Research Agenda

last updated 9/21/2017

My work is concerned with the ways law contributes to inequality and responds to inequality. While my work builds on explicit and implicit theories of prejudice, it complements those theories by explaining how social stratification manifests itself in differential power and resources between subordinate and superordinate groups. I explore how these processes reproduce over generations and across substantive areas of law and social policy, including family law, education law, disability law, and criminal law. Methodologically, I employ the qualitative methods of sociological analysis and critical race theory to describe how law affects inequality “on the ground” in contrast to how it is supposed to work to decrease inequality “on the books.”

My current work, described below in my job talk paper, examines how laws that are explicitly anti-discriminatory nevertheless create and perpetuate hierarchical rankings among groups stratified along different axes. Embracing the tenets of critical race and intersectional theories, I look at how groups stratified on one axis (e.g., race, gender, class) have differential efficacy at extracting anti-discrimination benefits targeted at the primary axis of stratification (e.g., anti-discrimination law targeting racial inequality or gender bias).

Job Talk Paper

My job talk paper, Beyond Bias: Culture in Anti-Discrimination Law, explores racial inequality in the distribution of the special education anti-discrimination benefits pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Scholarship in this area has focused on the over-representation of black children in special education and in the most stigmatized disability categories. By most accounts, special education for black children is deemed to be a disadvantage due to appalling graduation rates and connections to the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration.  Little noticed is the fact that white children are over-represented in autism, a category that carries markedly better outcomes than the categories in which black children are overrepresented. This anomaly raises a host of questions, the most fundamental of which are how to explain the overrepresentation of white children in this disability category and why white overrepresentation does not carry the negative education implications associated with the disability categories in which African Americans are over-represented.

This paper demonstrates that autism’s white overrepresentation cannot be explained solely by looking at bias, which is the consensus view on why black children are overrepresented in some areas and underrepresented in others. Nor can it be explained by epidemiological evidence of “true” racial differences in autism prevalence. Rather, autism’s white overrepresentation is best explained by the way scarce special dollars are allocated and the ways in which individual children come to receive those benefits. To explicate phenomenon, I highlight how the IDEA exacerbates racial inequities by requiring a certain type of parental advocacy that rests on cultural assumptions about the ideal parental relationship with schools. In so doing, I show how special education is a site where the law’s cultural logics – particularly the expectation of parental “partnership” and “ardent” advocacy – match the cultural dispositions and cultural capital of white middle class parents. As a result, when it comes to wresting valuable autism diagnoses and their expensive associated services from school districts, white middle-class parents have an advantage, an advantage that is evident in the observable outcomes. For white children, special education is a valued benefit, especially when they are given the autism label, a resource rich diagnosis that often serves as a substitute to the diagnoses given to black children with similar symptoms. Ultimately, I conclude that to promote more equitable outcomes, the law’s allocation process needs to provide for a way to bridge the cultural gap between the law, parents, and schools. The paper ends by discussing a range of reform options.

Past Work

The Problem with Participation, published in the Modern American (2013).

The Problem with Participation questions the conventional procedural justice assumption that participation is an unqualified equalizing tool. Participation is a bedrock norm in the procedural justice literature, built off the idea that when people are granted the ability to have a say in formal and informal dispute resolution processes, they are more likely to perceive the resulting decision as fair and justified. The literature also implies that participation leads to better decisions than those produced in the absence of participation. Current educational policy also uniformly champions participation as a key to improving the state of public education. Contrary to those assertions, I show that mandated parental participation in special education serves not only to legitimize illegitimate inequities but also to exacerbate negative outcomes for children. This paper not only provides a welcome corrective to the standard policy assumption that participation is an unqualified good, it joins a growing trend of scholarship that exposes flaws in traditional theories of procedural fairness.

Book review of Schooling Girls, Queuing Women: Multiple Standpoints and Ongoing Inequalities, by Helen A. Moore (2015).

Moore’s book challenges the popular concern that boys are being left behind in schooling. I praised the book for its thoroughness, as well as its concerted effort to embrace an intersectional view on girls’ outcomes. I also examined the book’s novel theoretical and empirical move: Moore argues that in looking only at how girls are outperforming in school, those who lament boys being left behind ignore the fact that women’s post-school outcomes continue to lag those of men. Lastly, I also engage Moore’s frontal attack on white male privilege in schools, which she argues allows for gender-based harassment, bullying, and violence, especially against LGBT girls, girls of color, and girls who live at the intersection of those identities.

Social Reproduction, in Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education, with Prudence L. Carter (2012).

This entry, written with the Dean of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, catalogues theories of social reproduction. By revealing how schools socialize children into the roles they will assume as adults, social reproduction theories explain the enduring, intergenerational social stratification between groups.

Future Projects

Parenting for Anti-Discrimination

Our current anti-discrimination law apparatus parcels “discrimination” into theoretical streams. One stream defines discrimination as bad actors who intentionally treat individuals differently because of a protected characteristic (“disparate treatment”). The other stream defines discrimination as behavior, intentional or not, that nonetheless has a differential impact on groups sorted according to a protected characteristic (“disparate impact”). But do these two streams completely describe the problem of discrimination as perceived by those who face discrimination? Perhaps more importantly, does anti-discrimination law completely capture how those individuals react to perceived discrimination?

