By William Harms
Photo by Jason Smith

We believe that race is something that is poorly understood in this country, and we have a public obligation to help improve that understanding.”
—Michael Dawson
CSRPC Director

Growing up in Chicago as part of a well-respected, politically connected family, Michael Dawson developed a deep interest in politics. His great uncle was the legendary William Dawson, a Chicago congressman who championed civil rights and campaigned for the election of President John F. Kennedy.

“I remember many conversations at home from the 1960 election,” recalls Dawson, now one of the nation’s leading experts on African American politics and the founder and director of UChicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.

From his childhood in Chicago to later experiences in the vanguard of black students entering elite universities, Dawson saw how differently blacks and whites often view the world. Such observations have informed his research, as well as Dawson’s overarching goal of transforming knowledge into social action.

Dawson says the challenges facing the black community today require a deeper understanding of the political forces at work, and new forms of political mobilization.

“It became clear to me that in order to mobilize, blacks and other groups need to understand what people actually believe, how the world is rapidly changing economically and politically, and better understand how those beliefs and changes in the economic environment allow us to positively change the world we live in,” Dawson explains. “What we can do in academia is provide the foundational research and tools for citizens, movements, and policymakers.”

For Dawson, understanding the condition of African Americans requires asking the right questions, gathering reliable evidence, and writing about it without the baggage of widely accepted illusions.

“His work has and continues to introduce critical concepts and fundamental insights about the role of race in American politics,” says Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor in Political Science and the College, calling Dawson “the preeminent political scientist studying black politics of his generation.”

Learning to be an activist

Dawson, the John D. MacArthur Distinguished Service Professor in Political Science, says some of his outlook on the value of political mobilization developed in his time as an undergraduate at Stanford University in the 1960s. After experiencing racism first-hand as a student, he joined with other black students to campaign for changes.

“There were very few black students in a student body of 12,000,” Dawson recalls. “There was quite a bit of racism at the time.”

The 1960s were a heady time for political organizing. Dawson and his friends formed a coalition with Latino and Asian students to confront the problems minorities felt on campus and bring about changes to make it more welcoming to people of color.

Dawson left Stanford to work in the computer industry in Silicon Valley and continued as an activist for minority rights. But in the early 1980s, he decided to return to college to complete his education. After finishing a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley in 1982, he attended graduate school at Harvard University to study political science, receiving a PhD in 1986. “I wanted to use my interest in technology and my experiences in mobilization and combine those with my interest in the social sciences,” he says.

Background in mobilization promotes better understanding of politics

Dawson’s taken the next step in his recent research on politics and the African American community in his new book, Not in Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics, which looks at political opinions among blacks in the last decade and contrasts them with white attitudes.

Race has a big impact on how Americans view politics, Dawson says. His work finds sharp contrasts between how African Americans and whites feel about their country.

“Shortly after the [Hurricane] Katrina disaster, barely 20 percent of blacks believed that racial equality for blacks would be achieved either in their lifetimes or at all in the United States.” By 2008, three years after Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, Barack Obama was elected president and slightly more than half of blacks then said they believed they would soon enjoy equality, Dawson found in opinion surveys he conducted in researching the book.

Whites were even more optimistic about the advent of racial harmony, with nearly 80 percent feeling that blacks would soon achieve equality, he found.

Yet, with the passing of another three years, the euphoria has waned, Dawson says. The election did not lead to a resurgence of black political effectiveness or a reduction in racial conflict. Poverty among African Americans has continued to rise as the national economy has struggled.

The young people who gave so much support to Obama are the hope for a new civic awareness, he says. Social media provides an opportunity for young people to share their thoughts, organize, and take control of their futures.

Center for Race, Politics, and Culture provides special insights

Dawson joined the UChicago faculty in 1992 and was the founding director in 1996 of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. It was organized as a way to draw together faculty from the humanities, social sciences, and elsewhere in the University to discuss important issues in racial identity. Dawson was named again earlier this year to lead the center and he says that multidisciplinary mission remains a distinguishing feature of the centers work.

“Other universities have strong African American studies programs, but what we do is look at issues of race more generally,” he says. “The center intends to expand its public voice by upgrading its website, for instance, and look for other ways to be a larger voice on campus, in the community and nationally.”

“We believe that race is something that is poorly understood in this country, and we have a public obligation to help improve that understanding — just the same as economists have an obligation to speak up on issues that have an impact on the economy,” he says.