Voter Turnout in the United States: An Interview with Emily Rong Zhang

Emily Rong Zhang

In this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Jennie Barker, a PhD Candidate in the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley — and a Matrix Communications Scholar — spoke with Emily Rong Zhang, Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley Law School, about her research on voter turnout in the United States. 

Voter turnout has been a hot topic in the news. Turnout soared to highs not seen in decades during the 2020 presidential elections and in the 2018 and 2022 midterm elections. Yet at the same time, there has been a new wave of restrictions on voting, including voter ID laws that have been introduced in a number of states. This has led to alarm that these laws could significantly suppress voter turnout. 

Emily Rong Zhang holds a PhD in Political Science and a JD from Stanford University and was a Skadden Fellow at the ACLU Voting Rights Project. She has also litigated voting rights challenges in Ohio, Kansas, and New York. We asked her to help us think through the different factors influencing voter turnout and how we should understand this concept today.

Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jennie Barker: Hello and welcome to The Matrix Podcast. I’m Jennie Barker, your host coming to you from the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Studio, our recording partner on UC Berkeley’s campus. Our topic today is on voter turnout in the United States. Voter turnout has been a hot topic in the news.

Voter turnout has soared to highs not seen in decades in the 2020 presidential elections and in the 2018 and 2022 midterm elections. Yet at the same time, there has been a new wave of restrictions on voting, including voter ID laws that have been introduced across a number of states. And this has led to alarm that these laws would significantly suppress voter turnout.

To help us think through the different impacts on voter turnout and how we should understand this concept today, we have Emily Rong Zhang, an Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley Law School. She holds a PhD in political science and a JD from Stanford University and was a Skadden fellow at the ACLU Voting Rights Project. She has also litigated voting rights challenges in Ohio, Kansas, and New York. So welcome Emily, and thank you to coming to the podcast.

Emily Rong Zhang: Thanks so much for having me. It’s a delight to be here.

Barker: So to get started today, let’s talk a bit about why voter turnout has become such a focus for social science and legal research in recent years. So we’ve seen a number of states implement more restrictive voting laws and we’ve also seen social scientists and lawyers become really interested in this topic for their research and in their litigation. So help us understand why this is happening?

Zhang: Yeah. So for political science, there’s always been an interest in voter turnout. That’s kind of the dependent variable of interest, whether people vote or not. But historically, that interest has been much more at the personal level explaining differences in why person A votes and person B doesn’t and looking at the effects that various socioeconomic factors have had, for instance, age, other demographic features, education, and the like.

But the recent concern and the focus on election laws in particular has been driven by legal changes. The central piece of the Voting Rights Act is the preclearance regime which subjected certain localities to the regime. These localities were chosen based on historical rates of racial discrimination in voting. And if you were one of these locations that had historical racial discrimination in voting, you would have to subject changes in your voting laws to the Department of Justice in DC for preclearance before they can be implemented.

That prevented a lot of the kind of state laws that we’re currently worried about from being implemented. But because the Supreme Court decided in 2013 [in Shelby County v. Holder] that the way we put localities under preclearance was invalid, it basically nullified preclearance. After preclearance went away, folks were very concerned about what would happen to various localities and the kind of laws they choose to implement, voter ID laws being only one among many other possibilities. The other ones include things like changing polling locations without a lot of prior notice or other things like removing early voting opportunities, removing opportunities to vote and register to vote on the same day, and the like.

Barker: So in your work and in your recently published paper, you focused specifically on voter ID laws. So you examine the effects of voter ID laws on voter turnout. So can you tell us a little bit about why you’ve examined voter ID laws specifically? And how people have thought about voter ID laws and why they might affect voter turnout?

Zhang: Yeah. So voter ID laws actually predate the removal of preclearance. You can think of them as kind of the OG voter suppression law. It gained notoriety way before 2013. It was very controversial in the passage of the Help America Vote Act.

But so the point is that it’s been around for a long time and there’s a very large academic literature assessing its effects. And I think it’s maybe more accurate to characterize my paper as a paper about the studies of voter ID. And basically, the studies find that these laws have had no effect on voter turnout, which is a surprising finding from everyone’s perspective.

Surprising finding from the perspectives of the researchers who did these studies in the first place. And of course, a surprising finding to those of us who may be concerned about the costs that voting laws can impose on voting. And that’s sort of what prompted the paper.

Barker: And I think in this paper you look at the, I would say, standard approaches to studying voter suppression or studying vote suppression in the social sciences. And your research takes a different approach to understanding this topic. So explain a little bit about what the standard approaches to understanding vote suppression are and how does your research differ from those?

Zhang: Yeah. At the very heart of most of the social science studies, they’re trying to estimate the number of marginal voters. That is, the number of people who would have voted but for the law. And that I characterize as counting the kind of number of votes suppressed. But I don’t think that captures the entire picture of what might be going on as a result of one of these laws.

And let me tell you about two sets of people I’m worried about. The first set of people I’m worried about are folks who still vote under the law but experience more cost to voting as a result of the law. That is, their votes are not lost as a result of the law even if the cost of voting and their burdens of voting have increased.

You might think of these as sort of especially resilient voters, voters who are willing to stand in line, who are willing to go get the underlying documentation, and the like. Obviously, calculating the number of votes lost doesn’t begin to capture the kind of costs that they’ve incurred.

There’s a second group of folks that I’m even more worried about and these are people who wouldn’t have voted even if the law had not been in place. And the reason I’m worried about these folks is that I think the law may still be playing quite an important role in preventing them from voting. That is, if these laws need to go away in order for these people to vote even if they otherwise wouldn’t have, I think it may be still playing quite an important and deleterious role in preventing people from voting in this other sort of sense that isn’t captured by the conventional marginal votes approach.

Barker: So the distinction I think that you make in your work is that there’s a difference between focusing on vote suppression and then voter suppression. So what is this concept of voter suppression and how does it differ– I mean, you’ve talked about this a little bit already. But thinking about why these other groups of people who you’re worried about, why they kind of get missed when people are only focusing on the broader vote?

Zhang: Yeah. And I think what it reflects is a kind of difference in your perspective and what you care about. I can see why if you’re a political campaign, certainly if you’re working on behalf of a candidate, what you’re interested in is what votes am I going to lose for my candidate given the imposition of the law.

I think the perspective I’m advocating for is a much more of a, let’s assess what the voting landscape looks like for voters and think about the role that these laws play for individuals, especially those who are not historically– are folks who are not have historically participated in very high rates.

They already face an immense amount of obstacles, we know this from various other parts of the literature. And for voting laws to play an additional role in preventing them from voting I think is something that’s really worth worrying about. And so I think it’s a matter of asking the question from all perspectives as opposed to only from the aggregate how has this affected our results perspective to how has this affected the consumer, ground level experience of voting perspective.

Barker: And I mean, I think it also to me seems like when we’re in the social science literature taking a very narrow view on what democracy is. It’s like the people turning out to vote, exercising their opinions, but not so much thinking about the broader experience of what it means to have barriers when you are trying to vote or to have maybe unequal access in exercising your voice in the country. So I think that that’s also a really interesting distinction that you’re getting out with your work.

Zhang: I appreciate that. You put that better than I would have put myself.

Barker: [CHUCKLES] Well, I’m glad that I could try. I’m also in political science so I am steeped in a lot of these questions. And I think something that in your paper that you discussed is that there has been of surprising, if worrying development that now you’re seeing state and federal courts. So you’re seeing justices who are also beginning to focus on just the numbers, just the vote. Sort of the vote suppression rather than voter suppression.

And as someone who’s always thinking about how can social scientists bridge the gap to the policy world, I think actually you might be seeing the perhaps negative side effects of this. And so why do you think that this focus on vote suppression has transcended from social science studies who are really interested in studying causal effects to now you’re seeing even justices engaging in citing this research, thinking about this in their opinions? So why do you think you’ve seen this focus in recent years?

Zhang: My concern with courts– I have two primary concern about courts and the way they engage with social science evidence with the general view that there’s a lot of interest from the judiciary of what’s going on in the social sciences, which I think is very beneficial. But then there are these two traps that I think that the judiciary can fall into when consuming social science evidence.

The first is there are some facile, I would say, inferences that can often be made by judges that are social science-y but not terribly rigorous. So let me give you the prime example is, judges are always interested in what happens to voter turnout after the voter suppression law in question has been put into effect.

And that is a very incorrect inference to make. There are lots of other causal reasons that may cause turnout to go up or down, the competitiveness of the race the amount of money in the election, and the like. Comparing the before and after is just a very bad idea for all sorts of reasons that you’re very well familiar with from your social science research background. And that’s something that judges are sometimes to do in their armchair social science mode. I think it’s motivated by a good instinct, which is to understand what effect the law has been having in the real world but it’s doing it by asking these questions that are not terribly rigorous.

The second thing I’m worried about with courts is that they’re not terribly good at interpreting the results of studies. And this is especially true in the context of voter ID laws. Now the literature has found no effect. But that is not a null effect that’s very well estimated. So it is still consistent with, for instance, I think in the best study that I cite in the paper, it’s still consistent with almost a negative 2% to 2% increase in voter turnout. And simply reading the headline findings of the paper finding null effect is not actually going to peel back that particular precision issue and lead to necessarily the right inferences by courts.

And so I think those issues specifically are the ones that I’d really worry about as we begin to see more thirst for social science evidence from the courts, is to make sure that they’re interpreting that evidence in the right way and relying on it for the right things.

Barker: I mean and I think another– or a consequence of this, and this is the title of your paper, which I really like, which is “Questioning The Questions.” I think it seems– or I mean, maybe this is not a correct interpretation. But it seems that maybe justices are also not asking these bigger questions that you have brought up already and that you’re concerned with in your work, which is instead of being like, well, are these laws affecting turnout, thinking about why are these laws happening.

What are they actually– what is the purpose behind these laws and actually interrogating that, which I would imagine we’d hope that the judiciary is interested in those questions as well. So I don’t know if you’ve seen in your work the maybe neglect or maybe not as careful study of these questions.

Zhang: No, you’re absolutely right. So conventionally, the legal analysis in assessing voter restrictions is a balancing test. It asks what burdens does this law impose on voters and what is the reason for the state in imposing this particular restriction. Because we do lots of things in election administration that impose lots of costs on voters that we accept because it’s for a good reason.

Voter registration is the biggest one. We require voters to register to vote in advance of voting because it ensures that only eligible folks are participating. It allows for the state to ensure that they’re not disenfranchised if the state has a disenfranchisement law and the like.

What’s interesting is that there’s been such a strong interrogation of the social science evidence on the part of the balancing test asking whether there are burdens on voters and much, much less on questioning the state’s rationale. And with voter ID laws in particular, I think that it’s a real shame because in-person voter fraud, which is the type of voter fraud that voter ID laws prevent, that is showing up to a polling location and claiming to be someone else, that’s the type of fraud it’s meant to address and the incidence of that is just exceedingly rare. So you might ask why the court doesn’t spend more time in interrogating the empirical evidence behind that. And I think that would be a very fair question. [CHUCKLES]

Barker: So so far we’ve sort of talked a little bit about or I would say talked a lot maybe about how studies and how courts tend to focus on how various policies, as you said just now, affect registered voters and not these states’ rationale or even thinking about these populations that you mentioned being really worried about or the non-voting eligible citizens. So people who could vote but don’t or people who do vote but really have to spend numerous hours making sure that they can exercise that right in terms of getting to the polling location, making sure they have all the documentation. All of these different barriers that they have to overcome.

And I know in some of your forthcoming work that you’ve been working on now, you focus specifically on voting turnout and voter turnout among system-impacted individuals. So people who have been impacted by the incarceration system in some way. So I’d like to talk a little bit about who these individuals are and why voting rates are still so low for them despite we’ve seen a spate of laws–

Even in California we’re seeing a law talked about right now that are restoring voting rights. So even of people who are currently in prison, I think that’s what’s happening in California. But in other states you’ve seen people who have felony convictions have their voting rights restored but even still, they’re voting– as you’ve documented, their voting rates are still pretty low. So why are there still– I think this connects a little bit as well with these barriers that people face that we might not see from a lot of the social science research that we have now.

Zhang: Yeah. No, felon disenfranchisement laws have been around a very, very long time. And it’s one of the remaining vestiges of Jim Crow Laws in the South. And they’ve been tremendously durable. And I’m thinking back to my days working with voting rights attorneys. If you chatted with them and asked them if there was one thing you could do to change the voting landscape in the country what would it be, and it would be– I think the answer– sorry. And the answer would be let’s get rid of the felon disenfranchisement laws because they disenfranchise large numbers of individuals just based on their bare application.

There has been tremendous amount of reform in this area, as you had– that you had suggested, especially in some of the toughest states. So Virginia, Florida, and a couple of others used to have lifetime disenfranchisement. You commit a crime and you lose your right to vote forever. And for a long time, it was thought that there was nothing much that anyone could do about it until we got a real landslide of reforms coming from all different sources in Virginia.

The governor used his pardon power to pardon everyone with a particular history. In Florida, a ballot initiative was passed and the like, while you also got other reforms in other states making more individuals with convictions eligible to vote. In California, there was the proposition which passed giving the right to vote to folks on parole.

So there’s a whole spate of laws that are changing. And the legal landscape is rapidly shifting. And yet, even in states that have relatively liberal and liberal here I mean purely descriptively, liberal felon disenfranchisement laws, we know that participation rates are really low. And so the question is, will these reforms actually have any impact if folks don’t know about it, if it wouldn’t have any– if it wouldn’t have made a difference.

That is, if in California you had the right to vote following a criminal conviction but you didn’t vote anyway, why would we expect the change, for instance, in Florida to have any effect there, right? And so understanding more the experiences that system-impacted folks have with the election system seems vitally important in understanding the effect that these legal changes are going to have.

Barker: Yeah. It seems like very critical work to be doing. So in your research and I know you’ve done some focus groups and interviews, what have you found that some of these system-impacted individuals, how have they described their experience? If they have voted or if they haven’t?

Zhang: Yeah, the big thing that I’m walking away with from what we’ve done, and this is a joint project with Dr. Naomi Sugie at UC Irvine, and a fantastic set of graduate students at UCI, and one at Stanford, the thing that I’ve taken away from the project is we think of election law typically in a federalism way. We always talk about election law federalism because election administration and laws are determined at the state level.

And when we think about felon disenfranchisement laws, we always think about the varieties. You’ve got some really strict states like the Floridas, and the Iowas, and the Virginias. And then you’ve got the more liberal states where even voting from prison, for instance or voting from jail is a part of the reform movement.

But my sense from the interview and the focus group data suggest to me that there is much less federalism going on in the lived experiences of folks than the laws would suggest. That there is actually a felon disenfranchisement law and the contours of that law are unspecified, very unclear, blurry to most folks at the retail level.

And so what you get are instances where people in California will point to the example of Crystal Mason in Texas who was prosecuted for having voted with a conviction. She was ineligible to vote under Texas’s felon disenfranchisement statute. And that would have no implication for a Californian. But a Californian hears that and thinks, well, if she can’t vote then I can’t.

And that’s been a big realization of mine having thought of this stuff in relatively formalistic terms and what is the law in Texas and what is the law in California. And thinking much more there’s some amorphous force that people refer to and have some experience with. And that’s what they go by. Not by what the letter of the particular statute in the state is.

Barker: Yeah, I mean, I found that story that you told so impactful because like you said, I mean it seems that the way that a lot of researchers approach this is just focusing on the states and what’s happening. And [CHUCKLES] in social science, we’re always thinking about the unit of analysis. And we have our unit of analysis and we’re not really thinking about what’s going on outside of that.

And so in this experience, what has been the role of media coverage, right? Because I even I remember this story about the woman in Texas. And I think like hearing about– so you can hear about it in the news. And then why that isn’t counteracted by actual information saying, no, this isn’t actually what’s going on in the state in which you live? So why is there this sort of, I don’t know, gap? Or why is media filling in a lot of the space where you don’t see actual information that could help people?

Zhang: Yeah, that’s a great point. And I think it goes to there’s a huge information vacuum for this particular population. For some folks who’ve never voted before and for folks who are a part of the criminal legal system from a young age, there was no time between when they became eligible to vote and at the point of re-entry.

So a lack of a prior history with voting and any base level of knowledge, plus the lack of official sources to obtain this information. So this isn’t a part of what you’re told by anyone, typically in the process of re-entry. And even if you are told that, that information is coming to you at the time when you need it the very least. You are worried about making ends meet at that time.

The other piece of it I think is extreme risk aversion in this population even about doing the wrong thing. Voting illegally with a criminal record is a fear that is very palpable for folks who have spent time in the criminal legal system. And I think all of these forces combine to create an inclination to disbelieve that you’re eligible to vote when you actually are eligible to vote.

Barker: A bright spot that you discuss in the paper is that these individuals can, in fact, be brought successfully into the electorate. So can you speak a bit about what has helped these individuals access their right to vote?

Zhang: So the literature is very clear on this. If you tell people they are eligible to vote, some of them will vote. And it suggests that the problem people face is really one of misinformation. But that if you correct that misinformation, there are real gains to be had.

What we don’t know beyond that is who is the best messenger for the information. We are still working on best ways to convey that information in terms of timing, the quality of message, and the like. But there’s clearly a lot we can do on that front.

The other frontier, I think in this area of work is what motivates people. Whether there’s anything in particular about being system impacted that may be particularly motivational for folks to participate. And that’s a very active area of work that our team and I’m sure others are working on.

Barker: And I think one of the groups or one of the types of groups that you’ve cited or that you worked with in this research are these community organizations. So what role can they play in helping overcome this very vast information gap that people are facing?

Zhang: I mean, at the very baseline level, something you mentioned already or referenced earlier is we know a ton about people who are registered to vote and regularly vote. And the reason is they are in a database provided by the state that in many states you can obtain through public information requests and that campaigns regularly do. That’s why you and I get text messages, emails, mailers, and the like because we’re known to participate.

And we’re typically the population that campaigns and other political actors are trying to move. We know much, much less about the population of folks who don’t and have not historically participated at higher rates. And there is a way in which the high quality of information available for registered voters has further prevented work to be done about folks who have not historically participated just because it is infinitely harder to know about their situation.

And there are many, many reasons to work with community organizations. But at the baseline level, we’re actually getting to hear from people you wouldn’t otherwise get to hear from. And that’s I think enormously important because it allows research to shed light on something that we don’t know that much about already.

Of course, there are other lots of incredible things the organization has done. We’re partnering with the Alliance for Safety and Justice. And they’re a tremendous community organization that provides all sorts of wraparound services for folks in re-entry and just come with a tremendous amount of expertise about the particular barriers folks face and the like. And yeah, we’ve just learned a tremendous amount from working with them.

Barker: Hearing you in that response, it’s really made me think a little bit about like, I’m currently a grad student. I totally know all of the trade-offs and finding you’re encouraged to do very innovative research but then you have limited time. You’ve got to have the data. And I wonder if in this sort of experience, like you said, you have this high quality data on people who do vote.

