James S. Jackson, who changed the way scholars examined Black life in the United States, leading to new insights on health, social support systems and more, when he founded the Program for Research on Black Americans at the University of Michigan in 1976, died on Sept. 1 at his home in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was 76.
His wife, Toni C. Antonucci, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Dr. Jackson, a social psychologist, shook up the research field with the program’s first major project, the National Survey of Black Americans, a sweeping study completed in 1980 that was unlike anything done previously. When he began his career in the early 1970s, research surveys of the national population had an inherent flaw: They included too few Black people to provide insights specific to the Black population.
“In most research before the N.S.B.A. you could only study Black people by comparing them to white people,” Robert J. Taylor, the current director of the program, said by email. “Black scholars thought that a sole reliance on this type of comparative research limited what you could understand about Black people and treated whites as the gold standard.”
Dr. Jackson had a particular interest in mental health. But the research he conducted and oversaw crossed disciplinary lines, encompassing sociology, psychology, political science, public health and more. The National Survey of Black Americans asked a nationwide statistical sampling of Black adults scores of questions on a wide range of topics, providing a trove of data others drew on for years.
Some questions were blunt: “How often are there problems with muggings, burglaries, assaults or anything else like that around here?” Others sought to get at the importance of things like family and religion and the connections between them: “How often do people in your church or place of worship help you out?”
“Through the development of this survey, as well as the later National Survey of American Life” — another major project of Dr. Jackson’s that examined mental health and related areas — “James and his colleagues made a bold statement that the life experiences of African-Americans are worthy of study in and of themselves,” Robert Sellers, Michigan’s vice provost for equity and inclusion, said at a 2017 event honoring Dr. Jackson.
At a gathering in 2014 marking the 38th anniversary of the Program for Research on Black Americans, Dr. Jackson reflected on that foundational premise, which many of his colleagues, who couldn’t imagine a study not designed to compare Black people with whites, found startling.
“It was not only that this was unique and new,” he said, “it was heretical.”
The 1980 study, Dr. Taylor said, uncovered the complexities within the country’s Black population, which previous research often viewed as homogeneous.
“James Jackson would always say that the main contribution of the N.S.B.A. was the understanding that not all Black people are alike,” Dr. Taylor said.
James Sidney Jackson was born on July 30, 1944, in Detroit to Pete and Johnnie Mae Wilson Jackson and grew up in Inkster, Mich., southwest of Detroit. During his almost half-century at the University of Michigan, he often got humorous mileage out of the fact that his undergraduate degree in psychology was earned, in 1966, at rival Michigan State University, where he was initially attracted by the engineering program.
He earned a master’s degree in psychology at the University of Toledo, where, he said years later, he learned a lot about rats.
“I was a rat-runner,” he said, “and a fairly good one at that.”
But, he said, he grew disenchanted with that type of research after a lab rat bit him and his professor was more concerned about the incident’s effect on the rat than its effect on him. He switched to social psychology, earning a Ph.D. in that field at Wayne State University in 1972 and then joining the University of Michigan faculty.
He retired this year.
In addition to being founding director of the Program for Research on Black Americans, which is part of the university’s Institute for Social Research, he directed that institute for 10 years. He also served on the National Science Board.
For the National Survey of Black Americans, Dr. Jackson developed innovative methods of sampling the Black population, said David Lam, current director of the institute. Earlier national surveys had missed areas where that population was small, but Dr. Jackson was determined to achieve a truly representative sample.
That, Dr. Jackson noted years later, included sending his surveyors “into harm’s way,” since his method targeted specific addresses, including ones in places like the notorious Cabrini Green housing development in Chicago, where gang wars and crime were rampant in the late 1970s.
“That meant we had to send people to knock on those particular doors,” he said at the 2014 event, incredulous at the memory. “The door would open, and the person would then say, ‘I’m from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, and could you tell me, who are all the adults who live in this household?’” The audience burst into laughter.
Dr. Jackson led or participated in numerous other influential studies over the years.
“In the 1995 Detroit Area Study,” Dr. Lam, citing just one example, said by email, “Jackson and his team developed the Everyday Racism Scale, a measure of everyday experience with racism that continues to be widely used around the world.”
Colleagues also noted the long roster of alumni of Dr. Jackson’s various programs who have gone on to important careers in academia and the sciences.
In addition to his wife, a psychology professor, whom he married in 1979, Dr. Jackson is survived by two daughters, Ariana Jackson and Kendra Jackson, and three grandchildren.
Dr. Jackson tried to begin all his research with a positive premise.
“Social science research is oftentimes problem-focused,” he told the journal Black Issues in Higher Education in 2001. “The questions tend to start from the perspective of asking, ‘What’s wrong with Black people?’
“We approach the issues from a very different perspective. Our question is, ‘Given the structural impediments that they face, why do Black people do so well?’”