Talker: Associate Instructor Matt Lesenyie on Integrating Race into Political Science Instruction

BY KRISTINE CRAIGDSCN0212 Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking with Associate Instructor Matt Lesenyie about his motivation and experience teaching POL 176: Racial Politics during Winter Quarter 2016. His decision to begin this endeavor came with a lot of firsts: the first time this course has been taught in 17 years, the first time Lesenyie ventured into race politics in his career as a political scientist, and most significantly, the first time race and politics had been linked together in an analytic, data rich manner at UC Davis. When building the course, Lesenyie constructed the content in a way that would amplify and “give teeth to” issues commonly discussed in racial sociology courses. He hoped to shed new light on how delicate and persistent the linkage between race and American political processes were, and give students a way to unpack the issues by honing in on data and regression analysis. What is next for Lesenyie and Racial Politics at UC Davis is unknown; however, we can be sure that the renewal of this course has already left a lasting impact on students and faculty alike.

What inspired you to teach this course, after so many years of it simply existing in the course catalog?

So there's a couple things about it. I wanted to teach, and my gut feeling was that there were so few people doing race politics or identity politics, that a couple years ago I remember telling my colleague “I don't want to be the race guy.” I wanted to establish my identity as a researcher that studies almost everything but race. I wouldn't have foreseen myself teaching this class.

Then I took Dr. Bruce Haynes’ seminar in sociology and learned about the importance of residential location, and then tied in my knowledge of the mechanism for how race fits into politics. I realized there's actually a great need for this course- I knew so much about the mechanisms of politics that I could bring to bear on race, whereas sociology talks more about people—social interactions—not voting and participation. And I found that my sociology peers were totally perplexed by the political mechanisms. They didn’t understand why black people couldn't just activate their legislator or why when black people write letters, politicians just don't respond to them.

So long story short, years ago, I would never have anticipated this because I've already seen black folks get marginalized as the “race guy”. I decided that I wanted a career that has access to everything, not just race… it's the same thing with feminist scholars- there are people that dedicate their professional lives to study these important questions, and many scholars confirm that it's worthwhile. But then when other professional opportunities come up people tell you you’re “the feminist scholar” or “the race scholar”, and discount your value to the mainstream.

When the department asked me if I wanted to teach this course, I initially turned it down over those concerns. I instantly regretted the decision. So I wrote back and asked if it was still open. My gut said there was a demand for this course, that filled an important void. I started preparing and took the attitude of “pitch it as high as you can”—research based and rigorous. I wanted to have as much evidence as I could to tell the story of African Americans in politics, to make a course befitting of UC Davis: highest level theory, data analysis and evidence. I did not anticipate just how much I would enjoy teaching race politics.                   

What is the goal of the course?

There are three objectives:

First: Methodology. How to interpret race as a variable. I’ve found that many researchers continue to make mistakes about what race is, and then they control race out of an equation or mistakenly attribute effects to racial causes. Our department is pretty strong with respect to research methods, so I knew the pitch of this material could be high and still understandable for students. Most importantly, given that many of our students will work with or at least encounter statistical data on race, it was important for me to teach some core literacy on race variables.

Second: The deep intertwinement of race in American politics. This gets at the idea that politicians have picked racist voters to be in their re-election coalitions. Political science has exhaustively examined alternative hypotheses that some other, non-race, issue is most salient to these voters. It’s not true. We can corroborate both the internal strategy of the campaigns and the attitudes of voters to demonstrate this effort and its effectiveness.

Third: Discuss policies that have disproportionate impact on African Americans. Here I chose redlining, high-rise housing projects, affirmative action, welfare, crime and education. I hoped that by leading with the politics of where people live, it would make racial inequality, crime and local education easier to understand.

What is the most challenging thing about teaching this course?

The most challenging thing about this course was not knowing the students who would take it. I prepared the scope of the course in the summer and early fall. The week before class, I sent out an anonymous pre-test poll to the entire class to understand their baseline knowledge and interests. From that I learned that the scope was fine, but students would need some review on some topics I cover in POL 1, since I had kids who tested out, forgotten, or took POL 1 from someone else.

