Prof. Phoenix: And so we think about double consciousness, right, that tension that duality between feeling the Americanness and the promise to an opportunity that comes with that, and feeling the distinct ways in which you’re often cut off from those opportunities by virtue of your race. We think about this inhibiting factor, right, something that inhibits that activation of anger, because there’s that sense of what can we do with this, what can we do about this. You know, oftentimes, when I see people reckoning with the role of race and emotion, they call upon the classic James Baldwin quote: “to be Black and conscious in this country is to be enraged all the time.” I’m paraphrasing it a bit. But I really see the second part of that quote, right, which is, so the first part… What we need to do, the most important thing to do, is figure out how to control that rage so it doesn’t destroy you. I think that’s what I’m seeing manifest in this anger gap, right. Even if Black people are feeling that initial onset of rage, that sense that we can’t act on it and reap the benefits that we want inhibits it, right, and it takes it and twists it in this knot. So I think it manifests in a lot of different ways that very look very different from white folks who can look at a system that angers them and feel an immediate need or desire to take action.
Prof. Sardo: On May 25, George Floyd, an African-American man, was killed when a police officer knelt on his neck for almost 9 minutes, including for two minutes after Mr. Floyd was unresponsive. George Floyd was being arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit bill and was in handcuffs when he was killed. On March 13, Louisville police officers executed a “no-knock” warrant on the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American woman, as part of a drug investigation involving a house far away from Ms. Taylor’s home. Kenneth Walker, Ms. Talyor’s boyfriend who was with her at the time, fired at the officers out of fear and in self-defense, and in the ensuing exchange Breonna Taylor was shot 8 times and killed.
In response to these, and the litany of other killings of African-Americans at the hands of the police, mass mobilizations have spread throughout the country. Tens of thousands of people in every single state, have taken to the streets demanding not only accountability for the officers responsible for the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, but also for the deep and meaningful transformation of our police and carceral institutions. These protests have been met severely – with cities imposing strict curfews, police departments deploying heavily armored officers using batons, tear-gas, and rubber bullets against the protestors and even credentialed media, and states mobilizing the national guard.
But these are not the only protests that the country has seen in the month of May. In early May armed protestors demanding the end of covid-related stay at home orders occupied the Michigan statehouses. Similar protests demanding a “reopening” of the country were found throughout the United States.
While protests against covid-related safety measures were often framed in the American tradition of patriotic civil disobedience and praised by the President, protests over police brutality were often framed as riots, and incurred calls by the President to “dominate” the streets and a sitting US Senator for the deployment of active duty military against US citizens.
My guest today, Professor Davin Phoenix, argues that these disparate responses contribute to what he calls “the anger gap” or the fact that anger motivates white Americans to participate in politics at different rates and in different forms than it does for African-Americans. While white anger is taken seriously in formal political channels – think the Tea Party and the Trump campaign – Black grievances are viewed as outside of the political mainstream, and thus create feelings of disempowerment and resignation. While white anger mobilizes voters, Black anger motivates protests and other more radical forms of political action.
Dr. Phoenix is Associate Professor of Political Science at University of California, Irvine. We spoke about his recently published book, The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotion in Politics, the way that emotions are racialized in political discourse and action, and what this means for both electoral and radical politics in the present moment. This is a bit of a schedule change, from what I announced last week, but given the importance of Professor Phoenix’s work for the current moment, I wanted to speak to him this week.
Prof. Sardo: Professor Phoenix, thank you for joining me. How are you doing today?
Prof. Phoenix: I’m well, thank you for having me.
Prof. Sardo: Thank you for joining us again. And I was wondering if we could start by talking about your recently published book: The Anger Gap. And just to set the framework for this discussion a little bit for my students: how do political psychologists usually understand the role of anger and politics and political participation and how does your book show the way that race mediates these effects?
Prof. Phoenix: So anger is viewed as a pretty palpable force. It’s defined as a particular emotional response to something that frustrates you in the pursuit of a particular goal. What differentiates it from other negative emotions that you can feel when you are kind of blocked from achieving something you want is that you have a particular sense of feeling slighted, a feeling that a norm was violated, that there was some unjustness that kept you from getting what you want. So that’s what really makes anger have its power. When we are in a state of anger, especially compared to fear or anxiety or disappointment or sadness, we feel more impulsive, we’re feeling less risk-averse, and we’re very kind of singularly focused on righting that wrong. For those reasons anger is viewed as a particularly mobilizing emotion.
