Teaching Urban Sociology in a Time of Mass Uprisings for Racial Justice and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Colleen E. Wynn
Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of Indianapolis

According to the US Census Bureau, the majority of Americans live in urban areas. And, as urban sociologists, we’ve known cities matter for a long time, but more and more we’re seeing the rest of society take note. Cities played a major role as the location and backdrop for the mass uprisings for racial justice we saw earlier this year, especially mid-sized cities in the South and Midwest that are often included but not highlighted in our scholarly work. George Floyd’s brutal murder by police in Minneapolis helped to spark the mass uprisings we saw earlier this year and the current civil rights movement, as did Breonna Taylor’s murder in her home by Louisville Metro Police in my hometown of Louisville. In Indianapolis, where I live and teach, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police shot and killed Dreasjon Reed and McHale Rose, two incidents which have not received as much national attention but have locally mobilized many activists. These are, of course, only a few cases. Activists and organizers across the country mobilized around these cases, as well as many others that have not received nearly as much national attention. 

Cities have also been at the center of the discussions around COVID-19. We all watched New York City spike in cases and shut down, losing much of what “made it NYC” at least temporarily. This prompted many to ask “are cities worth it?” “are cities dead?” “are people fleeing?” and while we won’t know the full effects of the pandemic (and everything else) until they’re over, cities aren’t going anywhere. While the Pew Research Center reports 22% of US adults moved during COVID, about a quarter of these moves (23%) were due to closures of colleges and universities. Additionally, Pew does not tell us how many of these moves were to a new place, they only captured moves in general. It seems likely that many of those “fleeing” cities were the people who could afford to “escape,” and those who were already considering a move, or needed to move for a new job. Additionally, it is likely that many of these movers relocated to other cities. Some more recent articles also have started to consider that some of these moves may not be COVID-motivated or may be temporary. While we have heard a lot from the media about the mass exodus from cities, there is other evidence to show that there have actually been fewer moves during the pandemic. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in other aspects of life, it has likely done so in this case as well. This is perhaps only the latest iteration in wealthy White-flight to suburban areas.

The pandemic and uprisings for racial justice are of course, not mutually exclusive events. Some of the articles covering flight from cities mention “fear of violence tied to protests” as among the reasons why wealthier White families are seeking refuge in isolated suburban communities. But these are perhaps the same families that may already isolate themselves in predominantly White and affluent areas and appear to be driving racial residential segregation as they “move for the kids.” Samantha Friedman and I find that White married-couple families experience the greatest levels of isolation in an analysis of residential isolation by race/ethnicity and family structure. As White families continue to use their relative wealth and privilege to insulate themselves, the pandemic has disproportionately been felt by Black and Hispanic/Latinx communities. This disproportionate impact is tied to all the other inequalities of living in what is inherently a racist society built on white supremacy.

As the uprisings helped to illuminate gaps in knowledge, we saw an enormous demand for books on anti-racism. As scholars and educators, while we always want people to do the reading, we must acknowledge that allies need to be doing more than just reading in this moment. In recent years, we’ve also seen more media engagement with our work and the concepts we study. Journalists have written on gentrification (and how it may have played a role in Breonna Taylor’s murder), evictions (and how the pandemic is exacerbating them), fair housing, redlining, racist housing covenants, residential segregation (and how segregation shapes COVID outcomes), environmental racism, equitable development, and many more concepts. So, more students may be coming into our classrooms with a surface level of knowledge about these concepts, but not necessarily a deeper academic understanding. This allows us to be able to engage them in deeper thinking about these issues which are plaguing their communities and communities across the country and around the world.

The backdrop to all of these changes and the ongoing inequality is, of course, a combination of white supremacy, racist government policies, and neoliberalism which allow for continuing residential segregation, urban renewal, gentrification, rising evictions, and compounding inequality. Thus, we, as people who study cities and urban life have an important role to play in conversations. One of the most important places we can be having these conversations is in our classrooms. As someone who studies segregation and housing, I (and many other urban scholars) have long said housing is key and is connected to everything else, and it seems others are coming to this realization as well. Our classrooms give us a platform to teach about inequality and connect to so many other areas like health, schools/education, the environment, politics, etc.  

Our classes also allow us to impart many skills to our students like data access/literacy and analysis/interpretation and to take them out into the field and allow them to experience cities and what we discuss in the classroom. These experiences allow the content to come to life for our students. We can also connect them to people working on these issues on the ground and help sociology come alive for them in new and exciting ways. I invite the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana (FHCCI) to come to my urban classes which gives the students the chance to hear about how housing policy is playing out on the ground in our city. I have even had previous students start working as housing testers for FHCCI. Additionally, I am able to invite alumni who are doing applied urban sociology in Indianapolis, such as those working with homeless individuals, to share their experiences of providing direct services. These guest speakers help to make what I say and what we read more real for the students as they can see how these big issues we discuss in the classroom play out in our city and learn more about potential careers in these areas.   

This past summer, several students from my urban class last year reached out to me to tell me how much they had been thinking about what we had talked about and that they could “see” it all happening “out in the world.” This kind of reaction is always meaningful, but it was especially so as I distanced during the pandemic and worked most of the summer prepping my classes to be virtual this year. It was a crucial reminder that the work we do in our classrooms matters and that our students are eager to engage in conversations around urban sociology and how it connects to the world they’re experiencing.

As we all continue to distance and look for ways to recreate the community we often feel in our departments, I encourage you to think about sharing your teaching resources via ASA’s Teaching Resources and Innovations Library (TRAILS). TRAILS has many wonderful activities and assignments (I’ve included some recent urban ones below) but there is room for so many more. Additionally, I find many resources and learn so much from colleagues on Twitter in urban sociology, other urban fields, and across other areas of sociology. I would encourage those who are not currently part of the #SocTwitter community to create an account and find some fellow sociologists to learn from and with! Especially now, let’s share our expertise and the exciting and innovative ways of doing this work as we continue to help our students to see how and why urban sociology matters.

TRAILS activities/assignments (in chronological order)

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