An Interview with Jay Pearson
Jay Pearson is an assistant professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, with research focusing on the health disparities between distinct social groups. He recently published a challenging op-ed in the L.A. Times titled “Donald Trump is a Textbook Racist,” in which he comprehensively explains how the president’s behavior fits every academic definition of racism.
The op-ed was the first of a planned series which will next address our misguided notion of “extreme vetting.” The last installment will address the Trump administration’s likely poor health legacy for the nation, with a special emphasis on how his policies are likely to most impact those demographics which disproportionately voted for and continue to support him.
Q: How would you characterize the responses to your L.A. Times op-ed?
A: As you might imagine, the responses were incredibly varied. My contemporary colleagues – and not just at Duke but around the country – and students – and not just students who are in my course right now but students from the past – were congratulatory, supportive and encouraging.
In fact, the single most consistent message that I got from my junior faculty colleagues – again, from across the country – was, “Thank you for doing something that we all believe should have been done.” We all had the same or at least similar training in terms of these social constructs and the conceptual definitions of them. We teach this stuff in our courses, and we have frequently wondered why no one had done something in a public forum. Because, you know, this issue of whether or not the president is a racist is not open to debate. He meets and exceeds the formal definition.
Q: There’s an apparent disconnect between the academic definitions of racism and the understanding of the term among a large segment of the populace. How do you think we bridge that gap, both individually and as a society?
A: I think we can do a significantly better job of teaching these concepts and constructs in both formal settings – that is schooling – and in informal community settings. I am firmly of the opinion that this is stuff we should be teaching in schools fairly early on. The interesting thing for me is the basic conceptual definition – the idea that it’s a negative prejudicial bias combined with sufficient power to leverage action – has been around since at least the ‘60s in the academy. And so I can’t think of any good reason why it should not be incorporated into the history and social studies curricula, and not just offered to a select group of students at elite institutions like Duke.
And there are a few good models, I think, in other places of the world. For instance, in Germany, every kid who goes to public school gets a fairly rigorous course of study on the Holocaust. That makes sense to me. That is not asocial. Folks are willing to acknowledge the history, and the contemporary impact on life chances of different segments of the broader population.
Q: What specific policies do you believe would be most effective in addressing our country's white supremacist past and its current institutional racism?
A: It’s important for me to make a distinction here, because you introduce two constructs: one is white supremacy, and the other is institutional racism. And I think before we can move forward with good policy on the white supremacist piece, we need to have good research and begin to systematically test the most effective strategies to communicate that concept, and communicate those in such a way that people are willing to acknowledge that white supremacy actually exists. The literature in that area is conspicuously impoverished.
So interestingly, ironically, I suspect that Donald Trump and his administration are inspiring many of us to take more seriously the business of engaging in this particular course of scientific inquiry, that is: “What does white supremacy look like?” and what the various dimensions are, and how we go about designing effective intervention strategies to counteract its impact.
Q: In your courses you discuss the need for greater representation and retention of people of color as a means of achieving equity. Do you have any best practices around this idea for future policy practitioners?
A: I do. I think that first we need to not be afraid of engaging in discussion and dialogue about the value of diversity across multiple settings. The literature here is fairly rigorous. The findings suggest that in areas as diverse as the military and multinational corporations, leaders are stepping forward to both acknowledge the value of and encourage engagement in the process of bringing social diversity across multiple dimensions to bear. So it’s not just racial diversity; it’s gender, it’s socio-economic position, gender identity, and sexual orientation. The research suggests that productivity and quality of the product are both enhanced when multiple perspectives are represented.
Research also suggests that the success of diversity efforts is largely contingent upon the willingness of these very same leaders to step forward and make it a priority. That is absolutely the case in university settings, and while I don’t know this literature nearly as well, I suspect that it’s the case in the military also.
Q: What would be your advice for policy-makers and students with respect to weighing the effects of institutional racism on their potential policy outcomes?
A: First, I would say: assume and accept that that particular phenomenon is more pervasive and impactful than most people can potentially imagine or get their heads around. This implies that you need to have some humility and listen to the voices of folks who are actually contending with the imposition of this particular phenomenon. So that’s a first.
Second, I think it is important for all of us – and we all can benefit from this – to get some more formal training, so that we have at least a rudimentary appreciation for just how pervasive this racism thing is. So: humility and additional training.
Blake Rosser is a first-year Master of Public Policy candidate interested in political corruption and social justice.