Dawson, Michael C.

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Michael C. Dawson


Political scientist

In 2002 Michael C. Dawson, one of the nation's leading political scientists, left the University of Chicago—where he was founding director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture—for Harvard University, home to some of the foremost African-American scholars. Just three years later Dawson was back at Chicago, his Harvard colleagues having dispersed to other universities. His moves were symptomatic of the intense competition among the country's prestigious universities to attract this new breed of groundbreaking black scholars. Dawson's interests in American politics, democratic theory, and the politics of race led him to apply social and cognitive scientific data and decision theory to political movements and ideologies and to individual political decisions.

Formulated a Black Political Science

Born on October 21, 1951, Michael C. Dawson grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park and South Shore neighborhoods. He attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Although he came from a politically sophisticated family, his great uncle William L. Dawson having served as a Democratic congressman, Michael Dawson spent nine years as an engineer and programmer in California's Silicon Valley before pursuing an academic career. By the time he had earned his doctorate from Harvard in 1986, he was formulating the basic questions of his academic research. In the preface to his 2001 book, Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies, Dawson defined one of these questions: "What motivates individuals to adopt their suite of political preferences?"

At the University of Michigan, where he began his academic career in 1986, Dawson was co-principal investigator of the 1988 National Black Election Study. The following year Dawson and his colleagues published a now classic paper in which they argued that black American political views formed a coherent belief system based on racial identity.

In Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics Dawson argued that the social and political identity of American blacks could be found "behind the mule," in the historical legacy of racial and economic oppression. Based on data from his studies, as well as the 1984-85 National Black Election Panel Study, Dawson concluded that blacks based their political choices on the belief that what was best for their racial group was best for them as individuals. He found that the majority of blacks were left-leaning Democrats and that the economically disadvantaged generally supported black nationalism and the redistribution of wealth. It was this latter assertion that garnered a great deal of pre-publication publicity for Behind the Mule.

Surveyed Black Political Opinions

While at the University of Chicago, Dawson was a principal investigator for the 1993-1994 National Black Politics Study. It was the first national survey of the ideological and political views of black Americans. The study made national headlines with its revelations that blacks were becoming increasingly disillusioned and radicalized.

With Lawrence Bobo of Harvard, Dawson conducted the 2000 Presidential Election Study, which found that more than 90% of blacks voted against President George W. Bush, more than 92% believed that the he did not represent their interests, and 20% believed that he actively opposed their interests. Dawson was a frequently quoted source on the racial aspects of the Florida voting irregularities in 2000.

In Black Visions Dawson examined six historically important black American ideologies: radical egalitarianism or black liberalism, disillusioned black liberalism, black Marxism, black conservatism, black feminism, and black nationalism. He concluded: "the levels of political pessimism and racial division should be found shocking by concerned citizens…What should not seem surprising is that at the turn of the century African Americans continue to believe that American democracy is broken."

Studied Reactions to Hurricane Katrina

Harvard had been trying to recruit Dawson for several years and they offered his wife, Alice Furumoto-Dawson, an epidemiology position at the Harvard School of Public Health. Their move was finalized just prior to the exodus from Harvard of several prominent black scholars—Cornel West, K. Anthony Appiah, and Lawrence Bobo and his wife Marcyliena Morgan—due to conflicts with the controversial then-president Lawrence Summers.

Bobo's departure for Stanford University was particularly hard for Dawson. Between 2000 and 2004 the two had collaborated on six public opinion studies of America's racial divisions. The results of their studies are considered to be the richest source of data available on the subject. They were also collaborating on a book and in 2004 they launched a new peer-reviewed journal, the Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race.

Dawson took a leave of absence from Harvard in 2004-05. His decision to then return to Chicago drew the attention of the academic community. He told the Chicago Sun-Times, "Four of the people I thought I'd be working with are no longer at Harvard. The research environment at Harvard is radically different than when I accepted the job." Summers was also a factor in Dawson's decision to return to Chicago. He told the Boston Globe: "I certainly haven't agreed with the tenor of the comments he made on women in science…. They seemed to me to be consistent with the outlook that has led to what, for me, has been a less than congenial research environment." Dawson was referring to Summers' public suggestion that women were genetically inferior to men in math and science.

At a Glance …

Born Michael C. Dawson on October 21, 1951, in Chicago, IL; married Alice Furumoto. Education: University of California, Berkeley, BA, 1982; Harvard University, MA, 1985, PhD, political science, 1986.

Career: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, assistant professor, 1986-90, associate professor of political science and African-American studies, 1990-92; University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, Department of Political Science, associate professor, 1992-97, founding director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, 1996-02, professor, 1997-01, department chair, 1998-01, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Political Science and the College, 2001-02, John D. MacArthur Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and the College, 2005-; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, professor of government and Afro-American studies, 2002-05; consultant to the Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Memberships: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, fellow; Center for Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, fellow; Phi Beta Kappa.

