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Devah Pager at her office at Harvard University in 2014.

The Inspiring Life and Career of Devah Pager

An appreciation of the Harvard sociologist who meticulously documented racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

To truly appreciate Devah Pager, you had to see her in action.

Pager was in my office at Harvard once when a researcher stopped by to tell me about an interview just conducted of men and women recently released from prison. A young man in the study had applied for a job at a pizza place, where the application included a question asking if he had a criminal record.

Employers in Massachusetts are not allowed to ask about criminal records at the first job interview. Pager asked the name of the pizza place, googled the phone number and called them up. Politely but firmly, she told the manager the practice was illegal. The manager apologized and said they’d print new applications right away.

Pager, who passed away on Nov. 2 at age 46, was a generous soul and beloved at Northwestern, Princeton and Harvard universities where she had taught. As a graduate student and a native of Hawaii, she had deep interests in the stereotyping and discrimination that accompanied racial injustice. Before attending her Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin, she studied sociology in South Africa. She had told me that at Wisconsin she wanted to do dissertation research analyzing data on the employment of formerly-incarcerated men but a lot of that research was already done (some of it by me). That’s when she switched to the idea of an audit study, which, it turned out, was a much sharper knife.

Her audit study became a landmark work. It examined the job prospects of young men with criminal records. It paired young men posing as job seekers. They were selected to look the same, were given similar clothes and trained to act in the same way in job interviews. But one in each pair was given a resume that indicated a criminal record. Would employers treat them differently?

Conducting the experiment in Milwaukee, Pager found that white job applicants without a criminal record would be called back by employers with a job offer or for a second interview about 34 percent of the time. If the white applicant had a criminal record, the callback rate was only 17 percent. The effect of a criminal record on employers was even more striking for black applicants. Those without a criminal record were called back about 14 percent of the time. But if they had a criminal record, black job applicants were called back just 5 percent of the time.

The research had a significant impact on social science and public policy. Pager had isolated one important way in which criminal justice involvement had negative effects: the stigma of a criminal record. What’s more, criminal stigma was even larger for blacks than whites. The research also showed that there was substantial racial discrimination. Race plus the stigma of a criminal record nearly eliminated economic opportunity for formerly-incarcerated black men.

Pager and I replicated the results of her dissertation research in New York City. Again, job seekers with criminal records were found to do poorly in general, but black job seekers with clean records did even worse than whites with prior convictions.

A few years later, we started work on another experiment, this time looking at the legal fines and fees that are levied on criminal defendants. Criminal defendants are usually very poor. What if, she wondered, they didn’t have to pay the court fees and small fines that often begin a downward spiral into incarceration?

The experimental method was a hallmark of her short and brilliant career. In Pager’s hands, the experiment flipped the script. Instead of studying the shortcomings of disadvantaged people, she studied how the world treated them. Like her phone call to the pizza place, her work was infused with a big-hearted sense of justice in which everyone deserves a second chance.

Devah was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2016 and for much of the next two years she worked actively on her research and chaired a Ph.D. program at Harvard. Only in the last month did the disease become overwhelming. She is survived by her father and two brothers, her husband Mike Shohl and young son, Atticus.

She will be missed, not just as a scholar, but also as a friend whose spirit could warm an auditorium and whose sense of justice and drive for the evidence to support it inspires us all.

Bruce Western was a sociology professor at Harvard University before moving to Columbia University in July. A memorial service in celebration of Pager’s life will be held on Saturday, Dec. 1 at 2 p.m., at First Parish Unitarian Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.