Prof. Christopher Stout: The Political Importance of Talking About Race

Not long ago, politicians did not talk about racial issues in their campaigns. Now, there is a very real chance that Joe Biden would not have been elected president if he hadn’t talked about those very issues. 

Dr. Christopher Stout, an associate professor of political science at Oregon State University, has written two books related to this topic, with his pioneering research about how race intersects with politics on the campaign trail.   

Research Background and Deracialization  

Stout did not always picture himself researching this specific area.  

“I think it’s kind of by chance, really,” Stout said. “I’ve always been interested in politics and political science.” 

When Stout was working on his undergraduate’s degree, a professor he worked with suggested doing research regarding how people feel when they are represented by someone they share a race with, in particular looking to see if that influenced their belief about their impact on the government’s actions. 

Stout started researching the intersection between race representation and belief in government efficacy, which continued into grad school. The week after he defined his dissertation, he was speaking to his advisor and she said it was funny that while there was a lot of information about identity, there was not much about how identity and the messages put out by politicians intersected. 

“So, from then I started to look at what are some of the messages people are putting out and does that matter if they’re coming from a white elected official or a Black elected official,” Stout said. 

Stout’s first book, Bringing Race Back In: Black Politicians, Deracialization, And Voting Behavior in the Age of Obama, looked into whether messages about race helped or harmed Black politicians. 

At this time, deracialization was the norm, with many people believing that race was not something they should discuss on their campaign. Stout said it was “an unwritten rule.”   

However, his research found that discussing race was not harmful, but in fact helpful. 

“African Americans who speak out on race do gain some benefits,” Stout said. “They do attract more African American voters, and they’re not turning off white voters in large part because white voters assume that regardless of whether Blacks talk about race or not, they’re going to be racially progressive.” 

This set the scene for his second book, The Case for Identity Politics: Polarization, Demographic Change, and Racial Appeals, published in the fall of 2020. This book looked at how “the context changes over time that kind of demands politicians talk about race,” Stout said. 

This led Stout to believe that Joe Biden could not have won the 2020 presidential election without talking about race. 

Ongoing Research  

Now, Stout is collecting data on how members of congress speak on social media sites and in press releases, in order to see how these sites are used and if there are differences between those of different races or ethnicity. 

“For example, if you’re an African American and you’re following Barbra Lee, or Maxine Waters, or Karen Bass on Instagram and you see people like you working with members of congress or members of congress hanging out with people who look like you, does that make you feel better about government overall, does that make you more likely to participate, does that make you more interested, more likely to trust, et cetera,” Stout said. “And so, I think that’s where I’d like to go in the future.” 

While most research on diversity focuses on representation of race and ethnicity in primary school educators and how it predicts success, representation matters for everyone, Stout said. 

“Seeing a professor of a different race gives them a different perspective, gives them different people to work with, to look up to, that then shapes their views about race and racial relations going forward,” Stout said. 

He referenced a study about how political trust shifts after a town has had a Black major, saying people were more likely to trust Black officials than before. The same is true for gender.  

Impact on Society 

Most of Stout’s work is centered on campaigning and representation, and he said that he believes it “seeps out.” 

He writes for The Washington Post, and some of his more popular articles talk about the importance of bringing race in on the campaign trail. 

Campaign managers have reached out to me, political organizers have reached out to me, around these particular topics. 

When Stout began in 2015 and 2016, it was much harder to recognize the need for discussing race in politics. 

“I think that by talking about these issues, that is the first step toward actually making change,” Stout said. “And so, I hope that my research provides confidence for elected officials to know they don’t have to run away from race, and they don’t have to ignore that racial inequality is a huge problem in the United States – they can actually address it head on.”  

He added that this is not only the right thing to do, but it also works in favor of a politician. 

Even just the criminal justice aspect of the conversation about race is important to talk about, so much so that the Republican party has been discussing it as well, Stout said. 

“There’s a real public appetite to address these issues.”  

Social movements are crucial, and Black Lives Matter is vital to show politicians and the public how important these issues are, Stout added 

“These social movements are just key, and understanding how social movements can be most effective is something that I’m interested in,” he said. 

When asked about those who would try and discredit the social movement in talking about riots, Stout said that an overwhelming majority of them have been peaceful, and most would agree that a small percent of an entire movement shouldn’t speak for all of it. Those believing the entire movement is defined by that are probably looking for a reason not to support it.  

By: Hannah Ramsey