"We're All One of Troy's Babies": A Celebration of Troy Duster

Biopolitical Times
Photo of Victoria Massie

On Friday, August 15th, I was one among a multitude of people finding a seat in Booth Auditorium at UC Berkeley Law School for Celebrating Troy Duster. But the event turned out to be as much a family reunion as a celebration, a testament to the work done by organizers Osagie Obasogie and Duana Fullwiley.

For the sake of formalities, there was an agenda, and panels throughout the day pointed to themes that have been central to Troy’s work: the “slippery slopes” of political inclusion and racial science around understanding health disparities; the technique of engaging scientists on race in genetic research; the work of the sociologist in policing, forensics, and behavioral science; and lastly “connecting the dots” between Troy’s work in the academy and his commitment to the public and community engagement. But with each panelist’s approach to the podium, it became increasingly undeniable that every reference to the “Dusterian”—after all, Ruha Benjamin pointed out, we have “Bourdieuian”—analytical method of recontextualizing in context, of noting the pre-frame, was inextricably tied to the love and care infused and cultivated in each of their relationships with the man of the day.

I first met Troy Duster in Rochester, NY in the summer of 2009. I had just finished my sophomore year of college, and was beginning to research the various social ties entangled within the genetic ancestry testing results my dad had sent me eight months earlier. Make no mistake, I found my father’s test results to be a godsend. Although I came to the University of Rochester with the sole purpose of pursuing a molecular genetics major, I quickly found my passion for the double helix in jeopardy during my first semester when I was introduced to anthropology, and specifically the lecture on how race is socially constructed. It was an idea that was new and yet so familiar as I found myself finally able to put my lived experiences into words. I came to learn that all the times I found myself being denied the full potential of my identity as a black woman had less to do with my inadequacies of being able to fit into a box and more to do with the conditions that make such a box possible. Intoxicated by the first taste of this form of self-aware liberation, I yelled to my friends as we met for lunch “Race doesn’t exist!” Full with hunger and anxious to beat the noon rush at our favorite dining hall, they began to resist my statement, only to find the refusal to surrender to my adamant assertion futile in reaching our ultimate goal: eating.

Over time, I would learn that neither my friends nor I had managed to get race right. When my father surprised me with an email containing the results of an ancestry test he had taken for himself, I found myself confronted with the context I had left out at lunch. Specifically, I began recognizing that saying race does not exist does not change the way race comes to matter. In the attempt to piece together the silences inherited by those whose ancestors’ personhood was considered property, my father extended to me information of a home we weren’t supposed to know. But even this new form of knowing was one I met with skepticism. It bridged together my love for DNA and my interests in race, but in ways that provided more questions than answers, so much so that I could spend a summer researching them in 2009. And having been lucky enough to have had an advisor who did her Ph.D. at NYU, I was immediately pointed to Troy’s work.

Five years later, having just finished my qualifying exam in the anthropology department at Berkeley, and preparing for my upcoming year and a half of fieldwork for the same project, I am still indebted to my first meeting with Troy’s work in Rochester. And as I sat in Booth Auditorium, listening to the countless scholars who Troy influenced and who have also influenced me, I couldn’t help but be in awe and at home at the same time. People from across the country came together to celebrate the many ways Troy seemed to simultaneously embody and exceed the title of scholar, activist, teacher and friend, but with a swagger-infused humility not easily mirrored but always inspiring us with the everyday challenge to try.

Alondra Nelson recounted the anxiety of writing her initial email to Troy as a graduate student at NYU, which later blossomed into dinners at Troy’s apartment with other black women scholars, including Duana Fullwiley during one of her East Coast visits. Alondra said that she found herself saying, “Wow.” And yet finding myself as one of two black women in the sociocultural anthropology program here at Berkeley today, a reflection of a much larger institutional problem the university has with diversity despite its display on campus banners, I couldn’t help but echo the importance of her sentiment. It is important to be in spaces with other scholars like you, to remind you that you are not alone, that your presence in the academy matters, and that your work is not simply relevant but is, in fact, necessary. Troy was that kind of mentor and educator.  And it is through his commitment to institutional changes in conjunction with scholarly insight that professors Denise Herd and Amani Nuru-Jeter discussed Troy’s impact in changing the face of public health here at Berkeley, and of being a source of support for Professor Sandra Smith navigating department dynamics and occupying the space of being the first tenured black woman in her department. These are roads that are still often less traveled, but have become easier to navigate thanks to Troy and his uncompromising compassion and insistence for tangible change.

