Chicago’s “Must See” Locations for Political Scientists

We asked Chicagoan members:  What are the “must see” locations for political scientists while visiting the Chicago area?

In addition to the Palmer House’s own History is Hott tour, MPSA members from the Chicago area have provided us with the following “must see” locations of political, historical, and architectural interest:

 

General John Logan Memorial
General John Logan Memorial (Photo: Anahit Tadevosyan)

General John Logan Memorial  (Grant Park – 337 E. Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60601)
Nathan Tarcov, University of Chicago recommends the intersection of Balbo and Michigan which boasts at least three points of political significance: 1) The Blackstone Hotel, site of the famous “smoke-filled room 404” where the Republican bosses picked Warren G. Harding as the party’s presidential nominee in 1920, 2) Balbo Drive itself, probably the only street in the U.S. named for a major Fascist leader, and 3) the section of Grant Park opposite the Hilton where the Chicago police charged the demostrators who chanted “the whole world is watching” during the Democratic convention of 1968.

 

Chicago City Hall
Chicago City Hall (Photo: Anahit Tadevosyan)

Chicago City Hall  (121 N LaSalle Dr, Chicago, IL 60602)
Dick Simpson, University of Illinois at Chicago Professor and former Chicago Alderman, points out the political history at City Hall “where the Democratic Headquarters were under Richard J. Daley” and “Daley Plaza where the cast of Hair sung at the first Earth Day Demonstration.”

 

President Barack Obama’s Home
President Barack Obama’s Chicago Home (Photo: Anahit Tadevosyan)

Barack Obama’s Chicago Home (5046 S. Greenwood Ave., Chicago, IL 60615)
While currently sitting empty, former President Barack Obama’s house remains under watch by the U.S. Secret Service at 5046 S. Greenwood Ave. Though, when in town, Obama can occasionally be spotted at Valois Restaurant .

 

Return Visit
Return Visit Photo: Anahit Tadevosyan)

Return Visit (401 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611)
Pay a visit to an earlier former President with roots in Illinois at  “Return Visit – Abe Lincon” in Pioneer Court.

 

Jane Addams Hull-House
Jane Addams Hull-House (Photo: Anahit Tadevosyan)

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (800 S Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60607)
Anahit Tadevosyan, University of Illinois at Chicago, recommends a visit to the Jane Addams Hull-House. Another noatble Chicagoan, Jane Addams was the co-founder of the ACLU and the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

Marquette Building
Marquette Building (Photo: Anahit Tadevosyan)

Marquette Building (56 W Adams St, Chicago, IL 60604)
If time permits, you may also consider a tour of the Marquette Building offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The Tiffany mosaics of Jacques Marquette’s exploration of Illinois are worth the trip.

 

Monadnock Building
Monadnock Building (Photo: Anahit Tadevosyan)

Monadnock Building (53 W Jackson Blvd, Chicago, IL 60604)
Once the world’s largest office building, Monadnock Building is building is often credited as the beginning place of the modern architecture movement. The building is on the Chicago Landmarks list, is included on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been named a National Historic Landmark.

 

Tommy Gun’s Garage
Tommy Gun’s Garage (Photo: Anahit Tadevosyan)

Tommy Gun’s Garage (2114 S Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60616)
If you are interested in experiencing one of the more notorious hangouts in Chicago’s political history, consider a visit to the themed dinner show/speakeasy Tommy Gun’s Garage (the former home of Colosimo’s Café, the club of “Diamond Jm”).

 

Chicago History Museum (Photo: Chicago History Museum)
Chicago History Museum

Chicago History Museum (1601 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614)
If you’re short on time, or just want the highlights, James N. Druckman, Northwestern University, recommends the Chicago History Museum. He says “basically all of it is great. And it’s an oft missed thing, I think….”

Did we miss one of your favorites? Please share your favorite Chicago-area political, historical, or architectural locations in the comments.

 

 

Alone and Working: Making the Transition to ABD

Alone and Working: Making the Transition to ABD

The change from being a PhD Student to a PhD Candidate is a big one. The moment we cross that threshold of becoming ABD, we fall in to a kind of purgatory where we are no longer students and not yet peers of our professors. This purgatory, or as it is better known as ABD, is something that no one prepares you for. One of us (Harold Young) went through the process in the last two years and the other (Adnan Rasool) just started down this path a couple of months ago after I defended my dissertation prospectus.

