James Jackson

by Susan Rosegrant
April 2009

Surrounded by students and researchers, James Jackson, director of the Institute for Social Research (ISR), leans back in his chair, one hand on his chin, and listens intently. Darrell Hudson, a doctoral student in public health, is practicing a talk for an upcoming American Public Health Association meeting. In it, Hudson will propose that blacks who are upwardly mobile may suffer more depression than less affluent blacks because of the costs of mobility. Hudson’s work and the researchers gathered to discuss it are part of the Social Neuroscience of Health Disparities group, an interdisciplinary collection of graduate students and post-docs pulled together by Jackson to investigate the interaction of genetic, social, and environmental factors in influencing health disparities among populations.

James Jackson

Nursing one of the several cups of coffee he’ll drink that day, Jackson listens to Hudson and then to the other researchers, who dig in with constructive criticism. Jackson kids with the students, assures Hudson he’ll do well, and then—arms crossed over turtleneck sweater—smoothly cites studies and figures that buttress Hudson’s argument. As the conversation turns to the impact of chronic stresses on African Americans, Jackson breaks in. “What is the difference between a middle-class black and a middle-class white?” he asks, then answers: “The middle-class black is one paycheck away from poverty.”

For a researcher who has devoted more than three decades to advancing scholarship regarding race and ethnic relations, immigration, disparities in physical and mental health, aging, and African-American politics, the fact that groups like this have become an integral part of the work going on at ISR must be deeply satisfying. Without question, it’s a different world than when Jackson joined ISR as an assistant professor of psychology in 1971. “The ’60s had a lot more impact than people knew,” says the 64-year-old Jackson. “It laid the groundwork for what we’re seeing today, which is an incredible breakthrough of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans, being propelled to very important and prominent positions.” Barack Obama’s election and the appointment of minorities into top government posts, he says, are just the latest manifestation of this profound shift. “That’s all a function of things that happened in the ’60s. By the time the ’70s came along, things really had changed.”

Jackson has been both instigator and beneficiary of that change. In 1960, he was still living in Inkster, a village outside of Detroit populated by African-American auto workers and their families. Future members of Motown’s girl group the Marvelettes lived right down the street, and Jackson’s mother worked as a ward supervisor at the nearby Wayne County General Hospital—a sprawling psychiatric hospital complex formerly known as Eloise. His parents were divorced, and his father moved from job to job, working for the automobile companies and later doing airport boiler maintenance. Both his parents were talented and smart, Jackson says, but it never fell in place for them to go to college. His mother went right into the workforce; his father served during World War II and passed up the full scholarship he had been offered. “It would have changed things for him a lot,” Jackson says.

As for himself, Jackson knew he wanted to go to college, which would make him the first in his family to do so. At Dearborn Heights Robichaud High, he did well. He played football and other sports, a common route to higher education for many African-American boys. He was also in Latin Club and Biology Club, and had decided to study engineering. But it was a different era, he recalls. Divisions by race were overt. The neighboring city of Dearborn was notoriously segregated, due to open intimidation tactics against African Americans by long-time mayor Orville Hubbard. Large parts of the country still had black toilets and white toilets. The only encouragement Jackson got to continue his education came from his mother and a few crucial teachers. “Black kids were never counseled to go to college; they were counseled to go to work in the automobile factories,” Jackson states bluntly.

This did not stop him. “I always thought I could do anything I wanted to do,” Jackson says, with a wry smile. But it did constrain him, at least at first. Jackson decided he wanted to study at a big school and chose Michigan State—never even entertaining the thought of attending the other big state school. “You have to understand the kind of racism and structure of the late ’50s and ’60s,” he says. “At my high school, there would have been no counselor who would have ever thought about recommending that I go to the University of Michigan.”

Jackson’s worldview was to change dramatically over the next several years. He switched his major from engineering to psychology. He worked several jobs to pay for college, from being a night janitor, to hooking steel slabs at Ford’s Rouge auto plant, to designing and implementing course evaluations at MSU’s continuing education program. Through Robert Green, a psychology professor at MSU and close lieutenant of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackson met King, Malcolm X, United Auto Workers leader Walter Reuther, Jesse Jackson, and others. He entered a master’s program in psychology at the University of Toledo, then left to spend two years as a probation counselor with a caseload of about 116 families. In 1969, Jackson began pursuing a Ph.D. in social psychology from Wayne State. There, as head of the Graduate Student Organization, he met Toni Antonucci, a new graduate student who would later become his wife. And in 1971, Jackson became an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan—the school that, about a decade earlier, he had considered out of bounds. Of the 176 people in the department at that time, Jackson says, he was the first African-American faculty member to be hired full time.

