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Feb. 5, 2004 Press Contact: William Harms
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Barbershops provide productive venues for scholarship on African-American opinion, University of Chicago research shows

Melissa Harris-Lacewell

Press Citations:
“Back to the Barbershop ”

Feb. 18, 2004

“Book shows real world behind 'Barbershop' movies”
[chicago sun-times]

Feb. 5, 2004


The casual conversations African-Americans have among themselves in places like barbershops can reveal volumes about their attitudes toward politics and other issues, according to a research project recently completed at the University of Chicago.

The venues are largely closed to whites and provide blacks with an opportunity to develop ideas and form identity, said the leader of the study, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Assistant Professor in Political Science. They provide insights into the variety of opinions among African-Americans outside the more widely known positions of vocal black leaders.

The conversations were the basis for the popular film, Barbershop and its sequel, Barbershop 2 to be released on Friday. Besides being entertaining, the barbershop discussions provide important information to scholars, Harris-Lacewell contends.

“To fully appreciate the political thought and action of African Americans, it is imperative to understand that these interactions are more than social. They are the spaces where African Americans jointly develop understandings of their collective interests and create strategies to navigate the complex political world,” said Harris-Lacewell in a book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, to be published in May by Princeton University Press.

The conversations reveal ideologies, which are tied to black intellectual traditions and linked to African-American public opinion, she said.

Harris-Lacewell was joined in her work by graduate student Quincy Mills, a black male doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago who spent four months hanging out in a black barbershop on Chicago's South Side to listen to what people said.

“They talked about white power structures and the relationship of African Americans to the state and to capitalism. They critiqued black leaders, discussed the political power of the black church, argued about reparations, and cheered on African American Olympic athletes,” Harris-Lacewell said.

Through their conversations, the black men reveal a great deal about what it means to be black in the American political system, how important race is to identity, to what extent blacks should solve their own problems or look for assistance, and how separate blacks should be from whites in order to advance their group interests.

The men do not agree, for instance, on how effective black-owned businesses are in helping blacks overcome their economic problems and found some black-owned businesses to be inadequate in areas such as customer service, for instance. They also disagreed on white attitudes toward blacks, with some men contending whites are hostile to African-Americans while others felt whites are merely indifferent toward blacks.

The customers also could not agree on who among the community were worthy allies in the struggle for equality. Some found young men standing idly on street corners as untapped resources while others felt that those men are powerless and undependable.

The men also disagree on the role of women in helping blacks achieve racial equality. Some found black women to be domineering and openly told their friends they preferred the company of white women. Other men said they routinely shared responsibilities at home.

The divergence of positions held by the men in the Chicago barbershop reflects survey data and experimental findings also explored in Harris-Lacewell’s book. In earlier chapters Harris-Lacewell discovers that African Americans disagree on issues of economic strategy, women's political leadership, the role of the church in politics, and goals for the future of the race.
Last modified at 02:45 PM CST on Monday, February 23, 2004.

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