Omar Wasow’s Life-Shaping Question:

Photo Courtesy of Omar Wasow

“How did we get from civil rights to mass incarceration?”

By Donald Gilpin

Omar Wasow, who studies race, protests, and statistical methods and their effects on politics and elections, has always been intrigued by a puzzle, ”a question about politics that was always there at the back of my mind.” It was a question that took him from the high-flying world of entrepreneurship as a celebrity in the early days of social media back to the academy for graduate school then to the world of university research, writing, and teaching at Princeton University, where he is an assistant professor of politics.

As a boy growing up in Greenwich Village in New York City in the 1980s, Wasow lived in a household of academics, with his German-Jewish father an economics professor at NYU and his African American mother an early education teacher and education fundraiser.  Wasow described the ”rich environment for learning,” in which he grew up, filled with discussion and debate. “We would always argue at the dinner table over the news,” he added.

“I had questions growing up,” he said in a July telephone interview. “My parents had always been not just educators, but activists. My dad had gone to register African American voters in Mississippi in 1964 with the Freedom Summer Project. That was a real high point in his life, but in a larger American context it represented a set of victories for the civil rights movement.”

He continued, “And when I was growing up in New York there was this puzzle which was that things seemed like they had gotten derailed in many ways. From the highs of the mid-60s civil rights successes things seemed to have gone off the rails.”

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (Leaders of the march posing in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln).

Wasow, born in 1970, described the “derailed” environment that surrounded him as a teenager attending Stuyvesant High School in New York in the 1980s, before going off to Stanford University where he received his undergraduate degree in race and ethnic relations.

“There was a crack epidemic,” he said. “There was this very tough-on-crime policy, broken windows policing. So I wondered what had happened after the successes of the mid-’60s to make a turn from civil rights to tough-on-crime during my coming of age in New York. That question about politics was always there in the back of my mind. How did we get from civil rights to mass incarceration?”

And that question not only led to an abrupt career change for Wasow in 2005, it also led him into more than a decade of research on the political consequences of nonviolent and violent protests. This work has resonated widely in the world of current politics, and was recently featured in The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic.

After college Wasow turned away from the world of academia in which he had grown up. “My family used to joke that the only way I could rebel would be to come home with a briefcase as a businessman,” he said, and that’s what he did. “I did feel that the academy was a place where people did important work, but for me as a young person it often felt divorced from the world.”

Congress of Racial Equality and All Souls march in memory of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims.

Internet Entrepreneur, “Philosopher Prince”

Wasow wasted no time getting involved in the world. After college he spent a year working for a nonprofit and pursuing entrepreneurship, then in 1993 started a web design company called New York Online, “which was 20 phone lines in my apartment in Brooklyn hooked into modems literally like a media barrack online.”

“This is ancient history in the world of social media,” he noted. “I was impassioned about online community long before it was a mainstream thing, going back to my days in high school and things called bulletin board systems.”

Cutting edge? No, Wasow says, “a version of cutting edge which was just being too early. There were lots of good lessons to be learned from that venture which started before the worldwide web took off in the mid-’90s.”

In 1999 Wasow co-founded a new company called BlackPlanet.com, an early social network on the web (before Facebook, which appeared in 2004). It quickly became a national network, the leading social network for African Americans, reaching about 3 million people each month. He also helped to found a K-8 charter school in Brooklyn.

Described in a 2001 New York Times article as “a hip visionary” and a “philosopher-prince of the digital age” and by People magazine as the “sexiest internet entrepreneur,” Wasow was in demand, as a sort of demystifier of technology — on the NBC Today show, as an internet pundit for MSNBC, three mornings a week on WNBC-TV in New York, and in the series Oprah Goes Online, where he tutored Oprah Winfrey in her first encounters with the internet.   

Protesters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where George Floyd was killed and the unrest began.

Abrupt Career Change

But the questions about politics, “the puzzle I’d been trying to make sense of since I was a kid,” had not gone away. “We were growing BlackPlanet, and it was lots of fun,” he recalled, ”but at a certain point some of that in-my-bones, in-my-blood interest in asking questions and learning began to come to the fore. I’d worked in social media for several years, and the learning curve for me in social media flattened.”

He continued, reflecting on his 2005 life-changing decision to apply to graduate schools. “Some questions have a natural business model attached to them,” he said, “and some questions can only be answered in the academy. Understanding the country’s transition from civil rights to tough-on-crime was best answered by going back to school.”

