Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | October 12, 2016
Tony N. Brown said it took him a while to find his voice. As a sociologist interested in the impacts and reach of racism, Brown said he often felt alone as a scholar but understood the topic he was studying was critical.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Brown recently joined the faculty at Rice University after teaching at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. In many ways, he said, Houston — with its diversity and unique development history — is the perfect place to pursue his research interests.
The Urban Edge spoke with Brown about his past work, his impressions of Houston and what’s next for his research.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’re new to Houston. Where did you grow up, and how do you think it informed what you study?
I grew up in the inner city in Washington, D.C. I was surrounded by public housing, and there were row houses, and everybody was poor. We could stand on the top of some buildings and see the Capitol and the monuments. We used to marvel at how much money and power were in places like that.
Today the projects have been razed, you have town homes and the people who were in those spaces are now living in edge cities.
My mother sacrificed a lot, at times working three jobs, so I could go to a Catholic school. I had classes on social justice and classes on disparity.
Then you went to college at University of Maryland Eastern Shore. How did that experience shape you?
There were a lot of kids at college that had the same story. Maybe they were from Philly, New York, New Jersey, but it was the same story.
I was going to go to law school. I was going to change the world. A professor told me I’d be wasting my time. He told me to consider graduate school because I was a thinker, and I thought about inequality in a particular way and my biography. So then getting an opportunity to go to University of Michigan and feeling like I didn’t belong there, like I was an imposter — it was one of those spaces where it took me many years to find my place and find my voice.
I studied how racism impacted mental health and was one of the few people really doing that research. That was also the moment I realized there were sets of people who didn’t think that work was important. There were sets of people who didn’t think that what happened to black people was important. There were sets of people who thought that real sociology wasn’t applied. The next challenge was recognizing those people … and then ultimately feeling comfortable with what it was I wanted to do. And that’s really the challenge I fought in the 15 years I was at Vanderbilt, spending those years trying to figure out whether I was a sociologist, or maybe a public health researcher, or maybe I wasn’t either one. Sociologists are hesitant to talk about race.
And what led you to Rice?
I’m probably at that point where I want to start thinking about the broader impact of my work. It could be meaningful for improving the way people live in this urban place. Houston seemed like the ideal place.
What are some of your current research projects, and what do you hope to pursue here in Houston?
One project I’m working on is a new way of thinking about how inequality gets under the skin. So I was working with a biologist to capture to biochemical responses to stress, biochemical responses to inequality and I was mapping how stressful life experiences, including perceived discriminations related to biochemical responses.
The second thing I worked on was examining the mental health consequences of racial trauma. One way to think about this is imagine you’re Philando Castile’s girlfriend in the car. I’m trying to understand how African-Americans react in situations where they think they might be killed, so what I’m doing is measuring race-related PTSD.
It really became clear to me that sociologists hadn’t been attending to what that does to someone’s psychology, when we are able to broadcast Alton Sterling getting literally murdered in front of a convenience store, when see a Facebook post of Philando Castile dying, it got to be overwhelming and in part because people were asking me to write about it. So I decided to develop this measure. It’s distinct from PTSD. It has a prevalence of about 24 percent. So 24 percent of African-Americans have been in an event where they thought they or someone close would be killed, and they had symptoms that revealed that was an event that had not been resolved. And that really does map onto a race-related PTSD.
What are you studying next in Houston?
Now that I’m here, two projects are on my mind. One is to turn the Texas Medical Center into a laboratory. So image, two people receiving care; one can receive high quality care, the other can receive low quality care. This was something I was interested in the pediatric setting because patients at that age can’t speak for themselves. So the patient’s advocate and their ability to communicate means so much. I got into this because physicians treat black people very differently, and physicians treat black pain very differently. One study from an Atlanta ER stands out. People coming in with long bone fractures that were easily diagnosed. It turned out white doctors were much less likely to give pain meds to blacks that came in with those injuries. So moving here to Houston and having access to a site where there are so many patients receiving care, it struck me that this would be a a great place to start up that program.
Another line is this notion of diversity and what it means here. I was thinking about hijacking the Kinder Houston Area Survey and making it something where we bring together data about where people live, where they work, where they socialize, and we can see if those things really have an impact on their attitudes around diversity and around politics, or an impact on Texas turning maybe a little purple. I would like to figure out how the city of Houston impacts attitudes and how attitudes impact the city.
You’ve been here almost three months now. What are your thoughts on Houston and its diversity?
I wonder: Do people take it seriously? Do they see it as advantage or a disadvantage? Does it bring people together; does it push them apart; does it make it dynamic but clustered? When we go home, do we go to places that are not very diverse at all?
We got here in about mid-July. The impression of it is that it’s a place that’s a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don’t fit. How is it you can have such wealth next to such disparity? You have the current mayor as an African-American; the former mayor was an openly gay woman; and you have seats of power held by diverse sets of people. But you still see pockets of wealth that don’t seem at all connected. So it’s a very confusing first portrait.
There isn’t one Houston. There seems to be 20 Houstons, and I have to find the thread that connects them. People use different languages to describe places. Some people talk about wards and neighborhoods, some people talk about suburbs and inner cities. There’s a language I need to learn.
I even see the suburbs as spinning off of Houston in a very interesting way.
And yet somehow there is a meta-culture that when you say you’re from Houston, whether it’s Meyerland or Sugar Land, it still feels like everybody understand what that means.