IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Talking 'thick' descriptions with Tressie McMillan Cottom

Chris Hayes speaks with sociologist Tressie McMillian Cottom about her book "Thick" and how to talk about the world with as much complexity as possible.

Why do we summarize things into "tweet-length versions?" It requires the flattening of nuance and personality and information that we need to talk about complicated things. Whether it’s the 280 characters of a tweet or a clickbait headline, we’re trafficking in hollowed out means of communicating that lack the space needed for depth and complexity.

While society is in a crucial moment of trying to figure out how to communicate with folks from different backgrounds about their own identities, we aren’t going to get anywhere talking in tweet-length versions. Instead what we need are "thick descriptions," which Tressie McMillan Cottom is a purveyor of. Whether it’s rage, gender, or for-profit colleges, McMillan Cottom is able to guide you to the deepest part of any topic and mine for meaning when you get there.

TRESSIE COTTOM: There is not an efficient way to determine one's human capital. The only thing we can do routinely, efficiently-

CHRIS HAYES: Dude, try to hire someone sometime.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Listen, I wish more people would. No seriously, I wish more people would, and then tell me that you've got a better system for the ... we don't.

CHRIS HAYES: There are so many jobs that I would be terrible at.


CHRIS HAYES: On my own staff, okay?


CHRIS HAYES: That I would interview very well for, and not be good at.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Now, if I came in with my nice, fancy degree, and my-

TRESSIE COTTOM: We'd love you.

CHRIS HAYES: My way of talking that communicates a certain-

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Socioeconomic credential. Maybe you would hire me to do that job, and I would not be good for that job.

Hello, and welcome to "Why is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

Okay, so indulge me for a minute. Put a minute on the clock. Maybe two. Tiffany Champion, just a little rant, maybe rant, about the state of the discourse. Couldn't spell it on the fly. Here's the thing about the world that we live in and the information we consume. There is, at this moment, because of the way technology works, the way that my industry and cable news works, there is this insane competition war for people's attention. And between Twitter, which is particularly bad in this way, and the way the internet functions and the way social media functions, all content, all information is in these little packages that are small and are designed to grab your attention and then have you share them or move them along. And they're all constrained in these tiny little worlds. Like a tweet.

I have found that my ability to think deeply about things, or with context or with complexity or with nuance is constantly being assaulted by the fact of the way that information moves through our conversation nationally. That's really, really true of Twitter where it's literally about a length limit, where it's like you can only have an idea that can be articulated in these 280 characters. That's it. That's as big of the ideas as you can have. And if you really want to be Tolstoy, you can thread a whole bunch together and go super deep. Maybe you go 12 tweets deep and then, man, that's just like your dissertation.

And all of that, I understand the technological moment we're in and the market incentives that have produced that way the discourse works, but what is lost is space for depth and complexity and, particularly when we're talking about complicated things. When we're talking about complicated political topics, we're talking about complicated questions of identity or the lived reality of people that might be different than us. What you need is something that sociologists call "thick description." Thick description is the opposite of the flatness of a tweet. A tweet, a headline that tries to get you to click, the front page of a magazine, the thing that is trying to grab your attention, that's flat. It's flat, it's two dimensional. It's trying to grab you. Thick description, which is a term sociologists use is to really inhabit the life-world of a culture, of a group of people, of an institution. And to mine all the complexity, all of the internal contradictions, all of the manifestations of that life world.

That's what really good sociologists do, it's what really good ethnographers do, anthropologists. And it's a really necessary skill in this moment precisely because the flatness of the discourse and because the thing that we're constantly talking about, this show talks about, that our politics revolve around, are people from different backgrounds trying to communicate to each other about what their identity is, where they're coming from. And so what we have is this crazy mismatch of politics that demands that we're interacting and listening to folks that are coming from different backgrounds and a medium of communicating that is as flat as humanly possible.

And so I'm very excited to have a discussion with a sociologist who's name is Tressie McMillan Cottom. She is a teacher at Virginia Commonwealth University and she has just written this phenomenal book of essays which is called "Thick." Thick both as a descriptor of a female body, thick as a description of the kinds of sociology she does, which is thick description. And it's a book of essays that really makes you work to think through the complexity of the life world that she's experienced as a black woman who is in academia, who is taking her perspective and applying it to her research program. She wrote this incredible book before this book of essays about basically private colleges called "Lower Ed."

But she's got a way of doing this thing that we used to call troubling a concept when I was back in college. Which sounds like a sort of annoying and academic term but it's just the process of taking a concept or a contention or a premise or a truth that you think you know and shaking it and poking it and prodding it and turning it upside down. It is a really difficult thing to guide a person through the thinking of that. To guide a person, using your words, through thinking about society or institutions or human life in that way. And in this book of essays, Tressie does that extremely well. She's got an incredible life story. She's sitting at the intersection of a whole bunch of interesting forces in American life at this moment. But more than anything, she has a way of getting to the deepest part of a topic.

And most urgently, she's got a way of combining the way of thinking about society and politics that she gets from her training as a sociologist with the urgency of talking in the language with which we all communicate every day. I learned a lot from her book, I learned a lot from this conversation. I think you will too.

Your mom had you up here in Harlem, right?

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right, yeah. She was part of that wave. Our family is from North Carolina. We are actually fortunate in a way that many black people aren't. I mean we've been in North Carolina for as many generations as we can count. But we did the whole great migration to Harlem, as most people did in North Carolina, that was the typical path and we took it. She had gone to college in North Carolina, married and had me in Harlem. Lasted a couple of years. Her story was — was it Sam, the serial killer? Right?

Berkowitz, Zigo
David Berkowitz, center, is taken into police headquarters by New York Police Department detective Ed Zigo, right, on Aug. 11, 1977. Zigo cracked the notorious Son of Sam case in the 1970s by acting on a hunch about a parking ticket and arresting Berkowitz.Hal Goldenberg / AP file

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, Son of Sam.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Son of Sam, one summer and she decides that's it.


TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. We can't live here and we moved back to North Carolina.

CHRIS HAYES: I do not need this.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Right, that's her story. Every time the anniversary comes around-

CHRIS HAYES: By the way, that's a pretty good Spike Lee film, right?


CHRIS HAYES: There's a Spike Lee film about that.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's the one when he was trying to go legit for the Academy and it didn't work.

CHRIS HAYES: But that's an interesting movie. It sort of embodies a New York rock bottom situation.

TRESSIE COTTOM: It does, yep.

CHRIS HAYES: So she was like I'm going back home. And so then you went back with her and you were raised in North Carolina?

