April 7 Symposium will celebrate Michael Dawson’s career and retirement

March 15, 2024 (last updated on March 24, 2024)

With a legacy that includes impactful research on race and politics, along with the founding of the university’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, his work continues to inspire.

By Sarah Steimer

Michael C. Dawson
Michael Dawson

Michael Dawson made massive steps early in their academic career — entering college at age 16, writing his first book that became hugely influential in the field — but did he slow down after that? Far from it. Dawson’s career and impact only grew as he moved deeper into his profession, authoring several more important books and founding UChicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture. As Dawson, the John D. MacArthur Professor in the Departments of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity, retires, it’s evident that his research, teaching, and leadership has paved the way for countless future scholars.

“There's no question that he's a major figure — maybe even the major figure — in the fields of race and politics in the American academy,” says John Mark Hansen, Chair and the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Political Science.

Dawson acknowledges his route through academia was a bit nontraditional: While he entered Stanford University young, he dropped out for nine years before completing his BA at the University of California, Berkeley in 1982. He then received his PhD from Harvard University in 1986.

“My initial questions, and to some degree the questions I’m still asking, were driven by my experience as a student and community activist in the 1970s,” Dawson says. “I ran into a lot of organizations that claimed they knew what people were thinking or what they should think. And it seems to me that those organizations — I’m not excepting myself — were spectacularly wrong in most cases.”

Some of the very first questions he asked: What do Black people think about politics? What were the differences among Black people? And what were the factors that influenced how Black Americans thought about politics?

Dawson spent his early teaching career at the University of Michigan, which he says was one of the only schools at the time that had a community of Black researchers interested in using quantitative methods in disciplines from political science, to sociology, to psychology. His work with these Michigan researchers included his first co-authorship of an article in the American Political Science Review, which focused on African American political attitudes.

Dawson’s interaction with colleagues at the Institute of Social Research at Michigan led to his thinking about ways to test various theories about the psychology that underlie decision making and choice making among African Americans and others within the United States. It was this line of thinking that led to Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics, in which he explored the microcauses of the Black political belief systems, attitudes, and political behavior — a book that Hansen called not just important within African American politics, but within the study of race and politics in general.

“One of the paths I tried to follow was to ascertain to what degree were African Americans’ and others’ political attitudes grounded in both the historical context but also the institutional context, whether it was Black organizations, the Black church, media influences, etc.,” Dawson says. “I tried to see attitude formation and the effects on behavior not just in isolation within an individual, but an individual within a social and political institutional context.”

As Dawson’s interest in political theory grew and he moved to UChicago, he became interested in the idea that a person’s social background, to some degree, shapes their political beliefs and behaviors. But from his activist days and as a scholar, he could see that those from the same background could have very different attitudes. This led to the research for his second book, Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies, which looked to broaden the work done in Behind the Mule and consider the different types of ideologies that Black Americans practice in their politics and how those ideologies then inform attitudes and political behavior.

“I realized that traditional forms of ideology — feminism, liberalism, Marxism, nationalism — have a distinctly Black flavor that has always differentiated them from standard mainstream variants,” Dawson explains. He looked for the degree to which there would be an empirical correlation between the historical description of an ideology and how contemporary Black Americans actually clustered around these ideological forms. For example, he found that African American women would score extremely high when given a series of questions related to feminism, but they were somewhat reluctant to call themselves feminists (some Black activists would replace “feminist” with “womanist”).

Black Visions went on to win the Ralph Bunche Award from the American Political Science Association.

Dawson has authored numerous scholarly articles as well, along with the books Not in Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics and Blacks In and Out of the Left: Past, Present, and Future. The latest direction of his research looks at the relationships between patriarchy, race, and economic factors, and how the attempts to gain equality change over time in America. In collaboration with Allison P. Harris, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University, he’s empirically studying how to support reparations in America.

Harris, whose PhD is from UChicago, was one student of many drawn to the school because of what Dawson helped make it: a major center for the study of African American politics. “If you think of who the top students and scholars of African American political behavior and public thought, an awful lot of them are people who got their PhDs here under the direction of Michael Dawson,” Hansen says.

Dawson served for one term as chair of the Department of Political Science, along with being the founding director and for the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.

“It's really hard to underestimate just how important the center was for activity around issues of race and politics,” Hansen says. “From the very beginning, it declared itself as wanting to get beyond the Black-white divide in race and politics and really consider race broadly and the impact of race broadly — along with its influence not only in the United States, but in other countries as well. The center has played a very, very important role in helping the University of Chicago to attract other top scholars in the field and to make them feel happy and supported and productive.”

For Dawson, the opportunity to work with young scholars has been the most rewarding aspect of his scholarly career: “My students will deny this, but I learned far more from my students than they learn from me,” he contends. “That was particularly true of my graduate students who have been instrumental in shaping my thinking, and also instrumental in every institutional initiative I've had.”

He counts himself lucky to be at an institution where students have been “extremely thirsty for learning” and to seek out new ways to think and build critical faculties. And in some cases, he says, they were at least a little bit skeptical about his own politics.

“My legacy is to leave an institutional legacy, so that part of what I — in cooperation with others — accomplish can be passed on,” he says. “The other part of my legacy is to show that empirical research has to be tied to theory. They work well together. That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed being at Chicago so much.”

A retirement symposium for Professor Dawson will be held on April 7 at Swift Hall. The event will feature panel discussions, a keynote from Dawson, and reception. More information can be found here.