Mary Pattillo, the Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, is an esteemed professor, researcher and author. Her work examines race, segregation, urban life and the Black middle class, digging deep into America’s legacy of discrimination.
NBN: How has the knowledge that you’ve gained through your research and work influenced the way that you live your life?
Pattillo: It creates a lot of guilt. Everything from knowing the disparities between what I make as a tenured full professor to what the people who work on Northwestern’s campus make, who pick up the trash in the offices or work in the food service places or do the landscaping. Oftentimes I’ve organized my guilt into action. I’ve been involved over my time at Northwestern in living wage campaigns and helping students facilitate those social movements to some success a couple of years ago … In my personal life, I give a lot of money away to organizations that I believe in and that I know are doing good work. I’m involved in a struggle to preserve public housing on the North Side in a place called the Lathrop Homes. All of that comes from what I know about American society, but what I know is daunting. Attacking the depth of the disparities and real suffering on the low end of the socioeconomic scale seems daunting frequently. Sometimes it just kind of paralyzes you.
With events like bringing Ta-Nehisi Coates to campus and having Black Lives Matter weeks, how do you think that relates to what’s been going on politically and socially?
I think flying a Black Lives Matter flag and having two weeks of thinking about Black Lives Matter is exactly what some Trump supporters would say alienates them. I’m not at all affirming that alienation, I think that alienation is misplaced and misguided, but when people feel their power being eroded ... then something like two weeks of a discussion of Black Lives Matter at Northwestern is proof for them of the erosion of that power. I am searching for a good analysis of how not to placate that kind of rhetoric of fear – that if Black lives matter, that must mean that now I no longer matter – while simultaneously giving space to groups who haven’t much had space. I think it’s a double-edged sword in that these kinds of activities are the exact things that people who feel aggrieved point to as to why they feel aggrieved.
Like you said, it is oftentimes a double-edged sword, and it’s difficult to find the answer. What do you think that Northwestern students and other young people can do to figure out the answer?
I think what students can do is be leaders of a kind of charismatic message that says, “Okay, let’s look at two things.” One, is there any empirical evidence that men are losing power, that cisgender folks are losing power? “No.” And that’s not to say that’s a good thing, like to say, “Hey, look, you’re still in power, you can be okay.” But rather, let’s have a real discussion about power, and let’s have a real discussion about how we can have a more economically, politically, culturally egalitarian place that’s not built upon the unhidden privileges of the folks who now feel scared they might lose them.
How can students use the knowledge and skills they learn at Northwestern to affect real change in their communities?
Any kind of major at Northwestern can lead to some kind of social good, and really what it takes is a commitment to doing it. It just takes getting up out of our chair and stop talking about it and actually doing it. And it takes sacrifice, because it’s a sacrifice of our time, of our money, of our time with our family, of our sleep, so it’s a decision to make that sacrifice.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.