Director's Letter

Research as Resistance: Scholarship in the Contested Polity

by Andra Gillespie, Director

A Statement from the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference

The recent presidential election and transition has uncovered deep rifts and tremendous fears about the direction of our country.  As citizens of the ivory tower, it would be easy to retreat to our libraries and pretend that nothing is happening.  However, scholars live in the world like everyone else, and it is impossible and unwise for us to countenance the idea that we are insulated from everyday politics.

In the spirit of courageous inquiry and the search for truth, we at The James Weldon Johnson Institute (JWJI) have pondered our role as our country enters what appears to be a very turbulent period.  As a part of a non-profit academic institution, we are non-partisan.  That is, we never have and never will endorse political candidates or engage in electioneering on behalf of any candidate or political cause.  Such activity would not only jeopardize our tax status, but it would hamper our ability to provide a wide berth of programming that speaks to the ways that race and difference operate in a wide variety of social, political and ideological contexts.  We take pride in welcoming scholars and speakers representing a wide variety of disciplines, methodologies, subject matters, and ideological/political perspectives to take part in our programs, and we are happy to welcome speakers who discuss a wide variety of topics: from the role of race in pharmaceutical development to the role of religion in evangelical Latinx political socialization to Afro-futurism.  To support such a wide variety of topics and disciplines requires a certain level of intellectual curiosity and an openness to different ideological, methodological and disciplinary perspectives.

While JWJI maintains a politically neutral position, we are unequivocally egalitarian and empirical.  We hold certain values dear: respect for all people, a commitment to telling the less-told stories of marginalized groups, and an abiding commitment to the empirical tradition.  These values transcend partisanship and ideology and speak to our core mission to promote scholarship which advances civil and human rights.

Thus, we do not see it as partisan to support dialogue and research which interrogates the present state of the world.  Whether we look at art and music, politics, society and economics, or science and technology, we find that people respond to their circumstances and surroundings using the tools available to them.  By systematically studying these topics, whether in a historical or contemporary context, scholars have the ability to explain why people interact in certain ways, why social, political and economic institutions have particular structures and create certain policy outcomes, and why people make scientific advances to address some problems but not others.

Often, this type of inquiry leads scholars to make judgment calls.  They may deem a policy helpful or harmful.  They may find that a new technology is beneficial or unbeneficial.  They may discover that an emerging artistic form has a connection to a social movement.  In any case, scholars make these judgement calls after careful and systematic study.  These findings are not emotional reactions based on personal bias.  Rather, scholars have a mandate to let the evidence guide them and to draw conclusions based on methodologically sound interpretations of data.

This has important implications for current and future political environments.  If we are to maintain our openness to all perspectives and our political neutrality, then we have to remain intellectually transparent and report our findings honestly.  Thus, if our scholarship reveals reasons to praise this or any administration’s policies, we will follow the data where it leads us.  Similarly, if the data warrants our issuing a warning or an alarm, we have a scholarly and ethical obligation to dissent.

This commitment to rigorous, truth-seeking scholarship leads us to take the following positions:

  1. We are committed to the First Amendment and the freedom it affords academics.

We believe that all citizens have the right to express their support for any policy, social or cultural phenomenon, or political administration and to dissent if they disagree.  This includes faculty.  While JWJI is formally non-partisan, this does not preclude our staff and fellows from expressing their opinions as private citizens.  While they do not speak for the organization, we support their First Amendment right to express their opinions.

Most important, we believe that the First Amendment right to free speech extends to the right to research.  Academic freedom is the hallmark of the American academy, and JWJI supports all measures to promote the rights of faculty to engage in all forms of empirically sound research—even if the research findings are controversial.  To that end, we oppose all policies that serve to have a chilling effect on research.  This includes governmental policies (federal, state and local) which limit access to publicly available data and actions which appear to target scholars because the substance of their research runs counter to the political positions of any elected official.

  1. We support controversial and uncomfortable research.

Research on race and difference is inherently controversial.  Scholars who dedicate themselves to studying inequality and discrimination deal with uncomfortable histories and often reveal evidence that puts people, groups, and organizations in unflattering lights.  But it is this type of exposure that opens the door for reform and hopefully, reconciliation.  As such, it is in keeping with our mission to support, through our research fellowships, data collection efforts, and public programming, scholarship which asks tough questions and finds uncomfortable answers.

We suspect that at times, we will offend some people with our findings.  So long as we have been faithful to the scientific method and have engaged in thoughtful and empirically informed research, we are willing to offend people if it moves our society closer to the truth.

