Can Social Science Heal America’s Racial Division?

October 18, 2017

By Nayah James

Dr. Algernon Austin, Ph.D., former director of Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy (PREE) spoke on campus, spewing facts like an overfilled glass on a table to the students that packed the Springer Suites last week.

Austin’s program PREE focuses on “expert reports and policy analyses on the economic conditions of America’s people of color,” courtesy of his personal web site.

Time and time again, he has discussed racial inequalities on news media platforms like CNN, PBS, NPR and more. In his latest book, “America Is Not Post-Racial Xenophobia, Islamophobia, Racism and the 44th President,” he speaks on President Obama’s run for presidency from the aspects of public opinion and the denial of racial issues.

He believes “social science can help, but it alone, unfortunately cannot heal America’s racial divisions.”

There are two roles social scientists can play in healing America’s racial divisions: one is being consumers of media and social media and engaging in political debates and the other is applying basic scientific training (knowledge) to racial justice careers.

Austin continuously insisted that political debates need to be grounded in fact-based, credible evidence. He spoke of this “politically polarized” version of America and how as a society we are identical to an echo chamber. However, Austin’s primary focus became misinformation and how “polarization” occurs around racial issues.

“Only 11 percent of white Republicans say that we pay too little attention to racial issues and nearly five times as many Democrats say that we spend too little attention of racial issues,” Austin said. “Nearly six in ten white Republicans say that we spend too much attention, but only two in ten white Democrats say the same.”

He pointed out how we can observe the divide by race.

“Latinos and African Americans are much more likely than whites to want us to do more around racial issues,” Austin said. “With each passing year, the differences in attitudes and perceptions between whites and people of color become more significant.”

During Obama’s run for President, he was criticized for not being born in America but John McCain, who was not born in America but on a U.S. military base in Panama, did not receive the same criticism according to Austin.

“In my analysis, Obama’s ‘blackness’ is implicated in the challenge to his American-ness and Christian-ness,” Austin said.  

According to his research, individuals scoring the highest on anti-black racial resentment index “measured feeling of hostility towards blacks and are most likely to believe that Obama was not born in the U.S. and that he is Muslim.”

During Obama’s race against Romney, both had a share of haters, but there was a significant difference in people against Obama according to Austin.

False ideas play a huge role in contemporary politics, according to Austin.

“If there was less anti-black and anti-Islamic resentment, there would definitely be less attacks on President Obama.”

Austin states that it is urgent that we keep false ideas out of the political debates and that it is important that we challenge misinformation.

Another problem that few people discuss is the denial of problems around ethnicity.

Many American’s took Obama’s win as proof that racism ended in America and that it signaled emergence of a “post-racial era”.

It is not impossible to think that students at Dominican can contribute to healing America.

According to Austin, we can help by working with research and advocacy organizations on racial justice issues and if all Americans are committed to working to solve the issues, more progress can be made.

Students were pleased with Austin’s points.

“I personally thought the information was well presented and his statistics matched public opinion in real ways,” said junior Melanie Thompson. “I didn’t like that he didn’t have much to say regarding my asking on how can we tangibly push politicians to use better language, but overall he did a good job.”

Another junior felt he did a good job as well.

Student Whitney Adams said, “His information was quite informative. He recited in-depth research with facts and not public opinion. I’m glad he has done research on this issue because it’s something I can refer to in my own research on discrimination, racial issues and overall diversity.”