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. So for me, North Carolina is home. We were all from North Carolina. Even Harlem felt like North Carolina to us. We were there with a million other black people from North Carolina. But I grew up all around the state but mostly in Charlotte, North Carolina and I still consider it home. It's where most of my family now is.

CHRIS HAYES: How did you become an academic?

TRESSIE COTTOM: Who the heck knows? It wasn't even part of the lexicon for me. It wasn't that we weren't educated. My parents went to college. But almost like the immigrant story-

CHRIS HAYES: Among a certain strata of folks in which a college education is taken for granted, there is a tremendous overestimation of the percentage of Americans that get a college education. You go one generation back and it's even smaller. Its the same thing with how many people took a flight this past year.


CHRIS HAYES: It's like half of Americans did not take a flight.

TRESSIE COTTOM: You think everybody's flying. That's right. For those of us who fly all the time it seems pretty strange.

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly. So your mom went to college.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Yeah, my mother and my father both. We are products of historically black colleges, which is probably part of the story of why we didn't think of academia as a career path. We're like immigrants in the sense that we had four jobs you could do. You could be a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor, a preacher. We think this is a job, by the way. And you know, I'm a little girl who can talk and write and that had always been my thing so I was supposed to be a lawyer. I didn't even know about other jobs.

CHRIS HAYES: And were you kind of plucked early like this is a good student?

TRESSIE COTTOM: Yes. I was that annoying. That was absolutely me.

CHRIS HAYES: Hand raised kind of situation.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Nobody ever offered me drugs in school. Let's put it that way. I watched all of those dinger programs and I kept waiting and waiting. Nobody offered it. It was clear, apparently, that I had the inclination to be a narc. That was me. I did what the teachers wanted me to do, I was happy to do it. I got passes to go to the library.

CHRIS HAYES: Okay, right. And then you went to an HBCU as well?

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. Almost didn't really know any other choice. I was recruited by other places but that's what we had done. So I went to North Carolina Central in Durham, North Carolina. I had a pretty normal experience there of black college life. It's this insular, wonderful insular bubble that I think really figures pretty prominently actually in my intellectual development.

CHRIS HAYES: I have to say, historically black colleges and universities are not a world that I grew up knowing at all. Even though I was in the Bronx in the 1980s and I was in an extremely racially diverse, heterogeneous world, I knew nothing about it. And then I went to this very elite public magnet school in New York and it's amazing to me, in my adult life, in the careers of people that I follow, that I'm fans of, that I like-

TRESSIE COTTOM: How central it is.

CHRIS HAYES: How central. I mean even listening to Kamala Harris talk about it, there's something sort of striking to me about how profoundly important those institutions are.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. They still, for everything that ... One of my bailiwicks is that I'm constantly promoting the value of historically black colleges and universities, but just to our community still, despite years of being chronically underfunded and politically marginalized, et cetera, et cetera, they still overwhelmingly produce our black middle class, upper middle class, professional classes, black doctors, black lawyers, black educators, still very much the point of access remains historically black colleges.

CHRIS HAYES: And you had a really good time there.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Yes. I probably had too much fun. I stayed there longer than my scholarship allowed. Let's just say it was a checkered path to completion. But I had a great time.

CHRIS HAYES: And then why did you want to be a sociologist?

TRESSIE COTTOM: You know I didn't even really know what sociology is. When you go to a black school, we have sociology but it's not a discipline. And one of the things I've come to realize is that's because everything at an HBCU is sociology, right? We're learning black literature in our biology classes. Because our professors overwhelmingly came from black colleges too and they tend to be, they're very mission oriented, right? And so every class you took had an element of what sociology does, which is the study of structures and systems, if only because we're trying to understand racism in almost all of your courses.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. So that's so pervasive. The frame of analysis always has to be that at some level.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. So for me sociology was just like this thing we had checked out. There was no robust sociology department. You kind of didn't need it. It would be like having an African- American literature class at an HBCU, right? Every English course was African-American literature. So it was not until I started to do ... I had gone off and worked after undergrad. I was going to go to law school but I wanted to work a few years first. Life got in the way. I got married, all this other stuff. When I decided to go back to school I was still thinking about law school.

So I said well I'll take a couple courses. I went back to my alma mater, I take a couple courses to prepare for the LSAT. While I was there there was this program that said, "Well listen, we'll pay for these courses for you and we will give you a check and housing. Here's the thing, you've just got to consider getting a PhD instead of a law degree." Well, you know, economic incentives being what they are, that worked on me.

CHRIS HAYES: That's wild. Who set that up?

TRESSIE COTTOM: Duke University, set up mostly by the African-American faculty on that campus in consortium with our university and with the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. And it was to, you know you've got to try to get more African-American students into PhD programs.

CHRIS HAYES: That's wild. And so that was the way they did it?

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: And they were recruiting from the base of LSAT takers. That's pretty smart, I'd say.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Yeah. Because again, they know everybody else in our community would know that we're probably there waiting to go to law school because that's what we know. You got a business degree, a law degree, or a medical degree, right? So they said, "Yeah, sure. But you've got to promise us you're going to take the GRE instead and think about a PhD." And I get there and I ended up being almost immediately good at research. You work with a senior researcher at Duke and I worked with one of the best. I worked with Sandy Darity, still now at Duke University as an economist. And I worked with truly one of the best social thinkers alive today. And I ended up being really good at it. And he kept saying to me, "You're a sociologist." And I was like I don't even know what that is. He's like, "No, you think about the world this way." And as it turned out he was right. I did this project and got into all the sociology programs I applied to and as it turned out, I was a sociologist.

CHRIS HAYES: You've got a really interesting career because you write academic. You have a book that I think grew out of your dissertation work. You've got this new essay collection out, but you've also just been writing publicly. I mean was that from the beginning that you were doing public writing? You talk about this sort of experience of having pieces really take off and go viral. I think I first encountered your writing, the great piece you wrote about the kind of psychology of poor people buying expensive things. Which is an incredible piece.


CHRIS HAYES: And that was the first time I encountered your byline and then started searching it out. How did that start?

TRESSIE COTTOM: I think a couple of things. Again, I'm a sociologist, right? So I've got to think there's a structural explanation. And so there are a couple of things. I've not always been in internet cultures, right? I was a live journal, early HTML programming kind of girl. I was on Black Planet. I've done all of that.

CHRIS HAYES: Black Planet? I’m telling you Black Planet was like an HBCU.

TRESSIE COTTOM: It accounts for 90 percent of probably the black famous people you know and I'm not even kidding.

CHRIS HAYES: Not a joke. Black Planet.