  1. We support the informed use of scholarship in public policy debates.

Scholars create knowledge for public consumption.  Whether our work is read in books, consumed in classrooms or debated on cable news, it is important to share our findings.  And we hope that our findings have application in industry, public policy or art.  As we promote the dissemination of knowledge, though, we do note that there are parameters for how we should present and internalize data.

First, while there might be alternative perspectives and new pieces of information, there are no alternative facts.  Lying is unethical and scientifically indefensible.  While we are open to considering new measurements and heretofore underexplored perspectives, we do not do so in a dishonest way or in a way that seeks to only score rhetorical points.

We also value our commitment to proper measurement and interpretation.  We do not endorse apples-to-oranges comparisons employed to advance a particular agenda.  We support the sound interpretation of quantitative data.  For instance, we believe that there are proper, time honored ways to read graphs and charts, and that analysts should know the difference between the findings generated from self-selected, pop-up internet polls and real surveys with scientifically drawn samples and judge their value accordingly.

Finally, we also firmly believe that qualitative scholars have an obligation to fully consider all of the evidence at their disposal and should not ignore inconvenient evidence to suit a particular narrative arc.

  1. We support the academy’s goal to provide learning and professional development opportunities—without any hint of discrimination.

We know that people from all backgrounds, creeds, identities and origins are gifted with the ability to make new discoveries and advance knowledge.  As such, we support the efforts of scholars of all stripes to pursue their calling to create knowledge in all fields and all subjects.  Efforts to deny some scholars access to the United States on the basis of national origin or religion are not only discriminatory, but they also have the potential to slow down the advancement of knowledge.  Scholars learn the most—and produce the most useful knowledge—when they have the ability to engage with colleagues from different perspectives, backgrounds and traditions who ask different questions or bring new perspectives to the table. 

In that spirit, we have made a commitment to offer programming which speaks to all aspects of race and difference—along racial lines, but also in the ways that race and ethnicity intersect with gender, religion, sexuality, national origin, citizenship status, ideology, and other identities.  We welcome all people to participate in our public programming and engage in that sometimes difficult intellectual dialogue respectfully and in a safe and inclusive environment.

It is not enough, though, to welcome all people to our programming.  We also want to support the production and dissemination of scholarship that speaks to the issues that are raised by the current cleavages and controversies. Thus, we welcome applications from visiting scholars seeking to explore questions that speak to contemporary racial, ethnic and intersectional controversies, and we are committed to incorporating excellent scholarship which interrogates these contemporary questions into our regular programming.

  1. We believe in the scientific method.

We recognize that in a free society, people are entitled to their opinions.  It is the job of scholars, though, to lead their audiences to think about entrenched social problems like race and difference in systematic, evidence-driven ways.  If empirical evidence does not ground opinion, then those opinions do not portray an accurate picture of the social, cultural or technological phenomenon that they purport to explain.

The scientific method has utility across the disciplinary spectrum to put facts and emotion in their proper place.  When scholars (in the humanities and the social, natural and technical sciences) talk about being empirical or using the scientific method, we mean that we raise testable questions, develop hypotheses based on prior research, systematically gather and analyze our evidence, and leave ourselves open to the possibility of being wrong, both now and in the future.  The process of research is ongoing and subject to replication, especially as new data sources, measurements and techniques become available.

Unfortunately, too much of our public discourse discounts the orderliness and the discipline that goes into scholarly work.  We do such discounting at our peril.  Without systematic inquiry, we risk making ill-informed decisions that have the potential to lead to disastrous outcomes.

We firmly believe that these goals are perfectly aligned with our nonpartisan stance.  Careful, thorough, empirically based work is not the province of Democrats, Republicans, or third parties.  No faction can monopolize the quest for finding the truth, and no politician should stand in the way of scholars seeking to use their gifts and training to solve hard questions—even if they do not like the answers. 

To that end, we hope that the work that we do contributes to the overall advancement of the public discourse.  By sticking to these principles, we affirm our commitment to the idea that scholarship can be used as a form of resistance to the all too human tendency to divide and to deny people basic human and civil rights.  Our goal is to promote equality through scholarship—to point out the ways that our society has historically fallen short of its democratic ideals, and to offer empirically informed prescriptions that promote opportunity, prioritize truth over rhetoric, and help to solve long entrenched problems in our society.  Now, more than ever, scholars have a responsibility to promote civil, reasoned discourse and to share important research findings with those who are open to exploring hard truths and putting those truths into practice in protest, policymaking and daily life.