An Interview with Social Psychologist James S. Jackson: Researching Racism in Specific ContextsSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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J:You've done extensive research both in the U.S. and abroad, so you were the ideal person to head CAAS. What are some things you were able to accomplish during your first term as CAAS director and what are the challenges that lie ahead?
Jackson: One of the main challenges over the first three-year period was to reestablish CAAS. We were down to very few regular faculty-about six or so. And we also had to work on issues of curriculum and rebuild our administrative infrastructure. We now have an outstanding faculty. We have hired about 30 new people, most at 50 percent appointment, half tenured and half non-tenured, and tried to build strengths in important areas. Our African-American history group was named number one by U.S. News and World Report last year, and we were very pleased that Fred Cooper, chair of the history department, has been superb in cooperating in building this area. We've also had some excellent hires in anthropology and English, and we've also done well in film and video studies.
And we redid the curriculum, under the able leadership of Professor Marlon Ross, and won a prize for curricular innovation from LS&A. We also rebuilt the infrastructure of CAAS, beginning with a new key administrator all the way down, with a design and a plan for supporting faculty.
We're now working on building a graduate program. At Michigan in order to capitalize on the superb departments and interdisciplinary orientation, you have to build interdepartmental programs and work very closely with various academic units. There is some resistance to it-in terms of why we need a joint PhD program in African-American studies and another department when we already have a PhD program in that department, so we have to discuss why it's important to think about graduate studies on the borders between the two. The first program we're working to develop is in anthropology and African and African-American studies, which will be in place by 2003, at the latest. Then we expect to move to other areas of strength and where there are natural linkages, for example, sociology, which has a race and ethnic studies track.
J: CAAS is unique at Michigan in that it's the only area studies program that is also connected with studies of diaspora populations. What are the reasons for this, and what are some of the effects of it?
Jackson: The nature of the African diaspora(s) makes it necessary for us to combine the domestic as well as the international. We think those two need to be woven together. What's happening across the country now is that those places that have separate African-American and African studies programs are trying to figure out how they can get together. It's very difficult when you have independent institutions. So in some ways we're the envy of programs around the country that would like to see themselves in this position. If we're going to study peoples of African descent much more broadly, then we need to have the two combined.
In our new undergraduate curriculum our students begin with a very broad course that covers peoples of Africa in the diaporas in a very general way. Following that introductory course, students track themselves into either Caribbean studies, African studies or African-American studies, depending on their interests. Then, after their junior year, they are brought together in a series of seminars that reconnect to the introductory course and show the interrelationships and why it's important to have those interrelationships.
A PhD program would have some of the same focus. For example, people could be African specialists, but we'd like them to have some appreciation and understanding of the larger placement of peoples of African descent around the world. Those are the kinds of people we've been hiring-faculty and staff who have that kind of understanding and have those cross-interests.
J: Do you think this model will carry over into other area studies programs?
Jackson: I think that's the future for area studies. It's a way of conceptualizing the humanities and the social sciences that makes a lot of sense. It certainly makes a lot of sense for studies of people of African descent whose historical movements were largely the function of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But there's a lot of voluntary movement today. At ISR we're now conducting a major study of the Black population of the United States, and the peoples of Africa coming to the West now present an interesting contrast with peoples who have been here a much longer time.
There's something to be said about beginning to understand not only the context of how people live their lives in their homelands, but also as these peoples move to different parts of the world, how does that affect or change their worldview, their culture, their understanding of their relationships to the homeland. You can see that really clearly, for example, in South American, Latino, Mexican-American, Cuban and Asian-American studies.
J: What sorts of insights on race relations in the U.S. have you gleaned from your international research?
Jackson: I've spent a lot of time in France and became interested early on in the problem of intergroup relationships there and how to understand them. This work relates to the question, is there something peculiar about the nature of intergroup relationships in the United States. Most of this research focuses on racism and intergroup conflict and related issues that have been largely studied on majority-minority relationships in the United States. We raised the question, was the nature of the relationships among dominant and subordinate groups the same in different national contexts with significantly different social histories. There are three aspects to it. One is, what is the nature of the relationships between dominant and subordinate groups and how do we understand them. Second, how do we understand the orientations, belief systems and feelings of the dominant groups and orientations to those of the subordinate group. And, third, do dominant groups organize themselves in relationships to the subordinate groups in the same way across the world? So, how do the majority of Brazilians view people of Indian and African background in Brazil? How do dominant groups in France view subordinate groups like North Africans and Southeast Asians in France, and so on.
The second issue is, do groups that are in subordinate positions in these countries experience their lives in similar ways? That is, is it better, to be a Turk in Amsterdam than to be a Turk in Berlin? The issue is, do I experience my life as a subordinate member of society in the same way in both places? That's the kind of question we're trying to answer.
And, finally, is there something about the nature of the relationships among and between these groups that is different as a function of the location and the social-cultural history of those groups? We have studies going on in Japan, Brazil, Eastern and Western Europe, trying to look at the nature of inter-group relationships.