And I can see why people would want to. They’re like, well, it’s there. We can really– we can really mobilize this. And I can see also the start up costs of getting to these other populations like you have with reaching out to the community organizations that I can see why– I can understand at least. I mean, it’s not a great thing. But I can understand why there has been this tremendous focus on the information that we– high quality information that we do have.

But what are some of the– what are some of the ways that the information, I mean, besides finding out that the way people are thinking about disenfranchisement is very much like, I heard that this is happening to people who I relate to, even if they’re outside of the state? What are other benefits or really surprises that you’ve had from doing this research where you’ve been trying to bring or trying to establish or find information about people who aren’t otherwise normally– their stories don’t really make it into a lot of the research that we have?

Barker: Well, the first thing I’m always surprised by is the number of people who we talk to who learned something about the state’s felon disenfranchisement regime. There is almost always someone who says, oh, I didn’t know that, which reaffirms the kind of misinformation landscape that people are typically in.

The other thing that I’ve spent some time thinking about more recently is what is the mental transition people make as they go from a non-voter to a voter. What is the mental process that someone goes through.

And it’s interesting hearing the way people talk about this. So something that’s occurred to me in going through the data is people seem– in order to become a voter, people seem to see themselves as a constituent. They say something about how– it’s hard to– sorry, this is such early work.

But I was very struck by one person who said, I never voted before. I didn’t participate. But there are maggots coming out of the shower head in the prison. Someone has to be responsible for this. Who is that person and what role can I play in holding this person to account for this thing that’s happening to me.

And I think there is something that happens to people that causes that transformation at some point and that’s what motivates them to vote. And for me as someone who studies voting, trying to put my finger on that transformation has been a really interesting, fun part of the project. And as you can tell, I don’t have the way of describing it yet. But I do think there is something that occurs that puts it on people to see the role that they as an individual can play. And that’s what matters.

Barker: Yeah, that’s super interesting. And I’m excited to see what you come up with. And I’m hearing our discussion today, it seems like a challenge in the field that you’re in is bridging the gap between focusing on the voter turnout. And there’s these campaigns that are really interested in this. There’s social scientists. There’s judges, as we’ve said, that are interested in this.

But also thinking about this question that you’ve just so eloquently discussed, which is how to bring new voters into the electorate. How to actually figure out why people make this transition. Why do they see themselves as having the ability to hold someone to account. So how do scholars, practitioners, or how can they bridge the gap between these two problems that seem to be talking past each other?

Zhang: Yeah, that’s such a good question and a question that so many people face beyond the world that we’re in with poli sci, and law, and policy. I’m still very much– for all of the fancy ways of learning we now have in the world, ChatGPT being only one of many changes, I still think talking to people is one of the best ways of learning about things that you don’t know as much about than someone else does and kind of facilitating that dialogue.

But I don’t mean to put this as an individual responsibility issue. I think that there are structural ways that academic and other institutions can implement to facilitate that dialogue. It shouldn’t be on individuals to seek out others. There should be institutional and structural incentives for that kind of dialogue to occur.

But I will say, that is also not without its challenges. People come to these conversations with their backgrounds, their trainings, with their particular way of seeing the world. If you’re a social scientist, you’re coming in– you’re looking for causal effects. That’s what you’re trained to do. I mean, we’re all trained to do our thing. If you’re a lawyer, you’re trained to bring a lawsuit. And it can be hard to get people to break out of their mold, whatever that might be.

And I think the trickier question is not just in setting up structures for interactions, but finding ways to make those interactions really meaningful and fruitful for people. I think it’s an ongoing struggle, ongoing problem to solve.

Barker: In your experience working with these community organizations, I know this is still early [CHUCKLES] but are there communities, I don’t know if that means counties, cities, states, where you’re seeing maybe this sort of dialogue happening in more successfully than in other places? Where you’re seeing maybe election administrators, lawyers really take a broader view of– and academics, I’ve got to put us in there. [CHUCKLES]

Where they’re really trying to, as you said, seek out these opportunities or seek out broader perspectives that might be missing? Are there places where you turn and say like, OK, here, you’re really seeing people who may not have ever voted before entering the electorate? Or is this something that’s still maybe not– maybe there’s still a lot of room for improvement? [CHUCKLES]

Zhang: I think much of that work has been on the convenience of voting side. For all of the gloom and doom about how hard it is to vote in certain parts of the country, that’s been paired with a phenomenon where it’s never been easier to vote in other places. And that work is maybe not as driven by work to bring people into the electorate.

Part of it is that it’s really, really hard and apart from election day registration and some other measures, we just don’t really know what’s good at doing that. But for making voting easier for folks who are already in the habit of participating, there has been a huge amount of reform on that, whether it’s vote by mail or other regimes.

So there is a ton that’s happening on the reform side as well that is evidence based. Although I think typically, social scientists don’t get involved until something gets implemented and then they’re in the position of evaluating it. I will give you another example, ranked choice voting has been very prominent in recent years. And there’s going to be a large cohort of social scientists interested in the effects that these regimes will have.

Zhang: And I mean here, just with the COVID-19 experience or with voting by mail, I think there’s maybe the realm of opportunity that we couldn’t imagine maybe 5-10 ago has been opened in some places. So that’s really interesting. I think underlying a lot of our discussion today, I wanted to think a little bit more about maybe the broader impacts of these restrictive voting laws or in the case that we’ve just talked about, these more reform-minded provisions that you’ve seen.

So we know, for example, that a lot of these– including voter ID laws, that they may introduce additional burdens, right? So there’s this research thinking about– or at least your research is thinking about this. And we know also that felony disenfranchisement, as your research also shows, can have long lasting effects on access, right?

But I wonder if there– or how you think about the other ways that these restrictive voting laws can impact elections? So one of the things I’m really interested in is confidence. So confidence in election results and confidence in institutions. And how do you think or how have you seen or maybe speculate, I don’t know. How these voter ID laws or how these more reform-minded provisions like implement new opportunities for people with felonies to vote, how do you think that this is shaping people’s perception of how confident should I feel in these results?

Zhang: No, that’s an extremely important question and we know very, very little about it. There is the very important question of if some folks are less confident in the results of the election because we don’t have voter ID laws, who are these people and how does that interact with the countervailing potential that confidence is increased among other populations.

For voter ID laws, voter confidence was very much the reason that the court credited for implementing these laws, apart from the in-person voter fraud concern, which we had already talked about as being not a particularly strong reason for implementing these laws.

But the court relied on its empirical assumption that these laws boost voter confidence. And there is some evidence on this question but not much [see here, here, and here]. And the evidence suggests that there isn’t. That is, people who are more confident– or sorry people who disagree with voter ID laws, I think, are no less confident or more confident. Actually, I can’t remember exactly what it found. But there is very little evidence on this question. And that’s research that is extremely important.

And there are concerns. For instance, vote by mail is the other big one. Whether vote by mail reduces confidence in the legitimacy of the result and that’s obviously a huge concern. And we just don’t know that much about it. And the question is, even if there are people whose confidence are reduced, what is the extent and the like.

Barker: So I think in hearing your response there, another layer to this is that even in– at least in what you’ve found in your research on felony disenfranchisement and franchisement that people are not just hearing about what’s going on in their states, right? Or people are not just hearing about what’s happening maybe even in their county. They’re hearing about the whole landscape. And so I think that’s another kind of complication.

Even in my experiences, people who are living in California, they’re thinking about because the vote– because there are these voter ID laws in, say, Georgia, how is that– I think that there’s even– in this sort of research, thinking about how people are even hearing about this information. And I think you’re getting at that. But I think it’s just another component and I don’t know if in your research on voter ID laws if this has also been something that you’ve seen, or heard, or are thinking about.

Zhang: No, it’s a nice connection though. I think that does lead me to think– in the voter ID literature, everyone is moving towards looking within states, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and the like, and looking at, for instance, leveraging the difference between people who don’t have ID and detecting various effects.

And that leads me to think– what I’m learning about the felon disenfranchisement world leads me to think that the state discrete way of thinking about these laws may not apply in the voter ID context as well. That is, do we expect people without ID, who currently don’t have it, to really be asking detailed questions about the particular voter ID regime in their state or do we expect them just to have the view that, oh, people like us aren’t allowed to vote.

That obviously hasn’t been empirically tested yet but that is certainly a suspicion that I now have knowing what I know about the way individuals with convictions approach felon disenfranchisement laws. Although, of course, there are lots of reasons to believe that wouldn’t be the case. So that’s why I think the testing would really tell us a lot.

Barker: Well, hopefully [CHUCKLES] you can help contribute to this. So we’re approaching the end of our time here. But I wanted to turn a little bit to your experience as a scholar. So this podcast is With The Matrix, which is an organization that’s intended to support this crossdisciplinary research across the social sciences.

And your research is very much doing this because you have a background as a political scientist, you’re also a practicing lawyer. You draw on both of these traditions. And you also examine where they’re speaking together and where they’re also speaking past each other.

So I wonder if you could talk a little bit in your own experience of the challenges and the benefits of doing this kind of work that’s really kind of bridging, different disciplines, different traditions, different methods, different understanding of what causes– just so many different sort of approaches that we have that I can imagine probably differ from me and your background as a lawyer.

Zhang: Yeah. So my view on this, as with almost my view on everything, is that there are costs and benefits on both sides. I think the benefits are a little easier to highlight in an interview like this because we talk about our topic, my topic, and you can see how it all fits in.

I can be a little more explicit in thinking about the costs actually. And there is no free lunch. I don’t have any more hours in my day than you do. And so investing in two different sets of skills means a couple of possible– well, a few possible outcomes. You can invest mostly in doing one well and the other poorly. Or you can do both poorly.


So I think for that cost to make sense, one has to be working on something where it makes sense to take on those costs because the benefits ultimately outweigh it. And in many ways, I was very lucky. I happened upon election law despite having very little background in it. But it fit in both my professional, and personal, and temperamental ways that it worked out.

But I don’t want to downplay the amount of time it takes to hone one’s skills in any particular area. And having to do that in two fields entails certain sacrifices. On the other hand, of course, it comes with immense benefits.

And the final thing I’ll say about what I like about having done both these things is I really do feel like I have a sense of how the world works in a way that I think I would not have gotten if I’d only honed my skills in one area. That is, I feel like I both have a theoretically driven and a factually accurate view of how things happen that I found just personally and professionally somewhat satisfying. [CHUCKLES] And that I think is– yeah.

Barker: Well, I mean I think from our discussion, I think there are ways that you have been able to look at both the legal research and the social science research and say actually, are we missing something really important. And I think for this case of being able to vote in our democracy, I mean that’s such a critical question. So I’m glad that you’re doing that.

Zhang: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

Barker: So thank you for joining us today, and for your time, and for this very wide-ranging discussion on voter turnout, but also on just voting rights in general, and how we can think about our democracy, and who should be– or who can participate. And who isn’t participating and who should be able to participate.

So we are so lucky here, I mean, at the Matrix to have had this discussion, but also I think UC Berkeley is very lucky to have you thinking about these questions that are, as I said, so important to our democracy. So thanks again.

Zhang: Thanks so much, Jennie. Thanks so much for doing this.


Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.

Alumni Interview

Alumni Interview: Adriana Kugler, World Bank Executive Director for the US

Adriana Kugler

This episode of the Matrix Podcast features an interview with Adriana D. Kugler, the World Bank Group Executive Director for the United States. Dr. Kugler was appointed by President Biden and confirmed by the Senate in May 2022. She is the first Latinx person and first Jewish woman to be appointed to this position since the foundation of the World Bank in 1944. She is also a proud UC Berkeley alumna who graduated with a PhD in 1997.

Prior to joining the WBG Board, Dr. Kugler had a long and distinguished career in research and policy as a development and labor economist. Her contributions on the impact of government policies and regulations on labor markets were recognized with the 2007 John T. Dunlop Outstanding Scholar Award from the Labor and Employment Relations Association, and with the 2010 First Prize for Best Contribution in the area of “Globalization, Regulations and Development” from the Global Development Network. Dr. Kugler has also served in high-level leadership roles in the public and private sectors. She was Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Labor between 2011-2013.

Dr. Kugler was Professor of Public Policy and Economics (2016-2022), and Vice Provost for Faculty (2013-2016) at Georgetown University. She was Chair and Chair-elect of the Business and Economics Statistics Section of the American Statistical Association in 2020 and 2019, respectively; was a member of the Board on Science, Technology and Economic Policy (STEP) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (2019-2022); and served in the Technical Advisory Committee of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016-2019). She was an elected member of the Executive Committee of the European Association of Labor Economists (2003-2009) and of the Executive Committee of the Latin American and Caribbean Economic Association (2015-2019). Dr. Kugler serves on the Audit Committee (AC) and Committee on Development Effectiveness (CODE). Kugler received her Bachelor of Arts degree from McGill University in 1991, graduating with first class joint honors in economics and political science.

This interview was conducted by Danny Yagan, Associate Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley, who is on leave as Chief Economist of the Office of Management and Budget. Yagan was a Faculty Research Fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Faculty Associate of the Berkeley Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance, and Faculty Co-Director of the Taxation and Inequality Initiative of the Berkeley Opportunity Lab.

Listen to the interview below, or on or Apple Podcasts.

A transcript of the conversation is included below. 

Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Other Woman’s Voice: She was interviewed by Danny Yagan, associate professor of economics at UC Berkeley, who recently served in the White House as chief economist in the Office of Management and Budget.

Danny Yagan: Adriana Kugler, it’s so nice to have you join us returning to Berkeley virtually, and to get to have this conversation about government service and academic impact, public service impact, and then the course of your work and trajectory from Berkeley.

Adriana Kugler: Thank you. Thank you so much. And I know you’ve been in public service yourself just recently, so I know you’ve seen it from all sides, as well.

Yagan: Yes, it will be exciting to compare notes with you here. So first, could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in economics, and what drew you to a PhD?

Kugler: Yeah, thank you for asking that. So I was born in the US, but I grew up in Colombia, where I was exposed to social problems from a very young age. In fact, my parents were heavily engaged in social projects, and I remember even as a young girl, they would take me to the shantytowns around Bogota and to the rural areas not only around Bogota, but we actually traveled the country by car.

My parents both worked, and my grandparents lived elsewhere. So I would spend the summers with them. And in fact, my maternal grandparents lived in one of the poorest states in Colombia. So I got to see I think from a very young age growing up I got to see up close homelessness, child labor, poverty, lack of access to basic necessities to drinking water to electricity. Very poor infrastructure.

I remember getting stuck on a road with my parents for almost an entire day because of a destruction of a road that got us stuck there. So these are things that stick in your mind. And wanting to address these social issues, I embarked in a double major in economics and political science.

My love for math immediately drew me towards economics rather than political science, and I also felt as I moved on during my undergraduate years that economic tools just provided answers to these social problems that I cared so much about, but they grounded me more firmly on objective and clear criteria, so I felt they gave me a better tool.

And then I had to decide, well, maybe I’ll do a PhD, and they were, I think, two key factors, I think the first one is I love doing research as an undergrad, so I worked for two professors as an undergrad as a research assistant.

The second one was that I got to see very bright women not having the opportunities they deserved at work, and I thought, well, maybe if I get the highest possible degree I can get AT, maybe I’ll receive the respect and advancement opportunities that I think I would like to see in my career. So those were two key factors certainly that contributed to pursuing a PhD.

Yagan: Wow. And here you are as World Bank Group Executive Director for the United States. Looking back from where you’re sitting now, does that feel to have held true for you that by pursuing the highest degree possible that you’ve been able to break through glass ceilings and be given the runway that you merit in the course of your work?

Kugler: I feel it definitely opened doors for me. I also felt that I have been very lucky to find mentors along the way who have opened doors for me, and I certainly feel that both as a woman and a Latina and a Colombian-American, I have lived that American dream.

I do feel that sometimes, and I have felt this at times, you maybe have to work 10 times as hard to get to the same place, but I certainly have gone beyond what I could have dreamed.

Yagan: Powerful. Coming back to your trajectory as you enter a PhD, you specialize and you specialize in development and labor, And I think we heard certainly on the development side maybe where the origins came from. Could you talk about what drew you specifically to development economics, developing countries, and then also the labor side of the equation?

Kugler: Yeah, thank you for asking that. As I mentioned, I did spend my childhood in Colombia where I got exposed to some critical challenges facing the developing world, but I really realized very quickly that it was lack of access to work, which created obstacles to poor individuals and to poor households.

And that lack of access to labor earnings creates all sorts of income inequities but also inequities in education, inequities in housing, inequities in access to health, and even access to the legal system, and even access to political power.

So I felt that that was kind of the beginning of all other inequities that we observe. It was lack of access to work and to labor earnings that generate inequities in everything else.

Yagan: That focus on inequity, I wonder if Berkeley felt like a really natural home for the kind of economics that motivated you. Could you talk about your time at Berkeley, how that match felt, and what it was like in those years.

Kugler: Absolutely. I really loved my time at Berkeley. At the time, it was amazing because we had four professors who taught me and mentored me closely who, after I left, ended up winning Nobel prizes, the first one being George Akerlof, who was my dissertation advisor, Paul Romer, Dan MacFarlane, and Oliver Williamson, and they all taught me and they all mentored me.

But certainly George was the closest he had a great deal of patience and time for me. He allowed me to ask very unusual questions given my background, and he actually encouraged it, and he always encouraged me to use a variety of methods, which I have done throughout my career.

So I was very grateful for that opportunity. And the department was a very eclectic and vibrant place. There was always a lot going on in the hallways of Evans Hall– seventh floor of Evans Hall and sixth floor of Evans Hall, really vibrant environment.

But I would also stay among the students, and I still remain close to some of those classmates and friends from back in the day. I felt that not comparing notes to other people that it was a very cooperative environment. I remember having several study groups during those first years when you were doing your coursework.

And during my dissertation years, I also had several dissertation discussion groups. So it was just a very cooperative environment. We spent many hours in the computer lab that was founded by Dan McFadden.

He had just gotten funding from SAS to fund the computer lab, and we spent many hours there sharing notes and late nights running programs, which back in the day took a lot longer. So they sometimes stayed overnight even for an entire week or several weeks to run a simple program.

And we often met also on the sidelines of the Strada, Café Milano, spend a lot of time just discussing the findings of some of these results, some of these programs and data analytics we were doing in cafes.

I was very lucky also in the last few years to support my dissertation to get a fellowship for minority students from the Federal Reserve System, which gave me access to an office at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

So I would go there regularly, and also I got to interact with the economists that the research department there. In fact, Mary Daly, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco was just starting at the time. So I was very lucky to get to meet her and, of course, she’s a labor economist.

So it was just a great time to be at Berkeley, and a great environment and I developed friendships and relationships that I keep until today, and I, in fact, see my former classmates here in the hallways of the World Bank on a regular basis.

