Examining the Intersection of Race, Politics, and Society

    • May 2, 2013

Vincent Hutchings grew up a few miles northwest of Berkeley, Calif., where talk-radio shows, a staple of the politically charged Bay Area, played constantly in his family's home. "I was exposed to a lot of perspectives" on politics as a child, Hutchings recalls.

Those perspectives collided dramatically in 1982, when Tom Bradley, the first Black to be elected mayor of Los Angeles, ran in California's gubernatorial race. As the popular mayor's campaign gained momentum, most polls predicted he would win. When Bradley lost instead, analysts theorized that many White voters who had said they would vote for him had never intended to do so.

The teenaged Hutchings felt Bradley's loss deeply. "It was more about the symbolic nature of the campaign itself," Hutchings recalls. "His defeat seemed so unfair." But a year later, Harold Washington was elected mayor of Chicago, and soon Jesse Jackson made his first bid for the U.S. presidency. For Hutchings, a young Black man just entering college, these political milestones prompted a lifelong interest in the intersections of race, politics, and social conflict.

Studying the intersection of politics and race. After receiving a BA in political science from San Jose State University in 1988, Hutchings earned an MA and PhD in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles. Graduate school brought him into the orbit of Lawrence Bobo, PhD, a sociologist whose work focuses on the intersection of social inequality, politics, and race; and John Zaller, PhD, a political science professor specializing in how political messages are expressed and received. Hutchings grew interested in how politicians communicate with voters, how the news media frame issues, and how political comments or appeals are interpreted or acted upon by audiences with different perspectives.

With two colleagues, Hutchings devised a study to test whether politicians who used racially coded language could still succeed in American politics some 30 years after the peak of the civil rights movement. During the 2000 presidential campaign, the researchers created fake political commercials that were identical except that one ad combined images of African Americans that reinforced negative racial stereotypes with negative comments about "wasteful government" and people on welfare, while the other ad made the same comments about government and welfare recipients without any negative visual imagery. They then measured the messages' influence on viewers' voting preferences. Hutchings found that racially coded language could still activate racial prejudice even without negative images present.

Receiving an RWJF fellowship. In 2000, Hutchings received a two-year fellowship from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Research program, which he spent at Yale University. The Scholars program provides new doctorates in economics, political science, and sociology with two-year fellowships to bring their disciplines into the field of health policy research. The program is based on the belief that engaging talented young people from these disciplines in debate about health policy will result in better health policy, and ultimately in better health. See Program Results Report for more information.

The Scholars program was invaluable to Hutchings' professional development, coming at a critical point in his early career. As an RWJF Scholar, Hutchings learned about the "broad and complicated subject" of health policy alongside fellow Scholars like Kim DaCosta, PhD, a sociologist interested in the underpinnings of the movement to create multiracial identity; Abigail Saguy, PhD, a sociologist interested in how cultural frameworks shape power relations (read her Profile); and Darrick Hamilton, an economist whose work focuses on the causes and consequences of racial and ethnic inequality in economic and health outcomes. Their thinking infused Hutchings' work, launching professional friendships and an interest in health policy research that have lasted more than a decade.

"What I'm trying to do is akin to what a medical researcher would do," Hutchings says: to correctly diagnose an illness in order to assign an appropriate remedy. The treatment for social illnesses such as racial inequality and conflict will differ depending on whether the cause is irrational prejudice, lack of opportunity to interact with other populations, or concerns about maintaining power and privilege.

Continuing his work on race and politics. Since finishing the Scholars program and becoming a full professor of political science at the University of Michigan, Hutchings has continued to explore the dialogue between elected officials and the electorate and to confirm that political communication can be used either to produce racial divides or to encourage unity. He has received several grants from the National Science Foundation and is co-principal investigator for the American National Election Studies (ANES). In 2012, Hutchings was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Hutchings' entry into health policy involves investigating changes in different populations' receptiveness to crude negative racial appeals. For example, he co-designed an experiment to test opposition to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Some respondents read a news article stating that White Americans are being hit hard by the economic downturn, which is true, while other respondents read a version adding that Black Americans are holding steady economically, which is not true. Neither article referred to the ACA or to President Obama. Nonetheless, Hutchings found that support for the ACA and Obama plummeted among readers of the falsified story, especially among Whites whose identity as a White person is important to them. The same results did not occur when researchers substituted Hispanics for the racial group reportedly doing better than Whites.

Some of the experiment's results show not only that "Americans are more receptive to crude racial appeals in today's environment than one might think," Hutchings explains, but also that "the politics of race in America is not simply about [racial stereotypes] but at least partially about power—who has it and how to maintain it in a social-political hierarchy."

Much has changed in the United States since Tom Bradley's campaign, as President Barack Obama's two elections attest. Yet, far more has not changed, Hutchings observes. He finds hope in the fact that more political scientists are asking questions about race and politics than in the past, but he worries that his field focuses too much on diversity in the ranks of elected officials and too little on the long-standing social inequities experienced by average individuals.

"If the policies [that elected officials] pursue aren't designed to ameliorate social inequities...in health care and economic or educational outcomes, then those advances [in the numbers of elected officials from diverse racial backgrounds] are merely symbolic," Hutchings cautions.

RWJF perspective. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Research program is designed to foster a new generation of creative thinkers in health policy research within the disciplines of economics, political science, and sociology. The fellowship program, established in 1991, annually selects a total of nine recent PhD graduates from among those three disciplines to spend two years studying at one of three participating sites (currently Harvard University, University of California, Berkeley/San Francisco, and University of Michigan).

Participants learn about health and health policy, gain exposure to the perspectives of the other two disciplines through seminars with peers, receive mentoring from prominent scholars, develop research ideas, and conduct research while receiving a stipend and benefits that free them from other professional obligations. "We're looking for people who aren't too far along in pursuing a specific research agenda. Our goal is to catch people early and tempt them into the field of health policy," says Lori Melichar, PhD, RWJF director for the program.

While in the Scholars program, participants have conducted research on issues and policies related to individual health, public health, social and economic determinants of health and health care, health care financing, and health care systems and institutions. After completing the program, alumni stay connected to their peers through a network facilitated by the Boston University Health Policy Institute, which serves as the national program office.

Scholars from the Health Policy Research Program have made significant contributions to their disciplines and to the field of health policy research. The program's 200-plus alumni, many of whom hold faculty appointments at universities and colleges, have authored hundreds of widely cited books and articles; held editorial posts at top scholarly journals; sat on scientific advisory panels; served as senior advisers to presidential, Congressional, federal agency, and national scientific councils; and received numerous professional awards for their research.

Although the original purpose of the program—to increase the number of economists, sociologists, and political scientists conducting health policy research—remains important, RWJF's focus has expanded to include "building the community" of health policy researchers and supporting them at institutions nationwide. "Now it's more about creating a critical mass so that we have a self-sustaining community [of researchers]," Melichar says.