Impact

James Jackson, 1944-2020: Pioneering Researcher of African American Life

September 8, 2020 4068
James Jackson
James S. Jackson at a National Science Board meeting. (Photo: National Science Board)

James Jackson, a social psychologist whose pioneering survey of Black Americans created new methodologies and new insights about the psychological resiliency of the community, died September 1 of pancreatic cancer. He was 76.

A memorial from the National Science Board, to which Jackson was appointed in 2014, remembered him as “a scientific giant, who in his long and rich career truly broke new ground at the frontiers of research in the social sciences, health, and medicine.”

When Jackson received the University of Michigan’s first Distinguished Diversity Scholar Career Award, the university’s chief diversity office Robert Sellers argued that  Jackson likely was “the most important researcher on the life experiences of African Americans in the past 100 years.” Jackson, he said, “transcends the traditional fields of psychology, sociology, political science and public health to provide a rich picture of the strengths, challenges, and functioning that characterizes the breadth of experiences of the African American community.”

One of the major insights gained from his career of surveying minority communities and combining that with biological science addressed the seemingly anomalous finding that while the aggregate African American community has worse physical health outcomes compared to Whites, the same community simultaneously has a lower rate of major mental health disorders. Tapping the Affordances Model and the earlier work James J. Gibson, Jackson theorized that “people have agency, that people don’t just walk around not doing anything about their circumstances, that they try to actively address stressful events in their lives. We further argued that perhaps the things that people do to reduce the negative influences on their mental health and to protect themselves may turn out to be deleterious for their physical health.”

Jackson further argued that this ultimately was a biological mechanism, as he outlined for Alan Kraut, then head of the Association for Psychological Science, in an excellent interview conducted on Jackson’s 70th birthday. “The reason why we see it so clearly in the African-American population is because the distribution of their living conditions is so much worse on average than for whites, but for whites who live under similar kinds of conditions and are raised in similar ways as a disproportionate number of African Americans, you get exactly the same effects.”

And so, “race probably is better thought about as a kind of stimulus which influences the experiences people have because of skin tone and other characteristics that accumulate over the life course and influences their final racial designation.”

James S. Jackson was born in Detroit in 1944.

He started his career in higher education in 1962 at Michigan State University. He planned to be an electrical engineer. “I was going to change the world,” he told Kraut. “But one day I wandered into an introductory psychology course and it was transformative for me.”

As he worked toward a psychology degree, experiences outside the classroom proved as influential on the scholar he would become as were the invigorating coursework. On one hand he had a series of odd jobs – evaluating adults education courses, showing slides to art history students, and working as a janitor 20 hours a week. (“I was a very good janitor,” he told Kraut. “In fact, to this day I can’t help looking to see whether people have done a good job on the floors.”)

On the other hand, he was deeply involved in extracurricular life, becoming president of his local chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity (the first historically Black Greek society in the U.S.) Courtesy of his academic adviser, Robert Green, Jackson became active in promoting civil rights.” Robert, who took me under his wing, became one of Martin Luther King’s assistants,” Jackson explained. “So I got to spend a day with King. I got to meet Malcolm X and talk to him privately, I spent a day with Jimmy Hoffa. Jimmy Hoffa was an incredible person. I got a chance to meet a lot of the leadership of the civil rights movement, including Jesse Jackson, who I know to this day because of that experience. It was a defining set of experiences.”

In turn, his activism on civil rights influenced his academic actions, starting with his time in a master’s program at the University of Toledo. Famously, during the 1969 convention of the American Psychological Association, he joined other young Black psychologists who took over the podium during the presidential address to call for improving the training that racial and ethnic minority students in psychology were receiving.

“There must’ve been about 17 of us from across the country,” he recalled in his talk with Kraut. “We all put on our dashikis and marched up there, and took over the microphone. We didn’t do this thing lightly. We all thought we were going to jail.” Instead, the association’s leadership was open to at least some dialog – President George Miller’s interrupted addresses was the also-famous ‘Give Psychology Away’ speech – and the next day the protesters and the leadership talked. This exchange would eventually result in the APA having an office of the Black Student Psychological Society, which Jackson became president of that same year.

Jackson received his master’s in 1970, then took a Ph.D. in social psychology at Wayne State University in 1972, at the same time becoming president of the Association of Black Psychologists and taking a job as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. At Michigan, he was the first African-American hired for the full-time faculty in the program.

As the only full-time Black faculty member, Jackson noted he was often pulled away from his research, serving on innumerable committees or mentoring students, especially among the dramatically increasing number of Black students. Nonetheless, with a cadre of those students he set about designing what became the National Survey of Black Americans.