So when we think about in the collective political space, you want people to get more active in politics, whether it is to be on the front lines of protest or casting a voting, casting a vote at the polling place, the idea is you get them angry; you get them more likely to take that kind of costly political action.
So my book comes in: it’s interrogating whether anger has that same mobilizing pull equally across racial groups and I find from national survey data from a couple of experiments that different racial groups are mobilized by different emotions. In particular African-Americans, who I focus most, on but also Latinx and Asian-Americans, are not expressing as much anger over politics as their white counterparts. And they’re also not acting on that anger nearly as kind of consistently or as intensely as their white counterparts.
So I’ve kind of two reasons for that. One is, you know, in order for you to feel anger about something, say, the political environment, you have to have kind of two things present One: the sense that this is a genuine threat to you, right, to your wellbeing, and two a sense of, you know, a norm was violated and I can right this wrong. I think when many people of color look at the political landscape they can certainly see things that are threatening, but they might not see those things as violating a norm. They might see those things as kind of a cost or consequence of being a person of color or racial minority in a racially stratified society. So they can feel the threat acutely but they don’t have that same sense of injustice or norm violation because it’s not the norm being violated. It’s the norm that they expected, right, so they have a number of ways of dealing with that emotionally. But having a sense of indignation might not be one of those primary means of dealing with it.
The other thing I think about isn’t kind of thinking about psychology, but kind of maybe the structures of our society that people of color, particularly African-Americans, might pay greater costs for expressing their political anger, whether they can be at risk of being stigmatized or labeled as the angry Black man/angry Black woman, or coming to very real threat of increased surveillance or increased the state response to their expressions political anger that we don’t see as a response from or to white expressions of anger. So for those kind of reasons I see this anger gap. You know, not feeling that they have the same degree of agency over the threat and so kind of feeling more resigned to it and angered by it and kind of weighing the potential consequences of expressing that anger.
Prof. Sardo: So it sounds like it’s, there’s this confluence of factors from something like John Gaventa’s third face of power, creating this sense of frustration and powerlessness on the one hand, but also fear of stereotype threat, being labeled as an angry Black person and also just the securitization of Black anger and and anger for people of color in general from both formal coercive institutions and informal and formal institutions and social norms, they kind of produce this gap. That––would that be like a more or less accurate summary of what your what your book is finding?
Prof. Phoenix: Absolutely, I think it’s really good way to think about all these moving parts, right, that I’m trying to contend with. But, you know, we’re kind of looking at a number of dualities characterizing the Black experience. On the one hand, you can think about just the tension and thinking about emotions and their roles in politics: between how someone feels as an individual and how they feel as a member of a collective.
And so thinking about that tension that African-Americans navigate where they can feel very efficacious or agentic as individuals within their neighborhood, and we can see that kind of agency being dependent on factors that it would be dependent for any other group, right, whether you have maybe certain SES indicators, such as security, right, whether you have education or kind of your position, positionality within your neighborhood.
But, of course, I try to weave in the idea that Black people aren’t just navigating their Political environment as individuals, but as members of the collective group. And so we think about double consciousness, right, that tension that duality between feeling the Americanness and the promise to an opportunity that comes with that, and feeling the distinct ways in which you’re often cut off from those opportunities by virtue of your race. We think about this inhibiting factor, right, something that inhibits that activation of anger, because there’s that sense of what can we do with this, what can we do about this. You know, oftentimes, when I see people reckoning with the role of race and emotion, they call upon the classic James Baldwin quote: “to be Black and conscious in this country is to be enraged all the time.” I’m paraphrasing it a bit. But I really see the second part of that quote, right, which is, so the first part… What we need to do, the most important thing to do, is figure out how to control that rage so it doesn’t destroy you. I think that’s what I’m seeing manifest in this anger gap, right. Even if Black people are feeling that initial onset of rage, that sense that we can’t act on it and reap the benefits that we want inhibits it, right, and it takes it and twists it in this knot. So I think it manifests in a lot of different ways that very look very different from white folks who can look at a system that angers them and feel an immediate need or desire to take action.
