Obama’s “beer summit” guests saw through the racial veil. (Saul Loeb/AFP Photo/Newscom)

Faculty research

UChicago researchers see through the racial veil, find thinking in a foreign language leads to more rational decision making, move toward a universal flu vaccine, and determine that ninth-grade performance affects the graduation rate of nonnative English speakers.

Race can’t be erased

In his book Seeing Through Race (Harvard University Press, 2012), W. J. T. Mitchell examines W. E. B. DuBois’s notion that “the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil and gifted with second sight in this American world.” A media, visual art, and literature theorist, Mitchell considers race in contemporary culture through that metaphorical veil, arguing that it should not be removed with the intent of creating a “color-blind” society, a goal he calls neither achievable nor desirable. The post–civil rights era, culminating with President Obama’s election in 2008, has prompted many theorists to consider race an obsolete concept. But race, Mitchell contends, is essential to understanding social reality, “something we see through, like a frame, a window, a screen, or a lens, rather than something we look at.” Mitchell analyzes current events such as Obama’s “beer summit,”  the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the work of artists such as Kara Walker and Spike Lee, using the veil as a tool to better understand race and to combat racism.

A shot at a universal vaccine

People infected with the H1N1 (or “swine flu”) virus in 2009 produced antibodies that protected them against other influenza strains—an unusual immune response to such an infection. That discovery led researchers, including UChicago immunologist Patrick Wilson, to study the immune response in people vaccinated for H1N1. The study of 24 healthy adults found that they all quickly developed antibodies that protected against a variety of flu strains. Reporting the results in the May 21 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers characterize their findings as a key step toward the goal of a “universal” flu vaccine.

Pensées rationnelles

Thinking in a foreign language promotes rational decision making, psychologist Boaz Keysar argues in an April 18 Psychological Science paper. In a study coauthored with Sayuri Hayakawa, AM’09, and Sun Gyu An, AM’10, Keysar found that people took more favorable risks when considering a situation in a foreign language—because, the paper contends, they distanced themselves from the emotional effect of their native tongue. “An emotional reaction could lead to decisions that are motivated more by fear,” Hayakawa says.  In an experiment involving statistically favorable bets on coin tosses, for example, participants were 14 percent more likely to take the beneficial chance when they thought about the potential outcomes in a foreign language.

To the ninth degree

Performance in ninth grade predicts the academic future of nonnative English speakers in the Chicago Public Schools more than any other factor. According to a report issued in May from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, how well nonnative speakers, regardless of race or ethnicity, perform as freshmen has a much stronger correlation to whether they will graduate than language proficiency or background. The report, What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public Schools: A Focus on English Language Learners, finds that nonnative speakers on track after ninth grade are 3.5 times more likely to graduate than off-track students. Additionally, English language learners who enroll in the Chicago Public Schools after age 12, the report says, are less likely to graduate than other students with similar grades and attendance records. For those latecomers, the most significant factor associated with their lower graduation rates is the quality of schools they attend, suggesting that they have difficulty navigating Chicago’s high-school choice system. Nonnative speakers represent about 14 percent of Chicago Public Schools enrollment, slightly above the national average.