Undergraduate Research

Vanessa Baker '23

OUR Featured Researcher: Vanessa Baker '23

Portrait of Vanessa Baker
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Vanessa Baker (she/her) is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow (MMUF) majoring in CAST and Politics. She is conducting mentored research under Professor Wendy Kozol. Her project is titled “Black Republican Women's Political Decision-Making".

Please describe your project: 

The two overarching questions driving my project are: to what extent does the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party play a role in the decision-making of Black women who abscond for the Republicans? The other is how do Black women discern the “lesser of two evils” between the Democratic and Republican parties?  I am also interested in the role that age plays, specifically, if older Black women are more likely to support the Republicans than younger Black women. I plan to answer these questions using both qualitative and quantitative methods largely using statistical data in order to provide evidence for the personal accounts of Black women themselves.     

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:

My research focuses on Black women, specifically those who identify as conservative and have defected from the Democratic Party for the Republican Party. I plan to assess why they have left the Democrats, specifically to see if it’s due to the neoliberalist nature of the party using interviews, electoral patterns, and mass media.

Why is your research important?

My research is important because there’s a lack of scholarship surrounding Black women’s political behavior both in politics and American studies, but even less regarding Black Republican women. This is a particularly salient time to do this work given the chaotic state of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The Democratic party due to the diversity of political opinions currently categorized underneath their bloc, and the Republicans due to an unsettling comfortability with fascism and false information.    

What does the process of doing your research look like?

A day in the life of my research mostly just looks like reading. I’m in the beginning stages of my work so I’m mainly assessing the state of the field through reading literature surrounding Black feminist thought, Black political behavior, and neoliberalism. However, media, interviews, and statistical data will become a larger part of my research in the coming months and years. 

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

Since my research is still nascent, I haven’t found anything conclusively yet because I haven’t truly dived into my methodology. However, my research will flesh out the political decision-making process of Republican Black women instead of making assumptions about their intelligence or lack thereof. 

In what ways have you showcased your research?

I haven’t gotten the opportunity to present my research at any conferences yet but I plan to present at the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Conference and the Oberlin Undergraduate Research Symposium.

How did you get involved in research? What drove you to want to seek out research experiences in college?

My research project is inspired by my family, specifically my maternal grandmother. She was a Democrat for much of her life, as the majority of Black women are, but in the last five years, she has defected to the Republican Party and has become a fervent supporter of Donald Trump. Through her, I have become interested in the reasons why Black women have chosen to vote in favor of the right.

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

My favorite thing about my work is that I’m studying a group of people that have been given very little attention in academic research, and when they have been studied, have often been mischaracterized by racist stereotypes. Additionally, I like that my project uses both quantitative and qualitative methods as I believe both are vital in answering my research questions, despite the hierarchy of methods that persists in academia.      

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?     

Wendy has been pivotal in the creation and development of this project. I produced the groundwork of my research in her Theories and Methods class and she was the one who strongly encouraged me to apply for Mellon. She also serves as my academic advisor and has been a mentor to me since taking a class with her last fall. Lastly, I took Introduction to CAST with her, where I was struck by the kinds of work that is possible in American Studies which later informed the scholarship that I wanted to pursue.

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?   

Doing my research, and being in Mellon has opened my eyes to possibilities that I never even considered prior to beginning this process. I’m now highly interested in getting a Ph.D., primarily because I really enjoy the work I’m doing but also because of the faith that my mentors have placed in me. Furthermore, having a deeper understanding of my academic interests has allowed me to make connections across different classes and disciplines which has been highly rewarding.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?      

The advice I would give is to trust your gut. Research can seem intimidating at first, it definitely was for me, but trust that the questions that you’re interested in asking are important and carry weight because they undoubtedly do. Moreover, while understanding that your project can and should change, have confidence in your research topic and methods due to the unique epistemological background