Yagan: Isn’t that amazing that the world and the connections that are serendipitous, you having a desk at the Federal Reserve in San Francisco across the bridge, and now look at you both, major leadership roles of major institutions in American and international economics.

Kugler: Thank you.

Yagan: One of the things I wanted to touch on there, you were saying just how collaborative the environment was among the students and with the faculty. I think that might strike people as maybe surprising. You think that these upper echelons of graduate study maybe it’s super competitive. The opposite that half of what you learn comes from your peers, I wonder if that rings true.

Kugler: Certainly. I fully agree with you that that’s where you learn the most. In fact, I would say after I left graduate school, I continued to do a whole lot of learning from my coauthors, and that would be from my senior coauthors, but then also from my junior coauthors which were most of my coauthors today, I learned a lot from them now.

So I think throughout your career, you continue to learn from those interactions with your colleagues, and when you enter into these policy roles, oftentimes you’re the sole economist in the room. And you also learn from those in other disciplines. So you end up learning from the lawyers, from the anthropologists, from others coming from very different disciplines, the agricultural expert.

So I think it is very important to keep an open mind and to learn from others, but I would say one piece of advice is keep true to yourself, and don’t start necessarily thinking like them, but bring them value and keep the value of your tools and your knowledge as an economist to contribute to the conversation. Not to just agree with them, but to maybe agree to disagree, and to bring a different perspective because people do value that.

Yagan: One of the things that I have loved about Berkeley and that I’d like to share with students is that Berkeley Economics to me has had a feeling of data first, theory second. It’s not that it’s only the data that matter, but that whatever theory you’re going to layer on top of has to be grounded in facts that we know about the world and that we really credibly know. Was that true when you were a graduate student?

Kugler: That has certainly permeated throughout the decades in my work. I would say many of the ideas for papers that I have developed come from watching, reading news from talking to non economists, and trying to find out answers to things that are not there right now. So that’s certainly the case.

And I think there was certainly a sense that there was a lot of value in having this inductive method, starting from the data, being open to look at the data, and being open to explore different answers to why the data was telling you what it was telling you.

But there was a bit of a back and forth between inductive and deductive reasoning in the sense that, yes, you look at the data, but you also want to have an angle, a perspective to look at that data. You don’t just openly look at the data and possibly look at a million possible interpretations of it.

The theory in economics does guide you to look at potential reasons and channels and theories that could be explaining that data, and maybe the data will come and really question any of those theories, and then you can come up with something even different. And newer than what you even expected from the traditional theories that are out there.

So I think you’re that was part of what we were taught back in the day, and especially with George Akerlof being my advisor, I think that was also much of his approach– look at the data and look at the theory, and maybe even come up with new theories, of course.

Yagan: Yeah, that interplay, it’s very scientific method what you’re describing. I think in physics, there’s theoretical physicist and then there’s the empirical ones, you’re firing protons and neutrons at different atoms and they have an interplay that advances knowledge, and in the best sense, I think the economic paradigm that you just laid out is similar.

So maybe that’s a great segue into your own academic work. From Berkeley, you’ve taught at several renowned institutions, most recently at Georgetown. Do you want to tell us maybe a favorite paper or two just to give listeners a flavor of the types of contributions that you’ve offered and questions that motivated you?

Kugler: Yeah, so I would say my academic work has focused largely on examining the impacts of policies on labor market outcomes. As I said I always think labor earnings and access to work is, I think, what would explain a lot of the other disparities that we observe, but I did always care about how do policies affect that opportunity to access work, or how does it deny it?

It could be in both directions, and so I have looked at the role of labor regulations, the role of capital, market regulations, immigration, trade, all sorts of policies like that. And as I was mentioning before, I have always been very interested in finding answers to these questions through data.

So trying to look at causal effects, I have tried to as much as possible rely on experimental, but also non-experimental methods because it is not always possible to run clean experiments. So thinking very cleverly about potential non-experimental settings that can allow us to identify causal effects.

So I guess a series of papers I would say that I really like is a series of papers I wrote on vocational training, and these are all based on experimental designs and gathering, randomly assigning people either to technical training or not training.

But the key here, again, is there’s a whole debate about whether it’s even worth it to spend money in these programs, and this about second chances. And I think these matters for a lot of the contexts that I work with here at the bank, and a lot of the countries that links the low-income countries, even the middle-income countries where people drop out of the formal education system, and you somehow just waste entire generations of people you have to give second chances.

And so this work has been very enlightening because what I find is that in contrast to some other settings where the returns may be very low to some of these vocational training programs, so you’re not necessarily offering a PhD to a person, you’re instead giving them very practical skills about how to be an electrician, how to be a plumber, how to be a driver, all these things that are highly necessary.

But giving alone that technical training may not do. What we find in this series of papers is that you need to provide life skills or soft skills, that you need to provide access to transportation and childcare because otherwise you never even make it to the training, and that when you combine a series of services, then you find these very high returns.

And something that I really like about these, in particular, one paper is that we’re able to follow people through a very long period of time because the idea that people have is, OK, they may have very high returns, these vocational training programs but, in fact, they disappear very quickly. So they’re not very long lasting.

Well, we look at people a decade 15 years after, and what you see is that they’re still gaining a lot in terms of their income rising, in terms of them being able to go into the formal education system as a result of engaging in vocational training, and in fact, there are these unintended but positive consequences to the rest of the family, that is spread throughout the rest of the family and throughout entire communities.

So I know we economists tend to focusing on unintended negative consequences, but in this case, I like the message of this paper because oftentimes we’re spending a little bit of money on one person on the benefits are so much more widespread.

And we did a cost-benefit analysis and then the consequences are big. The result that you get is totally different if you take into account not only how long lasting and how many ways the program affects the person not only through immediate work, but also allowing them a door to get back into the formal education system, but how it affects an entire community.

And the results obviously of returns and the benefits are so much greater when you take account of those other ways in which the program offers opportunities, not only to the individual participating in the program but to their entire families.

Yagan: That’s so powerful. And when I was at the Office of Management and Budget as chief economist, properly counting for total benefits and total costs is very hard and very important, and it’s amazing how much the cost benefit analysis can change when you say you look at social returns not just private returns for a major investment.

Kugler: Absolutely.

Yagan: So speaking of public service, this is not your first stint in public service. You served in the Obama administration as well. I wonder how you thought about your own trajectory having been an academic and then moving into public service under President Obama, and what drew you and what draws you there now?

Kugler: Yes, so as I said, the whole reason for me going into economics was to help come up with solutions to some of these social problems that I cared so much about.

And so when I started my career even early on. I was very positively and happily surprised, to be honest to see that some of my papers even as I was an assistant professor were starting to receive attention from policymakers around the world from policymakers here in the US.

So I was just thrilled when I was invited to serve as chief economist under the Obama administration because this was a very critical time. This was right during the Great Recession, at a time when the unemployment rate was a double digits for the first time in many decades.

And when we needed to come up with some ways to bring down the unemployment rate to help people navigate this very critical time and these very difficult time for families and households and the poverty rate had increased as well during the time, so I was very happy that we were jointly with the great team.

There were two labor economists at the time at the Council of Economic Advisors that I worked very closely with. Alan Krueger was one of them, and certainly being able to have that counterpart at the White House and people that we were working with on policy solutions on unemployment insurance, on training programs, on payroll, tax subsidies, all sorts of tax credits that we thought could stimulate job creation was very key, and we saw some good results for sure.

Yagan: Maybe that’s actually something to help people understand something about how a presidential administration works. So you were the chief economist at the Department of Labor, and you were distinguishing your role at this major cabinet department with that of Alan Krueger and I guess another labor economist at the Council of Economic Advisors which sits within the Executive Office of the President, informally sits in the White House.

Could you talk about how policy development and implementation, that interplay between where you sat, where Alan sat, the Department of Labor versus the White House, help people understand how government functions.

Kugler: Yeah, I think there is a sense that there are these silos in the government that the Labor Department never interacts with the Commerce Department with the Patient Department with Health and Human Services or even with the White House.

But in fact, at least, I am– I have seen it in this administration as well, I can tell you that from both administrations I have worked with, I see a whole lot of cohesion and interaction between agencies, which I think is very critical to coming up with good policies because think about labor and education.

If you’re thinking about again these transitions from a school to work, you need to coordinate efforts. If you’re talking about some of these programs that may require additional services, you need to coordinate with Health and Human Services.

If you’re talking about tax subsidies, you certainly need to talk to Treasury. If you need to design programs that engage the private sector, you’re going to have to talk to commerce.

But the White House then is doing a lot of the negotiations, the other part of Commerce, which is not only the good thinking that goes into the policies, but actually putting them into practice. They will be the interface with Congress, and they will make the magic happen, and hopefully get them into– turn them into legislation because then you need funding and you need the support of Congress to make some of these policies happen.

So I felt very lucky, and I remember Alan Krueger and it was Kathryn Abraham too who was at the Council of Economic Advisors at the time, they would organize bi-weekly meetings of all the economists in the administration to coordinate efforts because it was very important to do that.

I have to say at the Labor Department, I was one of the few economists and the only economists at the very top of interacting directly with the Secretary and with the Assistant Secretary.

So I was a lone voice, but they certainly listened very carefully to me, and they counted on me to pass the message along to others in the administration about some of the priorities and some of the things making the economic case of why it was worth pursuing some of the policies that they wanted in the building.

So it was very key to have that communication, first to have coherent policies and policies where we wouldn’t be duplicating efforts, but in fact, we would be complementing each other’s efforts, and then to actually make it happen.

Yagan: Wonderful. Yes, that’s that resonates so much with my experience in learning how the gears move. So that’s a great segue because now you’re no longer in the administration, you are a Senate-confirmed position at the World Bank, which hopefully everyone understands is a huge deal. Very, very few people who are appointed by the president actually become Senate-confirmed, that they’re in a Senate-confirmed position, so congratulations on that.

Kugler: Thank you very much.

Yagan: And I wonder if you could help people understand what is the World Bank? Where does that fit in the set of international institutions, and what the State Department does, IMF, USAID, other of the ecosystem. And then you as executive director for the United States, what is your priority? And where do you fit in the United States and World Bank organizational politics?

Kugler: So thanks for that question, Danny. You’re right that after going into the Great Recession and trying to solve the issues of unemployment here in the US, I got approached and was very honored to be approached by President Biden to be nominated to be US executive director of the World Bank at a very critical time for the world. So here we have the world’s problems, and multiple, simultaneous and multiple crises going on all at once that needed to be tackled.

Kugler: So the World Bank was founded in 1944 right at the end of World War II, and it was– the bank has several arms, but the initial arm, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, IBRD, was founded with the goal of rebuilding and reconstructing the world after the atrocities of World War II.

And, by the way, being Jewish and having had my father’s side of the family flee Europe in 1939 and having passed away in concentration camps, this mission of the World Bank really resonates naturally. And, unfortunately, we’re rebuilding the world again for many, many atrocities, man-made and non-man-made, but in the same situation.

So the regional role of rebuilding, reconstructing has come back in some sense. Much of what the World Bank does is to finance also long-term development for countries. So it invests in infrastructure projects, but also human capital, health, education. That’s much of what the World Bank does.

On the other hand, I think the role of the bank over time has grown to include to be a knowledge bank. And so it’s kind of a place where in the building there there’s a lot of knowledge about best practices around the world– about policies that work and don’t work.

And so there is a lot of technical knowledge and advisory services that the World Bank gives to the rest of the world to help in capacity building, to help countries build up capacity of their own, to build up institutions, to come up with regulatory processes and regulatory capacity, which facilitates for the private sector to also come in and function well, and to help with macroeconomic management, but that’s where I think it differs from say the IMF. The IMF is much more focused on the cyclical aspects and the macroeconomic management of things.

Yagan: I should say for people, so IMF is the International Monetary Fund, just–

Kugler: Absolutely. Thank you for that. The State Department deals a lot with the diplomatic relations. We somehow here deal with much more of the economic tools that we have to help countries make progress. I think at the State Department, a lot of the emphasis is on the career diplomats helping to use diplomatic tools to build relationships and to help advance the development in other ways.

And USAID, so the US Agency for International Development, is the bilateral arm that the US has to provide assistance also for development to countries, but it’s much smaller because it’s just the US.

Here at the World Bank, we are the largest shareholder, the US is the largest shareholder, but we have 179 countries contributing, even some of the poorer countries find it worthwhile to contribute to the bank so that we can pool resources and then lend to the countries that need it the most.

So there is very poor countries, then the middle income countries, and then you have technical assistance that is provided sometimes through to even higher middle income countries. So it’s a combination of services that are provided by the bank to advance what have seen so far as the twin goals of promoting prosperity and reducing poverty.

Now having said that, part of my role as executive director is to think about our strategic direction and the strategic priorities that the bank should have. Are those twin goals where we should stay, or should we be thinking about some of these new challenges that have come our way, including health pandemics, including climate change, including political turmoil and migration, things that cross borders that each country cannot solve on their own.

And so maybe this is really a very critical time for an organization like the World Bank to rethink its mission and to think, well, it’s not only about working individually with countries to help them advance their growth potential and reduce poverty, but we need to deal with these issues that affect us all that each of us, each country individually is not going to take on because there are big benefits to all other countries from doing it. From me engaging in undertaking actions with regards to climate change, say, but because I will be taking on my own.

So we need to figure out ways and mechanisms, and the World Bank is an ideal place to tackle these issues where there are huge externalities, huge spillovers from undertaking actions, but I shouldn’t be solely the one assuming that cost from resolving that issue.

So in some sense, this is kind of the core function, but incredibly, we also review every single project. So we just approved 170 billion to be disbursed over the next 15 months, the next fiscal year and a little bit more, and that means that last year, we had about 1,000 or so projects coming this year. We may be having about 1,000 projects that we have to approve to the board, and we review every single one of those because it is important to know how the money is being spent.

And in some sense, we want to avoid programmatic risk we want to fail doing the good work and doing it in the best possible way, but we also want to avoid fiduciary risk, which is we want to make sure we do more good than harm. We want to make sure that we don’t undertake actions that are going to be harmful for countries, but we also want to make sure that we spend resources well, and in the best possible way we can.

So we have both a programmatic duty and a fiduciary duty in the role of as executive directors. I would say those are kind of two big issues that we worry heavily about.

Yagan: That is fascinating, and I wonder if you have a way to think about the United States’ special role in the world. You said we are one of 170 maybe contributors, shareholders of the World Bank, yet we’re also the largest. I think the United States has veto rights in some sense at the bank.

And also people describe on the military side in NATO that the United States plays an outsized role in actually making things happen. In your experience at the World Bank, does the United States is special role in opportunity and platform and position of influence, feel like in really special catalyst for all this global change that you hope to affect.

Kugler: Yeah, it’s true. We are the largest shareholder. We don’t quite have veto power, which we do in some other organizations in some of the regional banks, the IDB, for example. But we do carry a whole lot of weight and people look for our leadership.

And they had seen that leadership diminished over the past few years. And so they’re happy to have us back playing, a leadership role, and leading on the efforts and tackling the challenges that face us today.

So, for example, here at the World Bank, one of the things that has been done over the past many months is to help Ukraine economically, and the US has played a key, critical role in addressing the economic needs of Ukraine, which, as we know, have huge implications for the rest of the world.

So the Russian invasion of Ukraine, unfortunately, has affected the rest of us in all sorts of ways. It has affected economies around the world, it has affected the food insecurity that is being faced throughout the African continent, but also in South Asia also in Latin America and other parts of the world. So I think people do understand.

And here’s again where a single country cannot take it all upon themselves, it has to be done jointly because it affects all of us, and so we need to take joint action. But certainly, people look up to US leadership not only on resources, but on thought leadership. How are we going to tackle these critical issues? And how are we going to find solutions that help us address them?

Yagan: Going back to something you said earlier about the economist’s role in policy advice, you’ve already described how the administration and World Bank are different entities, they’ve also had similarities. There are economists with technical expertise participating in a political process, either within the United States or internationally.

And I wonder if you can describe how you think about this unique role that you have served, how much do you try to stick to straight policy analysis? This is the right answer, and then you politicians can do what you want with it.

How much do you try to problem solve within the political within the political constraints to find the most viable policy that can be implemented? How do you understand your own role in the interplay between technical expert and player in a political enterprise?

Kugler: Great question, Danny. I think as a good economist, I’m certainly very grounded on evidence-based policy making, and I think we need to find for the best possible policy solution that we may have to address a certain issue. But you’re so right that we have to be very aware of the political constraints, and sometimes work around those constraints.

So sometimes you have a first best solution to an issue and to get around those political constraints and to come up with some solution as opposed to not having any solution at all, you may have to come to a second best solution. You may have to compromise, and you may have to adjust your original thinking on an issue and your original solution to a problem. So certainly, that’s very key.

I also think in understanding, and look, I sit around 24 other executive directors who cover the MENA region, who cover Africa, who cover Latin America, the other G7s, the Asian-Pacific regions, you need to understand their motivations, if you want to bring them along with you.

So you need to certainly understand what drives them, and what are their political constraints so that you can help them and you can make the case to them that these may just be better again than knowing nothing, which is– if you get stuck, that’s the solution. You don’t do anything.

But I think it is key to understand others motivations in these political settings, to understand how can you help them? To bring them along, and to get them to understand that this will be to their benefit as well, and that maybe you can minimize some of the costs that they see in getting engaged with the given policy.

Yagan: I love it. Even the economist framework, minimizing the costs for them to–

Kugler: To take that next step.

Yagan: To take the next step, yes. You’ve described really from the beginning how the motivations to get involved in economics but then also in public service stem from experiences from childhood, you’re Colombian-American you were describing as a Latina how that has shaped kind of how you thought about your career, and I wonder how that perspective shapes the work you’re doing and how you bring your technical expertise maybe in special ways at the bank.

Kugler: Yeah, I certainly believe that my background as a Colombian-American and my global upbringing, having lived not only in Colombia but also in other continents and having traveled some 50 countries around the world allows me to understand the realities of other countries and understand others’ perspectives.

So when I can talk to my African colleagues or my Latin American colleagues or my colleagues, they know I’ve traveled in their countries. They know I understand firsthand the realities in those countries, and the constraints too. Not only their problems, but also their constraints.

And so I would say they view me very differently. I am the first Latina to hold this role, and I have this global upbringing that is different from maybe what other US EDs have brought to the role.

So this has created a sense of trust and a sense of being heard by me that really helps to bring us together and to try to tackle some of the problems we face today together at the board. It does help in communicating, finding solutions, so certainly, I think it’s very helpful for people to understand that I’m not foreign to their realities.

Yagan: That makes so much sense, and I’m so glad that you’re in this– that you’re in this role. And then if we can close, you’ve been so generous with your time. Thinking you’ve had this distinguished career in public service and academia, you’ve talked about getting started in economics coming to Berkeley.