TRESSIE COTTOM: No, how do you think I know Roxanne Gay? People think we met as ... No, we knew each other from back in the day.

CHRIS HAYES: I didn't know she was in Black Planet but then everyone I meet is like, "Yes, it was Black Planet." Where I found my voice.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Yes. Twitter owes it's existence-

CHRIS HAYES: To Black Planet.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That is right. That's how we knew how to work that platform. We gave Twitter meaning because of what we had once built on Black Planet.

CHRIS HAYES: What was Black Planet?

TRESSIE COTTOM: Black Planet was where black people went to get on the internet. So way back in the day before you had like Google and these interfaces, the internet I just remember it being strange. You knew it was a thing because everybody was writing about it. You were all of a sudden getting email addresses. People were giving them to you. And I just remember being a relative, that was like 16 to 17-ish about to go off to college and all of us understood the internet was a thing but nobody really knew how to get on it. And what to do once you were there.

And at the time, the solution to that were the AOL chat rooms, right? And so you could have an interest, you were supposed to organize around interests. Gardening, et cetera, et cetera.


TRESSIE COTTOM: The largest, almost immediately, group that takes off is one called Black Planet. It took on a life of it's own.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh it starts as an AOL chat group?

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. It's every black person that was on the internet. We didn't know what else to do.

CHRIS HAYES: Everyone else was like subdivide into gardening.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Exactly. Black people, black. It's like the UPN of it's time, right? It wasn't that it was good, it's just what we had. So everybody was on Black Planet. I mean I know families-

CHRIS HAYES: And that spins off and becomes, which is like a message board.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. And so we start there, we learn our basic coding. I remember you had to learn. This was again before everything was plug and play internet interfaces. And so you had to do a lot of on the go programming. This was our early introduction to how the internet would work. So that's happening at the same time that I've always been a writer but what else am I gonna do in a group to represent myself in this text-based environment? I write things. That carries over to Live Journal, which was about shaping a longer form writing community. The group there that was very influential was called "Black Folk." Every black person I knew on Live Journal was in a group called Black Folk. About a quarter of those people now are people you would probably know and it's fascinating because we're built like AA. We never mention it publicly.

CHRIS HAYES: No, it's true. It's also so much of internet culture. I mean I am the 1,000th person to note this. So much of internet culture starts in black internet subculture and then kind of moves out from there, whether it's words, phrases, memes, things originating very much in people, shorthand it Black Twitter. So that history of it actually makes that coherent and make sense in a way. And you're right, that history is not told. So it's like, "Oh, look at this."

TRESSIE COTTOM: It just magically ... You remember the articles from back in 2008, why are the black people good at Twitter?

CHRIS HAYES: They're so good at memes.

TRESSIE COTTOM: This is so fascinating.

CHRIS HAYES: I know. It's true.

TRESSIE COTTOM: We had been working on this for 20 years. We had built this thing.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, workshopping in the lab.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Yes. It's just what is it they always say about the band? Oh I liked them before they were hot? Yeah, we liked the internet before it was hot.

CHRIS HAYES: So that's how you start? That's your public facing and your writing. And that's in the beginning of being in that world.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Yeah that predates my understanding. So it really made no sense to me when I enter academia for me to not do that. For me, that would be like giving up one's hobby. They didn't own my whole life so I kept writing.

CHRIS HAYES: But that's a fraught thing.


CHRIS HAYES: I mean you tell a story in here about having an older colleague basically come up to you and be like, "Cut it out."

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. There's a lot of censuring about what the profession, and look, every profession is undergoing that. What's the right way to be a journalist? Oh, you're just one of those internet journalists, right?

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Or you tweet too much, which is the thing that I've heard.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Are you kidding me? That's pretty much a whole byline of my life. Like, "If you weren't tweeting so much you could do X." I'm like, I already do X. But I mean this is what we see and it took forever to come to politics, but that's all anybody is now dealing with with the new freshman class, is this resistance.

CHRIS HAYES: It's the exact same thing.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Oh my God, they're on Instagram, right?

CHRIS HAYES: Like AOC is getting the message from her elder colleagues that you got at that conference when you told the story of a woman coming up and being like, "Stop it."

TRESSIE COTTOM: Basically that was my Claire McCaskell, right? Seriously, who comes up to me and just out of the blue is like ... But would say anything that was clearly being said about me.

CHRIS HAYES: Behind closed doors, she just says it.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Exactly. Part of that being frankly, if you were not born in that culture they really could not imagine that I was doing both of those things simultaneously. That I was doing the deep academic work at the same time that I was doing the other stuff.

Tressie McMillan Cottom
Tressie McMillan CottomAndr? Chung / The New Press

CHRIS HAYES: Because there's real status coding in academic environs about what is for public consumption and what is not. And if you're talking too much to the public it almost lowers your stock and status because then you're not expert enough.

TRESSIE COTTOM: It is reverse celebrity culture. We have celebrities but it works inversely proportional to the way celebrity writ large. Which is we actually want you to be a micro celebrity. Extremely well known with a small group of people as opposed to popularly well known among the popular masses. But yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: I want to talk about one of the themes in this essay collection which I think sort of tracks through your work, both sort of public and academic. You've got this incredible essay here at competence, which is an essay about, well, first is an essay that centers on an incredibly traumatic experience that you had-


CHRIS HAYES: And how when you were pregnant and got to a hospital, how you were understood as having competence or not having competence.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Right. Yeah, so the point of entry is I have these really weird things that I'll say. I'm talking to my editor about the possibility of this essay. The essay was really supposed to be about how technology makes us all incompetent in these ways that we can't solve.

I said, well, my way of thinking about this is I'm probably going to talk about this thing, that of all the things I've ever written about, I'd never written about it, had no intention of ever writing about it, but I had this draft that had always just sort of been in my files. The fact that the essay exists in this book is really a reflection of how much I had grown to trust my editor and how much more comfortable I think I just was sort of with my voice.

This was not a story I would have wanted to write in academic voice, for example. It was not a story that I would have been willing to write without the status to defend myself, right, that I now have as opposed to maybe a few years ago. It is an example of how oddly I come to topics, because I actually didn't think that was the heart of the essay. I thought I'm going to tell this story about technological change making us incompetent, and the political economy won't allow us the competence to enact agency.

The way I was going to tell that was the way I had experienced it perhaps most traumatically, which was the loss of my daughter and almost dying myself in childbirth. I'm a healthy, young adult woman, married and educated and employed and I'm pregnant, and this should be the most, in the United States of America, right, this should be the most sort of typical pregnancy known to man, and it was, just not in the way that I understood it to be typical.

