Asking The Right Questions
Psychologist puts African Americans at the center of social science research.
By Kendra Hamilton
ANN ARBOR, Mich.
“The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” They were immortal words, words that defined a crucial era of American race relations. But now, at the dawn of a new century, the globalization of the race problem that W.E.B. DuBois also foresaw is taking on a new dimension, and Dr. James Jackson of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research is right there documenting the shift.
“It’s not a Black-White world any more,” Jackson says, noting that the nation’s Latino population overtook the African American population in the last census — a shift that was not predicted to occur until 2005. “The world is a much more complicated place.”
Jackson, a social psychologist who directs both the Research Center for Group Dynamics and the Center for Afro-American and African Studies at Michigan, sees his mission as understanding — and helping the rest of us to better understand — just how complicated the world’s racial landscape really is.
To that end, he has garnered an $8 million grant from the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) to revisit and expand upon the landmark research he conducted 20 years ago.
It was then that Jackson founded the Program for Research on Black Americans (PRBA) at Michigan, an entity dedicated to the then-startling proposition that one could learn far more from putting African Americans at the center of research inquiry rather than making crude and not always relevant comparisons to Whites. The PRBA made its mark on the social science landscape with its 1979-80 National Study of Black Americans (NSBA) — the first nationally representative household survey to ask in-depth questions about the lives and views of African Americans. The study yielded a rich trove of data that fueled a small publishing boom by Jackson and his PRBA collaborators. In books and a veritable blizzard of scholarly articles, the research group has tackled subjects in areas as wide-ranging as Blacks and mental health, Blacks and aging, Black voting patterns and citizenship behavior and — most recently — Blacks in a diversifying nation. It’s precisely this background, plus an unusually persuasive project proposal, that made Jackson’s latest research interest so attractive to NIMH.
“We’re making a very big investment,” says Dr. Steven E. Hyman, director of the national mental health agency. “When all is said and done, over the life of the project, we’ll be spending about $9,431,000.” That level of funding is more than $1.8 million per year, whereas the more typical NIMH grant average is $150,000 per year. “This is a very, very large grant by any standard,” says Hyman.
But Hyman adds that the agency believes Jackson is worth the investment. “This is going to be the most comprehensive survey of the mental health of African Americans, really, in the history of the United States and it’s long overdue,” Hyman says.
The National Survey of American Life, for which data collection began in February, will be a much larger study than the 1979-80 NSBA. Encompassing a 12,000-person sample compared with the NSBA’s 2,000-person sample, this study looks at the diversity within the contemporary African American population — including adults, adolescents, Black Americans and English-speaking Afro-Caribbean immigrants and their descendants. And it also includes large national samples of Latinos, Asian-Americans and European Americans.
The study has several groundbreaking dimensions. Afro-Caribbeans, for example, are virgin territory for such a large research study. And so are Black adolescents, which is surprising given the frequent media pronouncements about this population. In fact, this will be the first national survey of Black adolescents, says Dr. Cleopatra Caldwell, the co-associate director of the PRBA and an assistant professor in Michigan’s School of Public Health.
Jackson admits that he is particularly taken with the multiethnic and multiracial focus of the study.
“We’re really excited about taking an in-depth look at various different groups in American society — African Americans and others — and finding out what are the ways in which they are interacting now, what are the ways in which they view themselves and others, what are we looking at in terms of the future,” he says.
“Given the rates of intermarriage, are we looking at a Black-Brown world in which African Americans are not considered part of a group of ‘Brown’ people?” Jackson asks. In such a scenario, America might begin to look more like certain multiracial societies of South America, in which power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of a White-Brown elite, while Blacks remain as a permanent underclass. “The data collection will help us to answer these questions,” says Jackson.
In some ways, the notion of “the question” has always been central to Jackson’s thinking about African Americans. He arrived at the University of Michigan in 1971, a newly minted member of the junior faculty, never dreaming of the direction his career would take but possessed of a burning conviction that a great deal of social science research on African American communities was just plain misguided because researchers had been asking the wrong questions.
“We wanted to give voice to the people in the kind of research that we did. Remember, we were coming out of the 1960s, when issues around community activism, community control, community involvement were more of a general notion,” Jackson explains.
Jackson recognized that “social science research is oftentimes problem-focused. The questions tend to start from the perspective of asking, ‘What’s wrong with Black people?'” Jackson says. “We approach the issues from a very different perspective. Our question is, ‘Given the structural impediments that they face, why do Black people do so well?’ Or as we say when we’re joking among ourselves, ‘Why aren’t Black people crazier than they are?'”
The simple shift in emphasis allows a focus on aspects of African American life that were, for generations, simply not on the radar screen of the scientific literature.
“We tend to focus our questions around issues of resilience,” Jackson explains. “What are the psychological and social strengths that African American communities have? What are the ways in which they’re raised, the kinds of messages that their families give them? So that kind of orientation is always in the background, and it’s led us to interesting findings that we never would have gotten to had we not started from a different perspective,” says Jackson.
Some of those findings have touched on some of the most basic issues surrounding racial identity formation.
