“I don’t know if people engage with his thoughts as closely as they engage with his quotes.”

This statement was one of the first delivered by Antonia Randolph, during a guest lecture on James Baldwin last month in the Global Inequality Research Initiative (GIRI) seminar, one of the flagship programs of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. 

Each semester, the GIRI seminar provides undergraduate and graduate students alike a grounding in the principles of inequality research, through the lens of a thematic and timely topic. This semester’s class centers on the topic of James Baldwin and Global Inequality, the subject of a recent book co-authored by the course’s instructor, Adam Hollowell. 

Hollowell, a senior research associate at the Cook Center as well as the GIRI director and the director of the new Inequality Studies minor, began the class session with an exploration of quantitative analysis in research, probing the question of whether quantitative analysis is always as objective as it is portrayed. 

In his lecture, Hollowell emphasized how the use of data reflects the assumptions that exist in the ecosystem. The data, always, must pass through the prism of people to have power; it is important, he said, to have a “principled ambivalence to numbers.” The categories of data that are chosen, applied, and analyzed are not natural phenomena; they are constructed and enforced by people who make decisions. It’s crucial then to reflect on what questions these numbers are trying to answer, as well as what are the questions that have been elided or ignored.

The second half of the class featured Dr. Antonia Randolph, a cultural sociologist who is an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her 2018 article in The New Black Sociologists, “James Baldwin and the Lay Race Theorist Tradition,” explored how the great novelist, in popular media, managed to express complex phenomena in memorable fashion. 

“People have thought about [Baldwin’s] pithy ways of summing up social problems that were occurring in the 1960s and 1970s and are still happening today,” said Randolph, but his assessments were not just clever phrases, she argues. Rather, Baldwin’s work can also provide us with data—information about how the world works—and theory—categories and concepts that explain and encapsulate this information.

In her talk, Randolph explored two theories that Baldwin advanced throughout his work. First was white innocence, in particular with regards to education and policing: That white people who believe in their good intentions can nevertheless uphold inequalities and block antiracist change. The second concept, the libidinal economy of anti-blackness, invoked the intersection of gender and sexuality with racism: the notion that there is pleasure in bullying, in oppressing, in keeping another group at a lower status. 

Randolph then displayed two maps of the United States: one showing the legislative pushback to “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) in education, and one showing the pushback to transgender youth in athletics. Both showed the most pushback in the south and midwest, with anti-CRT pushback making deeper inroads in the northeast, despite “the racial innocence” that the north suffers from, Randolph said.

“I don’t think politics today has caught up to where we’re agile enough to discuss how these things are connected,” Randolph said, making the case for continued engagement with the famous novelist’s works to understand this complex intersection. 

“There’s a fluency in different kinds of marginalization that Baldwin provides.”

GIRI students, using this understanding of the complexity and different sources of data, will present their research into topics of inequality on April 19 at the Washington Duke Inn. Tickets for the (free!) event are available here.