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Scholarship in the Interest of Creating a Better World
It would not be a stretch to liken a seasoned and prolific academic to a major league ballplayer—someone sought after by the owners of opposing teams and even poised to break a few records.
With 48 published books (one of them a Pulitzer nominee) and 5 more in the works, more than 180 published research articles, and a four-decade teaching career characterized by attractive offers from competing universities, sociologist Joe R. Feagin is a sterling example of why this baseball analogy makes sense.
The great difference between this year’s Katzenstein Award winner and most seasoned players in the academy and on the baseball diamond, however, is Feagin’s sustained, almost rookie-like passion for his teaching and research work. And given that his work seeks to research and ultimately eradicate racism and sexism, to, as his nominator put it, “re-create American democracy on the broadest level by recognizing and addressing the issues that threaten to continue to divide us,” this indefatigable commitment is all the more impressive.
“Sociology has always been a field that young people enter to improve the world they’re in,” Feagin explains of the inherent ethical component of his vocation.
Also inherent in this vocation is the risk of burnout, for when your initial goal is to improve the world, you could easily adjust your sights downward when the world does not comply—or you could become Joe Feagin.
Currently the Ella C. McFadden Professor of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University, Feagin received his BD in social ethics from Harvard Divinity School in 1962 and a PhD in sociology from Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1966, eventually focusing his research on the development and structure of racial and gender prejudice and discrimination, especially institutional and systemic discrimination.
Feagin is the 26th recipient of the Rabbi Martin Katzenstein Award, established by the HDS Alumni/ae Association in 1979 to honor graduates with a passionate and helpful interest in the lives of others, an informed and realistic faithfulness, a reliable sense of humor, and an understanding that love is not so much a way of feeling as a way of acting.
That Feagin has spent most of his professional career in the South (save for a first year at the University of Massachusetts–Boston, a four-year appointment at the University of California–Riverside, and later, a year of service with the United States Commission on Civil Rights) might lead one to wonder why someone who “went to Baylor, and was a Texas kid” would choose Harvard.
Feagin had a friend who attended Harvard Summer School, so he came up to look at the campus and liked what he saw. And once he enrolled in a social ethics class with James Luther Adams, the Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr., Professor of Christian Ethics at HDS, he had no doubts about his northward path.
“James Luther Adams had a profound influence on my life,” he says of the renowned Unitarian minister and social activist (and 1987 winner of the Katzenstein Award). “In fact, I would say he was the greatest single influence on my career.”
Feagin began his Harvard years studying religion and social problems and increasingly broadened his interest to different aspects of sociology, but always with an ethics component. The conception of sociology as a hard-and-fast secular science concerned only with data-gathering is one academic trope Feagin could do without.
“All research represents a point of view,” he insists, “and all points of view have an ethical dimension. The real founders of sociology were Jane Addams and W. E. B. Du Bois—people who had a definite point of view about racial and cultural issues. They made sociology a science where you had a strong empirical interest and a strong ethical interest. As Marx said, philosophers study the world; the point is to change it.”
“I was always uncomfortable with racism,” he recalls of enrolling at Harvard at the start of a tumultuous decade of civil rights activism and legislation, “though I didn’t come from a family who gave that much critical thought to it. If you were a Christian in the South you were often a Southern Baptist or a Southern Methodist.
I was a Southern Baptist in the 1950s and when we came to Cambridge my wife and I started attending much more liberal churches. When I got to Harvard in January 1960 I knew there was something wrong with the situation of whites and blacks in America, a lot of things wrong, in fact.”
Feagin’s first major research project at Harvard resulted in the 1972 book Subsidizing the Poor: A Boston Housing Experiment, co-authored with Constance Williams, now Associate Professor Emerita at Brandeis University, and Charles Tilly, now the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University, under whose leadership the research was conducted.
The project asked whether subsidized middle-class housing works for poorer African Americans, sending Feagin and his interviewers door to door in the black communities in and around the Roxbury area in Boston to interview black residents.
“They were wary of me at first,” he recalls, “But they were very kind and hospitable.”
He and his colleagues found that African Americans “mostly did fine in subsidized housing in situations with middle-class neighbors”—findings replicated in similar studies of poor families in middle-class subsidized housing elsewhere. The African Americans in Feagin’s study “actually got more optimistic about life” when they were relocated to middle-class neighborhoods. “If your housing is improved,” he explains, “your life is improved.”
Racism is alive and thriving today, and though Feagin can still be shocked by the numbers, he is not daunted by the massive task of challenging and reforming mind-sets.
Feagin is often asked to give lectures and conduct workshops at colleges and universities across the country on his research on racism and antiracism. He not only talks about his extensive field research, but also offers basic solutions such as cradle-to-grave reeducation on racial matters.
Echoing Cicero, he asserts that “a lot of the problems with white racism stem from our ignorance about American history. Making sure students learn how blacks were treated in this country is a start.”