Using original interview data, this paper examines these questions through a unique lens: parenting. Childhood is essentially a period of cultural socialization, where in addition to providing for a child’s basic needs, parents prepare children for their future adult roles in a stratified society. This study compares two groups: black mothers of black children and (white) mothers of (white) children with disabilities, groups that historically and contemporarily face situations that anti-discrimination law seeks to redress. In the paper, Parenting for Anti-Discrimination, I find that (among other findings), contrary to how law presents the problem of discrimination (treatment or impact) or the solutions in formal anti-discrimination law, both sets of parents of children who will face discrimination focus relatively little on teaching their children how to perceive discrimination or to behave in the face of discrimination. Outside of the well-known and necessary “Talk” given to black children regarding interactions with the police, parental socialization messages about discrimination involve more about how to emotionally gird oneself with pride and resilience against subtle forms of discrimination, and separation and avoidance in situations where discrimination is more overt.

The paper connects the interview data to accounts of recent social movements like “Black Boy Joy,” “Black Girl Magic,” “Crip Power,” and “Mad Pride.” These social movements help to protect against the negative emotional effects of both subtle and overt discrimination, and may be more relevant to victim’s everyday experience than traditional anti-discrimination law.

Stealing Education

This paper questions the legal and normative validity of a little noticed line of cases where prosecutors criminally arrest and charge low-income parents with “theft of [educational] services,” known colloquially as “zip-code laws.” These cases typically arise when a high-income school district investigates the living situation of a low-income student, ultimately finding that the child’s primary residence is not in the high-income school district. If found guilty, courts order parents to repay the value of the education the child received while she was illegally enrolled, and sometimes courts sentence parents to jail time. While many progressives decry these cases as morally wrong (and some states have decriminalized this offense), this paper, Stealing Education, takes a different tack.

Normatively and morally, I agree that these prosecutions are wrong-headed. But this paper argues that perhaps there is some normative leverage in exposing the contradictions in the school districts’ position, particularly that education is regulated through and attaches to residency and property rights. For example, if taken to its logical conclusion, education that attaches to residency and property rights means that the property owner or resident should be allowed to determine where their education taxes flow. School districts should then be in favor of funding systems that follow the child instead of the school, including school choice and school vouchers – but they are not. This paper makes an original contribution by exploring these contradictions between the assumptions districts make in educational theft cases and the policy positions they take in other school funding and financing debates. Neither the literature on education equality, nor the literature on local government autonomy, has addressed the issue. By exposing these contradictory positions, we can better understand exactly what is at stake in the educational policing of geographic boundaries and school choice debates, problems that have vexed scholars and policy makers alike since Brown v. Board of education and its progeny.

Regulating Parenting in Delinquency Courts

Studies of parents’ interactions with juvenile courts focus on the judicial regulation of parenting in juvenile dependency cases, including parental perceptions of professional intrusion on their parental rights. This concern makes sense: a parent’s ability to properly care for a child forms the foundation of a dependency case. This sheds light on a corollary, but relatively understudied issue: how parenting is regulated in juvenile delinquency cases where prosecutors criminally charge a child with a crime.

In juvenile delinquency courts, judges often consider not just the offense’s details, but the living conditions of the child lives that may have contributed to the child’s delinquency. Thus, juvenile delinquency and juvenile dependency cases both involve judicial actors and child welfare professionals’ assessment of a child’s parent and family life. Parents must attend juvenile court proceedings or risk arrest, and make statements that either (1) paint their parenting in a good light, insisting that they are good parents and that the child is uncontrollable, or (2) admit deficiencies in their parenting through asking for help. In these cases, judges adjudicate parenting as well as the juvenile’s offense.

As these cases disproportionately involve low-income and racial minority families, I argue that juvenile delinquency courts, along with schools and social services, are institutions that comprehensively regulate low-income parents’ parenting. Behind the façade of rehabilitating children in the name of justice, the juvenile delinquency process perhaps has its greatest effect on regulating not only a child’s behavior, but the behavior of her parent. In juvenile courts, parents are required to justify their parenting, or else risk intensive intrusion on their parental right to parent their child. In exploring this theme, this project combines participant observation in a juvenile court and in-depth interviews with parents and juvenile justice actors.

Considering Culture

Culture as an explanation for inequality has long been a taboo subject for legal scholarship. Cultural accounts of inequality are somewhat more acceptable in the social sciences, but many legal scholars shy away from the subject to avoid accusations of “blaming the victim.” For example, anti-discrimination scholars tend to focus on the structural impediments to equality rather than exploring individual and group behaviors that contribute to inequality.

Nevertheless, legal scholars of inequality are beginning to wade into the cultural waters, evidenced by recent high profile books and articles on the subject. This paper, Considering Culture in Inequality Legal Scholarship, systematically analyzes how legal scholars invoke “culture” as an explanatory variable contributing to group stratification. This paper uses the method of systemic review, critically probing the set of law review articles in the last 50 years that argue for a link between culture and inequality. How culture is operationalized is key to understanding when and if culture matters for inequality and what law can do about it. Ultimately, I ask the following questions: (1) how are legal scholars using culture to explain inequality; (2) are they using culture “correctly,” i.e., building on valid social scientific empirical and theoretical work; and (3) are the legal reforms they posit adequately responsive to the cultural problems they identify?

The paper makes an original contribution by being the first study to chronicle legal scholars’ use of an important sociological concept that matters deeply for inequality. It ultimately argues that legal scholarship needs to be more precise in its use of culture. I suggest that legal scholarship follow social scientists’ lead in embracing a cultural capital theory that looks at how the cultural logics of law and institutions that regulate resource allocation matches with subordinate and superordinate groups’ cultural resources.