Here we share our common experiences.

So what changes? What do we do? Why it matters and how do you survive this process?

The biggest change is that you are on your own. As one my professors keeps saying “you are on a little island all by yourself, trying to find a way back”. That is the reality and the way back is finishing the dissertation project. While the first few years of grad school provide the tools and framework needed to survive, during this phase there is little to no accountability leaving you alone to figure out how to harness the discipline needed to complete the dissertation.

But how does one go about doing this? Well you start figuring it out when you acknowledge and accept that you are virtually alone in this now. That realization eventually does hit even if it might take a few weeks or months. But when it hits home, that is when you realize a host of other things as well.

Firstly, you are no longer treated as a student. You are treated like a future peer. This means that the way your work is viewed is significantly different and the expectations are much higher. The kind of mistakes you could have made and powered through are no longer acceptable. More importantly, you cannot depend on constant guidance and advice of your mentors and professors because that part of the program is over. The only time you will get detailed feedback is when you submit significant chunks of your dissertation project.

While the department remains cognizant of you and wants to see you finish on time and hit the job market, they leave it to you to decide when to do that. What we mean by that is, the only time you will go back to the department is when students are specifically required to be there (e.g., student symposiums), need signatures or for scheduled practice sessions for job interviews. Otherwise, the only departmental contact you have is with your committee and specifically with the chair of your committee.Alone and Working: Making the Transition to ABD

Secondly, you will very quickly realize that your cohort is splitting up and going their own ways. Because everyone is working at a different pace on different projects, the tendency is for the comradery of the first few years of grad school to dissipate. You need to be prepared for your social circle to slowly thin and change over time. There is a certain amount of emotional toll the ABD experience and dissertation writing process takes on you and that should be expected. The best thing one can do is to prepare for it in advance by acknowledging this will happen.

Lastly, acknowledge and understand that this will be grueling process but ultimately you will be rewarded. You are here because you love learning and producing knowledge. This is the most time you will ever get to dedicate yourself to the singular pursuit of knowledge, so enjoy it. And while you do this, keep an eye on the job market. Your timeline depends greatly on the job market you wish to enter. The decision to enter the job market after writing a few chapters or waiting till finishing the whole project determines how you settle yourself in for the long haul. So, keep an eye on that and make reasonable accommodations.

Reach out and thrive!

The purpose of this piece is to talk about not just surviving but thriving during the hardest part of the PhD. Program. The clichés ”you cannot edit your head, so write” and “a good dissertation is a finished dissertation” ring true. However, getting to that goal is fraught with mental, emotional and physical stress. So, reach out to those are in the same phase or have recently succeeded, acknowledge your fears, discuss strategies and make new friends in the process. You will be pleasantly surprised at the friendships you make as they are the only people who can relate. That is actually a major reason we are such good friends.

The going can be tough but that is the whole point of academic rigor and pursuit of knowledge at the ultimate level. You can do it and, when you succeed, be there for the next ABD newbie!

 

About the Authors:

Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate & Student Innovation Fellow 2016-2017 at Georgia State University. He is also the recipient of the Taiwan Fellowship for 2017 by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROC. His research focuses on role of bureaucracies in democratization and populist clientalistic appeal in new democracies. You can also find Rasool on Twitter and his website.

Harold Young is an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His research area is Public Law and he examines an American and comparative perspective on judicial institutional changes and decision making. Previously he was a social worker, a health communications project manager, and an attorney-at-law. He can be reached via email at youngh@apsu.edu.

