Interview w/ Addams Award Winners Josh Pacewicz and John N. Robinson III

The 2021 Jane Addams Article Award was awarded to Josh Pacewicz and John N. Robinson III for their article “Pocketbook Policing: How Race Shapes Municipal Reliance on Punitive Fines and Fees in the Chicago Suburbs.” Published in Socio-Economic Review in 2021, this article draws on both quantitative and qualitative methods to show how municipal reliance on fines and fees varies across race and class lines in the Chicago suburbs. Josh Pacewicz is Associate Professor of Sociology at Brown University, John N. Robinson III is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. Andrew Messamore and Benny Witkovsky reached out to John and Josh to discuss their article and an abridged version of that discussion is below. Thanks to John and Josh for participating in our interview series!

Let’s start by talking about this paper. What did you seek to find? What did you ultimately find?

Robinson: We originally wanted to take an exploratory look at the problem of fines and fees, which had become a big topic of dialogue in the aftermath of Ferguson. Once we got into the data, we saw that these monetary punishments were concentrated in many Black suburbs, and especially relatively affluent ones. For context, the financial penalties that we found in these communities (mostly traffic fines, but also things like fines for overgrown weeds) differed from those we would find in much poorer areas (see, for example, Alexes Harris’ pathbreaking work, which focuses on the penalties associated with criminal prosecution). The racialized effect of fines and fees in the lives of poor households and communities is more dramatic and impactful over the long-term. But our findings on these relatively affluent Black areas show that these communities are in some ways more like poorer Black communities than their affluent white counterparts. Importantly, we also found that the places dealing with these penalties also suffered a range of other issues that white affluent communities didn’t, including exorbitantly high property taxes, exploitative tax incentive schemes, deficient public services, etc.

Your paper is a wonderful example of mixed-methods collaboration and the synthesis of multiple theoretical perspectives. How did your careers lead you to this collaboration?

Robinson: Our intellectual partnership has been fun and generative for me in part because our interests are parallel, but distinct enough to be complementary. We’re both very interested in matters of public finance (its political economy and especially what that looks like in a society where governance is increasingly public-private). But Josh has focused more on municipal-level dynamics and I’ve focused more on the intersection of public finance in general with race, racism, and marginality. So these two paths come together nicely in our collaborative work.

Pacewicz: The way it started was that John and I met at a Community and Urban Sociology event and we would have coffee at ASA. We were thinking we could do a project together. It was 2016 and it was shortly after Ferguson (“shortly” in academic time) so we thought it would be cool to do a project about policing for profit because Ferguson was just the tip of the iceberg. We thought that if this is going on anywhere, it was Chicagoland. That was our only expectation. Then it just turned out [to be the case] from the data.

Your key concept in the paper is “racialized municipal opportunity structures.” Could you help us unpack this term?

Robinson: Here’s the easy way to put it. Essentially, the same is true of municipalities that we often imagine of individuals and neighborhoods: they are shaped by broader systemic forces (especially those related to racism and capitalism), and those forces set municipalities along different trajectories with respect to resources/opportunities. And that dynamic in turn affects the resources and opportunities available to households and residents. So the “opportunity structures” concept (borrowed from Oliver and Shapiro’s work) is intentional about highlighting how municipalities are caught up in larger systems, just like individuals and neighborhoods.

Pacewicz: We were wrestling with the finding. We didn’t know how to write this up because it’s possible to interpret the finding as victim-blaming. Middle-class Black suburbs are policing their own people and that’s the problem. But we knew it was a subtler story about institutional and structural racism–that’s why the idea of the racialized municipal opportunity structure is so important. Municipal officials might all be trying to get the same thing, fiscal stability, by drawing on revenues that they view as more or less desirable. If you picked a random suburb in Chicago you would get the same story every time about what the job of a municipal finance officer is and the more and less desirable ways to achieve it. But, they are doing it in radically different circumstances. The circumstances in middle-class Black suburbia make it very difficult to do this in any other way.