By the time it was over, I understood it was a actually very typical experience for black women, and that experience involved at every step of the medical process, which is really just a stand-in for how all of our organizations structure who is the acceptable, typical person that they'll work with, right? We have to make assumptions in an organization about who this organization is for, and then all of the processes are built out for that.

You have to be English-speaking, because the forms are in English. You have to be this tall, because that's what all the equipment is, right? You have to be this size for the gowns to fit. But that we don't think nearly as much about race and gender and how you need to present for the medical system to take you seriously, and being taken seriously, I argue, is the pre-condition for getting the actual healthcare.

To get actual healthcare from a healthcare organization, the healthcare organization has to assume that you're a competent subject on your own behalf. That when I say I'm in pain, it is actual pain. That when I say I am in labor and I'm having a contraction, I am having a contraction, right? It has to assume that I can actually speak to those things competently, and at every step of the process of my medical experience, every medical professional, this is really important, I think, for people to take away from that story.

I'm not talking about one bad doctor or one bad nurse. When you're in the hospital for three and a half, four days, which I was, yeah, there's a constant rotation of people. Everyone is making this assumption about me. I think one of the, for me personally anyway, one of the points of reflection for me once I was able to reflect on the experience was how I was actually kind of angry with myself that I had ever expected better, right?

CHRIS HAYES: That's a heavy thing to say.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That I clearly had bought into the idea, more than I was comfortable with, that I had somehow earned a little bit more extension of grace from an organization, and I had not.

CHRIS HAYES: You also say in the essay, so you go to this hospital, you said you'd chosen it because it is a frequented and used by affluent white women.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Yeah, that's right.

CHRIS HAYES: It's like where should I go, well that this is the place where the community that has a lot of social capital goes. You go and you say you're having pain at four, four and a half months, right?


CHRIS HAYES: You get sent home. You come back again. End up miscarrying. At every step, they just don't take you seriously enough-


CHRIS HAYES: To do what they should do, medically.

TRESSIE COTTOM: There's a moment when I'm sitting in the waiting room of my obstetrics office and I'm literally bleeding all over the chair, and I can't get them to take me to the back room, right, until it becomes a problem for the other people in the waiting room, because that's who medical care was for. The other people in the medical room. Those were the healthy, attractive, middle and upper class white women.

Again, I had chosen it with the same logic that we choose schools, that we choose neighborhoods, that we choose which grocery story and which TJ Maxx we'll go to. The one on the quote, unquote, "good side," of town.

CHRIS HAYES: That's right.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That was the rough sort of cultural geography I knew to use. That's right. All of us do.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, everyone, yes.

TRESSIE COTTOM: How deeply ashamed I was when I realized I had done all of those things-


TRESSIE COTTOM: Knowing what I knew about how such things work, and then had the nerve to sort of be surprised that it had not worked for me, when of course, it was never designed to work for me.

CHRIS HAYES: One of the take-aways of that essay is just, you know, it's an extremely profound and moving story, I have to say, as someone who does not have access to it subjectively, for a variety of reasons. You talk about Serena Williams too, afterwards, which that story just blew my mind in half. I know, again, I shouldn't be surprised. I get that.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Right, right.

CHRIS HAYES: But that story literally blew my mind, that Serena Williams had to, Serena Williams-

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's what I'm saying, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Had to get up in a hospital and be like, "I am the person in the world who is literally most in touch with her own body, of any human on the planet."

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right, right.

CHRIS HAYES: "I am telling you, as that person, that there is something going wrong here that we need to deal with," and she had to fight for it, too.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's correct, and I think she even says in one of the interviews, she even tells like she had to pull on her husband's bonafides and standings there, right? Like, can you imagine, you are Serena Williams and you've kind of got to have your husband in proxy to sort of add to your legitimacy for saying that you're in pain?

It's one of those ways that we can talk about how race works, because here's the thing. That is as true for black men probably in different ways as it is for black women, but I bet we have a hard time imagining them doing that to LeBron James. And arguably, Serena and LeBron are the greatest athletes in the world at this point in time, and I find it very hard to believe that LeBron would have to turn to his wife to get her to mediate the conversation with his medical doctors.

The idea that celebrity, the greatest escape out of all social norms in our culture-

CHRIS HAYES: For everything, right.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. You can get right — it supersedes every social norm we have — that if black women achieving that level of celebrity cannot get a system of healthcare to work for them, there is absolutely no hope for the rest of us.

CHRIS HAYES: How do you think about the category of black women? Here's the reason I ask that. I feel like we're having this moment. You have a very funny essay called, “Black People Are Over It,” in here, and you mention about “trust black women,” which I both think is both good advice but always rubs me a little the wrong way, because it feels like it's this over-corrected reductive category that ends up being invoked.

TRESSIE COTTOM: I understand. It sounds like it's asking you to turn off your critical thinking faculties.

CHRIS HAYES: That, but also there's a trope, there's a trope, and you write about this trope, there's a certain kind of wise black woman that is a trope in Hollywood, that is a trope in storytelling-

TRESSIE COTTOM: Knows everything-


TRESSIE COTTOM: Is so wise. Yeah, no, yeah, listen, no.

CHRIS HAYES: Comes in to tell the white people who are bumbling around-

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right, yeah-

CHRIS HAYES: And not finding their true love-


CHRIS HAYES: Like how to get it together.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Listen, I love my people, but here's the thing about the internet. First of all, you know the great joke that nobody knows you're a dog on the internet. For all I know, some of the people who are masquerading as black women on the internet are not even black women, but let's just say-

CHRIS HAYES: Just FYI, I was on Black Planet for like seven years.

TRESSIE COTTOM: I figured that was you. I probably know which one was you. CookieMonster17345?

CHRIS HAYES: That was me.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's the first thing, but there is an economics to the digital culture, which is you have to get people to give you money. One of the ways you do that, actually the primary way, is through attention. This attention economy we have. The trick for everyone is converting the attention into actual money.

We come up with these slogans that I think are supposed to drive people to people's cash app, right, and I, listen, I, okay.

CHRIS HAYES: We're all in that vortex. You're 100 percent correct. That is, yes.

TRESSIE COTTOM: The pimp game is the pimp game, and just let's just learn the rules and let's just be honest about it. That to me is a whole other thing that has absolutely nothing to do with black women, except that some of the things that we talk about are very useful as discursive tools to get people to do that.

The real substantive conversation I think about, it was trust black women, believe black women, my understanding of that is not to say to trust everything black women say as being an unchallengeable fact, but to trust them as authorities on their ability to say it. Now that's quite different.

