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Big Data Can Help Us Understand America’s Racial Issues


When I met Elicia John in 1994, she was in ninth grade at Alice Deal Junior High in DC. She had created a “secret admirers box” to promote the school’s Halloween dance. The names of admirers and admired were written on paper and stuffed into the box. On the day of the dance, the names were read over the school loudspeaker.

The dance was a resounding success, Elicia’s secret admirers box a huge draw.

Today, John is an Assistant Professor of Marketing and Behavioral Data Scientist at American University. This box has been replaced by supercomputers, the names on pieces of paper replaced by petabytes of demographic data.

But his quest for jaw-dropping revelations continues.

What she’s working on now — projects like discerning the impact of policing on mobility in black communities and measuring how bias affects decision-making and behavior — could rock this country like the Halloween box rocked his high school.

The way she learned such a highly technical skill set is also quite remarkable.

John attended DC Public Schools, then transferred to Prince George’s County Public Schools after his parents divorced. Isn’t a parental breakup supposed to crush a child’s spirit? Aren’t schools in DC and Prince George supposed to be pits?

And yet, John went on to earn an engineering degree from the University of Maryland, a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard, and a doctorate from the Anderson School of Management at UCLA.

So where did she find the strength and inspiration to persevere?

It turns out it was the very thing that some people tend to consider awkward: growing up in Black DC and Prince George’s.

“After attending college in the Northeast and on the West Coast, I had a greater appreciation for the black communities where I lived,” John said. “I grew up seeing a lot of highly motivated political activists, a lot of committed civic activists, and a lot of strong black female role models. I didn’t always realize it back then, but I had a community that helped lift me up. When I left for college, there was nothing in life that I felt impossible to accomplish.

In a widely publicized new study on social capital and economic mobility, Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his team argue that having wealthy friends is one of the best ways for the less wealthy to move up the economic ladder, especially the poor.

John doesn’t remember having rich friends, just culturally rich black communities. His father was a Washington Post distributor; his mother got a job with the federal government as soon as she graduated from high school. They weren’t rich. But even after the divorce, they made sure their daughter had access to academic enrichment activities while showering her with love.

“I’m lucky to have exceptional parents,” she said.

Chetty’s study used data similar to what John uses in his research. Big data – in this case, anonymous demographic information from 21 billion Facebook friends. The study concluded that wealthy people use some of their influence and resources to help their less fortunate friends, and these interventions put those friends on the path to upward mobility.

In fact, according to the study, having rich friends is one of the strongest predictors of the economic gain of the poor.

Unfortunately, Facebook’s data did not include the race of friends.

Do many rich white people befriend poor black people and help them through life’s challenges? That would be great.

During a webinar on the study hosted by the Brookings Institution last week, Camille M. Busette, director of Brookings’ Race, Prosperity and Inclusion Initiative, called the lack of race data “glaring and problematic.”

Chetty said he hopes other researchers will build on the study and “find ways to measure race and measure the interaction between racial lineages.”

This is where John comes in. She has already tapped into Chetty’s open source raw data. And she knows how to measure the impact of race. Not that she needs a computer to do that.

“Throughout my career, I’ve always had to find a community with people who are like me, who support me and understand that we live in a society where prejudice has a huge impact on our outcomes in life,” said she declared.

As an engineering major at the University of Maryland, she found support from black women members of the National Society of Black Engineers. One of the reasons she loved engineering was that it was science-based; the correct answers were questions of fact, not opinion. But that couldn’t shield her from the realities of race and gender.

“Some people get very uncomfortable when a black woman speaks with authority and confidence, especially in technical areas,” she said. “It’s like they can’t believe the words they’re hearing are coming from this black body.”

As race continued to matter in his work, John decided to focus more on the study of human behavior, trying to understand racial issues in the country.

She began extensive research on implicit and explicit biases, developed psychological tests and specialized algorithms. And the closer she looked, the more she realized that race was so deeply rooted in American life that it might as well be part of the national DNA.

“We are not only separated physically, but also separated by how we frame and see the world,” John said. “We couldn’t see below the surface because we have so many blinders on. In my work, I hope to bring to light what is invisible and get to the heart of the matter.

What a resounding success that would be.