 

Race and “Ism”: Incoming Fire from All Directions

Since it is impossible to discuss the issue of racism from the beginning, I will just start where I find myself. As an Assistant professor, it is probably safe for me to say that the multi-directional pressures and demands from administrations, departments, students, and parents are universal in academic life. What is different for faculty of color is the racism in the form of micro-aggressions encountered while going about the tasks of engaging a diverse student body and fulfilling other responsibilities in a challenging social and political environment. We are charged with supporting our students who also share these experiences. In “Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, Ross (2015)”, Lawrence Ross points out that it never seems to matter when or how often we bear witness to these realities, the incidents are marginalized as being isolated, or the acts of “one bad apple”.

barrydeutsch_theonesilike
Used with permission. See more and support the artist: http://www.patreon.com/barry

My goal here is to share some divergent experiences to reinforce to others that we, as faculty of color, are neither alone nor insane, or even overly-sensitive. Here are a few examples of what I have personally encountered:

  1. During a faculty orientation, the facilitator suggested the primary way of recognizing when a student was experiencing high anxiety or having a panic attack in class was a change in complexion. This is a “curious” indicator considering that approximately 20% of our students identify as Black or African American. Even considering the diversity within that group, the facilitator seemed completely oblivious to the inappropriateness of that indicator for those identifying as Black or African American where there would be no apparent physical change in complexion.
  2. I witnessed a Black female student recounting her anxiety about being judged about how she styled her hair: (a) If she went “natural” it may be interpreted as making a radical statement by the mainstream community; (b) a hair wrap might be critiqued as being “Aunt Jemima” and (c) wigs and other forms of “fake” hair might be interpreted as an identity crisis or trying to fit in. Her words to her classmate were literally, “you just don’t understand what Black women go through!”
  3. Following a controversial police shooting of unarmed Black men last year, I participated in two public forums in Fall 2016 which included law enforcement. A police chief opened his remarks by referring to Ferguson as the start of the problem between law enforcement and the black community. When the point was raised that it is a 400-year-old problem, he immediately apologized and backtracked – standard responses when caught marginalizing and isolating the issue. Many attendees were obviously traumatized by the recent events (I say this not because of any complexion variation that may or may not occurred) and expressed fear of any possible encounter with law enforcement.
  4. From the discussion in the forum mentioned above, the law enforcement representatives seem to have little understanding of the differences between community relations and community engagement. While the police chief was touting police-youth programs (public relations), I personally witnessed three White officers harassing three young Black men over a vehicle moving violation. The situation escalated to the point where one of the young men was pulled out of the car where he crouched as the officers searched the vehicle (and found nothing) while shouting at all three. Despite their “public relations” activities, this is an example how law enforcement engages the community.
  5. In another forum, a White colleague expressed his complete understanding of racial discrimination because he has had a ponytail since the 1960s and 1970s and often felt rejected by some of his counterparts. It never seemed to occur to him that while he could choose to cut his hair, skin color is not a choice.
  6. Finally, I attended a social gathering at a recent political science conference. Not recognizing anyone, I introduced myself to two colleagues and took a sip of wine. Seconds later a gentleman asked to join the table, introduced himself to my colleagues, then on looked directly into my face and turned his head without introducing himself. Make what you will of that!

As faculty of color, we must manage ourselves, encourage our students, and promote learning in sometimes less than ideal social climates. This task is often complicated by the denial or minimizing of the problems by segments of university communities and the society as a whole. We have to carefully choose when, where and how to respond to incoming fire lest we be labelled thin-skinned and aggressive. There are no simple answers, but know that you are not in this alone. As positive outcomes are dependent on multiple veto players, it is incumbent upon our personal leadership and the leadership of our colleagues, regardless of racial identity, to acknowledge these societal problems and constructively engage with one another to develop strategic approaches to support one another. We then must follow through, and repeat!

About the author: Harold Young is an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His research area is Public Law and he examines an American and comparative perspective on judicial institutional changes and decision making. In previous lives, he was a social worker, a health communications project manager, and an attorney-at-law. He can be reached via email at youngh@apsu.edu.

 

 

 

Polling for the 2016 Presidential Election: What Went Wrong?

mpablog-2016electionpolling

As I write, Donald Trump is less than two weeks from being inaugurated as President of the United States. For political scientists, our “what the…?” moment involves the failure of most public-opinion polls to predict the results of the 2016 election. I joined numerous colleagues in assuming a Hillary Clinton victory. The news media and even Saturday Night Live took Clinton’s victory for granted. I will never in my life forget spending Election Night watching the needle on the New York Times’ prediction meter move from strongly favoring Clinton to 100% Trump.