That is about the fact that in all of my work to date, and I'm just going to go ahead and say it. I think I am one of the most cited, most discussed sociologists, public sociologists working in my profession today. I can count on one hand the number of my colleagues who have taken my work critically, seriously. Yeah, they take me seriously, they don't mind critiquing me the person, but to trust black women would be to assume that you could take off the table that I needed to justify my ability to do my work. And instead, to take my work seriously, that's what we mean about trusting black women.

CHRIS HAYES: That's where, you know, it's so interesting you bring that point up, because you write about this a little bit about the ways in which being a black woman writing, there's a push to write about being a black woman because that's the consumable content about your life, as opposed to here's my very rigorous work on lower education.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right, yeah, and again, that's because there's a lot of attention available to people who want to participate in that. There are lots of people willing to do that.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, that's the way the internet works. Part of it is there's an old Simpsons episode where Homer Simpson's watching a standup routine and it's a black standup comic, and he's like, "White guys drive like this, and black drivers are like this," and Homer's like, "It's so true, we're so lame."

There's a little bit of the racial discourse, even in the woke left racial discourse, online gets — very white people dance like this, black people dance like this — sometimes in a way that I feel is just so effing reductive. That's just the media. I think you're right.

What's troubling me is the intentional impulses of the medium, as opposed to what's under it, but I do worry that the complexity with which say that you write about it here, people are not getting that part of it, because-

TRESSIE COTTOM: Well yeah, I mean well that's the whole point.

CHRIS HAYES: People are getting the tweet take-away version of stuff.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Right, and not the discourse. Which listen, and my friends get on me all the time about asking too much of people.

CHRIS HAYES: There's some stuff in here that, the essay about in the name of beauty, is a challenging essay.


CHRIS HAYES: It's a great essay.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Yeah, I take that as a compliment. Yeah, I wanted to challenge things.

CHRIS HAYES: No, but I read it twice and it's like, I was like "Man, I haven't worked this hard in a while," because it's really, it's dense, and it's thick. It's thick. It's thick.

TRESSIE COTTOM: There you go. I thought if we do this right, we've done enough thin, right? We've got thin slices of media, thin slices of politics, thin slices of philosophy, thin slices. I feel like the idea of intellectualism had accelerated towards a sort of very thin margin. You can really only operate, push at the margins of thinking so much before I think you lose all of the explanatory power of everything you're saying.

The point for me was to say, yeah, but we've got this really rich tradition of actually being really complex and nuanced about how the world works, that's deeply embedded in black feminist philosophy, that I think is really useful for a very thin time. The collection of slogans that supplant politics, the collection of sort of sound bites that I think supplant public discourse.




TRESSIE COTTOM: We've got this going in just all the arenas of public life and political life. Listen, this is a minor shot across the bow, though, just to say, we can push back. I think that if I can get people to take seriously a dense essay on something that is not about themselves, because people will do dense when they are the subject, right? People love actually to go fake-deep when it's all about themselves.

CHRIS HAYES: That's a good point.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Yeah, we love that, give me more of that stuff, but yeah. If I can get people to do that, right, to remember one, that we're capable of doing it. We have the capacity to do it. That is not nearly as terrifying as I think the sloganeering of our life has made us believe that it is. That it is absolutely possible to not have the right answer to something and still do something pretty good with it.

CHRIS HAYES: That's a great way of saying it. I mean I like, what's great about this collection and what I think, yeah, what it's pushing at is just like pushing at complexity, pushing at difficulty. All these things that we, that I learned in school at a college level, about troubling concepts and stuff like that, that is part of the academic tradition that you come out of, a lot of that discourse has been channeled to the public, but has been channeled in a very flat way. And that's partly out of necessity.

The way that we're getting these very thick concepts and complicated, difficult ones that come out of a sort of discourse of critiquing the hierarchies that exist in social life, get shaved down into these slogans. I think, see them pinging around, like-

TRESSIE COTTOM: I mean they made poor Kimberlé Crenshaw come out and tell people to stop seeing intersectionality everywhere.

CHRIS HAYES: That's a perfect example.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Like that poor woman was minding her business. That's what we do.

CHRIS HAYES: By the way, Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is the black woman, law professor academic who sort of I think coined the term ... the ideas, but had coined the term of intersectionality, and she-

TRESSIE COTTOM: She writes this piece and then you're like, I think it was about a year ago or something, she was like, okay, y'all, y'all got to chill, right? I hate to put words in Kimberlé's mouth, but she was kind of just like, y'all chill, I appreciate it, like I appreciate the name drops and the citations, but I don't recognize what you guys are talking about at all.

Kimberle Crenshaw
Kimberle Crenshaw during the "Reconstruction: America After Civil War" panel during the PBS presentation at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour at The Langham Huntington on Feb. 2, 2019, in Pasadena, California.Willy Sanjuan / Invision/AP

CHRIS HAYES: That's a perfect example of the phenomenon I'm talking about. That sort of specifies it. Your academic work, I think, your first book is fantastic. I read it.


CHRIS HAYES: Really changed the way I think about, or enlightened me in how thinking about education. It's called "Lower Ed." I think there's a real relationship between where you're coming from and the kind of work you're doing. Tell me about what your academic work is about, and how you decided that was going to be your work.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's a great question. There was this article around 2008 that, an article comes out and it lists all of the schools, which is an annual list they've done for decades. The schools that produced the most African American students with bachelor's degrees that year. It's a holdover from the 1960s, '70s Jet era where you published all the black notable facts from the week. It's a classic. It's awesome. That's right. It's this awesome list; it's just such a throwback.

This list this year listed the number one producer of black people with a bachelor's degree was not the HBCUs we talked about, right, that have produced all these notable black people that we were talking about, but it was the University of Phoenix, which was a for-profit college. I knew immediately what the University of Phoenix was, but at the time this happened, I'm sitting in Duke University in a coffee shop with my mentor, and we're talking about a research project, and the list is sitting there.

He goes, "University of Phoenix, where is that? Is that in Tempe?" He hates the story now because now he's like, "I know, I know what it is now." I was like I know, but the moment. I thought, here was the moment, right? I'm sitting in Duke University. If a professor of economic inequality and stratification sitting in Duke University — he's been studying racial inequality his entire life — didn't have purchase on this thing that was producing more black people with bachelor's degrees than any other historically black college that year, something had happened, and it happened fast, and why did I know what it was and he didn't?

This is the question of class, right? I had not been born of the world that sends one to Duke or Harvard or Yale or Princeton, et cetera. I had been born of one that while we had gone to college, we were also still very proximate to working class. If we weren't, and certainly people in our family were, and so I knew what for-profit colleges were, because I knew people who had attended them. I knew that they were structurally different, even if I didn't understand how or why.

