Black Americans are much more likely than White Americans to live near freeways, factories, and other heavy air polluters. That’s not a failure of public policy; it’s a result of it.
Even long after openly racist policies like neighborhood redlining were struck down or scratched out, the disparities they set in motion continue to shape American life with clockwork precision. RAND is by no means the first research organization to recognize that serving the public good requires tackling the factors that contribute to those disparities head-on.
That has become an explicit focus at RAND—not just identifying disparities, but breaking them down and taking apart the mechanisms on which they run. “We’re on a journey,” said Anita Chandra, vice president and director of RAND Social and Economic Well-Being. “We’re trying to meet the moment, but we’re also trying to meet the momentum.”
She sees a historic opportunity for research organizations like RAND to bring together policymakers, charitable foundations, and local communities around issues of racial equity and justice. “It’s time for us all to take a leap forward,” she said.
Several current research projects provide a look at what RAND hopes to add to the national conversation. Funded by gifts from RAND supporters, these projects focus on issues ranging from mass incarceration to anti-Asian violence to the toxic legacy of those old red lines.
“Applying a racial equity lens, to me, means we are not interested in just ‘closing the gaps’ between racialized groups, but that we are striving to equalize ‘the playing field’ through inclusive research and data-driven policy reforms. Advancing racial equity moves us beyond just focusing on disparities and refocuses us on developing inclusive and equitable solutions. Systems that are failing marginalized populations are failing all of us. Research shows that deeply racialized systems depress life outcomes and are costly. Thus, advancing a racial equity lens enables us to increase our collective success and improve society overall.”
— Rhianna C. Rogers
Photo by Andrea Wenglowskyj
Jaime Madrigano once analyzed who was most likely to die in New York City during sweltering summer heat waves. Benjamin Preston has investigated who is most likely to live near factories, freeways, and other heavy polluters. Not surprisingly, their answers were the same: low-income people of color.
“We see that over and over and over again,” said Madrigano, a policy researcher at RAND. “It’s useful to some extent, but we really need to understand, and show, what exactly is driving that. Many studies don’t go that deep.”
She and Preston are leading an effort to map pollution sources and climate hazards against those real estate red lines that once limited where Black Americans and other people of color could buy homes. Similar studies have been done before, but never on a national scale across such a broad range of environmental hazards. When they are finished, policymakers will be able to see, census tract by census tract, how racism—not just race—still determines who breathes dirty air or drinks dirty water.
Photo by Peter Bennett/Alamy
The people in those communities will be able to see that, too—and they’ll now have the data to push for change.
“We don’t just have to talk about the disparities. We can look at the more institutional factors—fundamentally, racism—as the ultimate drivers of these patterns that we see today,” said Preston, a senior policy researcher and director of RAND’s Community Health and Environmental Policy program.
“The tricky part,” he added, “is that we’re trying to uncover the root causes—which is great, let’s get to the heart of the problem—but it’s like a tree. You can cut the branches, but when it comes to pulling up the stump, it’s really astonishingly hard.”
“Our project is a first step at connecting environmental burdens and injustice of today to the discriminatory and racist systems and practices of the past. By putting that data in front of a broad range of stakeholders, we can start to change the conversation from one about differential impacts by race to one about differential impacts because of systemic racism. And relatedly, we can start to think about solutions that target those systemic drivers.”
— Jaime Madrigano
Monica Williams came to RAND with a background in criminology and a special interest in how prisons can rehabilitate people, not just punish them. That alone is an equity question: Black Americans are nearly six times more likely than White Americans to spend time in a federal or state prison. Hispanic Americans are three times more likely.
Williams is now part of a project at RAND, led by Dionne Barnes-Proby, looking at a significant but often overlooked subset of prisoners: parents. “They’re in prison, so society writes them off,” she said. Providing more parenting support “is one way we can mitigate the impacts of mass incarceration through the way we treat prisoners.”
Barnes-Proby, Williams, and colleague Celia J. Gomez hope to survey every state prison system in America about what programs they provide for parents, such as parenting classes or enhanced visitation. For now, they’re starting with a pilot survey of five states with moderate to high rates of incarcerated parents and Black-White disparity in incarceration: Montana, Kentucky, Iowa, Indiana, and Vermont.
