Transforming Knowledge into Social Action

Dawson's research on political beliefs could help African Americans seek solutions to inequalities.

Michael Dawson, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, knows from his experience and research how politics can shape the future of blacks in America-and how blacks can shape politics.

A political organizer for 10 years before he went to graduate school, Dawson says the challenges facing the black community today require first a deeper understanding of the political forces at work, and then political mobilization.

"It became clear to me that in order to mobilize, blacks and other groups need to understand what people actually believe, how the world is rapidly changing economically and politically, and better understand how those beliefs and changes in the economic environment allow us to positively change the world we live in," Dawson explains. "What we can do in academia is provide the foundational research and tools for citizens, movements, and policy makers."

For Dawson, understanding the condition of African Americans requires asking the right questions, gathering reliable evidence, and writing about it without the baggage of widely accepted illusions.

Dawson's political surveys have revealed a deep divide between whites and blacks in America over basic issues. He found that blacks and whites had totally different responses to watershed moments in the recent history of U.S. racial relations, such as Hurricane Katrina and the election of President Barack Obama.

One of Dawson's surveys showed that 64 percent more blacks than whites believed that the residents of New Orleans would have been evacuated faster if they had been white. Blacks were 50 percent more likely than whites to believe the hurricane exposed race problems in America.

This racial divide extends to many issues. For instance, blacks were 37 percent more likely than whites to disapprove of the war in Iraq, said Dawson, whose research is reported in the Not in Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics, to be published in November.

The election of Barack Obama in some ways changed everything and in other ways changed very little, Dawson points out. Although the surveys at the time of the election showed rising hope among blacks that racial differences would be overcome in their lifetimes, that hope has declined. Yet whites are much more likely to be optimistic about the likelihood of racial equality being achieved. "The election of Barack Obama was important symbolically, but he could not overcome decades of disadvantage all by himself," says Dawson, the Director of the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture.

Some established activist groups that have sustained the black community are declining in influence as the community seeks to mobilize itself, Dawson has found. Yet among young people, the ones who gave so much support to Obama, there may be hope for a new civic awareness. Social media provides an opportunity for young people to share their thoughts, organize, and take control over their futures, he says.

Within a few decades, whites will constitute a minority of the American electorate, offering blacks and others an opportunity to make substantial political gains, Dawson says. That could transform the political and economic structures that have contributed to the disadvantage of African Americans and other marginalized communities.

"A new generation of young black activists is developing to meet this challenge," Dawson says.