Dismantling racial inequities requires better data

January 20, 2020By Alejandro Queral

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver his famed I Have a Dream speech, he called for bold action that would open the “great vaults of opportunity” that America promised for all. That was August 28, 1963. More than five decades later, it’s clear we have not heeded Dr. King’s call for urgency.

In confronting racial inequity, the available data shows that — at best — we have fallen prey to the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” Dr. King warned about. And yet, the insufficiency of relevant data make it hard to provide a full accounting of racial inequality in our country and state. So, on the day we honor Dr. King’s legacy, we take a moment to point out the need for better data on racial and ethnic disparities.

Certainly, the existing data already paints a dire picture of inequity along racial and ethnic lines:

These outcomes are the result of social and economic policies and practices that, intentionally or not, have benefitted one group, while limiting opportunities for others. This is the legacy of the racist foundation upon which the Republic was built. Oregon is no exception. From the Donation Land Act of 1850 to red lining and predatory lending and eviction practices, our state bears the burden of history.

While we at the Center try to understand how policies past and present continue to undermine the ability of communities of color to thrive, the quality of available data significantly limits these efforts. For example, we don’t have state-level data on wealth that can be analyzed by race or ethnicity. Without it, it is difficult to understand what the existing and persistent barriers are for people of color to build wealth, and how local historic practices have left a legacy of inequity in our communities. Moreover, the lumping together of groups into one category (e.g. “Asians” instead of Vietnamese, Korean, etc.) masks differences among those groups. As such, many in our communities are rendered invisible – they are undercounted, erased – because we are not collecting the right data in the right way.

Beyond the problem of data availability is the challenge posed by how data are collected and its marginalizing impact on communities. Researchers from the Coalition of Communities of Color and Portland State University explain that the in past two U.S. decennial censuses, canvassers were trained to advise Latino respondents to identify as a distinct ethnicity and separately to select the racial category of “White” or “some other race” — while encouraging Latinos to choose the latter racial category. “When data practices require a community of color to identify themselves as `some other race,’” the researchers point out, “the very act of completing the survey reinforces one’s social exclusion from US society.”

If we are to really understand how public policy impacts communities – particularly historically marginalized and oppressed communities – we need better data. We need to modernize how the state and federal governments collect data on their residents. We need to rethink how we collect data – from who collects it to what and how questions are asked. And, as important, we need to go beyond calls for greater transparency as to how governments and research institutions use the data — we must seek to involve communities in interpreting the data and applying it to policy solutions.

In the short term, the priority is to ensure that everyone is counted in the 2020 census. The constitutionally required decennial census not only determines congressional and legislative districts, but also the allocation of Federal programs and services. There was a threat hanging over the 2020 census, an effort by the Trump administration to include a citizenship question that would have created major barriers to participation for many. Fortunately, legal challenges by community advocates succeeded in quashing this effort. So now, the road is clear for the census. The process will be imperfect, but nevertheless vital.

But beyond the census, we need to work to improve the quality of data on race and ethnicity. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” Dr. King said, “Only light can do that.” And only by shining the light on public policy with good data can we confront our state’s and nation’s structural inequities.