Comparisons to the classic “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline of 1948 are inevitable, but several differences emerge. Most notably, telephone polling was in its infancy in 1948. The methodological sophistication and advanced computer programs used today were not available. Today, pollsters predict elections based not on a single poll or early returns, but rather on an amalgamation of many polls, plus other data. The methodology is so advanced, so tested, it is completely indestructible—just like the Titanic!  However, in fairness, it should be noted here that Nate Silver, the most popular proponent of this polling-amalgamation strategy, stated repeatedly that Donald Trump has a path to victory. Just before Election Day, however, even Silver’s models leaned toward a Clinton win.

What lessons can we learn from these polling-based collisions with last year’s electoral iceberg?

First, it is worth noting that political scientists were not necessarily part of the horse race frenzy. Quite a few correctly predicted the Republican victory, using various modeling techniques. Most of those who bucked the media’s conventional wisdom have one thing in common—they looked at numbers affecting partisan breakdown, not numbers for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump specifically. The news media’s “horserace” coverage emphasizes polling respondents’ plans to vote for one candidate or another, while political scientists such as Michael Lewis-Beck and Charles Tien, Brad Lockerbie, and Alan Abramowitz, each did what political scientists (as opposed to campaign or media pollsters) usually do—they looked at fundamentals such as the state of the economy, partisan breakdown of the electorate, historical trends, approval of the current President, and voter optimism about the economy, not voters’ opinions of the candidates themselves.

Why were these models so widely ignored? That answer could be summarized as, “but… Donald Trump!” More formally, many commentators (including more than a few who were political scientists or political science-trained) assumed that Donald Trump’s quirky candidacy and high personal negatives meant that the usual partisan-breakdown models used by these political scientists and others simply did not apply this year. In fact, they were onto something. The scholars cited above all predicted a higher popular vote share for the Republican than Trump actually won, while others were even farther off, predicting percentages for the Republican nominee as high as 56% (Trump actually won just 46.1%).

If John McCain or Mitt Romney had been the Republican nominee, he might very well have gotten the 50%+ of the popular vote predicted by these models. So, in fact, the conventional wisdom was not completely wrong. Trump did underperform the expectations of these models, presumably due to his unusual personality, behavior, and candidacy. Yet he is still on the verge of becoming President. The results of another poll, in the very “red” state of Kansas where I research, write, and teach, may offer a clue as to why. According to respondents in the Kansas Speaks survey, Donald Trump was highly unpopular here, scoring particularly low with our respondents on the matters of trustworthiness and “understanding people like me.” Yet Trump won Kansas easily, and the reason is clear: not only is Kansas a heavily Republican state, but Hillary Clinton was even more unpopular here than was Trump. Her worst-scoring categories in Kansas Speaks were the same as Trump’s, and Kansans rated her lower on trustworthiness and “understands people like me” than they did Trump.

In short, outside of California, voters disliked Hillary Clinton more, but they also disliked Donald Trump. The conventional wisdom before the election had this reversed, with commentators assuming that Clinton, not Trump would be perceived as the lesser of the evils. Commentators underestimated the roles of three things: deep party ties (the vast majority of Mitt Romney’s supporters from 2012 backed Trump), the same variables that usually affect elections, such as the state of the economy and optimism about it, and finally, Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity.

While this is conjecture on my part, I cannot resist adding that in the last three elections that have been framed by the conventional wisdom as “a choice between the lesser of two evils”—2000, 2004, and 2016—Republicans have gained the White House each time.  The tiresome “lesser evil” frame appears to be toxic to Democrats, likely because their base is less reliable about turning out to vote if they do not like the candidates.

Still, I have not yet gotten to the problem with the polls themselves. Weren’t they clearly predicting a Clinton victory, not only nationwide (which was correct), but in those Great Lakes “firewall” states that put Donald Trump in the White House?

Here’s a dirty little secret of polling: no poll has a representative sample of those being studied. Polling, like scientific tests of soil or water quality, works by sampling— drawing a subset of thing being studied, testing it, and then drawing an inference (logical leap) from the results for the sample to the likely condition of the whole from which that sample was drawn. We cannot really know what the water quality is in, for example, Lake Michigan, because it is impossible to test all of it. However, water-quality experts often draw and test samples of the water, then draw inferences to the whole.

