...she is an award-winning political scientist -- and an author whose name and opinions probably will become more familiar in the next few months.
In her new book, The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration, Swain takes a close look at a simmering, racially charged movement. She argues that affirmative action and other policies to help minorities have done a lot to fuel that movement.
America, she says, should end affirmative action. She cites several reasons, including the possibility that the racial tensions it creates will eventually explode in violence. She recommends that the country create a new, "race-neutral" policy to lift the disadvantaged out of poverty.
Swain, 48, went from eighth-grade dropout to Ivy League professor in 21 years. Now a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University after 10 years at Princeton University, she believes she has earned everything she has received through hard work, a sharp mind and blissful ignorance of any notions that she might be inferior or incapable.
"I never saw myself as a victim by being female or being black," she said. "I didn't buy into the victimization at all. By the time I was exposed to all those arguments (in graduate school), I had already done the things that I wasn't supposed to be able to do...
Swain also was studying with Jehovah's Witnesses. Their belief that the world would end in 1975 had helped her decide that she "might as well get married" and drop out of school.
Instead, it was Swain's world that turned upside down in 1975. Fed up with religion, she left the Jehovah's Witnesses. She also divorced her first husband, started working outside the home and lost her 2-month-old daughter to sudden infant death syndrome. And she got her GED, the equivalent of the high school diploma that she had never received, so she could go to college.
It was the beginning of a rags-to-riches story. Armed with her GED, Swain soon enrolled at nearby Virginia Western Community College... made the dean's list and earned a degree in business merchandising in 1978... When she started working on her bachelor's degree at Roanoke College, she continued to work full time in the library at Virginia Western. She also started an academic scholarship at Roanoke that now provides eight to 12 grants a year of at least $1,000 each... By 1985, encouraged by professors who recognized her talent, Swain was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill...
After earning her doctorate, Swain started teaching politics at Princeton in 1990 because it was the only school that did not seem to want her because she was black, she said. Instead, professors there told her that she was the best congressional scholar in the job market, and they did not ask her to teach courses on race.
Within three years, she had published Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress. Arguing that it was "a waste of time to worry about (having) majority-black districts" because the interests of black politicians were not always those of black voters, Swain's first book was controversial.
But Black Faces, Black Interests won three national prizes, and Swain said she felt vindicated by those honors and the eventual acceptance of her ideas by many of her initial critics...
Even after such a stunning debut, Swain says her new book, published by Cambridge University Press, is "the most important work I've done in my life." She also feels more prepared to sit on the hot seat now than she did nine years ago.
The project began as a look at agreement between blacks and whites on social and political issues, which Swain found to be much more common than many people realized. But along the way, she discovered groups of white people who were feeling increasingly marginalized.
The book takes readers inside a burgeoning movement that has its own manifestoes, magazines and Web sites. White nationalists feel that a combination of political, social and economic conditions threatens the well-being of white people.
Those conditions include affirmative action, immigration policy, black-on-white violent crime, double standards for discussing racism and forming race-based groups, and a loss of high-wage production jobs, which has forced unskilled workers to "compete with legal and illegal immigrants for a dwindling share of low-paying employment opportunities," Swain writes.