PhD candidate Jared Clemons talks about studying the politics of social justice

Jared is studying the politics of social justice. His dissertation, “Paying the Price? How Racial Capitalism and Self-Interest Condition White Liberal Commitments to Racial Justice” asks the question “how does personal self-interest condition Whites’ commitments to addressing racial inequality?” To answer this question, he considers how neoliberal conceptions of individualism inform the behaviors of even Whites who are ostensibly sympathetic to notions of antiracism. More specifically, he decenters “racial attitudes” as an explanatory factor in explaining social inequality and, instead, consider the ways in which race and capitalism converge to set the terms of the contemporary antiracism agenda in America.

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I’m a political science PhD at Duke and majored in political science as an undergrad at Louisiana State University. I also received a master’s in elections and campaign management at Fordham University. I’ve always had an interest in politics and curious how people (Americans) think of the political domain.

Why Duke?

Why Political Science?

One thing that drew me to Duke specifically was the political science department and its race and ethnic politics focus. My research looks at the ways in which race shapes our American politics and the ways that people understand public policy and inequality. Paula McClain is my dissertation chair and it’s amazing working with her since she’s one of the foremost scholars in political science and studying race.

I didn’t know I wanted to do a PhD. As a political science undergrad, the next step was to head to law school: get my undergraduate degree, take a couple years off and work, regroup, and then study for the LSAT. But as I was studying, I quickly realized I wasn’t really drawn to questions of law, constitutional law, or similar types of inquiry. I ended up enrolling in a master’s program and the very first course I took was a theoretical/political behavior course and I was hooked. I was drawn to asking big questions and liked the opportunity to question things that we often take for granted.

The one thing that I really enjoy as a social scientist is the ability to just stop and think about why things are the way they are. We know that this is the world, but this is a world that we all collectively create, so I like being able to ask these questions that in other spaces, you probably wouldn’t get to ask.

My advisor nudged me into considering a PhD since I expressed interest in asking questions about race and politics. So my master’s program definitely opened my eyes to the PhD, which I simply wasn’t considering when I first began my studies.

I come from a really politically active family. My grandmother was super involved in the NAACP and so I was always really interested in understanding racial justice and social justice more broadly. I knew that I wanted to be somewhere where I could ask questions about race and inequality.

What do you think are the pros/cons of pursuing a PhD?

If you are very inquisitive, it gives you the opportunity to kind of wet that curiosity. You have the opportunity to really question things. As an undergrad you’re assigned work and are consuming knowledge, but in a PhD program, you’re learning how to be a producer of knowledge. For people who are really interested in learning, wanting to read a lot about a very small subset of things, and find that fulfilling, then a PhD is a great move for you. Sometimes it can be pretty isolating, especially in the dissertation phase. I wouldn’t say you are on your own because you still have your committee and there’s other grad students, but once you get really enmeshed in your own research, at some point, it can feel very isolating. If you are more of an extrovert or someone that thrives on working on a team, transition from coursework to dissertation can be difficult.

Any advice for current PhD students?

I always tell people your first year is like being thrust into the deep end of the pool and you’re just having to learn how to stay afloat. But I think one thing you quickly learn is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t let yourself burn out your first year or two. It’s important to realize this is a long game and you’re not expected to know everything on day one.

Stay intellectually humble. Don’t lose sight of the fact of who you are. While we are being trained to be producers of knowledge, we’re also recognizing that there’s so much about the world that we don’t know. Recognize that saying ‘I don’t know’ is not a weakness. In my opinion there’s something liberating about saying ‘I don’t know,’ and so I think if you can keep the intellectual humility and curiosity, you’ll enjoy the PhD process much more.

Why is social science research so important?

In a lot of ways, social science research helps us think about how we can make the world a better place. With the pandemic, one thing we saw immediately, is that the pandemic isn’t just a question of science. We need to take a closer look at how the pandemic has had differential impact on various populations and think about how we might reach out to different populations who have been disproportionately affected by it. We need to understand the way historical systems have created some of these inequalities, if you do in fact want to improve them.

What’s next for you?

I study racial inequality, but I look at it from a somewhat different lens. There’s a lot of research that looks at why people don’t support certain types of social policies, but I’m interested in looking at the conditions that might shape people’s interpretations of certain social policy. I want to stay in academia and continue to do work that is accessible to everyone. In my opinion, some of the best academic research is research that is written in a way that can be used to solve our social problems. I want to be at an institution that allows me the ability and the flexibility to work outside of the academy, in addition to doing my own research, so in a perfect world, I would be at an institution that allows me the freedom to kind of pursue my own academic interests

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