Beyond Data We Find Humanity

“I know few significant questions of public policy which can safely be confided to computers. In the end, the hard decisions inescapably involve imponderables of intuition, prudence, and judgment.”

—John F. Kennedy


I just finished my second year co-teaching a course on philanthropy and racial equity. Here’s the remarkable part: the students—all graduate students in public policy—reported that they had never had a course on racial equity. They were required to learn about economic practices, statistical procedures and, broadly, about ethics, public management and creating public policy. My course, like others on racial equity, is an elective at this university. It took me a while to figure out why I was bothered by this. Finally, I got it. Where is the balance between empirical data and experience? Where does humanity enter? How is the data about disproportionate outcomes, by race, revealed?

When I pointed this out, a colleague cautioned that it is the research-base that appeals to Georgetown (3)students. The students drawn to this campus want to create policies that are driven by data. I agree data is invaluable in creating sound public policies. But I believe there is a large realm of facts that isn’t being considered. A full exploration will occur only by consciously including an examination of what has contributed to racially inequitable public policies. For that to occur, racial equity education must be in the public policy curriculum, not as an elective, but as a requirement.

Last year, I heard noted author and academic Robin DiAngelo talk about white privilege. Midway in her remarks, she commented that one aspect of white privilege is never having to understand racial inequity. She noted that most people will go through college, many graduate programs, law school or medical school without ever taking a course on race, racial equity or racial justice. She continued by noting that even though few are taught this topic, many continue to believe they understand the issues. How can they? Her question and mine is how is that knowledge acquired? Why is it that so many people believe they understand racial equity without ever having been taught this? It seems they think of it as a lesson in politeness. As long as they treat people with respect, there will be no inequity. That’s not true. In fact, the most detrimental inequities are those embedded in public policy. This has to be academically taught, not casually learned.

It is incumbent upon public policy analysts and practitioners to delve beyond merely presenting, aggregated data. We must ask questions to find answers (and solutions). Why are there more people of color incarcerated than white people? Why are the educational outcomes for black and brown people worse than those for white people? What are the zoning policies that have disproportionately placed more halfway houses in communities of color? What are the policies and incentives that enable more economic growth in certain communities than in others? How is the schedule of actions as basic as street cleaning or bulb replacement in street lights determined from community to community?

If you’re not thinking about racial equity, your analysis will stop before it reaches the crux. You’re unlikely to discern disproportionate impact based on race unless you look. And without being primed to the possibility, you are unlikely to look. A policy might appear race neutral when it’s not.

It’s noteworthy that I’m co-teaching this course at Georgetown University. I only mention that because Georgetown has been in the news lately both for acknowledging its role in perpetuating the sale of enslaved Africans and for the recent vote by the student body to charge an additional attendance fee to create a reparations fund for the descendants of those enslaved people. It’s  commendable that institutions of higher learning, like Georgetown and my alma mater, the College of William and Mary, are addressing historical, racially-driven, wrongs.

That lens on past actions is important, but without intentionality and probing, we might miss the wrongs of the present. It took me a minute to see the potential impact right in my academic backyard. Not requiring public policy students to learn about racial inequity just doesn’t seem like good policy.

I’m still working to become fully woke!

What are you missing in your backyard?