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Facing Racism: A Critical Challenge for Information Professionals
By
Volume 44, Number 6 - November/December 2020

THE IMPACT OF RACISM ON ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Perhaps nowhere has this examination of embedded racism been challenged more deeply than in the field of economics. Economist Lisa D. Cook and pre-doctoral student Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman had an opinion piece published in The New York Times in September 2019 titled, “It Was a Mistake for Me to Choose This Field” (nytimes.com/2019/09/30/opinion/economics-black-women.html). The article decries the systemic problems that make it impossible for women of color to succeed in economics—although the issues and challenges expressed are probably very similar to experiences in other academic fields.

In 2014, Cook published a groundbreaking paper, “Violence and Economic Growth: Evidence from African American Patents, 1870–1940,” about “violence against African-Americans from 1870 to 1940, and about the way that violence depressed inventive activity among members of that community” (Journal of Economic Growth , v. 19, Issue 2, June 2014: pp. 221-257; lisadcook.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/pats_paper17_1013_final_web.pdf).

Her research approach was highly original and inventive, using patent data as well as socioeconomic resources, which allowed her to conclude that “violent acts account for more than 1100 missing patents compared to 726 actual patents among African American inventors over this period. Valuable patents decline in response to major riots and segregation laws. Absence of the rule of law covaries with declines in patent productivity for white and black inventors, but this decline is significant only for African American inventors.”

THE FED PROVIDES STRONG LEADERSHIP

The U.S. Federal Reserve System is one of today’s most “woke” institutions. Traditionally, the Fed relied on what is called the Beige Book, issued eight times a year with reports from each of the 12 regional banks. In the past, it reported on economic health and trends from the perspective sellers, not buyers. Dartmouth College’s Andrew Levin, a former Fed economist, explained on Minnesota Public Radio’s Marketplace in July 2020 that the Beige book “is written from the perspective of people selling products, not the people buying the products, consumers. It doesn’t really reflect people of color—it’s just missing a lot of the reality of what’s happening to real people in the real world in ordinary communities” (marketplace.org/2020/07/07/feds-beige-book-in-focus-as-conversation-about-diversity-continues).

However, recent Fed research reports show a growing sophistication in its efforts to better represent the real impact of changes in our economy. In May 2020, the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank posted an innovative new survey, “Disparities and Mitigation Behavior During COVID-19” (minneapolisfed.org/research/institute-working-papers/disparities-and-mitigation-behavior-during-covid-19), using data from the COVID Impact Survey (CIS), a new, unique tool that gauges these broad well-being outcomes at local geographic levels and relates outcomes to COVID-19 exposure and behavioral changes.

In another fascinating study, the Fed uses “panel data covering 118 million homes in the United States, merged with geolocation detail for 75,000 taxing entities, to document a nation wide ‘assessment gap’ which leads local governments to place a disproportionate fiscal burden on racial and ethnic minorities” (minneapolisfed.org/research/institute-working-papers/the-assessment-gap-racial-inequalities-in-property-taxation).

“Research makes clear that anti-Black racism is particularly harmful in the United States,” notes a June 2020 San Francisco Fed report. “While most explicitly racist laws and policies have been overturned or replaced, modern ‘race-neutral’ laws, policies, and practices are not enough to reverse the legacy of explicitly racist policies. They fail to acknowledge that communities of color, particularly Black communities, have a different starting line and continue to face ongoing discrimination” (frbsf.org/our-district/about/sf-fed-blog/racial-equity-primer/?utm_source=verticalresponse&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=cd-digest).

If the past is any indicator, the Fed will continue to lead in using race as a key economic indicator. Just as the 1930s Great Depression and the 2000s Great Recession were followed by expanded responsibilities and oversight by the Fed system, the banks seem to be proving their ability to persevere in key research on the impacts and true role of race in our society.

FACING THE UGLY TRUTH ABOUT RACISM

Supporting innovative new research efforts requires a great deal of patience, an open mind, and far more collaboration that most information professionals are used to giving to these requests. A few years ago, I was contacted by a doctoral student who wanted to study the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., by looking at Twitter feeds and other blogging/social networking sites during the 4 hours his dead body lay on a street, uncovered, in a growing stream of his blood while cameras rolled and people across the planet watched. Her determination—as well as her anger—was palpable.

Because of the erratic nature of social networking data as a research tool, I set up a meeting with the student, her faculty advisor, a social data scientist, and a technology geek from the university’s computer service. I wanted to be sure that we all clearly understood the nature of the data (that is often modified or taken down) before getting into the specifics of the needed research. The group was able to create a research paradigm and support plan that guided this student’s work—and gave all of the professionals in the group an opportunity to participate in a new area of complex discovery and analysis.

Months later, I was invited to present to a group of librarians who focus on challenges in getting needed data in our increasingly corporate, fragmented global information system. I used this case study for my presentation because I believe this is the sort of challenge that libraries need to address, champion, and support.

In trying to duplicate the intensity of the student as she spoke in the group meeting about her personal dedication to her project, I kept thinking of those photos of Brown’s body lying in the street that had haunted the student. In my presentation, I used that picture of Brown for the PowerPoint image and spoke about the urgency, importance, and complexity of studying something like this.

The only comment I got after my presentation was from a supervisor, who told me using that picture was both disturbing and improper. I strongly disagree. I still believe that picture was the best way for my audience to relate not only to the complicated research process ahead, but also to the passion of that researcher and the challenges we faced in assisting her study of something so raw and so dependent on data that most might still call ephemeral.


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Nancy K.Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries. 

 

Comments? Email the editor-in-chief: marydee@xmission.com

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