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MacArthur Geniuses Focus On Race-related Issues

Dr. Jennifer A. Richeson of Northwestern University says that she’s no genius, despite being awarded a $500,000 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant which has been dubbed the “genius” award.

The 34-year-old associate professor of psychology recently received the distinguished recognition after she and 24 other individuals were selected by a 12-member panel for contributing creative excellence to their various fields.

“I’m happy that the work has been recognized and I’m incredibly honored,” says Richeson, “but I don’t consider myself to be a genius at all … I’m just a regular person.”

In selecting Richeson and the others, the Chicago-based foundation noted that the fellows were chosen because their work demonstrated an unmatched level of originality, dedication and creativity.

Richeson and Dr. John A. Rich, who chairs the health management and policy program at Drexel University, were recognized for their expertise on issues surrounding race. Richeson in particular was selected because of her work in studying interactions between races.

“I find it all so interesting,” she said in an interview a few days after receiving a call on her cell phone notifying her that she was selected. “Thinking about how we navigate diverse environments; it’s so multifaceted.”

Through methodological techniques, Richeson evaluates the behavior of individuals during interracial conversations or interactions. An individual’s body language, direct eye gaze, tone of voice and speech patterns are all indicators of how comfortable a person may or may not be in a particular situation, she says.

“When you are talking about attitudes and concerns about race, nervousness will come through non-verbal analysis,” she says. Richeson’s work highlights the discomfort that some White individuals attempt to hide when speaking to a person of color.

Richeson, who is also a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research and an affiliate professor of its African-American studies department, says she mainly focuses on interactions between Whites and ethnic minorities. In the future, she says that she may analyze interactions among minority groups.

Similarly, Rich of Drexel has been addressing the health care needs of African-American men for more than a decade. A medical doctor, Rich’s research has centered on the link between violence and the lack of health care available to young Black men.

During the early 1990s, he noticed a decline in the number of patients of color who sought medical attention at primary care facilities. Additionally, while working in the AIDS Clinic of Boston Medical Center, he noticed that a disproportionate number of Black men were HIV infected. Alarmed by the trend, he established the Young Men’s Health Clinic, which provides long-term medical care and educational services for young men of color.

“We were trying to configure services that were meaningful for this group,” he says. “The goal was for us to see them for their medical problems and make sure there’s a strong network to refer them to in order to fulfill their other needs.”

Rich adds that an improved understanding of the lives of young, Black inner city men would help to better assess their needs when they enter the health care system and will ultimately help curtail violence.

Examining the impact of violence among Black men has been a central part of Rich’s work. He says he is interested in providing alternatives on how young Black men might be able to cope with trauma, stress and the overall burden of growing up in cities rife with drugs, guns and poverty.

“It’s much more complicated than bad people doing bad things,” he says. “The cause of people getting injured has more to do with the hostile environment in which they live than an inherent flaw within their character.”

Rich, who holds a medical degree from Duke University and a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University, says he is unsure of how he will specifically use his $500,000 stipend. But he says it will go toward his continued research on health and violence prevention in the Black community.

“The wonderful thing about the award is that there’s no pressure to make a quick decision or to use the funds in any particular prescribed period of time,” he says. 

Like Rich, Richeson remains unsure of how she will specifically use the funds. The Baltimore native says her research interests are fueled by her own upbringing of being raised as a Black female in a predominantly White environment.

Originally, Richeson wanted to pursue a career in political science but found her calling while majoring in psychology at Brown University. She then went on to pursue graduate studies in social psychology at Harvard.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation created its fellowship program in 1981. Fellows are identified as individuals, who through their professional work demonstrate a great capacity for future success in their endeavors.


Daniel J. Socolow, who directs the MacArthur Fellows Program, says the purpose of the fellows program is, “to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.”

Individuals are chosen from various sectors of life. Current recipients include a jazz violinist, a painter, a mathematician and an aviation engineer. Each recipient receives a $500,000 stipend, which is paid directly to them over a five-year period.

-Dana Forde


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