The Question of Prejudice: Social Science, Education, and the Struggle to Define ‘the Race Problem’ in Mid-Century America, 1935-1965
Leah N. Gordon

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Stanford University

Primary Discipline

This project explains how individualistic understandings of “the race problem”—social theories that rooted racial oppression in white attitudes and made education a primary solution to racial injustice—gained traction in postwar social thought. A history of the postwar concept of prejudice, the book uses archival material from universities, philanthropic foundations, educational and religious groups, and civil rights activist. My chapters reveal why some people had more power than others to define critical ethical and political concepts for a national audience. Social scientific agenda setters refined attitude measures, emphasized quantification and theory generation, and dismissed politically-engaged research. Scholars concerned with the political-economic or social structural foundations of racial injustice, conversely, were uncertain about how to measure the “situational” context of racism and had ties to activist groups. Thus, although scholar-activists, many at African American universities, challenged the emphasis on prejudice in studies of race relations, their ideas proved limited in their impact. Highlighting vigorous debate over the meanings of justice and equality in the critical mid-century decades, my research emphasizes higher education’s power to shape national discussions on social justice and shows why Americans so often, and with mixed results, turned to education to fight racial inequality.
About Leah N. Gordon

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