Bringing a Deeper Engagement with Race to the Study of American Politics

Megan Ming Francis is the G. Alan and Barbara Delsman Associate Professor of Political Science and an associate professor of law, societies, and justice at the University of Washington. During the 2021–22 academic year, she is also a Senior Democracy Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and a Racial Justice Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Harvard Kennedy School. Francis is the author of the multiple awardwinning book Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State.

Megan Ming Francis
Image Credit: Jonathan Pilkington

I never expected to join a textbook on American politics. When I first became a professor and was responsible for teaching introduction to American politics, I met with many textbook representatives and often left the meetings frustrated. Many of the textbooks were similar and none integrated the histories and political experiences and contributions of people of color in a consistent way. Coverage of racial and ethnic groups was mostly limited to the civil rights chapter. And most textbooks omitted or glossed over the complicated realities about the intersections of race, gender, class, and other dimensions.

Exasperated with the textbook offerings, I chose to supplement the textbook with additional readings to ensure my students were getting an accurate understanding of the American political experience. While useful to the students in my courses, this did not feel like enough; I knew that something more enduring needed to shift in the learning process. I know how important textbooks are: they have helped my students, and they have shaped the way that I understand the world.

For many reasons (the coronavirus pandemic, racial justice protests, the rise of nationalism, the deepening politization of the courts, the contested presidential election), the last two years have been historic. During this period, it has become even more clear that many Americans did not know how government worked and did not realize how deeply contested American ideals such as democracy, equality, and justice were. Today, the United States in particular, and democracy more broadly, is at an inflection moment, and I believe the discipline of political science—especially the subfield of American politics—has a responsibility to show up differently in the future.

Fueled by a commitment to impact student learning, I decided to join the incredible author team of We the People for the Fourteenth Edition. In this capacity, I have worked on revising Chapter 1 (Americans and Their Political Values), Chapter 2 (The Founding and the Constitution), Chapter 5 (Civil Rights), and Chapter 15 (The Federal Courts). The purpose was not to overhaul the textbook—it already does an excellent job conveying key information to students. The goal has been to enhance students’ understanding of the foundations (e.g. political culture and the Founding), important political institutions (e.g. Congress and the courts), and intermediary institutions (e.g. political parties and media).

One key change was to expand the section on American political values in Chapter 1—where liberty and equality are discussed—to also include justice. Though rarely focused on in textbooks, justice emerges as an animating concept from the Founding era to the present. Given the events that have occurred over the last few years and the longer scope of American political and constitutional development, the author team thought a greater focus on justice would deepen students’ understanding of the core values in American politics.

As is evident by the chapters I worked on, the focus has been on integrating the experiences of people from various racial backgrounds throughout the textbook instead of mostly siloing them in a single chapter. For example, in teaching about the Founding in Chapter 2, it is commonplace for textbooks to say nothing about the struggles of Native peoples over land or to brush quickly past the enslavement of Black people (often appearing only for discussion of the Three-Fifths Compromise).  

From my experience talking to numerous colleagues across the discipline, the intention was never to erase these experiences, but many professors feel a sustained engagement would be overwhelming and outside of the scope of an intro course.

I believe it is possible to acknowledge these histories and experiences in a more sustained way and to tell the larger story of the Founders. Thus, in the chapter on the Founding, I grounded the discussion of the growing independence of the colonists in the acquisition of land and in the system of slavery that took place in the South and the North. The writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention still hold vaulted space in the chapter, and the inclusion of slavery and land dispossession help highlight the tensions that existed during the Founding that continue to this day. American politics is, and has been, complicated and at times messy! Surely, this is something that all students can identify with.

And when we fast-forward from the Founding to the present, much has shifted in American politics as it pertains to the status of women and people of color. Most often, the development of greater civil rights is told through the story of the Black civil rights movement beginning in the 1950s and culminating in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s a steady march toward justice. And federal institutions—most often courts—play a prominent role in granting marginalized groups greater access to the political establishment. But this oft repeated narrative tends to give too much credit to institutions, and the timeline is far too short.

The Supreme Court did not suddenly see segregated schools as wrong in 1954; justices were pressured by a well-thought-out litigation plan and organizers on the ground. And women were not granted the right to vote with the Nineteenth Amendment; they organized campaigns and fought hard for it. Thus, to provide a deeper account of how civil rights transformations occurred, I framed Chapter 5 through the lens of social movements and embraced a longer time frame. Social movements are the vehicles whereby people have collectively organized around specific political goals and (sometimes) transformed American politics.

We also extended the timeline of the Black civil rights movement: beginning with the abolitionist movement, transitioning to the period of Reconstruction, exploring the heyday of movement activism in the 1960s, and continuing through the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. The purpose is to show the nonlinear path of rights-making in this country.

But it’s not just Black people; persistent and ongoing attempts by numerous groups (women, Latinos, Native peoples, Asian Americans, LGBTQ people, Muslim Americans) push the institutions of American government closer to its stated ideals. These themes served as the guide to reframing the civil rights chapter (Chapter 5). As such, the chapter is now more centered on people making choices—the ways that different groups adopted insider and outsider political strategies to achieve their movement goals. Perhaps showing students how it’s been done will inspire them to fight for the change they seek.

My hope is that by incorporating a deeper engagement with research on race and ethnicity into the teaching of American politics, students might be able to develop a richer understanding of its tapestry, and of all those who have contributed to it. By doing so, we all can better evaluate how far we have come and keep our eyes fixed on the work that still needs to be done.

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