Now that Genesee County has declared racism a public health crisis, what role can residents play in guiding the county’s efforts to eliminate racist policies and practices?

That’s one of the research questions University of Michigan faculty will seek to answer with support from new grant funding awarded in September by the Center for Social Solutions and Poverty Solutions at U-M.

Other research topics include how Asian Americans’ experiences of racism have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, how redrawing legislative districts to account only for eligible citizen voters would impact minority voting power, and more.

More than $260,000 total will be awarded to six action-based research projects as part of the inaugural “Confronting and Combating Racism” grants. The program aims to address challenges such as systemic oppression, organizational exclusion, institutional discrimination, neglectful policy, and violence against the minds, bodies and cultures of people of color.

“These research projects are an important part of the university’s work to examine systemic racism. Individually and collectively, they will deepen our understanding of the multifaceted effects of racism and contribute to finding ways to address it,” said Susan Collins, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

LSA, the College of Engineering, the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the Law School, the National Center for Institutional Diversity, the Provost’s Office and the School of Social Work also supported the grant program, which is part of a larger, universitywide commitment to fund scholarship, teaching and service initiatives related to racial equity.

“Racism is deeply rooted in the history of this country and the world in which it sits. Its effects can range from an inadequate education to name calling to the loss of life, as recent deaths underscore,” said Earl Lewis, Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy, and the founding director of the Center for Social Solutions.

“In the 1940s, Nobelist Gunnar Myrdal labeled racism and racial prejudice ‘an American dilemma.’ The researchers we have funded highlight the progress that has been made over the last eight decades. Still, that progress does not reveal a straight line. My colleagues at the Center for Social Solutions applaud all who submitted grant applications, but especially those selected, for their dedication to tendering solutions.”

H. Luke Shaefer, the Hermann and Amalie Kohn Professor of Social Justice and Social Policy, associate dean for research and policy engagement at the Ford School, and founding director of Poverty Solutions, noted the connections between addressing poverty and addressing institutional racism.

“At Poverty Solutions, we view poverty as the result of interlinked systems like housing, education, and criminal justice that fail to work as they should for people with low incomes,” Shaefer said.

“We know, historically, people in power often designed those systems to benefit white people while disadvantaging people of color. We need to confront that legacy of racism in order to create a more equitable and just society. These research projects will help us better understand how to do that important work.”

The projects include:

  • “Virulent Hate: Anti-Asian Racism and Resistance During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” with principal investigator Melissa Borja, assistant professor of Asian/Pacific Islander American studies.
  • “Democracy’s Denominator: How Citizenship-Based Redistricting Impacts Racial Minority Voters,” with principal investigator Jowei Chen, associate professor of political science.
  • “The Study of Black Families’ Response to COVID-19 in the Support of Mathematics Learning,” with principal investigator Maisie L. Gholson, assistant professor of educational studies.
  • “Using Police Body Camera Footage to Experimentally Assess the Effects of Routine Police Encounters for Community Trust and Community Health,” with principal investigator Nicholas Camp, assistant professor of organizational studies.
  • “Detroit River Story Lab,” with principal Investigator David Porter, professor of English and comparative literature.
  • “Beyond Rhetoric: Confronting and Combating Racism in Genesee County, Michigan,” with principal investigator Lisa M. Lapeyrouse, assistant professor of health education, U-M Flint.

“As a public health researcher who specializes in health inequities research among Latinx populations, my work is focused on the social determinants of health such as racism, poverty, and health care access that place people of color at disproportionately higher risk for illness, disease, disability, and premature death,” Lapeyrouse said.

“Undertaking this project is a natural progression of my work to investigate and dismantle social and structural systems that rob individuals and communities of color of an equal opportunity to live long, healthy lives.” 

She noted the strong reluctance in American society to acknowledge the existence of racism and its generationally destructive impact on the lives and livelihood of people of color. Lapeyrouse said academic research can rigorously investigate and document systems of oppression and point to best practices that can disrupt and dismantle those systems.

Borja, who is Asian American, said her research project was motivated by personal as well as professional experiences. She said her Asian American friends experienced harassment, discrimination and racism during the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout her career, Borja has studied the organizing efforts of Asian Americans in U.S. history.

“I’ve always believed that in order to change our world, we first need to understand our world. If we want to address the problem of racism, we need to know how it is enacted, by whom, and against whom. We need to know the circumstances that allow racism to become entrenched, as well as the diverse and impactful ways that communities have successfully resisted racism,” Borja said.

“On the matter of the surge of anti-Asian hate incidents during COVID-19, research is particularly important. Without good data and analysis, elected officials and community organizations cannot understand the problem or even see the problem in the first place. Moreover, without good data and analysis, Asian Americans and their allies do not have the necessary tools to organize and advocate for effective interventions.”

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