Prof. Sardo: So if anger has an inhibitory function for formal political participation for African-Americans and other people of color in the United States, do you find other emotions can activate political participation more for racial and ethnic minorities?
Prof. Phoenix: I do. So beyond looking at anger and to some extent, anxiety, because I didn’t want to show that if Black people are not acting on anger or not expressing anger that it’s necessarily the case that they’re expressing more fear and anxiety. I find that there’s more of an emotional mutedness across the board when it comes to processing threats. But the kind of flip side of the token is I find a stronger role in being activated and mobilizing Black Americans, and also Latinx and Asian Americans additionally, for positive emotions specifically hope and pride.
Pride in particular is quite effective at moving people of color into the political playing field. And I think that for these groups, the connection between pride and anger is probably a bit stronger, that we can look at people identifying things that threaten them within the political landscape and maybe have a prevailing sense of resignation about the recalcitrants of government actors to respond to their demands, but at the same time, I think they can feel a great sense of pride in the way in which their community is resilient in the face of these threats and I think that sense of pride can be very much tethered to senses of responsibility to advance the aims of the group.
So we think about that unique sense of responsibility that people of color may have to their own racial group you consider that group consciousness, right, which has been shown for years to really propel action in the face of all these inhibitors to action. And so I think this finding I have for pride is kind of tapping into that a little bit, that, you know, when people feel as though they are, they have a capability or they have a track record of striving and surviving and succeeding that can provide a boost. I think in the base of kinds of opportunity in the face of threat. So I’m still, you know, certainly, trying to grapple with what that means, the role of pride mobilizing people of color, where I don’t see this equivalent pride effect for white Americans.
Prof. Sardo: So in your book you also offer an interesting diagnosis of the 2016 election. And it seems to, at least in my reading, you’re suggesting that the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign kind of relied on anger against Trump, especially within minority voters for the rhetoric and policy rhetoric of the campaign and the policies being he was proposing––that that anger among the African-American community, especially among the Latino and Latina community, that that would activate the Democratic base and kind of, I think, the language is like the “awaken the sleeping behemoth” and you argued that that was a kind of like a misplaced faith. Can you explain what you, how you assess the 2016 election?
Prof. Phoenix: Sure. So I think one thing that’s really important is that the work on anger within clinical psychology, stressing that anger is this powerful emotion kind of flows from this work that really goes back to, you know, evolutionary biology, right, and cognitive sciences, about how threatening someone with something they stand to lose is a more powerful stimulator of action than kind of giving them, dangling a promise of opportunity in front of them. Just goes back quite a ways. And so I think when people on the Democratic side look at just how acutely and viscerally Trump represents a threat to these communities of color throughout his rhetoric throughout the campaign, they’re thinking, “well, that threat is easily going to propel them to come out and vote in large numbers, right, and because of that, we should be able to coast the White House.” And so certainly people of color feel very acutely that threat and we continue to see that represented in public opinion surveys, and approval of Trump being just dismal across people of color. That’s been one consistent that we’ve seen going back to 2015.
But I think where I think the miscalculation was wasn’t assuming that that acute sense of threat and even that antipathy felt towards Trump would automatically translate to voting. And what I find is that people color, specifically African-Americans, but again, kind of generally across the board, when they are expressing that anger their anger is not translating that effectively to electoral actions; voting and canvassing. It’s translating much more effectively to system-challenging actions; protest and boycotts and petition signing. And that’s really important because I think it helps us think about structurally how people’s emotions about the political environment are tied to their fundamental beliefs about that environment and so the expectation that people will be threatened by Trump so they’ll vote him out or prevent him from taking office, relies on this assumption that the people of color feeling threatened by Trump kind of trust the system to self correct and to not produce Trump or not produce the kind of outcomes that we dreaded by Trump.
But if that acute sense of Trump threat is only reinforcing people’s fundamental beliefs that the system has always been beyond repair, that the system has always been kind of fundamentally discriminatory or racist, then why would they translate that potential threat to a system––to a set of actions, I should say––that uphold this system, right. We saw throughout the campaign but also prior, especially in the latter half of the Obama years, the resurgence of activists, activism, protest activity predominantly led by Black communities. Especially in response to the death of Blacks at the hands of police officers, stop me if I sound familiar.