James Jackson

As a social psychologist, Jackson began doing research within ISR’s Research Center for Group Dynamics, where the social psychology program was then located. Jackson wanted to take research on race and health in new directions, but although the institute seemed open to such projects, there wasn’t much precedence for it, nor were there many people of color ready to take on the work. In addition, as Jackson delved deeper, he kept butting up against a construct in the field that struck him as “really bad science.” Social scientists at the time studied blacks, women, or other groups by using comparative frameworks; you understood something about blacks by comparing them to whites, and about women by comparing them to men. “The problem with that, of course, is that it always leads to deficit models of how you understand things,” Jackson explains. “Because for a lot of the variables that we’d look at—in terms of education outcomes, mobility, and so on—for a set of very real structural reasons, these groups were always going to be worse off.” He adds: “Race is not the only comparison that’s important when you’re doing research on blacks.”

In 1975, working with graduate students and ISR research scientists Gerald and Patricia Gurin, Jackson brought these ideas together in a proposal for a new program and a new study. The Program for Research on Black Americans that Jackson had in mind would collect national data on African Americans that would significantly advance academic scholarship and develop more effective public policy. In addition, it would provide much needed research and training opportunities for social scientists and students of color. As Jackson envisioned it, the program’s signature endeavor would be the National Survey of Black Americans, an extensive and nuanced look at the lives of African Americans, including not just education, economic status, employment, and physical and mental health but also crime and community contact, the role of religion and church, race identity, self esteem, and more. This data, Jackson believed, would not only paint a clearer picture of the lives of African Americans, but would form a baseline against which to measure future progress, identify disparities among blacks, and point to fruitful lines of future research.

But the idea that African Americans could be studied outside a comparative framework by looking at a broad range of individuals within the black community—all of whom face the same type of structural impediments—was a radical concept. “It was very difficult to get that study done,” Jackson says, “both in terms of getting the funding in order to be able to do it, but probably more importantly, getting acceptance within the building to do it.” And in an undertaking as complicated as survey research—which involves sampling, data analysis, and more—Jackson explains, it would be “very difficult to work within a context like ISR if you don’t have the respect of your peers.”

Fortunately, Jackson’s work and his ideas had won over some important backers, including research scientists Robert Kahn, the Gurins, and Robert Zajonc. “The notion that somehow you become successful outside of the context of people helping you is pretty silly,” Jackson says. “Just as in high school there were teachers who had confidence in me, and coaches who would help me out, the same thing was true here.” ISR Director Angus Campbell called a special meeting in Thompson 6050, and Jackson laid out his proposal to ISR’s principal research scientists. In the end, he says, “the weight of the intellectual argument” brought most people around.

The groundbreaking National Survey of Black Americans, launched in 1979, went on to be hugely influential; Jackson considers it his most important contribution. More than 2,000 black Americans were surveyed, and were then re-contacted eight, nine, and 12 years after the initial interview. Among other findings, the survey produced data on previously unrecognized rates of psychological distress and serious personal problems.

Just as important, Jackson says, the survey—the first time the African-American community had been studied “in its own right”—opened up an array of opportunities for hundreds of students and researchers of color, who were able to use the data to test ideas relevant to their own work. According to M. Belinda Tucker, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, the impact of the survey cannot be overstated. “If you count up the number of behavioral scientists who have been trained within that program, I don’t think there’s a comparable program in the entire country,” says Tucker, who was Jackson’s first dissertation student and a co-principal investigator on the proposal for the study. “It gave me the opportunity to work side by side with people who were giants in the field—great behavioral scientists, but also incredible mentors.” She adds: “When I think about how young James was, to have the audacity to propose these kinds of activities was pretty remarkable.”

From this pioneering start, Jackson took his research in a number of related yet distinct directions, sometimes in collaboration with Toni Antonucci, who became a faculty member at Michigan in 1978, married Jackson the following year, and went on to become the Elizabeth M. Douvan Collegiate Professor of Psychology and a senior research scientist in ISR’s Life Course Development Program. Through a research appointment at the Sorbonne that he held for almost 20 years, Jackson studied European immigration for the European Commission and later the European Union. At ISR, his interest in immigration and mobility—both material and social/psychological mobility—drove efforts to understand the interface between race and ethnicity. Using Afro-Caribbean communities in the United States, England, and Canada as models, Jackson set out to learn why these immigrant groups experienced different living conditions, economic outcomes, and physical and mental health issues than native-born blacks, and how that might change over generations. “The question we’re trying to answer,” he explains, “is what are the conditions under which ethnicity trumps race, and what are the conditions under which race trumps ethnicity.”

