Opinion | What’s Shame Got to Do With It?

A Times poll that year found that 54 percent of white New Yorkers said the civil rights movement was moving too fast. The argument was that black enfranchisement provoked white resentment. It was a Catch-22, since white resentment was the reason the civil rights movement was necessary. Polls and surveys are instant. As with a photograph, we can only see what is in the frame. In their best, most systematic and most mathematical form, polling can only capture who we are and not who we should be.

I take the difference seriously. Now I also have to take it personally. After partnering with The New York Times for a newsletter, I joined the paper as a regular columnist. It is an unconditional achievement that is not without its challenges. As a sociologist, I feel much more comfortable criticizing power than wielding it. Many would convincingly argue that you can’t do both. Listen to that. I’ve said that. I keep that in mind, always.

But I am not just a sociologist. I tell my first-generation college students that I wasn’t born getting a Ph.D. For much of my life, I worked with the idea that my life would not be very different from that of my parents. I am a black woman from the southern United States born into a rural working-class family who marched in the civil rights movement, organized with the Black Panther Party, and was raised with the middle-class respectability of “The Cosby Show.” . Mine is a complex mix of influences. That complexity taught me that context changes everything. It also taught me that public discourse is where we discuss our values. It can be a contentious fight, but it’s worth having.

I hope it matters that I’m in that fight, with careful arguments and the best of intentions. I tend to be more to the left than some of my new colleagues and not far enough to the left for some of my intellectual comrades. In essence, I am a pragmatist, Fannie Lou Hamer type, not John Dewey type. I bring that pragmatic perspective to a wide range of topics: higher education, work, inequality, the internet, and popular culture. The My Times newsletter covered cryptocurrencies and political fashion in the space of several weeks. I am a cultural omnivore with a stubborn interest in a common thread: how we perform the everyday theater of an unequal society.

In 1964, when the survey of attitudes about the civil rights movement was conducted, there was no common notion of a black female columnist in the national newspaper. From the civil rights movement to the feminist movements, many people expanded the public imagination at great personal cost. They made me possible as an idea and as a person. That involved a bit of embarrassment, yes, and for that I am indebted to them.

Tressie McMillan Cotton (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays,” and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow.

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