It is not really a surprise, then, that so many of the speakers told stories about Troy that included asking themselves, “How would Troy respond?” Harry Levine noted how, in preparing for this event, he wanted to write like Troy about Troy, only to find he wrote like himself. But maybe that’s the point with Troy: that to do good work in whatever you do, it is important to look within so that you are ethically grounded and engaged. This includes, per the advice Troy Duster gave to recent Ph.D. recipient Oliver Rollins, not being seduced by the newness of emerging scientific technologies but instead focusing on the way that old logics continue to linger in the present. Or, not continuing to take criminal cases that perpetuate the unjust and asymmetrical incarceration of people of color in the courts, as was the decision of Hon. Thelton E. Henderson because of his friendship with Troy and the insight gained by his book, The Legalization of Morality (1970). Judge Henderson found himself reflecting on the common ways judges are likened to umpires who just call a ball and a strike. Troy helped him make the decision to hold himself more accountable to the way judges are implicated in the injustices embedded in our legal system. And with the recent change in making sentencing policies around drug possession advisory and not mandatory, Judge Henderson has begun seeing criminal cases again, because now he is able to “call a ball a ball.”

In many ways, it is Troy’s commitment to ethical engagement that makes him what Patricia Williams called “a node person.” Beyond Berkeley, Troy has been at the forefront of key initiatives including the National Advisory Council for the National Center for Human Genome Research in the 1990s. Additionally, he has helped Alice Waters, executive chef, founder, and owner of “Chez Panisse” with developing the edible education program at the MLK Jr. Middle School in Berkeley and in her latest project of heading the University of California’s Global Food Initiative. Troy was also one of those present in the development of the Center for Genetics and Society, for which I have had the pleasure of working this summer. Tania Simoncelli described the ways that Troy advised her to work with ACLU instead of pursuing a Ph.D., and how she is now the Assistant Director for Forensic Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. But what I found most impressive about Tania’s discussion of her relationship with Troy was the way he encouraged her not to compartmentalize her love of the arts from her scholarship. Troy invited her to play the cello at a gathering of her colleagues, which she did, demonstrating how important it is to be ourselves, in our fullness, even if how we act seems a bit unconventional. Indeed, Troy serves as an example of how much the unconventional is needed. Harry Levine described this in terms of Troy’s ability to be a “shit starter.” But one cannot fully grasp Troy’s graceful sabotage of ignorance without noting his ability to code-switch, as Howard Pinderhughes pointed out. Troy operates within and through a number of seemingly disparate worlds simultaneously, while leaving a mark on each one.

Indeed, while one of his key tropes seems to be “location, location, location,” his ability to traverse so many fields gives another meaning to being what Howard called “the spook who sat by the (back) door.” His legacy is not just one of taking the right steps to beat the system at its own game; it is of doing so by troubling the possibilities of the game itself so that we don’t make the mistake of playing it as it has been played in the past. This may be why Dorothy Roberts began her opening address with an attention to Troy’s prescience, principles and stakes, and why Patricia Williams’s closing address linked his work to the population geneticists’ collective critique and disavowal of Nicholas Wade’s recent attempt to misconstrue  scientific information to support the notion of a biological basis for racial categories, as well as the material effect of structural racism in the wake of the execution-style murder of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO. Namely, it continues to be imperative that we not take the line between structure and social conditions for granted as obvious, but that we continue to walk along it like a tightrope. Racism, Williams stated, “is [as] malleable as a virus.” Without remembering that, we may find ourselves seduced by today’s novelty without a clear sense of how it echoes the past, so as to  inform the work that needs to be done in the present moment to build a different future. “We are no more post-racial than we are post-malarial,” but in seeing his “mentees in motion on the ground” there is a kind of reverence one gets for being aware of what is currently happening now and a hope for the possibilities of what we will be able to do.

But let this not be done in ego for, in accordance with Troy’s sage words, “it’s an endless pit.” Troy closed the day reflecting on how he managed being a black scholar positioned within the dichotomy of either not studying race like E. Franklin Frazier to avoid being “ghetto-ized” or becoming the Jackie Robinson of sociology, neither of which were choices with any weight. Thankfully, he gave into neither. He reminded us of the importance to resist the impetus to levitate. After all, just as cream rises to the top, “so does scum.” The point is not about good or bad science, he noted, but rather about the scaffolding that make those two the only outcomes. Understanding the scaffolding becomes possible only insofar as we are willing to engage with the world, and allow that engagement to inform what we do and how we go about doing it.

More often than not, this entails a sincere mindfulness of chance and happenstance. This may be why I couldn’t help but find myself surprised that Troy described the event to be “a kind of affirmation we can only dream about.” Hearing the stories of so many that day, and reflecting on my own development as a scholar over the years through the continued inspiration of his words, I couldn’t imagine any other type of affirmation.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, so many of us are “one of Troy’s babies.” I can only hope that one day I’ll be able to share a meal with Troy like so many before me. But even if that never comes to be, I will be forever grateful for the unexpected ways Troy has been an indirectly constant thread in my development over the years, and one of which I will never let go.

“Celebrating Troy Duster” was sponsored by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, the UC Berkeley Department of Sociology, the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, the Center for Research on Social Change, the Center for the Study of Law and Society, the Berkeley School of Law, and the Center for Genetics and Society.


Victoria Massie is a poet and Ph.D. Candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology with a Designated Emphasis in Science & Technology Studies at UC Berkeley. For more information, check out her website: vmmichelle.com