Replacing Rhetoric with Research: Two Scholars with Ties to the University of Chicago Aim to Shed Light on Black Life in the 21st Century

By Smith, Susan E. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, August 23, 2007 | Go to article overview

Replacing Rhetoric with Research: Two Scholars with Ties to the University of Chicago Aim to Shed Light on Black Life in the 21st Century


Smith, Susan E., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Chicago's South Side has long been a renowned laboratory for groundbreaking research on Black urban life. Dr. E. Franklin Frazier wrote The Negro Family in Chicago in the 1930s. Dr. St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton authored Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City in the 1940s. And acclaimed sociologist William Julius Wilson wrote The Truly Disadvantaged in the 1980s.

The city's vast Black population, largely the product of the Great Migration, has made Chicago the home of both a celebrated Black middle class and an unsettling Black lower class. These two extremes have been meticulously documented over the years through a distinct style of sociological fieldwork known as the Chicago School.

Now, more than 60 years after the publication of Black Metropolis, Dr. Mary Pattillo, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, and Dr. Cathy J. Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, are doing research that reflects the new dynamics of Black urban life in the 21st century, as internal conflicts take on a more important role in Black studies.

Pattillo's book, Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City, published earlier this year, studies the gentrification of poor Black neighborhoods. And in February, Cohen released the "Black Youth Project," widely considered to be the first comprehensive national examination of the attitudes and beliefs of today's young Black population.

Both women were mentored by scholars who made a mark in their respective fields: Pattillo worked closely with Wilson in the 1990s as a graduate student at the University of Chicago; and Dr. Michael Dawson, a leading expert on Black political behavior, was on Cohen's dissertation committee in the 1980s at the University of Michigan.

"You come away with an understanding of the problems of the Black middle class," Wilson says of Pattillo's work, "and why the experiences of Black middle-class families are so unique and lead to social outcomes that differ from those of the White middle class."

Dawson describes Cohen's youth study as "breaking new ground.

"Many outside of and within the Black community have seen Black youth of this generation as a problem," he says." All of these factors make it quite important to understand the dynamic and life challenges of young Black people."

Unlike Pattillo, Cohen's research is not strictly rooted in Chicago, but both scholars emphasize the differences within the Black community. And both are credited with expanding the boundaries of Black studies during a period that has seen group dynamics shift from the consensus that often defined the civil rights era to the internal conflicts of recent years.

Many of the changes, scholars have said, are fueled by an economic climate that has marginalized low-income Blacks.

A Ground-floor View

In her 1999 book Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class, which won the American Sociological Association's Oliver Cromwell Cox Best Book Award, Pattillo offered a ground-floor view of how the challenges in middle-class Black communities differ from those in White communities. She contended that middle-class Black neighborhoods often serve as buffers between poor Black enclaves and White communities, countering the assumption that the Black middle class has escaped proximity to the Black poor.

In her more recent book, Black on the Block, Pattillo used community meetings and interviews to examine the interactions among residents when the Black middle class gentrifies a poor Black neighborhood--a familiar scene in many of Chicago's South Side communities.

The story behind Black Picket Fences explains Pattillo's interest in sociology and her topic. Pattillo says Wilson's The Truly Disadvantaged led her to graduate school at the University of Chicago.

"But I was interested in [the book] for what it didn't say" she says. …

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