2018 Lynd Award Recipient: Career Reflections

Nancy Denton
SUNY Albany
CUSS Newsletter, 2019 Winter, Vol 32, No 1

At the end of my first year of retirement from the University at Albany, I was thrilled to receive the Robert and Helen Lynd Lifetime Achievement Award from the Community and Urban Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association. As I examined the list of others who had won it, I was humbled and extremely grateful to my nominator and to the committee who chose me. Winning this award, along with retirement, has given me the perfect opportunity to reflect on my career as an urban sociologist. And as I’m sure others would agree, urban sociology is a particularly rewarding field as you are able to investigate “real” problems that affect “real” people. (Of course my demographic training led me to do this from a data perspective, not one of actual on-the-ground engagement in the urban landscape. But be that as it may.)

For me, urban sociology gave me the opportunity to not only do research on cities, but to work with great people and great scholars. (Unfortunately I will only be able to name some of them, lest my entire newsletter contribution become a list of names.) At the top of the list is Doug Massey, with whom I first began to work literally as soon as I turned in my dissertation. My six years of continuous work with him, three at the University of Pennsylvania and three at the University of Chicago, enabled me to have a protracted period of research with no teaching or administrative duties, a privilege that most people never have. Out of these years came many articles and American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, which is now recognized as one of the classic texts in the discipline. As we investigated hypothesis after hypothesis, the result was uniformly the same: blacks were more segregated than any other group, followed by Hispanics and then Asians. Differences among people and locations that we expected to make a difference did: suburban areas were less segregated than cities, the poor were more segregated than the rich, immigrants were more segregated than natives—the list went on and on, but at the end of the day, only the nuances were different. The order of the three groups remained the same. It was impossible to ignore the severe effects of very high segregation on the black population or hypersegregation as we called it. These effects persist until this day even though the actual segregation scores are declining due to mainly demographic, and to a lesser extent, residential changes.

As we were publishing articles about segregation, and certainly once American Apartheid was out, renewed public interest in segregation enabled me to get to know the Fair Housing Community. These were the people at the front lines so to speak, the ones documenting and suing those who were not in compliance with the 1968 Fair Housing Law. What some may not realize is that there are many, many Fair Housing groups all across the U.S. and they would appreciate your volunteering. Speaking at many of their local conferences enabled me to become better acquainted with their work, and I was extremely impressed by their dedication and service. While those I met are too numerous to mention by name, I was able to visit many different places as a result – from Ossining, NY to Grand Rapids, MI to Portland, OR and Worcester, MA. All these cities gave me a deeper on-the-ground appreciation of cities. Particularly memorable were the big Fair Housing Conferences HUD sponsored. At the one in Dallas we shared the hotel with a Daughters of the American Revolution meeting and had many interesting conversations between the all-white DAR group and our mixed race group. In Jackson, Mississippi the bus from the hotel to the meeting site had to take a round about route to avoid giving us a tour of a severely segregated area, not appropriate as we were celebrating Fair Housing. I also met many lawyers interested in Fair Housing, and their deep involvement was singularly impressive. Many conferences at the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School opened my eyes to the importance of opportunity as a measure of neighborhood quality. Another at the University of Miami Law School was particularly memorable because my father was able to attend and see “what I did.” And last, in 1994 I won the “Hope for People Award” from the Hope Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, Illinois that was run for over 40 years by Bernie Kleina. You may not recognize his name but if you have ever visited the city of Chicago Visitors Center, it is his photographic images that introduce you to the city. In short, my involvement with Fair Housing was an important part of my career despite it not fitting into the usual academic mold.

Once I arrived at the University at Albany, State University of New York in 1990, my research focus shifted slightly as I began to write more about issues of race and immigration with some of my wonderful colleagues. With Richard Alba and Glenn Deane I published on racial categories and the implications of multiple race choices, while with Richard and Don Hernandez I investigated the neighborhood conditions of immigrant children. Serving on the U.S. Census Bureau’s Advisory Committee for six years gave me the opportunity to learn about how the Bureau must balance the competing desires of groups who wanted the race question changed with researchers who wanted to insure consistent categories to track trends over time. In creasing Hispanic and Asian populations complicated their task, as did the introduction of the ability of respondents to select multiple races. As I write this, the issue of whether or not the 2020 Census should ask about immigration status is dividing the country as it begins to move through the courts. Though it is nice to feel I spent my career on important topics, I wish that it didn’t sometimes seem these days like we were moving backward.

A major highpoint of my career was my role, along with Barry Wellman and Sharon Zukin, in the establishment of City & Community, the first section journal of the American Sociological Association. I must admit that I was not initially sure there really was a need for the journal, but I am very happy that time has clearly proven me wrong. I learned much from our conversations about how to establish a journal and was privileged to be able to argue in its favor as I was an ASA Council Member. Once Tony Orum agreed to be the journal’s first editor, he joined Barry, Sharon and me to negotiate with ASA regarding the publisher, the dues increase, and numerous other details I have long forgotten. (The publisher negotiations served me well a few years later when I was elected president of the Eastern Sociological Society and Social Forum changed publishers.) But what I remember most is how wonderful it was to work with Barry, Sharon, and Tony. We have kept up our contact by having dinner together at ASA meetings. And now, as I retire and receive this award, I am very very proud that one of my Ph.D. students from UAlbany, Deirdre Oakley, is now the editor at City & Community.

Working with graduate students at Albany was one of the best parts of my career. It is particularly nice to see where they have gone in their own careers and realize that I played some small role in their success. Whether as academics or analysts for state or federal government, every time I hear from or about them, it is clear that they are making a difference in the lives of others. I could go on and on here about various students, but let me simply say that I find it particularly fitting that my last published paper was written with a then graduate student, Jeffrey Napierala. It concerned census racial categories as measured at the tract level, the same topic I started to work on so intently in 1984 when I began working on segregation.

Last, a few comments to members of CUSS, especially those who are at the beginning of their careers. First, CUSS is a great section and I urge you to participate in it. The abundant energy and enthusiasm that I saw at the CUSS business meeting where I received my award convinced me that we have much to look forward to in terms of urban research. Second, in my view, it is a wonderful time to be an urban sociologist as the future of urban sociology looks very bright. Cities still have many large problems, but at the same time many are revitalizing, so there are abundant opportunities to study. New data, such as information on opportunity zones and health information, e.g. life expectancy, at the tract level, will help researchers offer new insights into how people in cities live. And the transformation of the suburbs continues apace as they now face what in the past were considered urban problems. In short, I am most pleased to have been a part of urban sociology and I am sure it will continue to thrive. But retirement is also wonderful and now I will turn to other very important issues such as “should I get a dog?” and “what shall I name her?”

Related: Interview w/ Lynd Award Winner Nancy Denton

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