No Easy Answers

Wednesday, March 25, 2015 | Jeff Olick

Jefferson Statue

A little more than two months ago, I posted a blog titled “A Better Year Ahead, I hope.” Hannah Graham was on our minds all Fall, followed by Rolling Stone and “Jackie.”  And now Martese Johnson.  So much for my hope.  I guess bad things really do come in threes.  Of course, given the frequency with which we hear about racial profiling, stop and frisk, choke holds, and shootings of unarmed African-American teenagers, can we really be that surprised?  Shocked, yes. Surprised, not so much.  But even teachers get tired of teachable moments!

I wish I could write that if we just look at things from this perspective or that, it will all be clear—the nature of the situation, its causes, and what to do about it.  Alas, I’m not that kind of sociologist, and I don’t think we are facing that kind of a situation.  The world is too complicated, and I am wary of anyone peddling simplistic explanations.  But the situation nevertheless reminds me yet again why I became a sociologist, and why I want to help as many people as I can develop their own sociological perspective: It will take everything we’ve got to make sense of this without falling prey to reductionism and recrimination. 

I don’t have any more details on what happened last week on the Corner than anyone else, and quite a lot less than some (I don’t Yikyak).  But wherever one stands on the particular events and the conditions that led to them, it seems to me that sociology demands that we not accept easy answers, that we continue to interrogate not just what happened in that particular time and place, but its structures and histories.  And while it may not seem like there is as much of a particular connection to UVa as the Rolling Stone story, there is a great deal about the history of race at UVa that has not been well examined and is of at least some relevance.  The University now has a commission looking at the history of race at UVa, and this is an important step in changing the narrative.  That narrative now includes Martese Johnson.  But it is up to us how we carry it forward.  I know the sociology department—faculty, graduate students, staff, undergraduates—will continue to play its important part.  It’s one of the reasons were all here.