Tyler Leeds / Sociologist

I am a sociology PhD candidate at UC Berkeley studying media, cultural politics, and theory. My mixed-methods dissertation draws on the thought of Stuart Hall, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Pierre Bourdieu to understand the controversy stirred by the 1619 Project, an effort by The New York Times to reframe American history around slavery. My research is complemented by a commitment to teaching, mentoring, and critically engaging curriculum practices.

Dissertation Project

My dissertation begins by asking how a newspaper known for colorblind liberalism came to publish an effort to center slavery in the national narrative. Drawing on Bourdieu’s field theory, I root an explanation in the paper’s transition to a digital revenue strategy. Analyzing SEC filings, leaked internal reports, staff testimonies, and more, I piece together the history of the paper’s adaptation to an advertising economy dominated by social media platforms. While the era of print advertising pushed the paper to avoid offending readers, its move to digital subscriptions pushed it to cultivate reader investment–a strategy enabled by enhanced user analytics. This development created the social conditions of possibility for the 1619 Project, an effort that affirmed the politics of the Times' online readers. In an article published by Social Problems, I expand this story to explain how broader technological, financial, and political circumstances enabled the paper to dominate the journalistic field writ large, positioning it to reinvent journalistic norms without censure—a clear example of which is the 1619 Project.

After establishing the 1619 Project’s backstory, my dissertation turns to the moral panic that made it the target of legislative bans and a presidential commission. Here I engage Stuart Hall to understand how right-wing media, think tanks, and politicians came to articulate a vision of the Project that cast it as an effort at classroom indoctrination that both exaggerated the relevance of race and promoted an anti-white world view. In this way, Fox News, the Trump Administration, and other actors framed the Project to serve both colorblind racism and white Christian nationalism, despite the tension between these ideologies.

My dissertation ends by looking inside the Project, which has had a massive reach not only as a work of journalism but as a television series, podcast, and best-selling book. To frame the Project as a work of social theory, I compare it with the thought of Du Bois, who was planning his own commemoration of 1619 until race riots derailed his efforts. Looking across Du Bois’s body of work, I elucidate a theorization of racism from his interrogation of American historiography and his forward-looking political projects. I apply the same method to the 1619 Project, building a theory of racism from its movement between history and politics. Doing so reveals the Project to promote a psychological view of racism, where anti-Blackness is maintained through an on-going project of dehumanization that justifies past transgressions. While Du Bois’s early work is compatible with this view, his later thought embraced a materialist theorization that saw racism as a tool of American capitalism and imperialism.

Ethnography of Right-Wing Activism

Before the pandemic kept me out of the field, I conducted an ethnography of rural right-wing activists intent on forming a 51st state along the Oregon-California border. In an article published by Qualitative Sociology in 2020, I argue the activists form ideas about the government based on their perceptions of morality and capacity. This "state schema" explains why the activists promote conspiracy theories implicating the state and federal governments but also practice dedicated civic engagement at the county and municipal levels. This perspective upends the tendency to characterize right-wing activism as driven by anti-state attitudes, instead showing how assumptions of (im)morality and (in)capacity pattern attacks on and support for the state.

Background and Contact

Prior to Berkeley, I worked at a daily newspaper in Oregon, where my reporting focused on political tensions in a former mill town experiencing rapid tourism-driven growth. I also covered the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge and debates over the implementation of marijuana legalization. Before becoming a journalist, I earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Chicago.

A work of public sociology drawn from my research and journalism career was published by the Berkeley Journal of Sociology in 2022


tyler_leeds [at] berkeley [dot] edu

sketch by Kate Oliver Irick