On Mourning, Moving Forward, and a Social Science of Solutions

In Passed On: African American Mourning Stories, A Memorial, Karla Holloway argues that “particular vulnerability to … untimely death” has indelibly shaped African Americans’ funerary culture. The congregations celebrating the life of George Floyd in recent days have been a reminder of this long tradition of precarity, pain, and ceremony that stretches back generations.

The tragic murders of Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart were but three of the two hundred and forty-one lynchings that occurred in 1892, documented by journalist and sociologist Ida B. Wells in The Red Record. The memorial for these Black leaders of the “People’s Grocery” cooperative, who were murdered by white supremacists—with the cooperation of local police—for being successful business competitors, would be the largest funeral procession in Memphis history.

The funeral of Emmett Till half a century later was also an occasion of consequence, drawing hundreds of mourners. Thousands more saw media images of the fourteen-year-old’s lynched, brutalized body, displayed in an open casket at his mother’s request.

This week, George Floyd was laid to rest in Houston, the city of his childhood, against the backdrop of worldwide social protest opposing the legacies of racial slavery and colonialism, and a pandemic. The Floyd family dressed in all white for this somber occasion, as had Sandra Bland’s family at her funeral in 2015. The hundreds of mourners at Houston’s Fountain of Praise Church, which included the families of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Botham Jean, Pamela Turner, Michael Brown, and Ahmaud Arbery, wore gloves and face coverings; some of the masks bore the words “I Can’t Breathe.” Those of us present in the virtual, global community bore tears and anger as we marked another Black life tragically lost to horrific police brutality.

In the African American tradition, funerals are particularly bittersweet—the bitterness of incalculable loss, too often at the hands of racist violence; the sweetness of homegoing, of liberation from this world, and a sense that those left behind with their grief will persist. George Floyd was lifted in the air and carried out of the Fountain of Praise Church, his casket moved forward and sideways and forward again, by the pallbearers, with resolve, with a sense of both despair and deliverance.

In the face of continued racial violence enacted upon African Americans, how can we move forward? The lost lives and memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other victims of anti-Black terror demand that we transform society, acknowledging with utmost candor the fatal toll of racism and the corrosion of the possibility of multiracial democracy.

The Social Science Research Council condemns racial discrimination and injustice. We condemn the killing of Black people with impunity. We condemn the institutionalized racism that contributes to police brutality, pernicious surveillance, unequal educational outcomes, residential segregation, health disparities, and other forms of inequality that hasten the deaths of Black people across the intersections of class, gender, sexuality, and ability.

We must move forward with not just words, but deeds. At the SSRC, we recognize that we are called, in this moment, not simply to declarations of condemnation, but to the production of knowledge and its circulation to broad publics toward the common good. This requires a continually renewed vision for social research. As Spencer Foundation president Na’ilah Suad Nasir suggested this week on the Council’s Covid-19 and the Social Sciences platform, “We need social science to step into the creative, innovative work of reimagining social institutions.”

Beginning with the nineteenth-century research of Ida B. Wells and W. E. B. Du Bois (who inspired Max Weber and other leading social scientists), into the present, the research community has accumulated an abundance of data and insight on the operations and effects of racism. This moment calls us to commit not only to the description of modes of racial discrimination, but to its diagnosis and resolution. It is time to face squarely what we already know about the causes of anti-Black racism, rather than continue to be caught off guard by its damaging impacts, and the policies and practices that bolster it. This time calls us to transform insight into action.

The SSRC commends research that intervenes in carceral institutions as a paradigm for a social science of solutions, such as the work being led by the Center for Justice at Columbia, the Bard Prison Initiative, the Institute for Justice Research and Development at Florida State University, the Center for Policing Equity at CUNY–John Jay College, and the Justice Collaboratory at Yale; these efforts are community-engaged, multidisciplinary in scope, and far ranging in impact.

