Professor Ford talks about identity, intersection with political identity | Rare Techy


Members of the University of Michigan community gathered Nov. 8 for a speaker series at the School of Social Work. Led by Ford School of Public Policy Assistant Professor Mara Cecilia Ostfeld, the series of talks focused on her recent book, “Color, Power, and Politics in America,” co-authored with Nicole Yadon.

Ostfeld’s research focuses on the relationship between gender, race, media, and people’s political opinions. His book examines the importance and history of skin color in the United States, as well as the connections between skin color and political identities.

The speaker series titled “Real World Perspectives on Addressing Poverty” was freely accessible to all. Some UM students participated in these talks as part of the one-credit course SWK 503. Participants in the series had the opportunity to learn about the impact of poverty in America from a variety of speakers, such as Ostfeld.

Ostfeld discussed various methods of assessing skin color and its relationship to political identity. The machine-graded skin color method described by Ostfeld measures how much light is reflected from a surface. It is used to detect skin color because lighter and darker skin colors differ in how they reflect light. Beauty stores often use these machines to help customers find the right shade for their skin tone. Self-perceived skin color, on the other hand, is when people choose how they identify themselves, Ostfeld added.

“Measurement is important,” Ostfeld said. “Machine-assessed skin color captured lived experience, while self-assessed color captured how people wanted to position themselves in response to how skin color is politicized in America.”

LSA freshman Devanshi Shah came to speak as part of Trevor Bechtel’s Poverty Solutions course. An eye-opening moment, he said, was when Ostfeld discussed the pattern of how Latin Americans often follow conservative politics.

“There’s a pattern where (Latin Americans) feed off of conservative politics — I’ve never thought about why,” Shah said. “(Dr. Ostfeld) told how he learned through the story how skin color played into this phenomenon.”

Bechtel, director of student engagement and strategic projects at Poverty Solutions, commented on the presentation and the connection of human biases to American politics.

“I thought Mara gave a great speech that connected persistent human biases to our political climate,” Bechtel said. “Throughout the series, we’ve learned how unjust structures in our society—criminal justice, medical and municipal debt, the coffee and cannabis markets—impoverish people and reduce economic opportunity…Mara Ostfeld connects these specific structures to our implicit biases and shows what a critical challenge overcoming this lack of justice, but also how important it is that we strive for it.

Ostfeld also discussed the results and implications of his research on skin color and its importance in society during the session.

“Skin color matters,” Ostfeld said. “Measuring skin color matters. Skin color plays an important tool in how Americans negotiate changes in radicalized power structures. As the meaning and location of boundaries between ethno-racial categories become less clear, the importance of skin color is likely to increase.

Luke Shaefer, professor in the School of Social Work and associate professor of academic affairs at the Ford School of Public Policy, commented on Ostfeld’s presentation and the importance of Ostfeld’s work.

“I thought Mara’s presentation was fascinating and her work is an important contribution to the growing body of literature documenting the importance of the skin color spectrum in understanding many critical social and economic outcomes,” said Shaefer. “I hope everyone will watch the presentation. The entire series has brought together an amazing array of speakers with expertise in a variety of issues affecting poverty. I have learned a lot!”

Daily News contributors Eryn Stern and Priya Shah can be reached at and


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