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teaching and researching U.S. civil rights and racial inequalities

Ph.D. candidate Kumar Ramanathan has researched a wide variety of topics from Chicago politics to immigrant participation to white racial attitudes. As a 2020-21 American Bar Foundation/Northwestern University Doctoral Fellow, Ramanathan will participate in seminars and workshops with other fellows and research faculty, and receive mentorship on his research projects. His dissertation, "Building a Civil Rights Agenda: The Democratic Party and the Origins of Racial Liberalism” investigates how liberal politicians in the northern Democratic Party contested and constructed a civil rights legislative agenda in the mid-20th century, forming racial liberalism as we know it today. In this interview, Ramanathan explains how his diverse interests intersect in his dissertation. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Question: You started your Ph.D. at Northwestern in 2016, after graduating in 2015 with a B.A. in political science and philosophy at Tufts University. What were your initial research interests as you started your program, and how did they expand and develop over your time here?

Kumar Ramanathan: When I applied to graduate school, my interests were even more broad and varied than they are now, which is a pretty common thing for many folks applying to graduate school. My interests have been shaped significantly by my particular experiences as an immigrant. I was born in India, moved to Hong Kong when I was young, and then moved to the United States in 2011 to start my undergrad program. When I was an undergrad, I already had this interest in politics and public policy. I got really interested in the way that histories of colonialism and racism shape public policy and in turn shape people’s lives. As an immigrant, I could see examples of this: for example, the reason that Hong Kong is English-speaking and why it made sense for my English-speaking family from India to move there, is because India and Hong Kong were both British colonies. Immigration policies in the U.S are also shaped by legacies of colonialism and racism. So these experiences got me really interested in trying to understand how historical processes shape public policy and people's lives. As an undergrad in political science, I took mostly comparative politics courses, but I kept returning to the case of the United States. Outside of academia, my own political involvement has been pretty local; I was getting more and more interested in US politics which resulted in me applying my broader academic interests to the United States.

Q: You have researched a range of different topics including civil rights, social policy, urban politics in America, political participation, and white racial attitudes. How do these themes come together in your dissertation?

KR: I have a lot of different research interests, but the thing that draws them together is a core interest in the way that politics mediates social inequalities. That's a big, vague statement, so I will try to explain what I mean by that. I'm particularly interested in racial inequality in the United States. Instead of thinking of those inequalities as somehow fundamental and pre-political, or as just the outcome of politics, I'm interested in the interplay between them.

How do those inequalities shape our politics? And then, how do those politics then transform those inequalities? Most of my research is about how particular political institutions — ranging from political parties to specific public policies and laws — play a role in 20th and 21st-century racial inequality in the United States. My dissertation draws on some of these themes by trying to understand how this really huge transformation in the 20th century, the emergence of a new kind of civil rights law and policy, came to be. This is a transformation that is well known. But I'm really curious, not just about why it was successful at that particular time, but why we have the kind of civil rights law that we have.

Q: In particular, you study the concept of racial liberalism. How do you define the concept?

KR: In my dissertation, I tried to understand the origins of the version of civil rights legislation that emerged in the 1960s. And I think that is a part of the story of what scholars sometimes call “racial liberalism,” which I define as a set of ideas that liberals developed on how to address the problem of race. I'd like to push the argument that racial liberalism is a particular ideology about racism. It's not just simply racial justice or anti-racism, nor is it just a smokescreen for white supremacy. It's different from racial conservatism. It's different from other racial ideologies that came before it. But it doesn't naturally solve racism, so I think we need to understand how it came to be, and how it shapes our racial politics. It sometimes helps address racial inequalities and sometimes worsens them. I’d like to better understand the origins of racial liberalism, and I suspect that the political conflicts over civil rights legislation played an important role in shaping the content of this ideology.

Q: What motivates your research? What questions are you trying to answer? What problems have you observed? And what do you try to complement in the discipline of political science through your research?

KR: My passion for research was preceded by my passion for teaching. I'm so interested in both the traditional classroom environment and other kinds of educational settings. As I thought about graduate school and college teaching, I kept thinking: in the classroom, if you've got students who are trying hard to grapple with and understand the problems of inequality in order to address them, what would be helpful to those students? I was a student at one point, and now I serve as an instructor. My research interests are motivated by trying to help students grapple with those questions on inequality. I don't want to be so bold as to say that I will provide definitive answers to those questions, but my aim is to give students the tools to demystify these really complicated problems.

Q: You recently received the American Bar Foundation Fellowship in Law Social Science, which helps you complete your dissertation. Can you tell us a bit about what you will be doing in the fellowship?

KR: This fellowship will allow me to really spend the time and resources needed to do a good job of writing the dissertation. Asking these kinds of questions, you realize that disciplinary boundaries are boundaries that have been created in academia over time, but the questions themselves don’t neatly follow disciplinary boundaries. The American Bar Foundation is an interdisciplinary community, so this fellowship provides a great opportunity for me to be in conversation with people who don't come from my own discipline, who don’t share the same assumptions. But what ties this research community’s work together is this approach to thinking about the law, not as something that is fixed, or that has its own internal logic insulated from society, but rather as something that's part of society and part of politics. My dissertation shares this perspective and it's great to learn from folks who are doing all kinds of different research, but driven by a shared understanding of law and public policy as embedded in society.

 Interview by Yunkyo Kim (WCAS '22)