For this to work, sampling must be done with great care. Likewise, pollsters must take pains not to over-sample certain populations and under-sample others. One classic example pertains to the time, not so far back, when most households had one landline telephone. In mixed-gender households (often married heterosexual couples), the adult woman was usually the one to answer the phone. Had pollsters simply interviewed her, the result would be a sample that was heavily skewed towards women, and under-sampled men, relative to their proportions among the population. Thus, a “randomizing” technique had to be employed, such as asking to speak to the adult in the household with the next birthday.

Today, many Americans have their own cell phones, and landlines are becoming obsolete. Call “screening” is also more popular than ever.  If getting something close to a random sample was hard 20 years ago, today it is nearly impossible. It is very difficult to get proportionate numbers of complete surveys from African-Americans and from people that do not speak English as a first language, for example. Randomizing methods are still used but they are not enough.

When polling results are featured on the news, what you are hearing about are not the raw data from the poll, but rather, poll results that have been “weighted” to account for the impossibility of getting a true representative sample. Imagine that we expect 12% of the voters to be African-American, yet only 5% of the polling sample fit this description. The “weight” of each result from an African-American respondent is thus multiplied to adjust to something more representative. This process often employs “multivariate regression with post-stratification,” or, in a wonderful acronym, “Mr. P.”

Here’s where things went south in 2016. In order to weight the polling results, we have to know ahead of time who is going to vote. If we weighted the data based on a prediction that 12% of the electorate would be African-American, and it turns out that only 10% were, then our predictions were off.  It is, of course, impossible to know who is going to vote until after they have done so, therefore, the composition of the electorate is estimated, often using the composition of the electorate for the last election (in this case, the 2012 Obama-Romney race). In 2012, this worked well—the composition of the electorate was similar to 2008 and the winning candidates were also the same. Notwithstanding unnecessary media “horse race” hype, the predictions of prognosticators in 2012 were pretty much dead-on.

Then it all fell apart in 2016.

Put simply, the composition of the electorate changed. African-American turnout dropped, while Trump, like 1992 third-party candidate Ross Perot, pulled out voters who simply would not have voted at all, had Trump not been in the race. But unlike Perot, Trump also won a major-party nomination, so he was able to put the party’s base together with those infrequent voters and pull off the victory—at least in the electorally-critical states. The pollsters’ estimates of the electorate’s composition were incorrect, therefore, the weighted predictions were wrong as well.

Another possible factor in the polling inaccuracies is the “Bradley effect,”- that is, Trump voters having lied to pollsters about their intentions. This was a popular Election Night speculation.  However, subsequent analysis indicates that the Bradley effect was, at most, only one of a number of factors involved.

Taking stock of all this, it’s not yet time to invoke the famous quip about “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” In fact, many political-science-based models correctly predicted the winner, while polling data such as Kansas Speaks show how Trump could win despite relative unpopularity (because Clinton was even more unpopular). I join fellow MPSA bloggers in calling for the news media to re-orient away from “horse race” coverage. It is underlying dynamics, not the horse race, that usually decide elections—and news consumers deserve more attention and analysis of those dynamics. After all, it is things like the state of the economy and our optimism about the future, not political candidates’ personal idiosyncrasies, which are what truly affect our own lives.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.

MPSA Blog: Top 10 Posts from 2016

MPSA Blog: Top 10 Posts from 2016

Regardless of your research interests, your academic (or Alt-Ac) role, or your aspirations for the new year, there is something on this list of MPSA’s most popular blog posts from 2016 that is sure to pique your interest:

MPSA would especially like to thank regular contributors Newly Paul, Adnan Rasool, Michael A. Smith, and Harry Young for sharing their research, political perspectives, and pedagogical insights with us this calendar year. We look forward to highlighting even more NSF-Funded research, conference presentations, and MPSA member interviews in the coming months. If you’re interested in sharing your work with MPSA’s members and the discipline, we’d love to hear from you.