That is where anger often manifests; on the front lines of protests when people of color because whenever people are looking to right that wrong, right, what are they diagnosing as the wrong? Are they saying the system is corrupted? Are they saying the system is what it is, and we can’t get what we want unless we transform the system? And so I think maybe people could look at that of Trump and say we need systemic, systematic reform, or revolution or transformation. Casting a vote isn’t sufficient to get that done. So I think the Democratic party missed the boat by just assuming that that would translate to voting and not giving people of color a credible sense that that vote was going to be instrumental in seeing through some of the broader changes they want to see.
Because it’s not something about any individual regime. It’s about kind of the ways in which the system continues to perpetuate these kinds of [difficult to hear] practices. Regardless, some, to some degree of who’s behind them. Does Trump magnify these vulnerabilities? Sure, but he certainly did not create them. And those vulnerabilities have been felt by Democratic and Republican regimes and so I think the Democratic Party faces a similar dilemma in 2020, right.
And we’re seeing, of course, an explosion of unrest and I’ve been trying to think through how that unrest that we’re seeing now in the summer doesn’t necessarily translate to increased motivation to vote come November, that we could see a great deal of fatigue because, you know, once this unrest does subside, however it subsides, we’re going to have Black people that are tired, right. Tired like we were out here on these streets couple years ago, we are here 10 years ago, we’re out here now, what do we see change. You’re telling us now we got to vote for a regime that we probably don’t expect to bring revolutionary, systematic transformation. That’s a tall order, right. We’ve got a lot of rebuilding we have to do with our communities. We’ve got a lot of things we’re dealing with that seems to be ignored by those. So I would say you can’t just kind of assume that saying you’re the antithesis of Trump is enough.
Prof. Sardo: So building on that, in the book you argue that the anger gap creates––like the very conditions that create the anger gap, this rhetoric and history and institutional norms and procedures that decrease that––create senses of disempowerment within communities of color, such that that anger translates not to formal political participation like voting, but what you call like system changing like protests boycotts. Do you see the protests and uprisings that have been occurring over the past few weeks over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor among many, many others, do you see this as kind of continuing that same logic or do you see something, anything different in these protests? I know you just were kind of talking about this with this concern about fatigue. But I’m like, is this just another, is this another manifestation of the same kind of clear securitization and kind of dismissal or exclusion of communities of color demands for redress of grievances from the state being translated into, “well, if the State won’t listen to us, the only option is a protest or is an uprising,” or do you see any like differences with these these movements?
Prof. Phoenix: So I definitely see a continuation of the kind of long line of Black people kind of systematically and even strategically, right, choosing these insurgent and counter-institutional means of action, because they feel that’s the only means that really gets heard. And so as I think about the role of Black anger and fueling these kind of figurative fires that are raging across the nation I think, you know, it’s not simply kind of an anger that ignites in response to these particular spates of killings. I think we’re also seeing a really critical role here played by Black exasperation.
[Difficult to hear] we think about Minneapolis being the epicenter of this. Minneapolis the site of intensive protests, just a few years ago, 2016, in response to the death of Philando Castile. And similar to how the death of George Floyd is raising all of these long-standing complaints about a police unit in Minneapolis that’s largely portrayed by the citizenry as out of control, right, as completely beyond bounds of accountability, as kind of consistently over policing Black communities without any kind of consequence. And there’s the exact same things in 2016 in response to Philando Castile’s killing.
So I think that role of exasperation is really important here, right. You got people that are, yes, angry but they’re also tired. Right. They’ve also likely been here before. And, you know, unless we get significant change will be here again. And I think that’s really important for us to consider because the last time we saw these protests in Minneapolis we had a very different political regime, right. We had the great Black Hope, Obama, in office in the second term. I think that speaks to Black people’s wariness or skepticism about the capacity of conventional political action to bring about change, because they see the consistency of these kind of dissatisfactory outcomes, regardless of who’s in power at the local level in addition to the national level. And so I certainly see kind of the, anger, get that play, in that this anger is really pushing people towards the frontline of protests, more so than conventional action because they really don’t see that conventional action leading to any kind of satisfactory change.
