New Projects

Faces of American Democracy

In 2015, Americans learned that public authorities in Ferguson, Missouri had imposed a “predatory system of government” on poor black citizens. Ferguson residents were targeted, arrested, and summonsed on civil-ordinance violations, assessed prohibitive fines and fees, and subjected to jail if they failed to pay. The extensiveness of the repression, harassment, and pilfering of the citizenry looked eerily similar to the practices of failed states and authoritarian regimes and yet, Americans struggled with how to understand what looked like vastly different governing arrangements in a single republic.  Is there a distinct type of governance being practiced in communities within our democracy? How is the government oriented toward people in poor communities?

I am working on is a multi-method examination of the relationship between poor citizens and communities and government in the United States, The Faces of American Democracy.

The study of inequality has received renewed attention amidst alarming findings that we are now more unequal than any other time in recent memory.  But the citizenship in poor communities is greater than the sum of exclusions, material insecurity, or private discrimination within the market.  Instead, it is a broad difference in the way the government – from police to schools to the welfare system – orients itself towards its residents.

Faces of American Democracy will be the first systematic study of how Americans in different communities experience government activity across a multiplicity of sites (schools, social welfare agencies, police and probation agencies, civil ordinances, the housing authority, and child protective services) and how those experiences influence political dispositions.  It will involve three kinds of original research:  1) the collection of administrative data on local enforcement practices, financial encumbrances, and institutional practices in several major cities (Baltimore, Newark, Milwaukee, Chicago, Los Angeles); 2) individual-level data on attitudes and experiences with local agencies in a large and nationally-representative survey sample; and 3) recording of extensive conversations, or Portals, in distinct neighborhoods across the same five sites.


From Portals to Politics: Conversations about the Police by the Policed

Tracey Meares and I are using a new technology, Portals, to initiate conversations about policing and incarceration in communities felled by police violence – communities like Freddie Gray’s, Michael Brown’s, and Eric Garner’s.  By creating a “wormhole” through space, a bridge to places unseen and unheard, and, crucially, by making access to these wormholes easy and free, Portals transforms the capacity of disparate people and communities to define their narratives, enhance political activism, create connected political spaces, and expand the possibility of studying politics in beneficially recursive ways.

This article in the Atlantic’s CityLab gives the gist of the Portals project.  A generous Carnegie award made this project possible.


The Politics of Intra-Racial Inequality

Here they treat us like a different race’: A Multi-city Study of Class-in-Race Inequality – explores shifting politics as minority groups move from a condition of almost uniform poverty and oppression to increasing internal disparity in economic standing and prospects, lived experiences, and political impact and power. How has the pitched rise in inequality (and the resulting divergence in lived experiences) shaped group affinities, policy commitments, and political ideas and behaviors among the best off and the most disadvantaged minorities?  With a presidential grant from the Russell Sage Foundation, Jennifer Hochschild and I are exploring this question with a large-N survey of 3000 respondents in ten cities and local case studies in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Our initial research suggests that in some arenas, better-off minorities are moving away from their poorer counterparts not only geographically and economically, but also politically. Affluent blacks and Latinos are less supportive of redistributive policies in the late 2000s than their predecessors were in the 1980s, and they have shifted to the right more than non-affluent members of their groups have; yet class polarization has not chipped away at group solidarity or commitment to policies that explicitly help blacks and Latinos.  In other words, racial liberalism and economic liberalism may increasingly be decoupled. If such divisions grow, they could alter the lines of inclusion in the United States, the strategies of advocates and politicians, and ultimately, the fate of the most disadvantaged Americans.

Working papers available soon. 


A Generation Exposed: Examining the Links between Criminal Offending and Criminal Justice Contact

For the 2018 special issue of the Russell Sage Foundation Journal, “Criminal Justice and Inequality.”

In this paper, Andrew Papachristos and I argue that existing bodies of knowledge mischaracterize one of the most fundamental relationships in the modern era between Americans and the carceral state – namely, the link between criminal offending and criminal justice contact. A sizable body of research assumes the relationship is unidirectional, with more offending leading to more contact and, subsequently, more incarceration. Yet, research on mass incarceration documents that shifts in policies can, in fact, increase contacts with the justice system (and subsequent punishment) net of individual criminality. Given this dynamic, how might inequality flow from punishment itself? How might criminality and justice involvement be intertwined in ways that get lost in academic debates? In addition, how might larger policy changes—such as the War on Drugs and broken windows policing—which increase contact based on policies rather than criminality affect the lives of different generations of individuals and different generations of racial groups?

This study would be first (to our knowledge) to examine how the relationship between criminality and justice involvement has changed across two generations, slipping from a system where involvement was a good proxy for having run afoul of the law to a system defined by largely nonoverlapping constituencies of criminal offender and custodial citizen.