When I tell him what it is, he goes, "You know what this is." He was like, "Well this should be your work." I'm thinking, "Surely, someone has done this," right? This phenomenon is taking in two-three billion a year of federal student aid money, enrolling 2.5 million students. It's in the news all the time. Surely someone way more important than me had figured out what was going on.

I go and do the thing we're trained to do, which is you go find all the literature about your subject, and there isn't any. I thought, well I'm clearly doing it wrong, so I try again and again and again for about a year, honestly, seriously. I couldn't fathom that someone had not taken seriously the millions of students in these institutions, seriously enough to find out what the hell was going on and why so many of them were black, and why so many of them were women.

Of course, the question was its answer. Nobody had bothered because so many of them were black, and so many of them were women. By and large, we study ourselves. Some aspect of ourselves. It's the great truism of academia. We are all studying ourselves. Because people like that had not made it into a research community, no one had bothered to ask. Not really seriously, and not in any sustained way, and certainly not in the social sciences, economists or sociologists.

As is often the case when it comes to my work, I was a little pissed off. I thought, well how are we going to resolve that? Well you resolve that by trying to get at the heart of why you think no one's asking the question. This is really where the book starts, because there wasn't anyone like me capable and able and trained to do that kind of work.

CHRIS HAYES: The world that you end up writing about is massive, and fascinating and infuriating, I think all three of those things. What did you find?

TRESSIE COTTOM: I found, you know the short answer is this theme that we could probably is maybe the theme of the 21st century, but we had not thought about. Higher education had just been thought of as this sort of untouchable engine for upward mobility and equality. The truism had become so powerful, the myth had become so powerful that even people who were sort of critiquing the edges of higher education weren't critiquing its core, right, whether or not, that was still true.

Most of that myth had been built on mid-20th century colleges and universities, but this was this new thing. These were this colleges owned by and large by shareholder companies or private families, private corporations, that were not part of the higher education universe.

The story was this, is that as the world of work had changed and we held people responsible for their own individual economic security, when the government and social policy isn't willing to make you secure, employers are no longer willing to make you secure because that's globalization, when you're on your own, the only thing we had given workers to make themselves more economically viable was, we told them to go to school.

CHRIS HAYES: Train yourself, get more skills.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Period. That's right, at all costs.

CHRIS HAYES: The way to succeed in the 20th, 21st Century.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right, the jobs of the future. Remember all of those? Nobody knew what the jobs were, we just knew they were of the future.

CHRIS HAYES: And you can’t get them yet.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's correct.


TRESSIE COTTOM: But you've got to be standing there.

CHRIS HAYES: They're in the future, there are jobs, and you can't do them yet.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. So we tell millions of people to take on the individual opportunity costs, set out the labor market, etc., do what you gotta do. And the individual economic costs, pay the tuition to go. Well-

CHRIS HAYES: And we will subsidize it.

TRESSIE COTTOM: And we will subsidize the heck out of it. That's an important part of the story. This only becomes profitable and interesting to the private sector, because of the public investment. The public investment in securing, much like the mortgage crisis, these are secured by the federal government, so the for-profit colleges themselves are mainly off the hook.

ITT doesn't care that it went out of business. It had made $10-15 trillion by that time. Everybody was happy to walk away when these schools close. The only people who couldn't walk away were the students, and these were students who are disproportionately already impacted by all of those other things that were happening in the economy. They were more likely to be working in jobs that were undergoing structural change, meaning shifting from salary work to hourly work. They were the people more likely to be stuck in jobs, where the job mobility, or the ability for it to be promoted with in the same company, had flattened over time.

They were more likely to be women, who were bearing the cost of child care. This is a huge part of the story. 70 percent of the students enrolled in for-profit colleges were women. Right now, I think it's about 66 percent, but it's almost always about three-quarters. So when we're talking about this problem, this was a gendered problem. This was about women who couldn't afford childcare, so they couldn't go to the evening classes down the street, at the community college, because we don't provide subsidized daycare in this country.

CHRIS HAYES: What they did was they got the loans, and they paid for it to be a full-time student-

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Because that was the way they can make it work.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's the only way. You can't change any other part of your life. You can't stop being a mom, you can't stop going to work, you can't stop paying the rent, you can't stop taking care of your husband. But we have told you that the only way for you to be better at any of those things, is to go to college.

CHRIS HAYES: You know, there's this debate, an interesting debate about ... When you talk about mobility and the higher earning potential of, say, college graduates, people with four year college degrees. So there's this question … to oversimplify: two theories. One is that those people have better wages, because they acquire human capital in the four year college that better suits them for the job skills of the 21st century. And then they go out to the market, and that is the market price for their skills.

The other is that, it's essentially just playing a credentialing function, and not a human capital function. And so then, in comes this world, that kind of tests the thesis in some way.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's it, and it is.


TRESSIE COTTOM: Listen, if you take out the human element, it was one of the most elegant, natural set of experimental conditions that we had seen, in the higher education space. That's exactly what it was, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Because now we're gonna see, okay. What happens if you get rid of the credentialing aspect of it, because people don't know what University of Phoenix is. But that's what they're selling in some ways, and then what does happen?

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. So this is what happens. This is what we now know, which is what people had argued for quite some time, but we now have the most convincing evidence of. The labor market pays as much for signaling, or the credential, as it does for human capital. And that is true up and down the class hierarchy. That's for lower income, as well as upper income, and with race and all that attached to it. So that's true, whether you're working in an elite financial service sector, or you're working in the call center at the bank.

Partly that happens, because there is not an efficient way to determine one's human capital. The only thing we can do, routinely, efficiently-

CHRIS HAYES: Dude, try to hire someone sometime.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Listen. I wish more people would. No, seriously. I wish more people would, and then tell me that you've got a better system for it. We don't.

CHRIS HAYES: You know, there are so many jobs that I would be terrible at.


CHRIS HAYES: On my own staff, okay? That I would interview very well for and not be good at.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's because-

CHRIS HAYES: Tiffany's job, I would be bad at. I would be terrible at Tiffany's job. Tiffany keeps the show on time every night, she manages this incredibly sophisticated ... It's like our version of air traffic control.


CHRIS HAYES: I would not be good. You do not want me doing that job. Now, if I came in with my nice, fancy degree, and my-

TRESSIE COTTOM: We'd love you!

CHRIS HAYES: My way of talking that communicates a certain socio-economic credential, maybe you would hire me to do that job, and I would not be good for that job.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Empirically, we would hire the hell out of you. We'd hire you over and over. You're exactly who we would hire.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm not doing ... Do not hire me, don't. I am not ... Yeah.