But you also asked, “is this different?” I think it’s interesting that this is coming at this particular time, this moment, because it seems as though there is a willingness within the broader mainstream political space of ideas, within that discursive space, to acknowledge a) that Black lives do indeed matter, to acknowledge b) that reform maybe isn’t enough, that we need to have some dramatic re-imaginings of the police state in the US. And I think c) In the context of covid, I think in the context of, you know, this large-scale systematic shutdown, I think in the context of a very intensive Democratic primary season that yielded an establishment candidate when there was so much pull, so much momentum, not just for more progressive candidates but for more progressive ideas to be held in the policy landscape. I definitely think there’s a layering on top of all these things.
And I think that you have people that are aligned kind of literally on the front lines with these anguished Black communities that might have been aligned previously on questions of, “well, police shouldn’t just kill Black people without consequence.” But I think a willingness to go beyond that and say, “well, maybe body cameras aren’t going to be enough to prevent that, maybe bans on chokeholds aren’t enough, you know. Maybe we need systematic reimaginings.” So I’m seeing more calls for abolition, more calls for defunding that I don’t think––that have always been there, right, but haven’t been grappled with, I think, in the discursive space in the way they are now. So I think it speaks to, you know, a large body of work that says these protests can be impactful, right. Not just in the kind of measurable policy changes, but in the ways they can shift conversation. And I think, so we can think of this like this arc, right, this long unsteady march. Oftentimes when we think about the unsteady progress that Black people make, we often focus on kind of the legislative gains that come. But how often do you think about how language changes? How often do you think about how things that are beyond the pale for most folks are suddenly not? Like, I think it matters; we see Mitt Romney standing with protestors saying “Black Lives Matter.”
Prof. Sardo: Sure, I was going to bring up Mitt Romney.
Prof. Phoenix: Yeah, those kinds of rhetorical shifts I think really show that these groups that are often so marginalized within electoral politics, when they completely step beyond the bounds of electoral politics, and really push and press, they can force their way onto an agenda that’s worked systematically to ignore them. So I think it’s really important for us to draw contrast between Black people having these demands be grappled with now, in this summer of unrest, when we had a whole primary season in which these [difficult to hear], these ideas and [difficult to hear] could have been grappled with by people looking for Black votes and weren’t. I think that’s just further corroboration for many Black people that to bring about the change that they desperately want and need is going to require a lot more than voting and a lot more than kind of working with kind of political elites through these conventional channels.
Prof. Sardo: So that the fact that we are now talking about things like prison abolition, about systematic, like, shutting down police departments and rebuilding them from the ground up, the fact that we’re talking about that now after two weeks of very intense protests, but we––those those ideas would have been anathema, even if they were articulated by Senator Sanders, or Senator Warren in the primary. That suggests––that only reinforces this idea that the only way to actually move that discursive space or to, you know, expand that political imagination is through these much more direct and visceral forms of system-challenging political action, not just well, “we’ll vote for the X candidate or Y candidate.”
Prof. Phoenix: Absolutely. I think if we were to look back at some of those Democratic candidate debates right now we would be aghast at how rote they were and how stayed they were when talking about race. I recall on more than one occasion a debate question was focused on kind of systematic racism, systematic discrimination or white supremacy and I think there was so much kind of patting on the backs for even being willing to use those terms. But when we think about the substantive conversation around those issues or the lack thereof in juxtaposition with what we’re talking about now. We could say, “my, my goodness, right. How was the mark missed so much?” Because obviously the unrest that we’re seeing now has been building and building, most certainly building and bubbling during the times of these debates. I think it really is a nice, stark contrast to, I think, really give evidence to just how easy it is for our political system to marginalize or visible-ize the demands and calls being made by Black people and not exclusively Black people but certainly particularly Black people. And now it takes this kind of moment, this kind of action for those ideas be reckoned with. I think if we have a read on history, we often see that the times in which the country had significant grapplings with how to make kind of genuine concessions to marginalized peoples, it comes in moments of tumult. right, comes in moments of unrest. I think that definitely does––that’s definitely read by marginalized communities as they’re assessing in the moment what are and are not the most effective courses of action to take in––based in times of threat.
Prof. Sardo: So stepping back a little bit from the substance of your research, Id like to ask you how you developed your research question and this research project, just to give some insight to our Occidental students as they’re thinking about putting together their senior comprehensive papers: like how did you figure out how like, what you wanted to research and how you’re going to go about answering that question?
