A Conversation with Danielle Wiggins

Danielle Wiggins, who joined the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) at Caltech as an assistant professor of history in the summer of 2019, earned her PhD in history from Emory University in 2018, where she specialized in African American political history and urban political economy. Prior to joining the HSS faculty, Wiggins spent a year as a visiting fellow at the University of Virginia's Jefferson Scholars Foundation. We spoke to Wiggins recently, via Zoom, to find out more about her research and what led her to Caltech.

In light of the recent uprisings around the nation against police brutality and racism, Wiggins had some additional thoughts, which we have added to the end of this Q&A.

Your PhD work explored the politics of law and order in Atlanta in the '70s and '80s. What got you thinking about this topic?

My early grad school research concerned black Republicans in Atlanta in the 1970s and '80s. I started to change focus a bit when I realized that there was a lot of work on black Republicans but far less examining black political leaders as Democrats.

I was also noticing similarities between black Republicans and black Democrats, particularly in the post-civil rights era. There are overlaps in how they thought and talked about crime as crime rates were beginning to rise in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Both were rather punitive in ways that were unexpected for me. I expected black Democrats at least to be more interested in rehabilitation, in getting at the causes of crime. And they did talk about those things: the roots of crime, the need to fix the schools, create more jobs, and have more social services. But they were also like, "We need to lock these people up in the meantime."

Another thing that shaped how the dissertation developed was the shifting national context of the Black Lives Matter era. In the spring of 2015, as I was beginning to do the research and write, Baltimore kind of exploded after the murder of Freddie Gray [a 25-year-old black man who died from injuries suffered while he was in police custody], and it was very interesting to me to watch a city that had a black mayor, black police chief, black district attorney, and how they all responded to Gray's murder in ways that were surprising to me.

I started thinking about the ways in which black political officials participated in fostering and sustaining the mass criminalization of poor people of color and how they were involved in the expansion of mass incarceration.

What conclusions did you come to about why the black leadership had a punitive approach?

Many folks have argued that people were just really afraid of violent crime and framed black crime, particularly "black-on-black" crime and black victimhood, as a civil rights issue, as in, "We need to protect our good, law-abiding black people from the lawless rule breakers who are betraying the race."

Others have argued that because the federal government and state governments were also embracing a punitive law-and-order type of politics, those were the tools that were available to them. While they weren't able to get much money to improve public schools or for public housing, they had a great deal of federal support for expanding police departments and jails.

In my research, I found that a lot of black property owners were just as concerned about what we would call victimless crimes, such as loitering and panhandling, as they were about the more violent crimes. I also found that there was a preoccupation with maintaining order in black communities that can be traced to the late 19th century, when orderliness in black communities was seen as a survival mechanism because any hint of lawlessness could give people excuses for lynching and the continued separation of the races.

There's this long history of order maintenance, or what we now call broken-windows policing—supporting things like stop-and-frisk and quality-of-life policing—in black communities that we now know exacerbated the crisis of mass incarceration.

And the Black Lives Matter movement emerged from that background?

Yes, definitely. I think the irony of the Black Lives Matter movement is that it emerged under the Obama administration, so I really see it as a critique of what I argue is a black liberal centrist type of politics. It's the return of a radical voice in black politics. In the book project I'm working on, I will argue that after Jesse Jackson's defeat in the 1988 presidential primary, black social democracy became marginalized in mainstream black politics and then really made a resurgence during the Obama years.

And the recent rise of black female politicians like U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley, 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and others is carrying on that more progressive legacy?

I think that there are very clear similarities to Jackson's '84 and '88 platforms in what that Democratic blue wave of 2018, which included Pressley and Abrams, was proposing, and I find that their politics and their vision is much more similar to Jackson than it is to Obama. After Jackson's defeat in 1988 and Clinton's ascent in 1992, this more social democratic vision faded away from the national Democratic Party for over 20 years. Obama appealed to Jackson rhetorically, but his policies are more similar to Clinton's than to Jackson's platform. However, I think the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, the Movement for Black Lives in 2014–2015, Bernie Sanders' campaign in 2016, and Hillary Clinton's defeat that same year brought many of these issues back to the forefront and opened a space for progressive politicians to reclaim the mantle of Jesse Jackson.

Can you talk more about the book you are working on?

The book project stems from the dissertation research. In the book, I'm still looking at Atlanta in the '70s and '80s but at what I see as three interconnected crises of the postindustrial city. One of them being the crisis of crime, the second being the crisis of the black family, and the third being the crisis of joblessness and unemployment. Atlanta's Democratic black political leaders were elected to represent the interests of Atlanta's black majority, but they also had to run a city at a time when federal funding for cities was being slashed, and they were dealing with white flight, capital flight, and tax bases that were shrinking at the same time that unemployment and inflation were going up. They were in a really hard spot, between a rock and a hard place.

What they did is they created a centrist Democratic politics that tried to appeal and appease both sides, but ultimately these black leaders often ended up prioritizing the needs of business and property owners over the needs of Atlanta's actual residents who were predominantly black and poor. This black liberal centrism ultimately presaged the rightward-shifting Democrats' approach on issues of criminal justice, welfare, and economic development.

Switching gears, what drew you to Caltech?

Caltech seems to be one of those rare research institutions that actually prioritizes research, particularly for the humanities. Its small size provides a lot of room for autonomy and creativity. I'm the only person that teaches African American history, and I'm able to teach all of my dream classes.

The first class I taught in the fall was African American history since 1968. I find that students have a sense of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and then they don't really know what happens between then and Barack Obama and the Movement for Black Lives. This class is about filling in those gaps. What happened in the post-civil rights era to produce both the election of a black man to the highest office in the land, but at the same time, what happened to necessitate the Black Lives Matter movement?

What stands out to you about Caltech students?

I would say that they're more curious than students I've encountered before, and they actually do the work. Students here seem to be less concerned with the grade and more with actually getting the most out of the class. I never get complaints about grades, and that's a first. They're also, I think, more used to collaborating. I see my class as a very collaborative place. In the classroom, I have the benefit of knowing a bit more than the students, but we're still thinking through things together, and they're pushing me on ideas, and I'm pushing them.

Do you have a historical perspective to share on the current uprisings against police violence and systemic racism?

I study the period right after the urban rebellions of the mid-late 1960s and how cities and black leaders, in particular, responded to those uprisings with various reforms that were intended to assuage tensions between black communities and police departments. But, ultimately, as we now see, these reforms of the 1970s and the reforms that we saw again in the 1990s in response to uprisings in cities like Los Angeles and Miami were insufficient and some of them actually worsened the problems of over-policing in black and brown communities and intensified mass incarceration. So I'm constantly thinking about the ways that we can learn from the mistakes of the past and how to inform and educate people about the limits of the reforms we've already seen.

What would you like to say to the Caltech community at this time?

I would say embrace those values that are at the heart of Caltech—creativity, innovation, and a belief that we can solve the world's biggest problems—and ask yourself: What would a world where black people don't experience untimely death at the hands of police, from disease, or from neglect look like? What would a world where black lives actually matter look like? These are things that are hard to imagine because we've never lived in such a world, but these are thoughts that should inspire us to continue the work.

Written by Judy Hill

Caltech Communications