Vesla M. Weaver: Portals to Politics: Grassroots Narratives of Policing in Race-Class Subjugated Communities


Monday, November 19, 2018, 12:00pm to 1:30pm


Allison Dining Room

Vesla M. Weaver, Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Political Science and Sociology, Johns Hopkins University.

Vesla M. Weaver

In 2015, Americans learned that public authorities in Ferguson, Missouri and several other municipalities had imposed a ‘predatory system of government’ on poor black citizens through the police force. Yet, social scientists had few theories for describing how Americans in highly policed neighborhoods experience state authority and, in particular, how they innovate in response.

We use a new technology and public infrastructure, Portals, to initiate conversations about policing in communities where these forms of state action are concentrated. Portals are virtual chambers where people in disparate communities can converse as if in the same room. Based on over 850 recorded and transcribed conversations across ten neighborhoods in five cities – the most extensive collection of first-hand accounts of the police to date – we analyze patterns in political discourse.

We reveal four currents that challenge liberal-democratic framings of political life: that an arrangement of distorted responsiveness characterizes the relationship between policed communities and the state; that the political desire of policed communities is not for greater engagement and responsiveness but for political recognition – to be known by the state; and that in contrast to prevailing wisdom about uninformed electorates, these citizens have too much knowledge of and too little power vis-à-vis state representatives. Finally, we observe among policed communities an “ethics of aversion” in their political responses, a belief that power is best achieved by receding from state institutions in the short term and forging their own collective, community autonomy in the long term. At a broader level, we observe that it is not exclusion from democratic institutions that characterizes political inequality in our time, but inclusion in the antidemocratic face of the state.

About the speaker

Vesla Mae Weaver is the Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Political Science and Sociology at Johns Hopkins University and a 2016-17 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. She received her PhD in Government and Social Policy from Harvard University, where she was a doctoral fellow in the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy.

Weaver has contributed to scholarly debates around the persistence of racial inequality, colorism in the United States, the causes and consequences of the dramatic rise in prisons, and the consequences of rising economic polarization.

Despite being advised that punishment was not a core concern of political science during her early years as a graduate student, Weaver argued that punishment and surveillance was central to American citizenship in the modern era, played a major role in the post-war expansion of state institutions, was a key aspect of how mostly disadvantaged citizens interact with government, and was a political “frontlash” to make an end-run around civil rights advances.

Authoring the first article in nearly two decades on the topic of punishment to be published in her discipline’s top journal, she shortly thereafter published an award-winning book with Amy Lerman, Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control, the first large-scale empirical study of what the tectonic shifts in incarceration and policing meant for political and civic life in communities where it was concentrated.

She is at work on a new project that will map patterns of citizenship and governance across cities and neighborhoods called the Faces of American Democracy using an innovative technology that creates digital ‘wormholes’ called Portals.

Weaver is also the co-author of Creating a New Racial Order: How Immigration, Multiracialism, Genomics, and the Young Can Remake Race in America (with J. Hochschild and T. Burch).

Her research has been supported by fellowships from the Russell Sage Foundation, National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Brookings Institution. She has served on the Harvard/NIJ Executive Session on Community Corrections, the APSA Presidential Taskforce on Racial Inequality in the Americas, and the Center for Community Change’s Good Jobs for All initiative and has written in the New York Times, Boston Review, Marshall Project, and Slate.

Read more about the Portals for Research Project
Vesla Weaver, a leading scholar on racial inequality and criminal justice issues, joins Johns Hopkins

Learn more about Vesla M. Weaver's work

See also: Fall 2018