I wonder if you could go back in time and share some thoughts with yourself or if you have lessons, urgings that you would offer to academic colleagues who want their research to matter for people just coming out of Berkeley hoping to make an impact in the world or maybe that first year PhD student or first year undergrad at Berkeley trying to find their way, what are some thoughts that come to mind that you would love to share with them?

Kugler: So I would certainly say focus on the key problems that we face today. Again, going back to everything I learned at Berkeley about not thinking about some theoretical key question that comes to mind, but if we hope to make progress as an economist, I think that’s where we can have the greatest impact, which is to find solutions, and not to the problems that we had a decade ago, but to the problems that we’re facing today.

So focusing on the key problems that we face today, but I think you have to be passionate. And in my case, being a labor economist was a real passion. I saw that that was what offered opportunities to individuals, to households to come out of poverty and to have opportunities moving forward.

So I think each of us gets motivated by our own issues. I would say stay grounded in evidence. I do think about the data work that happily you’re still advancing at this view at Berkeley of focusing on what the data tells us to inform those problems.

And I do think when you move away from that academic setting to the non-academic setting, I think it is good to stay true to yourself as an economist because you’re interacting with so many others that think in a different way, and you may start thinking just like them, but then you add little value.

It’s when you stay true to yourself to be an economist and you’re surrounded by many others coming from other disciplines and perspectives that you can bring them a little bit of your way of thinking, which is not typical for most.

Even though you’re right, here at the World Bank, there are many, many economists, so it’s a little different, but yet, because people have been in this organization for so many years, they do think about certain issues in certain traditional ways, and I think it is good to come from the outside to bring some new thinking.

Yagan: Wonderful that really resonates with my own experience just having served, and those are hopefully words that I can share with students that students will hear in your words hear when they listen to this, and can be enduring ethos at Berkeley for years to come.

So, Adriana, thank you so much for joining us, rejoining Berkeley virtually here, and we’ll look forward to reading and hearing about all your great work in the new post.

Kugler: Thank you. Thank you very much, Danny, and thank you very much for your service.

Yagan: Thank you, Adriana.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.



The Rise of Mass Incarceration: An Interview with Chris Muller and Alex Roehrkasse

Alex Roehrkasse and Chris Muller

On this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Julia Sizek spoke with two UC Berkeley scholars whose work focuses on explaining how mass incarceration has changed over the last 30 years.

Alex Roehrkasse is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Butler University. He studies the production of racial, class, and gender inequality in the United States through violence and social control. He was previously a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Sociology at Duke University and at the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect at Cornell University.

Christopher Muller is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies the political economy of incarceration in the United States from Reconstruction to the present. He is particularly interested in how agricultural labor markets, migration, and struggles over land and labor have affected incarceration and racial and class inequality in incarceration. His work has been published in journals such as the American Journal of Sociology, Demography, Social Forces, and Science

Listen to the podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

Podcast Transcript


The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Hello and welcome to the Matrix Podcast, recorded here in the matrix office. I’m Julia Sizek, your host. And our guests today are Chris Muller and Alex Roehrkasse. Alex Roehrkasse is an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Butler University. He studies the production of racial class and gender inequality in the United States through violence and social control.

Chris Muller is an assistant professor of sociology at Berkeley. He studies the political economy of incarceration in the United States from reconstruction to the present and specifically, the relationship between incarceration and agricultural labor markets migration and struggles over land and labor. Their work together has focused on explaining how mass incarceration has changed during the transition from the 20th to the 21st century. Thanks for coming on the podcast.

Chris Muller: Thanks for having us.

Alex Roehrkasse: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Sizek: So let’s get started by just trying to understand the big problem that’s at the center of your collaborative research, which is how mass incarceration has changed over the last 30 years. What motivated you to take on this topic?

Muller: Yeah, it’s a really good question. So I think it’s useful for us to step back and try to define mass incarceration. So there isn’t complete agreement about how to define mass incarceration. But I think the most influential definition comes from the sociologist David Garland.

So Garland argues that mass incarceration is defined by two main features. The first is a scale of incarceration that’s unusual in both historical and comparative terms. And so this fits the US case because its incarceration rate is so extreme both in comparison to similar countries and in comparison to its past.

So from 1970 to 2010, the US imprisonment rate rose from roughly 100 per 100,000 people to roughly 500 per 100,000 people. And if you count people in jails, that number gets even higher, about 700 per 100,000 people. And so that makes the US a vast outlier with respect to comparable countries.

The second feature of mass incarceration that Garland focuses on is what he calls the social concentration of incarceration. And in the US, what he’s referring to is mainly the incarceration rate of young Black men. So if you look just at the most recent estimates, roughly a quarter of Black men can expect to be imprisoned at some point in their lives.

And when you zoom in to look at Black men who dropped out of high school, that number jumps to over 2/3. So these are just really astonishing numbers. And it’s been– these have been some of the main things, I think, that have inspired people to try to understand how we got here over time.

So one of the main motivations of this project with Alex, in particular, has been the emergence of a recent debate around this last point about the relationship between racial inequality and incarceration on the one hand and mass incarceration on the other. And so on the one side of the debate, we have a book like, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. This is probably the most widely read book on mass incarceration.

And it focuses mainly on mass incarceration’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans due in part to the war on drugs and due in part to the concentration of police in poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods. On the other side, you have scholars like James Forman Jr. and Marie Tkachuk who are sympathetic to Alexander’s account, but who argue that it’s incomplete. And so in particular, they focus on the fact that mass incarceration has negatively affected many groups beyond just Black Americans. And that it’s particularly concentrated among the poor.

So my read of the debate is that it’s been quite civil and collegial. But as it’s spun out into more wider public arenas, in my perception at least, it’s gotten quite a bit more heated. And as I’ve encountered this debate, I’ve had a sense that people have been talking past each other.

And so one of the main goals for me in working on this project with Alex was to try to establish a more comprehensive and up-to-date empirical foundation for the debate. And I had a hunch that this foundation would help us to see why both positions actually look quite reasonable, depending on how you look at the question, depending on whether you’re looking at the direct experience of incarceration, or whether you’re looking at its indirect effects. So what we tried to do in the project was two main things.

The first thing we wanted to do was to update previous estimates of racial and class inequality in prison admissions. So they hadn’t been calculated since 2002. You would think this would be a relatively straightforward thing to do. But as I’m sure we’ll discuss, there’s all kinds of complicated issues about how you actually estimate these quantities.

And one of the main reasons we wanted to do this was based on a lot of research that’s come out in recent years, showing that there’s been a huge shift in the fortune of people without a college degree. So you can think– one of the most famous examples of this is the work of the economist Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who’s shown that there’s been a marked rise in the mortality rates, particularly of white people without a bachelor’s degree. And so we had a hunch that this shift might also be visible in prison admissions.

And then the second thing we wanted to do in the paper was to look beyond the direct experience of incarceration and look at the indirect experience of incarceration. So first of all, looking at people’s likelihood of having a family member imprisoned and looking at people’s likelihood of living in a neighborhood with a high imprisonment rate. And the reason we wanted to do this was because of a whole body of sociological research that’s shown how because of Black, white wealth gaps, for example, middle class Black people are much more likely than middle class white people to be offshoots from poor family trees.

So that means they’re much more likely to have family members who are poor than similar white people. And we were also inspired by a lot of research, much of it coming out of sociology, showing how segregation has meant that middle class Black people are more likely than middle class white people to live in poor neighborhoods. And so if you think incarceration and poverty are becoming increasingly associated over time, these dynamics are going to influence the differences in the relative direct and indirect experiences of incarceration.

So together, we thought that these facts suggested that it was possible that racial and class inequality in people’s risk of having a family member imprisoned and racial and class inequality in their risk of living in a high imprisonment neighborhood could seriously differ from racial and class inequality in their risk of being imprisoned themselves.

Sizek: Yeah. So I think that’s really interesting because it points to the two challenges of studying mass incarceration today. One being this question of the class factors that make one more at risk to be imprisoned, as well as the racial factors. And then the other aspect of it is exactly this question of, who are the people who are in direct or indirect contact with the prison system? So generally, what were your findings when you put these two different parts of mass incarceration together?

Rohrkasse: Yeah, so corresponding to these two different goals these two different parts that you’re describing. We really have two main sets of findings. The first is that we showed that there have been really significant shifts in the contours of inequality in prison admissions in the 21st century.

So on the one hand, Black, white disparities have pretty meaningfully declined since the late 20th century. So for example, at peak levels of racial inequality in the early 1990s, Black people were somewhere between six and eight times more likely to enter prison than similarly educated white people.

That’s just an astonishing level of inequality. To be frank, you don’t often see racial disparities that large in social science. And to be clear, this is not reducible to any underlying educational differences because we’re comparing like to like here.

By 2015, though, the Black, white ratio of prison admissions had fallen to something more like two or three. And that’s a pretty significant decline. But it’s important to say, that’s still a really big disparity.

On the other hand, inequality between people who had attained different levels of education skyrocketed over the same period. So again in the early 1990s, people who hadn’t attended college were roughly five to six times more likely to go to prison than people who had attended college. But again, by 2015, when our analysis ends, people without college were 20 to 25 times more likely to go to prison than people who had been to college before.

So then our second set of findings, we think, adds some nuance to this picture. So in two separate analyzes, we examined people’s likelihood of having a family member imprisoned or living in a neighborhood where a high proportion of residents in that neighborhood go to prison. And in both of these cases, we find that Black people with the highest levels of education or income are actually more likely to experience these indirect contacts with the prison system than white people with the lowest levels of education or the lowest levels of income.

And so ultimately, what we find is that while class inequality in prison admissions now appears to dominate racial inequality, it’s racial inequality that still predominates in other aspects of the lived experience of mass incarceration. And so depending on whether we look at these– as we suspected, these direct or indirect experiences of the prison system, you’ll come to different conclusions about whether race or class matters more. So ultimately, rather than trying to decide which is absolutely more important, we’ve become much more interested in trying to understand how racial and class inequality interact and maybe even how these interactions would create opportunities for new alliances to combat mass incarceration.

Sizek: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting because it points to a much more complicated picture than just saying being a Black person in America means that you are more likely to go into prison, even though it means that you are much more likely as your research shows to experience effects of the carceral system in America. But one of the things that you’ve brought up a lot is this question of education. And it seems like education serves as a proxy for socioeconomic class status. Can you talk a little more about how you decided to use education as this proxy and why using education seems to work as a proxy for this?

Muller: Yeah, absolutely. So the main reason that we do so is just a data limitation. So when people are admitted to prison, they’re not asked about their income. And so we’re forced to use their level of education. And so we use education as a proxy for class.

So this is clearly an imperfect measure. And there are all kinds of quibbles that you could have with it. But on the other hand, I think that the work of Case and Deaton shows that having a college education is an increasingly important determinant of people’s life chances in the United States.

And they’re even Marxist sociologists who you’d expect to have the most issue with this proxy, who’ve come around to the importance of the college divide. The other thing that I’d say about it is that in the first analysis, where we’re looking at racial and class inequality in prison admissions, we only have measures of education. We don’t have measures of income.

But in the second two analyzes of people’s likelihood of having a family member in prison and people’s likelihood of living in a high imprisonment neighborhood, we had both education and income. And the results were almost identical. And so in this particular case, we’re not especially concerned about using education as a proxy for a class, even though we acknowledge that the two concepts are different.

Sizek: One of the problems you have in doing this research is not only trying to figure out what serves as a useful proxy, but how to extract the information from whatever data you’re getting from the prisons or the other systems. How did you manage this giant data sample that you had?

Rohrkasse: Yeah, so there’s really three key quantities that we’re trying to measure in this study. And we’re going to use three different data sets to measure each of those. And each of those data sets has its own unique values and some serious limitations.

So the first quantity we’re interested in is the likelihood that people enter prison. You might think that that’s a really straightforward thing to measure. But it turns out that there’s actually no national data that are publicly available that disaggregate rates of entrance into prison by people’s race and ethnicity or their educational attainment.

And so for people who are interested in these kinds of inequalities, a really useful and common resource is what’s called the National Corrections Reporting Program. Unfortunately, this resource is restricted in access because it involves individual level records of imprisoned people. And so the data are pretty sensitive.

But for those people who are interested in these kinds of questions, this is really the most important resource available. These are administrative data. And unfortunately, they represent the voluntary contributions of different state prison systems to this overall program.

And so in any given year, the NRCP doesn’t actually include all state prison admissions. So an important assumption of our study is that the contributing states in the years we examine are more or less representative of the country more broadly. It’s also important to say that the NRCP no longer includes federal prison admissions.

Federal prisons make up a small proportion of the total prison population in the United States, but by no means a trivial proportion. The second quantity that we’re trying to understand is the likelihood that someone has had a family member go to prison. And people can use any number of different resources to do this.

People have used the Fragile Families study before or the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. We use a new survey that’s designed specifically to measure this quantity. It’s called the Family History of Incarceration Survey, or FamHIS. 

And then the third quantity that we’re interested in measuring is the likelihood that people live in a neighborhood with a high imprisonment rate. And this is really challenging because people aren’t usually imprisoned in the neighborhoods where they were living before they went to prison. And geolocating prisoners back to the neighborhoods where they came from with any geographic detail can actually be quite difficult.

So to do this, we use a resource that’s actually pretty underutilized called the Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections. This is another administrative data set that compiles information from about 20 states. And it allows us to geolocate people in state prisons back to the specific census tract where they resided before they were imprisoned.

So we use census tracts, which on average have about 4,000 residents as a proxy for neighborhoods. And we use these data to calculate imprisonment rates for census tracts in these 20 states. Then we use census data to put people of different races and ethnicities and educational groups into neighborhoods to understand their likelihood of living in a high imprisonment neighborhood.

And for all three of these experiences, prison admissions, family member incarceration, neighborhood incarceration, we calculate the rates at which people of different ethnoracial groups and educational groups have these experiences. And then to measure inequality, we look at the ratio of these different rates across different groups.

Sizek: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting because it points to the complexity that underlies something when you’re trying to answer what seems like a simple question in many ways, but it’s actually quite complicated. And another aspect of the complicated nature of this research is also this temporality problem. Basically, when you’re looking at prison admissions, these are people who are entering the system. This is not representative of the body of people who are currently imprisoned as a whole.

But then you’re also asking people about the experience over their lifetime of if they’ve known someone who is incarcerated. So how do you disentangle these different temporal aspects in this research? And how does it come to matter?

Rohrkasse: This is a really important point. Our study is focused on prison admissions, specifically the rate at which people in the population enter prison in any given year. And this is a pretty different quantity from the proportion of the population that’s imprisoned at any given point in time.

And generally speaking, prison admissions are much more volatile than prison populations because they’re going to be more responsive to economic, social, political changes. So for example, a policy that diverted people away from the criminal justice system would have a pretty immediate impact on prison admission rates, but only delayed effects on the prison population because that population reflects not only that recent policy, but the cumulative history of decades of previous policies, rates of imprisonment, sentencing, corrections, et cetera. And so what that means is that if we were to redo our study examining prison populations, instead of prison admission rates, some of the changes in inequality that we document would probably be a bit more muted.

But what that also means is that if the trends we document in our study continue, we should expect to see similar changes in the prison population over time. There are other aspects of our data, like the fact that the FamHIS survey captures whether a person’s family member has ever been imprisoned, that incorporate this whole cumulative history of incarceration over the last several decades, that we’re just limited in our ability to deal with.

Sizek: Yeah. I think that’s really interesting too because it points us back to one of the ways that people often talk about mass incarceration, which is the war on drugs. So can you both tell us a little bit about the way that the war on drugs becomes this figure of mass incarceration and how your research is complicating that story a little bit?

Muller: The paper itself is not directly about the war on drugs. But the war on drugs has become a key part of debate over mass incarceration. So on the one hand, if you just look at a point in time, the number of people who are in prison strictly for drug offenses is actually quite small.

And so people who point to the war on drugs as being a central part of mass incarceration, people who confront that argument, oftentimes are critical of the argument that the war on drugs was a key part of mass incarceration, given the small proportion of people who are in prison for drug offenses. On the other hand, if you have people going into prison for relatively short sentences, that is going to mean that the relative importance of the war on drugs for people’s experience of having ever gone to prison is likely to be quite a bit larger. And so I think these temporal aspects, the temporal dimensions that we’re talking about have a particular relationship to the war on drugs.

The other thing I would say is that a moment ago, Alex pointed to these really extreme disparities in the mid-1990s, a six to eight disparity in incarceration even within educational groups. And I don’t think there’s great evidence about this. I haven’t seen a study that’s nailed it down.

But I think it’s unlikely that some part of that spike doesn’t have anything to do with the war on drugs. I think that some of the spike in the racial disparity in the prison admission rate in the 90s almost certainly was related to the war on drugs. And so the war on drugs quite clearly is an important part of the story.

How important it is for you, I think, really depends on which aspects of mass incarceration you’re trying to look at, whether you’re looking at the number of people in prison and the proportion of them who are in for drug offenses or whether you’re looking at people who’ve cycled through prison and how many of them have been imprisoned for drug offenses and whether you’re looking at racial disparity. And so I think you’re going to get a slightly different story, depending on which of those quantities you’re focused on.

Sizek: And I think that raises a question about some of your other research, Chris. And specifically the way that things like the labor market end up playing a really central role in how we think about imprisonment and how we explain rises in imprisonment and mass incarceration. Can you tell us a little bit about the relationship between the labor market as a whole and mass incarceration?

Muller: Sure. Yeah, I mean– so why don’t I take a step back and talk about the previous state of the literature on the causes of mass incarceration. And then I can say a little bit about my own work. So to be perfectly honest, I’ve been working on this topic for a while. And the longer I’ve worked on it, the more complex the answers have gotten about what the sources of mass incarceration are.

But I think that the broad contours that are set out in a book by a sociologist named Bruce Weston called, Punishment and Inequality in America, it came out in 2006, I think those main causes are still pretty widely accepted, even though there’s been a lot of really important work to appear since that book’s been published. So Weston focuses mainly on economic and political causes, things like the collapse of urban labor markets, the related rise in crime, the urban uprisings of the 1960s, and then the politicization of crime that increased the chance that all of these changes would receive a punitive response.

So in the following years, we saw sentences increase. We saw a greater willingness among prosecutors to pursue incarceration in cases where they might not have in the past. So that’s an oversimplified summary. But I think it captures the main currents.

And though, people will disagree about the relative weight to place on any one of those causes, I think, very few people think that they’re wholly unimportant. So if we’re thinking about the relationship between labor markets and incarceration, I think it’s also good to take a step back and give you a little bit of broader context about my work. So one of the main motivations for my work on incarceration but also my work in other areas has been the idea that in my view, too often in sociology, we begin our studies of racial inequality generally in the 1960s. And that leaves out a lot of really important historical context.

So we forget, for example, that for much of US history, Black Americans worked primarily in agriculture, not just during slavery but for almost a century after the civil war. And once you recognize this fact, I think a lot of otherwise puzzling features about long run patterns in the Black incarceration rate begin to make a bit more sense. So just take one example. There’s a popular argument that after the civil war, incarceration became a functional replacement for slavery.

Now, it’s worth stating that this is different from the argument that the form that incarceration took closely resembled slavery. This is an argument, I think, has a lot of support, especially if you’re looking at the convict lease system or chain gangs or something like that. But if you’re looking at the functional replacement argument, it’s hard to square with the fact that the Black incarceration rate in the years after reconstruction is actually lowest in the counties that had depended most on enslaved labor before the civil war.

So a lot of people are surprised when they hear this fact. But I think the fact becomes less surprising once you recognize that slavery and sharecropping were systems of economic exploitation in addition to systems of racial domination. So both slaveholders before the civil war and planters after the civil war depend heavily on Black American’s labor.

And what that means is that unless they could use the labor of people in prison, they had strong reasons to try to keep workers out of prison rather than in it. And one of the key, I think, underappreciated ways that they did this is that planters often would go to courthouses and they would offer to pay the fines of any people who’d been convicted. And what this meant was that the person then had to pay off the debt in, quotes, “by working on their land”.

And so this system of peonage allowed planters to actually reestablish a coerced labor force after the civil war. But it also had the side effect of lowering the Black incarceration rate in the cotton belt. So rather than see a relatively low Black incarceration rate in the cotton belt in those counties where slavery had been most prevalent after reconstruction as a sign of the region’s mercy, we should instead see it as a sign of Black Americans continuing unfreedom outside of the prison in the years after the civil war.

And I think there’s an additional puzzle that this way of looking at things helps to solve. So oftentimes, critics of the functional replacement argument, critics of the idea that incarceration was a replacement for slavery will say, well, if slavery and mass incarceration are connected, why does mass incarceration take off a century after slavery ends? And for me, a key part of the answer to that question is that cotton harvesting is almost fully mechanized between 1950 and 1970, the two decades that precede the start of the prison boom.

And so a lot of work has focused on the effects of deindustrialization. But there’s been much less of an emphasis on the collapse of agricultural employment. And I think this is particularly important because the effects of the collapse in agricultural employment were much larger on Black men’s labor force participation than the effects of deindustrialization.

Sizek: Yeah, I think that’s so fascinating because it points us to this question of the relationship between these different labor markets. And also, it ties it into other historical phenomena that we might be familiar with, like the great migrations and how this actually changes the opportunities that people have to work, as well as to demands for labor. And so as we switch towards the 1970s and thinking about the rise in mass incarceration, how would we tie in the labor market shift to how you think it might be related to the rise of mass incarceration as a phenomenon?

Muller: Yeah. So I think there are three main ways we could think about this. And I should say that here, I’m more just synthesizing previous works and drawing on my own. But so we have a massive collapse in the share of young black men who are working in agriculture.

So in 1940, about a third of young Black men work in agriculture. By 1970, it’s fewer than– it’s lower than 3%. So there’s just this dramatic shift. And so there’s been– I know of no direct research looking at the effects of this mechanization of cotton harvesting in particular on both changes in crime and changes in imprisonment.

But there’s a lot of work looking at other shocks to the labor market and showing quite clearly that those are related both to rates of crime and to rates of imprisonment. So this is actually something I’m working on right now. Secondly, one of the main responses to the mechanization of cotton harvesting was the second great migration.

And there’s, of course, a huge political backlash to this second great migration. And so there’s an economist who actually was at Berkeley until very recently sadly, Laura Derenoncourt, who’s shown how this second great migration leads to increases in police spending, increases in homicide rates, increases, particularly, in the Black incarceration rate, and reductions in spending and other types of public goods. And so Laura’s work, I think, is showing clearly how this second great migration was related to the onset of mass incarceration.

And then I think, thirdly, there’s been– some economic historians in particular have argued that the mechanization of cotton harvesting in the second great migration creates a material foundation for the rise and the emergence of the Civil Rights movement. And of course, a lot of the literature on mass incarceration discusses how there was a political backlash to this movement that connected urban uprisings to crime. And focus on this as a key component of the politicization of crime that I mentioned earlier as being one of the key ingredients in the rise of mass incarceration.

So it’s through a bunch of different paths. But I do think many of these causes that other scholars have focused on actually have a relationship to what I see as this earlier change in just this massive decline in agricultural employment that happens at mid-century in the United States.

Sizek: Yeah, I think that’s just so fascinating because it’s also a way for us to really consider the relationship between rural and urban areas and mass incarceration as not unrelated phenomena. And to really bring in rural studies, which is somewhat a neglected field now in the social sciences, back into this urban story that a lot of people or a lot of people see as being an urban story that’s quite important. And so I guess as we move toward thinking about what your research, what both of you have done, helps us think about mass incarceration more, how do you think that the relationship between class and race becomes more complicated?

And what can scholars learn from this? And also what has policy-makers who are interested in ending the era of mass incarceration, what can they use from your research?

Rohrkasse: Well, part of our analysis is really aimed at decomposing racial and class inequality. So that’s to say, for example, that overall, racial inequality in mass incarceration appears in part to reflect some underlying disparities in educational attainment. And that’s an important fact to understand. But one of the main goals of our study and, I think, one of its main successes is really to show that in many ways, racial and class inequality cannot be disentangled.

And that’s because they’re mutually constitutive. And that can sound handwavy. But we really put– we make our best effort to really measure this as concretely as we can. So for example, we show that irrespective of one’s education or income, Black people are much more likely to have family members imprisoned or their neighbors imprisoned.

And this can seem somewhat at odds with the fact that we’re simultaneously documenting that there’s been this shift toward much greater educational inequality in prison admissions. We think, though, that a really important factor that can reconcile these two seemingly contradictory facts is that as a result of racial segregation and racial discrimination, an important feature of being Black in America today is that irrespective of your class position, you’re much more closely connected to poor people. And so what that means is that the scale of racial inequality really can’t be fully appreciated without reference to the ways that social networks and social environments translate these growing class disparities into racial disparities.

And so rather than being competing forms of inequality, race and class are really intersecting dimensions of domination. And I think for researchers, for activists, for policymakers, the more we can do to understand that, I think the more successful we’ll be in our efforts to combat mass incarceration.

Sizek: Well, with that, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. We learned a lot.

Muller: Thanks so much for having us.

Rohrkasse: Yeah, it was a pleasure, thank you.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about social science matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.




Race, Gender, and Political Speech: An Interview with Gabriella Licata

Gabriella Licata

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was insulted on the Capitol steps in July 2020, it was a brief media sensation. But what does being called an “effing bitch” mean for how we think about political speech? 

Gabriella Licata, a PhD candidate in Romance Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley, joined Julia Sizek for this episode of the Matrix Podcast to discuss how the standard language ideologies of political speech come to shape perceptions of language and people in Congress. Licata utilizes mixed methodologies to assess language behavior and linguistic bias in sociolinguistic experiments, social media, and political discourse.

The interview focuses largely on Licata’s recently published paper in the Journal of Language and Discrimination, “Sorry, not sorry: Ted Yoho’s infelicitous apology as reification of toxic masculinity,” which analyzes the aftermath of an insult on the Capitol steps and what it reveals about the norms of American political speech.

Excerpts from the interview are included below (edited for length and content). A full, unedited transcript is available here.

Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Julia Sizek: Hello and welcome to the Matrix Podcast, coming to you from the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Studio, a recording partner on Berkeley’s campus. I’m Julia Sizek, your host.

Today, our guest is Gabriella Licata, a PhD candidate in Romance Language and Literatures who has a designated emphasis in gender, women and sexuality. Her research investigates how standard language ideologies influence perceptions of language and people. And she recently published a paper about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and right wing political speech. Thanks for coming on the podcast.

Gabriella Licata: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Sizek: So let’s just jump in by discussing the event that your paper is about, which is when Ted Yoho insulted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the Capitol on July 20, 2020. What happened and who witnessed the event?

Licata: Sure, so this was highly publicized at the moment, and it hasn’t been spoken of much since then. But basically a little backstory is that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had participated in a virtual town hall, I believe, in her district, in her New York district.

And she had mentioned that people are suffering. Due to the effects of the pandemic there’s a lot of newfound urgent poverty issues that aren’t being addressed. People don’t have food. People don’t have their basic goods.

And she mentioned that if a person steals a loaf of bread or something like that to feed their family, then that’s permissible or that’s forgivable because this is a new experience for people and they don’t know what to do. They’re not being given resources by their government. They’re not being taken care of.

And Republicans had a really strong reaction to that, saying it’s OK to steal. And that’s how they interpreted it. And so when Ted Yoho saw Ocasio-Cortez walking up the steps of the Capitol and he’s walking down, he called her out on that. And he said that she was disgusting, that she was a gendered slur, an effing bitch. And he said he spoke both of those slurs. He didn’t abbreviate them.

And he said that she was crazy and then continued on. And I believe they saw each other later on and she called him out on what he had said to her and said we’re going to talk about this later.

And then it turned– and then it was heavily publicized because there was a Hill reporter there named Mike Lillis from the, yeah, from The Hill and he immediately wrote about it. And from there it just spiraled into a secondary reporting.

Sizek: Yeah and obviously, one of the big pieces about this isn’t something that’s happening in a dark room where there’s no record of it. There’s a presumably objective reporter who is there at the same time and says, hey, this is not what should be happening.

And I guess in tandem with that is you can see in the backstory you’re telling that it’s a real mix of the personal and the political. There’s both this gendered slur that’s directly, I guess, directed at Ocasio-Cortez. And then there’s also this political aspect of this larger background about poverty programs in the US.

And I guess one of the things that seems really troubling about this is that it is a personal attack that is about a political problem. Can you tell us a little more about that aspect of this?

Licata: Sure, I mean, we– progressive politics is not new. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, they have very progressive and what the right would consider radical ideologies, but nobody speaks to them this way. So this uptick of progressive hate and contempt from the right is really a response to the changing representation in congress, in politics.

So when Obama won the presidency in 2008, there was such a strong reaction to his presence because he was Black. He’s a Black American and he’s not even that progressive. He’s not what we would consider a very progressive politician. But because we have a Black man in power there’s these shifting dynamics in a really white world.

So US politics is traditionally very white, historically very white. And you have all these now racialized women gaining office, very powerful political positions. And so you’re seeing the reactions in right-wing media, in right-wing politics.

And we can talk about this a little bit later with the Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson, where you have a very different line of questioning for her than you do Justice Brett Kavanaugh. So we can talk about that in a bit.

Yeah, but right-wing politics is really operating. It’s epistemology, its stance is that we live in a post-racist, post-misogynistic world.

So we can call people out and not be racist. We can call people out and not be misogynistic because those systemically don’t exist anymore because, look, a Brown woman is in office, a Black woman is in office. So of course, we’re not racist. We’re not misogynistic. So it allows, it permits them to issue these gendered and racist attacks with some safety net on their end.

Sizek: Yeah, I think this really points out to some of the broader implications of this research and also the value of scholarship in this arena, which is somewhat outside of your training, in Romance Languages and Literatures. So can you just tell us a little bit about why you decided to pursue this line of inquiry?

Licata: Sure, so although a lot of what I do is rooted in language perception, so attitudinal experiments, and also looking at linguistics and what sociolinguistics means in education and language education, everything that I do is really undergirded by or underpinned by standard language ideologies and understanding how they permit or prohibit people from expressing themselves fully in public and private arenas. And the public, private distinction is not that clear anymore.

But in school or in a political arena, how are people able to express themselves without being discriminated against? And so all of my work is really looking at how standard language ideologies operate and how they racialize and how they marginalize groups.

So I think that understanding that going back to colonial epistemologies and how they’ve created these divisions in our society and where they privilege some folks and they erase others, that’s really what has brought me into understanding or to trying to deconstruct right-wing discourse and who are the targets of that discourse.

Sizek: Yeah, so I guess with that, let’s turn towards a specific example and really look at what Ted Yoho does after this well-documented case of him using slurs because he has an apology that he gives shortly thereafter in Congress. Let’s listen to his apology.

[Ted Yoho]: Mr. Speaker, I stand before you this morning to address the strife I injected into the already contentious Congress. I have worked with many members in this chamber over the past four terms, members on both sides of the aisle. And each of you know that I’m a man of my word.

So let me take a moment to address this body. I rise to apologize for the abrupt manner of the conversation I had with my colleague from New York. It is true that we disagree on policies and visions for America, but that does not mean we should be disrespectful.

Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of my language. The offensive name calling words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleagues. And if they were construed that way, I apologize for their misunderstanding.

As my colleagues know, I’m passionate about those affected by poverty. My wife, Carolyn, and I started out together at the age of 19 with nothing. We did odd jobs and we were on food stamps. I know the face of poverty and for a time it was mine. That is why I know people in this country can still with all its faults rise up and succeed and not be encouraged to break the law.

I will commit to each of you that I will conduct myself from a place of passion and understanding that policy and political disagreement be vigorously debated with the knowledge that we approach the problems facing our nation with the betterment of the country in mind and the people we serve. I cannot apologize for my passion, or for loving my God, my family and my country. I yield back.


Sizek: All right, so that’s the whole apology. I guess one thing that’s immediately noticeable is that there’s a lot of direction changing in this apology. So can you walk us through what’s happening and the different ways that he is avoiding apologizing in making his apology?

Licata: Sure, so right off the bat, he issues an apology and not for what he said, but how he said it. So he’s really apologizing for tone. I’m sorry I was abrupt. I mean, if we skip to the very end he conflates that abruptness with passion and we can’t apologize for passion because it’s just who we are.

And he is associating passion with his country, with family, with God and those are very, emotional topics for Americans, but especially Republicans. He’s creating his political alignment and maintaining that distinction of this is what I care about.

And in that sense, he’s then dividing his own values from AOC’s values and saying like, this is what I care about and this is why I had to do this. So it’s almost like he was sent to do this or he it was his duty.

But after the first apology or whatever you want to call it, he talks about how– again, coming from this really post-racist, post-misogynistic realm where systemic inequities don’t exist. So if you’re poor and you work hard, you’ll make it. So he gives his personal anecdote with his wife and those are valuable stories and they’re emotional stories.

In the video, he becomes visibly emotional and tears up and pauses, which is something we can also talk about. But he’s deflecting and making it a very personal story because those emotional experiences will draw people in and bring and draw in their sympathies.

Depending on whose side you’re on or who you believe, that will make you emotional and that will– that’s called to people. So he deflects to personal experience. And then he also talks– he transcends and talks about bigger issues like we’re here to work.

We have this and that going on. And it’s my duty to serve America. And takes the conversation to a global national position, which is just distracting. So a lot of the speeches mostly distraction.

Sizek: Yeah, it’s really interesting because you point to two different scales of distraction. One, where he turns to his own personal experience, a really micro-level to his own emotional experience of living off of food stamps with his wife and then in a very Republican way, pulling himself up on his bootstraps and making it into Congress later.

And then on the other side, this turn towards family values. And I believe that my programs were addressing the pandemic are better than these sorts of other programs. And so both this scalar way that he’s avoiding it. But he’s I guess– I’m really interested in this tone question that you brought up. This question of, what tone is he using? What tone is he apologizing for? And what tone is he using in the apology?

This also gets to this question of, is he being emotional or is it performance? How do we evaluate his political speech as both an emotional speech and as a rational speech?

Licata: Right, yeah. So I think when he’s apologizing– and he does this in later interviews where he wishes that it had just gone down differently. And it’s like, does he– we don’t really know the intention. He offers various alternatives to how this could have played out, but he doesn’t apologize for calling her out, which, I mean, he doesn’t have to. People are allowed to have opinions.

But he also wishes it had played out differently while denying that he said anything bad. OK, so I think and this the house speech was an obligation. And he states that in an interview. I believe right after this house speech he said he had a Hobson’s choice, which means he had to do it and deal with it or he didn’t have to do it. And still deal with it.

So he didn’t– it was a very short speech. It was a little bit more than a minute. And he even walked off, walked away from the podium before he finished speaking. So as he said, I yield back. He’s already walking away. And it didn’t seem– he seemed annoyed.

And I think that when we talk about emotion and why people express emotion, it seemed– I mean, I don’t– we don’t really know the intention. It didn’t seem insincere, but we have to wonder why he teared up. I mean, talking about family makes people emotional, talking about past experiences.

But also just I think he seemed annoyed and like, why am I here? Why am I doing this? Why am I on the spot? And so I think that– and nobody reported that he was emotional because he’s a man. He’s allowed to be emotional and women will be called out for it. But the only reporting that came out of it was, oh, he apologized.

Sizek: Yeah, which also I guess this gets us to the question of like, was his apology successful? Who saw it as being a successful apology? Who didn’t? And did they fall along the neat or relatively neat political lines that one would expect?

Licata: Definitely not. So immediately after Yoho spoke, House Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer, who’s a Democrat from Maryland, spoken reaction and he did really– I mean, again, the politics are really similar on both sides in a way where he talks about how we need to respect one another.

And then he uses that to bring up Trump and talk about how Trump is disrespectful, but not really focusing on Yoho. So he is using that to then align himself with democrats and their lack of support for former President Trump.

And then he states that this is an appropriate apology and that Ocasio-Cortez would accept this apology. Speaks on her behalf without having spoken to her and accepts the apology on behalf of what seems to be Democrats.

I found that to be very interesting because there’s benefits to both men that are on both sides of the aisle not wanting to talk about this, not wanting to deal with gender dynamics and misogyny and politics.

It’s not just Republicans who are avoiding those conversations, it’s also Democrats and I mean, anyone, but also this– we see it with older women too in politics not wanting to really talk about it because it’s also a generational divide aside from political. Yeah, so Steny Hoyer then affirming the apology then snowballs into a bunch of reporting saying that this was an apology.

Sizek: Yeah, I think that it’s interesting because it raises this question of more of, I guess, the side of how people’s identities affect whether or not they’re willing to accept the apology rather than aligning it along political lines. But one thing I think that is another interesting element of this apology and maybe our modern media landscape more generally is the fact that you get to apologize many times now.

After you give your apology in congress, you go in on your talk show and you give your own reiteration of your apology or lack thereof. So I thought that maybe we could use this opportunity to listen to how Yoho recounts the event after it happened and redoes his apology.


[MARTHA MCCALLUM, REPORTER]: But these stories are so totally different that the two of you are telling. So it’s hard to know which version is the truth. But when you turned around and walked down the stairs, did you refer to her as a F-word B-word?

[TED YOHO]: No, I walked down the steps and I said, this is just such freaking BS and that’s all I said. And then a reporter came up to me and said, what was that about? I said, no comment. Did you say this? I said, no comment and I left.


Sizek: Yeah, so that was Ted Yoho on the story with Martha MacCallum, which is a Fox News show. What does he do in recounting this event?

Licata: Sure, so in recounting this event, he– so mind you, this is a nationally broadcast interview. And this is after AOC issued her speech in the House. And she had a slew of people supporting her speaking for two to five minutes after, which that was heavily publicized.