Photo by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
No other studies have explored the details of what programs are available for incarcerated parents on a national scale. But that information is vital to improving the quality of those programs—and improving the outcomes of children whose parents need them.
“This isn’t just ‘Let’s understand what programs are out there,’” said Barnes-Proby, a social policy researcher at RAND who is co-leading the study. “This is also understanding how they are trying to mitigate the negative effects of policy on people of color. It’s encouraging that we are now, explicitly, being attentive to really focusing on applying that kind of racial equity lens to the work that we do.”
“Our project is a step toward addressing the consequences of existing inequities in the criminal justice system. Mass incarceration disproportionately affects people of color, and thus has negative impacts on the well-being of parents and children from communities of color. Programs for incarcerated parents have the potential to promote equitable outcomes and provide resources so that families can stay connected and maintain relationships even while involved with the justice system.”
— Celia J. Gomez
Celia J. Gomez, codirector of RAND’s Center for Qualitative and Mixed Methods, is a scholar of applied human development, with experience as both a researcher and a practitioner in multiple early-childhood education settings. Her work focuses on the development, implementation, and evaluation of interventions and public policies that promote the well-being of children, youth, and their families.
Dionne Barnes-Proby, a social policy researcher, professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, and former foster care social worker, aims to improve the lives and well-being of children, youth, families, and communities. Her studies have examined policing, juvenile justice, the foster care system, and workforce development and educational programs for people with criminal records. She co-leads RAND’s strategy group on system-involved youth, and recently co-led multiple projects to understand and address root causes of public safety concerns in underserved communities across the U.S.
The Compound Effect of Racism and Bias
James Anderson worked for more than a decade as a federal public defender, representing people sentenced to death. Now a senior behavioral scientist at RAND, he wanted to find a way to show the destructive impact that racism had on many of his clients’ lives.
He found his answer on a banking website.
Potential homebuyers sometimes use online calculators to see how small amounts of interest can compound, month after month, into massive amounts of debt. Anderson and his colleagues—Heather Gomez-Bendaña, Rachel Perera, Heather McCracken, Alyson Youngblood, and Maria Gardner—realized that a similar process could illustrate how small disparities in education, income, and wealth compound over time to create vast differences in lives.
Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Images
Their tool is based on a growing body of research seeking to quantify how racism and bias contribute to everything from education inequities to the Black-White wealth gap. Given two otherwise-similar people, it will show how small amounts of bias generate ever-increasing disparities over time.
“People who are skeptical of the effect of systemic racism might think, ‘Okay, maybe there’s a little racism, but it doesn’t make that much of a difference,’” said Anderson, who directs the RAND Institute for Civil Justice. “The goal of our tool is to show that even if you think racism only makes a small difference in a person’s opportunities in any given year, that’s all you need to produce these huge differences that the research shows over the course of a lifetime.”
Jennifer Bouey warned in March 2020 that an epidemic of discrimination would soon follow the pandemic then shutting down societies around the world. In the year that followed, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by nearly 150 percent in major American cities.
Bouey, a senior policy researcher, teamed up with associate behavioral and social scientist Lu Dong to examine how Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are responding. They see it as a first step toward building partnerships with communities that have too often been lumped together and swept aside.
Photo by David Grossman/Alamy
“Immigrant communities, especially, often have no voice at the national level,” Dong said. “They’re invisible, and that plays into the ‘model minority’ myth, that Asian Americans just do their work and don’t complain. Through this kind of community-based, participatory research, we can help communities build capacity and develop evidence they can use.”
She, Bouey, and research partners Peggy Chen and Douglas Yeung are interviewing community leaders, business owners, and government officials. Their immediate goal is to identify strategies that could help combat anti-Asian hate and violence. But they’re also trying to identify how research could better meet the economic, health, and social needs of Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Filipino Americans have especially high mortality rates from COVID-19, for example, but there’s not enough data to explain why.
“RAND’s philanthropic funding allows us to step back and say, What are the real questions we want to answer?” said Bouey, who holds the Tang Chair in China Policy Studies. “That has led RAND to investigate gun policy and the phenomenon of ‘Truth Decay’ in American public life, areas where there’s historically been little client funding to support original research. I see this as one of those same opportunities.”
