Three Essays on Racialized Disaster and Grassroots Resistance in U.S. Politics

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

First Advisor

Hacker, Jacob


In this three-paper dissertation, I examine the conditions under which social policy failures give rise to local grassroots political projects designed to meet the immediate needs of citizens in the short term and result in the creation of durable regional networks, fundraising strategies, and organizing methodologies in the long term. This project challenges the prevailing view in political science that national, federated organizations are the primary agents in mass politics by establishing subnational grassroots organizations’ pivotal role in political transformation. In the first paper in the dissertation, “Who knows better than the suffers themselves”: Theorizing Racialized Disaster in U.S Politics, I incorporate disaster management into the study of democratic inequality to illustrate the process by which natural disasters become what I term racialized disasters. Here I define racialized disaster as a social policy failure revealed by an exogenous shock and characterized simultaneously as coercion, neglect, and extraction. These findings invite us to consider the role that carceral state practices play in the lives of RCS communities beyond the criminal legal system. To develop this concept, I analyze an archive of 100 first-hand accounts of Black Hurricane Katrina evacuees collected within 24 months of the storm. In addition to my theoretical contribution is a methodological one. By drawing from Black feminist studies, I argue that experiential or “bottom-up” accounts of disaster are essential for understanding the racialized contours of democratic inequality in the United States as well as the means by which members of RCS communities resist it. In the second paper, State Repudiation in U.S. Politics, I examine the understudied phenomena of non-state politics that emerge in the wake of social welfare crises First, I introduce a conceptual framework for understanding and locating non-state political projects—what I call state repudiation. Second, I illustrate the conditions that give rise to a politics of repudiation. Specifically, I argue that a lack of government recourse coupled with the onset of a focusing event, often which is a social welfare catastrophe. Social welfare crises can motivate actors to reject reliance on and participation in the state and pursue alternatives to community governance. Drawing from the case study of the Urban Crisis of the 1960s, I demonstrate how local activists build political practices that both counterpose governments’ failed policy response and prefigure new institutions. Third, I show how, by way of abeyance structures, state repudiation is a recursive theme within Black political discourse and acts of quotidian and collective resistance. By situating this study in Black politics literature, I illustrate the crucial role Black politics can play in illuminating understudied forms of collective action. The final paper, “Give Light and People Will Find a Way”: Applying Popular Education to the Study of Politics establishes popular education as an understudied driver of American Political Development and as an analytical approach to contemporary U.S. politics. I argue that dominant approaches in American political science typically view the political participation and mobilization of race-class subjugated communities as fraught with hurdles, both intrinsic (e.g., low political motivation and knowledge) and extrinsic (e.g., structural oppression). This “deficit approach” to the study of politics reflects empirical realities of political inequality in the U.S. in particular. However, it also risks reifying American political behavior in a way that undermines opportunities for institutionally marginalized members of the polity to lead collective resistance and transform institutions. Popular education, on the other hand, is an approach to political mobilization that calls for members of oppressed groups to derive their own solutions to their own unfreedom. By introducing this understudied form of political mobilization to the American politics subfield, I make the following contributions. First, I challenge deficit-based approaches to the study of political knowledge and political mobilization by examining how the popular education movement of the mid-20th century drew from the experience and leadership of everyday people in Appalachia and the Deep South to support the labor and southern civil rights movement. Second, drawing from my ethnographic research on contemporary popular education in the contemporary Deep South, I illustrate how its praxis can transform where we in the field locate political behavior and political development.

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