And so this interview is a response in part to that. And now having to address his reputation after AOC recounts the story in her own words. And she spoke for 10 minutes. And so what he’s doing here is, again– I mean, he’s fairly consistent in how he recounts the story, but he is now here more explicitly replacing the gendered slur with something that can’t be directed at a person.

So to call someone an F-word, B-word, to quote MacCallum, is what you call– is inanimate. It’s an animated slur. So you can’t call an inanimate object an F-word B-word. But you can call an inanimate object freaking BS. And it’s unclear if he pronounced those words, but now he’s removing the offensiveness of the words.

And he’s also basically saying that’s all he said and then he walked away. And so if he’s walking away and the conversation ensues, then who’s the antagonist now? It’s not him. So he’s removing himself a bit from any of the offenses.

Sizek: Yeah, so we see it’s back to this question of the personal versus the policy situation where he says actually the problem is the situation, which is all freaking BS, rather than an individual person who I have ill feelings toward perhaps.

And some of these ill feelings actually turn up in some, I guess, accusations that get made against Ocasio-Cortez after the event. So let’s listen to a clip from this same Martha MacCallum show about what they think she is doing with the press coverage from this.


[TED YOHO]: I guess you see what’s going on now is she’s making hay out of this. She’s fundraising off of this. She’s out in front of the Capitol wearing her COVID mask, playing that song, “Boss,” I’m not going to say it. Playing “Boss” so-and-so, making fun of this, but yet she’s on the floor crying, saying how bad this is, but yet she’s out there saying the same thing. And it’s disingenuous.


Sizek: Yeah, so I think this also gets us back to this question of gender and how there are expectations for how women should act and that she is not conforming to this, right?

Licata: Right. I mean, part of the right-wing reaction to AOC is that she’s very popular and she reaches a young and broad audience and they don’t like that. So she uses social media to her advantage. So any time that she complains about something, they just gaslight like she’s doing this to fundraise, she’s doing this just to make so-and-so upset.

To be called an F-word, B-word in public is humiliating, especially in a professional environment. But again, because they don’t think– because Yoho and his party alignment exist in this post-racist, post-misogynistic realm, that’s not offensive.

I’m not misogynistic. I have daughters and a wife. So I can’t be misogynistic. Again, it’s a lot of gaslighting that this isn’t actually really important. So if this is exploding, then it means there’s some ulterior motive that she has for fundraising or to gain popularity or to get followers.

Sizek: Yeah, so the idea is that she is making money off of this event and therefore, that her feelings would not be legitimate or that it wouldn’t be inappropriate for him to say something to her like that.

Licata: Right, and I think what we see with populism, and particularly the line of right-wing populism right now, is that things have to be either or so. Sure, AOC could be hurt and could be offended and what he did was wrong and she can also fundraise off of it. Those aren’t mutually exclusive ideas or events.

And it’s not so much like, hey, let’s make this intentional so we can– let’s do this so that we can make money, but hey, like, let’s have people understand why this is wrong. And if that is used to fundraise, I mean, that’s politics.

But these very severe lines are drawn between like, what is right and wrong and that you can’t– you have to ascribe to one idea or the other. And that’s really what right-wing populism is doing constantly, is reiterating who is part of us and who is part of them. So who’s a member of our in-group and who’s outside?

And so when you’re on the outside, when you’re in the outgroup, everything you do is scrutinized. So it doesn’t matter. I mean, she was scrutinized from the moment he spoke on the steps. So everything that she does, everything that AOC does there thereafter is going to be scrutinized and twisted into something negative or pejorative.

Yeah, and what’s interesting, too, is that Ted Yoho really tries to deflect this scrutiny from him. So I guess let’s listen to our last clip from this Martha MacCallum show where he talks about how he has worked with many people and that he is not saying this slur against Ocasio-Cortez because she’s a woman or because she’s a woman of color.


[NEWS REPORTER]: Just touched on. Because you said, I have had similar conversations with other people about policy. Now, did you get heated in those conversations? Might any of those people have thought that you were out of line and your language with them? And were those people men and were those people women? Did they cross the gender line?

[TED YOHO]: Sure, I’ve had conversations with [INAUDIBLE], Terry Sewell, Luis Gutierrez on several things. And we don’t always walk away agreeing, but we always wind up, it seems like afterwards laughing about things. And we’re going to disagree on that, but we’re always amicable. I’m there to solve problems. We’ve got so many problems in this country.

[NEWS REPORTER]: Here’s part of her speech, which got a lot of attention. Let’s play that because I want to get you to react to this.

[TED YOHO]: Sure.

[ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ]: This harm that Mr. Yoho levied, it tried to levy against me. It was not just an incident directed at me. But when you do that to any woman, what Mr. Yoho did was give permission to other men to do that to his daughters.

[NEWS REPORTER]:What do you think about that?

[TED YOHO]: She’s entitled to her opinion. That is nothing to do with our conversation. It was strictly about her policies. And I went to the Southwest border the week after she left, I went into the same cell she was in where she said children were being snatched away from their parents and the detainees were made to drink out of the toilet and she was cussing in front of the workers there.

And when I found out, they said, this is the drinking fountain, this is this. And so this has been a history of what she’s doing and it’s identity politics and I don’t play that.


Sizek: Yeah, so that is, I mean, this amazingly rich text. We have this part. Let’s maybe start with the part at the beginning, which is this question about gender and whether he can work across the aisle and whether that can mean that his attacks are meaningless.

Licata: Right, so I mean, again, if you’re assuming that or if there’s this underlying assumption that you’re not a misogynist, then that’s the argument that they make. And they don’t have these deep discussions about how women of color and/or how women are racialized in politics and the history of dehumanization of women of color.

So perhaps the conversations– I mean, AOC is controversial. I mean, there’s no doubt about it, but so is Bernie Sanders and we just he doesn’t receive that treatment. And he has a long history in politics. AOC is young and very proudly Latinx And she talks about these issues very readily.

But for some reason, perhaps the other conversations that Yoho has had with others, with other politicians who he’s racializing in this conversation and he’s using identity politics to his advantage here, perhaps they didn’t have, I mean, they didn’t have controversial conversations. I mean, we don’t know.

I mean, whatever would entice someone to call, to yell at on the steps on the Capitol Hill at someone, they didn’t do that for him. So something was particular about this conversation. And this is always the scientific academic argument. How can you prove that this person is misogynistic?

And I was asked this by a reviewer of the paper. I was asked this when I presented this paper at conferences. How can you really tell us that he’s misogynistic? But if you use the gendered slur, effing bitch, that’s misogynistic. But if you deny using it, then it’s just yelling about policy.

So the fact that he just denies the slur itself frees him from having to address any issues of misogyny or gender. The way that both Yoho and MacCallum talk about gender is like, what’s the gender line? It’s obviously they don’t really know how to talk about gender in a constructive way or what it means performatively.

So MacCallum also sets it up so that he can succeed in that conversation, deflect to AOC’s downfalls and what the right considers her– considers to be polemic and just go into her history and her and other issues that she’s brought up that they don’t agree with.

Sizek: Right, and I think it also points to this division between I can make one misogynist comment, but that doesn’t make me into a misogynist. And this has been a big question, I think, among people talking about feminism and political speech is like, how do you draw this line between labeling a person a misogynist and having one misogynist comment? When really it’s more like a spectrum in which, yeah, you are becoming more misogynist. As you make more misogynist comments, you can’t get a free pass for saying something.

Licata: And we can also draw parallels from these conversations we’re having on race. And what is a racist person look like or what do they act like? And that racism from the right-wing perspective is blatant violent harm where we know that it’s much more than that. We know that it’s– racism is interweaved into our daily systems and so is misogyny. It’s not any different.

But coming from this stance of not seeing these as systemic problems, they just don’t need to be addressed in these right-wing conversations. They’re looking at misogyny as something really blatant. And MacCallum sets Yoho up. I mean, the right-wing Fox News in particular, but others as well.

They play a huge part in perpetuating these reiterations or this avoidance of dealing actually with racism and misogyny because she’s very hard on him at first and then she starts to agree with him.

And this is how it works in Fox News. They say that they’re hard hitting. That’s their slogan. And they do hit hard at first so that the person can redeem themselves and then they can just snowball into agreement. And that’s what she does in this interview.

So she questions him pretty heavily in the beginning. Did you say this? Did you say it? These stories don’t make sense. They don’t line up. And then she just abandons that. So with more pushing, I’m sure you could get him to be more inconsistent about the matter, but that’s part of the scheme.

Sizek: Yeah, and I think one of the points that you bring up is this question as well, of how right-wing media outlets, including Fox News, how they police women’s speech or how they produce the realm of what’s appropriate language and what’s inappropriate language. So can you walk us through what some of the gendered norms for speaking in the political sphere are?

Licata: Sure. So, again, it’s hard to have to speak intersectionally about this because not everyone is going to be scrutinized the same way. But if you’re on the left, you’re going to be criticized by the right no matter what if you’re a woman, I mean, anyone. But if you’re a woman and you’re a woman of color, you will undergo processes of racialization, gendered racialization in those right-wing conversations.

So AOC, for example, is constantly criticized or she was more so in the beginning of her tenure and this was probably used to discredit her. But as she speaks Spanish, why is she speaking Spanish? She pronounces her name with a Spanish accent, why is she doing that? It’s frightening because what it’s doing is threatening white public space.

In politics or in the media, we don’t have accents. So anybody that comes, arrives with a slightly different phonetic interpretation or different appearance, like they’re threatening this white order. But we know that Black people and Brown people can ascribe to whiteness. There are Black Republicans.

And so, OK, why aren’t they being criticized? Well, it’s because they’re not stepping out of line. They’re using what we consider appropriate standardized English in that context, which is a very colonial idea. This is all reminiscent of colonialism of who civilized, of who speaks appropriately, who speaks well, who’s articulate.

So the moment you have somebody racialized show up speaking standardized English, it’s still an issue. We saw Obama being– oh, he’s so articulate. Oh, look how well he speaks. So it’s like, why wouldn’t he? He’s a Harvard lawyer.

And then you have the same just recently with Ketanji Brown Jackson. Oh, she’s so articulate. Well, of course she’s articulate. But then you have criticisms of AOC sounding like a child, a lot of infantilization of her voice.

But then when Amy Coney Barrett was up for her hearings you have the left doing that saying she sounds like a little girl, but the right is not saying anything. So a lot of it is just political alignment. But if you’re on the wrong side, people will come after you.

So with AOC in particular, because when she’s ascribing or when she. Quote unquote, sounds White, she’s criticized. When she sounds like a Latina, she’s criticized. So there’s standardized English or appropriate forms of speaking will never save her because she’s always going to be racialized by the right and scrutinized because she’s a progressive woman of color.

And we saw similar occurrences with Hillary Clinton more, I think, for her appearance and her stature. And so it seems like language serves often as a proxy to attack other isms or other identity markers. And language is a safe place to attack because it’s not protected by civil rights.

It’s not considered a civil right for a person to speak their language, or to have an accent, or that’s different from everyone else. So it’s easy to attack language because it’s not something we consider part of identity in many regards.

Sizek: Yeah, it’s like in the ways that because language is not a protected class, in the same way that you can’t discriminate against someone for their gender in theory, that you can attack someone for their language in a way that it seems almost untethered from their identity, even though obviously they’re intimately related.

And this is part of this question of code switching. And we have a clip from Tucker Carlson and Mark Steyn on Tucker Carlson Tonight, where they talk exactly about this question of code switching and criticize AOC.


[TUCKER CARLSON]: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez started sporting a new accent while speaking at Al Sharpton’s extremely tax exempt conference last week. Watch.

[ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ]: The fights been long, y’all. This is what organizing looks like. This is what building power looks like. I’m proud to be a bartender. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.


Sizek: Right, so just listening to that one short clip, we can guess how Tucker Carlson and Mark Steyn might respond to it. What are some of the markers that they are picking up on or they’re seeing as being a problem for the way that she’s speaking?

Licata: So for one, it’s the audience. So they’re going to criticize her language use, but they’re also criticizing who’s there. So she’s insincere. She’s at this predominantly black– she’s speaking to a predominantly Black and Brown audience with this invented accent.

I mean. I don’t know. AOC is from the Bronx, and she did grow up in an environment where she can access different registers, different forms of speaking depending on who she’s with. Some people even said maybe it was a bit exaggerated. And maybe it was, I don’t know. But she’s also part of that community.

And so the way that Carlson and Steyn set it up is that you can’t or that Carlson really sets it up is that you can’t have more. You have to have one identity and you need to be consistent. And if you’re not, then you’re insincere. And that is just, again, divorcing language from people.

And the field of linguistics generally is very guilty of doing that as well. Language is embodied. All the time humans produce it. And you can’t analyze language production away from its speakers. So to say that she’s sporting this accent, what is she doing? Is to assume that isn’t part of her identity or her history as Puerto Rican American in New York.

And there’s always going to be that– I mean, Obama experienced the same. And there’s been a lot of parodies about it. When he was with a more Black audience he used more African-American Vernacular English and a different register and was criticized just the same.

So what it does ultimately is assume that monolingualism is the norm. And everyone is multilingual. So everyone changes registers. Everyone has different forms of speaking depending on who they’re with, whom they’re with.

And so it’s assuming this permanent rejection of multilingualism as normal, which I mean, multilingualism is the norm, but it’s the rejected norm from, I mean, in US generally, but in right-wing politics especially, which is very monolingual standardized English supporting. However, even people on the right, they’re also not ascribing to a very monolingual standardized English.

So when someone who is racialized is veering away from that, they’re automatically– they’re tying in all these aspects of identity, skin color, background, religion with the fact that they’re producing something that’s marked.

Sizek: And I think one of the great things that you bring up in this point is that it’s not only a criticism of AOC and how she is speaking, but it’s also a criticism of the audience and of the entire situation that she’s in that she could have something in common with this audience that maybe some of the Republicans wouldn’t be able to have in common with the audience because there are aspects of having a shared background growing up in the Bronx that some of the Republicans may not have.

One of the strategies that they then use in this same interview is to really, I would say, switch gears and to make this into a point of comparison about Democrats practicing inauthentic language in general. So let’s listen to that next clip.


TUCKER CARLSON: – Dude, Cortez says she’s from the Bronx and she’s always spoken that way. She says it was code switching and that her normal day-to-day voice is the fake one. But she’s not the first Democrat to discover a long lost accent when speaking before an African-American audience. You’ll remember. Watch.

HILLARY CLINTON: – I don’t feel no ways tired. I come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy.

TUCKER CARLSON: – Mark if you patronized an audience that much, would you feel shame?

MARK STEYN: – Well, look, in fairness, I’d say Alexandria is — Hillary’s terrible at it, absolutely terrible. And Alexandria, if you’re going to do it, you have to do it with– and I speak as a foreigner. So I can’t tell the difference between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and William F. Buckley, Jr. All you Americans sound the same to me.

But Hillary can’t do it. And actually, I think that gets to the heart of it. Alexandria could get away with it in a way that Hillary can’t because I think for Hillary and Joe Biden when he was doing, they’re going to put you all back in chain. I think those people are saying, I want to be something other than White. Take my whiteness away from me.

I’m Indian like Elizabeth Warren. I’m Hispanic like Beto O’Rourke. Or I’m just whoever I’m standing in front of at the moment like Hillary. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whatever you say about her, is doing it with a much lighter touch.


Sizek: Yeah, so I think, I mean, one of the really fascinating and potentially very disturbing things about this clip is it’s actually a moment where Fox News is almost acknowledging intersectionality. They are saying like there is something about identity that is actually really important to the successfulness of code switching and how it’s perceived.

And also, obviously, these clips are from different eras and different times of political speaking, which should not go unnoticed here. So what do you think they’re getting at? And what can we learn from this second clip?

Licata: Well now they’re suddenly– I mean, for one, this is something that Fox News does. I have a few clips here, something I’m developing into a paper. But they invite someone who they consider to be foreign on the program to comment on these issues. So we’re going to bring on someone British. He’s foreign enough for us to have some authority on this subject.

So now they’re flipping a switch. They’re saying, OK, actually, it’s OK to code switch if you look different enough, or if you act, or if your identity is different enough. So what seems like, OK, what are they doing here? This sounds interesting. Is actually just reiterating these divisionary lines or these biological identity lines.

If you’re White, you can’t have more than one Identity. If you’re Latinx, sure, we’re still going to criticize you for it though. So it’s like this constant back and forth, that’s just very confusing. What are you trying to do with this discourse? And what they’re trying to do is say like, well, she’s foreign enough, she’s different enough, she’s other enough to get away with it, AOC that is.

Hillary, I don’t really know her. I don’t know where she’s from. I can’t remember. I mean, I don’t think she grew up in the south, but maybe she did. But obviously her accent was exaggerated. But what if she were from the south and she actually did have that accent? Most of politics is having to adjust your speech.

If you grew up in a very– if you grew up speaking a variety of English or any variety that is not super standardized, I would have to adjust. Being from California, I have a lot of uptalk. I can have a very Californian accent at times that people think is dumb. I’ve been told That you’re using too much or I’d have to modify all that if I went into politics.

So if I were with an audience of young Californians, would I be criticized for speaking like them? And who would know if it were sincere or not? So it’s this constant let’s draw the lines of who’s considered sincere, who’s authentic and who’s not. But then those lines are also then used later to marginalize.

So what they are doing here is clever and most people can’t perceive that, but it’s– and that’s why how you get people drawn in and that’s how you get them disgusted and upset at the presence of inauthenticity in their political arena.

Sizek: Yeah, and maybe with that, we can turn towards the ends of these forms of right-wing political discourse, because we have listened to a lot of Fox News clips. What’s the intent? How do these get their listeners to be on their side? We’ve deconstructed a lot of it, shown how the techniques that they’re using, but what are they trying to produce in their audience?

Licata: Sure. And this is typical of populism in general, but it seems to be a very good tactic of right-wing populism here in the US right now, especially in a post-Trump era or hopefully, post where they want you to feel disgusted. And so there’s a book called Ugly Feelings by Sianne Ngai. And disgust is what? This author considers the most extreme, ugly feeling.

So if you’re disgusted, you will have a very strong reaction to whatever it is that’s disgusting you and you will want to get rid of it. So we see that ugly emotion with Yoho in his encounter with AOC and that diatribe on the steps where like, oh, so disgusting, and he called her disgusting, that I have to do this, I have to call you out publicly.

And you see this with Fox News all the time, like, how horrible this person is. I mean, Ilhan Omar, Representative Ilhan Omar gets also a lot of slack from Tucker Carlson and other pundits for hating America. And she only hates America, according to them, because she’s not from here or that she doesn’t really belong here. So anything, any criticism is just pure hatred.

And people latch on to those. When that affect is drawn out of them, it’s very strong. And this is how– this is why there is such a strong following of Trump. And this new wave of right-wing populism is because people are disgusted.

