Chronicling a fascination with race, politics, and communication

Charlton McIlwain, who co-authored Race Appeal : How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns with Stephen M. Caliendo,  discusses the origins of their book–and why it took so long to write and publish.

The seeds of Race Appeal were sown back in 1994, when J.C. Watts became the first Black Republican elected to Congress in the South since Reconstruction (in part because of this ad). In 1996, I worked for Watts’s opponent. Part of my job was to “police” campaign communications; we wanted no one to claim that my candidate “played the race card” like Watts’s previous opponent.

That experience initiated my fascination with race, politics, and communication. In 1998, I worked as the communications director for a gubernatorial campaign in Oklahoma. In 1999, I did the same for the state Democratic Party, and the following year party members selected me to be a delegate to the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

In 2001, I completed my Ph.D. in communication at the University of Oklahoma (where the largest political ad archive is housed). With my doctoral degree in hand, and my short political career behind me, I moved to New York City. After an extended adjustment period that fall, Stephen and I charted a course for what would become the near decade-long project that produced Race Appeal

“Why did it take us so long?” you might be asking. Good question. There are equally good reasons.

There had been more than a decade of post-Willie Horton scholarship and there was still no consensus about what constitutes “playing the race card.” We knew we needed overwhelming evidence to make claims about what does or does not constitute a race-based appeal in political ads. That left us only one option: We had to analyze every available political spot run by and/or against a candidate of color over the past forty years. More than one thousand ads, four three-day-long trips to the archive, and two pilot studies later… You see where I’m going with this.

We also committed to determining whether race-based appeals affected potential voters. To do so, we needed to make our own ads. We did. To test the effects of those ads, we needed subjects, preferably a random sample. We also had to do something previous researchers had not done: test the ads’ effect on both White and Black potential voters. Not surprisingly, our grand plan to break new ground in this area of experimental research required money.

A National Science Foundation grant was our best shot at the time. We applied. We got denied. We reapplied. Our proposal got stronger, reviewers’ responses became more glowing. One day we opened the letter and read “Accepted!” The problem was that the next line explained that they’d run out of money. But we remained hopeful. We kept revising, and the reviewers broke out the superlatives. “Best proposal I’ve ever reviewed for NSF.” “Don’t know how it can get stronger.” One even remarked that he or she had advised funding so many times that he or she was tired of reviewing the proposal since it seemed no funding was to ever come. We arrived at the same conclusion.

That ate up a lot of time. Fortunately, TESS (Time-Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences) awarded us two in-kind grants, and we conducted rigorous experiments of race-based appeals on a national, random sample of both White and Black participants.

We spent all that time waiting, but we didn’t just sit on our hands. As was the case with the political ads, somewhere along the way we decided it wasn’t enough to just look at ads or test their effects. After all, candidates and voters are not the only players in elections. Several scholars’ research targeted the news media as having a significant (and negative) influence on the election hopes of Black candidates.

Again, we knew if were going to criticize the news media for how they cover campaigns involving candidates of color, we’d better develop a firm basis for our claims. We analyzed newspaper stories written about the campaigns of Black, Latino and Asian American candidates from every part of the U.S. They were from U.S. House and Senate contests taking place over the course of nearly two decades. More than two thousand stories and several analytical methods later… Again, you see what I’m getting at.

Then, out of nowhere, came Barack Obama. Of course, there was no way we could pass up casting a critical eye on the ins, outs and outcome of that historic election.

Add to that the most in-depth analysis of racial discourse in immigration ads and a wide ranging case study of racialized media coverage in three historic campaigns, and there you have it. Race Appeal. A groundbreaking work of which we are quite proud.

And, one that is, finally, finished!

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