Member of the Week: Michael Durfee

durfee. headshot.Michael J. Durfee – Niagara University – Assistant Professor

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

My research focuses on the substantial growth of the carceral state throughout the Crack Era, the contingency of missed opportunity for police to cooperate with grassroots anti-crack and anti-crime activists in the Bronx, and the subsequent militarization of urban policing. Moreover, to borrow a phrase from the leading scholar of the field, I follow how local activists made sense of and struggled with the criminalization of urban space. In addition to the local, my book project explores the bipartisan panic spurred by the emergence of crack and the overdose death of Len Bias. As a cadre of scholars continue to probe carceral studies we are learning to train our gaze towards the deeper historical roots of mass incarceration. However, analyzing passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 is an important tipping point in cementing governing logics of hyper-punishment. Since the advent of #BLM I have been particularly interested in the ways in which old conversations about policing and punishment are suddenly “new” and ahistorical. Hopefully my work can highlight this unfortunate reality and underscore the continuity of activism regarding issues of policing and policy.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship? How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?

This fall I will be teaching a course on the rise of mass incarceration that examines the concurrent wars on crime and drugs. I also routinely teach a course entitled “The Crack Era in Context” which allows me to offer students an in-depth seminar using ethnography, historical monographs, and the interdisciplinary articles that got me started in the field. Additionally, I teach a general requirement Postwar United States history course that takes students away from narratives of American Exceptionalism and investigates how policy and place shaped inequality and rights to citizenship. It is incumbent that students and instructors grapple with the social, political, and economic consequences of the burgeoning carceral state in order to properly understand the latter half of the Twentieth Century.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

While I am genuinely excited for my forthcoming review essay in the JUH on informal economies, my preference is to point readers to the current and forthcoming work of scholars that have been invaluable to my understanding of my own research. For the less patient, I implore members to read Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s book, Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America which arrived at my door last week. Moving forward I am particularly excited about two forthcoming monographs: Matthew Lassiter’s The Suburban Crisis: The Pursuit and Defense of the American Dream and Max Felker-Kantor’s book project, Battle for the Streets: Policing, Politics, and Power in Los Angeles.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Apply to and attend relevant conferences, ask questions, and get to know what I have found to be highly accessible, thoughtful scholars working in the field. Make and maintain connections with other graduate students pursuing research in urban history, and try to join a writing group. Perhaps most importantly, do not be afraid to submit your work, and write as frequently as possible. I also find applying our expertise and engaging the public sphere to effect change both rewarding and sustaining.

What book would you like to put in the hand of elected officials or policy makers who are trying to ameliorate the opioid epidemic?

This past year our community suffered a profound loss with the passing of Eric Schneider. To understand addiction, heroin culture, and unsuccessful punitive roads taken by elected officials and policy makers, Schneider’s Smack: Heroin and the American City is indispensable. This brilliant scholar, mentor, and somehow, even better human being will be sorely missed. I first met Eric in 2012 at the UHA conference where he chaired a panel with another scholar that subsequently took me in—Michael Javen Fortner. I think I can speak for Michael in saying that Eric improved our work—and my confidence—in immeasurable ways.

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