Awards: National Conference of Black Political Scientists, Book of the Year Award for Behind the Mule, 1995, Best Book Award for Black Visions, 2002; Illinois Humanities Council, award for innovative programming for the Trading Fours Jazz Conference, 2001; American Political Science Association, Best Book Award on ideology, theory, and intellectual history and Ralph Bunche Award for Black Visions, 2002.

Addresses: Office—Pick Hall, 419, 5828 S. University Ave., Chicago, IL 60637.

Dawson's return to Chicago was seen as a victory for the university. His wife was offered a fellowship at the University of Chicago's Center for Interdisciplinary Health Disparities Research, which studied early-onset breast cancer in black women. Dawson and his colleagues launched the "2005 Racial Attitudes and the Katrina Disaster Study." They found that 70% of blacks—but only 33% of whites—believed that the federal government should spend whatever was required to rebuild people's homes. Likewise 89% of blacks—but only 56% of whites—believed that blacks were trapped by the hurricane because they did not have the resources to escape. Black New Orleans residents were far more likely than whites to believe that the disaster was as much the fault of the government as of nature. In the spring of 2006 Dawson co-taught an undergraduate course, "Hurricane Katrina and American Politics." As of 2007 Dawson was being sought after as a commentator on Barack Obama's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Selected writings


(With Ernest J. Wilson III) "Paradigms and Paradoxes: Political Science and the Study of African-American Politics," in Political Science: Looking to the Future, Vol. 1, William Crotty, ed., Northwestern University Press, 1991, pp. 189-234.

Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics, Princeton University Press, 1994.

"Globalization, the Racial Divide, and a New Citizenship," in The New Majority: Toward a Popular Progressive Politics, Theda Skocpol and Stan Greenberg, eds., Yale University Press, 1997, pp. 264-278.

"Dis Beat Disrupts: Rap, Ideology, and Black Political Opinion," in The Cultural Territories of Race: White and Black Boundaries, Michèle Lamont, ed., University of Chicago Press, 1999, pp. 318-342.

"Slowly Coming to Grips with the Effects of the American Racial Order on American Policy Preferences," in Racialized Politics: The Debate About Racism in America, David O. Sears, Jim Sidanius, and Lawrence Bobo, eds., University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies, University of Chicago Press, 2001.


(With Richard L. Allen and Ronald E. Brown) "A Schema-Based Approach to Modeling an African-American Racial Belief System," American Political Science Review, Vol. 83, No. 2, June 1989, pp. 421-441.

(With Cathy J. Cohen) "Neighborhood Poverty and African American Politics," American Political Science Review, Vol. 87, No. 2, 1993, pp. 286-302.

"A Black Counterpublic? Economic Earthquakes, Racial Agenda(s), and Black Politics," Public Culture, Vol. 7, 1994, pp. 195-223.

(With Lawrence Bobo and Devon Johnson) "Enduring Witness: Through the Eyes of Black America," Public Perspective, Vol. 12, No. 3, May/June 2001, pp. 13-16.

"Progressive Blues," Boston Review, Summer 2004.

"After the Deluge: Publics and Publicity in Katrina's Wake," Du Bois Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring 2006.

(With Cathy J. Cohen and Melissa Harris-Lacewell) "Studying the Politics of Hurricane Katrina," News from the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, Fall 2006, p. 4.



"Dawson, Michael C.," in American Political Scientists: A Dictionary, Glenn H. Utter and Charles Lockhart, eds., Greenwood Press, 2001.


Black Issues in Higher Education, February 28, 2002, p. 17.

Boston Globe, April 6, 2005.

Chicago Sun-Times, April 6, 2005.

Chicago Tribune, January 29, 2002; April 6, 2005.

Contemporary Sociology, March 2003, pp. 219-221.

Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Spring 2005, p. 23.


"Kathleen Dunn: June 7, 2007," Wisconsin Public Radio,www.wpr.org/webcasting/ideas_audioarchives.cfm?Code=dun (September 7, 2007).

"Michael C. Dawson," Contemporary Authors Online,http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (September 7, 2007).

"Michael Dawson Returning to the University Faculty," University of Chicago Chronicle,http://chronicle.uchicago.edu/050414/dawson.shtml (September 7, 2007).

"Prominent Poli Sci Professor Leaves Harvard, Returns to U of C," Medill Chicago News Service—Northwestern University,http://mesh.medill.northwestern.edu/mnschicago/archives/2005/04/dawson_prominen.html (September 7, 2007).