In the following years at Harvard University Wasow earned master’s degrees in government and statistics, a Ph.D. in African American studies, and, more importantly for his ongoing quest, a thorough grounding in theory and history in political science and African American studies, along with invaluable technical training in statistics. 

“Through that training I’ve been able to come to this question: What do we see in the patterns historically that might allow us to better understand what happened in the 1960s that’s influencing policy today?” Wasow said.

1963 March on Washington.

He explained, “If you look at incarceration in this country, between 1900 and 1970 it remained relatively flat. Then it started to skyrocket in the late 1970s and early ’80s, so the question is: What happened in that transition period of the late ’60s and early ’70s that gave rise to that politics? That question brought me to look at the role of different kinds of protest movements in driving politics in America. What I started to dig into then was the role that an earlier wave of nonviolent protests and a later wave of violent tactics used by protesters played in shaping the politics of that era.”

As a graduate student at Harvard, Wasow explored data on protester arrests and people’s concerns about crime. He found that more violence led white voters to shift towards Republican candidates and candidates with law-and-order messages.

“A core finding of the research is that protests that escalated to violence likely helped tip the 1968 election to Nixon,” he noted, adding that he has been approached by both Democrats and Republicans in the current campaign, wondering whether the 2020 election is going to be more like 1968 or 1964.

“In both those elections,” he explained, “you have a pretty good contrast between a candidate who is running on law and order and a candidate who is running on a record of civil rights. For example, Goldwater runs on law and order and loses in 1964. Nixon runs on law and order and wins in 1968. LBJ champions the 1964 Civil Rights Act and wins, but in 1968 Hubert Humphrey, lead author of the Civil Rights Act, loses.”

He continued, “The puzzle of the paper is why is law and order a losing strategy for Goldwater and a winning strategy for Nixon, and the next question is “Does Trump look more like Nixon in ‘68 or Goldwater in ‘64?”

Wasow’s extensively researched paper with an abundance of supporting statistics was published by Cambridge University Press online in May and in the August issue of American Political Science Review. It concludes: “Statistical minorities in stratified democracies can overcome structural biases to influence and frame the news, direct elite discourse, sway public opinion, and win at the ballot box. For subordinate groups in democratic polities, though, tactics matter. An ‘eye for an eye’ in response to violent repression may be moral, but this research suggests it may not be strategic.”

George Floyd protest in Miami, Florida.

The paper, already timely, became dramatically more relevant four days after its publication in May, when George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police set off protests, some turning violent, across the country. Wasow’s work has provoked widespread debate and discussion.

Ten years ago Wasow’s research on protest tactics became the basis of his Harvard doctoral dissertation and helped him to land a job in the Princeton politics department in 2012. His paper published last month on Cambridge Core (cambridge.org), “Agenda Seeding: How 1960s Black Protests Moved Elites, Public Opinion, and Voting,” is an expanded, revised, further developed version of his earlier work.

Wasow discussed tactics that have been proven successful for groups seeking to achieve influence. “What kinds of tactics might be most effective to advance your cause?” he queried. “Historically groups at the margins of society have often been shut out and in some places they have turned to civil disobedience as a method to raise awareness about their concerns, and in other cases people have employed violent methods of resistance.”

He continued, “Especially looking at African American protest movements in the 1960s, what I find is that nonviolent protest tactics help to grow the coalition of people supporting civil rights.”

U.S. Army trucks with federal law enforcement on the University of Mississippi campus 1962.

He emphasized the powerful role of the media in affecting public opinion and voting behavior. 

“Protests are driving news coverage,” he said, “and news coverage is driving public opinion and voting behavior.”  Through research conducted in thousands of newspapers from the 1960s, Wasow discovered that the kind of tactics used by protesters shaped the coverage that appeared in the newspapers. “When protesters were nonviolent, especially if the police were violent, that generated very sympathetic press,” he said. “But when there was protester-initiated violence the coverage tended to focus much less on civil rights and much more on crime and riots. And public opinion was heavily influenced by what was in the news.”

Wasow declined to make any election predictions for November 2020. But he did say that if this summer is seen as a summer of  violent, destructive protests like the summer of 1968, that this election year would be more likely to resemble 1968 “when issues of disorder were front and center in the politics and concerns about rights were overshadowed.” 

So far, however, he sees a different picture in 2020. “We have seen, by some estimates, the largest protest movement in the last 50 years, possibly the largest in American history, having been mostly peaceful and in fact echoing moments that look more like peaceful protests in a repressive state, like Bloody Sunday in Alabama.”