TRESSIE COTTOM: No, I'm the same. I tell people the same thing. I am perfectly suited for the work that I have-

CHRIS HAYES: Right, that's right.

TRESSIE COTTOM: And none of the 49 other jobs I had before I got here.

CHRIS HAYES: And figuring that out is tough, right?


CHRIS HAYES: So because there's something mysterious and alchemical about that, what's happening here in labor markets, is that the credential is standing in for some rough approximation of that, because we don't actually have a very good way of doing the human capital part of it.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. Its closest proxy is a stand-in for social class. Right? And what happens is that employers on the other side became increasingly sophisticated assessing that. If you are now suddenly getting more people with those credentials, which is what a University of Phoenix-like system does, it just produces more people with the credentials.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, it floods the market-

TRESSIE COTTOM: That is right.

CHRIS HAYES: With the credentials.

TRESSIE COTTOM: The system becomes: how can we become more efficient, then, at sorting those credentials? And what you do, is you rely on those same four, five institutions that we've always relied on. The value accrued to the elite institutions — because those were the only ones that we had mutual, mass agreement — were the ones that were worth the employee's investment.

CHRIS HAYES: The credentials, yep.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Everybody else gets swept up in this sort of mushy middle and lower end.

CHRIS HAYES: And yet, what's so messed up about it, is that the thing that they're selling to these people, who are doing the thing that they are told to do.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: These are people that are poor people, working class folks, who are being told to uproot your life, take out a lot of debt. Do this very difficult thing, because the way this society works is, you need to do it and put it on yourself. And they're like, “I'm doing it."

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right, I'm all it.

CHRIS HAYES: “I'm doing it. I'm in. I'm gonna take the responsibility. I'm gonna go to school, even though it's the last thing in the world that my household can deal with right now.” And they come out of it, and it's like-

TRESSIE COTTOM: Screw you. Why didn't you go to a better school?


TRESSIE COTTOM: That's literally what our social policy said to people. They came out on the other side, and we said, “Screw you. Why didn't you go to a better school?”

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, what is this? What's University of Phoenix?

TRESSIE COTTOM: Right? We gave you an online tool. You were supposed to plug in your information, and figure out the right one. This is literally the types of solutions we come up with, by the way, which is why we don't deserve to exist anymore.

So our solution to this mass problem was to build a website, where people would go and plug in their information, and it would tell them the school that would be worth their student loan investment. I mean, really? It is so ridiculous, the assessment. It is still assuming that the student could ever figure out the complexities of the labor market. The labor market hasn't figured out the complexities of the labor market. But that's what happens when social policy doesn't fill the void.

When social policy doesn't fill the void, and you voucherize people, which is what we did. We subsidize, we voucherize them. The private sector will just make it a profit extraction, and that's what happened.

CHRIS HAYES: And then there's real ... there's a spectrum of legitimate to entirely predatory, of these outfits. Some of them are just essentially, like a Glengarry Glen Ross kind of situation, of getting … sign people up and then and then you're out on your ass, basically.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Right, yeah. I call it the time-share model of it, which is actually, very much what the enrollment process of for-profit colleges is like. It's that time-share-

CHRIS HAYES: High-pressure sales.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Instant rapport. That's right. Close, close, close that day, etc. It runs ... All of them have that process, but the quality, or at least the investment in the credential ranges from that, to something ... To be quite honest, I don't know that there is much of a difference between getting a master's in education from the University of Phoenix, and getting one down the street at your local state flagship. Your state flagship is not happy about that truth, but we don't have any empirical evidence that says those really aren't quite that different.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. So this is where the story gets complicated, 'cause it wasn't that the classes weren't real.


CHRIS HAYES: And some of the education was perfectly good.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Yes. Part of the problem here, is that-

CHRIS HAYES: It was just that it turned out, that what the labor market wanted was the credential.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Wanted was not that, that is correct. And the problem of what we were asking them to do ... This is the part where I say they have an argument. It's a fair argument, it's just not made in good faith on their part. Those for-profit schools all say, “Listen, we're doing a better job than such and such non-profit college down the street.” And I go, “Yeah, but you also know it doesn't matter how good a job you do.”

The fact of the matter is, a place like the University of Phoenix is never gonna do the transformation of your social capital-


TRESSIE COTTOM: That you need, if you are a poor, brown woman with a baby strapped to your back. It could never do that for you, no matter how good your human capital development was. Because the reality is, that's not what we're doing.

CHRIS HAYES: And their argument always is, "We are attending to, and actually investing in the human capital of this underserved population, so why are you mad at us? You're just reifying."

TRESSIE COTTOM: The status hierarchy, yes. They love that.

CHRIS HAYES: That's right. This is the way they would defend themselves.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: And then, the whole thing kinda blew up, right? At a certain point, the Obama administration comes in, changes the policy for student loans, which is very controversial. They lobby against it.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Yes, and we're still fighting. Yep.

CHRIS HAYES: They're still fighting. How is this shaken out now?

TRESSIE COTTOM: As much as I think oversight mattered, and it did, absolutely. The Obama staffer people will call me when I don't say that strongly enough, so I wanna go on the record. It mattered, okay?

It did not ultimately matter, nearly as much as changes in the labor market. So what really happens, is you always have this cycle. When the labor market is bad, people go back to school because you gotta do something to sit it out. And a lot of that is just about, you have to demonstrate to people that you were doing something during your down time. It really is a moral-

CHRIS HAYES: Right, better than being unemployed.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. It really is just a moral credential, out of the stigma of being unemployed. That's what people are paying for.

CHRIS HAYES: Totally. And this happened, like law schools. All these places, enrollment went though the roof in the great recession.

Tressie McMillan Cottom's book "Thick"
Tressie McMillan Cottom's book "Thick"The New Press

TRESSIE COTTOM: That's right. That's right. Some of that was always a bubble, right?

So the bubble burst, but the for-profit college sector overstate. The bubble didn't burst and now they're all out of business, the bubble burst and it flat-lined back to where it has historically been. Its share of the overall pie is roughly now, what it was in '93-ish, before it blew up.


TRESSIE COTTOM: Right. So we lost some of the big chains. ITT, the Corinthian College ones, which were the ones with the worst sort of commercials-

CHRIS HAYES: Corinthian, man.

TRESSIE COTTOM: And aggressive advertising, right? Yeah. They ... I miss those commercials, because they always made my case so beautifully, when I would do these presentations. Those were just some of the most obvious, egregious actors. And have left behind the ones that were a little bit more financially stable, didn't overreach quite as much in aggressive marketing and taking on of student loan debt and default.

