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Unpacking Racism

by Joel Hoekstra

Chris Federico

Chris Federico
Photo by Leo Kim

Chris Federico

Assistant professor, psychology


Ph.D., M.A., social psychology, UCLA; B.A., psychology, U of California—Berkeley

Selected honors & awards

U of M Grant-in-Aid, for "Improving public political understanding: The complex effects of sophistication”

Five-year Graduate Research Fellowship, National Science Foundation, 1996-2000

Bertram H. Raven Award for Best Social Issues Research Paper, UCLA, 1999

Forthcoming publications

“Racism, Ideology, and Affirmative Action Revisited: The Antecedents and Consequences of ‘Principled Objections' to Affirmative Action." Co-authored with J. Sidanius. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

When he's not working, he …

…would like to form a band. Is a fan of writer Irvine Welsh, film director Martin Scorsese.

On the walls of Chris Federico's office in Elliott Hall hang two posters: One for the film Buffalo 66, the other advertising an appearance of The Velvet Underground. Each, in film and music respectively, represents a distinctly alternative viewpoint. And, not surprisingly, it's such turn-the-world-on-its-head perspectives that Federico likes to bring to his own work: Expect the unexpected.

Take racial prejudice, for example. It's an area that Federico, jointly appointed as associate professor in psychology and political science at the University of Minnesota two years ago, has examined at length. A researcher with an interest in the social construction of political reality—in lay terms, the link between how we are socialized and how we understand cultural and political issues—Federico has employed the methodologies and measurements of social science to examine attitudes regarding racial groups.

Blatant racial prejudice, numerous studies have shown, rarely withstands good education. "People who are educated are less likely to hold racist beliefs, less likely to accept ideas about the superiority or inferiority of certain groups. That's pretty well documented,” Federico says. "But what I've found is that while education does make people less prejudiced on the whole, it also enables you to connect ideas more carefully. And so educated people are better able to connect the prejudices with policies that support their attitudes.”

In other words, Federico suggests, they are better able to rationalize—and so their racial biases are more difficult to ascertain. To get at them, one must ask more oblique questions—about affirmative action, welfare, or crime, for example—rather than such blunt questions as "Are blacks lazier than whites?”

Prejudicial racial attitudes are not in and of themselves the only source of inequalities in society, says Federico. Social theorists have long claimed that a stratified society cannot stabilize unless its citizens collectively learn to accept inequality as socially and economically justifiable, even necessary. Federico focuses on uncovering the roots of attitudes that allow such inequities to continue. The social constructions supporting such attitudes, he adds, are often complex.

A decade ago, Federico would never have predicted he would end up at the crossroads of politics and psychology. The Baton Rouge, La., native enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1990s planning to study medicine. "I was taking all these biology and chemistry classes, which I hated and often didn't bother to show up for,” he recalls. "But one thing my friends knew was that I loved to argue about politics. I'd go to the trouble of reading social science works that had relevance to current political issues, just so I could win arguments.”

Fortunately, one of his mentors recognized Federico's true passion and talked him out of his pre-med plan. "He said I'd be wasting my life if I didn't go into social science,” Federico says.

After completing his Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles, Federico arrived at Minnesota in fall 2001. "I applied for about 60 jobs, but this was the one I most wanted,” he says. Splitting his time between the psychology and political science departments, he has taught courses on racial attitudes, as well as graduate seminars on intergroup relations and a portion of a graduate class on multi-variant statistics.

To both departments, he has brought fresh scholarly perspectives as well as a genuine commitment to teaching. "He is very accessible and student-oriented,” says Eugene Borgida, a professor of psychology and law. "He's not someone who closes his door.”

Says John Sullivan, a Regents professor of political science, "Unlike most psychologists, Chris has significant interest in political theory and philosophy, and so he has interest in the normative concerns—not only how things work, but the way things ought to be.”

Federico is equally interested in cultivating the curiosity and talent of his students. Chris Weber, a senior psychology major with a political science minor, says the professor has served as a vital sounding board for his summa honors thesis. "He's really good at getting you to think critically about social issues and examining them thoroughly,” Weber says. Additionally, Federico offered good advice regarding graduate schools. Now Weber is considering attending grad school at the U of M—an option he had previously ruled out.

As a new professor, Federico sees such tasks as simply part of the job. "If I can get someone genuinely interested in something, that's when I know I've succeeded,” he says.

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