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Northwestern University

New Center to Study Relationship Between Diversity and Democracy

The resurgence of racialized politics will be among the topics to be addressed

By Daniel P. Smith

 A new academic center at Northwestern University aims to foster research, dialogue and analysis regarding the ways in which democracy, diversity and politics interact in the United States and in nations around the globe.

Housed in Northwestern’s Department of Political Science, the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy will focus on best practices in promoting equal citizenship, the attitudinal bases of group solidarity and inter-group tolerance, and how governments, nonprofits and corporations can work to close the socioeconomic inequalities between identity-based groups in diverse democracies.

The Center will be led by Alvin Tillery, associate professor of political science. Here, Tillery shares his goals for the Center and explains why now is the right time to launch this initiative.

What is your personal interest in this topic, and how did that spur the Center’s founding?

Alvin Tillery: My own research focuses on social movements and their impact on American politics as well as presidential leadership on civil rights and diversity issues. The Center is an outgrowth of conversations between myself, Weinberg College Dean Adrian Randolph, associate dean for faculty Edward Gibson, Department of Political Science chair Sara Monoson and faculty colleagues. Together, we all saw a formal center as a way to enhance the department’s existing race, ethnicity and politics sub-field, which ranks among the best in the country, while simultaneously bolstering our scholarly community’s ability to address complex issues related to the role that gender, sexuality and religion play in democratic politics.

Why now?

AT: In the wake of President Obama’s election in 2008, many pundits claimed that we had entered a post-racial era in the U.S. Yet, in this most recent election cycle, we saw the resurgence of explicit racial appeals in presidential politics. Unfortunately, we have also seen a spike in hate crimes against people of color, the LGBTQ community and religious minorities. Despite increased progress in our democracy and President Obama being a harbinger of brighter days ahead, there is still plenty more to work through, especially as our nation moves toward becoming a majority-minority population in 2050. We felt Northwestern could be a hub where people could have serious conversations about these issues and pursue answers.

What key themes will the Center explore?

AT: Amid the resurgence of nationalist voting in Europe and exclusionary messaging in politics, we want to examine the ways in which democracy is enriched by diversity as well as the ways in which diversity elevates and confounds democracy.

How will the Center accomplish its goals and initiatives?

AT: We’ll start by providing small grants to facilitate faculty and graduate student research on projects related to diversity and democracy.

We will also sponsor two annual events. The first, the Strengthening Diverse Democracies Symposium, will bring together scholars to discuss a current issue in the politics of diversity within democracies. We’ll also work with the Center for Global Culture and Communication in Northwestern’s School of Communication to sponsor the annual Globalizing Race Studies Workshop. There, we’ll examine themes related to the global dimension of racial politics such as immigration or racial inequalities.

Finally, and this is very exciting, we’re going to have a polling and data initiative. We’ll fund flash surveys to provide us focused, specific data on questions related to the politics of diversity in the United States. We hope this will help us drive conversation nationally about a number of important and timely issues.

Being the director of such a new entity, what’s at the top of your whiteboard right now?

AT: The immediate intellectual agenda is focused on fostering conversations about the resurgence of racialized politics in the United States and around the globe. What’s driving this? And what can we do to get back on the right track toward greater inter-group tolerance, integration and equality?

On the organizational side, the immediate priority is to build capacity. That means applying for grants and building partnerships around the campus to help the Center evolve. We also want to meet with alumni and hear from them about what we might address. We’re eager to forge partnerships because we don’t have all the answers or even all of the questions.

For up-to-date information on the Center's activities and research, follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

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