Michael Dawson, 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
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.”
- Jeanie Chung