Several characteristics set the NSBA, which in addition examining social, political and economic factors and psychological distress and serious mental problems among black Americans, apart. For one, it was culturally sensitive to the African-American community, and it only surveyed African-Americans.

“The argument we made was that the social and behavioral sciences always had a comparative perspective, but there are many questions that you want to know about the black population for which the comparisons are internal to that population, not across race. … We thought not making cross racial comparisons was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but in the mid ’70s it turned out to be more revolutionary than we thought.”

More pragmatically, Jackson came up with a new survey methodology to overcome the issue that, as he told Kraut, “African Americans were maldistributed in the population — and it’s still true today. They live in areas of high density and high concentration, so you don’t want to take too many people from this group because it would be nonrepresentative. They also live in areas of low concentration. Previous studies had not represented African Americans very well who lived in high-density white areas. We had to devise a cost-effective strategy for representing those individuals.”

Jackson, however, dreamt up, literally, a novel solution:

“Now this is the truth: It came to me in a dream as to how we might be able to do this. Screening was the problem. For example, if you’re screening an average of 60 household blocks, the traditional way of screening was to knock on every single door until you found the sample person that you were interested in — in this case, African Americans. So, that’s a lot of doors to knock on when, say, there might be only one African American in that 60-household block. But I woke up one night, in the middle of the night and said, ‘We’ll ask white people where the black people are!’

His answer was the puckishly named WASP, or Wide Area Screening Procedure. “What we discovered was that in an average 60-household area, if there was one African-American family, you only had to go to three households to find out where that family was.”

The survey was conducted starting in 1979 via the Program for Research on Black Americans, which Jackson launched in 1976 through the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research (which he would later direct). The WASP methodology, meanwhile, has since travelled around the world, and so did Jackson. In the 1980s he was part of team doing pioneering work on racism and immigration issues in Western Europe, and through his continuing work there in the 2010s researched race and ethnicity issues among the African-Caribbean community in the Caribbean and its diaspora.

Jackson conducted or supported a number of other important surveys, including the National Survey of American Life, the Family Survey across Generations and Nations, and the National Study of Ethnic Pluralism and Politics.

As noted, being a mentor absorbed mattered to Jackson, and his impact in that role has taken pride of place in many recollections – including his own. “Being the first African-American full-time faculty member at Michigan,” he told Kraut, “meant becoming responsible in some ways for the training of large numbers of African-American students, graduate and undergraduate, and their wide range of perspectives broadened my interests significantly.”

The memorial posted by the National Science Board noted, “He was a mentor to many, and was always passionate about supporting young researchers pursuing basic, discovery science.” In its memorial, the Program for Research on Black Americans suggested his mentoring of students, postdocs and junior faculty was his “most important” contribution. “His role in mentoring several generations of African American scholars cannot be overstated, both for its contribution to diversifying academia and enhancing knowledge on race and ethnicity in the U.S. James mentored students, post-docs and junior faculty in numerous fields including Psychology, Sociology, Public Health, Social Work, Political Science and Economics.”

Sociologist Earl Smith tweeted, “He sent me–in the mail–a magnetic tape of the data in his Black Families research (no questions asked) about 1983? Used that data, with his blessings, for a first pub. 15 yrs later I met him in Ann Arbor and he was gracious. I was not one of his students.” A similar story, again by someone who was neither in his field or his school, was tweeted from neuropsychologist Jennifer J. Manly of Columbia University. “James was pivotal in shaping my thinking about many aspects of my research – even though I was never at Michigan, he took time to teach me. His impact is incredible – if you are a scholar focusing on aging or Black psychology, so much of what we know links back to James Jackson.”

Jackson’s mentor including making himself available to many organizations, associations and centers. His leadership roles include president of the Association of Black Psychologists, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and the Consortium of Social Science Associations, as sections of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Geronontological Society of America, the American Psychological Association. Not surprisingly, he had an outsize role at the University of Michigan, co-directing the NIH-supported Center for Integrative Approaches to Health Disparities and the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research, as well as leading the Research Center for Group Dynamics  and the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies.

Among his honors, Jackson received the Robert W. Kleemeier Award for Outstanding Contributions to Research in Aging from the Gerontological Society of America; the James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award for Distinguished Career Contributions in Applied Psychology from the Association for Psychological Sciences a presidential citation from the  American Psychological Association; the Solomon Carter Fuller Award from the American Psychiatric Association; and the Medal for Distinguished Contributions in Biomedical Sciences from the New York Academy of Medicine. In 2002, he was elected to the Institute of Medicine and was the W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow from the American Academy of Political and Social Science and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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