One of the things we've understood is that, for the most part, the immediate causes of dominant group antipathy toward subordinate groups, whether in France, England or Germany, is threat, that is, the perception of threat. What motivates threat is different. So the French, up to now, have not felt particularly threatened by North Africans on an economic basis, but they have felt threatened by Southeast Asians, who have a slightly different kind of orientation to French culture (e.g. religion) than North Africans, a different reason of why they came to France in the first place and are somewhat better culturally situated. On the other hand, the French feel particularly threatened by North Africans because of their religious and cultural beliefs, the kinds of behaviors they engaged in, but they don't feel this toward Southeast Asians.
This has significant implications for developing intervention programs. For example, you probably would have a difficult time changing antipathies that the French feel toward North Africans by having a change program that focused on economic threat. On the other hand, it might be an effective way of dealing with antipathies towards Southeast Asians. There's been a long argument in the field about universalistic versus cultural-specific perspectives. The argument that we're making is that both are true. It just depends on where you look. So, if you want to know the simple answer to the question, "why do people feel antipathies?" I say because there's perceived threat. On the other hand, if someone says, "how do I understand what needs to be done in order to bring about change?" I would say that I need to know something about the social structure and the history of the group and the settings of the conflicts. That's a general finding that we expect to be true wherever you are.
We're now expanding the national sites for examining our models. We've done a study in Japan, looking at Chinese, Koreans and other subordinate groups. We're doing a study of color and status in Brazil and how the color line plays itself out in relationship to socioeconomic position. We'd expect to find the same kinds of relationships that we have found in our other studies.
J: When you talk about dominant and subordinate groups, are there any similarities in traits that the dominant groups attribute to the subordinate groups?
Jackson: A lot of times they will marshal very similar arguments. The white majority in the U.S. will often argue that subordinate groups, including Blacks and Hispanics, are lazy, they're on the dole and so forth. So people tend to martial similar arguments to support their particular antipathies, and the antipathies, we argue, arise from perceptions of threat. But as I indicated before, there are some areas in which there's a difference and that's what we're interested in looking at, as well. For example in England, the English tend to muster economic arguments against South Asians more so than they do toward West Indians. The English have been less likely to perceive West Indians as an economic threat.
As another example, there's a real belief among the European populations, especially strong in France, that it's very important for people to give up their own particular cultural beliefs and backgrounds when they move to France. It's very important that the people assume the national aspects of what it is to be French. If you're going to be here, you're going to be French, (or Dutch or Greek) -you cannot be a "dash" in our country. This belief seems to be much stronger in Europe than even in the United States.
That's an interesting issue. Here you have a world-wide revival of ethnicity and feelings of ethnic pride and you have people who are living in other countries because of economic necessity. They are being told, particularly by European citizens, that we don't want you to express those kinds of ethnic behaviors here. Given globalization and the movement of economically marginalized peoples around the world, many individuals and families who now have immigrant or refugee status will try to live their lives out in places where they can have dignity and economic freedom; but may face eventually, following initial periods of active hostility, like in Germany, tremendous pressures for cultural, religious, and social
J: Are there any broad similarities and differences in perceptions of race that you've found in the U.S. and other countries?
Jackson: One of the most interesting similarities we've found is a world-wide love of whiteness-it's a fascinating issue. For example, in Europe we've done some studies where we ask whom people like. There's a clear gradient from the south to the north. I joke sometimes that southern Europeans like northern European and northern Europeans like themselves. As for differences, in the U.S we have a very peculiar notion of race-that one drop of Black blood makes a person Black. That's very unusual around the world. In almost all other places, one drop of white blood gives you the "potential" to be white, if your phenotypic features are like those of white people. In South Africa, for example, historically under Apartheid, members of the same family could be categorized as belonging to different racial groups, depending on their skin tone and features. In the United States and around the world, whiteness is valued both between groups and within groups. The larger issue is why this value is placed on whiteness, which is really a political, hegemonic category, and what is that all about?
J: In what way can this work you're doing in France or Japan benefit race relations in American society?
Jackson: If we want to understand racism as a system of social, psychological and material domination in the United States, then we have to have some understanding of racism elsewhere. It's very difficult to comprehend the nature of racism in the United States if we solely study the phenomenon within this one national site. Economic, political, psychological and material contexts, as well as social-cultural history, are so important that you really can't understand a process and system like racism if you study only one nation state. You really have to have a truly comparative perspective. That's one of the reasons why CAAS's relationship with the II is so important. It opens up the potential for truly comparative kinds of work and collaborations with a broad range of international scholars.
Social psychologist James Jackson has been teaching and conducting groundbreaking research in race relations and Black Americans at the U-M since 1971. In 1999 the National Institute for Mental Health awarded his research group, the Program for Research on Black Americans, over $8 million in grants to conduct a new multiethnic and multiracial study that he is directing, The National Survey of American Life. Jackson is director of ISR's Research Center for Group Dynamics, and was recently appointed to serve another three-year term as director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies (CAAS). In addition to his studies of populations in the U.S., Jackson has also conducted studies of prejudice and discrimination in Brazil, England, Germany, France, The Netherlands and Japan. Journal editor Bonnie Brereton interviewed him in his office at ISR this summer.