Katherine Tate

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Katherine Tate

Professor of Political Science

Frank Mullin/Brown University
Katherine Tate felt the strong tug of data as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. It wasn’t just numbers; it was a way to pose questions and find out what people were thinking.

When Katherine Tate first considered a career in academia, it was the research process, as much as the content, that drew her in. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where she majored in political science, Tate was assigned to analyze public opinion data drawn from the widely used General Social Survey.

“We would enter our questions and the computer would print out the results. It was magic for me; I was hooked. I realized I really enjoy looking at survey results and trying to understand what people think,” Tate said.

That project led Tate to pursue a master’s and Ph.D. in political science at the University of Michigan. She’s since devoted much of her research to looking at the relationship of politics and race, although the specific focus of her projects has varied widely.

Tate most recently completed a book, due out this fall, titled Concordance: Black Lawmaking in the U.S. Congress from Carter to Obama, which focuses primarily on the Congressional Black Caucus.

“I wanted to know how effective the caucus were as legislators as a minority because typically they’re so liberal that people have argued that in a majoritarian system they’re not very effective,” Tate said.

Looking at the caucus from the 1970s, when it was formed, through to the Obama presidency, Tate found that the legislative body has become increasingly less liberal over time.

“I conceptualize this change as evidence that African Americans have more confidence in majoritarian outcomes because they are no longer excluded on the margins. They have to make tough calls, like cutting budgets, like laying off workers and shrinking government as a consequence. They’re prepared to accept those as reasonable because they’re included as opposed to excluded. They trust government more,” Tate said.

Earlier this year, Tate co-edited another book, Something’s in the Air, which, as the title may suggest, is about the legalization of marijuana. As states begin to follow the lead of Colorado and Washington in making the drug legal for personal use, Tate and her co-authors wanted to look at how this change in law might affect minorities. What they found is that there are two very distinct sides to the argument.

“One criticism of legalization is that it’s still pretty elitist. It’s not going to fix that high minority incarceration rate because the black market is still going to persist. And it’s for 21-year-olds typically, so minor kids are still going to be locked up. It’s only going to liberate people who can afford to participate cleanly in this drug culture. So there are still a lot of issues. But there are also a lot of pro-legalization contributors to the volume,” Tate said.

Currently, Tate is working on an National Science Foundation-funded study that looks at the political opinions of women based on online survey results. She’s very much in the beginning stages of that work but hopes to have results in the next couple of years.

Tate, who comes from the University of California–Irvine, where she was a professor of political science, begins her instruction at Brown with a fall semester political opinion course at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

She said she looks forward to teaching and getting to know students at Brown, in part, because she enjoys seeing where they end up.

“The students at Brown are very engaged types who also are ambitious and want to do things with their lives. Political science is one of the fabled majors where you get really some of the top types who you might see later running for public office. To know, eight years, 12 years later you get to see one of your former students doing something important, that’s great,” Tate said.

Future politicians aside, Tate is, for now, focused on her current students, hoping to inspire them in the same ways she once was.

“Hopefully the students will be as excited as I used to be as an undergraduate. There’s been a data explosion in recent years, where the data is so accessible. When I was an undergrad there were just a few quality surveys that you could look to but now you can look pretty quickly online to see what the public is thinking about. It’s very exciting.”

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