“Applying an equity lens to research means taking a step back to be honest about the limitations of our work—in terms of who it does and does not represent—and continually trying to bring new voices forward. It’s about creating opportunities for these voices to contribute and understanding that even when we use terms intended to emphasize diversity, these groups are not monoliths, and have incredible intragroup diversity that needs to be acknowledged.”
— Peggy Chen
Peggy Chen is a practicing general pediatrician and health services researcher. Her clinical work is in general pediatrics outpatient and urgent care settings, particularly in urban primary care shortage areas.
Lu Dong is a clinical psychologist with expertise in evidence-based psychological treatments for youth and their families, whose research has broadly focused on developing and evaluating transdiagnostic psychological interventions, particularly for sleep disturbances in at-risk youth and adults with severe mental illness.
Douglas Yeung is a social psychologist whose research has examined communication styles, behaviors, and mental health when using technology. He has conducted workforce diversity research on such topics as how minorities perceive career options and career development services.
Military Service and the Lives of Black Americans
Tepring Piquado‘s grandfathers both served in the U.S. Air Force. One bought a home, raised a family, paid off his mortgage, and saw one son become a Jesuit priest and another become a teacher. The other bought a home, raised a family, slid deeper into mortgage debt, and saw two sons die behind bars. One was White, the other Black.
Piquado is a senior policy researcher at RAND, a neuroscientist by training. Her family history has always pulled at her. She wanted to know: How do Black veterans fare when they leave the military? Are their experiences different from those of non-Black veterans?
Around 16 percent of active-duty service members are Black, a slightly higher percentage than in the overall U.S. population. But little research has looked at what military service means for them—whether it’s linked to negative outcomes, such as PTSD or substance use, or positive outcomes, such as economic stability and access to health care.
Photo by Bill Mattocks
To answer that, Piquado is now leading an effort to review half a dozen outcomes within national data sets, covering everything from physical health to family well-being, with a specific focus on Black veterans. She and her team, which includes Samantha McBirney and Stephanie Brooks Holliday, hope to help the military mitigate any negative impacts. Where they find positive impacts, their research could help the rest of society learn from the military’s example.
“Equity, for me, means having tools or programs to help the most vulnerable among us,” Piquado said. “That population could be a racial demographic; during the pandemic, it was older adults. Imagine that there is an apple tree, and society created a system that bent it toward some people, so they could pick the fruit. Equity would mean removing barriers and providing tools, like a ladder, to help everyone pick the apples.”
That’s important, she said, but it’s not enough. Good policy research, at RAND and elsewhere, should aspire to something more.
It should find ways to straighten the tree.
“Having an equity lens in research means understanding that communities, even communities like the military, are not homogeneous in nature—that when we break communities down by race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and start to split the hair finer and finer, we see how different communities face different problems and encounter different barriers. Our policy recommendations would aim to address and, ideally, eliminate these unique barriers that underserved and historically marginalized groups face.”
— Samantha McBirney
“Are we examining all the assumptions we make as we design our studies? Building a diverse team? Partnering with the community? Considering the role of systemic injustices? Disseminating the findings in more accessible ways? These are all important elements of equity-focused research.”
— Stephanie Brooks Holliday
Samantha McBirney is an engineer with a background in biomedical applications, emerging technologies, and laser physics. Her research has focused on medical readiness, medical logistics, pharmaceutical supply chains, and international drug policy.
Tepring Piquado is a senior policy researcher at RAND and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, where she teaches the core course on Ethics in Policy and Practice. She engages with stakeholders to develop actionable solutions to pressing issues including economic recovery, workforce development, homelessness, housing, and public health, and has worked with institutional leaders to provide outcome-based solutions that advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Stephanie Brooks Holliday is a behavioral scientist. Several of her studies at RAND have focused on the criminal and juvenile justice system, including the evaluation of programs to improve community reintegration. She has also led and contributed to several projects focused on military and veteran health, mental health, and well-being. She has broader interests in program evaluation and the provision of evidence-based practices for underserved populations.
All RAND researcher photos are by Diane Baldwin unless otherwise noted.
How RAND Applies an Equity Lens to Research and Analysis is written by RAND Corporation for www.rand.org