17.269 | Spring 2017 | Undergraduate

Race, Ethnicity, and American Politics


There will be two short papers (5–10 pages) assigned during the semester. The papers will be worth 50% of the final grade.

Please write a paper responding to one of the prompts below. You should write for a smart, curious lay audience: Imagine your fellow MIT students that haven’t taken this class. Take 1200–2000 words or so (5–8 double-spaced pages, in 12pt font) to answer the question, laying out your argument clearly and drawing on class readings (and outside sources / examples if desired, though this is not required) as useful. Be sure to define any terms that may be unfamiliar to your readers, and to cite the readings you reference. My grading will focus on how well the paper answers the question and offers evidence in support of its arguments, but I will also consider how well-written it is.

Use a citation format of your choice; as long as it has authors and dates and allows me to figure out what’s being cited, I don’t have a preference between APA, Chicago, or anything else.

Paper 1


  1. Could things have gone differently, and how? Imagine a universe where the US has a very different racial order than the current one. Describe it: What are the relevant groupings and what hierarchies exist? Explain how and why this happened, drawing on historical sources from the class and comparisons to other countries.
  2. How should the Census look? Propose a race / ethnicity question or questions for the next US Census, and defend it. Provide the text of the question(s) and then discuss:
    • How it differs from the current questions
    • What it seeks to measure, and what it assumes about people and groups
    • What can be learned from it, and how this aligns with policy goals
    • Possible drawbacks of the question

Paper 1 will be due by the beginning of Session 10.

Student Example

“A More Informative Set of Race and Ethnicity Questions for the United States Census.” (PDF) (Courtesy of MIT Student.)

Paper 2


  1. How will BLM shape politics? What do you think the Black Lives Matter movement and protests will do to American politics or policy in the long term (5 years or more in the future)? Will the movement accomplish its goals, or have unexpected side effects? Draw on theories discussed in the class and real-world examples as applicable to make your argument. Explain who will react to the movement, what they will do, and why we should expect this outcome. Feel free to talk about changes in things like the following: Political party membership, legislation around criminal justice and civil rights, public opinion on issues of race or policing, or other outcomes you think are likely to respond to the movement.
  2. What do we learn from 2016? What did the presidential election of 2016, and Donald Trump’s victory, teach us about racial attitudes in the US that we didn’t already know (if anything)? Are there existing theories of racial attitudes in politics that are due for a re-assessment, or that should be discarded, in the wake of this election? Or was the role of racial attitudes in 2016 similar to other past elections? Either way, describe the evidence you’re relying on to make your argument, and be sure to cite authors we read in class and briefly describe their theories as you use them.

Paper 2 will be due by the beginning of Session 18.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2017
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples
Instructor Insights