Anthropologist Savannah Shange wins book award for insights on race and education

Savannah Shange seated in a chair in front of a blue background.
Savannah Shange is an assistant professor of anthropology and a principal faculty member for the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies program.

Anthropology faculty member Savannah Shange received one of the most prestigious honors in the field when she was awarded the 2020 Gregory Bateson Book Prize from the Society for Cultural Anthropology. The society recognized three winners, along with a runner-up and an honorable mention. Shange’s book, Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco, was among those that shared top honors.

“This is the first time that the award has been given to multiple books, so it was really great to feel like there’s a shift in the discipline to really celebrating collective work and to democratizing the idea of excellence,” Shange said. 

As an assistant professor of anthropology and a principal faculty member for the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies program, Shange studies Black diaspora. In particular, her book draws upon her experience teaching for six years at a progressive, social justice-oriented high school in San Francisco. The school was intended to serve youth of color and had a majority of Latinx students, but it also had the district’s highest suspension rates for Black students. Shange wanted to understand why.

“I went to graduate school in order to solve problems that the staff was trying to address, in terms of how this overall very successful school was still being dogged by racial disparities,” she said. “How can a place that’s sending the most Black kids to college also be the place that’s suspending the most Black students? I learned that what I thought was a contradiction or an anomaly was actually a fundamental structural problem constituted by the project of antiracism and social justice, as we usually enact it.”

The results of Shange’s inquiry are captured within Progressive Dystopia. Through extensive ethnographic fieldwork, she documented how the school’s practice of antiracism was still situated in a culture and structure of anti-Blackness that marginalized Black people within the multiracial progressive movement. Black students or teachers who defied norms or challenged policies and curricula at the school were pushed out, with students being encouraged to transfer and some teachers ultimately quitting their jobs. 

Overall, Shange said one of the most important takeaways from her book is that “the most progressive places can still be the most dangerous for Black youth and families to survive.” Progressive Dystopia analyzes the social forces underlying this phenomena and contrasts examples of successful long-term multiracial coalition-building with other efforts that fall short. 

“There are these existing traditions of really fruitful multiracial struggle, and that’s not the same thing as a nonprofit swooping in and writing a mission statement,” Shange said. “I think the more that highly-funded social programs can actually be in communication with and listening to and taking their lead from existing social formations, you’ll be able to get somewhere different from there.”

Shange said she’s grateful to fellow UC Santa Cruz faculty members who workshoped manuscript drafts of the book with her and provided feedback to help shape the final product. She’s also been glad to hear from research participants who told her that reading the book validated their experiences. For Shange, having her book recognized within the field has been a validating experience, too.

“This award, and the choices of all of the books that were celebrated, tells me that it’s okay to tell hard stories in ethnography,” she said. “Continuing to look at the actual practice of antiracist politics, especially in this time, is something that’s worthwhile, and that’s really what I was trying to do with this book.”