A Conversation with Rodney Hero

Rodney Hero
August 26, 2016

Rodney Hero is Haas Chair in Diversity & Democracy and Professor of Political Science.  His research interests include American democracy and politics, Latino politics, racial/ethnic politics, state and urban politics, and Federalism.  Hero is also a member of the IGS Faculty Advisory Committee.  Here, he discusses his research and forthcoming work. 

What are some of the larger themes and questions that inform your work?

Broadly, issues of race and class, racial inequality or equality in the United States. How has inequality developed and how does it manifest across the United States?  I look at this historically and also in a contemporary setting.

Can you speak more about your current work?

I have two companion articles coming out in Social Science Quarterly with Morris Levy, a former Berkeley grad student. One of them analyzes levels of class and race inequality over the last 20-30 years, focusing on the states. We find that – not surprisingly – trends of economic inequality have increased dramatically. But racial inequality – inequality between racial groups – has been fairly stable, and slightly increased. It’s not as though one increased and the other diminished, as is sometimes the impression; it’s that one has trended up dramatically and the other one has been stable and slightly increased.

In the second article we look at race and other indicators of inequality and their impact on welfare policy in the U.S. We find that racial inequality has a significant impact on dampening spending on welfare policy in the states, whereas the economic inequality measures have little or no impact. It’s not necessarily the size of the minority population that has the significant dampening effect, it’s the degree of inequality between races.

What has been most surprising about your findings?

Our impression going in was that maybe economic inequality has taken off so much that racial inequality – as suggested by notions of a post-racial society – may have decreased in some way. That has not been the case. Secondly, the finding that inequality between races, and not necessarily the size of the minority population, had a dampening effect on spending. 

What are some of the challenges you face with your work?

One of the challenges is convincing the scholarly community of the importance of this work and these questions. We are quite convinced our findings are distinct from previous research, not only in the U.S. but cross-nationally. Some people focus on economic or class inequality, others focus on racial inequality but ours is a dual focus on the nature and the consequences of this intersection. We think that our findings are more compelling because of our approach.

What do you see as some of your scholarly contributions? 

I like to think that I have identified a couple of distinct arguments and tried to convey them in my work. One has to do with Latino politics in the U.S. I have a book that came out in 1992, Latinos and the U.S Political System: Two-Tiered Pluralism, which argues that to understand American politics and racial ethnic groups generally – and perhaps Latinos in particular – standard arguments or analytical perspectives were helpful but not adequately sufficient to capture the nature of that group’s histories and contemporary politics. 

I have another book that came out in 1998 calledFaces of Inequality: Social Diversity in American Politics. I think it’s correct say that this was the first book that sought to carefully examine the significance of racial and ethnic diversity as part of the politics of the 50 states, across the board. There had been significant research focusing on southern politics and the Black-White situation. My argument was that we need to understand how racial and ethnic diversity plays out across all the states. I came up with a categorization of states as either homogeneous, bifurcated (meaning a large minority and a large white population), or heterogeneous (a mix of racial and ethnic groups). I argued that the way diversity plays out in those types of states is different and it tends to manifest itself differently. If we focus only on aggregate outcomes – say the percentage of children who graduate from high school – we would draw one set of conclusions but if we look at relative terms we draw different perspectives. For example, in Minnesota just about everybody graduates from high school. So the question I then posed was “What do we find with regard to minority populations in states like Minnesota?” Actually, their graduation rates are significantly less than Whites in that state. Identifying and explaining how and why this is the case is something I have worked on quite a bit over the years.

What do you enjoy the most about the work that you do?

I like to think I’m addressing important questions in American democracy through my work. I try to identity issues of equality and inequality, which I take to be central features of American politics. By identifying and helping explicate the nature of those politics I hope that it will somehow make the world a better place. I tell undergrad classes “One thing I enjoy about the work that we do as political scientists is understanding the complexity of what are ostensibly simple matters, but also trying to identify the simplicity or core aspects of what are very complex questions.” I like making sense of the simple and complex, and trying to identify particular processes, mechanisms, outcomes that we otherwise might not have acknowledged or understood, hopefully with some kind of melioristic impact.

Do you have any other forthcoming work that you want to mention?

I have an article with Morris Levy, currently under review, “It’s not just Welfare: Racial Inequality and Policy Outcomes,” which argues that racial and class inequality manifest in terms of state policies, but also in terms of other policies.

I am working on another article looking at Black-Latino relations in the U.S. My book with Robert Prehus, which came out a few years ago, Black-Latino Relations in U.S. National Politics: Beyond Conflict or Cooperation, focuses on this. Part of the impetus for that book was that a fair amount of research over the last number of years concluded that while we might have expected a “rainbow coalition” between Blacks and Latinos, in fact there was evidence of some forms of conflict. However, much of that research focused on Black-Latino relations in local politics or in mass relation to each other. Given that I’ve studied American Federalism, my argument was: let’s see what occurs in politics, institutions and policies at the national level. We found no real evidence of conflict at the national level between Blacks and Latinos. We argue that there’s a great deal of independence –  they go their own way on many issues – but when there is an overlapping set of concerns there was, in fact, some degree of mutual support.

I am working on another project now looking at Black and Latino legal advocacy groups and their filing of amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court. Do they file briefs on the same cases?  Much less than what we think. The next question is: if they file briefs on the same case are they on the same side? Our evidence shows that they always are.

But how and why does that come about, and why is it that sometimes Black groups will file and Latino groups will not file?  We think non-filing is related to specific policies. It could be that there are certain issues that Blacks take as important and Latinos don’t, or it could be that they don’t have enough resources, or that they want to have some kind of distinct posture or position within the legal area in terms of the issues they bring to the table.

Can you speak about your role at IGS and how you are part of that community? 

This semester I will be coordinating the Race, Ethnicity and Immigration Colloquium, which I have done in the past. I have been a regular participant at IGS events; I go to the Research Workshop on American Politics talks and I am on the IGS Faculty Advisory Board.

Again, I am also trying to bring attention to certain types of issues – not only that we do think about them, but also how we think about them, and perhaps encourage different programs or speakers to facilitate that.