And it’s all, again, against this backdrop of what they think America is and what it should be, which is, again, just it’s like as if America started in 1776, the United states, that’s when it was born as a– nothing existed before then.

So if that’s your baseline, then anything that threatens that order is very threatening, it’s very indicative of how public order is starting to change. And so the high number or the rising number of racialized people in Congress in these positions of power is just a constant threat to that white public order.

And people have very strong sentiments about their country. And so they just latch on to that rhetoric because it’s also sensationalism. And we have to remember that Fox News and all news media is a profit making media ecology that is looking to sensationalize and make money.

Where you see less of that sensationalist rhetoric is in those public radio that isn’t necessarily trying to make money. So Fox News does a very good job of drawing people in by ascribing to their emotions.

Sizek: Yeah, and I think what that does is it really helps us understand the broader political landscape. It’s not just this one instance of Yoho calling Ocasio-Cortez an effing bitch on the Capitol steps. It’s about this broader media ecology that enables that. So thank you so much for coming on and telling us about this broader media landscape.

Licata: Thank you so much for having me.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.


Listen to the whole podcast above or on Apple Podcasts.


Floods and Equity: A Panel Discussion

Co-sponsored by Global Metropolitan Studies and River-Lab, at UC Berkeley

Floods are the most destructive natural hazard, both at the national and international scale, and they disproportionately affect people of color and the poor. To understand this uneven exposure to floods requires that we understand the history of land use and institutional structures that have resulted in current exposure and inequitable allocation of resources for flood protection and for post-disaster aid (‘procedural vulnerability’).

One of the most critical agencies is the US Army Corps of Engineers, whose cost-benefit analysis approach tends to preclude flood risk management projects in poor communities.

In this presentation, recorded on May 12, 2022, panelists Danielle Zoe Rivera and Jessica Ludy drew upon their research on these topics and discuss pathways to improving on the current situation.

This panel was co-sponsored by Social Science Matrix, Global Metropolitan Studies, and River-Lab, from the University of California, Berkeley.


Danielle Zoe RiveraDanielle Zoe Rivera is Assistant Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning in the College of Environmental Design. Rivera’s research examines movements for environmental and climate justice. Her current work uses community-based research methods to address the impacts of climate-induced disasters affecting low-income communities throughout South Texas and Puerto Rico. Rivera teaches on environmental planning and design, community engagement, and environmental justice. Her work has been published by the Journal of the American Planning Association, Environment and Planning, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. She holds a PhD in Urban Planning from the University of Michigan, a Master of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Bachelor of Architecture from the Pennsylvania State University. Prior to joining the University of California Berkeley, Rivera taught Environmental Design at the University of Colorado Boulder.


Jessica Ludy Jessica Ludy (she/her) is the Flood Risk Program Manager and Environmental Justice Coordinator for the San Francisco District US Army Corps of Engineers. Through the Army Corps’ “Technical Assistance Programs,” Jessica and her team partner with communities in the San Francisco District Area of Responsibility to identify and implement solutions for equitable, just, and sustainable climate adaptation. Jessica also leads the San Francisco district’s efforts to implement the federal government’s priorities to advance social and environmental justice. Jessica’s work is informed and inspired by collaborations and scholarship of researchers and colleagues both inside and out of the federal government, and by the decades of environmental and disability justice leadership from indigenous peoples, people of color, and other historically-marginalized groups. Jessica is a co-chair of the Social Justice and Floodplain Management Task Force at the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Prior to the Army Corps, she worked on flood risk management and floodplain restoration as an environmental consultant, a Fulbright scholar, and at nonprofits. Jessica completed her Master’s in Environmental Planning at UC Berkeley in 2009.


Matrix Podcast: Interview with Youjin Chung

Professor Youjin Chung

In this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Professor Michael Watts interviews Youjin Chung, Assistant Professor of Sustainability and Equity, with a joint appointment in the Energy and Resources Group and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

Professor Chung’s work encompasses the political economy of development, feminist political ecology, critical agrarian and food studies, and African studies. She draws on ethnographic, historical, and participatory visual methods to examine the relationship between gender, intersectionality, development, and socio-ecological change in Sub Saharan Africa with a focus on Tanzania. She is interested in understanding how agrarian landscapes, livelihoods, and lifestyles articulate with capitalist forces, and how these processes of uneven encounter reshape the identities and subjectivities of rural women and men, as well as their relationships with the state, society, and the environment.

As she explains on her website, “What animates these research interests is the broader question of how public policies and capitalist processes that aim to achieve various sustainability goals often end up reinforcing pre-existing social inequalities, or marginalizing the very groups they intend to serve.”

She is currently working on a book manuscript, Sweet Deal, Bitter Landscape, which examines the gendered processes and outcomes of a stalled large-scale agricultural land deal in coastal Tanzania. Her second project, tentatively titled Flesh and Blood, investigates the role of gender, race, and species in the making of the “livestock revolution” in Tanzania and the wider region.

Previously, Dr. Chung was Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. She received her PhD and MSc in Development Sociology from Cornell University, and an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Cambridge, Jesus College. She completed a Dual BA in International Studies, and Journalism and Communication at Korea University.

Listen to the episode below, or on Apple Podcasts.


Podcast Transcript



Woman’s Voice: Welcome to the Matrix Podcast presented by Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. In this episode, Professor Michael Watts interviews Youjin Chung, assistant professor in the UC Berkeley department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

Professor Chung has a joint appointment in the division of society and environment in the Energy and Resources Group. Professor Chung is currently working on a book manuscript, Sweet Deal, Bitter Landscape, which examines the gendered processes, and outcomes of a stalled large scale agricultural land deal in Tanzania.

Michael Watts: Hello, everyone and welcome to Social Science Matrix Podcasts. These podcasts are an opportunity to showcase some of the social science research that’s being conducted on the Berkeley campus. And we typically talk to postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and UC Berkeley faculty about their new research about forthcoming books or books recently published.

And I’m delighted today to be able to welcome Professor Youjin Chung to our discussions. Youjin is a relatively recent arrival here on the Berkeley campus. She came, unfortunately for her, in the midst of COVID, which, of course, as for everyone is compromised just about everything that we do. But we’re delighted to have her here today to talk to us.

Youjin is of Korean extraction, as we say. She did her completed her undergraduate education in Korea before coming to or transferring, excuse me, to Cambridge University where she completed a master’s degree in development studies and then on to Cornell University where she completed her PhD in 2018 in development sociology.

Youjin was appointed at Clark University after graduation and came to Berkeley in the Energy and Resources Group and the Environmental Sciences Policy Management School in 2020.

And she’s a scholar of Africa as we’ll see and is just completing now a book length manuscript, which is emerged from her doctoral work entitled Sweet Deal, Bitter Landscape, Gender Politics of Liminality in Tanzania. And we’ll be talking about that today. Youjin, welcome. And thank you so much for generating a little time to talk to me today.

Youjin Chung: Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

Watts: So Youjin, if you have no objection, I thought I would begin with a little discussion about your own background and formation. You were born and raised in Korea. And I think it’s fair to say as a I’m a scholar of Africa too we share these interests, I don’t think there are a large number of Korean scholars of Africa who certainly write in English.

So let me start with your own formation particularly at university and how is it– how it was that you came to have a set of interests in Africa, in agriculture, in land issues, in gender theory, your areas of expertise.

Chung: Sure, long story, but I can say start from– yeah, I was born and raised in Korea. And at the age of 10 my family moved to the US. And so we lived in Virginia for a little over five years and then I ended up moving back to Korea to complete high school and then to attend college where I double majored in international studies and journalism.

And I think several life experiences and memories that I had as a child made me want to study something of global international and nature. At one point I had this vague dream in my mind that I wanted to be an international correspondent and a journalist. And my dad would always go on to talk about Connie Chung on CNN. And there was some a pipe dream I guess on his part.

But in retrospect, I think my perspectives on the global were really informed by my childhood experiences, as I said. One of them was really my earliest memory that I had of my grandmother was learning how to count in Japanese. And so my grandparents, they lived under Japanese occupation, which lasted between 1910 and 1945.

And during which time, especially during the late colonial period teaching learning and speaking in Korean was prohibited in a campaign of cultural assimilation, it’s something that I took for granted as a child, but that kept haunting me later in life. It’s made me wonder what it means to be displaced from your own mother tongue, your cultural practices, and what it means to be a postcolonial subject.

And I think another formative event was when my family moved to the US in the summer of 1997 at the outset of the Asian financial crisis. And that was just six months after the nation had joined the OECD, the so-called rich man’s nation, the rich man’s club in 1996.

And it was a period when the International Monetary Fund, the IMF became a household name for everyone when thousands of people lost their jobs and when people participated in this nationwide gold collecting campaign to raise foreign currency to pay off the IMF debt.

A lot of these structural dynamics and why this all happened was, of course, lost on me as a child, but glimpses of what I saw on television, like the Korean cable TV that my parents watched in the US, stuck with me for a long time.

And so I read International studies, decided to study that because I thought it was interesting. And I wanted to learn more about these dynamics. And I enjoyed my professors. I loved the curriculum to some extent. But I felt limited in the sense that I was taking a lot of classes in international economics, commerce, finance with a lot of heavy emphasis on regions like East Asia, European Union, North America. And that’s not what I had in mind initially when I enrolled.

Watts: Can I ask you? Is Africa or the study of Africa institutionalized in Korean universities in the same way that we have centers of African studies on the Berkeley campus? I mean, was it easy to even discover or find classes on Africa when you were an undergraduate?

Chung: No, absolutely not. I mean, there is– I think, I believe there’s one university it’s like a foreign language university that they teach like languages, but not so much about the politics and history. And so in my third year, I applied to study abroad in London at the School of Oriental African Studies and that really changed the way I looked at the world.

And I spent hours in the SOAS library. I took courses in African studies, development studies, started learning Swahili for the first time. These are fields as I said they’re practically nonexistent in Korea. And this has much to do with the varying histories and geographies of imperialism and colonialism, the origin of area studies.

And at SOAS I remember feeling super intrigued by comparative politics in Africa, the colonial and postcolonial history in Tanzania in particular where following independence from Britain the state embraced socialism. Around the same time the postcolonial Korea was under authoritarian military rule. I thought those comparisons is uneven and combined development was super fascinating.

And fast forward, after graduating from college I went into volunteer in Tanzania in Southwest Zanzibar through the Korea international volunteer organization where I worked with local villagers among other things on their farms, mostly with women where I really learned for the first time what it meant to live on and with the land and the soil. I’ve never had that experience growing up in the city in urban areas.

And I think I after that experience I thought I needed to reflect on what I just did, what I observed. And that’s when I decided to go on to pursue my master’s in development studies at Cambridge. And I also wanted to get a more deeper historical and theoretical grounding on development, and especially agriculture and rural development from a more interdisciplinary perspective.

And at Cambridge I took courses for the first time in anthropology geography. These are also disciplines that are not very much available in Korea. And I think when I was an undergraduate there was only one University that offered degrees in anthropology, for instance. So these are really new for me. And I think at Cambridge I was introduced to political ecology for the first time and again, fields that I had no prior exposure to.

Watts: And so was your training their resolutely interdisciplinary? In a way you were– it was I take it a development studies program. So you were, as you were suggesting, drawing upon anthropology, geography, political science, et cetera, et cetera in the way that you came to think about your experiences in Tanzania.

Chung: Yeah, it was really interdisciplinary. I mean, there were a set of courses we all had to take, development econ, sociology, political science courses, but we could take electives. And I gravitated towards the course offerings in anthropology and geography, political ecology to that–

Watts: What led you to then move back across the Atlantic to Cornell? I presume you had the opportunity of continuing in the UK and you know better than that UK has a number of absolutely world class doctoral programs in development studies at Sussex and Cambridge and Oxford and London and so on and so forth. So what brought you back this side, as we say?

Chung: I think there are a number of factors. I mean, the funding for PhD programs there weren’t as attractive and being a foreign student it was hefty sum of money. The master’s program that I was part of is only a one-year program where more or less nine months. And so I did apply to PhD programs as soon as I started not having any clue of what I wanted to study.

And there was no surprise there. I didn’t get into any programs that year. And I thought I needed some time to really think about what I really wanted to study. So after Cambridge I had an opportunity to go work at an international development NGO called ActionAid where my work revolved around research and communications at the intersections of food rights, land rights, and women’s rights.

And at around 2010, ActionAid alongside other NGOs and social movements were mobilizing and launching campaigns against what became known as a global land grab or the global land rush. And I can talk a little bit more about that later or–

Watts: Yeah, we’ll talk about that later because that’s obviously the heart of your research. But Cornell was attractive in addition to the fact that they had I take it a generous funding for you. But Cornell has a long storied history in political economy development studies and so on. Was that what in particular attracted you to that institution?

Chung: Yeah, so when I was working at ActionAid and doing supporting my colleagues with the campaign work, I did a lot of research on the side to see how academics are making sense of this phenomenon because to me– there was a lot of heavy focuses on the contemporary dynamics of global land grabbing, whereas for me thinking back to the colonial histories and neocolonial tendencies, these are all really deeply historical phenomena.

And I saw and read a lot of the works that were coming out from Cornell from my former advisors in the development sociology at Cornell. And so that intrigued me. And that’s how I applied and ended up there actually.

Watts: Well, let’s talk about land in Africa, land grabs in particular. I suspect our listening audience may not have a full grasp of the complexity of these issues. But just walk us through, if you would, why this language of land grabbing, of enclosure, some people see this in a more Marxist register of primitive accumulation, but whatever language we use, what was the nature of it?

And as you were suggesting in your work in ActionAid, why did this begin to emerge in the 2000s as an issue of some significance for both activists and for the policy world, development expertise, et cetera?

Chung: [COUGHS] Excuse me. So the phenomena of global land grabbing refers to a significant surge in land acquisitions around the world, especially in the Global South by a wide range of actors, including national governments, corporations, individual and institutional investors like pension funds, hedge funds, university endowments to produce and speculate on agriculture and various natural resource commodities.

And this phenomenon accelerated in the wake of the combined global crises in food, fuel, finance of 2007 and ’08 though it had already been underway beginning with the biofuel’s boom in the early 2000. So with the biofuel’s boom there’s quite a lot of rush to acquire land, land for large scale monoculture production of agricultural feedstocks, such as maize, sugarcane, soybean, Jatropha, the fermented sugars, and starches from which they could be converted to ethanol or fossil fuel alternatives.

And the 2008 was an important conjuncture in that the food price and the fuel prices really coincided and also was met with the subprime mortgage crisis, which later culminated into a full blown international banking and financial crisis by the late 2008-2009.

And the perfect storm of these global crises culminated in contributed to the surge in land acquisitions across borders and it was interesting in the fact that it involved actors that had previously not been part of the traditional colonial enclosures, the corporations, the transnational nature, as well as those institutional investors like the university endowments that we don’t normally associate with farmland investments.

Watts: And I mean, just to give us a sense of the scale of these land acquisitions in Africa, in Tanzania and what are we talking about here, and of course I take it these acquisitions are often involved acquiring, and you may want to talk about this, how they’re acquired, acquiring land from large numbers of smallholders, peasants, et cetera, et cetera, and aggregating this land. So just give us a sense of the scale and what it entailed to assemble this land.

Chung: Sure. I think the first transnational land deal that grabbed popular attention was the South Korean land deal. The South Korean firm, Daewoo Logistics, had acquired 1.3 million hectares of land in Madagascar, that’s about one third of the nation’s arable land to grow corn, maize for export to Korea for feed, animal feed predominantly.

And I’m trying to recall. There was a World Bank report that came out in 2011 and it found that between 2008 and 2009 foreign investors had expressed interest in approximately I believe it was 56 million hectares of farmland globally of which about 70% was reportedly concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa. And so that raised concerns about this new scramble for Africa and neocolonialism and those discourses to describe this phenomenon.

Watts: I’m sure this happens in a multiplicity of ways, but how is the land, first of all, actually assembled and concentrated? Is this through a market mechanism? Is this through the state exercising eminent domain? And so there’s the mechanism and whether it’s licit or illicit. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit too in relationship to that of the quite different types of actors that you had just mentioned and what role they play in that land acquisition.

Chung: Yeah, there are different types of acquisition. It could be outright purchases, it could be leases, or even pure speculation commodity futures and all that kind of stuff. But in the context where I work in Tanzania and many Sub-Saharan African countries where the state is the sole landowner or the predominant land owner, a lot of the mechanism has involved compulsory acquisitions or eminent domain that we call here in the United States.

So in Tanzania, the land is nationalized. So it’s owned by the state or vested in the president on behalf of all citizens. And it’s really an outgrowth carry over from the colonial period when land belonged to vested in the governor in the British period on behalf of so-called common benefit of the natives and that carried over to the postcolonial period.

And so to assemble land really, I mean, there are different steps that are written in the playbook the government uses, but hasn’t really been followed straightforward. I mean, for instance, in Tanzania there supposed to be this land bank that investors are supposed to go to this Tanzania investment center and the investment center will offer investors with this menu of land available in the country.

But there’s been critiques because there’s really not enough land in the bank in the first place. And based on my interviews with government officials, they say it just exists on paper because in order for us to have a land bank, we needed to have acquired it from the villagers and had to have paid compensation to them, but we don’t have the money to pay compensation to these villagers.

And so it ends up being really haphazard and ad hoc. So the land deal that I looked at in Tanzania in particular, the investor had actually gone through multiple channels, a district level, the regional level, and to the point that it went directly to the president. And the president said, hey, go to my home district. There is this land that’s sitting empty and idle. It used to be a former state cattle ranch, but it seems like it’s empty and you can use it when, in fact, there have been people living on the land for generations.

Yeah, so there is combination of licit and illicit elements. I mean, the land acquisition as it was the transfer of titles and all that is maybe considered legal, but the way the processes in which it arrived to that point is quite murky and less transparent.

Watts: And I take from your reference that the actors involved aren’t necessarily directly managing the land. I mean, if it’s a hedge fund, if it’s a sovereign wealth fund from the Middle East that is acquiring 200,000 hectares, they, I take it, may in turn lease that land or the management of the actual production, whatever that may be. We’ll get to these things in Tanzania in a second. So there intermediaries of some sort that are actually involved on the ground management and the production of these commodities for the world market?

Chung: I can say for the case that I looked, I mean, there are multiple, the institutional investors might have their own portfolio managers to do that work. But the case that I looked at was Swedish investor with family ties to major Swedish corporations like Volvo and IKEA.

And they ended up actually doing quite a lot of the legwork themselves. So they ended up creating their Tanzanian subsidiary and establishing their country offices and trying to do work in country, but also hiring a lot of consultants and contractors, engineers to do the underground work for them.

Watts: And is it fair to generalize and say that the commodities produced, whatever they may be, were largely for export markets or was some of this corn destined for domestic consumption?

Chung: I think it’s safe to say that most of them were targeted for export and that’s when the whole debate about food versus– food debate came on. What does it mean to produce maize on 20,000 hectares of land that used to be smallholder farmers land, but you’re actually growing food to export not to convert to ethanol than to feed the people that are food insecure? And so it caused a lot of ethical concerns.

