Temple University Press
recently ran a two-part blog
wherein we explained the inspiration for and process of researching and writing our new book, Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns
. In case you missed it, we're reprinting those for you below. Enjoy!
It would only be a slight overstatement to say that my life changed when I met Charlton McIlwain in 2000. My world wasn’t shaken in the way that it was when I met my wife or witnessed the birth of my children, but my professional life over the past decade would certainly have been different had we not both been at Princeton University teaching with the Junior State of America
the summer before America’s innocence was lost (again).
We actually didn’t decide to launch The Project on Race in Political Communication
that summer. That would happen the following year. But we began conversations about our scholarly interests and our perspective on the state of knowledge in political communication with respect to issues of race. To that point, some excellent work had been done, and some of the biggest names in the field were interested in questions about race-based communication. But to the best of our knowledge, there was no sustained, focused effort to study race in the context of political communication. A combination of naïveté and arrogance must have led us – two untenured junior faculty members – to create the Race Project. “Project?” It was just the two of us, with limited funding from our institutions. Who did we think we were? But we had a vision, a semblance of a plan, good training, and a website. We were off.
Ten years later, we offer Race Appeal
, which is the culmination of the first decade of our work together. Our findings aren’t always intuitive, and while they confirm existing scholarship in many ways, they also point to possible trends that will require closer study in the coming years. Charlton and I will be involved in that work, but so will others. Had we not met that summer, though, perhaps neither of us would be.
I spent my childhood raised by Baby Boomer parents who instilled in me a ferocious sense of justice with respect to how I viewed others. There wasn’t a lot of fancy talk about institutional racism, hegemony or patriarchy (let alone heterosexism), but I knew that prejudice was wrong, and I was shielded from overt bigotry. During my years as a member of the Young Republicans of Pennsylvania (I held statewide office during my undergraduate years), where the culture was one of acceptance but a steadfast ignoring of systemic factors that contribute to racial injustice, I had not had my racial consciousness raised. But during those years, I was also listening to Public Enemy and KRS ONE, and I started to have dissonance about the America that I believed gave everyone a fair shot at success. When I heard Chuck D say “I’ve got so much trouble on my mind,” I paid attention. What was I missing? Does race (still) matter (I didn’t experience Cornel West until I got to graduate school)? If it does, how so? And why isn’t it obvious to everyone?
I didn’t study critical race theory in my doctoral program, and while my interest in race-related issues remained high (the O.J. Simpson murder trial took place during that time), my scholarship was elsewhere. But that changed when Charlton and I met. His training and expertise in culture and communication and mine in political science combined in such a way that we saw an opportunity to help advance understanding of those issues.
I am proud of Race Appeal
because it offers a complicated, nuanced set of answers to these types of questions. We found that race-based messages are used by candidates of all races. We learned that potential voters – both Black and White – are likely to punish a candidate whom they perceive is “playing the race card” (irrespective of whether there was intent to do so). We saw less racial framing from media sources than we expected. And we found implicit race-based message alive and well in many recent contests (that is, it didn’t all end with Willie Horton). We didn’t try to be “neutral”; we simply let the data guide our story. Activists won’t herald this book as a manifesto, and social conservatives won’t berate it.
That’s not to say that our work is value neutral. As is evidenced by our public appearances
and the material that we feature on our Facebook
page and Twitter
feed, we have a deep dedication to promoting racial justice and increased awareness of the power of systemic racism. We are driven to understand the myriad ways that Americans can be affected by race-based messages, and, as we look forward to at least another decade doing so, we hope that Race Appeal inspires a new generation of scholars to fill in the many gaps that deserve attention and join us, as well as our predecessors and contemporaries, in putting together this extensive puzzle that comprises the intersection of race, politics, communication and psychology.
The seeds of Race Appeal
were sown back in 1994, when J.C. Watts became the first Black Republican elected to Congress in the South since Reconstruction (in part because of this ad
). In 1996, I worked for Watts’s opponent. Part of my job was to “police” campaign communications; we wanted no one to claim that my candidate “played the race card” like Watts’s previous opponent.
That experience initiated my fascination with race, politics, and communication. In 1998, I worked as the communications director for a gubernatorial campaign in Oklahoma. In 1999, I did the same for the state Democratic Party, and the following year party members selected me to be a delegate to the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
In 2001, I completed my Ph.D. in communication at the University of Oklahoma (where the largest political ad archive is housed). With my doctoral degree in hand, and my short political career behind me, I moved to New York City. After an extended adjustment period that fall, Stephen and I charted a course for what would become the near decade-long project that produced Race Appeal
“Why did it take us so long?” you might be asking. Good question. There are equally good reasons.
There had been more than a decade of post-Willie Horton scholarship and there was still no consensus about what constitutes “playing the race card.” We knew we needed overwhelming evidence to make claims about what does or does not constitute a race-based appeal in political ads. That left us only one option: We had to analyze every available political spot run by and/or against a candidate of color over the past forty years. More than one thousand ads, four three-day-long trips to the archive, and two pilot studies later… You see where I’m going with this.
We also committed to determining whether race-based appeals affected potential voters. To do so, we needed to make our own ads. We did. To test the effects of those ads, we needed subjects, preferably a random sample. We also had to do something previous researchers had not done: test the ads’ effect on both White and Black potential voters. Not surprisingly, our grand plan to break new ground in this area of experimental research required money.
A National Science Foundation grant was our best shot at the time. We applied. We got denied. We reapplied. Our proposal got stronger, reviewers’ responses became more glowing. One day we opened the letter and read “Accepted!” The problem was that the next line explained that they’d run out of money. But we remained hopeful. We kept revising, and the reviewers broke out the superlatives. “Best proposal I’ve ever reviewed for NSF.” “Don’t know how it can get stronger.” One even remarked that he or she had advised funding so many times that he or she was tired of reviewing the proposal since it seemed no funding was to ever come. We arrived at the same conclusion.
That ate up a lot of time. Fortunately, TESS
(Time-Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences) awarded us two in-kind grants, and we conducted rigorous experiments of race-based appeals on a national, random sample of both White and Black participants.
We spent all that time waiting, but we didn’t just sit on our hands. As was the case with the political ads, somewhere along the way we decided it wasn’t enough to just look at ads or test their effects. After all, candidates and voters are not the only players in elections. Several scholars’ research targeted the news media as having a significant (and negative) influence on the election hopes of Black candidates.
Again, we knew if were going to criticize the news media for how they cover campaigns involving candidates of color, we’d better develop a firm basis for our claims. We analyzed newspaper stories written about the campaigns of Black, Latino and Asian American candidates from every part of the U.S. They were from U.S. House and Senate contests taking place over the course of nearly two decades. More than two thousand stories and several analytical methods later… Again, you see what I’m getting at.
Then, out of nowhere, came Barack Obama. Of course, there was no way we could pass up casting a critical eye on the ins, outs and outcome of that historic election.
Add to that the most in-depth analysis of racial discourse in immigration ads and a wide ranging case study of racialized media coverage in three historic campaigns, and there you have it. Race Appeal.
A groundbreaking work of which we are quite proud.
And, one that is, finally, finished!
Labels: book, Race Appeal, RaceProject, racism, Temple University Press, The Project on Race in Political Communication