Progressive Labor Party Organizes Solidarity March With Harvard Yard Encampment


Encampment Protesters Briefly Raise 3 Palestinian Flags Over Harvard Yard


Mayor Wu Cancels Harvard Event After Affinity Groups Withdraw Over Emerson Encampment Police Response


Harvard Yard To Remain Indefinitely Closed Amid Encampment


HUPD Chief Says Harvard Yard Encampment is Peaceful, Defends Students’ Right to Protest

Shedding Light on Black Versus White

In research, Gov professor dispels stereotypes about race

By Doris A. Hernandez, Crimson Staff Writer

To Claudine Gay, nothing is just black or white.

Her office is colored in shades of pink and yellow, and a small Haitian painting peeks out from the bookshelf. This is where the newcomer to Harvard scrutinizes America in Technicolor.

Though the government professor only arrived in September and has yet to teach her first course, Gay is already shattering the way scholars look at race and politics in the U.S.

“She’s just made us rethink some important idea we’ve thought all along,” says Jayne Professor of Government and Professor of African and African-American Studies Jennifer L. Hochschild.

Take the commonly held belief that blacks tend to vote black.

“Blacks are the most loyal of all Democratic party constituents,” says Abigail Thernstrom, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy and Research. “If there’s a black Democratic candidate, they are overwhelmingly likely to vote for him or her.”

By analyzing midterm election voting data by precinct, Gay found whites—more so than blacks—tended to cast their votes according to race.

White Americans, she published in a 2001 paper, tend to vote less if they live in majority-black districts.

“But you don’t see this in blacks,” Gay says.

And when it came to evaluating their elected representatives, whites continued to remain more conscious of race, she found.

As long as blacks were confident that their representative was responsive, they were equally satisfied with him or her. Whites, Gay found, tended to evaluate their representative lower if he was not white, even after adjusting for party and other differences.

These are the questions she first started asking as a doctoral student at Harvard, where she won the University’s Toppan Prize for her political science dissertation that she completed in 1997.

Isabela Mares met Gay at graduate school and has known her for 15 years.

“She was so smart,” says Mares, now associate professor of political science at Columbia University. “She finished amazingly fast. She was the best student in our year.”

After six years teaching at Stanford, Gay has returned to Harvard.

Fletcher University Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. was actively involved in Gay’s recruitment and says he was “ecstatic” when she accepted the offer.

“With the addition of Claudine Gay, Harvard has reestablished itself as a leading center of the study of race in the social sciences,” Gates says.

Gay’s office on the fourth floor of the Center for Government and International Studies is welcoming and warm, and the Haitian painting on her bookshelf is a reminder of her own heritage.

Her parents immigrated from Haiti to New York City, where Gay was born. With her father working for the U.S. government, Gay spent most of her childhood abroad in places as far away as Saudi Arabia. She later attended a New Hampshire boarding school, then studied economics at Stanford.

While there, she first encountered the problem of finding the data to answer the questions she thought needed answering.

“The challenge of relying on surveys done on the national population is that African Americans only make up 12 to 13 percent of the population,” Gay says.

But colleagues praise Gay for gracefully navigatingunmarked territory.

“Her work is beautifully done, the way she sets up the data and thinks of counterarguments,” Hochschild says.

After examining voting patterns in congressional districts, Gay is now shrinking her field of focus.

Her latest work identifies demographic movement and neighborhood interactions, such as the exodus of African Americans out of poor neighborhoods.

“Getting access to better neighborhoods erodes the salience of race for African Americans,” Gay says. She thinks this will present a challenge to politicians accustomed to appealing to a single black voting block.

But Gay isn’t blind to nonbinary colors.

She is now investigating how economic disparities within neighborhoods influence relationships between blacks and Latinos. Material deprivation can drive hostility between groups, she found.

“You have two minorities, small in number, that you think can share an affinity—but yet you see conflict,” Gay says.

Though Gay moved into her office last fall, she hasn’t yet taught. Next semester she plans to lecture on democratic citizenship, lead a junior seminar on post-Civil War black politics, teach a graduate course on political behavior, and help graduate students research for their dissertations.

None of this is new for her. While teaching at Stanford, Gay advised many students.

“I think she was unique because many of the students she advised won the best thesis award,” Mares says. “She put every effort to help them produce a high-quality work.”

Porsha Q. Cropper was one of Gay’s advisees at Stanford and followed her to Harvard.

“You don’t just write a paper and get an A,” Cropper says. “She expects the best from her students and they give it to her.”

But Cropper will have to wait until this fall for Gay to officially resume advising. Gay is now nurturing a work of her own—a three-month-old baby.

“Last semester, I’ve been distracted,” Gay says, smiling at the thought of her boy Constantine.

—Staff writer Doris A. Hernandez can be reached at

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.