Asking the Right Questions

By Hamilton, Kendra | Black Issues in Higher Education, April 12, 2001 | Go to article overview

Asking the Right Questions


Hamilton, Kendra, Black Issues in Higher Education


Psychologist puts African Americans at the center of social science research.

ANN ARBOR, MICH.

"The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line." They were immortal words, words that defined a crucial era of American race relations. But now, at the dawn of a new century, the globalization of the race problem that W.E.B. DuBois also foresaw is taking on a new dimension, and Dr. James Jackson of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research is right there documenting the shift.

"It's not a Black-White world any more," Jackson says, noting that the nation's Latino population overtook the African American population in the last census -- a shift that was not predicted to occur until 2005. "The world is a much more complicated place."

Jackson, a social psychologist who directs both the Research Center for Group Dynamics and the Center for Afro-American and African Studies at Michigan, sees his mission as understanding -- and helping the rest of us to better understand -- just how complicated the world's racial landscape really is.

To that end, he has garnered an $8 million grant from the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) to revisit and expand upon the landmark research he conducted 20 years ago.

It was then that Jackson founded the Program for Research on Black Americans (PRBA) at Michigan, an entity dedicated to the then-startling proposition that one could learn far more from putting African Americans at the center of research inquiry rather than making crude and not always relevant comparisons to Whites. The PRBA made its mark on the social science landscape with its 1979-80 National Study of Black Americans (NSBA) -- the first nationally representative household survey to ask in-depth questions about the lives and views of African Americans. The study yielded a rich trove of data that fueled a small publishing boom by Jackson and his PRBA collaborators. In books and a veritable blizzard of scholarly articles, the research group has tackled subjects in areas as wide-ranging as Blacks and mental health, Blacks and aging, Black voting patterns and citizenship behavior and -- most recently -- Blacks in a diversifying nation. It's precisely this background, plus an unusually persuasive project proposal, that made Jackson's latest research interest so attractive to NIMH.

"We're making a very big investment," says Dr. Steven E. Hyman, director of the national mental health agency. "When all is said and done, over the life of the project, we'll be spending about $9,431,000." That level of funding is more than $1.8 million per year, whereas the more typical NIMH grant average is $150,000 per year. "This is a very, very large grant by any standard," says Hyman.

But Hyman adds that the agency believes Jackson is worth the investment. "This is going to be the most comprehensive survey of the mental health of African Americans, really, in the history of the United States and it's long overdue," Hyman says.

THE QUESTION

The National Survey of American Life, for which data collection began in February, will be a much larger study than the 1979-80 NSBA. Encompassing a 12,000-person sample compared with the NSBA's 2,000-person sample, this study looks at the diversity within the contemporary African American population -- including adults, adolescents, Black Americans and English-speaking Afro-Caribbean immigrants and their descendants. And it also includes large national samples of Latinos, Asian-Americans and European Americans.

The study has several groundbreaking dimensions. Afro-Caribbeans, for example, are virgin territory for such a large research study. And so are Black adolescents, which is surprising given the frequent media pronouncements about this population. In fact, this will be the first national survey of Black adolescents, says Dr. Cleopatra Caldwell, the co-associate director of the PRBA and an assistant professor in Michigan's School of Public Health. …

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