The Protesting of a Protest Paper
Critics conceded that Omar Wasow’s findings might be true, but they still objected
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It would be a long road from insight to publication. In the years that followed, Wasow’s research would be rejected multiple times. One reviewer dismissed it as “not the sort of empirical finding I am used to reading about in a top journal.” Another granted that it might be of “historical significance,” a nice way of saying that it didn’t matter much now. More than once Wasow considered cutting his losses.
So when the paper was finally published in American Political Science Review — one of the field’s top journals — Wasow, now an assistant professor of politics at Princeton, was elated. Four days after the paper appeared online, George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers set off nationwide protests, some of which turned violent. The same research that had been shrugged off as a footnote now seemed exceedingly relevant, and Wasow found himself deluged with interview requests, enough that he put together a standard email with a bio and headshots to send to reporters. He had spent many years “working like a monk” on a single paper. Now everyone wanted to get his take.
With that attention, though, came pointed criticism. In Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson deemed Wasow’s paper “bad research.” While granting that the findings might be “empirically” true, Robinson, a graduate student in sociology and social policy at Harvard University, nevertheless argued that the paper was bad because “what it does is single out the political effect of riots in a way that allows people to blame ‘inner-city rioters’ and ignore other causes.” Heather Ann Thompson, a professor of history and Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan and a Pulitzer Prize winner, allowed that it was “an incredibly important strategic question” but worried that it’s “not helpful, I think, to think about the rise of backlash as the fault or responsibility of people who spoke out on behalf of justice.”
Wasow’s work wasn’t just unhelpful — it was viewed, by some, as dangerous, perhaps even the aiding and abetting of racism.
When a political analyst named David Shor tweeted a summary of the research, some of his colleagues at Civis Analytics, a consultancy, reportedly complained that the tweet made them feel unsafe. Though Shor, whose Twitter bio says, “I try to elect Democrats,” expressed regret for the tweet, he was fired. He was also booted from Progressphiles, an email list for progressives. A member of that list advised, in a message obtained by New York magazine, that progressives should “try not to overanalyze the statistical validity of the research paper and think about the broader impact it will have if people perceive it to be true.”
Wasow anticipated such objections. He writes that “violence by protesters can powerfully express discontent and offer a means of self-defense.” He quotes Malcolm X: “I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense. I call it intelligence.” But Wasow was also interested in figuring out what moved the needle of public opinion in favor of protesters, and the data pointed toward nonviolence. While nonviolent protest “played a critical role in tilting the national political agenda towards civil rights,” violent protests led to news coverage and voting behavior “directly in opposition to the policy preferences of the protesters.”
The case against Wasow’s paper wasn’t based on sample sizes or regression methods. Instead it was prompted by concerns about how its conclusions might be interpreted. How many of those who expressed hostility toward Shor — and, by extension, Wasow — had actually read the 53-page paper? Judging by the substance of the denunciations, not many. And what did it say about academic and political discourse more generally that whether the findings were true mattered less than whether they fit neatly into an ideological box?
Wasow didn’t follow his father into the academy right away. After graduating from Stanford, he became an early internet entrepreneur and a co-founder of BlackPlanet, a social-networking site. The New York Times dubbed him “the philosopher-prince of the digital era” and People magazine named him the “sexiest internet executive.” BlackPlanet was sold in 2008 for $38 million (Wasow notes that his shares in the company had been substantially diluted by the time of the sale). By then Wasow was already working toward his doctorate in African American studies at Harvard and had begun his research on the protest paper. “Some questions have a business model,” he says, by way of explaining his career shift. “I wanted to ask questions in a scholarly way.”
While the overwhelming response to the paper has been gratifying, he says, it has also been frustrating. He’s pushed back against what he sees as unfair and simplistic readings — for instance, calling the paper “bad.” “That’s not how people who are engaging in serious discussion talk about research,” he says. “You can say that the question is important but there’s a danger it could be used to bad ends. In some ways, it’s a self-own because it speaks to an inability to articulate a substantive critique.” More broadly, Wasow thinks ignoring strategies and their consequences overlooks the philosophical differences of civil-rights-era leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. “I agree that there is white supremacy and a discriminatory society,” he says. “What I’m trying to say is that Black people have agency, and their decisions matter.”
That said, he’s aware that his paper could be used as justification “for writers who are right of center to engage in chastising activists for not protesting in the right way” while ignoring the underlying reasons for their protests, even though he was careful in the paper not to fall into that trap. “They’re situating the work in an old debate,” he says. “I’m trying to shift the perspective to let us think about the concerns of these activists.” He’s at work on a book, based on the same research, in which he plans to delve into these issues in more depth. The working title is “The Protester’s Dilemma.”
As for the firing of Shor, the data analyst, Wasow says there was nothing in the brief summary of the paper that was inaccurate. He does, however, understand how — at this moment — pointing dispassionately to statistics might be seen as striking the wrong note. “The rage has almost this funereal quality, and so I’m sympathetic to those who are saying, ‘Don’t talk to us about selling the home of our father when we’re still at the funeral,’” he says. “But I’m also deeply sympathetic to David because I mostly live in this analytical, ‘let’s really talk about the numbers’ kind of world.”