Talk about research serendipity.
Growing up in Richmond, Va., where racial conflict and politics have a long history, Ashley Jardina knew she wanted to explore those subjects in college.
But she had no idea that while studying political science at the University of Michigan, the United States would elect its first black president, the citizenry would become more diverse and the mostly white tea party would emerge as a powerful political movement.
"I realized political science was a way to answer some of the questions I was curious about," she says. "I wanted to understand what the roots of racial politics are and why people hold particular racial attitudes. Of course, the election of Obama, for someone interested in race and politics, provides a wealth of research opportunities. But race relations in the United States are also evolving as the country becomes increasingly diverse, and understanding the impact of these changes is important."
This fall, Jardina began sharing her expertise as an assistant professor in Duke's Department of Political Science, teaching courses on race and politics for graduate and undergraduate students.
Specifically, Jardina's research focuses on understanding racial attitudes in U.S. politics, and how groups form attitudes and identities that influence their political preferences. Her dissertation was on the significance of racial identification among whites, particularly with respect to their views on immigration and social welfare policies.
"I think many people are anxious. They're concerned what the world will look like when whites are no longer the majority, and this outlook affects their political attitudes," she says.
The salience of race and politics today make it an important time for Jardina to be covering the topic in the classroom, she says, noting that racial attitudes are a fundamental component of American politics.
"Today, it’s impossible to pick up the newspaper or turn on the TV without encountering issues related to race, and so it’s especially exciting to talk with students and to have them think critically about these issues while exploring their own biases and perspectives," she says.
Her expertise on questions of racial identity and political attitudes brings new insights to Duke's research of American politics, says Jack Knight, department chair.
"We think that students will be interested in what Ashley brings to classroom discussions of timely policy debates, including race relations and immigration, just to name two," Knight says.
For Nura Sediqe, a second-year Ph.D. student in political science, the chance to study race and politics fits perfectly with her interests.
"She is working on the forefront of new research in this arena," says Sediqe, an Ohio native. "I was very excited to participate in her course and gain her perspective and guidance as I build my background on the role of race in American politics."
Much of Jardina's research is influenced by social psychology and relies on experiments, an approach she says is becoming increasingly popular in the discipline but isn’t yet considered a conventional approach to political science.
Her other work focuses on attitudes toward immigration among whites and blacks, how the media has helped shape attitudes toward Latinos over time, and how partisan politics have been influenced by the political parties' positions on race and gender policies.
Jardina wants to examine the role of racial attitudes toward the death penalty and how racial prejudice differs based on geography.
"Racial conservatism doesn’t just exist in the South," she says, "it also exists in many other places in the U.S., and I’m interested in exploring geographic variation in these attitudes. I think people have misconceptions about the geographic distribution of racial attitudes, and they hold stereotypes about the South that might not be true, or at least not exclusive to the South."
Jardina has an interest in gender politics, too. Just as Obama's presidential campaign increased the discussion about race in the United States, Jardina believes a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign will do the same for gender equality.
"I don't know how well she'll do," Jardina says. "My guess would be if the country is ready for a black president then they're ready for a female president."
Outside of work, photography has been her hobby for many years, and Jardina says she's looking forward to exploring more of Durham and the surrounding area with her camera in tow.