Groundbreaking strides: Research of Political Solidarity among African Americans

Hakeem Jefferson is the winner of the 2017 Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion.

Hakeem standing behind a podium speaking.

Hakeem Jefferson at the Other America Conference, January 2018. Photo by Michael McIntyre/ISR

For much of Hakeem Jefferson’s childhood, he lived “right through the yard” from his grandparents in Gable, South Carolina. Reflecting on the numerous conversations he had with his beloved grandfather, the 2017 recipient of the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion, recognizes that those porch discourses were fundamental to his development, both as a citizen and a scholar. In fact, those chats were a critical springboard for his love of politics. “Though he lacked much of the formal education I’ve obtained, my grandfather was one of my earliest teachers. He recounted tales about being a black man in the South during the period of Jim Crow, and was keenly aware of how race and power shaped outcomes,” Jefferson says. “My grandfather never told me to stay in my place. He invited me into conversations he would have with others from our community – allowing me to become comfortable early on with wrestling with big, important questions.”

More recently, Jefferson, now 29-years-old and a doctoral student in political science at the University of Michigan (U-M), found himself grappling with the focus of his dissertation. “I really struggled with figuring out exactly what my dissertation would look like. I knew I was interested in heterogeneity among black people. I knew I was interested in stigma. I knew I was particularly interested in ways that black folks thought about punishment,” he says. With the help of his primary advisor, Vince Hutchings, professor of political science and research professor in the Center for Political Studies, Jefferson eventually decided to focus on the curiously high levels of African-American support for punitive social policies that negatively affect the life outcomes of in-group members. His project is titled, “Black, but Not Like Me: When Political Solidarity Breaks Down Among Black Americans.” He is proud to point out that his work is one of the first attempts to theorize and empirically test the connection of politics of respectability, where members of marginalized groups police their own members to show their social values as being continuous with mainstream values, to African-American backing for harsh social policies.

The bulk of Jefferson’s study was conducted using a sample of 500 African-American respondents from YouGov, an online polling firm. He asked respondents various questions regarding their racial group identity. For example: How important is being black to your racial identity? And, how linked do you think your fate is with that of other Blacks? He inquired about the frequency with which they felt an array of emotions when they thought about their racial group. Did they feel shame? Embarrassment? Anger? Respondents also had to answer several policy questions, such as their support for bans on sagging pants, work requirements for welfare recipients, beliefs about the causes of gangs in American cities, and support for the death penalty. “I found that measures of group-based shame correspond with higher scores on the respectability politics measure and that my measure of respectability uniquely predicts black approval for a range of punitive social policies,” he says. He adds, “I had them answer a battery of questions that serve as my respectability politics scale. It’s one of the chief innovations of my work.” Beyond its contribution to the study of African-American politics, Jefferson is confident that his measure and theoretical framework will assist other scholars looking to understand heterogeneity within other marginalized groups – particularly as it pertains to group members’ treatment of the most stigmatized among them.

Garth Taylor

Garth Taylor. Photo by Eva Menezes/ISR.

Jefferson is also self-assured that he will be able to get at least a couple of papers out of his data and the information will additionally be explored further in a book project. This summer, he’s thrilled to be relocating to Palo Alto, Calif., where he will join the faculty as an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University. Before he moves he’ll have the opportunity to meet retired pollster Garth Taylor, who established the Award in 2013. Taylor, who prefers meeting the recipients when they are near the end of the project, is enthusiastic with Jefferson’s work thus far. “I haven’t had a chance to meet Hakeem yet, though we have had some mail and email exchanges. The plan is for us to meet at one of his public presentations or his dissertation defense,” he says. “What Hakeem has done so far is impressive. He is studying a rare and hard-to-reach population that is expensive to contact. He needed the money to execute a sample that would be carefully selected and large enough to pass the standards for publication in a refereed journal. This is a great use of the fellowship funds – and one I had not imagined at the beginning.”

Jefferson says he has no idea what he would have done had he not won the fellowship, and it has made his life so much easier. “The award is $10,000 and I spent $8,000 on a representative sample of Black Americans from YouGov. I got a lot of great data that formed the basis of my job market paper and is central to the work of my dissertation thanks to Garth Taylor,” he says. And Taylor can certainly appreciate where Jefferson is coming from. He asserts, “I got the idea of the fellowship because I could have really used something like this. It would have been a real asset at a critical time at the beginning of my career. Hakeem now has a good launching pad for his career and a future book.”

In addition to his prospective book project, Jefferson is working on two papers. Also, with his colleague, Steven Moore, he recently organized a conference called, The Other America: Still Separate. Still Unequal. Jefferson says it was designed to give voice to African Americans in the United States who bear the costs of unequal systems across various domains of American life. “We were intentional in bringing together an interdisciplinary group of individuals to talk about issues related to the criminal justice system, economic inequality, education inequity, and environmental justice,” he says. The event was very well-attended and was beyond anything he had imagined.

Hakeem standing next to Luke Shaefer and Darrick Hamilton seated at the panel table.

Hakeem, right, speaking with panelists Darrick Hamilton, left, and Luke Shaefer at the Other America Conference in January 2018. Photo by Michael McIntyre/ISR.

Jefferson is hopeful that his work will “help people understand the multi-faceted and complex nature of inequality and the ways that all of us – sometimes for different and somewhat complicated psychological reasons – contribute to its persistence.” He is still getting messages from people who attended and were moved by the conference. With one African American undergraduate student telling Jefferson that the conference provided additional inspiration to dedicate his career to fighting injustice, and others going out of their way to tell him about the impact it has had on their thinking, it would appear that Jefferson’s hopes are already coming true.

For more information about the research awards offered by the Institute for Social Research, please check out the Awards and Fellowships Page.

Comments are closed.