Racialization, Colorism, and Stalled Upward Mobility Among Low-Income Rural Families

Colloquium | February 3 | 4-5:30 p.m. | 1102 Berkeley Way West

 Linda M. Burton, Dean, School of Social Welfare, University of California, Berkeley

 Graduate School of Education

In this presentation I tell the story about how 30 years of conducting ethnographic studies of intimate unions and childbearing in low-income rural and small town communities led me to serendipitously explore the racialization, colorism, and upward mobility experiences of rural families.

I draw on longitudinal data from ethnographies of poor families residing in Pennsylvania to demonstrate how racialization, colorism, and upward mobility are intricately linked through child-bearing and romantic unions and several coalescent social forces including: economic restructuring; the decline of patriarchy; increasing race and class inequality; and the in-migration of racial/ethnic minorities to largely White rural communities. I discuss how, for example, some African American teenage girls who are deeply embedded in these communities engage in early interracial childbearing with the hope of producing a child with a local “color advantage.”

I also describe the role of serial interracial multiple partner fertility in creating “racial pecking orders” among young African American and White mothers. Both strategies ultimately stall the upward mobility of families involved in these practices across generations. I conclude with a discussion of the implications of this research for the educational end games of rural families in racially isolated rural communities.

About the speaker. Linda M. Burton is Dean and Professor of the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. She most recently served as the Director of the Center for Child and Family Policy, Dean of Social Sciences, and Interim Director of the International Comparative Studies Program at Duke University.

She is co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of the Social Science of Poverty and Black Boys and Men in African American Families and serves on the Editorial Board of the Sociology of Race and Ethnicity and the William T. Grant Faculty Scholars Advisory Board. She was recently a member of the Committee on the Science of Research on Families for the Institute of Medicine, the Advisory Board of the National Center for Marriage and Family Research, the Board of Directors for the Family Process Institute, and the Board of Directors for the Council on Contemporary Families.

In 2013 she was inducted into the Sociological Research Association and served as President of the Association from 2017 to 2018. She is also a recipient of the Dean’s Excellence Award in Mentoring, Duke University, the Distinguished Career Award for the Family Section of the American Sociological Association, the Alexis Wiley Award for Outstanding Research in Family Science, the Family Research Consortium IV Legacy Award, and the American Family Therapy Academy Award for Innovative Contributions to Family Research.

Dr. Burton directed the ethnographic component of Welfare, Children, and Families: A Three-City Study and is principal investigator of a multi-site team ethnographic study (Family Life Project) of poverty, family processes, and child development in six rural communities.

Her research integrates ethnographic and demographic approaches and examines the roles that inequality, poverty, trauma, and intergenerational family dynamics play in the intimate unions of low-income mothers and the accelerated the life course transitions of children, adolescents, and adults in urban and rural families.

 Light snacks


Linda M. Burton, Dean of the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley