Cassi Pittman: Troubling the Waters of the American Dream

Sarah Cappeliez, University of Toronto

cassi pittmanChatting with Cassi Pittman, a recent hire at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, it seems clear she was destined for a career in research. In high school, she thought she would pursue science, but a class in college on race and ethnic relations changed that. “I had a clear vision early on that this is what I wanted to do,” said Cassi, as she described moving from a double major in urban studies and sociology at Penn to a Ph.D. in sociology and social policy at Harvard. While in graduate school, Cassi’s father, an attorney, revealed that he had been a sociology major at Columbia before deciding to study law. As she wistfully remarks, the seed of her sociological imagination was sown and cultivated at an early age.

In retrospect, and the more I talk to her, it makes sense that Cassi was enticed by a career researching the social. Her interest in racial inequality emerges as deeply connected to how she straddled different social worlds throughout her life. Her family background combines an urban, college educated history on her father’s side, with a southern, rural one on her mother’s side. Cassi’s educational trajectory as a young black woman saw her move from an urban, all black elementary school to a mainly white, elite private school. She was perceived as well-to-do in the former, and the opposite in the latter. These life experiences made clear to her that a person’s social background can be more influential than their individual abilities or capacities in determining their opportunities and outcomes in life. This constant contact with being “in-between extremes” drove Cassi to research and think about disparities and social status, and how these play into everyday life in the US. As she says, they made her realize the mythic nature of the American Dream.

Cassi’s research questions the American Dream through an examination of race and consumer culture. The research she recently presented at the 2014 annual meeting of the ASA described their varied and unequal shopping experiences of middle-class black people. (Her article on this research, “Shopping While Black: Middle and Working Class Blacks’ Cultural Responses to Racial Discrimination in Retail Establishments,” is under review.) Cassi is also working on a book titled Black Privilege: Black Consumers Managing Race and Racial Stigma, in which she explores ideas of consumption, race, and inequality in broader ways. Using consumption as a lens, she examines how members of the black middle-class navigate different social contexts, and are able to “go from an all-white Wall Street firm to an all-black Baptist church.”

Cassi is also diving into new projects. She collected data this summer in New York City for research into how neighborhood choices reflect underlying racialized cultural preferences. As she explains it, certain cultural amenities, like the barbershop, can be the theater of racialized modes of consumption. Another upcoming project will see Cassi go back to her roots to study financial and mortgage markets. She will investigate the mortgage market crisis in the US, and how some borrowers were and are characterized in the media as the crisis plays out. Through this study, she hopes to uncover the underlying processes that lead black consumers to obtain inferior products—in this case, mortgages. Cassi explains that it is this type of racism—one that is more complicated and nuanced—that piques her curiosity.

Cassi’s work is all about bridging the fields of consumption and race within sociology, and she hopes that by doing so she can help reduce inequality and racism. “Consumption is part of our daily lives, routines…we live in a consumer society,” said Cassi as she argued for the importance of understanding financial behavior and consumer culture from a race and ethnic relations perspective. At the same time, Cassi is emphatic when she remarks that “economic sociology needs to get it together in terms of really investigating how race structures market interactions.” It is for this reason that Cassi wants to draw attention to an understudied group, the black middle-class, which continues to face racial barriers despite having done things “by the book”, as she puts it.

At the end of our chat, I asked Cassi if she has any advice for up-and-coming scholars. “We have to think about our horizontal ties and not just our vertical ties,” she offers, as she describes building the networks that helped shape and sustain her own career path in academia. She continued, “As you reach forward, you’re always reaching back and helping out the next person.” It is this very brand of “intellectual camaraderie” and vibrancy that Cassi finds so unique in the Consumers and Consumption Section. As she notes, our burgeoning section offers a space to share work and get a sense of its ability to resonate within the discipline—something that is relatively rare and special.

Cassi returned in September to the town where she grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, to begin her career in the Department of Sociology at Case Western Reserve University. “It’s really like I’m back home,” she says as she happily describes bumping into family members around town. In a sense, Cassi has come full circle, as she enthusiastically embarks on her blossoming and exciting academic career.

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