Wednesday, September 20, 2006
From The Chicago Sun-Times…
Race study pays off in genius grant
BY ERIC HERMAN, Staff Reporter
Genius has its rewards. Just ask Jennifer Richeson.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Richeson a $500,000 “genius grant” Monday. The coveted grant comes in recognition of her work in the psychology of racial bias.
“It’s not quite real. I’m totally in the land of the surreal,” said Richeson, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University.
Richeson’s work is firmly grounded in reality. With techniques including surveys and MRI brain imaging, she studies interactions between races, shattering traditional views of how people think and feel about race.
The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation created the grants in 1981. Officially, the program is called the MacArthur Fellowship. But foundation officials concede the “genius grant” label, created by the media, has stuck.
Money comes over 5 years
Each year, the foundation selects 20 to 25 “really creative individuals” in fields from science to music, said Daniel Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program. Past recipients include author Susan Sontag, geneticist Eric Lander, civil rights lawyer Marian Wright Edelman and filmmaker John Sayles.
Though the amounts have changed over time, grantees now receive $500,000 over a five-year period, coming in $25,000 payments four times a year. The money is taxable, Socolow said.
What makes the grants unusual is that recipients do not have to do anything for the money. They do not have to finish specific projects, report how they spend the funds, or explain what they worked on during the five years. The purpose is to give talented people “the gift of time and an unfettered opportunity to reflect, explore and create,” MacArthur president Jonathan Fanton said.
Not planning to splurge
Richeson will “spend a little bit of time thinking” about the issue that has captivated her since her college days: The complexity of racial feelings.
“This stuff isn’t straightforward. … It isn’t just a question of who and who is not a bigot,” she said.
For example, Richeson’s work has shown that well-meaning whites work to repress bigoted feelings when dealing with people of other races. Brain scans show “heightened activity in areas of the brain associated with regulating our thoughts and emotions,” she said.
That effort leads to “awkwardness” and “exhaustion” in social interactions, she said, and could lead to depleted ability to perform other tasks.
Richeson grew up in Baltimore and attended public schools. She became interested in race relations while in college at Brown University, which was “a sea of whiteness” filled with wealthy kids, she said.
After getting a doctorate at Harvard University, Richeson taught at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., before coming to Northwestern last year.
As for the money, Richeson has no plans to take a sabbatical from Northwestern, she said. She said she will devote her efforts to “the mission of improving intergroup interaction.”
“I want to do something purposeful with it. I’m not going to go buy a Porsche,” she said.
Contributing: Jim Ritter