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Big City Scholar

Big City Scholar

Mary Pattillo

Title: Associate Professor, Departments of Sociology and African American Studies, Northwestern University; Visiting Fellow,
Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, University of Chicago

Education: Ph.D., Sociology, University of Chicago; M.A., Sociology, University of
Chicago; B.A., Urban Studies-Sociology, Columbia University

Age: 32

At 32, Dr. Mary Pattillo is a tenured professor in the departments of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University in Chicago. She is also the author of the award-winning 1999 book, Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class. And her research has won the support of several foundations and organizations. It’s safe to say Pattillo is a rising star in American academia.

A native of Milwaukee, Pattillo’s middle-class upbringing helped inform the portions of her work that examine contemporary Black middle-class life in America. Growing up in a large family headed by her physician father and educator mother, she recalls taking for granted the urban segregation that defined life and experiences in Milwaukee, such as being bused from her all-Black neighborhood to a majority White high school in the suburbs. Nevertheless, a love of big cities and a deep curiosity about the social development of Black urban dwellers would lead her on a career path to investigate questions of American urban life.

At Columbia University, where she completed undergraduate studies, a professor in one of her urban studies courses urged Pattillo to consider getting a doctorate in sociology and becoming a professor. “I went to college wanting to be a teacher.” Pattillo says. “The idea of becoming a professor made sense and appealed to me.”

While doing graduate work at the University of Chicago, Pattillo had the good fortune to have the renowned sociologist Dr. William Julius Wilson assigned to her as a mentor. As a graduate researcher under Wilson, Pattillo studied Groveland, a Black middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The Groveland research provided the basis of her book, Black Picket Fences.

According to the book review at, “Black Picket Fences is a stark, moving and candid look at a section of America that is too often ignored by both scholars and the media: the Black middle class … It is the discontinuities in their daily life, both troublesome and hopeful, that (Pattillo) seeks to explain. Residents work in stable middle-class jobs, and many have single-family homes with a backyard and a two-car garage. Some send their children to private schools and are able to retire with solid pensions. Yet despite such privileges, (Pattillo) argues, they face unique perils.”

In 2000, the book won the Oliver Cromwell Cox prize from the American Sociological Association, which honors the best book written on race and ethnicity. “That award means a great deal to me because it’s recognition that came from my peers in sociology,” she says.

Pattillo’s career has benefited from winning several research fellowships. They include a visiting fellowship from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan, and an upcoming fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Currently, Pattillo is on academic leave from Northwestern and is a visiting fellow at the University of Chicago. Throughout much of her work, which includes dozens of articles and conference presentations, Pattillo has paid a great deal of attention to issues surrounding Black identity, especially among youth.

In addition to studying Black middle-class life and urban poverty issues, Pattillo has in recent years turned her attention to the explosive Black-White academic achievement gap issue, Black homeownership and gentrification.

— By Ronald Roach

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