From policing to politics and bias to business, Emory scholars are receiving national attention for bold, unflinching research into race.
When Emory historian Carol Anderson wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post on protests and lootings in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the 2014 death of Michael Brown, she knew there would be a reaction.
In her op-ed she called Ferguson “the latest outbreak of white rage,” the result of white backlash against African American advancement.
“When you say things of consequence, there are consequences,” says Anderson, who is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor and chair of African American Studies. What she did not anticipate was the op-ed going viral with more than 5,000 online comments on the Post’s website, becoming one of the most-read articles of the year.
Then the publishing world came calling. When the op-ed brought calls from a literary agent and the offer of a book contract from publisher Bloomsbury, Anderson put her research and writing into high gear to get the manuscript into print — and into the national conversation — quickly.
Her resulting book, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, not only helped feed the national conversation about race and culture, but the New York Times bestseller would win the acclaim of literary critics for her bold, forthright voice.
Anderson’s literary work also won the National Book Critics Circle Award (NBCC) for criticism. In announcing the award, the NBCC described White Rage as “a searing critique of white America’s systemic resistance to African American advancement.”
In a review of her book, writer, critic, and NBCC board member Walton Muyumba noted that “White Rage sits like a hub among several recent and present NBCC finalists,” including Claudia Rankine and Matthew Desmond. The book “operates efficiently and elegantly, offering readers new intelligence about the American experience.”
Perhaps most gratifying to Anderson is that the book’s message has been heard by a wide range of readers. “A lot of times, I’ll get emails like the one saying ‘I’m a 70-year-old white man in St. Louis. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. Thank you for writing White Rage,'" she says.
Race and American politics
Last fall, as a volatile presidential race was drawing to a close, Emory political science professor Andra Gillespie was also garnering national attention — in this case, as a highly sought after analyst.
From the New York Times to the Washington Post and CNN, Gillespie was among a handful of Emory experts who became go-to resources for national and international media, online bloggers, and civic groups struggling to make sense of a campaign saturated with unexpected developments.
With her own research grounded at the intersection of race and politics, Gillespie emerged as a sense-maker amid a caustic and unpredictable presidential race. Not only was she teaching one of several fall courses focused on elections — Race, Gender and the 2016 Election — but to expand her perspective, Gillespie had attended both the Democratic and Republic national conventions.
“As an academic,” says Gillespie, “it was very illuminating to see that process up close and personal. I can’t help but bring those experiences into classroom discussions, and students have been interested.”
Following daily political gyrations not only informed what she brought to the classroom, it also fed her own research, notes Gillespie, who identifies strong ties between her public scholarship and teaching. An associate professor of political science, she also serves as director of Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference.
“One benefit of public scholarship is the fact that there are times when reporters will ask something that I can’t answer in the moment, but that raises important empirical questions that are researchable,” says Gillespie, who is working on books focused on elections and the political process.
Many of the media questions she fielded addressed black and minority candidates, minority voting behavior, and candidate Donald Trump’s often-controversial comments surrounding minority groups. All of it helped feed her own scholarship — a book due out later this year examines the representation of African American interests in the Obama administration.
“In my own writing, I’ve been interested in black politicians who try to present themselves as being racially transcendent in order to expand their appeal,” Gillespie says.
About 15 years ago, some scholars argued that political candidates were no longer directly appealing to race — that a candidate wouldn’t be expected to make explicit appeals that could easily be characterized as racist by opponents, she notes.
“Now we’ve seen the success of overt racial appeals in a presidential election that we wouldn’t have dreamed of in the past,” says Gillespie. “That interests me not just as a public scholar, but as something that will motivate my research for perhaps the next decade.”
“Those of us who study race and politics knew that race was still an important subtext in American politics,” she adds. “This election reminds us that race is not just the subtext of American politics. It is the text. And that is something we need to understand so that we can face the dialogue of reconciliation.”
Racial bias and language
Goizueta Business School professor Erika Hall also found herself making headlines with her research on racial biases related to both titles and the role that they may play in law enforcement and the judicial system.
An assistant professor of organization and management, Hall teaches negotiation to BBA and MBA students. But her research passion is informed by the racial and gender inequalities that she sees on a daily basis, both within and outside the business world.
Some of those inequalities are implicit in racial titles, she found. In a paper Hall published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, she suggests the terms “black” and “African American” can take on different meaning in different settings.
White Americans, her research indicates, perceive the word “black” as having more negative connotations than “African American.” And Hall and her fellow researchers found employees identified as black, while equal to African American counterparts, were presumed to be of lower socioeconomic status and have less education.
Hall and her colleagues also discovered distinct biases in the media when the term “black” was used to describe those of African American descent. In a National Public Radio interview, Hall observed that news articles using the term “black” projected a more negative emotional tone in general.
Her broader research focuses on the influence of race, gender, and class-based biases on interactions within the workplace and society. She also looks at how leaders with multiple minority identities are perceived in teams and organizations.
In more recent work, Hall has examined how race — and the many biases of skin color — may impact law enforcement and the judicial system.
Her research paper, “Black and Blue: Exploring Racial Bias and Law Enforcement in the Killings of Unarmed Black Male Civilians,” published in American Psychologist, explored the psychological antecedents to the highly publicized police killings of unarmed black men in the US in 2014.
The paper reviews several studies that consider how certain law enforcement strategies may cultivate bias. “The other side of the paper talks about how, even though there are these mechanisms within police organizations, the bias itself is rooted in the people, not the police,” Hall says.
“So it says everybody's biased, but then there might be some additional mechanisms within the police that might exacerbate these biases. But we can change those, because those are organizational things.”
The real problem — the root cause, she contends — is the proliferation of such biases in the general population.