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?




Apologies are good, but what about redress? What about reparations?

A few weeks ago, I visited the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian complex here in Washington, DC where I live. I’m not sure what drew me to the museum that day, but while there, I happened upon ‘Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II.’ The exhibit had opened last year on the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed by FDR two months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. By this act, over 100,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans living in the United States were placed in prison camps across the country. Hard stop. Reflect.

Another piece of American history about people of color seldom explored at any depth in our American history classes. If it were, maybe fewer of my friends would have almost gasped when I mentioned reparations for the Japanese. I knew about the internment camps, but I had never heard about reparations. In 1988 President Reagan signed legislation offering a formal apology (one for slavery wasn’t issued until 2008) to those who were interned along with a $20,000/person payment of compensation.

unbalanced --

Forty acres and a mule,” the promise made to slaves following the end of the Civil War immediately came to mind as I read the exhibit materials on reparations. I had heard about that promise all of my life. I knew it didn’t happen, but didn’t know what HAD happened.

It started when Union General William T. Sherman met with African-American leaders following the end of the Civil War. Those newly freed men said land ownership was crucial to sustainability in their new freedom. Sherman agreed. Via Special Field Order No. 15, on behalf of the federal government, he promised the freed blacks forty acres from land confiscated from the Confederacy, particularly in Georgia and South Carolina. The settlers also were offered Army mules. One year later, even though families had settled this land, President Andrew Johnson returned all the property to the former landowners.  Again — Hard stop. Reflect.

That’s where it all began. The racial wealth gap… and so much more.

Not only had the slaves built the wealth of those landowners—of the country—they were now denied a fundamental means – land ownership – to establish their own wealth.

I can remember my father, the owner of a small real estate company, repeatedly telling me about owning property. He saw the value of land ownership, its importance. He would say, “You can live on it, borrow against it or rent it out.” In reality, home ownership has been the manner in which most Americans have gained assets—wealth — as the value of their property rose and as they handed it down, generation to generation. When you look at the failure of the US government to provide the promised forty acres against the fact that according to the US Census Bureau, black families are more likely than any other race to live in poverty, you see a correlation. At least I do.

That decision not to honor forty acres and a mule set the stage for the wealth divide.

A report that came out a couple of years ago noted that it will take 228 years for African-American families to amass the wealth that white families have today. Just a few years less than the number of years that Africans were enslaved (1619 to 1864). I had read that report and tried to digest the weightiness of knowing—228 years to gain parity with a current statistic— while the wealth disparity continues to rise out of reach.

So, when I learned the Japanese, a much smaller community in America than African-Americans, with the length of internment much shorter than slavery, had received amends, my first thought was “What about us?” I do not begrudge those who were interned compensation for what they had lost in revenue, possessions, their sense of self-worth and faith in America. They were due.

So are we.

Are black families due reparations?