Q&A: Political Science professor talks whiteness, Charlottesville, Tufts’ role

Counter-protestors of the alt-right rally in Charlottesville hold signs of anti-white-supremacist signs in the street on 16 Aug 2017. Wikipedia

In the wake of white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, some have been left with questions about how the country got here. Deborah Schildkraut, the chair of the Department of Political Science at Tufts, authored the book “Americanism in the Twenty-First Century: Public Opinion in the Age of Immigration” and, last semester, taught the course Public Opinion and U.S. Democracy. Her current research concerns the effect of impending loss of white majority status on the behavior of white Americans going forward, according to the political science department website.

To understand more about the motivations behind the white supremacists who protested in Charlottesville, the Tufts Daily talked to Schildkraut about whiteness in America. She was asked about how she thinks universities should react to events similar to Charlottesville and how she has tailored her courses to fit the needs of students in today’s political climate.

Tufts Daily (TD): Do you believe the behaviors of those involved in the white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville are a result of loss of majority status?

Deborah Schildkraut (DS): You might think that, because the generation coming of age right now is the most diverse generation, younger people might be more comfortable with diversity, and that it might seem less threatening to them. There’s a lot of research to support that the more interpersonal contact with people of different ethnic groups and racial backgrounds, the more comfortable you are around diversity.

Looking at young whites in the U.S. today as a whole, it doesn’t seem like that is happening, even though they’re a very diverse generation … It seems like when you present headlines about changing demographics, if it moves people in a conservative direction, if it moves white Americans in a conservative direction on a range of dependent variables, it does it for the young and old.

TD: So there’s no difference in young and old Republicans’ comfort around diversity?

DS: That’s right … Now again, I’m not really studying white supremacy or neo-Nazism, but a point that several of us scholars who studied this are making is that there’s a bigger story here which is the … increased salience of white identity and concerns about the loss of status. This has far more implications and effects on peoples’ attitudes because there’s so many more people who feel that there are people who support neo-Nazism. The idea of whiteness becoming politically potent in a range of ways is kind of what I’m interested in, and particularly how it might be affecting young people.

TD: What role do you believe universities should play when events like the Charlottesville protests occur on campus? Should they intervene?

DS: There are multiple ways I think universities can be very helpful here. There’s the social side and then there’s the academic side. Socially, I think it’s important to have opportunities for students to talk about their thoughts, their feelings, their vulnerabilities. But there’s also: I speak mainly from the perch of a faculty member, and I think ‘what can my discipline, what can my academic expertise contribute to this?’

So I think there’s a role for the university to be helping highlight people on campus who have academic expertise, who can provide suggestions on readings and help separate fact from fiction, and think about what some rigorous scholars should tell us about why these things happen and what we can do to make them better.

After Trump got elected, for example, one of the things I organized as chair of the political science department was a faculty panel about what to expect in a Trump presidency, and we had a packed house … We have an expert on national security. We have an expert on healthcare. We have an expert on immigration. We have an expert on the Middle East. Let’s get them all together and talk about how we should be thinking analytically about this. So there’s definitely opportunities to do stuff like that.

TD: How have you incorporated the recent political climate into the classes you teach?

DS: In my class last semester, my [Public Opinion and U.S. Democracy] class … we had a lot of readings about public opinion and tolerance and free speech and ‘What are the things that lead people to give a more tolerant response?’ and ‘When are people wanting to draw the line and rein in free speech opportunities?’ … We spend a lot of time trying to sort out the evidence of ‘Did Trump win because of economic anxiety? Did he win because of racial anxiety?’ It’s a difficult question to study, but there is some research on it, so we spend a lot of time looking at that. That was a topic I’d never covered in class before.

In my Intro to American Government class [last] fall, we [spent] a lot of time thinking about how much of what we’re witnessing is really unique and unprecedented and how much of this is stuff that the country has actually experienced before.

TD: What would you say are some of the answers to that?

DS: One thing that really is new is the degree of polarization that we have, and the extent to which race and party identification seem to be aligning … We also spend a lot of time talking about polling, and [asking] ‘what do polls get right? What do polls get wrong? Should we believe the hype that the polls were terrible?’ Maybe they weren’t so terrible. I’m really trying to sort that out as something we’ve done before.

For example, the idea of a president pushing the bounds of his authority and trying to circumvent Congress, which we see a lot of happening right now: That’s not new. The history of the presidency is the history of pushing the boundaries of this authority. Actual contours of the president’s authority in the constitution are very, very vague.

TD: What can we do, as people who are not white supremacists, to combat these movements?

DS: This is something we talk a lot about in my Intro to American Politics class. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that squeaky wheels get the grease. So if you squeak, you’ll get attention.

I wrote a piece that appeared in TuftsNow after the first issue of the Muslim ban where it’s important to acknowledge and even celebrate the outpouring of protests that happened at airports of people cheering people who are getting through security … The Women’s march, and all these kinds of things, they do matter.

One thing that really matters is if they’re sustained. If they’re a one-off event they’re less likely to be successful … It’s a matter of keeping it up and being sustained and letting elected officials know that it will have electoral consequences.

Editor’s Note: This article has been edited for clarity and length.