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The importance of magnifying marginalized voices in politics and academia

Ph.D. candidate Justin Zimmerman is a race, ethnicity, and politics scholar with an interest in Black political thought. The 2020 American Political Science Association First Generation Scholar in the Profession Accessibility Grant recipient earned his bachelor’s and masters at the University of Alabama. He then worked in the U.S. Department of State as a press assistant, and later as an acquisition consultant at Diplomatic Security and consultant to the Department of Treasury. In 2017, he returned to academia to focus on what he wanted to do in the first place: research that dealt with Black People. In this question-and-answer session, Zimmerman discussed the power of research, his forthcoming papers, and his hopes for the new presidential administration. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Question: Having worked for the U.S. federal government, what made you return to academia? How did your career help you transition into the program?

Justin Zimmerman: I think that academia and research can either be very powerful and very useful, or very destructive to marginalized communities, in general. Initially, my main motivation was to get away from just making money and to focus on a career that I thought could really help my particular community — I think education and research is a strong way to do that. The main reason we ended up in positions of even conceptualizing race, understanding racial segregation, or justifying certain policies that have had really bad influences is partly because of the institution of academia. Some professors and researchers have given bad information about who Black people are — and not just Black people — but also Latinx, Asian folks, everybody. We spend too much time talking about the elite — talking about the people who have the most prestige. Now we need to focus more on what needs to happen for marginalized people to get to where they need to go.

Q: You are working on and/or co-authoring three papers, ranging from the politics of distrust in Chicago to gun control to U.S. presidents’ race relations. What are the intersections between these research topics?

JZ: I'm really interested in how class and race intersect, which is why my dissertation is focused on that. That is why I spend so much time even when I teach social justice, talking about class, talking about who are the people that get to make the decisions, and who are the people whose voices are ignored.

Q: You are in the Chicago Field Studies program, currently working on a paper titled “Race, Class, and the Politics of Distrust: How Chicago’s Race-Class Subjugated Communities Advocate Against State and Community Violence”. In what way is Chicago an apt or inadequate model for national politics?

JZ: I want to be careful with how I say this. Chicago, as a major city, reflects many of the issues that we have broadly in the nation. Here, you have a city that is extremely segregated, you have a city that has a predatory police force, you have a city that suffers from white people gaining wealth as Black people and brown people completely are falling off the map and struggling and suffering in general in the city. All of those things can be reflected throughout the nation and you can see that.

But, at the same time, Chicago does have its own unique culture. First of all, Chicago, on paper, is more Blue than the rest of the country. The country is, you know, it's just a little bit closer to conservatism than what we have in Chicago. So, it isn't quite an exact model of the nation in that way, but it's also a reminder that just because something is identified as part of the Democratic trend, does not mean that it leads to liberation for marginalized people.

What makes that type of research so important is that it builds past this simplistic understanding — that it's just simply one party or simply one individual that's causing these systemic issues. These issues have been built on top of each other by both Republicans and Democrats, and unfortunately, conservatives and liberals. So, it's a show that is more complicated than that, but also Chicago is a place where, honestly, I've never seen people more politically engaged, including people who are extremely marginalized. These people still put together block clubs, they're still sitting there putting together residential associations, they know who the mayor is and they know what these people are doing. They can give you a robust history of what happened in their community, even if it's not in the language that Northwestern students are used to hearing. They can tell you everything.

Q: What motivates your research?

JZ: Honestly, I care a lot about my community, about Black people. I love Black people. And I want our stories to be told and I want them to be told accurately. I want people to understand who we are not because we need any validation from anybody, but because I think there needs to be even more research on what we do politically and how we do it. We are an important bloc of voters in this country. We are the reason why Biden is president right now. We are the reason why Trump is no longer present right now. And yet, people have simplistic understandings of what Black politics is to this day. There's still not full respect for who African Americans are, how great they have been at mobilizing politically, how great they have been at pushing civil rights — which have helped everyone. And we need to do more research on that.

Q: Given your experience both in research and D.C., do you believe Biden’s election is a turning point? How should people keep the new administration accountable?

JZ: I try to be an optimist so I'm not the Debbie Downer on Biden as a lot of people are. What I will say about Biden and about the US presidency, in general, is that it is very abnormal for a president to acknowledge systemic racism. And I don't want people to scoff at that because he didn't have to say anything because President Barack Obama barely ever said anything about it. That gives at least some indication that there is a taste for getting some progress. Now am I expecting him to go as far, far as I want to go — for there to be full economic justice or reparations for African Americans and making sure that police aren't killing Black folks into the numbers that they are? No, I'm not expecting that. But I do think we're getting closer to at least seeing certain things for certain African Americans.

As you can tell, I work on local politics — and local politics matter. They probably matter even more with regards to how or what happens to African Americans and marginalized communities, in general. It's the mayor that's deciding on how they're going to use the police and who to use surveillance on and it's the mayor deciding on how housing is dispersed. So, we have to look past just Biden — it’s a local election issue too. I think that we should be optimistic about what he's doing, but it goes beyond Biden, and it goes into every facet of politics and how we're choosing our leaders and whether we're choosing leaders that are courageous enough to actually commit to any type of real justice.

Interview by Yunkyo Kim (WCAS '22)

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