Faculty Profile: Ebonya Washington

Ebonya Washington, Laurans A. and Arlene Mendelson Professor of Economics, spoke with us about her decision to pursue economics and her efforts to make the field more diverse.

How did your background and upbringing influence your interest in economics?
My mother is an academic. I was around graduate students a lot as a child, and they had lots of energy and ideas. I liked school. I liked grading my mother's multiple choice tests. It also seemed like the most flexible career.

What discipline did your mother study? Is there any overlap there?
She's a psychologist and I'm an economist. I do see the overlap now, but I don't know if I could have articulated it when I was a student. I chose economics because I thought economists were the most influential people at the policy table, not because I have any great love for math (although many of my colleagues choose it for that reason). I often find myself saying to my mother, “Oh, your discipline and mine would predict that.” I think economists are very into judging what people's preferences are by looking at their behavior, and psychologists do this, too.

Photo of Ebonya Washington wearing a brown, pink, and black dress, resting on a balcony wall

Within the field of economics, what are your research interests, and how did they evolve?
I work mostly on political economy. Some would say it’s looking at politics with economic tools. I'm very interested in how marginalized people get their economic interests met using the political system. One exemplary paper is on the Voting Rights Act; we're trying to quantify the extent to which the enforcement of voting rights has led to more government money flowing into Black neighborhoods. What is the value of true enfranchisement? That's a question that interests me.

A more recent paper of mine looks at NAFTA. When thinking about trade, economic theory says that it is net positive. And it is positive for all only if, as in theory, the winners compensate the losers. But in reality, when you look at local areas, is that the case? We find that those counties that received considerable protection from trade barriers against Mexico—counties that were competing with Mexico on various goods—took a great economic hit when those tariffs were lifted.

We actually began the paper solely interested in the political ramifications of NAFTA, not suspecting that any local employment effects had yet to be uncovered. As far as politics, we see that both people living in areas hardest hit by NAFTA and individuals who were hit in particular move away from the Democratic Party. (NAFTA was ushered through the legislature by Bill Clinton.) The movement is concentrated among white, non-college educated males and those individuals whose views on social issues (gay rights, abortion, government aid to Blacks) were closer to the Republican Party to begin with. People ask whether the rise in populism is driven by economics or social issues. This is additional evidence that the answer is both.

Is there a particular geographic area within the U.S. that you study?
I would say no. I work a lot on race. We do look at the South, because there is some interesting variation, like on voting rights, there. But I don't want to excuse the North in any way. I don’t have a region of specialization.

"People ask whether the rise in populism is driven by economics or social issues...the answer is both."

In terms of methods, how are you collecting your data?
I rely a lot on public survey data, such as the American National Election Study and the General Social Survey.  A lot of my papers combine datasets. For example, in my paper Why Did the Democrats Lose the South?, we looked at hundreds of Gallup surveys, going back to the 1940s, because we needed a way to measure racial preferences over a long period. There is a question that Gallup has repeatedly asked: if your party nominated a “qualified Black man” would you vote for him? You can't use that question in 2008, because we might be thinking of someone in particular and because people may now know the “correct” answer to the question. Back then, it was a way to measure racial attitudes.

I collect my own data less frequently. I once did an experiment on the impact of a mayoral debate on views and voting behavior in which I surveyed respondents before and after the event. And I have led a team of qualitative interviewers in a study of underrepresented minorities who were in economics, had left economics or had considered economics as a field, but had rejected it. The point was precisely to understand what the field of economics can do to attract and retain this talent. I'm the co-chair of the American Economic Association's Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in Economics, and this dovetailed with that work. It ended up being one of my favorite projects, because I was meeting with the qualitative interviewers and hearing what people were saying. This project was way outside of my comfort zone as an economist—we usually don't look at anything qualitative. But I’m so glad that I did it, even if it doesn’t earn me much credit in the profession. I'm much more interested in making sure that the profession is better for those who come behind me than in worrying about whether I write another top-journal paper.

"People say that they want diversity, but they really want somebody who looks different and who does the same thing as economists are already doing. If you don't have people with different experiences in the room, then that's going to be reflected in policy."

Over the course of your career, what problems are you hoping to address or to bring to light?
I'm interested in making the profession more accepting, more open to different methods and different perspectives. People say that they want diversity, but they really want somebody who looks different and who does the same thing as economists are already doing. If you don't have people with different experiences in the room, then that's going to be reflected in policy.

What influenced your decision to come to Columbia?
I was at Yale before, and that's where I was after leaving my PhD until now. I think I have more in common with the faculty in the economics department at Columbia, so we have more specific things to talk about. I live in New York; so, certainly, my commute is much shorter. But again, my primary goal is to make sure the field does better, and I think I can do that better from Columbia.

What has your experience at Columbia been so far?I have spent a lot of time at Columbia and already know lots of people in my department, so it’s not a big adjustment. When I attended my first seminar and was introduced to the students, they all applauded. So people are welcoming, but also very New York: it's really live and let live. And if I ask for help, they will help. So, in that way, it doesn't feel new.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
When I was an undergraduate, I majored in public policy, and I wanted to get a PhD in public policy. My advisor told me not to do that, because if you’re in a discipline, you can work at a public policy school, but not the other way around. Now, I’m in SIPA, which is a policy school. So, it’s like I’ve come full circle—if only I could go back and tell my twenty-year-old self!