Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and Political Science
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I’m writing a book about how New York City rebuilt its public institutions in the wake of the 1975 Fiscal Crisis—looking especially at schools, policing, and public space. The era of New York’s political history that I described in City of Ambition really does come to an end in the 1970s—if anyone hasn’t read Kim Phillips-Fein’s book Fear City, stop reading this and go find a copy! That moment of pure disinvestment doesn’t last very long, though; by the 1980s, liberals and technocratic problem-solvers alike are trying to recapture a vision of a democratic public sphere. But they’re doing so in ways that end up embedding racial and class inequalities in new institutional forms: public school choice, quality-of-life policing, public-private partnerships, and the like. (If anyone’s interested, there’s a preview of this argument in the latest issue of Dissent.)
To me, the most interesting thing about neoliberalism in New York is that key parts of the neoliberal state are not simply the products of a power grab by capital—which means they have at least some democratic legitimacy among people who think of themselves as progressives. All of which helps to shed light on one of the interesting paradoxes of contemporary American politics: the most progressive places are also the most unequal ones.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
I’m teaching a course I offer every spring, Race & Inequality in the American City. It began a few years ago as a chronologically-organized history of American cities since 1945. But it became obvious that what the students really wanted to understand was what to do about contemporary forms of urban racial inequality. So I reorganized it. We now start with the deep structural underpinnings of contemporary compounded deprivation—they read Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, Massey and Denton’s American Apartheid, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (and Destin Jenkins’s great review of it). Then we look at how specific policy areas like policing and criminal justice, education, and housing/gentrification fit together and rearticulate broader structural inequalities. I want them to understand how much is being elided, for instance, when people speak of school equity in terms of an “achievement gap,” “failing schools,” or “bad teachers.”
By the end of the semester, the students understand just how deeply contemporary urban inequality is embedded in American capitalism, politics, and culture—and so they realize that small-scale reforms that leave larger structures of inequality intact risk making things worse. Once they’ve really grappled with that reality, we’re ready to talk about what “solutions” might actually look like.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I’m about to publish an edited volume with two great historians of urban America, Brent Cebul and Lily Geismer. It’s called Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century, and it will be out with the University of Chicago Press in November 2018. The project started as an inquiry into what historians were missing by framing post-1932 American politics as a story of “red vs. blue”—the rise and fall of the New Deal order, the rise of conservatism, the turn from “embedded liberalism” to “neoliberalism.” By the time we were putting the final manuscript together, the controversy over what constitutes “political history” had broken out. So we ended up doing a broader audit into what political history really is right now. A number of the contributors are UHA members: N. D. B. Connolly, David Freund, Andrew Kahrl, Matt Lassiter, Suleiman Osman, and Kim Phillips-Fein.
Of course, as a historian of New York, I’m also excited by all the work that’s coming out on Gotham’s recent political history: Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s Getting Tough, Mike Woodsworth’s Battle for Bed-Stuy, Brian Tochterman’s The Dying City, Brian Goldstein’s The Roots of Urban Renaissance, Aaron Shkuda’s The Lofts of SoHo, Heath Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, Saladin Ambar’s American Cicero, Chris McNickle’s Bloomberg, Joe Viteritti’s The Pragmatist (on de Blasio’s first term)—plus in-progress work by Marsha Barrett, Amanda Boston, Dylan Gottlieb, Ben Holtzman, Dominique Jean-Louis, Nick Juravich, Lauren Lefty, Suleiman Osman, and many others who I’m mortified to be leaving out. This is a golden age of scholarship on New York politics, and it’s exciting to be a small part of it.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
Go out of your way to meet scholars who are a few cohorts ahead of you. You’ll get to know your peers, and you’ll hopefully have good relationships with the senior faculty members on your committee and elsewhere in your area of study. But having mentors, role models, and friends a few years ahead of you who’ve recently been in your shoes and really understand what you’re going through is invaluable—and only more so as your career progresses.
You work at the intersection of history and political science. We at The Metropole would like to know: which discipline throws better conferences?
You’re trying to get me in trouble! I will say, the best thing about conferences is catching up with old friends, and I’ve been a historian longer than I’ve been a political scientist. But an occasional four-cell table wouldn’t hurt anyone!
3 thoughts on “Member of the Week: Mason Williams”
Having moved from New York City to Baltimore a few years ago, I’m struggling with the issues I see here. I wish I could take your course on Race and Inequality in American Cities. I guess I’ll content myself with reading some of the books recommended. Thank you.