Michael Dawson (above), an expert on race and politics, was the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. (Photography by Jason Smith)

Joining forces

The Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture nurtures cross-disciplinary research and programming.

Michael Dawson, LAB’68, believes a “postracial society” is not only possible but desirable. “I don’t think we would want a postethnic society,” says the director of the University’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, noting the importance of acknowledging and celebrating different ethnicities. “But to the degree that systematically [race] relates to power, resources: yes, let’s get rid of it.”

Examining race in politics, economics, sociology, health care, and other areas led Dawson, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science and the College, to found the center in 1994, a place where he and colleagues whose work addressed race in different contexts could combine forces and share resources. The center’s function is threefold: It offers an undergraduate major and minor in comparative race and ethnic studies, as well as fellowship support for doctoral students whose work engages issues of race and ethnicity. It produces public programming. And, in an area that has grown along with the number of affiliated faculty, it produces research addressing race, ranging from Mexican art to health care disparities worldwide.

Although the work of Dawson and early affiliated faculty tended to fall under African American studies, the group decided from the beginning to tackle race broadly rather than to have separate areas for African, Asian, Latino, and other ethnic studies. Part of the decision was practical: the center simply didn’t have enough faculty to do justice to each area separately. But part was also an intellectual choice.

“Graduate students of mine have challenged me, that I’m too much thinking in terms of the black/white paradigm,” Dawson says. “It’s helped our understanding of race and ethnicity both within the US and internationally to be able to have a comparative perspective.”

In its first 10 years the center grew to 30 faculty affiliates, and today it has 64 affiliated faculty, drawn from every division and nearly every professional school on campus.

Every year the center hosts an academic conference, presenting papers on health disparities, particularly related to young at-risk communities of color. The conference is organized and led by faculty in UChicago Medicine, Chicago Harris, and the School of Social Service Administration. Other research projects  include a new investigation into race and capitalism and an ongoing collaboration with the University’s Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory, focusing on social media and other online communication in political discourse.

Beyond the research, the center seeks to bridge the gap between scholarship and community engagement and activism. Tracye Matthews, the center’s associate director, notes that its public events tend to draw a large audience from outside the University as well as from within. The 2014 public lecture, by actor and activist Danny Glover, drew 600 people; the previous year’s, by scholar and activist Angela Davis, drew 2,200.

Like so much of the Division, the center draws strength from collaboration, both among affiliated faculty and with other centers and institutes. The center shares a building with the University’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, and the two centers have collaborated on everything “from picking the colors of carpets to scholarly programming,” Dawson says. They offer a joint graduate fellowship for a student whose work addresses both race and gender.

Looking ahead, Dawson hopes to increase the number of pre-and postdoctoral fellowships the center gives out, noting that every year it has to deny applications “of extreme scholarly merit.” He also would like to build capacity to bring in visiting scholars. Having nurtured an informal mentoring program for junior faculty of color or whose work deals with race, the center is working with the provost’s office to build a more structured program.

Whether or not a postracial or postethnic society ever happens, Dawson sees a need for the center for the next 20 years and beyond. “Like history,” he says, “race in this country and internationally is something that will be a scholarly area of interest way beyond the time where it’s a pressing issue of contemporary politics.”


Knowledge into action

As protesters took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in August, responding to the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer, a report (pdf) came out: “The Policing of Black Communities and Young People of Color.” Among the study’s findings: black youth “hold considerably more negative views toward  the legal system and the police” than other groups. The report also stated, “This is not a new phenomenon.”

During the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Youth Project released a report on black youths’ views toward the legal system. (Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10)

This was one of the monthly reports released by the Black Youth Project, a national collaboration based at the University’s Center or the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. Led by Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science, who chairs the department and is a faculty affiliate with the center, the Black Youth Project seeks to inform, give voice to, and advocate for young black people.

Events like the Ferguson shooting and protests serve as more than research data for the center. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, the center

  • conducted a nationwide general survey, asking how Katrina, its aftermath, and associated media coverage affected racial attitudes;
  • hosted a faculty seminar for professors and graduate students across the Midwest, “Hurricane Katrina and Contemporary America”;
  • hosted a panel moderated by journalist William Raspberry, “Revisiting the Dream in the Aftermath of Katrina, Race, Class, and Politics in America”;
  • addressed the events and their media coverage in Cohen’s course Contemporary African America Politics; and
  • hosted a lecture by journalist Farai Chideya, who discussed “long-term lessons for black empowerment gained from the tragic events following Hurricane Katrina.”

Center director Dawson expects long-term research and similar programming to follow in the wake of the events in Ferguson.