The killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland just months after I had arrived at Oberlin College back in 2014 sparked my interest in local Black political behavior. My research explores how traumatic events, such as a police shooting or school closings in poor Black neighborhoods, inform local Black political behavior afterward. I seek to incorporate memory-driven models into the study of Black political behavior in neigborhoods in the United States. Additionally, I seek to broaden our understanding of political participation to extend beyond voting in an election. Over time I have become increasingly interested in how police officers interact with these communities, the lasting effects of trauma on Black political participation, and the process through which collective memory informs collective action.
In the aftermath of George Floyd and the ongoing protests around Black Lives Matter, my research has the potential to shed light on what we can expect to see next regarding Black political participation in these cities. In addition, examining how traumatic events affect Black political participation in their neighborhoods enhances our overall understanding of why Black people in the United States decide to get involved in local politics.
Body of Lies: Collective Memory, Traumatic Events, and Collective Action during the Black Lives Matter Movement
This article revisits the findings of Harris (2006) regarding collective memory and its impact on collective action, given the emergence of a new social movement in the United States: Black Lives Matter. Harris (2006) presents a theory of how shared memories of significant historical events influenced Black activism during the modern Civil Rights Movement. Events can catalyze collective action through social appropriation, a causal mechanism that allows challengers to employ information to interpret whether environmental conditions pose an opportunity or a threat to collective action. Harris (2006) calls the individuals with appropriation power “political entrepreneurs.” This article explores how political entrepreneurs appropriate events and collective memories for collective action in the Black Lives Matter Movement. I examine four case studies of police killings in the United States. I employ interviews with Black Lives Matter local chapter leaders nationwide and archival analyses of historical accounts to establish whether or not a collective memory of police killings for Black Americans in the 21st century exists. Like Harris (2006), I examine how geographical proximity to killings impacts the memory of each event. The four case studies include the killing of Oscar Grant in 2009 in Oakland, California; Trayvon Martin in 2012 in Sanford, Florida; Rekia Boyd in 2012 in Chicago, Illinois; and Mike Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. I hypothesize that the nature of the political entrepreneur has changed immensely since the 1960s. Social media and video have emerged as two key ways movement actors frame traumatic events, such as police killings, to spur collective action.
The Politics of Expedience: Evanston, Illinois and the Fight for Reparations (with Matthew D. Nelsen)
In March 2021, the city council in Evanston, Illinois began distributing reparations funds to Black residents in the form of $25,000 housing grants. In doing so, Evanston became the first city in the United States to provide publicly funded reparations to Black people for generations of racist policies, including redlining. Why did the reparations program first emerge in Evanston? This paper provides an in-depth look at the politics of the policy design process and describes the unique political circumstances that allowed this historic policy to pass with near-unanimous support. As communities throughout the United States consider how to deliver reparations to Black Americans, the debate over Evanston’s ordinance serves as a cautionary tale for how ambitious historic policies may become watered down when political expedience trumps the political insights of Black residents.
Forty Acres and a Mule: Symbolic Politics and the Pursuit for Black Reparations in the United States (with Matthew D. Nelsen and Amanda d'Urso)
Initiatives to secure reparations for slavery date back to founding of the United States but remain controversial. Recently, municipalities across the U.S. have proposed policies to address the multigenerational harm inflicted upon Black residents. However, these policies vary substantially as some believe reparations can mitigate historical injustices while others view them as merely symbolic. This paper employs a mixedmethods research design to move beyond hypotheticals and latent opinions to address real policies and the public response. Thus, we lay the foundation for future scholarship aimed at understanding and studying reparations policies. Drawing from 41 in-depth interviews with residents of Evanston, Illinois—the first U.S. municipality to pass a publicly-funded reparations program—we highlight policy attributes that shape whether individuals support or oppose reparations. We use these interviews to construct a conjoint experiment fielded in the 2022 Cooperative Election Study. White Republicans remain strongly opposed to reparations. Meanwhile, White Democrats support reparations policies that mirror Evanston’s housing program while Black Americans support more ambitious proposals, including cash payments.
I explore how traumatic events by state agents impact local Black political participation in the United States. Trauma, collective memory, and Black neighborhood politics are at the core of the dissertation project. I focus on one traumatic event in particular, fatal killings of unarmed Black Americans by police officers, and assess the impact of these killings on Black local political participation. I build upon Harris (2006) model of the evolution of collective memory and its impact on collective action as it pertains to the contemporary Black Lives Matter social movement.