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Department Head Michael Dreiling congratulates graduates, reminds us of the sociological tools for uncovering racial injustice

Dear Sociology Class of 2020:

As you complete you complete your degree at the UO, I offer my warmest congratulations and thanks! As a graduate of our program, you enter the ranks of an outstanding group of human beings – UO Sociology Alumni. Our alumni are active in hundreds of careers and professions. Their work collectively involves the founding of businesses and nonprofits, writing novels and making films, and working in professions from education and law to marketing and research. In these incredibly challenging times, I trust that even as you exit the university to a world in flux, you carry some powerful tools from your studies in Sociology at the University of Oregon.

As a department, we began the year celebrating our 125th year of teaching sociology at the University of Oregon – the oldest sociology program west of the Rocky Mountains – and concluded in the midst of a global pandemic, a deepening economic crisis, and a mass social movement for racial justice. A critical and intersectional analysis of social inequalities helps make sense of all of it, and more. I am sure you have been using your sociological tools to better understand and engage what is happening in the world.

Sociology brings to the fore what is hidden beneath the seams of social life. This perspective, so unique to our discipline conveys an eye of empathy and critical analysis to all forms of oppression and suffering, to the struggles and the cries for justice, to the yearnings rooted in a vision that a better world is possible, and to the celebrations of social and human progress. When George Floyd announced I can’t breathe, he spoke of a violence that already echoed too many times across America, conveying again not just the physical weight of police coercively pressing into the neck and back of an unarmed black man, but to the power structures of white supremacy that profit politically, economically and social-psychologically by systemic racism. The hard and cold truth of his words resonate with the oppressions confronting black people across America. His words also spoke to the inequalities in America’s health care system that result in wildly disproportionate deaths from the Coronavirus pandemic on communities of color. In struggle, I can’t breathe became a radical idiom representing voices of the oppressed.

You know this. A critical sociological perspective renders visible what so much social and political inertia would hide: the recent role of deaths of despair in the drop in overall American life expectancy; or the fact that over 40% of all COVID-19 deaths in the US have occurred among a group that represents just 0.6% of the US population – those living in long-term care facilities. It is because the sociological perspective uncovers what is often made invisible that the tools of our trade are so valuable and important to our future. Use them in good stead.

In the last four months at UO Sociology, you all demonstrated considerable resilience and weathered a difficult change as we collectively – faculty, staff, graduate students, undergraduate students – sustained studies and pursued a critical analysis of the larger issues facing our world. The Zoom and Canvas fatigue, I have no doubt, are real. It has been challenging and I thank you for enduring these steps. On behalf of our department, we celebrate the richness that you, as recent graduates, bring to our alumnus; it is you who bring sociology to life. As a department, we will strive to continue producing the kind of work done here for 125 years and counting. Please read a bit about our 125 years at Around the O:

On behalf of all current faculty, staff and students, I extend my heartfelt congratulations and best wishes to you.

Respectfully yours,

Michael Dreiling, Professor & Department Head
Department of Sociology
University of Oregon

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin


PS: Want to see the Class of 2020 commencement ceremony? Check out the video here: