White / Black Ethnographers and the Question of ‘Access’

Some of the best in urban (and rural) ethnography—here and abroad—has white ethnographers peering into the lives of Black and other non-white people. Oscar Lewis (“The Culture of Poverty”);  Margaret Mead (Trobriand Islanders); Elliot Liebow (Tally’s Corner); Harold Foote Gosnell (Negro Politicians); Gerald Suttles, (The social order of the slum; ethnicity and territory in the inner city); Matthew Desmond (Evicted); Paul Williford (First Baptist Church Beale Street) and Alice Goffman (On The Run).

These scholars received access to Back people in a way that no Black scholar has received access to white communities and neighborhoods. Arlie Russell Hochschild in (Strangers in Their Own Land) was given the kind of access to the rural, all-white community of Lake Charles Louisiana where residents are now having a hard time reconciling what she wrote about. Robert Putnam, too, in his highly recognized ethnography on his hometown city of Port Clinton, Ohio.  Justin Gest’s study of Youngstown, Ohio and East London entitled The New Minority shows similar patterns as some of the work cited above. Charles Murray’s “Fishtown” is another example of white researchers gaining access to whites their life chances, struggles to survive and oftentimes as with Gest and Hochschild’s work learning of their deep, deep resentment of Blacks and other non-whites position in society. 

Blacks don’t get this kind of research access to whites and their families, their living arrangements, work, leisure and overall community life.

While race still influences where we choose to live it also constrains which scholars have access to which neighborhoods they can study.

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