Campus & Community

Looking at politics through a racial lens

5 min read

Gay examines how race, neighborhood affect political behavior

As a 15-year-old who had spent half her life in Saudi Arabia’s expatriate community, Claudine Gay got a rude awakening when, in the 1980s, she returned “home” to a private New Hampshire boarding school.

Suddenly, the fact she is an African American mattered.

“There’s this whole bundle of assumptions made depending on what you look like,” Gay said.

Gay, whose parents emigrated from Haiti to New York before she was born, said her high school experience was her first reintroduction to racial attitudes in the United States. And, after years living in the diverse and accepting expatriate community in Saudi Arabia, she said her return to the United States was a bit of a shock.

But the experience got her thinking about race and society, a line of thought that would dominate her academic and professional life and eventually lead her to Harvard, where last July she was appointed a professor of government.

Today Gay is a leading scholar examining minority political behavior with a focus on how neighborhood makeup influences residents’ political attitudes and actions.

Her research has shown that, though blacks are often thought of as a monolithic voting bloc, it is whites more than blacks who vote according to racial lines. Her work showed that white voters in a black-represented district are 5 percent to 18 percent less likely to vote and less likely to contact their representative than they are in a district represented by a white. Blacks, however, are equally likely to vote or contact their representative regardless of his or her color.

“I’m interested in neighborhood effects and how socioeconomic makeup affects black attitudes as well as relations between blacks and Latinos,” Gay said.

Gay has been examining how socioeconomic changes over the past two to three decades have affected the black community, focusing on the differences between people living in poorer urban communities and those in more affluent suburbs. She includes both black-majority and black-minority communities in her study.

What she’s found, Gay said, is that the importance of race diminishes with improvements in residential circumstances. With better schools, better police protection, and other benefits of suburban living, middle-class blacks are less likely to think their path in life is determined by their race. What that may mean, she said, is that middle-class blacks are less likely to make political choices based on what’s best for the entire black community.

“We start to see an erosion of the salience of race among middle-class African Americans,” Gay said. “They’re just as likely to identify themselves as black, but what weakens is the extent they believe race determines their road in life.”

Government Department Chair Nancy Rosenblum called Gay “a rigorous and creative scholar” and “a leading figure in the study of African-American political behavior.” Rosenblum said the department is “thrilled” to have her as a colleague.

“She has produced striking and important empirical findings that cut against the grain of recent scholarship: for example, the null effects of black political representation on black participation, or the fact that black attitudes towards Latinos are not affected by group size, as the current literature suggests,” Rosenblum said. “She is a lively intellectual presence, a superb teacher and mentor, and an important contributor to our curriculum in American politics.”

Gay came to Harvard last year from Stanford University, where she was an associate and an assistant professor in the political science department. This is not Gay’s first stop at Harvard, however. She received her doctorate in government here in 1998, receiving the Toppan Prize for Best Dissertation in Political Science. She then served as a visiting fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California from 1999 to 2000, when she joined the Stanford faculty.

Gay said much of her work relies on survey data, including a project she’s beginning that analyzes data from a federally funded housing mobility experiment. The data include surveys of 4,500 families who participated in a demonstration project conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The families, all of whom were eligible for public housing, were randomly divided into three groups, with one staying in project-based public housing, a second group that had vouchers good for rent in a low-poverty area, and a third group that had vouchers good for rent anywhere.

She’s examining whether the new setting affected a family’s political engagement, voter registration, or community participation.

Gay said she’s glad to be back at Harvard and is starting to understand how the environment faded into the background when she was a doctoral student with her nose to the grindstone. Now, she said, she’s enjoying interacting with colleagues from the Kennedy School and the Du Bois Institute.

“I’m realizing how little of Harvard I got to see,” Gay said. “Littauer was my whole world.”