Political Activist Behind a Desk: Camille Z. Charles

Camille Z. Charles believes that where you live influences everything that happens to you and sets you up for the rest of your life.

Before joining the University of Pennsylvania faculty in 1998, Charles, a scholar of racial inequality, was conducting research on minority students at elite universities. She found that those who came from segregated neighborhoods weren’t faring as well academically as their white peers.

“Blacks and Latinos are underrepresented on these campuses and, when they are here, they tend to underperform academically, and we wanted to know why,” Charles says. “The ones who struggle the most come from racially segregated neighborhoods. But the ones that come from predominantly white neighborhoods don’t necessarily struggle at all.”

Her initial research began in 1996 when Douglass Massey, a Penn sociology professor at the time, approached her to collaborate with him on the project to study the academic trajectory of black students at highly selective institutions.

Charles was a junior faculty member in the Sociology Department at The Ohio State University. She joined the Penn faculty two years later and today is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Social Sciences, professor of sociology, Africana studies and education and director of the Center for Africana Studies.

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