Professor Gordon's first book, From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), shows how individualistic social theories—intellectual frameworks that made education a central battleground in the fight for racial justice—gained traction in American social thought. The book received the 2016 Linda Eisenmann Prize from the History of Education Society for the best work in the history of higher education by a junior faculty member. It asks how and why racial individualism, a framework that presented prejudice and discrimination as the root cause of racial conflict, centered individuals in the study of race relations, and suggested that one could secure racial justice by changing white minds and protecting African American rights, gained influence in the two decades following World War II. A study in the racialized politics of knowledge production, the book examines institutions where social scientists, civil rights activists, and proponents of improved race relations debated the sources of and best ways to fight “the race problem.” A number of factors reinforced one another, the book suggests, to shore up racial individualism. These included: scientism (the belief that true social science was theoretically not politically motivated, methodologically rigorous, and often quantifiable), the rise of the postwar behavioral sciences, civil rights activists’ successes in the courts, postwar antiradicalism, rightward shifts in American liberalism, and the enduring appeal of uncontroversial tolerance education. These dynamics proved influential despite ongoing critique—most notably in African American led academic spaces—of social theories that reduced racial oppression to individual prejudice and discrimination. The book traces the flowering a non-economic, power-evasive conception of racism, highlights the centrality of inflated assumptions about what education can accomplish to postwar racial liberalism, and investigates the challenges of linking social science and social action in the crucial midcentury decades. You can hear Professor Gordon talk about From Power to Prejudice on The Majority Report and Behind the News with Doug Henwood. Professor Gordon was a Faculty Research Fellow with Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity in 2015/2016.
Professor Gordon is currently working on a second book, Imagining Opportunity: Education and Equality in Modern America (under contract with the University of Chicago Press) which provides a history of debates over the relationship between schooling and equality of opportunity in American culture and social thought since the 1930s. The book examines contested visions of the role schools can and should play in generating a fair social order as well as the questions those discussions raised about how much, and what types of, equality are necessary in a just society. This work was supported by a 2015/2016 Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.
Leah Gordon is an intellectual and cultural historian whose scholarship integrates the history of American education, the history of American social thought, and African American history. She completed a joint-Ph.D. in the Department of History and the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 2008. Professor Gordon is interested in the social science of race relations, in school desegregation, and in shifting conceptions of racial justice and equality in the twentieth century United States. More broadly, her research examines the politics of knowledge production, the relationship between expert and popular social theory, and the American tendency to "educationalize" social problems.
Since Fall 2008
Faculty Affiliate, Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Stanford University
Faculty Affiliate, Urban Studies Program, Stanford University
Faculty Affiliate, American Studies Program, Stanford University