“For example, a lot of people have claimed that holding an African American identity was about White opposition, that somehow to be close to and to feel a part of African Americans meant that you were opposed to Whites. We found no evidence of that,” Jackson says. “In fact we found just the opposite: African Americans tend to be charitable and understanding of Whites in a way that, perhaps, doesn’t serve us all that well,” he adds with a chuckle.
Also, in those areas where Jackson and his colleagues have trod, stereotypes have fallen by the wayside.
Jackson, for example, countered stereotypes that minority status automatically leads to higher rates of depression and mental illness with studies that proved distribution rates for mental illness among African Americans were, in fact, no higher than in the general population. Indeed, Jackson’s research found strong evidence that African American family relationships and commitment to spiritual life acted as significant buffers against mental health problems.
“He’s also been one of the few people who’s taken on in a rigorous way issues like the potential impact of racism and discrimination on mental health, issues of disparities in the way African Americans are treated in the mental health system,” says Hyman. “For example, he was one of the handful of investigators who recognized in a quantitative way that Black American males were statistically more likely to get inappropriate and excessive doses of anti-psychotic drugs when compared with other groups.”
Dr. Richard J. Hodes, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging, is also strongly supportive of Jackson’s work.
“James Jackson is a major force in the field of aging research,” he says. “For more than 30 years, he has provided dynamic and charismatic leadership in the behavioral and social sciences and has shaped how we recruit and retain, in a culturally sensitive way, minority group members for participation in behavioral and clinical research.”
Caldwell, Jackson’s colleague at the University of Michigan, believes that Jackson’s impact — and that of the PRBA — have been felt in three broadly defined areas. “One is from the scientific perspective, in terms of really engaging in a dialogue with the scientific literature,” Caldwell says. “There were others who paved the way in the 1960s — people like Dr. Andrew Billingsley and Dr. Robert Hill who pioneered talking about the strengths of Black families. But James has really raised the bar from an empirical standpoint,” she says.
Just as important, however, is the activist, interventionist component of PRBA’s programming. “If you’re trapped within a comparative paradigm for your research — asking how do Blacks compare to Whites — that doesn’t tell you anything about Blacks,” Caldwell explains. “But by looking at the diversity that exists among Blacks, we can find the strengths as well as the weaknesses” and move forward in the policy realm to fashion interventions that build on those strengths.
Finally, there is Jackson’s focus on mentorship and training.
“James has been quite a visionary, and he’s been a phenomenal leader and mentor for many, many people,” says Caldwell.
From summer research institutes for undergraduates through its programs for postgraduates and visiting faculty, the PRBA has been a major source of training and support for a highly diverse contingent of social and behavioral science researchers.
“We’ve had over 100 different postdocs, 50 or 60 dissertations, so literally when I say that hundreds of people have been trained and influenced by this work, I mean that,” Jackson says.
Caldwell notes that she herself is a product of the top-notch social science training provided by Jackson. She earned her doctorate at Michigan in the early 1980s, and after a detour into policy work as a congressional health analyst, then as a project director for an adolescent health program at the NIH, she found herself moving full circle back to the University of Michigan.
“All my experiences led me back to academe because I realized that it was really critical at this level to have African American trained researchers to do the work. And I’m also here partly as a trainer, which I got from James because of his role in training me,” Caldwell says.
The importance of mentoring, of giving back, is mentioned again and again in conversations with those whose lives have been touched by Jackson.
“One of my overriding goals has been to serve as a mentor for Black students at my predominantly White university, to make sure that they stay connected, stay focused, go on to make a contribution,” says Dr. Kendrick Brown, an assistant professor at Macalester College who wrote his dissertation on skin-tone bias under Jackson.
“That commitment is one that I learned from Dr. Jackson because I certainly didn’t get that in undergrad,” Brown says. “I can’t speak highly enough of Dr. Jackson. I feel very privileged and very honored to have known him.”
Back at his office, Jackson is talking about the global nature of his work — explaining his studies of color and class in Brazil, as well as of Indians in England, Turks in Germany and North Africans and Southeast Asians in France. “For 15 years, we’ve been doing work related to what we call international perspectives on prejudice and discrimination,” he explains, adding that the program has recently expanded to Japan.
The conversation strongly recalls the second part of DuBois’s famous passage, the part that is usually left out when the great scholar and thinker is quoted. “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” he wrote, but the rest of the sentence reads “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”
Jackson, of course, scoffs at comparisons to DuBois. “The work that I do builds on the contributions of the past,” he says.
But pressed to assess his own contribution, he does pause a moment before saying: “Since 1980, we’ve really pushed hard to assert that there has to be a much more heterogeneous view of the African American population. That’s the problem with stereotypes — they tend to unfairly homogenize the population.
“Certainly you can find a kernel of truth in every stereotype. If you go looking for a ‘welfare queen’ — as Ronald Reagan did — you will find one. But our concern is different. Our concern is, given the structural impediments — lack of jobs, lack of education, rates of incarceration — then why do we have so many stable African American families, why is the church such an important and productive institution, why do African Americans … tend to be so much more giving than other populations?
“These are the questions that drive our research. If we can understand these things then maybe we can strengthen them and make a difference for the future,” Jackson says.
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