Your article does not use the concept of racial capitalism explicitly, but I wondered if you could both comment on how this piece is situated within this broader moment. I’m thinking of the work of scholars like Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Destin Jenkin.

Robinson: “Race for Profit” and “The Bonds of Inequality” are both fantastic and distinguished works with their own distinct contributions. But a through-line is the attention to situating what we as sociologists would think of as micro- and meso-level phenomena (e.g., housing and bond markets) in broader systemic terms. And that means attending to legacies of racial domination and how they get enacted through present-day dynamics of economic exploitation and extraction that aren’t really exceptional or spectacular in any particular way but are rather part of the normal design of everyday life. And I think our paper makes a similar point. Municipal affairs are in some ways very mundane, and that’s why they can have quite a powerful effect on the quality of our lives. And we were intentional in that paper about situating municipalities within a wider set of racial, political, and economic relationships, and showing how that context is necessary for understanding their disparate effects on households.

Your focus on municipal finance officers is a unique and productive methodological decision for your question. Tell us a bit more about how you landed on that focus?

Pacewicz: Municipal finance officers are an interesting population, [who are] not especially guarded, and helped us really get into the guts of how municipal finance works. We were looking at the data and doing preliminary interviews simultaneously. John was picking away at it while he was at Northwestern and I came in 2 or 3 times for 2 weeks at a time. The original intent of interviewing 30 plus city officials was the intent from the beginning. We did end up interviewing several officials in Indiana as well that we didn’t end up using. Although—there is a very interesting story there about Indiana and regulations. It’s a different world, an interesting example of successful regulations. They have very little policing for profit in Indiana because they have a different state regime where the state ends up capturing all the extra discretionary money, so the municipalities have no incentive to do it. But at the same time, municipalities are always very fiscally strapped. In Chicago, there’s a range where a municipal official might…make $200,000 a year, [while] if you live in the fiscally strapped suburbs you might make $40,000 a year. Whereas in Indiana the top official makes $60,000. It’s all very much depressed.

Relatedly, could we talk about solutions? Your work mentions the idea of intergovernmental transfers and new sales tax systems, as a way of reducing racial inequity in finance. What do you two think are the big policy ideas in community and urban sociology that we should be considering when it comes to race, government, and cities?

Pacewicz: In some ways for municipal finance, it’s important to go bigger even and think internationally. There’s kind of a move within urban sociology which I think is also good, to think about the Global South. but I think it’s really important to think about the US municipal situation compared to other cities in the Global North. Municipal finance in the US is uniquely terrible. If you were to design it from the beginning you would never arrive at the system. [For example], in Ontario there’s good communication between municipal officials and the Ontario finance ministry, so you get big reforms to municipal finance every 5 or 6 years. They go for a bit and then rethink the formula. There’s a reform, there’s tinkering. In the United States, there hasn’t been any change to the municipal finance regime since the 1980s. It’s bumbling from one crisis to the next. It gets worse and worse, and then, “Uh oh, Detroit went bankrupt.” It’s a series of unfortunate accidents. [People in the U.S.] are given no other way to think about it.

If you could pick one direction that you would hope to encourage more community and urban sociological research in the coming years, what would it be?

Robinson: I could give a list of research directions I’d like to see more of given my own commitments and experiences, but what excites me more than any particular project idea is the opportunity to learn from other thinkers and researchers  things that I would not have known to look for or think about myself. That’s the most exciting part of being an academic for me. So, I think I’ll use this space to say that I’m genuinely excited about the direction of sociology and urban sociology. In the aftermath of the financial crisis/subprime meltdown, I think we’ve been asking bigger and more impactful questions and I see that reflected in the new research ideas and perspectives being developed today, especially (but not only) by graduate students and other developing thinkers. So, I feel grateful to be a witness to that and just want to encourage the younger scholars still figuring out their research agendas that you have something important to say. Keep at it!

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