He added, in his mid-July comments, “The way the protests have gone and also the way the police have responded in many cases has meant that media coverage has focused a lot more on the concerns of excess police force and indiscriminate use of police force, particularly against African Americans. What we see now is a very high degree of sympathy for the larger cause of reform of the police and, to my mind, a surprisingly high degree of sympathy for the protest movements. Something like 74 percent say they are sympathetic to the concerns of the protesters, so that suggests it looks more like 1964, where betting on law and order is a losing issue.”

He also noted that President Trump’s attempt “to run a campaign as a tough-on-crime and law-and-order candidate has not resonated.” But, Wasow cautioned, he’s not placing any bets. “It’s important to keep in mind that these things are very unpredictable. There could still be unrest that gives more credence to Trump’s law-and-order campaign. Even though he’s down in the polls, if there’s anything we’ve seen in 2020 it’s that this is an exceedingly unpredictable year.”

Minnesota National Guard soldiers stand in front of the state capitol building in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“City Kid” Adapts

Wasow has lived in Princeton with his wife, documentary filmmaker and Princeton University graduate Jennifer Brea, since 2012, and has happily adapted to country life. They live on Cherry Hill Road, about a mile from the center of town, where they enjoy the benefits of both town and rural life.

“I love to go running in the Mountain Lakes Park on the edge of town,” he said. “The combination of town and nature is really remarkable. For a city kid it’s been a marvelous transition to appreciate the joys of what it’s like to live in the country and still have the charm of a small cosmopolitan town. A real highlight for us has been going and buying produce from farmers.” And recently they started raising chickens.

He added, “If you come from New York, where I grew up, you see a very industrial New Jersey coming out of the Holland Tunnel and you see smokestacks and shipping yards, and it’s hard to realize how beautiful central Jersey is and how spectacular the rural country is just minutes outside of Princeton.”

Brea, who has suffered chronic fatigue syndrome for about eight years but is now mostly recovered, created a film titled Unrest about her experience with the disease. She profiled five different families in three different countries. The film premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival where it won an award and made the short list for an Oscar.

“It’s a remarkable accomplishment,” said Wasow, who proudly noted that he has a producer’s credit on the film. “I was a kind of support group for her, so we definitely collaborated in that sense, and more generally the experience of working on the film with her shaped me so that one of the classes I now teach to undergraduates is a film and politics class. That experience working with her really changed my relationship to film and how film could be a valuable part of teaching and help students think about politics.”

It may be in his DNA, inherited from his educator parents, or perhaps he honed his teaching skills 20 years ago in his days as an internet guru explaining the workings of the internet to TV audiences and coaching Oprah on the fine points of surfing the web, but Wasow’s affinity for teaching is widely acknowledged.     

“I do pour a lot into teaching, and that was nice to be recognized by my peers,” he said about winning the 2019 Princeton University Politics Department’s Stanley Kelley Jr. Teaching Award.

Wasow discussed the impact of teaching politics to graduate and undergraduate students. “I feel I prepare my students well to have a better understanding at this moment in American politics,” he said.  “It’s been a wonderful experience for me. I’ve heard a number of students say ‘I’m majoring in politics now because of this class.’ That’s the kind of thing you dream about — as a professor to have that kind of influence on someone.” 

A course titled Applied Quantitative Analysis might not sound like the most popular option in the curriculum, but Wasow is not the typical professor.  “My love of statistics is something I can share with them,” he said. “Statistics class has been a real labor of love.”

With only about a dozen students enrolled the year before he started teaching it, Wasow’s statistics class has grown by`10 to 20 percent each year and last year had 75 students enrolled. Wasow pointed out that the Princeton University undergraduate thesis requirement boosts the value of his course.

“It has real applicability for them because they have to do their own original research projects,” he said.  “The whole class is a kind of boot camp for doing your junior paper and senior thesis. Students say this is really going to help them prepare for that original research.  For students who don’t like math, this can be transformative. I love being able to share my passion for this material in a way that is inclusive and is bringing in people who don’t think of themselves as super quants or the ‘mathiest’ students.”

For Wasow, the lifelong puzzle remains only partly solved. The questions about race and politics and protests that his father lived through in the 1960s and the country is living through in the months leading up to the November election continue to intrigue Wasow as he pursues his ongoing research. “To turn this paper into a book is the heart of what I’ll be doing through this fall,” he said.