Best wishes for a safe and productive 2017!

On the Eve of the 2017 Conference Season

On the Eve of Conference Season 2017

As the Fall semester comes to a close, most academics in our field are readying for the upcoming hectic conference schedule starting with SPSA in New Orleans in January, ISA (February) in Baltimore, MPSA (April) in Chicago, and ending with WPSA (April) in Vancouver. Keeping this in mind, this post discusses some decisions and challenges most of us face during this season. I start with some of the challenges my colleagues and I are facing right now.

First, as much as conferences are awesome, they require a lot of attention and effort on the part of participants and presenters. Attending conferences is an amazing learning experience for all of us, but the work that goes in to it can be overwhelming at times. For instance, I am presenting two pieces of work at SPSA and then I am scheduled to present at MPSA in April as well. That means I am working on finalizing three full-length conference-worthy papers within a space of effectively 3 months. And it is not just me, most of my colleagues are in the same boat. We submitted abstracts of some awesome ideas and now we have to hammer out solid papers to be presented at each of these conferences.

This has led to some interesting conversations I have had with other political scientists regarding how many projects and papers can be worked on simultaneously without forgoing quality. I agree with the conventional wisdom that you can only do so many conferences a year and if you do not have something solid to put out, it is better to sit one out and go back next year with something worthy instead of showing up with a half-baked idea. I feel we have all sat through those presentations where the idea is just not there yet and the presentation just makes the presenter look bad even if it could eventually pan out to be something excellent. The point I am making is – it is totally okay to focus on a few pieces of work and present at one or two conferences rather than try to show up with a not-so-great paper to every conference. That is why most of my colleagues and I are seriously deciding on whether to focus on one or two papers instead of doing quantity. Quality beats quantity every time in academia and it is worthwhile to have that discussion with yourself and your co-author.

Second, it is a worthwhile idea to have internal presentations before heading out to conferences. My grad school has a policy that requires every one who seeks travel funding to do internal presentations of their work before they head out. This helps the presenters hone in on their flaws and prepare for questions related to their research. Additionally, it helps the presenters realize where they stand with their research and whether it is ready to a point where they need to be putting it in front of the world. This is critical as at times because many of us can get too close to our own work to see its true quality.

Instead it is a worthwhile idea to take a step back and let your peers and colleagues judge your work in a grad school setting than a conference setting. Internal presentations have helped me personally pinpoint critical issues I was dwelling with my own research. In particular, I was satisfied with a paper I have been working on for most of the year, but it turns out I was rushing past the theoretical contributions of the research. The internal reviews and presentations helped me realize the mistakes I was making as my professors stepped in to pinpoint the exact issue I had to address. What really helped during these internal presentations was that I presented in front of an audience from different subfields. The benchmark was if an Americanist or a Theory person can fully understand my presentation on comparative authoritarianism, then it has merits. Otherwise I need to simplify and narrow my presentation so that everyone hearing it understands my contribution.

Finally, conference presentations are great but often those papers never seem to materialize in to publications. That is totally okay. Sometimes the first go on a paper sounds amazing but once you spend more time fleshing it out you realize it will never be as good as you want it to be. Instead of being stuck on it, just shelf it for a bit and move on. Sooner rather than later, that work will help you with a future project or paper and will be useful in creating something you can put out there as a publication.

So as Fall semester ends and holidays begin, I hope everyone ends up with great work that we can share in the next year. I will hopefully see y’all at SPSA. If not there, then MPSA for sure! Happy holidays! Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukah! And a Happy New Year!

About the Author: Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate & Student Innovation Fellow 2016 – 2017 at Georgia State University. He is also the recipient of the Taiwan Fellowship for 2017 by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROC. Adnan is a blogger for the 2017 MPSA conference in Chicago. His research work focuses on role of bureaucracies in democratization and populist clientalistic appeal in new democracies. You can also find Rasool on Twitter and his website