James Jackson
Jackson also began researching a theory in its own way as controversial as his early work to launch the National Survey of Black Americans. Jackson wanted to understand why African Americans and other groups who have worse physical health and higher mortality rates than non-Hispanic whites suffer less from major depression and other mental disorders. The answer, he believed, was self-medication in response to chronic stress. “What we find is that for African Americans who are under very stressful conditions from life, those who smoke, drink, overeat, or use drugs and alcohol are protected against serious mental disorder, such as major depression.” In other words, the very behaviors that may stave off depressive disorders contribute to chronic physical problems and decline. Among the research efforts underway to test the theory, Jackson says, is a collaboration with the university’s Cardiovascular Center to follow more than 400 patients recovering from heart attacks or other heart episodes. According to his “perverse hypothesis,” Jackson says, patients living under chronic stress who religiously follow the instructions of their heart doctors—for example, by no longer overeating and by limiting or eliminating alcohol and cigarettes—are more likely to become depressed.

As Jackson’s research expanded and his publications increased, he continued to mentor hundreds of students, and to chair scores of theses. “Any African-American scholar will tell you this,” he says. “You’re on every single committee in your department, every committee in the university, every national committee. My life has been full with that.” Meanwhile, the accolades began to roll in. In 1990 Jackson became professor of health behavior and health education at Michigan’s School of Public Health. In 1995 he was named the Daniel Katz Distinguished University Professor of Psychology. The following year he became the director of ISR’s Research Center for Group Dynamics. In 1998 he was named director of the university’s Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. And in 2005, Jackson’s career took a new turn when he became director of ISR. “I get to work with an incredible array of social scientists from a broad breadth of disciplines,” he says. “It’s probably the best social science job in the country.”

In taking the helm at ISR, Jackson has wanted to modernize the institute but not to tamper with what he believes is a key strength—independent, decentralized research operations. “ISR is organized optimally for research,” he says. “Having centers that are autonomous, having individuals and programs within those centers that are autonomous, allows us to move very quickly into new areas.” ISR’s confederation structure means there is always a lot of “jawboning” before anything can happen, Jackson says, but even this can be a strength, as the airing of different ideas and perspectives forges a better outcome. “This place is 60 years old,” he says. “It has a rich institutional history. If you get too far out in front of your institution, then you’re not really a good leader.”

Outside of the research realm, Jackson has moved quickly to fix certain institutional weaknesses. He has been in regular talks with university officials about how to finance a substantial renovation of ISR’s aging Thompson Street building. He created the Center for Institute Services, giving greater status and “esprit de corps” to centralized support functions such as the business office, development, and the director’s office. He energized the Director’s Advisory Committee on Diversity, pulling staff and researchers from all the centers to recommend policies and practices to increase recognition of and appreciation for diversity. He sought to “flatten” the organization, in part by creating a sense of connectedness through increased staff initiatives, and by making himself available through “Coffee with the Director” sessions and an open-door policy. In all these efforts, he tried to combat the sense among many that the institute “is not like what it used to be” by finding new ways for people to meet and for them to feel attached to the organization.

Of course, Jackson’s own work has changed since taking over the directorship. He no longer does any classroom teaching. Administrative business, whether institutional or university-wide, pulls him into several meetings every week. He serves on multiple committees and boards, and travels regularly to attend professional meetings, government panels, and international conferences. Finding time to raise money for his own research and to satisfy collaborators is hard. But Jackson insists that he still makes time for fun. He reads mysteries, watches sports, skis, and loves spending time in Florida and Paris with Toni and his two daughters, Ariana, 27, and Kendra, 25.

Jackson also hasn’t stopped being a mentor. In addition to overseeing several research groups, including the one on health disparities, he regularly meets one-on-one with doctoral students and post-docs—the researchers who are helping to push his ideas forward and who are contributing their own. The range of activities, the diversity among researchers, and the academic promise of work now underway—especially compared to 38 years earlier—is enough to make Jackson feel positively optimistic. “I can see progress,” Jackson says, nodding. “I can see changes. But we could do better. We can always do better.”