFL or the NBA. I think that the universities and the TV networks and the shoe companies all benefit from that, and that is problematic.

Q. Your dissertation was titled, “‘I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you...’: Race and Residential Segregation in the City of Angels.” You teach a freshmen seminar on ‘The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation’ and have written papers and given presentations on the topic. Obviously you think this is an important issue.
It is at the core of issues related not only to racial inequality in the labor market, [but also] in educational outcomes, in health outcomes. More and more evidence indicates that if we dealt with segregation, some of these gaps would be significantly smaller. At the same time, I think segregation also perpetuates tense race relations because we’re not interacting on a regular basis with people who are different from us in non-competitive settings. I’m black; yes, I work with white people. As a student, I was in classes with white people, but in many instances I was the only black person they knew. I was, therefore, not like their image of black people because their image of black people came from television, whether it be BET or professional sports, or it came from news outlets where we’re bombarded with the image of welfare recipients being people of color, of criminals being people of color. When those images can’t be counterbalanced by persistent, continuous kinds of social interactions with the majority of people of color who are not criminals, who are not welfare recipients, who go to work everyday and work hard and want the same thing for their kids that everybody else does, then there’s a problem because it’s unbalanced.

Q. You have conducted research on African immigrants in higher education. Some have said that Africans’ relatively large presence at American universities is not how affirmative action is supposed to work. What do you say to this argument?
All people with what has been called ‘perceptible African ancestry’ are candidates for discrimination in the U.S. [African immigrants] also have been touched by colonialism and oppression in their own countries. I certainly understand the sentiment because there are folks here who have been playing by the rules and have not gotten a fair shot for a very long time ... African immigrants in particular come in with more human capital, so they come in with better educated parents, they are more likely to have a traditional two-parent household. What I think gets forgotten though is that Africans in particular are our best educated immigrants, so they’re coming in ahead of the curve relative to just about everybody in the U.S.
The other piece of it is African Americans—meaning what Penn students seem to call ‘regular blacks’—get compared to immigrant blacks and [students] say, ‘Well, why can’t [‘regular blacks’] do what [African immigrants] do?’ And the problem with that is we have basically creamed the top off of those [African] populations so that we shouldn’t be comparing black Americans to the immigrants who come here, we need to compare them to the places those immigrants came from because back there is a representative population. What we get here is the subset of people who were not only highly motivated, but also better prepared, and we forget about that. I do think that ends up playing into the overrepresentation of black immigrants in these institutions. I think we need to pay attention to it because I think it’s too easy for admissions offices to just count black bodies and not pay attention to origin so much. They’re under pressure to increase the number of black students on these campuses. Many of them say that they don’t know who is an immigrant and who isn’t. I don’t know whether they know that or not. It only matters to the degree that if a university wants to be representative of the population, it used to be that they would say, ‘Well, the U.S. population is 13 percent black so we should aim to have a black student population that’s 13 percent.’ If you follow that logic—and I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t—a much smaller percentage of those students should be immigrants because the black immigration rate to this country is much lower than it is for Latinos or Asians. ... But I would not say that immigrant blacks shouldn’t benefit from affirmative action. I would prefer that we got to the place where we didn’t need affirmative action.

Q. About Congressman Joe Wilson’s ‘You lie’ comment towards President Obama, you said, ‘Think of Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton did lie. But nobody ever broke protocol from a national television address to Congress to yell like that.’ Do you think there’s racism in the teabaggers/birthers movement?
I think that is a terrific example of something that could be conscious racism, but that might also be the result of unconscious bias. [Wilson] knew what the rules were but he couldn’t keep it in, or didn’t want to keep it in, or didn’t think he had to keep it in. Whatever it was, he went ahead and he said it. Yes, I would argue that it has never happened before in recorded history and we have presidents who did things ... again, Bill Clinton actually lied, George W. Bush, many say, actually lied and yet nobody did that in Congress. What I was trying to say was that certainly most black people are going to see it that way, and that it’s hard not to see it that way. I do think race is tied up in that. ... And as a sociologist who deals with these issues, I can’t imagine that race had nothing to do with it, whether Wilson knew it consciously or not. I think the same can be said for the birthers movement.

Q. Your latest project is the still-in-progress book ‘The New Black: Race Conscious or Post-Racial?’ What is this about?
It started out as a book on the black college student experience at selective colleges and universities in the U.S., really trying to understand the increasing diversity of black students at these selective institutions and the broader implications of that intragroup diversity. There are far more immigrant and second-generation students in these universities than in the population generally. There are more self-identified mixed-race black students than you are going to find easily in the general population. It started out looking at similarities and differences within that broad category of black students. But in following the Obama campaign, and learning so much about what people think black identity is, I decided that I wanted to focus more on how these students articulate their racial identities, variations in the importance of that identity and how collegiate experiences may or may not be shaped by the role that race plays in the self-definitions of these students. There has always been a great deal of variation in the strength and importance of ‘blackness’ among people of African descent in the U.S. It just doesn’t get talked about much, especially in the mainstream media. There’s been all of this talk about Obama’s candidacy and election as the ushering in of a post-racial era. Black people didn’t come up with this post-racial thing and watching the media talk about post-racial America, it’s almost like, ‘Whites have been there, blacks need to get with the program.’ But my contention is that our blackness has never been the deterrent to moving forward. Identity is an important part of who we are—often as important as being American, but rarely is it more important than being American is. And it’s not equally important to all black people or across situations, and however it varies for us, it’s also not something we’re likely to put aside.

Originally published on December 3, 2009