Blue Devil of the Week: Researching the Sociological Matrix

Professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva focuses his work in the area of race

Eduardo Bonilla Silva has toured the country and made international stops in Brazil, Columbia, England and France to give talks on racism and diversity. Photo by Duke University Office of News & Communications.
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has toured the country and made international stops in Brazil, Columbia, England and France to give talks on racism and diversity. Photo by Duke University Office of News & Communications.

Name: Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

Title: James B. Duke Professor of Sociology

Years at Duke: 12 

What he does: Bonilla-Silva teaches courses on race and ethnicity for undergraduate and graduate students in the Department of Sociology. His course, “Sociology of Racism in America,” examines the social history of major racial groups and their relationships to one another. 

“Race is not something that matters to just some people,” Bonilla-Silva said. “Race matters for all of us. It’s wonderful to have discussions on this topic in courses where the students come from all sorts of backgrounds. It enlarges the conversation.”  

Bonilla-Silva has spent 20 years researching the sociological concept of color blindness, where race does not affect a person’s opportunity and standing in society. He’s written seven books on the topic. The most recent of which, “Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America,” was released in July 2017. 

In 2017, Bonilla-Silva served as the 109th president of the American Sociological Society, a nationwide nonprofit with 13,000 members. He’s toured the country and made international stops in Brazil, Colombia, England and France to give talks on racism and diversity. 

“I see sociology becoming more diverse,” Bonilla-Silva said. “I see that in the undergraduate and graduate students who are attending my classes and the Ph.D. students I am sponsoring."

What he loves about Duke: Bonilla-Silva enjoys taking an afternoon stroll through Sarah P. Duke Garden’s Historic Terraces and admiring the gothic architecture around West Campus. 

“Duke is one of the most gorgeous campuses in the world,” he said. 

A memorable time at work:  Bonilla-Silva loves the first day of class. He likes to compare the first week of meeting students to the film, “The Matrix.” 

In “The Matrix” the main character is offered a choice between a red pill and a blue pill. The red pill would free the character from an ideal dream world and force him to face harsh realities while the blue pill would keep him in a simulated world. 

“Are they going to take the red pill and see how racism in society is structured,” Bonilla-Silva said. “Or are they going to continue living unaware of the challenges we face? The choice is on them. I love to see their reactions.” 

Favorite object in his office: Bonilla-Silva’s late mother, Ruth Silva, was also a sociologist. He keeps a book she wrote about domestic abuse in Puerto Rico called “Love Kills: Violence Against Women in Marital Life.” 

Ruth’s book was one of the sources the Puerto Rican government used to criminalize domestic abuse in 1989. 

“Her book has become ever more important to me since she passed away,” Bonilla-Silva said. “It’s a little bit of her legacy that I carry around with me.” 

Best advice received: Bonilla-Silva was born in Pennsylvania but moved to Puerto Rico when he was toddler. Before he moved back to the mainland United States in 1984 for graduate school, his mother told him to “walk like a king” and not let anyone put him down. 

“She said, ‘be proud of who you are and of your background,’” Bonilla-Silva said. 

First-ever job: Bonilla-Silva worked at a camp for children with special needs before college in San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

“The experience was foundational for my sociological outlook,” he said. “I’m always assessing the needs and issues affecting those that need help.” 

Something most people don’t know about him: Bonilla-Silva won an award for “Best Looking Baby” in his hometown of Bellefonte, Penn. 

“The town only has about 6,000 people in it,” he said. “In all likelihood, the competition was quite limited.” 

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