Political Scientist Karin Stanford Reborn As a Hip-Hop Scholar

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by Jamal Eric Watson

On January 18, 2001, Dr. Karin L. Stanford felt like her world was falling apart.

The media had set up camp outside of her Los Angeles home and stalked her family after civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson confirmed a National Enquirer story that he had fathered a child with Stanford two years earlier.

“I am father to a daughter who was born outside of my marriage,” Jackson said at the time. “I love this child very much and have assumed responsibility for her emotional and financial support since she was born.”

After Jackson’s public admission, old allies turned against Stanford. She was vilified in the media and demonized as a woman out for financial gain. 

“I couldn’t trust anyone,” she tells Diverse.

A decade has passed, Stanford has recovered from the humiliating episode and has gone on to emerge as one of the nation’s most prolific Black political scientists. Head of the pan-African studies department at California State University, Northridge, Stanford has authored a handful of scholarly books focused on African-American politics, race, public policy and social movements, including the recently released African Americans in Los Angeles.

“Dr. Stanford is a superb scholar,” says Dr. Charles Jones, founding chairman of the department of African-American studies at Georgia State University and the co-author of an article with Stanford on Black legislative activity in California. “She has a lot of depth in her examination of Black politics.”

Stanford’s specific research, which focuses on African-Americans in international affairs, was born in the 1980s out of fierce protest and opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa. At the time, she was a student at CSU-Chico — the first in her family to go to college.

“During the summers, I became politically active,” she says. “As a result of my involvement, I wondered more about what African-Americans were doing around the world.”

After leaving CSU-Chico, she headed to Howard University in Washington, D.C., to study politics with the late Dr. Ronald Walters, a leading scholar of the politics of race whom she describes as her hero and mentor.

Walters, who gained national prominence for his critical analysis of Black politics, was a close advisor to Jackson, serving as the deputy campaign manager for his 1984 presidential run. At his direction, Stanford focused her dissertation on Jackson’s role in international affairs, which evolved into the book Beyond the Boundaries: Reverend Jesse Jackson in International Affairs.

Stanford, a former assistant professor at the University of Georgia and Congressional Black Caucus fellow, went to work in the 1990s for Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition office in Washington, D.C. Her role and interest in international affairs became even more relevant after President Bill Clinton appointed Jackson as a Special Envoy for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa. In this position, the civil rights leader traveled to several countries on the African continent and met with Nelson Mandela of South Africa, His Excellency Daniel T. Arap Moi of Kenya and President Frederick J.T. Chiluba of Zambia.

“We started an African Working Group,” says Stanford. “I would bring academics and scholars to the office and we would have roundtable discussions.”

After leaving the Rainbow Coalition, Stanford returned to the Los Angeles area to be closer to her family, whose support she came to rely on as she raised her daughter Ashley — now 11 — as a single parent. 

But as time passed, she says she missed the classroom and wanted to return to her research.

” I started all over,” she recalls. “I sent out my C.V. and went on a couple of interviews,” but she says she was always unsure of how she would be received by the hiring committee. 

“I had to disarm them,” she says. “I knew some people came out to the interviews just to see me.”

In 2003, Stanford landed a full-time assistant professorship at CSU-Northridge, eventually earning tenure in the pan-African studies department. It was there that she encountered students whose life experiences were similar to her own.

“They came out of the same environment I came out from,” she says. “They’re from Watts and Compton.”

When she asked students enrolled in her African-American politics class their opinions on Black politics, they often referenced hip-hop artists and businessmen like Jay-Z and Russell Simmons.

“That’s their reference point,” she says. “I found that we could not talk about politics without talking about hip-hop.”

Together, Stanford and her students developed a “Politics of Hip-Hop Culture” class that has become one of the university’s most popular courses. The pan-African studies department has since developed a Hip-Hop Think Tank, an effort to connect hip-hop to community activism and political organizing.

As chairwoman, she oversees a department of 12 full-time faculty members and about 70 majors and 70 minors.

“Dr. Stanford’s scholarship contributes to both the visibility and reputation of our department, helping us reach national and international recognition as a center of excellence for the study of pan-African issues,” says Dr. Stella Z. Theodoulou, dean of the college of social and behavioral sciences. “Her leadership as chair comes at a time of rebuilding and renewal and thus she is leading those efforts.”

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