Peer-Reviewed Publications

Nelsen, Matthew D. and Christopher Petsko. 2021, “Race and White Rural Consciousness.” Perspectives on Politics (19): 1205-1218.

The concept of rural consciousness has gained a significant amount of traction over the past several years, as evidenced by hundreds of citations and its inclusion within the most recent pilot of the ANES. However, many have questioned whether rural consciousness is appreciably different from racial prejudice. We assessed this issue by (a) distributing a survey study to Wisconsinites living within a number of rural and urban communities, and by (b) examining the relationships between rural consciousness, racial resentment, and political attitudes in the ANES 2019 Pilot Study. The survey study revealed that participants living in rural parts of Wisconsin—compared with those living in urban parts—tended to think of city dwellers as possessing more negative attributes. In addition, the survey study revealed that rural participants thought of Milwaukeeans, specifically, as possessing stereotypically Black attributes. Moreover, this tendency was starker among those who scored higher on a measure of rural consciousness, suggesting that rural consciousness is related to racial stereotyping. Finally, in an analysis of the ANES 2019 Pilot Study, we found that rural consciousness correlated with racial resentment, and that controlling for racial resentment dramatically reduced the extent to which rural consciousness could predict political preferences (e.g., approval for Donald Trump). Thus, while white rural consciousness may not be reducible to racism, racism certainly plays a central role.

Nelsen, Matthew D. (2021). “Cultivating Youth Engagement: Race and the Behavioral Effects of Critical PedagogyPolitical Behavior (43): 751-784.

Political scientists attribute gaps in participation between whites and people of color to unequal access to political resources, political efficacy, and weak affiliations to political parties. I argue that the content of civic education courses also matters.  I theorize that if courses were to incorporate critical pedagogy – an educational approach that centers the agency and grassroots political action of marginalized groups – that young people of color would be more likely to participate in politics. I test this theory using an experiment distributed to nearly 700 14-18-year high schoolers in the Chicago area. I find that critical pedagogy dramatically bolsters the willingness of Latinx and black youth to pursue multiple forms of political participation. Such an educational intervention provides one way to prepare an increasingly diverse generation of young people for active participation within American democracy. It also reveals how civic education in schools can play a crucial role in processes of political socialization and engagement.

R Script

Nelsen, Matthew D. (2021). “Teaching Citizenship: Race and the Behavioral Effects of American Citizenship Education.” Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics (6): 157-186.

Political scientists have identified how resources, attitudes, and mobilization impact political participation across racial groups. However, the role of civic education has largely been overlooked in shaping these trends. I develop a theory that suggests exposure to civics curricula yields heterogeneous effects on the political participation of youth across racial groups. I test my hypotheses with data from the Black Youth Project’s 2005 Youth Culture Survey, supplemented by two original data collections from 2017-2018. I find that civic education courses are associated with higher rates of external efficacy among white youth, but not for black and Latinx youth. Contrastingly, civic education courses appear to increase acts of public voice among black and Latinx respondents, but not for their white peers. Rather than viewing civic education courses as a panacea for low rates of youth political participation, scholars and policymakers should pay closer attention to the ways in which the content of civic education courses contributes to heterogeneous effects across racial and ethnic groups.


Public Scholarship

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Nelsen, Matthew. 2020. “America’s Classrooms Shut down This Spring. Civics Lessons Shifted to the Streets.” Washington Post.

Nelsen, Matthew D. 2021. “Serious historians are criticizing Trump’s 1776 report. It’s how most U.S. history is already taught.” The Washington Post.


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Nelsen, Matthew D. 2019. “Education, Unequal, Policy, and Visions for Equity” in Race & Place: Young Adults and the Future of Chicago (Genforward at the University of Chicago): 24-35

Neighborhoods play a formative role in shaping the educational opportunities available to young adults in Chicago’s educational landscape. The white Chicago natives in our study overwhelmingly attended exclusive, selective enrollment, and private schools located on the city’s North Side. As a result, these young people discussed the challenges facing Chicago Public Schools from a more abstract perspective, having benefited from funding policies that prioritize mixed or majority white, North Side schools. While some of the young people of color we interviewed also gained access to exclusive schools, they tended to discuss the ways in which pursuing educational opportunities outside of their neighborhoods created a sense of distance between them and the communities in which they grew up. Still, many young people of color, especially African Americans in Englewood, experienced the day-to-day challenges of educational disinvestment in Chicago’s neighborhood schools first-hand. Faced with geographical isolation and limited educational mobility, young people of color, and Black youth in particular, possessed a deep sense of distrust in local government and a sense that city leadership does not care about communities of color. While many of our interviews with young adults about education in Chicago were critical in nature, interviewees also pushed back against the notion that young people are apathetic about local politics. Young adults across Chicago articulated tangible policy solutions that should be considered by city leadership in order to address the educational challenges facing the city. These solutions include reinvesting in neighborhood schools; adopting a more equitable approach to funding that takes preexisting racial, ethnic, and geographic inequalities into account; developing a pipeline to recruit and retain well trained, culturally aware, and passionate educators who are invested in Chicago; and increasing access to free after-school programs that allow young people to explore their interests, obtain additional academic support, and prepare for college.

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Nelsen, Matthew D. “Places of Freedom, Safety, and Joy” in Race & Place: Young Adults and the Future of Chicago (Genforward at the University of Chicago): 116-126

Chicago is frequently portrayed as a city of deficits: gang violence and homicides capture the attention of media outlets and the entertainment industry alike; bond-rating firms label the city’s credit as “junk;” and schools are portrayed as “crumbling” and “failing” despite academic gains. These challenges are real and worthy of scrutiny. However, our conversations with young Chicagoans allow us to identify stories that typically go unrecognized; they remind us that individuals living on the city’s South and West Sides continue to experience joy, exercise agency, and possess a great deal of pride in their communities even in the face of harsh inequities. Alternative representations of what it is like to live on the South and West sides of the city not only complicate our image of Chicago but lend important insights to policymakers. As the city grapples with continued population loss, city leadership should be attuned to the emotions young people ascribe to their communities. Freedom, agency, and feelings of safety and joy play an important role in how young adults envision their futures in Chicago.