Prof. Phoenix: For me, I thought the––my process of coming to this project was much more pedestrian than I ever would have imagined. I thought––I had this kind of ill-informed idea that your big research project would descend down upon you, from the sky, right. Like you’re just kind of alone in a room, maybe just lit with one window, you know, like “[singing] Ahhh!” Like the moment comes to you and like maybe a light bulb literally goes on above your head. And that was not the case.
I was a graduate student in my doctoral program at the University of Michigan. I had finished all my coursework requirements and completed my qualifying exams. And so the only thing that laid in front of me was my dissertation project and I had no idea what my dissertation project was going to be. I had these very, very, very general, nebulous ideas about my interest in kind of race and responsiveness. And I thought maybe I’m interested in kind of the how Black elites, like Black mayors, can or cannot meet the needs of their constituents. But you know, I just really didn’t have anything concrete; like what’s my question?
I was advised when I was really struggling like week in, week out with my advisor to come any closer to a [difficult to hear] to like go back to what I had written in my grad seminars and see if there’s any papers that I might be interested in revisiting, and I pulled up the paper for my second year kind of political psychology seminar. And it was on this stuff on threat, right, threat mobilizing people more effectively than opportunity and I scratched out not even a thesis, kind of a half-developed idea, an argument, right, about why people of color might not follow that same pattern. It’s that general sense of if you’re threatened with what you have to lose if you don’t act and you already feel like you’ve got basically nothing to lose, because you’re already kind of at the bottom, will that really be motivating for you? I could see someone in that position being motivated by what they stand to gain, because that represents a departure from their modal kind of navigation of politics. So I wanted to explore that a little bit more, like couple years later, I was like, you know, in the time since I’ve learned a bit more about the role of emotions in politics and maybe––maybe what I was arguing there and I didn’t know it is that people of color might not be so moved by the threat because that threat won’t necessarily produce that anger. And if you don’t produce that anger maybe that’s what you’re not mobilized.
So I really just took [difficult to hear] and I just kind of––for the dissertation itself I really focus purely on the psychology, right, try and argue argue why Black people could look at something in the political landscape and not feel the same acute sense of threat that a similar position white person might feel because for that Black individual it’s just kind of what they view as a normal course of life, right. Like everything is threatening to me. So if I responded to threats as they come, right, I would be completely no good to anyone, right. So I really kind of hit on that psychology and when I started to work on the book in earnest, I thought about structure in a way that I hadn’t really grappled with to my dissertation, which I’m surprised in hindsight I had it, but I thought, you know, it’s not just a matter of, “well, that’s not necessarily a threat. This is just a fact of life, a cost of being Black in America.” It’s like real consequences of expressing that anger, right.
And I had to kind of grapple with all of these different political movements that I was teaching in my Black Politics class. You know, from, you know, the nonviolent Direct Action Movement of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the organizing and agitating of the Black Panther Party. And I thought of the consistent way in which Government, FBI would, you know, infiltrate and penetrate these organizations and subject them to surveillance and extrajudicial violence. And I thought, you know, there’s––there’s real stakes here, stakes for expressing that Black anger. I thought about the “Key and Peele” sketch, the Angry Obama Translator, right, and how we had this language in our pop culture space that made this apparent, this thing that we all seem to understand and be able to laugh at. Like, even the Black individuals in the highest office in the land couldn’t deign to actually express what they really feel, right. So they have to outsource that someone, it doesn’t have the same stakes. And so I think it was––that was kind of what got me into here, just my initial curiosity, my initial kind of “spider sense” going off saying, “I don’t know this finding really applie. across the board to all communities,” and kind of chipping away, chipping away, chipping away, and thinking about what my reading of history taught me about what this argument I was developing will say.
Prof. Sardo: And so just to close up our conversation, do you have any advice, whether academic, life, political, for Occidental students, and especially for any students that might be considering pursuing a PhD or pursuing graduate school of some form. Do you have any advice that you could share?
