My dissertation focuses on understanding Black Americans’ support for punitive social policies that disparately impact members of their racial group. Given near-homogeneity in electoral choice and unrivaled levels of group identification among Black Americans, how do we understand, for example, variation in Black support for the death penalty and other crime policies? Similarly, how do we understand variation in Black support for policies that burden the poor or variation in attitudes toward group members who engage in certain types of protest behavior? I argue that existing theories, focused primarily on group attachment or standard notions of ideology, fall short in helping us understand why, under certain conditions, some group members adopt positions seemingly at odds with the interests of others who belong to their racial group.

Bridging literatures from history, political science, and social psychology, my dissertation poses an alternative explantation that centers on individuals’ desire to maintain a positive regard for and increase the status of their social group. These identity and status-based concerns undergird support for what has traditionally been called the politics of respectability or the insistence that group members behave and comport themselves in ways consistent with dominant group norms and expectations. Though written about extensively in the popular press and elsewhere, my dissertation represents one of the first attempts to empirically examine the role of respectability in shaping individuals’ attitudes toward punitive social policies. This work, though focused here on Black Americans, can provide some insight into understanding seemingly paradoxical political attitudes among those who belong to other stigmatized social groups.

Beyond the dissertation, I am collaborating with my colleagues, Fabian Neuner and Josh Pasek, to unpack the racial divide that emerges in response to officer-involved shootings. In our first paper on the topic, we test whether this racial divergence in attitudes and judgments about these events is a consequence of identity-based motivated reasoning or whether Blacks and Whites simply encounter these incidents and update based on uncommon priors. In a second working paper, we analyze more than 6,000 open-ended responses to witness statements about a fictitious officer-involved shooting to further explore the cognitive and psychological processes that help maintain the racial divide in response to these tragic events.

I look forward to further developing these and other lines of research in the years to come.

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” W.E.B. DuBois