A Roundtable on Cathy Cohen’s Boundaries of Blackness at 20

This year, participants in APSA’s Public Scholarship Program attended the APSA Annual Meeting and wrote reflections on the panels they attended. In this piece, Maryann Kwakwa writes about the roundtable “Cathy Cohen’s ‘The Boundaries of Blackness’ at 20.” Presenters in this panel included: Drs. Cathy J. Cohen, Dara Z. Strolovitch, Jamila D. Michener, Jenn M. Jackson, Lisa Garcia Bedolla, Zein Murib, and Tianna Paschel.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of Cathy Cohen’s foundational book The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics. Reviewing the work in 2000, Fred Harris wrote that it “stretches our theoretical understanding of black politics,” “provides scholars in the field of black politics with more theoretical tools to further expand the boundaries of scholarship in the field,” and concluded that it would “likely emerge as one of the most important works in black politics.” The work also stretched the boundaries of academic disciplines, finding equally engaged audiences within the fields of Political Science, Queer Studies, Gender Studies, and social movement studies.

In The Boundaries of Blackness, Cathy Cohen explores the social, political, and cultural effect that AIDS had on the black community. The core contribution of this book is Cohen’s analysis of how class, gender, and sexuality determine who “belongs to” marginalized communities. She provides empirical evidence, which suggests that Black Americans affected by AIDS were excluded from the Black political agenda as a result of sexism, classism, and homophobia. By focusing on how racial elites worked in tandem with the media to suppress coverage of the AIDs epidemic, Cohen documents the political significance of cross-cutting issues within marginalized groups.

In doing so she expands our understanding of the processes and consequences of respectability politics. Respectability politics refers to elites within marginalized groups blaming differences in socio-political outcomes on individual failings instead of structural inequalities. Through rigorous research into the AIDS epidemic, Cohen developed the concept of “secondary marginalization” to explain how respectability politics can exclude subgroups of minorities from politics. By exposing these processes at work in Boundaries, Cohen “reshapes understandings of power in political science” (Jenn Jackson).

Attending the panel on The Boundaries of Blackness felt like dropping in on a family reunion. In some respects, it was one. The speakers who convened to discuss Cathy Cohen’s Boundaries of Blackness were either her former students, or her “academic grandchildren”—her students’ students. Simply stated by Jenn M. Jackson (Syracuse University), Boundaries has “raised generations of scholars.” The panelists not only affirmed Cohen’s excellence as a mentor, but their commentary demonstrated why Boundaries is still viewed as groundbreaking research twenty years after its initial publication.

Within the field of political science, Boundaries “…does not fit anywhere neatly” (Jamila D. Michener, Cornell University). To quote Cohen, it is a “…big, imaginative, ground-breaking [project] about marginalized groups.” By examining how the AIDS epidemic fractured, rather than united, Black Americans, it challenges the conventional wisdom about the strength of linked-fate within the black community.

Michener also noted that Boundaries is exceptional because of its focus on people. For Cohen, this book is a story about individuals “struggling for their lives.” When Boundaries was published in 1999, the number of black Americans with AIDS was higher than any other racial group. Cohen spoke about the “…beauty of people giving their time and insights as they are struggling to survive,” and about how this is not something to take for granted in the current political environment. Boundaries is unique because her qualitative research gives us rich insight into the perspectives of a highly stigmatized group. At present, political science research on public health issues is still a small and understudied niche.

An enduring strength of Boundaries is its interdisciplinary relevance. While many social scientists study the effect of interactions between groups, Cohen demonstrates the importance of examining how relationships within groups influence collective responses. To this day, scholars in the fields of sociology and gender studies draw on the theoretical framework Cohen outlines in Boundaries to inform research on intragroup dynamics.

Boundaries is a time-honored classic amongst those who study race and ethnic politics. To quote Zein Murib (Fordham University-Lincoln Center), it is less about identity and more about “shared locations in relation to power.” It is one of the only books within the field that exposes “fissures in black politics” (Zein Murib). Boundaries helps us understand that political power operates at “all levels simultaneously” (Zein Murib). Aptly put by Jackson, it is “one of those texts that forces us to think…even when we don’t want to.”

  • Maryann Kwakwa is a postdoctoral fellow Georgetown University who completed her Ph.D. in American Politics at the University of Notre Dame. Her research interests include civic engagement, education, race/ethnic politics, and democratic citizenship. In her dissertation, Maryann uses a mixed-methods approach to analyze the effect of undergraduate college experiences on civic engagement in the United States. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts in Law and Society and a minor in Politics. Maryann has published two, co-authored journal articles, which appear in Politics, Groups, and Identities, a virtual review article for the American Political Science Association, and a blog post for Psychology Today.
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.