17.269 | Spring 2017 | Undergraduate

Race, Ethnicity, and American Politics

Syllabus and Calendar


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Description

This is an undergraduate class on the role of race and ethnicity in American politics.There are no official prerequisites, but a basic understanding of American political institutions (as would be gained from 17.20 Introduction to American Politics) will be helpful, as will a willingness to engage with complex reading material. The focus will be on political science theories and research about race and politics, though we will also draw on work from sociology, history, and economics.

We will ask big social science questions about race in America: What is “race”? How could we possibly measure it, and does it really matter? What does it mean to say that a policy is discriminatory, and how have social scientists and courts tried to measure racial discrimination? What do Americans think about race in the 21st century, and how do these opinions shape their voting and protest behavior?

After taking this course, students will be able to discuss different ways of imagining race and ethnicity, and their historical underpinnings. They will be able to describe and critique the ways in which racial attitudes are theorized and measured, and think about how these different attitudes are expected to shape political behavior. And they will be familiar with key debates about race in politics, and will be able to talk about the pros and cons of various social science approaches to studying race and its effects.

Expectations and Coursework

My general expectation is that you will come to class prepared to fully participate. This means being on time and keeping electronic distractions to a minimum. It also means treating your classmates with respect, and listening to and engaging meaningfully with them when they speak.

Students are expected to complete all assigned readings and pre-class activities and come to class meetings. In addition, there will be two short papers (5–10 pages) assigned during the semester, and a final exam during exam period.

There will also be occasional reading quizzes, in which students will be asked to answer a few multiple choice questions about the readings before class begins. These will probably not be part of the final course grade, but are intended to help both students and teaching staff keep tabs on the students’ comprehension of the material. However, if I get the sense that no one is doing the reading, I reserve the right to include the reading quizzes in the final exam grade. I hope not to.

Unless an assignment is explicitly labelled as collaborative, I expect that each person will present only their own work. Any work completed for another class must be disclosed (don’t turn in the same paper or assignment for two different courses without prior approval). No assignments will be accepted late unless a prior extension was granted, or where required by institute policy. Makeup exams will only be provided as required by institute policy.

For more information on the course assignments, see the Assignments section.

Grading Policy

Papers (2) 50%
Final exam 35%
Class participation 15%


Module I: What is Race?
1 Introduction  
History / International Comparisons
2 The American Racial Order  
3 A Little History: How Did We Get Here?  
Measurement and Policy
4 How Do We Measure Race / Ethnicity?  
5 Measurement Matters  
Social Science Challenges
6 Discrimination and Causality Paper assignment 1 distributed
7 Some Methods  
Module II: Public Opinion and Behavior
Racial Attitudes: Measurement and Effects
8 Introduction to Racial Attitudes  
9 Linking Attitudes to Outcomes  
10 Campaigns, Advertising, Media Paper assignment 1 due
Race in Context
11 Context and Conflict  
12 Context and Attitudes / Action  
Patterns in Participation and Mobilization
13 Stylized Facts / Overview of Group Participation  
14 Factors in Turnout Paper assignment 2 distributed
15 Other Political Behaviors  
16 Does Protest Work?  
Module III: Political Elites and Institutions
Descriptive Representation: Concept & Practice
17 Descriptive Representation: Theory and Empirics  
18 Majority-Minority Districts Paper assignment 2 due
Voting Rights and Electoral Districting
19 Overview of Voting Rights and Electoral Districting  
Race and the Political System
20 Race and Political Parties  
21 Courts; Broad Review  
Race and Policy
22 Overview of Race and Policy  

Carceral State 1: Film Screening

13th. Directed by Ava Duvernay. Color, 100 min. 2016.

24 Carceral State 2: Political Causes  
25 Carceral State 3: Political Consequences  
26 Conclusion  

Course Info

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