Why White Americans Love Their Guns

MPSA Blog - Why White Americans Love Their Guns

Before we get to why many Americans are so attached to firearms, there are some facts to know about guns in America. First, there are 250-350 million firearms in private hands (Cook and Goss, 2014). Since we don’t allow gun registration, the numbers are fuzzy; but that is a lot of guns. Second, according to NORC at the University of Chicago, the proportion of gun-owning households has declined from 47% in 1973 to 31% in 2014. The Census says there are about 125 million households, so about 39 million own guns. The math suggests that gun-owning households own an average of 6 to 9 firearms. Gun hoarding is a thing in America. Third, studies indicate that about 75% of all gun-owners are white (ANES 2012 Time Series Study), so white representation among gun-owners is much higher than among the general population. Finally, with the exception of Switzerland which also has universal military service requirements, no other developed country has such a heavily armed civilian population: this is clearly an American phenomenon, a facet of American exceptionalism. So, why do so many people, especially white Americans have such an attachment to guns?

Fear of crime is a tempting answer. Surveys say that 48% of gun-owners cite “protection” as the key reason for owning guns, up from 26% in 1999. However, crime today is down compared to the 1990s. According to the Department of Justice, in 1991 the homicide rate was 9.8; in 2010 it had dropped to 4.8. Not only has violent crime declined, but whites are the group with the lowest victimization rate. From 1980 to 2008, on average, there were 4.5 white but 27.8 Black victims of violence per 100,000 Americans. Add to that the fact that white neighborhoods typically have better policing than Black neighborhoods and fear of crime loses its explanatory appeal. African-Americans who have good reason to fear gun violence are far less likely to own guns.

Former slave, Fredrick Douglass offers a different answer: there is “something ennobling in the possession of arms,” he said in 1863 (Emberton, 2013). For a great many white people, guns are important not for their practical utility but for the image they convey and the feelings they generate in their owners. In short, guns are not about duck hunting, or even crime protection; guns are about respect.

The cultural importance of the firearm goes back to the Revolution and the myth of the citizen-soldier. Despite General Washington’s contrary opinion, the rhetoric of the era endowed the Patriots with three virtues: independence, armed masculinity, and moral righteousness. Since the new Republic explicitly rejected religion, heredity, or ethnicity as the bases for citizenship, these values became the markers of the “true” American. The righteous man who was ready to fight for liberty deserved the title of citizen.

Heroic as this myth was, American history shows that it served to justify racial hierarchies. The armed protector of liberty was a white man. As historian Francois Furstenberg has argued, liberty and resistance went together only for whites. It is not that Blacks haven’t fought in every war including the Revolution. They have. But the double standard of American culture, present to this day in modified form, suggested that an armed Black man was a criminal. In his horrified response to the slave rebellion in San Domingue, Thomas Jefferson makes it clear that slaves fighting to rid themselves of masters are not patriots, but murderous savages.

Douglass hoped service in the Union Army would elevate Blacks to the status of citizenship. He was only partially right. Armed self-defense never meant the same thing for Blacks and whites as the resistance to Black militia attests. Only white gun ownership reflected virtue; Black gun ownership spoke of violence. More recent case in point: the horrified white reactions to claims of armed self-defense by the Black Panthers in the 1960s.

Since the 1960s, reactionary movements have interpreted minority groups’ efforts to ensure equality as an assault on the status of whites. Conservative intellectuals argued that race-conscious programs disadvantage whites, and many whites agree: 37% of all whites, but in a 2015 UIC Survey on Gun Control, 47% of white gun-owners say that the government “does too much” for Blacks. Experimental evidence strengthen the correlational results by showing that exposure to pictures of Blacks depresses support for gun control among whites (Filindra and Kaplan, 2015).

Given that firearms carry such a strong association with notions of virtuous white citizenship, it is not a surprise that white Americans who feel socially devalued and who attribute the change in their status to unfair gains by Blacks would see in firearms a symbolic way to regain respect: to be seen as noble and virtuous citizens. In this sense, gun rights are arguably the most persistent vestige of white privilege.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Author: Alexandra Filindra, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Filindra and co-author Noah Kaplan were awarded the Lucius Barker Award at the 2016 MPSA Conference for the best paper on a topic investigating race or ethnicity and politics and honoring the spirit and work of Professor Barker for their work on “Racial Resentment and Whites’ Gun Policy Preferences in Contemporary America”.