Prof. Phoenix: I think that I’ve had to really appreciate what role research can play in bringing about the changes that I hope to bring about. I think, like a lot of folks, my initial interest in pursuing academy, pursuing research, pursuing grad school was much more than kind of an intellectual curiosity, much more than an abstract interest in kind of learning more. I had a real desire to benefit in communities I identify with and I came to be convinced that, you know, producing research and teaching were ways in which I could directly benefit communities. And so we’re not necessarily trained, right, to conduct research in a way that is communicable beyond the world of academics and to have kind of practical implications, as I think that was a real struggle for me in grad school: seeing that lack, seeing that gap.
And so what kind of got me through grad school, when I was feeling pretty unsure, pretty disillusioned about what impacts I would be able to have was knowing that I can make a difference by teaching. And I think that, you know, Occidental students, [difficult to hear] across this country all have so much potential to be kind of paradigm-shifters. Because I think there’s something about even just where you’re at and that stage of life, you have this willingness to just ask questions like, “why do we do it this way and not another way?” And you’re less kind of tethered to traditions, particularly traditions that may have been instituted in times that were much less inclusionary, right, much less diverse and just.
And so I think that I’ve been pleased with how I’ve been able to––it takes a lot of work, right, to be able to teach yourself how to communicate your research in a way that can matter to people that aren’t just other academics, and to people that are maybe on the ground or community organizers or practitioners of different ways. But that’s a really exciting challenge for me and really exciting kind of sense of gratifying reward that I can communicate this to people that are quote unquote in the real world. They’re like, “I get this. I’ve seen this.” Whether it’s people that relate as people of color, or people that are like, “oh, now maybe I understand why these communities weren’t as responsive to my ‘ahhh, aren’t you mad about this?’ rallying cry.”
So I would say that if you’re feeling that you have an interest in research that is motivated by some kind of deep conviction for advancing something that is meaningful to your community, I see you, and I relate to you and I resonate with you. And there are opportunities, but it takes a lot of work, right, because oftentimes we’re entering these spaces that aren’t invested in teaching us how do we make that research translate and have it, have it have real world implications.
But I think there’s a real valid need for it. We don’t have these conversations we’re having right now in this moment about defunding or about abolition or about systematic transformation, about reimagining police as not these carceral actors, but as community actors. We don’t have this without years, right, years of research, years of policy work. And just because we haven’t been grappling with that work doesn’t mean it hasn’t been there and proliferating and of impactful importance. And now people can look at it like, “oh, I didn’t know this was out there.” And the researchers can be so validated like, “I’ve been screaming from the mountaintops: there’s other ways to do this!” So there’s always going to be a role for research. Even in radical reform and transformation, because people want to see receipts. When you’re talking about changing status quo, people are going to have really high standards before they accede to that. So that research doesn’t need to just exist, it needs to be really sharp and on point. So people are looking at this moment and thinking about: what role can I play? I mean, that is one way to do it. It might not be the most direct way, right, so we have to be at peace with that. But it is something that can be a part of the moment.
Prof. Sardo: So thank you again so much for joining us. Professor Phoenix, beyond your book, The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotions in Politics that was published just at the end of 2019, where could our students find out more about your work?
Prof. Phoenix: So I talk about my work and other things on my Twitter account @Davin_Phoenix. Just search Davin Phoenix on Twitter and you’ll find it. I’ve also got some work that looks at the roles of protests, of police and how that can––how media frames of those protests can shape the ways in which state legislators respond to it. So you’ve got a piece on that, came out 2019 and hopefully we’ll have a post about our work in the Washington Post coming up shortly. So I think you can check that out and see an introduction to that and I recently had a New York Times op ed that draws on the work in The Anger Gap to try to talk about the anger of Black people in this moment, and whether or not that will translate to elections. We’ve kind of been discussing it this podcast but that’s a nice kind of digestible way to process some of the ideas we talked about. So you can check that out from the Saturday edition of New York Times. And those are some of the ways you can kind of get to know my work and how I’m trying to communicate it to broader audiences.
Prof. Sardo: And all of those will be linked in the show notes. Thank you again Professor Phoenix for joining us and I hope you have a good rest of your day.
Prof. Phoenix: Thanks for having me. Great conversation.
Prof. Sardo: The Oxy Poli-Cast is a production of the Politics Department of Occidental College. It is hosted, recorded, and edited by me, Professor Christopher Sardo. I am assisted by Junko Anderson, class of 2021. You can find more information about today’s guest, our department, and how to subscribe to our summer newsletter by checking out the show notes.