Bobo, Lawrence D.

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Lawrence D. Bobo



Lawrence D. Bobo is an eminent American sociologist whose work, though not widely known outside of academic circles, examines issues that have significant impact on the lives of millions of Americans. Since 2005 he has been the Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial professor of sociology at Stanford University in California, where he continues to conduct a long-term survey project involving public opinion on contemporary race relations in America. A few months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, Bobo addressed an audience at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and asserted that the natural disaster had brought to light some painful truths that he and others in his field had long known. "Katrina forced a recognition that an illness diagnosed many years ago still requires treatment," he said, "That illness in the heart of American democracy is an enduring racial divide."

Bobo was born on February 18, 1958, in Nashville, Tennessee, the son of a physician, Joseph, and a teacher, Joyce Cooper Bobo. By the age of six, he had settled on his own career direction in law, and became a skilled debater during his high school years in preparation. But at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, he grew uneasy with the pre-law school curriculum he had followed, and was drawn to the ideas presented in his sociology courses. As he explained in an interview that appeared on the National Academy of Sciences Web site, the persistent need to present both sides of an argument in a debate had wearied him. "You were mostly concerned with advancing a winning argument in the moment, rather than finding something that was lasting," he reflected.

Bobo first became intrigued by a sociology course in deviant behavior and criminology. Yet Bobo's switch to a social-science major was not altogether out of the ordinary: in Atlanta, his mother's family were longtime friends of Dr. Edward Franklin Frazier, a leading black sociologist whose 1939 book, The Negro Family in the United States, is considered a landmark in the field of African-American studies. Frazier, in fact, was his mother's godfather, and though he died in 1962, Frazier's ideas and professional renown were an influence on Bobo in his decision to pursue a degree in sociology.

After graduating with top honors from Loyola Marymount in 1979, Bobo went on to the University of Michigan, where two sociologists whose work intrigued him, Mary Jackman and Howard Schuman, were teaching at the time. He earned his master's degree in 1981 and a doctorate four years later, and was hired by the University of Wisconsin at Madison as an assistant professor of sociology. He co-authored his first book, Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, with Schuman and Charlotte Steeh, during this period. In 1990, Bobo moved on to the University of California at Los Angeles as a full professor and program director for survey research, and spent the next seven years there.

Bobo joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1997 as a professor of Afro-American studies and sociology. He was recruited by the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., the literary critic who headed Harvard's Afro-American studies department at the time and was leading a major effort to make it one of the foremost programs in its field in the United States. Bobo's colleagues were among some of the best-known contemporary scholars in African-American studies and race relations, including Cornell West, author of Race Matters, and sociologist William Julius Wilson.

In addition to his teaching duties and research work, Bobo also became a member of the executive committee of the W. E. B. DuBois Institute, the first research center at a major American university dedicated to the study of the history, culture, and social institutions of Africans and African Americans. In 2004, Bobo served as one of the founding editors of its Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, a journal dedicated to publishing new research and criticism from sociologists and other scholars on the issue of race in America.

Bobo has authored dozens of professional papers himself, as well as contributed to or edited several scholarly tomes. Of the latter category, he has co-edited Prismatic Metropolis: Inequality in Los Angeles, a 2000 work, and Urban Inequality: Evidence from Four Cities, published in 2001. Not long after setting up the Du Bois Review, Bobo announced his decision to leave Harvard for a position at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, which had offered his wife, Marcyliena Morgan, a teaching position as well. Morgan specializes in language, culture, and identity issues in the realm of African-American studies, and created the Hip-Hop Archive while at Harvard. This on-line portal is a leading source for research on contemporary black music and its place in contemporary culture.

At Stanford, Bobo became the Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial professor of sociology and was named program chair for the department of African and African American Studies. He also serves as director of Stanford's Center for Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity. For a number of years he has been involved in a long-range, ongoing study called the Race, Crime, and Public Opinion project. Its survey questions attempt to gauge current public opinion on matters of race, crime, poverty, and political enfranchisement in America.

At a Glance …

Born Lawrence Douglas Bobo on February 18, 1958, in Nashville, TN; son of Joseph Randall (a physician) and Joyce (a teacher; maiden name, Cooper) Bobo; married Marcyliena Morgan (a professor of communication). Education: Loyola Marymount University, BA, magna cum laude, 1979; University of Michigan, MA, 1981; University of Michigan, PhD, 1984. Politics: Democrat.


University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, assistant professor of sociology, 1984-90; University of California-Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, professor of sociology, program director for survey research, and director of the Center for Research on Race, Politics, and Society, 1990-97; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, professor of Afro-American studies and sociology and 1997-2001, Norman Tishman and Charles M. Diker professor of sociology and African American studies, 2001-05; Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial professor of sociology, program chair of African and African American Studies, director of Center for Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, all 2005-. National Research Council/National Academy of Science, senior research consultant; Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, fellow; Russell Sage Foundation, visiting scholar.


American Academy of Arts and Sciences, fellow; Social Science Research Council, board member; Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research, American Association for Public Opinion Research, Association of Black Sociologists, National Science Foundation.


National Academy of Sciences, fellow, 2004.


Office—Stanford University, Main Quad, Bldg. 240, Stanford, CA 94305.

One series of questions in Bobo's Race, Crime, and Public Opinion project focused on the fairness of the criminal justice system, and the effect that the federal government's ongoing War on Drugs has had on black families since the 1980s. In a 2006 article Bobo penned for the journal Social Research, he and co-author Victor Thompson wrote that the latest findings from the survey tended to confirm that "we do not have a criminal justice system free of the taint of race bias. Indeed, we believe our evidence on public opinion makes it clear that, in the eyes of most African Americans, the system continues to be seen as essentially unfair by design." In the same article, he and Thompson went on to assert that in the first years of the twenty-first century, U.S. "social policy would seem to be driven mainly by a punitive and retributive logic. Our results suggest that this is a sure path to deepening racial polarization and a further weakening of the legal system's claim to fairness and legitimacy."

Selected writings


(With Howard Schuman and Charlotte Steeh) Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, Harvard University, 1985.

(Editor, with David O. Sears and Jim Sidanius) Racialized Politics: The Debate about Racism in America, University of Chicago Press, 2000.

(Editor, with others) Prismatic Metropolis: Inequality in Los Angeles, Russell Sage Foundation, 2000.

(Editor, with Alice O'Connor and Chris Tilly) Urban Inequality: Evidence from Four Cities, Russell Sage Foundation, 2001.

Prejudice in Politics: Public Opinion, Group Position, and the Wisconsin Treaty Rights Dispute, Harvard University Press, 2006.



American Journal of Sociology, September 2003, p. 496.

Social Research, Summer 2006, p. 445.


"Lawrence D. Bobo," Stanford University, (February 20, 2007).

"Interview: Lawrence Bobo," National Academy of Sciences, (February 20, 2007).

"Unity Month Keynote: Katrina Exposed Racial Divide," Emory Wheel, (April 2, 2007).

                                                                           —Carol Brennan