I think it is safe to say that most of the commodities that are produced, if they are produced are often going to places like Europe, East Asia, or Middle East because initially some of the actors that were involved, including national governments that engaged in global land grabbing, were countries like South Korea and Saudi Arabia that were net food importers. When the food crisis hit, they needed to secure food for their own citizens, for their own food security. And so that had that dynamic there.

Watts: Absolutely. One last question before we move on to your work specifically. You mentioned the word speculation in regard to large scale land acquisition. Does this imply that at least some part of this story that you’ve just told us is about land becoming a type of asset class that is speculated upon without necessarily being primarily motivated exclusively as it were by a desire to enhance agricultural productivity to produce corn or produce palm oil, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera?

And I’m posing that question in part because in your own work you’ve talked a great deal about how a number of these projects is that were come to naught, they end up fizzling, or the land remains fallow, or idle, et cetera. So how do you see that, let’s call it the financialization, of agriculture around large scale land acquisition.

Chung: I think the motivations really differ depending on the actor. So for institutional investors that flew the real estate market in the Global North during the subprime mortgage crisis or the financial crisis, I think they searched for alternative places to bet their money and they invested in agricultural commodity futures farmland and to speculate on high returns from rising food and fuel prices at the time.

And it’s interesting you pose that question about speculation in relation to deals that don’t go forward. And I think that’s an interesting way to look at it because I’ve looked at it mostly in terms of these deals that have all these ambitions and all these promises, but that don’t go forward not necessarily because land became a financial asset or different kinds of asset class, but because of their historical and political and social factors that prevent deals from actually being implemented on the ground, being able to complete as it were. And I’d be happy to talk more about that too.

Watts: Absolutely. I’d like to turn to your work specifically because obviously what you’ve just said raises all manner of questions about what type of popular opposition or resistance there may be to this land acquisition, et cetera, et cetera. Now you obviously worked in Tanzania and you’ve mentioned that it was a Swedish project.

Before we get into the weeds of all of that, let me ask you a question about your field research. You lived and worked there for 18 months and you’d previously spent time in that part of the world purely at the level of the field work of what we would call methodology I suppose in social sciences.

As an Asian-Korean woman I’m sure there weren’t too many in the part of Tanzania where you worked. How were you seen, perceived? What slot, what position did you occupy? I mean, China obviously has a massive footprint currently around the world in the global South Africa in particular, especially in the types of areas that I work around oil and gas.

Were you as it were seen to be somehow part of that global Chinese presence or not? And how did you navigate whatever difficulties may or issues may have emerged in the course of your fieldwork as a Korean woman?

Chung: Yeah, I mean, the questions of this identity, power, and positionality is something that I think about often. And I think being transparent about those relations and the partiality of knowledge that is produced as a result is important and I like to talk about that.

And I reflect on these things not only in relation to field work, but just what it means to occupy– what it means to be a minority in a dominant culture and that’s what I’ve done throughout my whole life. And it’s different although in Tanzania because there’s all this postcolonial power dynamics that is involved in that.

So yeah, racially and ethnically I am and I was and I continue to be positioned in somewhat awkward hierarchy racial ordering in Tanzania. So in Swahili vocabulary, I am neither a mzungu, a White European, I am not a Hindi, I’m Indian, or Africa mwenyeji. I’m not Black African or native. I’m neither of these things.

And this is the tripartite racial order that was established under colonial rule. And as you say, there’s this new category emerging called China or Chinese. Of course, I’m not Chinese, but there are some times that I was called that, mistaken as one, especially in urban areas.

In the villages, people called me like Dada Korea, which means a Korean sister. But most people called me mzungu. And I would ask people and they would say it’s just a practice that is practice born out of convenience and habit. And I thought a lot about that.

And this process of racialization or racial misreading signaled to me the hegemony of this colonial racial taxonomy that continues to endure in the current moment and the power, privilege, and status that people afford my assumed discursive whiteness. So people saw me as White, by virtue of my appearance, education, mobility, various material possessions, including a car, a beat up one, and the ability to drive.

And so I think the whole process of fieldwork was as much shaped by people’s sense of confusion and curiosity towards my peculiar whiteness as it was by my own negotiations and questioning of the complex webs of these postcolonial power relations in which my research participants and I were together entangled and trying to negotiate.

Watts: Let me ask, that preexisting racial order and the fact that you did not in some sense fit particular categories or fit awkwardly, as you’ve just described it, did that translate– I mean, practically now in terms of what we do as scholars, we administer surveys, we interview people, we have focus groups, we talk to government officials. Did that work for and/or against you in some way in the course of your fieldwork?

Chung: It took a while to gain people’s trust, as it always does. And having gone multiple years every summer before I did the longer term field work certainly helped. But there were certain times when it got tricky. And so, for instance, there was a village meeting that people invited me to. It’s a public meeting. And it was a public meeting. It was of a listening session with the district land officials and whatnot.

So I was sitting in the back with the women and just chatting and waiting to see what’s going to happen. And the district authority showed up and it was like a gathering of maybe 200 something people. And the district authorities called me out and she was like, you come to the front.

And so I was made to go in front of all these people. And the authorities kept interrogating me. So who are you? Where are your papers? And of course, I had all my research from residents, from all those permits that I got in my backpack all the time and I showed them.

But they were like, oh, this is a meeting for private matters. You’re not supposed to be here. And so I was kicked out of that meeting and I was like, OK, I understand. I’m not wanted here. I’m not going to make a big trouble. I’m going to leave. And some people are really sympathetic. They were like texting, are you OK?

Whereas, some people that I haven’t met, they were concerned. They were concerned that maybe talking to this so-called White person, White woman is maybe not to my benefit. Maybe I’ll get in trouble by doing that because she was kicked out of this meeting by district authorities. And so those I think encounters made it difficult. But with those that I’ve had maintained relationships with, especially the village leaders, they were able to facilitate my meetings with other households.

But yeah, there were definitely moments of discomfort and fear of the local residents and also because there were not many, but few people were wondering what I was initially like, was she a researcher? Or is she an NGO worker? Is she a part of the company? Is she a Chinese investor? Those sorts of things. So it does tremendously shape the course of fieldwork.

Watts: I presume in particular– and we’ll get to the company and the project right now– but I presume particularly when one is studying a company, a corporate form, in this case, the problems that are in a way epistemological problems that arise by being associated with that thing that you’re studying, the presumption that you’re a worker, or you’re sympathetic to them or you’re of the same racialized category and therefore, in some sense have an affiliation with them, I presume these issues can be quite tricky when you’re particularly studying explicitly the presence and character and so on of these large scale land acquisitions.

Chung: Yeah, I think what people– I mean, I stuck around despite all that was happening. And the Swedish corporate executives never really came to Bagamoyo, the field site. And there were these project consultants that were hired in between to train people how to do non-agricultural work and there were these paramilitary forces around.

And there are multiple actors that came in and out of the field. The way they engaged with local communities is very discontinuous. But I think some people saw me as a constant. And one person said to me like these people are coming in and out. Why are you still here? And I’m like, well, I’m not one of them.

Watts: Exactly, exactly, exactly.

Chung: Yeah, I think having–

Watts: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s turn to the projects. I’d like our listeners have an opportunity to hear what you did and why. So you’ve mentioned it was a Swedish project and that they did their homework as you might expect with their consultants and engineers and working with government officials and land administrators, and so on.

In one particular district, Bagamoyo, Phyllis a little bit on the details of what the project was attempting to acquire. And what it was about that project that particularly interested you. Was it the question of how land was acquired, or was it a series of questions about material and economic benefits derived from this project in these communities, or political resistance? What was the domain that particularly drew your attention?

Chung: So the project is known as the EcoEnergy Sugar Project. And in this project the Tanzanian government transferred approximately 20,400 hectares of land in the coastal district of Bagamoyo under a 99-year lease to the Swedish company who promised to mobilize over $500 million for commercial sugarcane production.

And this project was supposed to be the nation’s first sugarcane plantation to be established in the country in over 40 years. And it had envisaged to achieve so many ambitious goals.

So they were attempting to produce about 150,000 tons of sugar to resolve the national sugar deficit and 12,000 cubic meters of ethanol to address global climate change and 90,000 megawatt hours of electricity to support rural electrification. And all the while creating 20,000 new jobs, including the training of more than 2,000 local farmers as outgrower or contract farmers.

And I think what really intrigued me about this project was it was promoted as a public private partnership for development. And because it was packaged as a development project, it gained the promises of funding support from the African Development Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the Swedish International Development Agency. So it became a development project when, in fact, it was actually a private investment at a different phase to it than some of the other land deals that I’ve seen.

Watts: When did you arrive in the course of the development of this obviously large and very ambitious multi-year project?

Chung: Yeah, I forgot to mention that the project itself was initiated in 2005 and ’06. So it had been a while since the project actually came into being. But when I arrived for the first time in 2013, the project was about to start. There was quite a lot of commotion and the resettlement action plan for the African Development Bank was already published and they had this phased plan on how they’re going to remove people from the land.

But when I arrived in 2013, things seemed to move a little bit, but people were still on the land. They were very confused on when they might be moved. No one had told them when, whether they were going to be compensated, how much, in what form. And if they’re going to give it going to be given land, they don’t know where they’re going to be moved to.

And initially, I was like, OK, I want to follow these people as they’re being displaced in real time and try to understand how they’re making sense of this process, how they’re negotiating and experimenting with new land and the processes of production and social reproduction.

But when I returned the following year, people were still on the land. I thought it was, oh my gosh, people are still here. That’s amazing. They haven’t been displaced yet, but there were faced with a number of other challenges. They had not been displaced, but they have been faced with restrictions on land use.

They were told not to grow anything with permanent roots like trees or build any permanent housing when their families were expanding. There were a lot of restrictions on land use and livelihoods that people felt really constrained by. And people began to tell me that they were feeling like they were living like refugees on their land. They felt like they couldn’t build their lives either here or there know. They felt stuck.

And so I went back and I thought this project is being delayed. How do I think about this project differently? And I made that my ethnographic object. So what happens when a deal like this, a project, or investment, or whatever you want to call it, becomes stalled and delayed and is liminal for a long time, what changes does it bring about nonetheless despite its stalled nature? That’s when I reframed my project and went on to do longer term fieldwork in 2015.

Watts: Now, one of the things that you’ve written about and published about is the particular role of law as it appears as a mechanism, as a means that villagers, various types of local actors can deploy as this process that you’ve just been describing slowly begins to roll out and there are constraints on what people can and cannot do, et cetera, et cetera.

And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about why you gravitated to law and the ways in which legality and the judicial domain played a significant and role in the story that you tell.

Chung: Sure, the pieces about lawfare that I called, so I was trying to understand how people are responding to and resisting their predicament whether the land deal itself or the condition of liminality produced by this stalled land deal and, what are the gender dynamics in shaping people’s reactions?

And when I got there in 2013, there was already a lawsuit that was lodged by three male elders from one of the communities within the investment concession. And at first blush I felt, wow, OK, these people are taking action. There’s got to be something really interesting here and they must have a really good reason why they are taking the government and the corporation to court.

But after multiple years of doing interviews and observations and going through court documents and secondary documents, there was something really odd about the lawsuit that these three elders lodged. So the lawsuit was lodged in 2012 against the district authorities, national authorities, or corporate entities.

And I learned soon after that the three main plaintiffs although they’ve filed this lawsuit claiming to speak on behalf of over 500 local people, most of the 500 people that they had signed the petition for this lawsuit were not from the local area. They were elites in urban areas and there a lawyer also happened to have bought land within the concession from the male elders the plaintiffs. So there’s something really odd there.

And what that really revealed to me was not only the way that it was exclusionary towards other legitimate resource users, including the male elders wives, but also the privilege of male elders and leaders have in shaping the narratives around who has the right to belong and who does not and how they can actually co-opt legal mechanisms to their own benefit at the cost of marginalizing and invalidating the land rights of many, many others who are eking their lives from the land, livelihoods from the land.

Watts: And the identities that you’re referring to here obviously invoke gender and the exclusion, in this case, of elders elites local elites wives. But is this a multiethnic area or what other forms of identity tend to be excluded, young people or is it a generational issue? What are the sorts of dynamics that you ended up exploring as this process unfolded?

Chung: So coastal Tanzania has a long history of migration. So the town of Bagamoyo was a terminus of the East African slave and ivory trade in the 19th century. And that brought in many, many different ethnic groups from the interior of the country.

And there was a lot of racial and ethnic mixing between the local coastal indigenous ethnic groups with the more interior ethnic groups from the interior, as well as Arabs and other Indians that came into the coast for trade.

So the coastal region is a particular in that it’s very multiethnic, it’s very diverse. So there’s not a single ethnic group that really dominates and that’s really the– I would say that’s true for Tanzania more broadly because that was the strategic way.

The first president, Julius Nyerere, did a lot, what works to quell what he calling the tribalism. They wanted ethnic unity, national unity. So ethnicity was brought up, but was not always a primary form of belonging although the elders did– one of the elders did claim and play up his coastal indigenous ethnicity to shore up his birthright to be there. But it was not something that everyone did.

And for me, the primary forms of difference was largely gender, but gender is also not a singular form. So there are variations within people’s age, their class, and their marital status, or residential status, whether there are long-term residents versus more recent migrants. So all these variations and gradations of status within gender that I was really particularly concerned about not only in that particular article, but in the book as a whole.

Watts: Absolutely. You use the language of the project stalling and your study then became, in a sense reframed around the implications of such stalling. We’re five, six years on now and realize you haven’t probably been able to visit in the last year or so. But where are things now?

Have these exclusions that you were talking about generate some form of local organization to begin to contest the types of dynamics that you’ve just described or has the project made huge forward leaps as it were in which, these sorts of issues that you’re describing of being as it were resolved at least at the level of production and so on?

Chung: I have a lot to say about that. So the year after I left the long-term fieldwork 2016, at that point the project was still– the trajectory of it was so much uncertain. And then shortly afterwards, the Tanzanian governor revoked the investors land title.

And I mean, one of the reasons that I discuss in the book the reason why the project became stalled, I know I argue in the book that because the project became enmeshed in this really complicated landscape where there are these overlapping claims.

And one of the reasons that the government gave for revoking the title was that they wanted to save this national park that was adjacent to and overlapped with the project area. And anyway, so the government revoked the land title and the investor fought back.

So the investor took the government, they opened an arbitration case the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes. And the case is still ongoing. The company still exist and it will exist as long as this pending arbitration comes to a close.

But when the government revoked the land title, they said it was– they were doing that not to protect local people’s land rights, but to save the national park. And what was really interesting was that a year after the revoking the land title, the government actually gave the same land away to a domestic investor, an Indian investor, again, for the same sugarcane production.

And the timing of this revocation is important because it coincided with the regime change. Initially, the project was very much backed by the former president who was from Bagamoyo. And the new president was not willing to continue the investments that had been espoused by the predecessor. And so there were a lot of these political economic dynamics that shaped the land deal’s future.

And as of now from what I understand the domestic investor that the government and transfer the land to afterwards have began clearing the land. So I’ve been able to talk to the individuals who are actually displaced. So some people have remained on the land, but some portions of land have been cleared to build a factory and to plant sugarcane. And so some people have been displaced.

And it was really disheartening and heartbreaking to hear in the sense that the compensation they received was paltry. And the figures that I’ve received just recently in the past couple of months range anywhere from say maybe $1 to maybe $200. And it really ranged significantly.

And the male elders that had previously lodged the lawsuit, they seem to have been the beneficiary of the heaviest, the highest sum of compensation. So you can think about the different political dynamics, local political dynamics, and patronage that have gone in the process.

Watts: In your view given where the project is now, is there a larger story here really a political story of struggles by powerful political actors within and outside of the Tanzanian state?

And that justification that the government gave about the national park was largely a bit of a ruse. And what was at stake here was in fact a type of ferocious internal political struggle in which certain powerful domestic capitalist interests that you invoked Asian capital in some sense seemingly is winning out. Is this the type of big framing that you see as produced this radical kaleidoscopic shift in this project?

Chung: For me, this case, how this land deal came about, the conjunction which it came about, the way it became stalled, and how it was governed and experience raises broader questions about development and late agrarian capitalism in which investor, states, donor agencies are together implicated in this plunder and continued plunder and management of rural resources and livelihoods and landscapes.

But not always. They can’t do that always as you please. They are confronted with this local particularities and historical geographical specificities that really deter this trajectory of these projects however ambitious they are.

And so I think studying for me this meandering trajectory of this land deal made me rethink, what is it that we know about modernization theory and how we need to really continue debunking that? That’s so powerful. It’s a powerful ideal that continues to persist that investors can come in and grab land and turn it into monocultures and generate profit. It doesn’t always happen.

And of course, there are times when it does happen. But in the cases that I’ve seen in other cases in Tanzania it often has not been the case. And so think rethinking this linear evolutionary trajectory of development that has become so the norm and the ideal for many investors and states.

Watts: Thank you. Let me ask you one last question. You mentioned in passing Julius Nyerere, the first president, this enormously charismatic character and his own socialist vision for the country Ujamaa and so on.

In the story that you’ve just told us, is there any residue of that period in any way at the level of Bagamoyo and how citizens and villagers in some sense view the world and their way and their place in it or the Tanzanian state or is that something now that’s history, it’s in the trashcan of history, it was a noble experiment and that’s that as it were? How do you see that period in its legacies?

Chung: It’s still so much alive. I mentioned earlier that the investment concession used to also be a state cattle ranch. And the reason that the cattle ranch was made possible, because that land had previously been settled by people and they were forced to move. During Ujamaa villagization. They were forced to move to other established villages.

And so when that area became available once people left, then the land became, sorry, the cattle ranch. And so people still go back to that. They’re like, oh, we were evicted from this land and we have the right to go back. And so when the ranch closed in 1990s, people began resettling the area.

And when the government said you’re not supposed to be here. They would say, well, this was our land before Ujamaa, before villagization. So this is where we’ve been the whole time. And so people tend to reclaim what was previously theirs. But the resonance, the legacies of which I still live on they are– people talk about it and they’re especially elders of the generations that lived through that period.

And there’s a saying that people always say, they say serikali ni serikali, which means government is government. And that’s the phrase that they used to say during the socialist period that government is government. Government will do things it needs to be done even if it means displacing millions of people from the land.

Watts: Well, Youjin, thank you so much for generating a little time. It was a fascinating conversation. We will provide some links on the Matrix website for people who are interested in following up and reading some of your work.

And I’m hoping that perhaps when your book appears we’ll have you back and we can talk a little bit more about your wonderful work and perhaps the project will have a new story to tell by that point. It sounds to me like it’s had these fantastic ups and downs and twists and turns and ruptures and so on that make it absolutely a fascinating story. So once again, thank you so much for being with us today.

Chung: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.