I also prepared a bit for leading discussions on these topics. In my career I’ve led some challenging and politically charged discussions in American Politics, so I wanted to be sure I took opportunities where possible to study pedagogy. I attended continuing education workshops on uncomfortable topics and one on trigger warnings. Our class was among the most mature and respectful I’ve been a part of, so while I was ready, those skills weren’t even remotely required for this course. I’m glad I was over prepared though.

Over the past few months, presidential candidate Donald Trump has used explicit and implicit racial cues to attract a substantial following. In the context of racial politics, can we attribute this to explicit racism of his followers? Or can it be explained by something more? If so, what exactly explains his support, even given the racially prejudiced statements he continues to make? Is it a combination of factors?

This is interesting. Political science has settled on the idea that you had to use implicit dog whistles to both attract “race-focused” voters, and at the same time, not lose your “policy focused” or “swing” voters. The common wisdom is that being openly racist isn’t good for anyone’s image (least of all a successful national level politician). Trump is challenging this wisdom, but has not yet overturned it since he’s just in the Republican primary contest.

Most of Trump’s success is attributable to a party that has more state-level electoral successes than federal-level success. Voters had no interest in the half-dozen Governors who were in the race, a number of whom have carried the states needed to win the general election. So there was an undersupply of known outsider candidates. I’d attribute some of his strength to NBC boosting Trump’s name recognition over the past decade via The Apprentice. This works like an early campaign investment. Trump also worked the earned media angle better than anyone else, frequently calling into TV shows and getting breathless wall-to-wall coverage for doing very little.

Generally, the Primary electorate is a smaller, more politically sophisticated set of voters. This year Trump brought many new voters to the primary process. However, a lot more voters show up in the fall contests... Winning a plurality of a small electorate is not the same as winning the most in the general. Add to that the fact that the establishment ‘Governor’ vote has been split almost the entire election season.

Definitely a combo of factors.

Historically within political science as an academic discipline, racial politics has been categorized apart from the mainstream research agenda. Research on African American political issues are contained in a separate journal, conference and professional association. What is the future of racial politics in this respect- do you see it integrating with the mainstream, or is it being pushed further to the side? Could it receive more attention if seen as a separate discipline? Or will that lead to its exclusion from mainstream thought and influence?

I don’t see them integrating in the sense that the National Conference of Black Political Scientists or the National Political Science Review will go away. I have heard scholars say their positionality or lack of personal experience keep them from teaching race politics as a stand-alone course like POL 176 or within more common offerings on political theory, congress or public opinion. Yet I don’t know any scholars who have been in Congress or the President, conducted a trade or witnessed a genocide, but that doesn’t keep them from teaching or researching these subjects. Fortunately books contain the information. Some colleagues argue that students won’t enroll in this type of course from a white instructor or a course on feminism from a male. However. we have no direct evidence of students rejecting either course, but we do have immediate evidence of neither course being offered. And we have two common explanations that lie within instructors.

So it seems that in both teaching and conducting research, mainstream political science isn’t curious about race politics like it is other topics. There are African American studies, sociology, and demography departments that touch on this topic with regularity and advocacy. Because racial inequality is rooted in political institutions like redistricting and varied census measurements, race should always have a home in political science.

If I had to predict, coverage of these topics will increase with a more diverse discipline. We do a great job with world conflict and international studies, but less well discussing the politics of marginalized citizens in America. We’re just beginning to include more women in political science PhD programs, so imagine the effect that will have on both the questions we ask and our problem-solving talent pool. Not to mention the inspiration women provide to students of all gender identities. Black professors are way underrepresented and show interest in covering topics like Black Politics. Even when we specialize in other topics! I’m an expert in advertising, campaign finance, and interest groups. Because I’m smart and work hard I was able to offer this class. Being Black helps me make connections faster because I’m constantly exposed to race and people's’ reactions to me. But being Black is not what helps me read scholarship.

In May 2016, Lesenyie won the Marvin Zetterbaum Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Instruction, an enormous testament to his early-on success in his teaching career and impact on political science at UC Davis.