Exploring Race and American Society

Feb. 4, 2015

Published in the Feb. 4, 2015, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly

In recent months, spirited protests and vigorous public debates about race relations have unfolded on campus, leading many here to insist on the importance of equality and justice for all citizens and to exhort the University to do more to support Princetonians of color.

To address our campus climate, the Council of the Princeton University Community is working to identify potential improvements to our policies and procedures regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion, and to develop programming that will enhance public dialogue on these vital issues. These efforts will build upon the significant work already taking place at the core of our academic enterprise — in the classroom and in our scholarly research — to explore the complexities of race and American society.

Associate Professor of Psychology and African American Studies Stacey Sinclair, shown here talking with students in a course on prejudice and social stigma, is among many Princeton faculty members whose teaching and research investigate issues of race and American society. (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

Given Princeton’s mission to serve this and all nations, we have a responsibility to bring our scholarship and teaching to bear on urgent societal problems. Princeton scholars campuswide, including in our vibrant Center for African American Studies (CAAS), have a strong tradition of studying race through the lenses of politics, psychology, sociology, religion, history, literature, and other fields.

Under the leadership of chair Eddie Glaude *97, the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies and a renowned teacher and writer on black cultural and religious practices, CAAS scholars are generating impressive research and developing a wide range of courses that are regularly oversubscribed. CAAS course topics this spring, for instance, include the development of the U.S. penal system; African American music; and black women’s experiences with law and social policy.

In CAAS and across campus, Princeton faculty members are providing a breadth of opportunities to better understand the past, present, and future of our society’s relationship with race. To cite just a few examples:

Stacey Sinclair, an associate professor of psychology and African American studies, examines interpersonal interactions with a focus on ethnic and gender stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Her experiments illuminate how people’s views of themselves and others are influenced by those they encounter; how attitudes about certain ethnic groups can be transferred between people; and how implicit prejudice affects the lives of white and black Americans. She introduces students to these concepts through courses such as “Social Stigma: On Being a Target of Prejudice” and “Prejudice: Its Causes, Consequences, and Cures.”

Keith Wailoo, the Townsend Martin Professor of History and Public Affairs and vice dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, has done groundbreaking work at the intersections of health, society, and race. Among his books are Pain: A Political History, How Cancer Crossed the Color Line, and Dying in the City of the Blues: Sickle Cell Anemia and the Politics of Race and Health. His popular course on “Race, Drugs, and Drug Policy in America” surveys how drugs became a centerpiece of public debates about immigration, identity, criminality, and other controversial social issues.

Anne Anlin Cheng ’85, a professor of English and African American studies, is a specialist in 20th-century Asian American and African American literature and culture, whose books include The Melancholy of Race: Assimilation, Psychoanalysis, and Hidden Grief and Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. She is the founder of “Critical Encounters,” an interdisciplinary public conversation series that bridges the divide between theory and practice, and focuses on matters of race, cross-cultural translation, and social justice. This semester, she is teaching “Literature, Food, and the American Racial Diet,” which explores the links between “taste,” consumption, and racial politics.

Douglas Massey *78, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, is an eminent urban sociologist and a prolific writer on immigration, race and housing, discrimination, education, and poverty. His recent works range from a study of the impact of affordable-housing development to an investigation of the performance of students of color at selective colleges and universities. In his “Race and Public Policy” course, he examines the historical construction and institutionalization of race in the United States from colonial times to the present.

Complementing these established leaders, Princeton continues to recruit talented emerging scholars who are forging new paths in studies of race. Examples include three new assistant professors: LaFleur Stephens in politics, who is working on a book about how U.S. political candidates use racial appeals in majority-white jurisdictions; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in African American studies, who is working on a manuscript about government promotion of home ownership in black communities after the urban rebellions of the 1960s; and Ruha Benjamin in African American studies, whose recent book, People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier, investigates tensions between scientific innovation and social equity.

In addition to those cited here, many other Princeton faculty members are deeply engaged in teaching and generating knowledge about race and American society. Through their commitment to these issues, Princeton’s scholars provide our students and our society with fundamental insights to aid our understanding of whether the American republic is truly living up to its ideals.