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Remembering Devah Pager, Harvard University professor and powerful force for racial justice

Pager's research led to foundational exposures of structural racism and provided keen insight into how it could be dismantled.

Harvard University professor Devah Pager (CREDIT: YouTube/Stanford University Center on Poverty and Inequality.)
Harvard University professor Devah Pager (CREDIT: YouTube/Stanford University Center on Poverty and Inequality.)

Devah Pager, the Harvard University sociologist whose ground-breaking 2003 doctoral dissertation measured and verified the impact of racial discrimination on the employment prospects of black men, died last week of pancreatic cancer at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was 46.

Described by as a “force of nature” by a colleague at Harvard, where she was the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Sociology of Public Policy, Pager received top honors from the American Sociological Association for her Ph.D dissertation — “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” — that revealed “the powerful effects of race” on hiring decisions and contributed to inequalities in the criminal justice system.

Her research sent paired teams of men — a set of black men and another of white men — specifically recruited and trained to present themselves to 350 prospective employers in greater Milwaukee with identical background stories that included a year-and-half prison sentence for cocaine possession. After analyzing the findings, she found that hiring managers were far more likely to give jobs to a white man with a felony conviction than to an equally qualified black man without a criminal record.

To add an additional layer of verification, she supervised a series of follow-up telephone surveys that found that black men who said they had a criminal record reported a callback rate of 5 percent, and black men who said they did not had a rate of 14 percent. For white men, the rates were 17 percent for those who said they had a criminal record and 34 percent for those who said they did not.

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 “This suggests that being black in America today is essentially like having a felony conviction in terms of one’s chances of finding employment,”  Pager said of her work in a 2016 video interview with the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Pager’s findings not only surprised her, but set loose a national conversation about the role of racial discrimination in the U.S. and prompted public policy changes affecting how people returning from prison are treated as they attempt to return home and seek jobs. Her work inspired community activists, pushed politicians, and forced companies to climb aboard the “ban-the-box” effort toward eliminating questions on job applications referring to past felony records. Over the past decade, 33 states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted “ban-the-box” policies.

Devah Iwalani Pager was born March 1, 1972, in Honolulu, where she grew up surrounded by people of color and believing it was the way of the world. She learned otherwise when she left home for college at the University of California at Los Angeles, which she discovered was far more racially segregated than her home and schools in Hawaii.

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“When you grow up with [racial diversity] being normal, everything else seems strange — and wrong,” she said in a 2004 interview with The New York Times.

Her views on race and inequality stayed with her and played a role in shaping her professional work. She graduated from UCLA in 1993 with a psychology degree, and later earned two master’s in sociology from the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 1996 and Stanford University in 1997. She received her doctorate in sociology from the University of Wisconsin in 2002, where she produced her seminal work. Later, she was a Fulbright scholar in Paris.

“She was a force of nature who accomplished a superhuman quantity and quality of work in a tragically short amount of time, and her impact on scholarship and policy is hard to overstate,” Jason Beckfield, chair of the Harvard University Sociology Department, said in a remembrance published by The Harvard Gazette. “She did work of global scope and tremendous depth that is unusual in its combination of rigor and creativity and relevance.

Pager is survived by her husband, Michael Shohl; son Atticus, 5; her father, David Pager, a professor emeritus of computer sciences at the University of Hawaii; and two brothers, Chet and Sean.