But what those schools also have in common, is that they never doubled down quite so much on serving women, and poor people, and people of color. Those students, at a place like Strayer or something, are more likely to be male and white.

CHRIS HAYES: Interesting.

TRESSIE COTTOM: So what it means, is that it was about that larger issue of social inequality. That you honestly just can't build a good faith institution built on this foundation of inequality.

CHRIS HAYES: Is the end, then ... Okay. So then, what are we left with there, from a policy standpoint? Is there a way to produce ... I mean, HBCUs I guess are an example, right? There are institutions that manage to combine both, in that they do function as engines of social mobility because they lend ... Whatever they're doing on the human capital side in education time, they're taking folks from backgrounds that wouldn't necessarily catapult them towards a credential, and they are doing that successfully.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That is correct. I think our lesson here ... and it's a lesson that we knew, it's just that it's not a convenient policy lesson. Policy makers know this. It is just more expensive to do that work than we want it to be. Period. That's all. It's not that we don't know how to do. This is our takeaway from ... like, what? We're at 80 years now of sociology of education? And some people in my sub-field like to joke, there are no new answers. We have known the answer for a very long time, which is, it can surely be done. It takes longer and it takes more money than we are generally willing to spend to do it.

What needs to happen is human capital development and social capital development. It's the social capital part that's the tough part, because that usually means a host of wrap-around services. Social capital is what we get from our families, our communities, the cultural norms and signals that we learn. Basically, a lot of what a place like historically black college was about, was about giving you that. Giving you this new, shared base-

CHRIS HAYES: An alumni network.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That is right.

CHRIS HAYES: So there are now people that you can go intern for that you did not have those connections before, and now you do have them.

TRESSIE COTTOM: That is right. Yep. And that, more than almost anything, is what people who come from backgrounds, that are not already born going to an Ivy league institution, need the most. And that's the thing that we are ... That's the hardest sale to make to policy people, because it's hard to count. It's not an economic equation, but it's the thing that we know works.

CHRIS HAYES: What are you working on now?


But no, I keep thinking about it, as you can probably tell. I'm really obsessed with ... finding right now. Right now, I don't know what the answer is, 'cause I'm still working on the good question, but the question I'm leading to right now is absolutely something about technology. I wanna ask a question of that, that has not quite yet been asked. I think it's somewhere in the way I approach most of my questions is, if I start with the community that has not yet been centered in the analysis, I usually come up with a really good question. That's how "Lower Ed" happens. Oh, I'm just gonna talk about the women, and look. When I do that, this whole thing opens up. The essays are about, I'm gonna talk about black women, and when I do that this whole world opens up.

I think we have centered the conversation about technology, whether that's digital technologies, or surveillance, the policy, cultural change, the economic models, have centered a lot on white boys in Silicon Valley. The way I'm pitching it right now is, I wanna tell a story about technology that doesn't talk about them at all. And let's see what happens. But yeah, I'm still working on that good question.

CHRIS HAYES: I thought ... The thing you said, I thought, really efficiently about attention and how that works, is something I'm personally obsessed with, because I'm living it all the time, and it's the thing I worry most about.


CHRIS HAYES: Tressie McMillan Cottom is a sociology professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University. Her newest collection of essays is called "Thick." It's really excellent. It's a great read, challenging in all the best kind of ways. Her first book is called "Lower Ed." It was great to have you here.

TRESSIE COTTOM: Same here. Thanks for finally making this happen. I've only been hounding you on Twitter for three years. But we'll let that part slide. No, seriously. Thank you, thank you.

CHRIS HAYES: No, it's awesome. Thanks.

Once again, my thanks to Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom. Two books that she discusses in that conversation, the first is "Lower Ed," which is about her research, which is really mind blowing and is really, the only kind of study of its kind of this entire world of higher education in the US. And the second is her latest essay collection, which is "Thick," which really challenged me. They were some tough reads. I had to get out the pen and underline and work at it, and it was extremely rewarding work. So I really recommend you go out and you cop that.

All right. We love to hear from you. You can Tweet us, #WITHpod. Email We got great feedback on our little experiment on the New York City subway, which I worried was gonna be too provincial. I did have someone on Twitter being like, “What about the rest of us who don't live in New York City?” I was like, “That's a fair point,” but a lot of people who don't live in New York City, people who don't take the subway, who never set foot in the subway, really liked it. There was someone who tweeted at me, and I can't remember their handle. There's a moment in the conversation where I say, “I tried to set up why, if you're driving to work in Iowa City, Iowa, you should care about this,” and someone tweeted saying, “I listened to this episode from Iowa City, Iowa.” So mission accomplished, I think.

It was great to have Aaron Gordon on the show. He wrote a follow-up piece to go along with that conversation. You can find it at

Another important thing. Tickets to the live WITHpod, February 24th, with the one and only Stacey Abrams. The tickets have gone very fast. Faster than I think any ... Well, Tiffany Champion, who's got a sort of inner chillness and confidence about her, she was not stressing that we were gonna sell the tickets. I was maybe stressing them a little bit. I was ... Yes, yes. I was stressing a little bit. Well, I didn't know how ... whatever. We sold them, and we sold them very fast. Too fast in some ways, because I think people felt like they got there right at the time we said they would be available, and weren't able to buy them. We're learning our lesson, like I said. We're scaling this up. Next time we're doing a 10 thousand seat venue. Oscillate wildly, from too small to way too big.

No. So, here's the thing. At Tiffany and my direction, we have set aside a few, few tickets, to give away to devoted WITHpod listeners, who were not able to get tickets but would like to come see the show. We're trying to figure out the mechanism that we're gonna do, to do that, like some little contest or something. Can you do a podcast call-in show? Like the old Mr. Show skit? I don't know how we will do it, but we'll come up with some means of giving away this small group of tickets we have to devoted listeners, and we will announce that in next week's episode. So, stay tuned for that, and like I said, this is the first of many. If you're not in New York, if you love the show, if you wanna come watch me talk to someone live, we're gonna do everything we can over the next year to make that happen as much as we can.

Featured links:

"Thick," by Tresse McMillian Cottom

"Lower Ed," by Tresse McMillian Cottom

The personal is political with Brittney Cooper (May 15)

Political tribalism with Amy Chua (June 12)

Futureface with Alex Wagner (July 17)

School segregation in 2018 with Nikole Hannah-Jones (July 13)

"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team, and features music by Eddie Cooper. Like I mentioned before, you can find a lot of great stuff for the podcast by going to