Turning inward, the SSRC is both a curious and obvious place for such a renewed mission for social research. For, throughout its nearly one hundred years, the organization has been all too quiet on the issue of structural racism as an object of study and a fact of social life, both in the US and abroad. But the networks of researchers, fellows, and grantees, who have always been the lodestar of the Council’s mission, have produced a wealth of new knowledge that interrogated the tenaciousness of structural racism and the struggles to combat it. They demonstrate how the study of inequality is critical to understanding the current conjunction of pandemic, protest, and pain we are experiencing today. And in 2017, the Council launched the Inequality Initiative to give greater centrality and visibility to our work in this area and our efforts to support social research and analysis, contribute to insights that inform solutions, disseminate research in varied fora, and cultivate scholars of social inequality who will question past approaches and promote new thinking. These ongoing endeavors include projects that, following a long SSRC tradition, convene scholars around urgent and cutting-edge topics and reimagine new ways of working that engage institutional partners outside the academy and across the public:

An American Dilemma for the 21st Century is a critical reassessment of and reengagement with Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, published in 1944 and widely influential thereafter. Beginning with a conference and the construction of a digital platform, this project is digitizing the Myrdal archives, including the contributions of lesser-known researchers, many of whom were African American scholars. This project is also illuminating new resources about Black life in the first half of the twentieth century that bear on the present. At a time when the paucity of data about policing in communities is taking on new urgency and purchase, this archive contains policing data from the 1930s that can be used to understand the longue durée of policing as a form of racial oppression. We hope to be able to fund fellowships for scholars to work with these resources.

As institutions today reckon with their history of slavery, the American Slavery’s Legacy across Space and Time project has been working to understand the intergenerational impact of racial slavery by connecting new kinds of information about the past, including archival datasets. The SSRC is supporting the expansion of the Georgetown Slavery Archive, the coordination of data that can reveal insights about the history of racial inequality, and the piloting of a community-based participatory research project.

This week, the Council’s Measure of America program released A Decade Undone: Youth Disconnection in the Age of Coronavirus, a report that considers what the pandemic might mean for young people in the US. Between 2010 and 2018, this young generation experienced less disconnection from the institutions, communities, and events that prepared them for adulthood; after Covid-19, they are likely to experience more. With these tumultuous social transformations in mind, the Council is supporting undergraduate researchers at Brooklyn College to carry out the Autoethnographies of a Pandemic from Brooklyn’s Epicenter project. Given that many conventional modes of research are constrained by social distancing protocols, this project will accumulate vital insights about this moment from students who are experiencing the disruptive effects of the pandemic in their schooling, home lives, and communities. While investing in junior scholars, this project will also provide invaluable observations about this time in our country’s history for current and future social researchers.

The Council will soon launch the Just Tech program, with the support of the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, to respond to a critical need in the technology ecosystem, empowering an intersectional network of scholars and practitioners to imagine and create more equitable and representative technological futures. Just Tech will foreground questions of power, justice, and public impact at a time when technological development, while not always assumed to be inherently positive, is often assumed to be an inevitable boon to society.

As a research organization, the SSRC has a responsibility to support the examination of issues of social import, improve our understanding of how inequality is maintained and reproduced, and design solutions. With these and other projects—and with an eye toward establishing future ones—the Council is committed to continue expanding access to the research it supports and drives.

We are called to a social science for and of solutions. We must lean into the work of a renewed vision of social research with urgency and with full recognition not only of the fact of structural racism, but of the need to stem it at its roots. The SSRC will continue to nurture and generate research that steps into theories, policies, and practices that contribute to justice and equality.

We recognize the importance of mourning at the same time that we produce knowledge that reaffirms the value of human life. Mourn and then mobilize research for the common good. We move forward with humility, with the acknowledgment that scholarship is, while a critical facet of social transformation, one of many tools for change.

Alondra Nelson
Social Science Research Council
June 12, 2020

Editorial assistance provided by Rajat Singh.