Associate Professor of Media, Culture and Communication
"Do the ways that we conduct political campaigns disadvantage candidates of color? If so, are fewer candidates of color able to represent the interests of their constituents?"
Charlton McIlwain's research centers on racial appeals in political communication. He seeks to expose the deeper political symbolism behind the words and images strategically employed by politicians. "The basic thrust of my research", says McIlwain, "is to shed light on the ways in which race is mobilized in the context of elections, and on the degree to which race influences the larger principles of representation. Do the ways that we conduct political campaigns disadvantage candidates of color? If so, are fewer candidates of color able to represent the interests of their constituents?"
There is an intricate relationship between public opinion, voting behavior, and political candidates within the media. McIlwain seeks to understand how those relationships impact minority candidates. "It's common to hear discussions", he says, "and debates about the race card. I try to figure out what that is, and how we're able to recognize when somebody employs it."
McIlwain's expertise comes from both his research and his experience on the campaign trail. He has worked as the communications director for congressional and gubernatorial campaigns in Oklahoma, as well as the communications director for the Oklahoma Democratic party. "Being an insider affords you knowledge and insight into the motivations at work with the candidates," says McIlwain. The media often makes use of his unique perspective; he has appeared on CNN, MTV, and various other media outlets.
McIlwain recently received an NSF Grant for his work on the forthcoming Race Appeal. "Part of the book was a project to study the effects of race based messages in political ads on potential voters' perceptions and their likelihood to vote for a specific candidate," says McIlwain. The study included a national population sample, and consisted of gauging reactions to mock campaigns and political ads. McIlwain also co-authored the Routledge Companion to Race & Ethnicity, an undergraduate textbook comprised of essays from interdisciplinary scholars across the globe.
RaceProject.org is perhaps McIlwain's most ambitious project – one he considers his legacy. Over the past 10 years, he and Stephen Caliendo of Illinois' North Central College have constructed a data set of racial minorities in American politics from 1970 to the present which they plan to complete and launch in 2011. The data includes critical points such as district composition, voting behavior, and financial figures from the campaigns. The objective is to situate each campaign within the proper geopolitical context for analysis. McIlwain says "the project will enable scholars to go back and systematically analyze the factors that have contributed to the successes and the failures of racial minority candidates within the U.S. over the last 40 years."
Always encouraging collaboration, McIlwain says his students play a critical role in his work. "Both undergraduate and graduate student assistants have been very central in my research, my work, the books and articles that I publish, and everything that appears on the website." For McIlwain, close collaboration with students adds immeasurable value to each of his research projects.
by Jason Mena